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Extreme Sport

An unholy grail

The world’s longest ski race – aptly named Inferno – is by turns exhilarating and brutal, a no-holds-barred endurance trial that has its competitors returning time after time. Minty Clinch signs up for a fiendish challenge in the Swiss Alps

November 08 2012
Minty Clinch

On Inferno Day One, January 29th, 1928, 13 men and four women set out to climb a mountain. Seal skins fitted to their long hickory skis gave them grip on the ascent; Harris tweed suits, the vogue for both sexes, protected them against the weather. After four hours’ hard trudging, they sat down to a picnic lunch near the top of the Schilthorn. Across the valley was the north face of the Eiger, threatening even in bright sunshine. Far below, they could see their starting point, the hamlet of Mürren.

As is the custom with British toffs at play, the mood was buoyant. In the afternoon, they would form a geschmozzle (blanket) start for a dash through 14km of untracked snow to Lauterbrunnen, in the valley below. How marvellously jolly it would be.

And it was – so much so that the race is celebrating its 70th running in January 2013. Don’t worry about the maths; there have been pauses for a world war and local negotiations, but the upshot is that some 1,850 competitors will start as near the top and finish as near the bottom of the mountain as conditions allow. If they’re perfect, that means the original route from the shoulder of the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen, but there are plenty of permutations. Last winter, storms closed the Schilthorn cable car, prompting a start just above Mürren. More typically, in the age of global warming, snow shortage enforces a higher finish.

From 8.30am, contestants stream through the starting hut, slurping a swift sharpener from the schnapps that hangs above the gate, before emerging at 12-second intervals. Increasingly, they’re dressed to race in form-fitting Lycra, but this is still an all-comers event, so refuseniks like me are out there in ski pants and fleeces. A moment of sheer terror before the starter’s cry, a launch forwards to break the timing wand, a crouch into the first schuss, a blur of speed into the first of two long galleries round the bowls at the top. How straight can I take it, how soon should I slip in a few turns? The rule in the Inferno is he who dares – and stands up – wins.

Inevitably, times have changed since Harold Mitchell completed the inaugural test in 72 minutes. A year later, 18-year-old Jimmy Riddell devised a plan to ski down the cog railway track on the lower section, stepping aside to avoid the occasional slow-moving train. When he arrived in Lauterbrunnen half an hour ahead of Mitchell’s schedule the finish was unmanned, so he skied on into the neighbouring tavern to find the judges at rest. The record for the original course groomed for the modern era is 13 minutes and 53.40 seconds, set by Lauterbrunnen’s Urs von Allmen in 1992.

The first racers were members of the Kandahar Club, founded by Sir Arnold Lunn in 1924 to promote ski racing in the Alps. Lunn came sixth in the Inferno in 1928, but his crusade for recognition for international downhill and slalom competitions took precedence over such a quintessentially British free-for-all. As a result, the race lapsed between 1931 and 1935, resuming in 1936 under the auspices of the Mürren Tourist Office and Ski School, with non-Kandahar members included for the first time.

Mürren has been organising it ever since, broadening its appeal to ski clubs around the world without sacrificing its licence to thrill or the brutal endurance factor – in the form of gruelling uphill sections – that inspired the name. They encourage derring-do by keeping the gates to a minimum, especially in the Kanonenrohr, the steep gun barrel that links the top of the mountain to the lower slopes.  

The party begins over Friday night dinner in the Hotel Eiger, the base-camp option for an assault on the Inferno. The hotel’s dining room overlooks the mountain and Mürren railway station, the meeting point for massed locals before they parade up to the ice rink. Sir Steve Redgrave, accustomed to loading up on carbs in pursuit of Olympic glory, is tucking into the pasta buffet. He knows he won’t be advancing his gold standard here: on his second attempt, his goal is to place in the top 1,000.

As the cowbells strike up their call, we fall in behind revellers carrying a devil puppet up the hill to the ice rink. The Diamond Devil award celebrates loyalty over the years, as the Inferno bestows just one gold medal in each age category (18-35, 36-49, 50-59, and 60 plus for men; 18-35, 36-49, and 50 plus for women), with silver for those who finish within 30 per cent of the winner’s time, and bronze for those within 60 per cent. Silver equals two points, bronze one; outright victories apart, accumulating the 20 points required takes a minimum of 10 years, not necessarily in succession. Those who step out onto the ice to receive their Devils have truly earned the applause.

