"We're not usually this crazy!" a Swiss guy yells at me, grinning and tipping a beer down his throat while hugging a friend of his who's dressed as a T-Rex. He's not kidding, either – they're really not.
The Swiss are usually quite reserved. They don't approach strangers. They're not known for drunken revelry. They're not the types for excessive displays of emotion. Today, however, is special. Today things are different.
Today, it's the Lauberhorn downhill ski race. This is the pinnacle of the Swiss sporting calendar. It's their Melbourne Cup; their Super Bowl. This is the race that doesn't just stop a nation but seems to supercharge it, seems to bring it out of its shell and onto the snowy mountain slopes for a boozy good time.
The venue is Wengen, one of those postcard-perfect alpine villages in the Bernese Oberland. That's where the finish line is. The prime viewing spot for the race, however, is much higher up on the mountain, at a spot where you can see the skiers careen through a narrow gap in some rocks called the Hundschopf, before they screech into a fast turn and zip away out of sight.
That's where tens of thousands of people are gathered to watch today, where there's a carnival atmosphere, where the Swiss are coming out of their collective shells. Flags are being waved; cow bells rung. Cans of beer are being kept cold in the snow. Spectators are cooking up raclette, the Swiss dish of melted cheese on vegetables, with their own mini grills. There's a guy walking around spraying Jaegermeister into people's mouths from an improvised pesticide kit. It's a little crazy, and a lot of fun.
The traditions of the Lauberhorn, however, aren't just about the modern revelry. This is a race that dates back almost 90 years, a cherished tradition for a country that takes its alpine sports very seriously. There's a Swiss racer scheduled to compete today, one of the favourites in fact, which helps explain those flags, those bells, this enthusiasm. There's the feeling that something great could happen today.
Until such time as it does, however, everyone's keen to party. There are several "guggenmusik" bands here – groups of musicians from towns across the country who get together at big events like these and dress in outlandish costumes, paint their faces, drink a heroic amount of booze and attempt to string a few songs together.
They don't do anything traditionally Swiss: it's oom-pah versions of contemporary hits, things like Ed Sheeran played by a big-band of buffoons. The crowds love it, dancing around on the snow, as much to get warm as to appreciate the music.
There's more entertainment to be had, too, simply by looking around at the alpine scenery. The rocky peak of the Eiger looms in the far distance. The heights of the Jungfrau lurk majestically nearby. The sky is clear today, and that gorgeous blue is soon streaked with white as the Swiss Air Force's stunt team, the Patrouille Suisse, do their traditional fly-by.
And then it's race time. The crowd goes nuts any time there's a Swiss skier, waving their flags and cheering for the few seconds the athlete is in view, whipping by in a blur, teetering so close to falling as their skies scrape the ice. Beat Feuz, the favourite, posts a great early time. He's in the lead – and, it turns out, he'll stay there all day.
A Swiss skier winning the Lauberhorn is as good a reason as any to continue the party, and later everyone here will make the hour-long walk down this snowy mountain to Wengen for the festivities. That journey will be a treacherous one for lubricated souls. There will be far more carnage there, in fact, than we've seen all day from the skiers. Locals will laugh and joke and cheer. A Swiss guy with a red beard not unlike my own will throw an arm around me and declare, "You're my brother! From the same mother!"
Until then, however, it's back to the racing, back to the raclette, back to the Jaeger. The Swiss aren't usually this crazy. You have to make the most of it.
Swiss Air flies daily from the east coast of Australia to Zurich, in code share agreement with Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. See swiss.com. From Zurich, trains are available to Wengen. See www.myswitzerland.com/rail
In nearby Grindelwald, the Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof has beautiful rooms with views of the alps, starting from $799 a night. See hotel-schweizerhof.com
The Lauberhorn downhill ski race is held every January around the town of Wengen. For tickets and information, see lauberhorn.ch/en, or the website above.
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.