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The Inferno - Yolanda Carslaw, Murren
Monday January 23, 2012 - Email this article to a friend

It is one of the oldest races in The Alps and is held every January in the Swiss resort of Murren. PlanetSKI reporter, Yolanda Carslaw, got her race skis out once again. It proved to be the most dramatic race for years.

Until the eleventh hour, the Inferno 2012 looked set to be a classic.

From the top of the course on the Schilthorn, at 2,790m, to Lauterbrunnen at 800m, the 15km downhill track was coated in firm, grippy snow.

Under blue skies racers were speeding around the mountainside above the Swiss village of Mürren at such a pace that organisers put up a notice on the Inferno website warning us not to "race" the course during inspection or practice.

In the Tächi Bar on Thursday night - the best evening for a knees-up, with the cross-country and giant slalom phases of the combined competition over, and no racing on Friday - regulars were gleeful at the prospect of skiing the whole track for the first time since 2006.

Then, at midnight, Edwina Palmer, "First Lady" of the Kandahar Ski Club (her husband is Cleeves, the club president), tapped me on the shoulder.

"Come here! Look!" She propelled me to the window. "It's snowing."

Never has the white stuff been less welcome.

By mid-morning on Friday we had 10cm of fresh - and more at the top, where the base was already 300cm.

Birg and the Schilthorn remained closed, visibility was murky and the storm intensified.

The storm sets in on eve of raceThe storm sets in on eve of race













In the afternoon, as racers had fun making fresh tracks, organisers reached a verdict.

With 100kph gusts and 20-40cm more snow forecast on Friday night - leading to considerable avalanche risk - the race would instead run from Allmihubel to Lauterbrunnen.

At least there was powderAt least there was powder













There was more.

Because of avalanche danger, instead of starting with the woodcutter's path - the climb/skate that usually follows the Hog's Back turn - the track would follow the piste towards the Maulerhubel chair before ascending to Winteregg: a longer, steeper prospect.

"You need the right skis and wax," declared Oliver Zurbrügg, 23, one of the favourites, at the press conference on Friday night. "The climb will be decisive."

All night the piste machines worked bashing the course.

On Saturday morning, as the first of the 1,850 racers pulled on their catsuits, men with shovels battled to clear the funicular railtrack up to the start.

Shortly before 10am, an hour late, off went the forerunners. In driving snow, on a rather powdery track, the cluster of favourites skated and tucked their way down, setting off every 10 seconds rather than every 12 to make up for the delay.

Among early starters were Martin Hewitt and Jaco van Gass, a plucky pair of disabled paratroopers who have sandwiched their first Inferno between their historic expedition to the North Pole last year and an assault on Mount Everest this spring.

Both finished with decent times - even more of an achievement given they were bruised from falls in cross-country and giant slalom races earlier in the week.

At 11.45am I slid into the start hut on rented 198cm Völkls wearing bib number 450.

Go, Yolanda, go!Go, Yolanda, go!












It was a  schuss to the first hill, where I skated past a girl (only 197 racers were female) but was  overtaken by three big men.

I had a clear run to Winteregg, sticking to what I hoped was the faster tracked part and staying in as low a tuck as I could muster. I swung round the bend after the second skating climb and took two hairpins smoothly into the woods - albeit with screaming thighs.

Then the fun started.

The rest of the course follows a summer road, whose sharp, sudden bends had already developed gigantic ruts.

With each hairpin came softer snow and increasing carnage - racers upside-down, skis akimbo or scattered - and any theory about riding the ruts or taking a particular route went out of the window.

My skis crossed briefly at a narrow mogul-field on a lower meadow but I stayed upright - unlike number 459, who had overtaken me earlier and now went flying as he crossed a worn patch.

The finish was in sight, with one last bumpy curve to negotiate and the last of seven control gates to pass.

I was safely in rainy Lauterbrunnen in a time of 14 minutes 35, which put me third in my age group in the combined section of "Damen II" (a category with only eight contenders).

But the real drama had just begun.

As the skies cleared, the course quickened.

With a time of 11 minutes 4 seconds, number 576 led for a while.

At lunchtime number 755 broke the 11-minute barrier.

Then, around 3.15pm, a 30-year-old geography teacher from Basel named Samuel Imhof, start number 1602, wearing 213cm planks, went even faster.

His time, 10 minutes 40, gave him the title on his first attempt.

And the winner is.... Samuel ImhofAnd the winner is.... Samuel Imhof












So how did he do it?

"I trained a lot," he told me. "I did a tuck position for four or five minutes, twice a day, to get used to the lactic acid - you stay down even if it hurts. So I was in the downhill position the whole way, except for the hairpins.

On Wednesday, on my day off school, I came to Mürren and skied the course top to bottom three times so I knew where the turns were."

Not one of the top ten finishers had a start number below 576. A Swiss racer approaching 50 years old (start number 653) was sixth overall and a first-timer in his 40s from the Czech Republic (1537) was seventh.

Notable British finishers were Tessa Pirie, 12th female overall and Sir Steve Redgrave, who improved greatly on his first-go time of 2011.

So, in its own way, the Inferno 2012 did turn out to be a bit of a classic. Once again.

See also

For full results visit

For the spirit of the mountains

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