Torching the puppet is the climax to the presentation ceremony, inspiring the first flutterings of apprehension as the flames consume the sneering features. Each contender finds a solution to the stealthy approach of fear. The fanatics head for the workshops to apply wax to their downhill skis; the wise enjoy an early bedtime after a swifty in the Stager Stubli pub; the Corinthians, a long night of revelry in the Eiger’s Tachi bar.

In the morning, sporting gods and also-rans peer anxiously across the void at the Eiger. Is the killer mountain sharp and clear, dark and cloudy, or totally concealed by storm? Among them is Filippo Guerrini-Maraldi, an American-born City-based insurance executive who factors serious Inferno training into his schedule from December 1. “The race gets me off my backside, because the fitter I am, the more I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s the greatest amateur downhill on Earth, with an amazing sense of history and overwhelming camaraderie. My goals are a respectable silver and the sense of keeping ageing at bay for another year.”

The winner generally comes from the seeded group of previous high achievers with bib numbers under 50 – mostly locals who skied the mountain as soon as they could walk. Starting early, they can expect to benefit from pristine conditions before the ruts get deep and crisp and evil. Then again, fate can tilt the odds, as it does this year, when overnight blizzards create a slow, soft track at the outset, with the snow compacting as the day progresses. As a result, 30-year-old Samuel Imhof, wearing bib number 1,602, sweeps into Lauterbrunnen to beat the field as darkness is falling. An Inferno virgin from the Snowdancer team in Liestal, he is in the mood to party when he steps up to receive his prize.

Several hundred people gather in Mürren’s spacious Sports Centre after dinner to make sure he does the job properly. Rustic musicians, with faces painted like whiskered big cats, bang out Alpine tunes on wheelie drums. Drink orders are placed: lashings of beer and the shot of choice, an ice-cream cone filled with schnapps and a chocolate top. The banner with the devil’s face leers down on crowds dancing on the tables. Some are sturdier than others: before long, splinters are flying through the boozy air.

Inevitably, British winners of Inferno trophies are rare in the main competition, but Caroline Stuart-Taylor, the CEO of the Ski Club of Great Britain for 16 years, is a regular exception: she has completed 18 Infernos, bagged one Diamond Devil, and made a good start on her second.

“In the gate, I always wonder why I’m here, but exhilaration and excitement take over as soon as I’m on the course,” she says. “And exhaustion. When a German film crew targeted me as I puffed up the hill, I didn’t even have the energy to swear at them. Adrenaline surges back the moment I kick off my skis. And I wouldn’t miss the table dancing for the world.”

In organisational terms, the Kandahar Ski Club’s rule was brief and long ago, but it is still the main agent of British club recruitment. This is increasingly buoyant among young professionals who fly out from City Airport on Thursday afternoon and get back to their desks on Monday morning. “I feel the timeless spirit of the British pioneers as I hurtle down,” says 30-year-old City lawyer James Palmer, “but I fantasise about being Hermann Maier or Bode Miller.”

For the less time-poor, the Inferno is the highlight of an annual Kandahar race week that includes slalom and cross-country competitions. Glittering silver trophies, authentically colonial, are presented at the Club’s prize-giving on Saturday evening. Typically, the Kandahar breeds dynasties – most notably the Lunns. Sir Arnold Lunn may not have been the most enthusiastic member of the original 17 contestants, but his son Peter, who skied in the 1936 Winter Olympics, loved the Inferno until his death last year. In 2005, he celebrated his 90th birthday by taking part in a three-generational Lunn team with his son Stephen and his grandson William. “My father introduced us early,” Stephen says. “When we were young, he’d sleep in one of the staff rooms at the Eiger and the six of us would share another.”

At the Tachi Bar, refugees from the Sports Centre, some with minor wounds, pour in for an after-party that will last until well after dawn. To the fore is the indomitable Cleeves Palmer, the current head of the Kandahar “family”. He’s Britain’s undisputed Mr Inferno, competing in every race since 1987 and clocking up two Diamond Devils, with another well in sight, before his 50th birthday. “In the early days I loved the sheer physical challenge, but now I’m here for the annual reunion with old friends and new generations,” he says as he plunges onto the crowded dance-floor.

In the lounge, Redgrave surveys the opposition. “945th,” he says, with a grin evoking Olympic gold. Top 1,000 mission accomplished. He too will be back.

See also

Switzerland, Skiing