Half a metre of snow has fallen in Muerren over the past 36 hours, so they’re blasting, ploughing and shovelling like crazy to get the course and the transport system in shape for today’s Inferno downhill.
The start has been put back by at least half an hour: they’re clearing the Allmendhubel train track to get the funicular running and dynamiting various bit of the mountain to make it safe to open the cable-car from Lauterbrunnen and the train from Grutschalp to Winteregg. Quite a task, and it’s still falling thick and fast.
Earlier this week, it seemed a good bet that the Inferno would run its full 14.9km course, from the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen. Conditions were excellent, with plenty of snow on the lower parts. Many of us who have been here all week spent Tuesday and Wednesday – lovely, clear days – getting to know the twists and turns of the upper parts. Organisers felt optimistic about the prospects of a classic – despite forecasters muttering about a front approaching.
Then, at midnight on Thursday, it began to snow. By Friday mid-morning the valley was enveloped by a blizzard, with 100kph gusts at the top and the Birg and Schilthorn cable cars closed all day.
Yesterday, when we went to acclimatise to our 2m race-planks, it wasn’t a great surprise to find a start hut at the top of the Allmendhubel funicular – though the decision as to the route had yet to be finalised. We practised the woodcutter’s path and continued down Winteregg, but the track to Lauterbrunnen was closed (though some people ignored the signs and descended anyway).
Soon after 1pm, officials made their call – the race would run the 9km between “Allmihubel” and Lauterbrunnen – where, by the way, it was raining yesterday, though not enough to wash away the piles of real and manmade snow: the track’s lower reaches got snow cannons this year. This means it’s going to be a game of gliding: the only corners to speak of are hairpins, and the technical mid-section that is normally the trickiest part won’t feature at all. The two hill climbs, conversely, are still in.
We spent yesterday afternoon relishing the powder on the Schiltgrat and between Gimmeln and Gimmelwald – in poor light but at least 25cm of fresh snow. Lots of racers were out enjoying themselves – though I was dismayed to see some ducking under ropes to ski in the “nature zone” to the right of the Schiltgrat – pointless, when there was fresh snow all over the mountain. (These zones, by the way, allow hibernating animals some peace and quiet – being woken up suddenly can kill a marmot.)
At 7pm last night, at the press conference, I found out more about the route. Because up to 40cm more snow was forecast tonight and tomorrow, the woodcutter’s path isn’t safe, being beneath an avalanche slope. So, when we set off, we’ll turn right and follow the normal piste – which will lead us to a much longer climb than that of the woodcutter’s path.
The good news is that there’s going to be an alternative route through some of the post-Winteregg hairpins: after the first one, I understand, you’re able to scoot down a short-cut to rejoin the path. From there, it’s one long schuss – punctuated by hairpins, some of which are very sharp. Finally, 9km and about 1,000m of vertical after the start, you come out in the meadows just above the Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg road.
I’m starting at 450 of the 1,850 racers – which should have been at 10.45ish. Later racers, today, may have a bit of an edge, as the forecast is for the snow to ease off, so they may have better visibility and a faster surface. At least that’ll be my excuse if I have a rotten time…
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