Surviving the Inferno in Mürren: the World’s Longest Downhill Ski Race
Last Saturday I achieved a goal I’ve been looking forward to for years: I managed to ski the world’s longest downhill race, the Inferno, in Mürren! Before flying out to Switzerland I wrote about the preparation that had gone into the race, involving no small amount of paperwork, admin and fitness. Having first heard about it from my aunt Caroline when I was just a child, I’d been building up to it for several years and my chance to compete in the 74th annual race finally arrived on Saturday 21st January, and I survived the course!
The race itself was both exhilarating and completely exhausting, and the whole week surrounding the race and all the wonderful people I met, skied and partied with in Mürren were just fantastic! I’ll write about the resort of Mürren in a separate post, and for now just concentrate on the ski racing itself.
The Kandahar races
Sir Arnold Lunn, the founder of the Kandahar Ski Club, founded the Inferno race back in 1928 so there’s a large contingent of British Kandahar members taking part in the Inferno week – some 200 in total. We spanned all ages from 18 all the way up to two Kandahar racers aged 74! With so many Kandahar members in Mürren for the whole week, the club organises special races and competitions just for members, including a Giant Slalom race, a “Surprise” race, a toboggan race and even Curling on the ice rink. I took part in the tobogganing (and promptly took out the club chairwoman and ended up in a snowdrift!) and the Surprise race with a team with two others (finishing 4th out of 10 teams) but I’d love to do the rest of the races next year too.
The Inferno Cross-Country and Giant Slalom races
I only took part in the main event, the downhill Inferno race on Saturday, but it’s also possible to do the full “Inferno Combination” which includes a separate cross-country (langlauf) ski race three times around the village of Mürren on the Wednesday; and a Giant Slalom race on the Thursday, which is more like the traditional racing through gates which you see in the Winter Olympics. This year there were nearly 400 racers competing in the Inferno combination, although only 50 women. Personally I have no previous experience of ski racing whatsoever, but I do have lots of experience of skiing downhill generally, hence why I didn’t enter those other two races this year. But I really enjoyed the racing I did do in Mürren, so next year I would definitely like to try the other two races too. You might remember that in 2015 I went through a phase of lots of running races, in the build up to running the Athens marathon, and it’s the exact same feeling with skiing – the adrenaline of a competition and a big gathering of racers is really addictive! So if you enjoy running races and you know how to ski, then I guarantee you’ll also enjoy the atmosphere of ski racing. I’m wishing I’d tried it sooner to be honest!
The Inferno Downhill race
On to the main event, the Inferno Downhill race on Saturday, which has far more participants: 1,850 people to be precise. It’s what the entire resort of Mürren is building up to and there’s a fantastic atmosphere on the day. The night before the race, there’s the Devil’s Dance: a procession of villagers and a band dressed up as devils that walk around the village with flaming torches, finally arriving at the ice rink where a great big devil figure is burnt on a stake to give all racers good luck for the following day. It was a pretty incredible spectacle, and weirdly spooky at the same time. It seemed almost like a witch burned at the stake over 300 years ago and was an eery ritual, but in keeping with the Inferno theme of the week.
When there’s sufficient snow, the course is a full 14.9km long and finishes in the village of Lauterbrunnen. As December 2016 saw practically zero snow, we were lucky to have enough snow in early January to do the race at all. So this year the race was 7.6km long and finished in the village of Mürren, with an altitude drop of 1,140m. This video below shows some sections of the race and the starting point near the top of the Schilthorn.
— VirginiaStuartTaylor (@VStuartTaylor) January 18, 2017
The day itself begins early, with the first racers heading up to the top of the famous Schilthorn Mountain and kicking off the race around 9am. I joined them early for a great breakfast in the rotating Piz Gloria restaurant perched atop the mountain, which was actually used as an evil lair in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Heading up so early, I managed to catch the most incredible sunrise over the Eiger and Mönch mountains to the east of Mürren, and it was a surreal sensation to be at on top of the Schilthorn’s 2,970m summit at first dawn! You could sense the excitement, the nerves and the pressure in those racing first as they braved the freezing morning temperature in nothing but a catsuit, helmet and ski boots.
60 newbie skiers go first, before the professionals with the fastest previous times get to race, while the snow is still perfectly smooth, allowing them to get the very best times. The racers start 12 seconds apart all day long until the very last racer sets off around 3:30pm, and the course is infinitely better at the very beginning. By 2:30pm, when I raced, the course was really rutted by over 1,500 other skiers before me and it was a real struggle to stay upright on my skis!
Bib no. 1557
When it came my turn to race, bib number 1557, I too was starting to feel nauseous with nerves and extremely anxious! I’d been lent a catsuit and I’d hired race skis especially for the occasion. Racing just before and after me were a bunch of other Kandahar newbie girls (and one guy) so we named ourselves the Kandahar kittens and headed down the first stretch of the 75% Schilthorn black piste to the start line. Until 1989, that terrifying upper part of the piste was also part of the Inferno race, until they decided there were too many casualties being helicoptered off the mountain because of it, so they thankfully lowered the start line. At the start line there’s music blaring to pump up the adrenaline and as you line up to pass the starting gate, it’s tradition to take a swig of a mysterious, foul-tasting Swiss yellow schnapps concoction that hangs by a rope in front of you. True to tradition I did so too! The awful petrol taste helpfully distracted me for the first part of the race, but I do credit that bottle with giving me some unidentifiable bug afterwards, given that some 1,500 people had also swigged from it earlier in the day!
