In the Land of the Jungfrau

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Before I explain why it might be a good idea for you to travel to Wengen and Mürren, a pair of historic, car-free picture-postcard Swiss mountain villages, I want to apologize to the entire American skiing public, to the manufacturer of my skis, to my family, to my ski club and to my friends. I'm as embarrassed as anyone who has taken a full day to run the Boston Marathon. Imagine not winning even a bronze medal in Nastar, and you will sense the depth of my failure.

It started last January, when I flew Swissair from New York to Zurich, took an express train to the center of Switzerland, arriving in the highest part of the Bernese Oberland region. My goal was to check out Mürren's and Wengen's skiing, hotels, restaurants and après-carousing. I also wanted to compete in the 56th running of the Inferno, one of the world's oldest ski races and certainly one of the most unusual competitions in the whole sport.

A test of endurance as well as speed, The Inferno starts high above Mürren, below the pyramidal peak of the 9,748-foot Schilthorn, famous as the sinister bastion of the terrifying Blofeld in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In reality, it's a restaurant and cable car terminus. In his novel, Ian Fleming called the place Piz Gloria, the name now printed on every map of the region.

The Inferno race starts about 400 feet below Piz Gloria, and in its normal 10-mile length and 6,500 vertical feet of drop it has three immense traverses, two of which involve short climbs. Over a period of six hours, 1,800 racers, starting at 15-second intervals, do their damnedest to avoid collisions, especially in the race's only really difficult section, the Kanonenrohr, or Gun Barrel. The idea is to get to the bottom in 10 minutes or so, or at least before the lifts close. The winning time in the first Inferno, 71 years ago, was an hour and 12 minutes.

The race began six years after the world's first timed slalom race was staged in Mürren by Sir Arnold Lunn, and five years after Lunn and Hannes Schneider had the idea for the first international alpine competition, the Arlberg-Kandahar Combined. One of the world's first T-bars was erected here in 1936. Mürren arguably is to skiing what Cooperstown is to baseball.

On the day before the race, I took an early morning walk along the village's narrow snow-covered lanes, past groves of larch and hemlock. A first shaft of sunlight lit the Schilthorn. In the clean, silent mountain air, the only sound came from my boots crunching on a light overnight dusting of cold powder. Just past the Anglican chapel, I encountered a lone baker's helper, trundling a cartful of rolls and croissants to my hotel.

Mürren's two principal streets are lined with pale stucco and chocolate-logged gasthofs and shops. On the hillside perch scores of private chalets, one of them owned by Marc Hodler, who skied here as a boy and grew up to be chief Olympic whistleblower and president of the International Ski Federation.

Strewn across alpine meadows are thick-walled cowsheds-a century or more old-designated as historical buildings, which protects them from demolition. The village sits on a 5,361-foot-high shelf of mountainside looking across the canyon-deep Lauterbrunnen Valley that separates Mürren from Wengen.The backdrop is nothing less than one of the most breathlessly spectacular views in the Alps. Immediately in the foreground looms the glacier-bejeweled 13,642-foot Jungfrau, the centerpiece peak in an area known as the Top of Europe. Behind it is the mountain known as the Mönch (the monk or priest), who mythically protects the Jungfrau (the virgin) from the more distant Eiger (the ogre). The Eiger, of course, is best known for its massive, precipitous north face, from which a whole funeral procession of climbers have fallen, ghoulishly observed by binocular-equipped tourists.

In 1928, when the first Inferno winner, an Englishman, arrived at the finish, the timers had to be fetched from thbar, where they were drinking schnapps, in order to clock him in. Five years later, the race was won by George Jost of Canada's Red Birds, my own ski club. Buddy Werner won it in the Fifties, when he was on military leave in Europe.

The race normally finishes down in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Last January, however, snow cover was especially thin. So, as often happens, the Inferno was shortened to terminate higher up at Winteregg, a cluster of buildings on the tiny railway that links the village of Mürren with the funicular coming up from the valley.

Of the 1,800 racers scheduled to start, I was given bib number 101. Starting 100th in a ski race is normally undesirable because of the ruts created by the racers ahead. But this time it was undesirable because of the number of racers behind. I learned this the night before the race, when I dined in the Eiger Hotel's gemütlich alpine cellar. Outside, a couple of hundred revelers, wearing devil masks, were gathering for the annual Inferno parade through Mürren. Inside, my dinner hosts were Beat and Nancy von Allmen of Salt Lake City. Beat, Nancy's husband, grew up in Mürren and was the 1962 Inferno winner.

