Kandahar Inferno Downhill Race
The Kandahar Inferno downhill race, held annually in Murren, Switzerland, was founded by 17 intrepid British skiers in 1928 and is now the largest amateur ski race worldwide with over 1850 entrants. For those who succeed and cross the finish line, the exhilaration and sense of achievement is unmatched.
In 1928, on long hickory skis, seventeen intrepid British skiers walked on skins through deep snow beyond the top of the Allmendhubel funicular railway in Murren to the Schilthorn summit, stopping midway to eat their sandwiches. Gathering their wits on the summit ridge, and with a mass start, they raced each other back down to Lauterbrunnen in the valley below a distance of nearly 15 km.
All seventeen, 13 men and 4 women, completed this gruelling challenge, in times between 1 hour 12 minutes and 2 hours 35 minutes. Doreen Elliott, the first woman, finished fourth in 1 hour 22 minutes, only ten minutes slower than the victor, Harold Mitchell. Conditions on the result sheet, dated 29 January 1928, were described as: “Horrible below Gruetsch”! Thus, began the first Inferno, now the largest amateur ski race worldwide with over 1850 entrants, a ferocious test of endurance, grit, determination and stamina, held annually in January in Murren.
Harold Mitchell later wrote, “It is the spirit of the race which is so significant. Top international racers take part in it, but so do others who set out, as we did, just for the fun of the day. Our original idea was that the race should be a light-hearted adventure and a landmark in long-distance ski racing.” Happily, it remains a light-hearted ski adventure.
Since that crazy and chaotic start 90 years ago, the annual Inferno race has exploded in popularity, attracting over 1850 entrants to the picturesque Bernese Oberland, to compete each January. Poor snow, or insufficient cover more particularly on the wooded section below Winteregg, have frequently necessitated cuts and changes to the course, but only once, in January 2018, has the race been curtailed because of severe risk of avalanche. Since that first race in 1928, the full 14.9 km course from the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen has only been possible to ski top to bottom in nineteen years. Health & Safety now dictates a more clearly designated route, a far cry from the pioneering days when skiers leapt over boulders to cut corners, picking the fastest direct route through the pine trees on the lower section.
As the race was started by Kandahar ski club pioneers in Murren, inevitably K club members represent the largest contingent in the huge field nowadays, ranging in age from 18 to 74. The race is open to any competent, fit and brave intermediate skier, with the fastest time recorded by a local Swiss, Kerno Michel in 2013. Another Swiss skier, Marianne Rubi, holds the women’s record of 16 minutes 52.1 seconds. One of the oldest to have competed regularly was Kandahar stalwart, Peter Lunn, who was 63 when he first took part on the 50th anniversary of the Race in 1978, continuing each year until he hung up his ski boots aged ninety!
Racers today start at 12 minute intervals, and it is not uncommon to see over a hundred on the course at any one time. Average time for the descent is around fifteen minutes. For anyone seeking a further challenge, there is a cross country race, three circuits around the village three days before the Downhill, in which around 400 pit their wits for the Inferno Combination title.
Foolhardy, foolish, or frenzied, skiing the Kandahar Downhll Inferno is a challenge and dream many skiers will harbour but, with several uphill sections, steeps and deeps, for some this may prove a pipe dream too far. For those who succeed and cross the finish line, the exhilaration and sense of achievement is unmatched.
Thenext annual Inferno Downhill will be held in Murren, Bernese Overland, on Saturday 26 January. The cross-country race will take place on Wednesday 23 January 2019.