Inferno race set to relive its glory days

Competitors struggle with the uphill section of the inferno. inferno-mü

The largest and most demanding downhill ski race in the world – the Inferno – will extend to its full length this year for the first time since 1992.

This content was published on January 20, 2006 - 09:53

The 14.9-km course in the Alpine village of Mürren attracts up to 1,800 amateur skiing daredevils each year, testing their skiing and endurance skills to the limit.

The organisers waited until Friday evening before deciding the length of the course. The full course is three times longer than the longest World Cup downhill race, the nearby Lauberhorn.

The Inferno was first organised in 1928 by a group of English ski enthusiasts, notably Sir Arnold Lunn, the father of alpine ski racing.

Apart from several years' interruption during the Second World War, it has been held every year since, growing in popularity and fame. But due to the variability of snow conditions it is rare for the course to be run in its entirety, which makes this year extra special.

The race is particularly suited to all-round skiers and includes uphill sections, steep and icy slopes, narrow passages and long traverses. Competent skiers can cover it in about 45 minutes, although winners take less than 15 minutes.


The race is not for the faint-hearted. "Only experienced skiers should attempt the course – a beginner would not even get as far as the starting line," warned Ursula Mühlemann, tourist director and spokeswoman for the race organising committee.

People of all ages and fitness levels have travelled from around the world to take part in the legendary race. Around half the participants are Swiss.

"The winner is normally Swiss but the race is really popular with other nationalities, with many participants from Germany, Austria, Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States," Mühlemann told swissinfo.

Oliver Feuz from Mürren, who won the race in 1998, is taking part in his tenth Inferno on Saturday. Like many locals, the 31-year-old has been skiing so long, he doesn't remember when he started. He knows "every bump" of the course, winter and summer.

"My big goal is to complete the race 12 times because when you do it faster than a certain cut-off point 12 times you get a special award called the Diamond Devil. And that's the goal that lots of participants have."

Feuz told swissinfo that he doesn't feel fear during the race. "But we all have great respect for the speed and the slopes. The slopes are still pretty rough and the feeling the morning before the race is quite special."

Thrill seekers

The scenic area was further immortalised by the ski stunts filmed for the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

So what inspires skiers to risk life and limb in such a challenging test of nerve? It's a fundamental human need, according to Zurich-based psychologist Allan Guggenbühl.

"Risk is something that especially young people are searching for but in our society there are not many realms left where one can really confront risks," he explained.

Extreme sports are one area where people can still experience the thrill of danger. "In the past, risk was more integrated into everyday life but now the importance of security dominates and we organise our lives according to security criteria."

"Younger people feel the need to experience something dangerous, something which brings them closer to the core of life," Guggenbühl said.

Plenty of older people are also drawn to the challenge and risk of the Inferno. Last year's oldest competitor was 90-year-old Peter Lunn, a former British olympian and son of the race's founder.

Naturally after the challenges and achievements of the day, the competitors and their supporters are in the mood to celebrate after the race.

"There's always a big party after the race and a great atmosphere in the village," Mühlemann says.


Key facts

The first Inferno race was held in 1928
The race starts at Schilthorn at 2970 m
The finish line is in Lauterbrunnen at 800 m
Men's record holder (1992): Urs von Allmen 13.53.40
Women's record holder (1992): Christine Sonderegger 17.08.42

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In brief

The Inferno Race in the Swiss Alpine resort of Mürren was organised for the first time in 1928 and is the largest skiing race in the world.

Participation is limited to 1,800, although a certain number usually pull out before the race.

The course covers around 15 km of contrasting terrain and topography and is open to the skiing public at other times of the year.

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