Over a dinner of smoked duck breast and rösti (grated and fried potatoes), the von Allmens recounted their most recent experience in the Inferno. Beat fell so hard in the bumps of the treacherous Kanonenrohr that when he arose from the rubble of his catastrophe he saw two Jungfraus, not one. Meanwhile another racer collided with Nancy, breaking a pair of her ribs.

How would I avoid her fate? With my relatively early start number, I would be skiing among the fastest racers. And there they were in the cable car with me, beefy as Alberto Tomba in skin-tight racing suits. In the haze of frozen garlic breath, I was standing next to bib number 102. Cradling 210-cm skis, he towered over me. "What's the word you use when you pass me?" I asked plaintively from the depths of the helmet I had rented for the occasion. "Achtung! Links? Rechts?" He stared blankly at me.

Debarking from the aerial tram inside the Schilthorn's summit building, Blofeld's HQ in the James Bond movie, I rode up an escalator to the restaurant. The outer circle of tables revolves, so that during a one-hour lunch a diner takes in a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Alps. The brochure says that on a clear day you can see 200 peaks and 40 glaciers. It was a clear day, and I can believe it.

An official from the lift company invited me downstairs to the James Bond Bar. "You must fortify yourself for the race," Peter said, as I scanned the shelves of Bond T-shirts and postcards. "Bitte schoen, Fraulein," he cried to the barmaid. "Einen grossen Kaffee mit. . ."

Gulping the hot powerful drink, I was reminded of Ian Fleming's description of 007 escaping on skis from Piz Gloria: "Bond dug into his trouser pocket. If ever he needed a drink it was now! He tilted the little flask down his throat, emptied it and threw the bottle away. He got to his feet and, rather light-headed but with the wonderful glow of the Enzian in his stomach, started on the last mile of finishing schuss."

Unlike Bond, however, my stomach did not glow from the Enzian's effects. I skied down to the starting tent. Inside, a bottle of schnapps was hanging on a wall, though I didn't need another shot. The racer ahead of me-a cross between Franz Klammer and Lasse Kjus-kicked the tails of his skis into my face and shot like a missile out of the starting gate. Immediately I slid between the posts behind him, and in 15 seconds I found myself tentatively pushing the starting wand aside. I was on course!

Phil Mahre, whom I assisted in writing his autobiography, once explained to me that although you're hurtling swiftly down the mountain, in downhill racing everything unfolds as if you were moving in slow motion. Yes, Phil. The gates were now coming steadily at me, but my feeling of slowness was not an illusion. Still, I managed to crank up enough speed so that only two racers overtook me on the first long traverse.

As I headed down toward the dreaded Kanonenrohr, I imagined myself skiing like Bond as he fled from the demonic Blofeld. "Bond got down into his old Arlberg crouch, his hands forward of his boots. His skis were an ugly six inches apart... This was no time for style, even if he had been capable of it! Above all, he must stay upright..."

In the Kanonenrohr, another racer shot past, narrowly missing me. I peered ahead. "Go higher and get out of the way," I said to myself, "and the next guy will have room to pass below." The passage narrowed. Pursuing a higher line, I made a vigorous check turn. When I looked down, I saw that my skis were stuck among frozen chunks of snow that had been pushed to the side of the trail. My worst fears had come true. I had come to a full stop in the middle of a goddamned ski race!

That was it! Putting my skis in motion, I picked up speed. After another five minutes, I found myself herringboning up to the finish, disdainfully observed by a dozen abfahrters and their laughing girlfriends. My pathetically shameful result wouldn't be known until a giant beer and wurst celebration that night, so I spent the rest of the day skiing.

Much of Mürren's terrain, I discovered, faces the sun or is intercepted by cliffs and crisscrossed by lifts. "Quirky," as a veteran member of Britain's Kandahar Ski Club described it to me. "It's not mass market."

The best skiing, in fact, follows the Inferno course and, since that was closed, the terrain was more limited than usual and, as I would discover, far more limited than at Wengen, across the valley. Nevertheless, the sun was shining, and the Jungfrau rose majestically into a cloudless sky.

At noon, I skied over to the outdoor deck of the Gimmelm Restaurant, where I lunched on a small mountain of Apfelkuchen-warm, freshly baked, crisp apple pastry piled high with schlag (whipped cream). All around me were Kandahar members, in Mürren to celebrate the Club's 75th anniversary and enjoying, as they would say, "a jolly good time."

