The Devil Wears Downhill Boards

Since 1928, a tiny Swiss village has hosted the world's largest downhill race

This story originally ran in the October 2015 issue (44.2) as an installment of the Young, Dumb, and Stupid department. Marquee photo: The very first Inferno brought out the best of some ski-crazed Brits. Courtesy of the Kandahar Ski Club.

THE WHO: Always up for an après ski, as well as competition, but never really being the best in winter sports, the British nevertheless own much of the credit for influencing skiing—and its after parties—in the Swiss Alps.

The course was so hellish and conditions so grueling, the skiers called it the “Inferno.”

None more so than Sir Arnold Lunn, the agnostic son of a Methodist minister. As a young lad in the early 1900s, Lunn developed a love affair with Mürren, the Swiss village perched on a 2,500-foot ledge in the Bernese Oberland. Educated at Oxford, he became a skier, mountaineer, and writer, and in 1922, he invented the slalom and downhill disciplines because he believed skis should be used to go fast downhill, not merely for cross-country, as was the preeminent function at the time. To promote the sport of ski racing, he founded the Kandahar Ski Club and conceived Mürren’s signature event.

On January 29, 1928, Lunn and 15 other “ski-crazed Brits,” as they are remembered in Mürren, climbed to the top of the 9,744-foot Schilthorn. The ascent took four hours, and then they raced each other to the town of Lauterbrunnen in the valley below. The course was so hellish and conditions so grueling, the skiers called it the “Inferno.” The winner that day, Harold Mitchell, completed the descent in one hour and 12 minutes, and then bought his mates a round of beers when they arrived.

The race now attracts up to 1,800 skiers each year from all over the globe, with the winners finishing in less than 15 minutes.

Over the course of a single day in late January, they are sent, one by one, down an icy, rutted-out track that drops 7,100 vertical feet and covers 9.3 miles—the oldest and biggest amateur downhill race in the world.

THE WHAT: “The Inferno is a classic, kooky Euro ski fest,” says Erica von Allmen, a Utah skier with Mürren roots who has skied the Inferno a half dozen times.

The first skier drops in at 8 a.m. The 1,800th skier goes at 4 p.m.

The night before the Inferno, the town holds a parade and, among a lot of music, bratwursts, and alcohol, they burn an effigy of the devil. In the morning, skiers line up in the start house according to their allotted time. The first skier drops in at 8 a.m. The 1,800th skier goes at 4 p.m. In between, a new skier drops in every 10-15 seconds, descending the same course, which combines melt-your-face straightlines, sketchy hairpin corners, and at least two uphill sections where competitors must skate or duck-walk on their huge downhill boards.

“It’s a combination of well-trained racers and people who get their hands on 215s and any old speed suit they can find, and they’re skiing all over the place with very little skill level,” says von Allmen. “It’s hilarious and scary, but in a very delightful way.”

THE WHY: In 1971, Kurt Huggler, a native Mürrener and longtime member of the Swiss Ski Team, became the town’s tourism director. Seeking to boost visitation after Mürren lost the Arlberg-Kandahar downhill to the World Cup (FIS decided the vehicle-less town was too small to host such a significant race), Huggler opened the Inferno to the general public. As long as you were over the age of 18, you could enter, no matter what. By the early ’80s, it was attracting more than 1,400 skiers.

“There’s something about it,” says von Allmen. “It’s an addiction to the absurdity.”

THE WTF: “Your start position is based on how you finished the year before. So if it’s your first year, you end up way at the back,” says von Allmen. “My first year, my sister and I started at around 1,500 and by then the ruts are massive. You disappear in the turns. You’re also starting really late. At 4 p.m., it’s getting close to dark and you’re thrown into a situation where it’s full survival mode. There are huge ruts, you can’t see, and you’re going really fast with really long skis.”

The course makes two long traverses that cross beneath avalanche terrain. Throughout the day, sloughs may slide down onto the route, creating yet more obstacles. “You’ll be in a tuck and encounter icy debris piles that you have to go up and over on your 215s,” says von Allmen.

In 2015, Swiss skier Felix Tschumperlin won the event in seven minutes, 25 seconds on a shortened course (there wasn’t enough snow to go all the way to Lauterbrunnen). It was his first victory in 15 consecutive years of trying.
“There’s something about it,” says von Allmen. “It’s an addiction to the absurdity.”

Tempted? The 73rd Annual Inferno race in Switzerland is January 20-23. Find more information at Inferno-Muerren.ch.