Do you have what it takes to tackle this leg busting race?

Ski Club member Chris Madoc-Jones was in Mürren to take on the world-famous Inferno Race – which for the first time in 6 years ran down the full, thigh-burning 14.9km course from Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen.

 For those who have never heard of The Inferno Race, it is the largest amateur ski race in the world, limited to a measly 1850 eager and eccentric racers. First held back in 1928, the 2019 race was the 76th edition. Unlike most alpine races the course requires some sections of skating and uphill skiing, but as Chris finds out that’s not the only unique thing about this anomalous competition.

Monday 21st January

After weeks of cold weather and abundant snowfall, the news broke at the start of race week that the full course would be used for only the third time since I was born back in 1992. Cue apprehension. Would my training be enough to prevent my legs from turning to jelly on the final stretches of the winding, forest path down to the valley? I’d never raced this section of the course before and it is notorious for its icy, hairpin bends.

Until this year, I’d also never taken part in the Inferno Combination Race, which looks for the best all-rounder by including cross-country and giant slalom races. However, in 2019 I was signed up for all three – the 76th edition of this historic race would, therefore, be a much tougher test than any of my four previous races.

Tuesday 22nd January

With the first part of the combination to compete in the following day and a lifetime total of zero metres covered on cross country skis, my afternoon was spent attempting to master one of what has to be one of the harder winter sports to pick up.

Armed with what felt like incredibly flimsy skis, barely an inch wide and with no edges, I felt pretty out of my depth. This was confirmed on my first few attempts at skating on the flat path around the village and more so on the groomed trail above the village in the Blumental. That part of the race would not be a fun one.

Wednesday 23rd January – Cross Country Race Day

The cross country wasn’t until the evening so the morning was spent skiing the downhill course, especially the final section down to Lauterbrunnen. Knowing the hairpins and chicanes would be crucial, as all become increasingly rutted throughout the race.

As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the action got underway in the cross country race. The three loops of the village take in a steep ascent, a fast, wiggly descent and the worst obstacle of all – a series of manmade rollers located in front of a sizeable crowd. Falling here would not only be painful but also somewhat embarrassing...

After watching the eventual winner Oliver Zurbrügg fly around the three laps in 10 minutes and 48 seconds I made it to the start gate to complete what would turn out to be an exhausting nineteen and a half minutes – putting his incredible time into perspective.

 The first lap was a bit of a blur as I tried to stay on my feet – I almost succeeded in entertaining the crowd next to the rollers – and the second wasn’t much better. By the third lap, however, I felt I had finally “cracked it” and was moving well along the flat section, even clearing the rollers with relative ease. This was until the last big climb, which can only be described as savage. Fortunately, at the top, the finish was in sight and I crossed the line exhausted but also extremely satisfied having never set foot on cross country skis twenty-four hours earlier.

Thursday 24th January – Giant Slalom Day

With heavy legs and incredibly sore arms, the next morning I headed over to Winteregg for the second element of the combination race – the giant slalom.

This was more familiar territory having raced at university, but with a start number of 324, I knew the ruts would be huge, despite the fantastic snow conditions and sunny skies.

The ruts did prove to be massive, but the course was great and I was happy with my time, despite the winner flying down eighteen seconds faster than me. Two of the three elements were complete. Only the main attraction – the downhill – remained.

Friday 25th January

The day before is the last chance to see the course and I was up early to ski the entire route from the Kleines Schilthorn at 2790m down to Lauterbrunnen, almost 2000 vertical metres below in the valley. Reassuringly the piste was in incredibly good condition, aided by the cold weather but also the small army of volunteers responsible for maintaining the racetrack – even the hairpins down to Lauterbrunnen were in good shape.

It was also a chance to get used to the skis I’d be using for the race, a 206cm pair of World Cup Super-G skis. Their turn radius of 45m (my regular skis have a 15m radius) really took some getting used to, but their stability at high speed and edge hold on fast turns made them ideal for the Inferno.

That evening and after dropping my skis off for a final wax and edge grind, I joined the annual pre-race parade around the village. This marks the start of the race weekend and culminates in the burning of the Inferno Devil in front of a large crowd of racers next to the village’s ice rink. 

Saturday 26th January – Race Day

My start number of 414 (out of 1850 racers) meant a relatively early start, but I was still able to watch the first twenty racers on the Höhenlücke corner before heading on up to the start. It was bitterly cold, accentuated by the catsuit I was wearing, but it was sunny – the usually reliable Swiss weather forecasters were fortunately wrong!

After an exchange of “viel Glück” with the racer behind me, I pushed out of the start gate, quickly accelerating to 120km/h at the foot of the Schilthorn and then on to the long traverse round to the Obere Hubel and the first uphill section. The snow was running so fast that barely any skating was needed to get on to the Bietenhorn, a steep red on which you pick up speed incredibly quickly.

The most technical part of the course, the Kanonenrohr (this translates to “barrel of the gun”) lay ahead and I was careful to scrub off some speed before dropping past the imposing rock and on to the steep face above the course’s first three hairpins bends. The ruts were smaller than usual and I was soon on to the Höhenlücke and trying to maintain enough speed for the longest uphill section on the Woodcutters Path – perhaps the course’s most unique feature.

Again the snow and was running very fast and I was able to limit my skating to around thirty seconds, saving some vital energy in my legs for later. The next section down to Winteregg was fast – again topping well over 100km/h – but mellow and a great chance to recover from the climb. My recovery was helped again by the fast conditions enabling me to carry the final uphill section, before dropping down on to the winding path to Lauterbrunnen.

The final seven minutes of the race down to the valley are admittedly somewhat hazy, but the ruts weren’t as big as I feared and the hairpins were friendlier than they had been the previous day. I eventually crossed the line in 15 minutes 20 seconds, faster than I was hoping for and as the 4th fastest Brit in 239th place overall. This definitely meant a cold beer in the finish area was justified!

My downhill time also helped to make up for my slower cross country and giant slalom times, placing me 183rd overall in the combination – which next year should hopefully lead to some much better start numbers.

Sunday 27th January – The Aftermath

Technically the post-race party started on the evening of the race, but it continued well into the early hours of Sunday. Table dancing, a local band blasting out après ski hits and numerous bottles of beer made for an epic end to the racing week. Tired legs and aching muscles were swiftly forgotten about (until the following morning...) as all the competitors got together for a celebration of the race, or perhaps of surviving the race.

Will I be back next year? Absolutely. I’ve got new best times to beat and I’ve already promised to myself to get much better at cross country – I can’t be much worse than this year...

Discover the resort of Murren with the Ski Club this season on one of our Freshtracks holidays or with a Leader. If you want to hear from skiers who are currently there or have an interest in the resort then please join the Ski Club's resort Facebook group here.