In the evening, I walked from my hotel, the Palace, past Mürren's great outdoor skating rink to the Inferno awards ceremony. Inside the sports arena, a thousand Swiss, Germans, Austrians, British and a scattering of other nationalities had gathered for a vast and noisy celebration dinner. I caught sight of a computer printout of the race results pinned on the far wall. After squeezing through the crowd to reach it, I quickly scanned the list in search of my name. Finally, there it was! Fry: 17 minutes: 55 seconds.

I'd placed 700th, or fourth to last, among male racers under 35 years of age. Ugly! Even though the day before had been my 69th birthday, I'd taken twice as long as the winning time of eight minutes. By any measure, it was a tortoise-like performance. The most fitting response would be to drown my embarrassment in drink.

In the Eiger Hotel's bar, I ordered a battery of schnapps and beer and sat down next to a couple who looked like they wouldn't care the slightest about the Inferno. I was right. Carl and Julienne Goolsby from Kansas City were winding up a tranquil eight-day Swiss vacation. They'd chosen Mürren because they travel the world looking for unusual places to stay. "I love the old buildings here," said Carl, "and the fact that there are no cars."

Careening back to my own hotel, I sidled into the cigarette-fogged Balloon Bar. The place was a din of rock music and shouted conversation. Parking myself behind a goblet of Poire Williams, I attempted to discern what language was being spoken by the skiers on the other side of the circular bar. Was it Schweizerdeutsch? Or perhaps they were Yorkshiremen. I couldn't tell. It was time to hit the sack.

The next morning I left Mürren. Riding first the train, transferring to a funicular and then back on another train, I crossed the valley to Wengen. Since I couldn't check into my room in the Hotel Sspeed so that only two racers overtook me on the first long traverse.

As I headed down toward the dreaded Kanonenrohr, I imagined myself skiing like Bond as he fled from the demonic Blofeld. "Bond got down into his old Arlberg crouch, his hands forward of his boots. His skis were an ugly six inches apart... This was no time for style, even if he had been capable of it! Above all, he must stay upright..."

In the Kanonenrohr, another racer shot past, narrowly missing me. I peered ahead. "Go higher and get out of the way," I said to myself, "and the next guy will have room to pass below." The passage narrowed. Pursuing a higher line, I made a vigorous check turn. When I looked down, I saw that my skis were stuck among frozen chunks of snow that had been pushed to the side of the trail. My worst fears had come true. I had come to a full stop in the middle of a goddamned ski race!

That was it! Putting my skis in motion, I picked up speed. After another five minutes, I found myself herringboning up to the finish, disdainfully observed by a dozen abfahrters and their laughing girlfriends. My pathetically shameful result wouldn't be known until a giant beer and wurst celebration that night, so I spent the rest of the day skiing.

Much of Mürren's terrain, I discovered, faces the sun or is intercepted by cliffs and crisscrossed by lifts. "Quirky," as a veteran member of Britain's Kandahar Ski Club described it to me. "It's not mass market."

The best skiing, in fact, follows the Inferno course and, since that was closed, the terrain was more limited than usual and, as I would discover, far more limited than at Wengen, across the valley. Nevertheless, the sun was shining, and the Jungfrau rose majestically into a cloudless sky.

At noon, I skied over to the outdoor deck of the Gimmelm Restaurant, where I lunched on a small mountain of Apfelkuchen-warm, freshly baked, crisp apple pastry piled high with schlag (whipped cream). All around me were Kandahar members, in Mürren to celebrate the Club's 75th anniversary and enjoying, as they would say, "a jolly good time."

In the evening, I walked from my hotel, the Palace, past Mürren's great outdoor skating rink to the Inferno awards ceremony. Inside the sports arena, a thousand Swiss, Germans, Austrians, British and a scattering of other nationalities had gathered for a vast and noisy celebration dinner. I caught sight of a computer printout of the race results pinned on the far wall. After squeezing through the crowd to reach it, I quickly scanned the list in search of my name. Finally, there it was! Fry: 17 minutes: 55 seconds.

I'd placed 700th, or fourth to last, among male racers under 35 years of age. Ugly! Even though the day before had been my 69th birthday, I'd taken twice as long as the winning time of eight minutes. By any measure, it was a tortoise-like performance. The most fitting response would be to drown my embarrassment in drink.

