The Inferno-Race, 1928 - 1993
By E. A. Sautter, F. Stäger und K. Huggler
The start of the 1. Inferno Cup on 29 January 1928 coincided with the II. Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz.
Five "ski crazy" Brits Harold Mitchell, Anthony Knebworth, Pelham Maitland, Patsy Richardson and Bunny Ford, all members of the Kandahar Club, (founded on 30th January 1924 in Mürren), in 1911 marked the beginning of the Kandahar events with a race that led from the Wildstrubel glacier all the way down to Montana. They then decided to initiate a downhill race "with some cross country character" from the 3000 m Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen, elevation 800 m, noting that "riding on the (ski) poles would be per-mitted". Nobody had ever before tested this course of between 12 to 13 km, spiced with two short ascents.
Sir Arnold Lunn, in his 1952 edition of "The Story of Skiing", made sure to include the starting-list of the first Inferno-race. It's only proper, therefore, to once again mention the names of those daredevils, even more so, since the field of racers included four ladies, who undauntedly faced the ascent on foot, by way of Allmendhubel and Kanonenrohr, through the "Happy Valley" (Engetal) to the peak of what is today referred to as Piz Gloria and where they would bravely line up for the then so popular "Massenstart". They were: Mrs. Duncan Harvey, Miss Doreen Elliott, Miss Sale Barker, Miss D. Crewdson, Harold Mitchell, Dudley Ryder, Adrian Allinson, A.H. d'Egville, A.J.C. Hympreys, H.R.S. Harbridge, Hugh Eaton, R.B. Pembroke, Laurence Cadbury, A. Heaton , H. Brierly and Arnold Lunn, father of the Alpine Combination downhill/slalom and later President of the Ski Club of Great Britain, founded in 1903. Harold Mitchell, with an overall time of one hour and twelve minutes came in first by mastering the murderous course over all kinds of snow conditions, from the start at the Schilthorn and by way of the Maulerhubel to the Grütschalp (1481 m) and from there on straight down, through the thickness of trees and underbrush to Lauterbrunnen. And if that alone wasn't enough, after clocking in, he took pride in taking the running times of his comrades, bought some beer and then organized the trip back to Mürren ... A sportsman of distinction.
James Riddell, in his book "the Ski Runs of Switzerland" (1957), who won the second Inferno race in just 45 minutes time, describes the race of 1929 as follows: "We got up that morning of February 17th to find a bright, calm dawn. We were wafted up to Allmendhubel in no time. The real effort began, when we had to put on skins at the end of Hogs Back and set off to climb up the Schilthorn. Don't forget that was long, long before James Bond was even a glint in Fleming's eye."
The mass start, "Geschmozzle", took place at the prearranged time of twelve noon, with the stop-watches of the official timers at Schilthorn and Lauterbrunnen previously synchronised. Then, the fun began! There were - of course - on moguls, the snow was un-tracked, with the exception of the erratic footprints we had left behind on the way up.
It must be remembered that there was absolutely no kind of piste of controlgates from start to finish. We ran pretty well together, almost straight down the middle of 'Happy Valley', the deep, untracked snow preventing excessive speed. After extending so much physical energy, this relatively gentle uphill climb past the former Mürren Ski jump to the top of Hindmarsh Gully proved highly exacting. From there, the slope down to the 'Halfway House' (now Winteregg) was quite well-tracked but nevertheless not untricky. From railway and skied along between the lines. This was faster and far less arduous than the undulating Grütsch footpath. Shortly before reaching Grütsch I dropped down off the railway tracks and skied fairly easily down to the top of the fabulously difficult Grütsch - Lauterbrunnen descent. I had really studied this difficult section very thoroughly and decided to avoid the treacherous woodpath. Instead, I planned a far more direct route, which - looking back - was quite dangerous but effective.
The really funny story about the whole race is that when I got to the finish line - there was no one in sight! No judge, no flag, no speactators, nothing! I made a quick sortie into the Grütschalp funicular station and another towards the main Lauterbrunnen 'Bahnhof'. Then it dawned to me that there could only be one answer ... Opening the front door of the 'Gasthaus', looking like some abominable snowman on skis, I clattered my way right through the Gaststube and there, each one a glass of beer in their hands, they all were: Timekeepers, Judges, all of them! 'My God' came the cry, as they leaped to their feet, 'it can't be, you're not due for another half hour' ... 'I can't help that,' I puffed, 'I am here and what I need now is a beer ...' The timekeeper had noted the time of my arrival in the backroom of the inn and after making an allowance of a minute or two, I was subsequently credited with a time of 45 minutes.
So remembers Jimmy Riddell, who, to this day, is justifiably proud of his performance.
