Preparing for the World’s Longest Downhill Ski Race, the Inferno, in Mürren, Switzerland
It’s looking like 2017 will be a very snowy year for me! First of all I’m spending a week skiing in the Swiss ski resort of Mürren (starting in 3 days!); then at the end of January I’m moving to Uppsala in Sweden for four months, which will supposedly be covered in snow for 2 months; and then my third mystery adventure in the snow will happen after I return from Sweden (it’s a trip that’s currently under wraps, but I’ll write about it soon). In 2016 I didn’t see a single snowflake, so this year’s overload of snow will be a welcome change.
But first things first, my snowy year begins on Sunday with a flight to Switzerland! I’m spending a week in the alpine ski village of Mürren, in the Jungfrau region, hoping to tick off another of my travel goals: skiing the Inferno race at long last!
What is Mürren like?
I haven’t been there yet – you’ll have to read my post-race blog post to find out! But I do know that it’s a small village perched up in the mountains, with no road access. You can only arrive by train, which sounds very romantic, so once the last train of the day has departed, the village is locked up for the night! Mürren is also famous as the setting of the ski chase in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (watch a clip here).
What is the Inferno ski race?
It’s a 14.9km-long downhill ski race, the longest in the world, which in 2017 is in its 74th year. It will take place on the Saturday 21st January at the end of my week’s skiing. The record holder in 2013 took around 13 minutes to complete, but mere mortals like myself are more likely to complete it in 20-25 minutes. It begins near the top of the Schilthorn mountain and involves 180º hairpin bends, uphill climbs, steep bottlenecks, frozen forest paths and high-speed schussing before you arrive at the finish line in the village of Lauterbrunnen, 2000m vertical below the start line. When there’s a shortage of snow on the lower slopes apparently it finishes slightly higher in Mürrenitself. There’s only a 12 second gap in between each racer’s start time, meaning I’ll be overtaken or overtaking others at speed! Each year only 1,850 people can take part and it can be a tricky business to get a race number as demand is high. Interestingly a bit like the Athens marathon I ran in 2015, only 13% of the racers this year are women, with 87% men, however they do come from countries all over Europe. One notable woman who completed the race last year was Pippa Middleton, in the photo below.
How do you register for the race?
You have to apply via a ski club. My route onto the entry list was via the British Kandahar Ski Club, which founded the race back in 1928. First I had to join the Kandahar last summer, being proposed and seconded by existing members, joining the likes of Pippa Middleton on the ‘new members’ page of the club’s annual yearbook. It costs a modest £55 per year and it comes with reciprocal membership to the beautiful Oriental Club near Bond Street in London, whose bar I used to make good use of while I worked nearby. Then I had to apply for the Inferno by the end of August, which costs £54, and then I made it onto the list. As a newbie to the race, which for some people like my aunt is an annual event, I have no previous racetime and therefore I’m one of the last to race, with race number 1557 out of 1850.
When is the race?
The race takes place each year on a Saturday in the middle of January. I am spending the whole week in Mürren as I want to enjoy some normal downhill skiing as well, but I do know some people who are just coming for a long weekend over the race.
What preparation and training is needed?
It’s not called the Inferno for nothing – it’s supposed to be a very physically demanding race. I’m told that to complete the Inferno, you need to be a very confident skier, with experience of inkots of different snow conditions, and that you need to be physically in shape. That’s not the same as being marathon fit, don’t worry! But it requires stamina of at least 20-25 minutes intense skiing without a pause. Given that most skiing involves a chairlift interval every two or three slopes, it does require some extra training. My race result on the 21st January will tell whether I really am fit enough, but in December I focused on fitness classes to get my heart rate up, and since being back in the UK I’ve been squeezing some extra hilly runs into my schedule. Last week I also managed a 4.5 hour walk in the New Forest to make sure my legs are strong enough. I’ll also spend all week in the mountains ahead of the Inferno to get my ski legs back, after just over a year off the slopes since my last ski trip to Tignes for Christmas 2015.
As for the racing aspect of the Inferno, I don’t personally have much experience of ski racing at all, but apparently that’s not a problem. You can either use your own normal skis (if you have them) or hire specific race skis for the day, and there’s chance to practice racing technique in the days leading up to the Inferno race. You need special ski insurance that includes the Inferno race, and if you have access to a catsuit that will help you go faster, but otherwise no specialist equipment is needed. It’s supposedly the “longest and most demanding downhill ski race in the world”, which slightly makes my knees go weak, but overall I get the impression that as long as you’re a decent, experienced skier and you’re in shape, then you’ll survive and make it to the finish line one way or another!