The Lauberhorn: The Classic Season Opens

This week the FIS Alpine World Cup returns to Wengen, Switzerland for the 85th running of the famous Lauberhorn-rennen.

Three sentinels of the Bernese Oberland – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – stand silent guard over the scene, their stony faces providing a spectacular backdrop. Nestled some 1,000 metres below, the Lauberhorn peak would be considered a towering mountain in many countries. But in this part of Switzerland, anything below 3,000 metres is considered a foothill.

The Swiss have worked this land for centuries. Each summer, herds of cows are moved to the grassy slopes of the high mountains. Herders’ huts dot the alpine landscape. This pastoral beauty and stunning backdrop first drew British tourists at the turn of the century. As alpine skiing grew in popularity, the open slopes caught the attention of the Ski Club of Great Britain, turning Wengen into a wintersport mecca.

Since 1930, the Lauberhorn Ski-rennen of Wengen has been a fixture on the international ski racing calendar. Not the oldest of the ‘classics’ – an honour is reserved for the Arlberg-Kandahar which was first held in 1928, nor considered the most challenging – a coveted title of Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm.

The Lauberhorn is tradition. It is the longest running race of its kind: 85 continuous years. Unlike their alpine counterparts the Swiss saw no reason to suspend this annual test of ski racing skill during the war years between 1939 and 1945.

What really sets the Lauberhorn apart from its peers is the track. The ‘classic’ designation provides an exemption from usual downhill regulations, Kitzbühel being the only other racetrack in the world with such a privilege. Sections like the Hundschopf (dog’s ears) a – a 5-metre wide passage between two rock pinnacles and Wasserstation – a section where the course actually goes through a tunnel under the famous cog-railway of the Jungfrau Region, are truly unique.

It is also the longest downhill of its kind, winding nearly 4.5 km. over a vertical drop of 1,028 metres. The course record is still 2:24.23, set by Italian veteran Kristian Ghedina in 1997. A mark that is some 25+ seconds longer than the average World Cup downhill.

During the 1950’s and 60’s the Lauberhorn was the most prestigious international ski race. The entire ski racing elite gathered for this formidable test of skill and endurance. This was ski racing’s equivalent of the ironman.

My first memories of Wengen date from the mid-1970’s. The length of the course was a test of endurance and concentration. When the average downhill was complete at the 2-minute mark, another 30+ seconds of racing loomed ahead – the Osterreicherloch (Austrian Hole), Wegscheide) and Zeil-S – some of the toughest skiing on the run..

Spectacular crashes have left an enduring legacy, with names on the track – the Minch Kante, named for Swiss downhiller Joos Minch; Canadian Corner, in honour of Dave Irwin’s spectacular exit in 1975; and the Österreicher Loch (Austrian Hole), which claimed four top Austrian downhillers including Toni Sailer in 1954. Sadly, this legacy is also marred by tragedy. In 1991, Austrian rookie Gernot Reinstadler was killed in the final schuss of Inner-Wengen.

Weather is really the primary nemesis of the Lauberhorn. In 47 years on the World Cup Tour, the race has been cancelled, moved or lowered to the reserve start nearly a third of the time. The problem lies with the two reasons that drew interest to Wengen in the first place. The spectacular mountains act as a scoop for bad weather, leaving the region highly susceptible to the föhn, Europe’s notorious bad-weather wind. The open slopes are a disaster when cloud, wind or fog descends, leaving visibility marginal. But even a partial Lauberhorn is still a classic test.

The Lauberhorn is usually held either one week before or after the Hahnenkamm – a profound contrast from racing on the edge (Kitzbühel) to testing the subtleties of downhill ski racing (Wengen). Pacing is what sets the Lauberhorn downhill apart from all others. Moving from high-speed wide-open sections (up to 160 kph on the Hanegg-schuss!) to narrow, agonizingly slow passages.

This is a downhill that will always hold a special spot in my heart. I was a rookie when Franz Klammer blitzed the course record by 34 seconds. The champions list reads like a who’s who of ski racing – Killy, Schranz, Girardelli, Mueller, Walchhofer, Eberharder, Miller to name but a few of the most prominent on the downhill podium.

Canadians have played a role in the Lauberhorn. Maybe not as prominent as Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm, but enough to have our name on the track and a special section in the Lauberhorn web site. From Jim Hunter’s bronze in 1976 through to a silver by Manny Osbourne-Paradis in 2010, Canadians have been on the podium five times.

Can we make it six?

The Lauberhorn web site: http://www.lauberhorn.ch/

About Ken Read

"You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!" - Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990) Dr. Seuss
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