Even though Switzerland has some of the worlds’ most sophisticated ski resorts, where you can rub shoulders with Swiss bankers and socialites, and soaring mountains like the Jungfraujoch, a crazy race where skiers dressed as witches is a fun event to let your hair down.
Hundreds of crazy witches brandishing broomsticks as they race down powder-white slopes is the last thing you would expect to see while on a Swiss skiing holiday.
Each January, the alpine resort of Blatten-Belalp hosts the wackiest skiing event on the slopes of Switzerland.
All hell breaks loose in the usually peaceful resort of Blatten-Belalp where, in the olden days, witches were once burned at the stake.
The event is the biggest winter sporting event in the canton of Valais and attracts a cult following.
You’ll find serious competitors in sleek racing suits alongside flamboyantly dressed witches complete with large hook-noses, tall black hats, garish makeup and wild hairdos.
The festival starts with an opening ceremony, followed by the witches’ night where would-be witches and ghouls dance till dawn as the serious competitors psyche themselves up for peak performance.
On the big day, about 700 determined athletes start racing early in the morning.
However, the grand event of the festival is the Witches Downhill and Boarder Cross when the incongruous spectacle of 1300 skiers, snow-boarders and wild witches fly down powder-perfect slopes.
Although the aim of the event is for competitors to whiz down the 12-kilometer long slope and be the first past the finish line, not everyone takes it seriously.
Most of the witches are simply there to join in the festivities and have the time of their life.
The locals have a saying “d’Häx isch los” which means “the witch is out”. While witch hunting has not been practiced for centuries, the idea for the event’s theme was inspired by an ancient Swiss legend.
According to the legend, a witch who was married to a pious man fell in love with a sorcerer. Whenever the lovers wanted to meet, they turned themselves into black ravens.
One day the witch was at the top of the Aletsch glacier boiling soup in a cauldron, she discovered that she had run out of garlic and raced down the glacier to her herb garden for some fresh garlic.
On her way, she spotted her pious husband perched high up on a branch of a cherry tree picking fruit. The witch turned herself into a black raven and flew up to greet him.
At that very moment, the pious husband had decided to say his afternoon prayers and as he turned his face towards the sky, the raven inadvertently deposited bird droppings into his eye.
Blinded, he fell off the tree and died instantly. The village authorities accused the witch of using her cauldron to cast an evil spell on her husband and she was burned at the stake.
Centuries later, the Belalp ski club formed the Belalp Hexe in honour of this poor misunderstood witch. The finishing line or the race is believed to be at the very spot where the pious husband dropped dead in the cherry tree.
On 17 June 1782, Anna Goeldi was the last person in Switzerland to be legally executed for witchcraft.
Switzerland, as well as many other countries in Europe, was swept along by the 14th to 18th century mass hysteria, for persecuting witches.
In those days, the common people were led to believe that witches were pagans who had sold their soul to Satan, ate small babies, flew through the air, cast spells and created chaos.
Anyone accused of witchcraft would be tortured until they confessed to the crime. Having confessed, as well as named other potentially innocent witches, the accused was then burnt at the stake.
A new torture method was introduced in Zurich in 1660, where two boards with wooden nails were tied to the accused witch’s feet and knees and used to stretch the witch for six hours at a time.
Witchcraft trials were a profitable business for all the officials involved as the convicted person’s possessions were usually confiscated and redistributed to the area’s rulers.
According to historians between 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft throughout Europe.
Even though the theme of this event is based on an old legend, this is no quirky village celebration.
Along with the Inferno Race in Mürren, the With Shot in Flims-Laax and the Allalin-Race in Saas-Fee, the Belalp Hexe is one of the four biggest downhill races in Switzerland and is extremely popular.
And the prize for best-dressed witch has become almost as coveted as the trophy handed out to the fastest racer.
Blatten-Belalp is a deep-snow area in the Upper Valais region. From the highest point near the peak of Mount Hohstock, wide-open slopes tumble down a steep valley at altitudes ranging from 1300 to 3100 meters above sea level.
At the top, there is a 150-meter ski tunnel just below the Hohstock peak that opens up onto perfect terrain for deep snow-skiing enthusiasts.
It is not difficult to fall under the spell of this UNESCO World Heritage region, with its panoramic views of breathtaking snow-capped mountains.
At 2094 meters high, Belalp is a car-free skier’s paradise with 60 kilometres of powdery white runs.
The village of Blatten is positioned in an idyllic setting and is a perfect base for hiking and bicycle tours.
The nearby Massa Gorge provides a spectacular canyoning experience. Thrill seekers don Neoprene suits, helmets and climbing belts to scale the 11,000-year-old rock formations left behind by the Aletsch Glacier during the last Ice Age. The eight-meter jump into a water basin and the 30-meter descent by rope into the Cathedral is not for the faint hearted.
Naters is a historic alpine town with a cultural trail that winds through its narrow cobblestone streets.
Stretching from the Rhone glacier to Lake Geneva, with over 50 four-thousand-meter peaks that soar to the sky, the Valais region has no shortage of ski resorts.
Some powder runs are as high up as 4,000 meters above sea level. From husky accompanied snow-shoeing in the Obergoms to learning to snowboard, this region has a wide range of winter sports to suit all tastes.
So dust off your skis, cauldron and broomstick and join the throngs of witches at the Belalp Hexe.
From Geneva, catch a train to Brig. See SBB for timetables. Blatten can be reached from Brig-Naters via a mountain road. Access to Belalp is by cable-car from Blatten. See Tourism Blatten Belalp. The Belalp Hexe is in January each year.