In the Eiger Hotel's bar, I ordered a battery of schnapps and beer and sat down next to a couple who looked like they wouldn't care the slightest about the Inferno. I was right. Carl and Julienne Goolsby from Kansas City were winding up a tranquil eight-day Swiss vacation. They'd chosen Mürren because they travel the world looking for unusual places to stay. "I love the old buildings here," said Carl, "and the fact that there are no cars."

Careening back to my own hotel, I sidled into the cigarette-fogged Balloon Bar. The place was a din of rock music and shouted conversation. Parking myself behind a goblet of Poire Williams, I attempted to discern what language was being spoken by the skiers on the other side of the circular bar. Was it Schweizerdeutsch? Or perhaps they were Yorkshiremen. I couldn't tell. It was time to hit the sack.

The next morning I left Mürren. Riding first the train, transferring to a funicular and then back on another train, I crossed the valley to Wengen. Since I couldn't check into my room in the Hotel Silberhorn right away, I took the famous cog railway ride that spirals through the tunnel inside the Eiger. The upper terminal-at 11,333 feet, the highest train station in Europe-is in an immense shaft of rock called the Jungfraujoch. I found myself in a glass-and-steel building that clings to the Jungfraujoch like a greenhouse on Mars. There are restaurants, bars, a cinema, museum and a tunnel accessing an icy blue grotto inside the glacier. From a terrace, I watched a young man and his girlfriend, ski mountaineers, prepare to traverse the glacier, then head down its broad surface.

Riding the train back to Wengen, a group of Americans invited me to join them in the bar of their hotel, the modern Sunstar. "This is our second visit to Wengen," John Bowers, 38, told me over a foam-capped glass of lager. "The town is full of Brits who are fun to drink with. Our favorite resort is Val Gardena in Italy's Dolomites. I prefer tougher runs like you find at Val d'Isere. Wengen's terrain is mostly intermediate."

The Sunstar's bar itself was filling with guests ready to storm the dining room. Ski vacation packages at Wengen hotels invariably include dinner as well as breakfast. Bowers reported that his group had started at Kleine Scheidegg (a mini-ski resort by the Eiger north wall) and sledded down to their favorite bar (about a 2,500-foot drop).

It turned out that Bowers and his father, both cardiologists in Las Vegas, own the travel agency that had brought the group to Wengen. I mentioned to the senior Bowers that only about three in 100 American skiers go to the Alps each winter. Why doesn't Europe have more appeal?

"Most people focus on skiing and miss the point of a vacation," he replied. "In Europe, you have not just the skiing, but also the food, quality hotels, historic architecture, the charming atmosphere of the ski villages and mountains more beautiful than the American Rockies. Even getting here is not inconvenient, but quaint. I don't mind riding a cog railway to reach villages like Wengen or Mürren."

The next morning, I was met at the hotel door by instructor Hans Gertsch. Walking 50 yards across to the railway platform, the two of us boarded the train up to Kleine Scheidegg. Putting on our skis, we arced turns down toward the village of Grindelwald on freshly groomed snow. The night before, the trail had been "pisted," as the British say. Hans rode his 160-cm carving skis like a snowboarder, etching arcs on the snow so pure they could have been drawn with a compass. "What technique would you teach a typical American or Canadian?" I asked.

"We emphasize carving from the very beginning," Hans replied. "It doesn't matter what ski the pupil is on, we teach him to use the edge to carve on the snow. And we rotate the shoulders in the direction of the turn...nothing unnatural."

After lunch, we rode the lifts up the Lauberhorn to the start house, from which former World Cup racers like Hans escort recreational skiers down the famous downhill course every Thursday. Like Kitzbühel's Hahnenkamm, the Lauberhorn is a classic trail, used in competition since before World War II. Winners have included Jean-Claude Killy, Franz Klammer and America's own Bill Johnson and Kyle Rasmussen.

"Aufgeht's!" cried Hans, who led me in a series of wide-arcing turns across the open snowfield that begins the race. At the famous Hundschopf jump, we made quick edgesets down into the Canadian Hole, so named for a Lauberhorn race in which several Crazy Canuck downhillers fell.

Now we cruised lazily over ideal advanced intermediate terrain, passing through the narrow tunnel under the cog railway, famously shown in Robert Redford's Downhill Racer. From a wide undulating trail, the slope turned sharply down into the zielschuss. I skidded a couple of turns on the steep face and came to a stop at the finish line. We'd traveled 4.2 kilometers and 3,400 vertical feet from the start. The sun was shining. The mountains looked down approvingly. "Nice