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The Swiss Alps: A Trail Runner's Paradise

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

They called it a runner's paradise, and it most definitely was!

Soon after meeting Tahoe's very fast ultramarathoner, Andy Clark, the two of us made plans to buy surprisingly cheap flights to Europe ($400 round-trip, USD) to go run through the Swiss Alps. After several months of being completely and involuntarily sedentary (in the hospital with my son), I had been deeply yearning to get out for some much needed adventure and to put my body back into the physical demands it was once used to. With a heightened sense of wanderlust and a quick online search, I found the Via Valais, a runners alternative to the famous Haute Route. The pictures and descriptions I found of Valais became so luring, that within an hour's time the deal was made. Andy and I booked our flights and in late August 2019 we were off to Switzerland- the dream-like land that offers the most incredible views and a phenomenal backcountry hut system to runners, hikers, skiers and climbers alike. We were so excited to take advantage of the incredible luxury of the hut system and it allowed us to bring nothing but small running packs along the entire time. Within no time we were off to San Francisco International Airport to begin our Swiss Alp adventure.

After more than a day of travel, flight transfers in Frankfurt and Paris, a train from Geneva to Sierre, then a late night gondola ride, we finally made it to our first hotel. An absolutely lovely, old cottage converted into a hotel that set the bar VERY high for the remaining nights to come. Hotellerie d' Orzival was quaint and perfect. I enjoyed a hot bath after a very long day of uncomfortable travel and slept like a log before waking up to one of the most incredible, fresh breakfasts we'd have along our journey through the Alps. Waking to the smell of fresh-baked bread each morning is one of the many things that I grew to absolutely love about Europe.

High on the soulful giddiness that permeates from the mere sight of the Alps, we wandered the narrow alleys of Vercorin to another gondola. This gondola took us further up the mountain to our start point where we hit the trail. Because we had very limited time and could only be on the trail for 6 total days, we chose to complete the shorter 6-stage option of the Via Valais which started at Cret du Midi, near Vercorin. This added several more kilometers to join the official trail, making it one big first day. 26km and 1'611m of elevation gain. That first day on the trail was ridiculous in the very best way imaginable. Andy and I were both so happy to be there, marveling at the sight of the mountains, flowers, sheep herding relics, etc, that we were skipping about like children.

Around lunch time we diverted from the route and summited what I thought was the first day's "bonus peak" (I was wrong, but the summit was cool nonetheless), then stopped to have an authentic Swiss lunch of rosti and espresso at a very cute hut, Cabane de Becs de Bosson, on a nearby pass. I couldn't believe it! After years of backcountry running and mountain climbing, I had never experienced anything like this... a backcountry hut system with gourmet food, coffee and wine... Are you kidding me?! I thought to myself, "The Euros have it all right...THIS is the life!" After lunch, coffee and apricot pie we were on our way again.

Along the final push of the day you receive phenomenal views of Lac de Moiry, an absolutely massive and equally spectacular glacial reservoir. With the lake in sight, we wandered through a high grassy plateau full of Swiss cows with Swiss cowbells jingling like it was a scene from the Sound of Music. I did my best to get up close and personal with one of the majestic creatures and one of the beautiful Swiss cows gave me a good ol' lick on my hand. I giggled like crazy, got a good boost of energy, and we were on our way to our destination for the night.

A short but steep climb from Lac de Moiry brought us to the historic hut where we would be staying the night. Cabin de Moiry is a beautiful, historic stone hut with a modern architectural addition pointing out above the Moiry glacier. Kicking off our running shoes and replacing them with the hut provided crocs we wandered into the dinning room, unknowingly to us, late for dinner. A stern look and speaking to from the hut keeper ensured this was a mistake we would not make again.

The next day Andy and I were excited to go for the day's bonus peak which would be a short out-and-back to a nearby pass from the hut. We ate our breakfast, left our backpacks at the hut and headed up towards the pass. We were passing a German group from the hut along the way when they asked us where we were going. We told them our plans and they expressed their intense dislike of our intention to go climb Pigne de la Le in our running shoes with no climbing gear in hand. Andy and I tried to shrug it off as we passed them and quickly continued on to the pass. There was a group of roped-up guides and clients on the saddle upon our arrival and Andy and I wandered off to the side to see where they were heading. Surprisingly, they were headed up the very same ridge we had planned on ascending. We watched in disbelief, somewhat shocked at the sight of all the seemingly excess gear and ropes heading up the ridge- then the hyper-critical German party arrived. Both Andy and I felt the peak was well within our ability in our running shoes alone, but felt uncomfortable with the idea of scrambling past the roped up guides and their clients with the critical Germans watching. Did we have a wild western view on mountain climbing? Were they being overly cautious? Would we be insulting the institution by scurrying past the group? I certainly did not want to have that conversation mid-mountain, so instead, we said "screw it" and retreated back to our packs at the hut and continued along the remaining 24km that day to Zinal. In hindsight, I really wish we would have climbed the mountain anyways!

