‘There is nothing quite as mad as this:’ How a 60-year-old novice can complete the world’s oldest ski race

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The Mürren Inferno is the most popular ski race of its kind - Bruno Petroni/International Inferno Race Mürren
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“If the Devil could do a ski race, he would ski the Inferno.” That is how locals in the village of Mürren, Switzerland, describe the fiendishly difficult Inferno ski race, the longest downhill in the world.

Now the most popular race of its kind, it was founded by the Kandahar Ski Racing club in 1928 when 19 members climbed to the summit of the Swiss Schilthorn mountain (2,970m) over two days, before setting off for the race to Lauterbrunnen in the valley bottom, a drop of 2,170m. The club now has more than 1,400 members, including the Duke of Kent, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and the Earl and Countess of Wessex, and celebrated its 100th anniversary on January 30 this year.

Usually 14.9km long (shortened this year to 9km because of snow conditions), the course includes steep black-run descents, three lung-bursting uphill schusses and moments of sheer terror. In the early days, the challenge was to travel from top to bottom any which way – first down won and there were no rules except it had to be done on skis. Aside from the odd race gate and a lower starting area, closer to the lift station, the downward route has changed very little since.

This year's race will be shortened to 9km due to snow conditions
This year's race will be shortened to 9km due to snow conditions - Bruno Petroni/International Inferno Race Mürren

The experience is open to anyone who can ski a red or black run, but because of its popularity racers must apply via a lottery for a coveted race bib – places are limited to 1,850 and priority goes to racers with a recorded time from the previous year.

As a lifelong fan of Ski Sunday and a keen skier, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to compete in the annual marathon – having recently turned 60 it was now or never.

My journey to Mürren from Zurich airport included two trains, a cable car and the small Alpine train up to the village, which sits on a sunny shelf surrounded by some of Switzerland’s most iconic mountains. In World War One, injured British prisoners of war were interned here. Now, the Inferno race is a pilgrimage for adventurous amateur and advanced skiers.

The following morning, in the 7am darkness, racers piled into the first of two cable cars to the top of the Schilthorn. Then, on cue, AC/DC’s Highway To Hell blasted out over the speakers as a spectacular sunrise illuminated the peaks. On arrival at the revolving Piz Gloria restaurant, which was immortalised in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby, everyone enjoyed a hearty ‘James Bond’ breakfast as the mighty Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains came into view.

The race is hosted annually in the Swiss alipine village of Mürren
The race is hosted annually in the Swiss alpine village of Mürren

I spotted racing driver Damon Hill limbering up as we gathered at the start line 2,970m high. In 2016, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Princess of Wales, was placed 67th out of 105 after completing the course in 12 minutes 28 seconds.

Competitors start 12 seconds apart until the final racer sets off at around 3.30pm. The course is infinitely better if you set off early, as it’s less rutted by other skiers. I’d been awarded one of the coveted first 100 spots (after that, you race according to your previous ranking.)

Competitor Alan Ramsay, a 56-year-old Scottish veteran of 30 Inferno races said: “Even the most seasoned ski racers are nervous as they line up the Inferno start gate. It’s a race that pushes your fitness and tests your skiing ability to the limit. You need guts and stamina to do it.”

The night before, costumed adults and children lined Mürren’s streets and the pubs heaved. Race officials paraded through town with an effigy of the devil that would be burned at the stake to ward off bad luck. The air was filled with the smell of roasted nuts, hot glühwein and wood smoke.

Race officials parade through town with an effigy of the devil that would be burned at the stake to ward off bad luck
Race officials parade through town with an effigy of the devil that would be burned at the stake to ward off bad luck

But now, on a chilly January morning, at the yellow starting tent, the evening’s merriment seemed a world away and there was no going back. Nervously, I waited as the buzzer counted me down: “Three, two, one – go!” The electronic gate opened.

The race started gently enough but quickly became steeper. I remembered the Kandahar Ski Club motto “Don’t turn unless you have to”.

I sped across traverses with sheer drops and around icy hairpin bends. By far the worst part was the uphill climb. Fitter skiers schuss further along the Woodcutters’ path and then skate upwards with ease, but I didn’t travel far enough and ended up poleing my way up with my skis spread herring-bone style to grip the snow.

Gasping, I started to flag as I neared the top, wishing I had visited the gym more often than the pub. Seeing my pain the supporters shouted encouragement – “Up, up, up!” – and blasted their air horns urging me on.

'By far the worst part was the uphill climb,' says writer Keith Perry
'By far the worst part was the uphill climb,' says writer Keith Perry - Bruno Petroni/International Inferno Race Mürren

Thankfully I reached another descent beyond the climb and found the speed an intoxicating relief as my skis clattered over the icy piste. I powered on towards the finish line at Winteregg. But still, it eluded me. The sadistic organisers had placed the finish line after a third final uphill section.

The scoreboard flashed up my time of 14 minutes as I staggered past the flag. The winner, Alexander Zöschg, achieved an incredible six minutes 37 seconds, averaging around 60mph.

Cleeves Palmer, a former president of the Kandahar, said: “14 minutes is perfectly respectable for an Inferno newbie. It’s more important to finish the race.” Aged 62, he has completed the course 37 times and finished in just over nine minutes.

One racer, Rupert Guinness, a 19-year-old Kandahar member, professional model and great-grandson of the founder of the Guinness brewery, competed for the first time. “I was the 900th racer to start and by then the course was pretty rutted. My ski came off and I ended up in the netting but I recovered and still managed 9 minutes 20 seconds.”

“It was my first Inferno but I will definitely be back – there is nothing quite as mad as this race.”

Essentials

Mūrren (muerren.swiss) hosts the Inferno annual (January 22 to 25, 2025). Application for entry (ballot open to all strong skiers aged 18+) opens June 1 and closes 15 September (inferno-muerren.ch) – the entry fee is CHF70 (£65) per person. Insurance is the responsibility of the participant.

Accommodation in Mürren ranges from B&B guest houses and self-catered apartments to four-star hotels. Reservations available at murren.swiss. Plan your journey from the UK to Mürren (flights/rail transfers) via myswitzerland.com.

Keith Perry was a guest of Mūrren Tourist Office and MySwitzerland.

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