elalp is a little village located above Brig in the Swiss canton of Valais. It is the ideal starting point for winter sports with over 60km (37 miles) of slopes as well as trails for winter hikes and cross-country skiing. In the summer, it offers a wide range of hikes or alpine tours in the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1983, the Ski Club of Belalp created the Belalp Hexe (Belalp Witch) ski racing event paying homage to the legend of a witch of the region who murdered her husband and was burned at the stake. The idea was to create a popular race during the calm period in January between Christmas and the Swiss school holiday week which is spread over February depending of the region.
The largest and most traditional of the races, the Witches’ Descent, is accessible to all wishing to compete on a challenging race course with 12km (7.5 miles) in length and an altitude difference of 1800m (5900 ft). There are some flat sections, but good skiers can reach 140km/h (86 mph).
Back in 1983, it started with just 300 competitors. Today, the event requires 300 volunteers, helpers and rescuers to welcome over 1500 competitors from all over Europe.
On January, 18th 2014, the witches’ descent of the 32nd edition of this event took place.
The gathering point for those coming with public transports is to take the train to Brig. Those unaware of the competition can be surprised at the train station seeing quite a few sorcerers and witches as if they would be coming out of a Harry Potter book. The trip continues aboard a coach bringing competitors and spectators to Blatten, the bottom station of the cable car to Belalp.
The weather for the day was not ideal; a cloud cover turned the landscape grey on grey. The day started with the “normal” ski competition. Every 12 seconds one of the racers starts on the demanding course. As in every similar competition, only the time is taken into account for the ranking. This race ended close before midday and was immediately followed by a totally different race.
While the normal race was going on, a chair lift brought up the competitors for the Witches’ descent: sorcerers and witches in colorful costumes with brooms. This is certainly the wildest ski competition of the Alps.
It is the pilgrimage angle of the witches on their brooms skiing from the top of Belalp to the finish line that is key in this race. Time is no longer an important factor in the race. The majority of these witches need several hours to finish the race. Not even all of the witches reach the finish line on time. It is said that some just evaporate or fly away to the white, snow covered mountains of Belalp. The entertainment value of the Belalp Hexe is the winning factor of the day. The witches make quite a few stops along the slope to entertain the other participants and the public. A jury situated along the track evaluates the originality of the chosen topic of the witches, their costumes, their makeup, the theatrical quality of their performances as well as their skills on skis.
The Belalp Hexe is a highly entertaining event for everyone. It is perfectly well organized and I am hoping to cover it again next year, but with snowshoes to make it easier to move along the track and hopefully sunny weather in the afternoon.
See you there next year for the witches ski race on January, 17th 2015.