We traversed the hillside above Lac de Moiry and I found myself constantly stopping in awe every couple hundred feet to tell Andy, "Its just SO BLUE!". I climbed up a massive cairn, the biggest I had ever seen, and had Andy take a picture. From the lake we made our final ascent of the day and found ourselves at the top of a ski area looking sharply down on the town of Zinal. It dawned on me just how much climbing and descending we would be doing in the next few days, and realized then that the alps are truly no joke! From there we made the steep descent down into Zinal where we resupplied snacks at the local grocery store, grabbed a beer and passed out in another cozy old hotel.

From Zinal we would be crossing over from the French speaking region of Switzerland into the Swiss- German region along a 19km section of trail to the Turtmann Hut. Since its Europe, and there is often cell service all throughout the trails of the Alps, I gave my 90 year old German grandmother a call to practice some of my German. She answered and had a good laugh hearing that I was trailside calling her to "sprich das deutsch" and was very happy to help. Leaving Zinal we climbed up what is known as the final descent of the Sierre-Zinal trail race with heavy legs, trying to convince ourselves the we felt as energetic as all the locals carrying yoga mats towards town looked. We wound our way up across the valley from yesterday passing more cows and idillic farm houses to Forcletta Pass where we devoured local cheese and the pregnant looking baguette Andy had been carrying like a samurai sword in his pack all morning. The days bonus peak was L 'Omen Roso (3031m) to the southwest of the pass which we scrambled up with some friendly Germans. Descending from Forcletta pass we entered the Turtmann Valley, followed the trail through the glacial moraine, then enjoyed the final leg burning ascent to the Turtmann hut just in time for a beer at sunset with a spectacular view of the glacier.

We had a very lovely hut host at Turtmann Hut named Thomas who was a very clean, very punctual, young Swissgerman who was running the hut while the official hutkeeper guided some guests over the glacier. Dinner was promptly served at 6 with giant bowls of bread, soup, salad, rice, and vegetables. Andy and I made plans to get up early the next morning and grab the bonus peak, the Barrhorn.

We moved quickly that morning, these would be the highest peaks of the trip and it was definitely a lot colder at the higher altitude. We summited the Barrhorn and had extra time that allowed us to go on and summit the Schollihorn, as well, where we passed Thomas running down from the summit before his next guests arrived. I loved these energetic Swiss germans! We enjoyed the killer views of the Valais (now pronounced Wallis) and then backtracked to the top of the Schöllijoch, the route's via ferrata, and dropped in on a wild set of both good/new and bad/ancient ladders, (sometimes the good roped onto bad), as well as steel cables, carved steps, and rusted rebar rungs that led you down onto a small glacier.

The heat of the day was melting the remaining ice of the glacier sending down bowling ball size boulders across the snowfield. I, very intensely, warned Andy and we quickly crossed the kamikaze death path and made our way safely down the beautiful ancient glacier in our running shoes. We enjoyed the unique experience of filling our bottles from the small streams which braided down the surface of the ice. Water never tasted so good!

The route we had been following had a closed section due to ice falls from the Bisgletscher, so instead of making our way across and down to the town of Randa where we had booked a room for the night, we had to take a detour and make the quad shattering decent further down the valley to St. Niklaus, stopping at the beautiful modern Topli Hut for mandatory espresso shots. At the hut we were happy to use the wifi to check our friends standings in the CCC/UTMB running races that were currently happening a few valleys over.

Arriving in St Niklaus we followed the train tracks through town until we found the train station and promptly spent every coin we had to buy salty chips from the vending machine while we waited for the train to Randa. The check-in for our room in Randa was in a fancy hotel adjacent to where we were actually staying which made for some interesting looks from some of the well dressed guests. While they stared at the sight of muddy (cow poo?) legs and tiny backpacks, we tried to explain to the bewildered receptionist that no, we did not need parking, and no, we did not need train tickets, we would be leaving on foot.

