I didn’t think there was an amateur ski race tougher or scarier than the Inferno (see previous posts), but I’m pleased (well, sort of) to report that I’ve competed in one today. St Anton’s Weisse Rausch, an end-of-season downhill staged on an end-of-day slush-field from the top of the Valluga to the town, has superseded Muerren’s January downhill for extremeness, exhaustion and exhilaration.
It begins with a mass start – or rather three mass starts. First to set off, at 5pm, are the men born in 1973 or later, plus some leading contenders who, through good past results, have earned a place in the first batch. Ten minutes later the older men set off. This covers about 500 of the 650 competitors. Then it’s the turn of the women, snowboarders, big-footers, bladers, telemarkers and ski-bobbers (remember the snow bikes?).
I’m going to write about this race for a UK ski magazine next season – more details later – but for now I can reveal the following…
Racers are all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities; momentous music accompanies the countdown to each of the starts while a helicopter circles overhead. After the carnage of each start – which is signalled by cannon fire – there is a three- or four- or maybe five-minute hill climb less than a minute into the race. Most racers take their skis off and carry them up, although the winner skated up, using 170cm cross-country poles. Because the slope isn’t prepared after the day’s skiing, the course is a mad mess, covered in moguls and ruts. Approaching the finish you take your skis off again and carry them to the line – in knee-deep slush. And we thought we were there to have fun… (Amazingly, most people – including me – were grinning rather than grimacing as they collapsed in a heap at the finish.)
Very sadly, one racer, a 48-year-old man, had a heart attack during the race, about half way down, and could not be saved. So the mood at the prize-giving was sombre, and the official race party was cancelled as a mark of respect. At least the poor chap died doing something extremely exciting, and let’s hope his last thoughts were happy ones.
Among the most entertaining prize-winners was a snowboarder who won his age group – as the only person in it – despite being easily the slowest finisher. This chap took an almighty one hour and two minutes: the winner, Paul Schwarzacher, took around eight minutes. Dozens of people won prizes, thanks to a generous number of categories – and as you can see from the picture even I managed to take home something for the mantlepiece, as I somehow won my age group.
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