Mürren is arguably the birthplace of modern ski racing and yet paradoxically is the sleepiest of ski villages. With no cars and perched on a rock ledge with little room for expansion, the feel in the 1920s must have been similar to today.
For one weekend each year at the end of January the quiet charm of Mürren is disrupted by the longest, oldest and probably the poshest amateur ski race in the world: the Inferno.
After an innocent comment at a party in December about being a “reasonably good skier”, I found myself rubbing shoulders with upmarket downhillers. Courtesy of the Kandahar Ski Club (most famous member, a certain Pippa Middleton) a gauntlet in the form of a coveted place in the 73rd running of the Inferno was thrown in my direction. I had no choice but to accept.
In the early 1920s Sir Arnold Lunn, a founding member of the Kandahar Club, decided that ski competitions should be decided on speed rather than, as they had been up to this point, on style. The Inferno race (first running 1928) was one of the competitions he was instrumental in establishing alongside the first World Cup of Alpine Skiing held in Mürren in 1933 .
A large part of the appeal of Mürren is in the arrival. I set off on my five-train journey from Zurich airport without knowing quite what to expect. There was a moment of cultural amusement in seeing the total shock amongst my fellow travellers when the train announcer was forced to confess to a six (yes, six!) minute delay to our journey.
Looks of bewilderment crossed the faces of my Swiss travelling companions. Stiff letters to the minister were quietly but ruthlessly being composed. I wonder where the Swiss equivalent of Tunbridge Wells is?
Order was rapidly restored to the Swiss timetable and at exactly 17:25 we pulled into Lauterbrunnen. I walked through the station looking for my penultimate train of the day. Nothing out of the ordinary until it transpires that the Lauterbrunnen station doubles as a cable car station. My next “train” was in fact the precisely timed 17:38 cable car, which carried me vertically 1000m to Gruetschalp where my final train to Mürren was waiting to depart at 17:46.
The best is yet to come if you arrive at night, as I did, when you open your curtains to see why the early British tourists made Mürren their home. The Eiger’s north face, the Jungfrau and the Mönch – three of the most famous and spectacular peaks in the Alps – are your wake up call.
I had a couple of days of acclimatisation and linked up with a group of Inferno veterans, who kindly showed me around. The skiing at Mürren is good but not huge, with only 53km of piste. We enjoyed some wonderful off piste terrain that in a bigger resort would certainly have been skied out. My advice for a long weekend would be to head across the valley to the linked and considerably larger area of Wengen for a day where, if you can keep your eyes off the mesmerising north face of the Eiger, you are in for a treat.
After a day of thoroughly enjoyable skiing in Wengen the real business could no longer be put off – it was Inferno day. I was given a brutally early start time and found myself on the “007” cable car (departing, appropriately enough, at 07:00), which took me to the Piz Gloria (erstwhile Blofeld lair and 360 degree restaurant visited by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) for a James Bond-themed breakfast.
At this point it became very clear that I had a taken “amateur” far too literally. My fat, all terrain 167cm skis were dwarfed by people carrying 2 metre downhill skis, and while my snazzy new Arcteryx kit looked great, everyone else was wearing skin tight cat-suits. Very rarely a good look but nevertheless I had the distinct feeling of having brought a knife to a gunfight.
The Inferno starts just below the Klein Schilthorn 2,790m and this year (due to lack of snow) ends in Winteregg – still a descent of 1,212m over 9km including an uphill section. The entry is restricted to 1,850 people, many of whom have competed dozens of times.
After years of watching Ski Sunday this was my chance to finally have a go. Suddenly a boom reverberated around the Bond restaurant – this was good news. Not Blofeld, but the sound of dynamite-triggered avalanches making the course safe. The race was on.
I donned my race bib and moments later found myself in the start hut – I was my hero, 1976 Olympic downhill champion Franz Klammer.
Then reality hit and so did the fog. Skiing and driving in fog are similarly lethal. My speed dropped to focus on my main goal of staying fully limbed. I tried to follow the blue dye that was meant to act as a guide as best I could, but even this seemed to veer off at odd tangents. I could hear people cheering but couldn’t see them. Crash nets served to indicate you were off course as much as to catch errant skiers.
Finally the fog cleared and I adopted a tuck position in the final kilometres. My time was a sedate 13 minutes but as my Inferno veteran friends kindly pointed out, my lack of cat-suit was worth a minute, the wrong skis another two minutes and the fog a further three. At this rate I was pushing for a podium position and that’s the story I am sticking to.
Mürren is a wonderfully calm, laid back village with some great off piste skiing for those with a guide. Its tranquility also makes it perfect for a young family, except on Inferno weekend, when the atmosphere is altered by many wannabe – and some actual – ski racers taking things far too seriously. Great fun.