Taking full advantage of the breakfast buffet we filled up on swiss muesli, coffee and more delicious bread while dressed in our dirty running attire and fresh-handbasin-washed running clothes. The looks continued from the morning's tour groups staying on the nicer side of the hotel. The tour groups would be taking the short train ride up the valley to Zermatt while we made the climb up to the Charles Kuonen suspension bridge then traversed the mountain side up the valley.

The Charles Kuonen suspension bridge is the longest in the world 494m/1621ft, and at 85m/279ft above the ground is thankfully in much better shape than the previous day's via ferrata. After taking a few photos and unintentionally bouncing a few nervous tourists crossing the bridge we continued on our way up the valley with the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains drawing us closer. This day, like every day since we had been in Switzerland, had threatening thunderstorms. So far we had gotten very lucky and hadn't seen a single drop of rain, but the way the clouds were building around these big mountains gave the Mattertal Valley an ominous feeling. Layering up against the colder temperatures, we crossed paths with a family we had shared a dorm with at the Turtmann Hut and shared stories of the brutal descents we each had taken to avoid the ice fall yesterday and how grateful we were to have a day with more ascent than decent. After crossing under and across a maze of chairlifts and ski runs we arrived at our accommodations for the night, and yet again, the day's threatening weather faded into a blissful and spectacular sunset.

While I had briefly looked at Mountain Lodge Ze Seewjinu online while making reservations, I was completely unprepared for the pure majesty of this place in real life. Perched on a plateau high above Zermatt with an amazing view of the Matterhorn, the lodge is run by a husband and wife team who warmly welcomed us and showed us around.

After pushing open the heavy wooden entrance door the first thing we saw were huge black and white photos of mountain scenes and wild backcountry skiing from all over the world that surrounded the dinning room. I fell immediately in love. We were shown to our room which had a very tall window perfectly framing the Matterhorn. This was our last night in Switzerland and we honestly couldn't have asked for a more special place to be!

Talking with our hosts later at dinner we learned that the pictures on the walls had all been taken by them personally and that they had only been running this lodge a few years. Prior to this lodge, Kurt, the current host, had run one "higher up". After some intentional probing we soon learned this meant the Hornli Hut, which is at the base of the Matterhorn, and is THE historic hut for climbers of the Matterhorn. I'm not sure if it was knowing that this was our last night or just the excitement of being at the Matterhorn, but I wasn't able to sleep much despite the amazing and comfortable setting. As is often the case, there was a silver lining to this. I was able to look out the window and watch a perfectly cloud free Matterhorn bask in the light of the almost full moon and then greet the new day at sunrise.

Because of the Zee Seewjinu's location above Zermatt we had multiple options of how to get down into town. We had booked the the last train of the evening down and out of the valley, so we opted for a longer loop which would allow us some more time on the trail. The trail would take us closer to the base of the Matterhorn and around to the opposite side of the valley before descending into town. Almost immediately after leaving the lodge we realized things were now quite different from the quiet peacefulness of our previous days along the Via Valais. The trail now crossed under gondolas and over train tracks with trains packed full of people heading up to some of the local, iconic view points. We made the most of it, finding and picking wild raspberries trailside, and were blown away by the history markers and photos of glaciers that lined the trails. We headed for the tiny village of Zmutt for some amazing baked goods and checked out some old farming buildings (older than Columbus's arrival to the US) and a lynx trap from a similar era.

Finally, it was time head down to Zermatt. High on my list of things I wanted to do while in Zermatt was to visit the climbing museum and the climbers graveyard. We found the museum and the first thing that caught my eye was a climbing book in the reception area written by our previous nights host, Kurt! He was even filmed dangling from a rescue helicopter on an episode of Air Zermatt on a viewing they were showing downstairs in the museum. We had met a local celebrity and hadn't even known it! The museum is part Matterhorn climbing history and part history of Zermatt. I definitely recommend checking out, but wish they would have had more information about the historic females who made some of the first ascents in dresses and heels hundreds of years ago! From there we strolled around with the masses looking for gifts and grabbing a celebratory drink with one last look at the Matterhorn.

Eventually we jumped on the train out of town, and in absolute perfect synchronicity, the rain to begin to pour down for the very first time as we began our long journey back stateside.

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