During the same winter of 1929, a number of other important events took place in Mürren. On January 7 and 8 met the two ski teams of the "Swiss Academic Ski Club" and the "British University Ski Club" (BUSC). The event was labeled 6th Race England vs. Switzerland and took place on the Allmendhubel (Slalom) and Schiltgrat (a downhill race with the finish line at Wintertal). Only one month later, on February 8 to 10, the 5th Inter-national University Skiraces were held in Mürren, including a downhill, a slalom and two nordic events. "Is it an exaggeration to say that Mürren is the cradle of modern Skiing ? I think not", said Fritz Erb, then Editor in Chief of the well-renowned Swiss newspaper "Sport". Only nine participants showed at the start of the 1930 Inferno race, organized by members of the Kandahar Ski Club. The winner was C.E.W. Mackintosh, a natural sports talent, who excelled in Rugby, Track and Field and Tennis. Notice, how the timing of ski races had become more sophisticated. The winner's time wasn't merely measured in minutes but in seconds as well. Sir Arnold Lunn at one point mentions a "Little Inferno", which - held as part of the 1st FlS-Races on 21st February 1931 - was conveyed through as an inofficial downhill race from Grütschalp to Lauterbrunnen. G. Lantschner, an Austrian Skier was declared the winner; his time: 4.49.0. The ladies competition was mastered by Esmé Mackinnon from England in a time of 10.04.4.
While the Inferno race disappeared from the calendar of events until 1936, Mürren established its ranking as a winter resort of international standing. What may well have been the most eventful winter of all times, the year of 1931 opened up with the 8th Anglo-Swiss Races (downhill and slalom), which were carried out at Mauler- and Allmendhubel. Apparently, the organizers wrestled with Föhnwind and the ever-present danger of avalanges. The Oslo Ski Congress had earlier commissioned the Ski Club of Geat Britain and Sir Arnold Lunn as its President, to organize the 1st Federation Internationale de Ski competition in downhill and slalom, an event held in Mürren from 19th to 21st February 1931 and labeled as "Die Renntage der Kanonen" (the racing days of the cannons...). Thus, Schiltgrat (men's competition), Maulerhubel (ladies') and Allmendhubel (slalom), enveloped in varied snow and weather conditions, made ski history during those February days in 1931. In March of the same year, the IV . Arlberg-Kandahar -Race was carried out "under a beating sun", as Othmar Gurtner wrote in the yearbook 1931 of the Swiss Academic Ski Club. Mürren, by now fashionable in the world of skiing, in 1931 also hosted the Arlberg Kandahar Cup. This race had been held exclusively in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria, during the previous three years.
1935, on the long way home from the Parsenn Derby and the Diavolezza race, members of the Mürren and Wengen Ski Clubs discussed the revitalization of the Inferno of comple-ment the now traditional Lauberhorn and Arlberg-Kandahar races. The idea was to re-establish a "long race", just like the one in the Grisons. This kind of thinking found good sponsorship in the likes of then President of the Mürren Ski Club, Hans Meyer and Walter von Allmen, the enterpreneurial head of the Ski School. Only one year later, the race appeared as a split event (race class and open competition) in the calendar of the Swiss Ski Association and was thus a novelty. The Mürren Ski Club was a member of the association since 1924. Ten years later, the club counted 100 members, while Mürren had about 350 inhabitants. The Ski Club organized the races, the Ski School was responsible for technical matters, timing and security.
Once through the finish line, racers were cared for by the local Tourist Office, who distributed coffee, cheese and bread and who handed out simple prizes. The Inferno pins in gold, silver and bronze were popular then as they are now. To the racers, the "medals" were a sign of acknowledgement. The race itself, however, yearned for recognition. After racing had come to a standstill during the war - not one race was conducted between 1939 and 1946 - three dozen competitors met the challenge anew. "At that time the local ski cracks were too fixed on downhill and slalom", muses Fritz Stäger, ski instructor and mountain guide, who won the Inferno 1938 and 1947, noticeably over the full distance. To this day, only 14 of 49 races went the distance from the peak of the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen, fewer still via Grütschalp to the valley bottom.
Fritz Stäger: "Various newspaper articles by then Kurdirektor G.A. Michel helped the unique Inferno to greater popularity. Just about then, the Swiss Ski Association Intervened to cancel the race, as it didn't concur with their rules.
They requested that the race be adjusted to their regulations. Thanks to the secretary of the Swiss Ski Association, Elsa Roth, who later became an honorary member of the local Ski Club, a compromise was found. According to the charta of the SSA, no ascents were allowed in a downhill race. Therefore, the race was newly established as a "Cross country with one-minute interval start". Participants were allowed to replace broken skis and poles during the course ot the race, as was 'riding the pole' (Stockreiten) in order to break speed. In 1954, an Alpini soldier by the name of Giovanni Marciandi, virtuously rode the entire length of the course from Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen on a pole. That's when the rules were changed accordingly and "stickriding" prohibited. The changing of skis had to be equally scratched from the race's rules: A very smart-one changed to shorter and newly-waxed skis half-way down the course, wich must surely have helped him to an advantage, especially on the lower stretch, between Grütsch and Lauterbrunnen. Now, only damaged skis or broken material could be exchanged".