My heart was pounding as I neared the start gate and saw the 12 seconds count down in front of me… I had never skied 7.6km before in my life without stopping, let alone at top speed! My top speed in practice had been 87 km/h (54mph) which is fine if you’re upright and in control of your speed, but if you fall at that speed, you can end up in hospital… What made the whole race all the more terrifying was seeing earlier skiers than me fall to left and right, with helpers waving yellow flags to signal a injured or fallen skier, and therefore warning caution around a particular corner or stretch of the race. Within 5 seconds of the start line I’d already seen a fallen skier and it struck fear into my heart – I was terrified of falling! I quickly realised that the enormous ruts in the course were causing so many falls and injuries.
The course is a mix of steep downhill, long thigh-burning schussing traverses with sheer drops to your right, uphill climbs through the Woodcutters forest and icy hairpin bends. You have to judge your speed very carefully or else you go flying at a corner and can very easily crash. By far the worst part is the uphill climb. Heavy men can schuss further along the Woodcutters path and then skate uphill with much more ease, but lighter women don’t travel nearly as far on the schuss and end up agonisingly skating and pole-ing their way uphill, cheered on thankfully by friends and supporters! By this point my lungs were aching from panting so much, the lactic acid in my thighs was burning like hell and I was very disoriented! Thankfully some other Kandahar members were up there in the Woodcutters shouting out my name and the wonderful Kandahar Vice-Captain Liv rushed to my side, running alongside me as I struggled up that agonising part of the course. You might want to collapse at the end of that climb, but oh no, you’re not finished yet! After yet more uphill climb, down you go onto the Palace Run that leads you towards the finish line in Mürren. And the cruel organisers even placed the finish line after a little bit of uphill too!
I crossed the finish line to the cheers of other Kandahar members shouting my name and I honestly thought I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t quite have the same dizziness and tears I felt after my marathon (which still remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done) but the intensity of the Inferno was more of a shock to the system and my lungs physically ached.
Finishing the race!
I managed to scrape under the 13-minute goal I’d hoped for, skiing 7.6km in 12 minutes 59.6 seconds! To be honest, it’s a miracle I didn’t fall, as so many of my friends did. The reason I didn’t fall was that I stayed marginally on the safe side and skied a little slower than I could have, to be sure not to fall. Which means I didn’t have the fastest time in the race, but I did survive without falling!
What amazed me about the Inferno is the standard of skiers who attempt it: seriously skilled skiers! With a marathon, you know there will always be slower people who enter and take it really gently. But the difficulty of getting a start number for the Inferno has really made it a very selective race, with only the top, fastest skiers taking part, including ex-Olympians and professionals. So as a first-time racer, my time was ok but by no means a fast time. However I really don’t know how anybody else managed that course any faster, as I couldn’t physically have skied any faster around some of those corners. The winner of my category (women aged 18-35) managed it in just 8 minutes 4 seconds. The fastest man finished in just 7 minutes 10 seconds. I am truly stunned at their skiing!
The relief we all felt afterwards was pure bliss, as we tucked into the hip flasks and drank away our aches and pains. Later that night we went to the Kandahar prize-giving, where my aunt Caroline won a Kandahar bronze medal in her category and my friend Freddie won a Kandahar bronze for fastest Kandahar newcomer, before a wine-fuelled dinner and afterparty in Mürren’s sports centre, featuring the same band from the Devil’s procession and a lot of broken tables from too much dancing! It was a hilarious (if some what blurry!) night and we all finally stumbled to bed around 5am. And that was the Inferno!
It has taken me days and days to fully recover from the excitement, the exhaustion and the afterparty-induced hangover that lingered after the race had ended. But I can say without a doubt that it was one of the most fun experiences and challenges I’ve ever taken part in, and it was simply fantastic to race as part of the Kandahar Ski Club. Everyone I met was so friendly, so much fun to ski and party with, and there’s just a magical atmosphere around Mürren in Inferno week. I shall most definitely be back!
How you can get involved
To register for the race you need to be member of a club that’s participating and enter the ballot for start numbers. You can either create your own club and register directly with the Inferno Office in Mürren (the form will be available from May and the deadline is by September 2017). Or you can find a list of all the clubs competing on the Results page from this year and join one of those. I’d personally recommend you join the Kandahar as they have by far the largest contingent of racers, so you’re much more likely to get a sought-after place in the race. Most other clubs are only allowed 10-15 racers each, whereas the Kandahar is allowed 200 racers because they founded the race in the first place. To become a Kandahar member you do need to know at least two current members to propose and second your application.
And what is Mürren like? I’ve plenty to tell about the stunning resort of Mürren itself in another blog post, so keep eyes out for that soon…
Have you ever fancied ski racing or tried it? Did you like it? Good luck to any future racers in the 2018 Inferno – you will honestly have the time of your life and I look forward to seeing you there!
Credit to Robert Webb and Inferno Rennen Mürren / Bruno Petroni for the professional photos, and to various friends for letting me borrow some of their photos for this post!