A mountain of trouble
By Ruben Sprich and Pascal Lauener
The Lauberhorn, the world’s longest men’s alpine skiing World Cup downhill race, boasts 50 start gates at a 2315 meter altitude on the Lauberhorn in front of the Eiger North Face, the Moench and the Jungfrau with the Top of Europe, and ends 4415 meters later in Wengen at a 1287 meter altitude. Wengen is a small village in the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken in the Bernese Overland.
I remember in 1986 when I covered the Lauberhorn for my first time. We carried the 60 kg heavy black and white laboratory and the transmitter in a big box from Lauterbrunnen in the train up to Wengen and set up in the bathroom of our hotel in Wengen. This was in addition to our skies, boots, clothes and cameras. Much more heavy was our luggage with our color laboratory in the 90s.
For several years now we have stayed at a hotel on the Kleine Scheidegg, the Bellevue des Alpes, located at 2061 meters, which is between Wengen and the Lauberhorn. Since 1999 we’ve used digital cameras. In the 80s and 90s after the race we rushed back to our hotel to start developing film, choose the pictures and make prints, writing captions on a small Hermes baby typewriter, and transmitting our pictures to Zurich or London. This year Bern based staff photographer Pascal Lauener and myself covered the races using our Paneikon software which transmits the pictures instantly after each racer to our server in Vienna where our Editor Michael Leckel edited and processed the pictures we sent in. Minutes later our clients around the world get the pictures in their systems.
Covering the Lauberhorn 25 times is special. I remember in 1986 when we shot the legendary Hundschopf jump with a 180mm lens right next to the racers. These days we have to be far away due to security and use a 500mm, 600mm or 800mm lens. This year Pascal went early to Wengen to get all the accreditation and bibs to enter the course. I had to do some work in the Bern office and a news conference with our Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann. I decided to go on the other side of the Kleine Scheidegg, to Grindelwald and catch the cog railway up, as we would have a better chance for parking.
Up on the Scheidegg it was already minus 12 degrees and the weather after a blue sky day was getting worst with the start of snow. Thursday the training run was cancelled due to too much fresh snow on the slope. Friday we had the Super Combined men’s race which I shot at the Mintschkante jump a bit down of the Hundschopf from outside, with the temperature minus 17 degrees and windy.
The second run I shot in the sun finally at the bottom of the slalom slope. Pascal and I were lucky to be in the right place and get all the stuff we needed. Ready for Saturday I decided in the morning to check the weather to see where best to position myself and decided on the bottom of the Hundschopf, where I could get a good 3G connection and leave before the end of the race. I also packed a GoPro camera with the idea to shoot every 1 second. I picked up the camera after the race with 8830 frames and still alive. By chance I got a picture of the second placed Austrian Hans Kroell, but sadly not of the winner, Italy’s Christof Innerhofer. Good online impacts made our day and we finished with a beer and great food in the Bellevue des Alpes hotel which was built in the 19th century on the Kleine Scheidegg.
Covering the Lauberhorn Ski World Cup Races is always special for me. I first had the chance in 2001 and since then have attended all races except for 2012. For me the Lauberhorn is not only special to cover because of its reputation as one of the most difficult and longest races in the world, but even more it’s the location in the Bernese Oberland. When you take the cog railway of the Jungfrau Bahnen from Lauterbrunnen, my place of origin and the place where my forefathers come from, you start feeling the impressive power of these mountains.
The two brothers Christian and Ulrich Lauener are the most renowned of my forefathers for their achievements as mountain guides. Ulrich was part of the rope team led by Charles Hudson, an Anglican chaplain and mountain climber from England, to complete the first ascent of the Dufourspitze 4,634 meters (Dufour Peak 15,203 ft) the highest mountain in the Swiss Alps. When I pass their picture in the hallway of our Hotel the Bellevue des Alps on the Kleine Scheidegg 2,061 meters (6,762 ft) high, where we stay, I always feel impressed by what they achieved and the courage they faced against the harsh environment of the mountains.
The Bellevue des Alps is the hotel located right at the base of the famous Eiger North face and serves alpinists before their adventures, some of them never returning back, tourists and media to observe the drama during their first attempt to climb the Eiger North face. For us this is the perfect place for our coverage, as it is away from all the Ski Wolrd Cup chaos, over-booked restaurants, impassable streets and loud parties in Wengen, which makes it hard to recover from our job to cover the race.
After the last picture is sent it’s a pleasure to go back up again on the Kleine Scheidegg, enjoying the great panorama, resting your back from carrying the heavy equipment bag and spending all day in an impossible and uncomfortable position with your telephoto lens along the steep slope.
On Saturday, the day of the big downhill race we have breakfast in the hotel dining room while watching the thousands of spectators coming up from Wengen, fighting for the smallest space in the slow moving cable car and the helicopters flying up and down to the Lauberhorn.
But the last time I covered the race, in 2011, my night on the Kleine Scheidegg was anything but a good one. On Friday after covering the Super Combined race I went up to relax as I did not feel well the whole day. Hour after hour I felt more and more sick, so going to bed early seemed the best thing to do, as the next day we had the big downhill race and I sure wanted to be well for it.
Things went absolutely not my way. I missed the last train down by hours, after calling my boss Ruben Sprich around midnight to tell him that I was not able to cover the race. He had to get up some hours later to make his way up to come and cover the race as planned. And no this wasn’t the end of the story, around three in the morning I called the Swiss Air Rescue Rega and spoke to the doctor on duty to tell him I could hardly breath and that I was spitting a not good looking slime into the sink. After the call, the decision was made that a helicopter would come and pick me up as the weather was to get bad. I started packing my things together, but always had to stop after a short time as I had no air to move. I called up my colleague Michael Buholzer, who was covering the race with me, and who was aware of my situation, and as soon as we heard the helicopter approaching we went out and I was just happy to leave the altitude knowing a professional would have me feeling better quickly.
Seven minutes later the Rega helicopter landed at the Hospital in Interlaken where the doctors diagnosed pneumonia. I spent one week in the hospital and another one at home recovering before I started working again. This showed me how fast things can change and just how committed you are when you scale into the mountains. Lucky for me, I live some years later then my forefathers and alpine air rescue is possible even at four in the morning.