From 1954 to 1959 the titles went to members of foreign troops, significantly GI's of the US army, who - upon the prize giving ceremonies, were congratulated by Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein (1887 - 1976), during that time second in command of all NATO-troops in Europe. The high-ranking officer, who in the fifties spent his winter vacations in Mürren, sent a letter to The Times in 1950, exclaiming that "more ski races like the Inferno ought to be held".
As a soldier, he said, he was most impressed by this trial, the sheer dangers of it and conquering virtually unprepared slopes. The individual racer would have to make quick decisions and know the much varied snow conditions,which required some studying.
Until 1965, the participants would ascend to the Allmendubel the night before the race and from there continue up to the ski hut of the Mürren Ski Club, located at an elevation of 2432 m at Engetal. The next morning, they would get up early and climb the rest of the way by means of skins on the bottom of their skis. Incidentally, the cooking skills of the former hut warden are legend. The same goes for the spaghetti feasts in the Lauterbrunnen guesthouses, following the "iron tests against oneself", in the words of Kurt Huggler, serial winner between 1972 and 1975.
In 1968, when the Schilthornbahn made it possible to reach Birg (2676 m) by gondola, and two years later opened up the top of the Schilthorn (2970 m), no immediate surge in numbers of participants could be noted. In 1972, a decision of high consequence was reached. The Arlberg-Kandahar races, to this date conducted in Mürren, now became part of the World Cup circuit, thus definitely exceeding the possibilities of this mountain village with its 350 inhabitants and without road access. Not enough helpers, the apparent lack of transportation capacity for TV crews and splectators alike, the non-existence of a modern downhill race-course and above all the void of financial means.
It was Kurt Huggler, then Kurdirektor and formerly a longtime, active member of the Swiss National Ski team, who convinced the decision makers in Mürren to close the books on the sixty-four year old Arlberg-Kandahar tradition, to give up the thought of being a destination in the World Cup circuit, but instead forcefully further the cause of the Inferno, meanwhile the only
international downhill open event of its kind. Once again, the almighty Swiss Ski Association intervened, claiming that the race was in no way congruent with the rules of alpine ski racing. In view of the quick success in regards to participation-numbers, however, a gentleman-argeement was reached model of open-to-all ski races. 1981, a record field of 1401 participants challenged the course, which went over the full distance and was won by Heinz Fringer from Arosa with a time of 15.44.57. Fringer had come in first five times, in 1977 and back-to-back between 1979 and 1982. In 1992, finally, 1173 competitors challenged the course from just below "Piz Gloria" all the way to Lauterbrunnen. A local youngster, Urs von Allmen from Lauterbrunnen, clocked the fabulous time of 13.53.40. He is therefore the current record holder.
Todays popularity is due to an untiring organization committed under the able Leadership of Kurt Huggler as President. The Schilthorn cableway company deserves credit for furthering the cause of this unique race: Thanks to the Schilthornbahn, (they opened the split section Mürren - Birg on 13th March 1965 and the top sections on 12th June 1967) the Inferno "Hell Fire Race" is today regarded as the top event of its kind. Needless to say, by facilitating the access to the start and at the same time maring this information available to the public on a broad scale (Sir Arnold Lunn in his "British Ski Year Book for 1967" and Toni Hiebeler, a well-known German mountaineer and writer "Lexikon der Alpen"), the word was out to come savour one of the last, real adventures in the World of Sports.
Last but not least, mention must be made of the fact that today, the organization of the modern Inferno race lies in the hands of both, the Ski Clubs of Mürren and Lauterbrunnen. Well over one hundred helpers join forces on racing days. Modern up-to-date equipment is a must: Radio communication, computers, complimented by a fleet of helicopters by Air Glaciers.
For safety reasons, nowadays, the major part of the course is being treated mechanically. However, it would be wrong to assume that the race has become easier. Higher speed throughout the race commands top qualifications from all participants with respect to technical skills, physical condition and medals in Gold, Silver, Bronze or even diamonds. The Inferno remains one of the true challenges in the wide world of sport.
Important race dates:
First Inferno race in 1928
Start at Schilthorn 2970 m
Finish line Lauterbrunnen 800 m
Difference in altitude 2170 m
Length of course 14,9 km
Record holder men Kuno Michel (13.20.53) 2013
Record holder women Nicole Bärtschi (14.46.43) 2013