"One of the most beautiful tourist villages in the world"
Cleeves Palmer, the former President of the Kandahar Ski Club, has been coming to ski in Mürren most winters for the past 53 years. We met up for a chat with the 60-year-old Brit.
As soon as we arrive in Mürren we realise: this is no normal Saturday. The 79th International Inferno Races are taking place this weekend. In the village, we meet many skiers in their race gear and with their start numbers. They have already completed the course, others first drive up to the Schilthorn for the start. At the finish line on the ski school grounds, there is a lot of activity, and again and again racers pass through the finish arch - exhausted, but happy. Cleeves Palmer from England is one of them. The 60-year-old has just competed in the Inferno Downhill for the 36th (!) time. "I'm not the youngest anymore," he notes, adding that the race is primarily a mental challenge due to its length. "You have to stay focused until the end."
The week before, the International Lauberhorn Races took place on the opposite side of the valley - the downhill on the longest World Cup course in the world. At 14.9 km, the Inferno downhill, with counterclimbs and flat sections, is more than three times as long when it follows the original course from the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen. This year the race ends in Mürren, after "only" 7.6 km. "The slope was once again superbly prepared and the race perfectly organised," Palmer praised the organisers. Whether Allmendhubel - Lauterbrunnen, Schilthorn - Winteregg, Birg - Lauterbrunnen or on the original course - the Brit from the south coast of England has already completed the race on nine different courses.
Cleeves Palmer at a young age: In racing mode on the Inferno downhill run
Who invented it? The British
Cleeves Palmer is the former president of the Kandahar Ski Club, which launched the Inferno race in 1928. Back then, 17 members of the club climbed up the Schilthorn and then skied the route to Lauterbrunnen.
This is how it used to look: Mürren in the early days of the Inferno races.
Anyone who asks Cleeves Palmer a question gets a five-minute answer. That is not criticism. It is exciting to listen to him. He talks about an interview he did with the Austrian television station ORF, live on air. "They asked me the first question, in German. "I don't speak German," I replied. The reporter was so perplexed that he stopped the interview.
Yes, and once he was invited to show Pippa Middleton, sister of Great Britains’s Princess of Wales, wife of the Prince of Wales, around Mürren for two days. "That was a great experience."
Royal participant: Pippa Middleton
In an exciting diversions, we end up at the beginnings of "his" ski club. It takes its name from the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup. And this in turn from Field Marshal Earl Roberts, then stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, we learn.
The founder of the club and also the inventor of modern slalom is Sir Arnold Lunn. "In 1922, the first slalom race in history took place in Mürren," Palmer tells us. Likewise in 1931 the first Alpine World Ski Championships organised by the FIS. "The first World Championships in history were held in Switzerland, organised by the British, imagine that nowadays," Palmer thinks aloud. Mürren and Great Britain - that goes back to the First World War. Back then, the British were interned in Mürren by the hundreds. Lunn organised ski courses for them. After the end of the World War, the returning soldiers had spread the reputation of the resort all over Britain - and this caused a real boom.
The founder of the Kandahar Ski Club: Sir Arnold Lunn
Double victory in Kitzbühel
Today, the Kandahar Ski Club has 1700 members, three of whom are currently competing in the World Cup and are among the world's best. The French speed specialist Blaise Giezendanner as well as two slalom cracks: the Swiss Daniel Yule and the Englishman Dave Ryding. "I know the latter very well and met up with again after the slalom in Wengen." Cleeves Palmer shows us photos of the English slalom racer, and says, "I digress, I'm sorry." While we are talking to Palmer in the Hotel Bellevue - or rather, he is talking to us - the legendary Kitzbühel downhill is playing on the television in the lobby. Blaise Giezendanner is turning 27. Something Palmer doesn't know at this point: On Sunday, the Kandahar Ski Club in Kitzbühel will celebrate one of the greatest success in its 99-year history. A double victory by Yule and Ryding in one of the most prestigious slaloms in the World Cup calendar.
On the move together: Cleeves Palmer and British slalom specialist Dave Ryding
A song of praise for the Jungfrau Region
Back to the Inferno races. This year, around 300 members of the Kandahar Ski Club are in Mürren. "Most of them stay several nights - and they spend their money in Mürren," says Cleeves Palmer - only to sing the praises of the Jungfrau Region. "For me, Mürren is one of the most beautiful tourist villages in the world. There are no crowds here. Here you can still find untouched powder snow. Mürren stands for quality, not quantity." But Palmer also raves about the beautiful red and blue slopes in Wengen. Or of Grindelwald, where he particularly likes it in March. And which place in the Jungfrau Region enjoys the most credit in England? "In summer Grindelwald. In winter probably Wengen, because of the Lauberhorn races. They are also very well known here, in the world's best non-skiing country in terms of winter sports. When a year ago - fortunately only briefly - the word went round that the Lauberhorn races were to be removed from the World Cup calendar, all I could think was: "The world is going mad."
Cleeves Palmer has been coming to ski in Mürren most winters for 53 years. He has a family home here, right by this year's finish area of the Inferno races. He spends around 50 days a year here. But he also likes to visit the Jungfrau Region with his wife in spring, summer and autumn. His insider tip: September in Mürren, when it gets warm once again and autumn shows its most beautiful colours. In his "second home" (next to the clubhouse in London), the Kandahar Ski Club will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, on 30 January, a week after the 80th Inferno races. "There will be a dinner, we are expecting several hundred club members to attend*." Mürren will be firmly in British hands - celebrating skiing. And in the middle of it all, of course, Cleeves Palmer.
Cleeves Palmer is one of those busy British personalities who bring the special flair of Wengen, Grindelwald and Mürren to the United Kingdom. He is related to the family of Walter Amstutz, He skied with Walter for over twenty years. Walter was the Swiss skiing and alpinism pioneer and that brought Cleeves to Mürren – and that's how he became a member of the Kandahar Ski Club. He was club captain (1993 to 2000), vice-chairman (2004 to 2006), chairman (2006 to 2011) and president (2011 to 2018). He has been an honorary member since 2018. He has worked in his own family business, "Palmers Brewery" since 1980.
In 2000 Cleeves Palmer received the Arnold Lunn Medal for special services to alpine skiing. In 1999, 2011 and 2023 he was Roberts of Kandahar winner. He was the best Briton in the 1997 Inferno Downhill.
Cleeves Palmer is married to Dwina and father to Sophie and Mark.