-By Dan Patitucci and the team at ALPSinsight’s Elevation : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource
“That was the best trail I’ve ever run!” We each made that claim more than a few times during the five months in 2017 we spent running for our trail running guidebook, Run the Alps Switzerland. Most often, we’d just stepped off another trail run in the Valais region.
We spent six years in the Italian Dolomites, run around Patagonia, splashed through Iceland, across Himalayan 5000 meter passes, and all over the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. And in the last 20 years, we have explored nearly every corner of our home mountains, the Swiss Alps.
Switzerland’s Valais region has become our favorite places to run for several reasons. Thanks to a gift from the geologic Gods, the trails tend to be smooth, ground gneiss without roots to trip over. Since you aren’t staring at your feet, you have time to look around at one of the Alps’ most dramatic landscapes, which is most likely wild flower covered green hillsides leading up to glaciers flowing around perfectly formed peaks. Plus, there is the hut system which allows traveling through it all without the need to carry much gear. A perfect package to accommodate all different sorts of mountain fun.
Nearly half of the 30 runs we present in our book happen to be in the Valais. When we started to consider what new runs we could squeeze in the following summer, we noticed that on a map there was a dashed line of runs we’d already done crossing a similar line as the summer Haute Route hiking trail.
“What if we connect a bunch of our Valais runs and make one big tour?”, I suggested.
Janine, the map wizard and creator of all our running tours perked up, “I know exactly where to go so we can add more great trails!”
Kim, our partner at ALPSinsight, smiled wide and without hesitation announced, “We can call it the Via Valais”.
And so we did.
Introducing the Swiss Alps’ Trail Running Grand Tour – The Via Valais Verbier to Zermatt
Our goal was to connect two of the most famous Swiss mountain towns, Verbier and Zermatt. This we did both for the name, and because we knew that the trails between the two were prime terrain with perfectly situated huts and villages for overnight stays. Plus, it seemed like the only way to top eight days of exquisite trail running was to run along the base of the Matterhorn on the final day, before dropping off trails and into Zermatt.
All the necessary ingredients were in place, we just had to find the best link-ups. Our strategy was to parallel the Haute Route trail and occasionally join it. But, instead of using the Haute Route’s daily program of steep ups & steep downs, we’d stick to an independent line of singletrack contouring in and out of the deep valleys.
To spice things up for the exceptionally fit runners, Janine included a “Bonus Peak” for each stage. These are short detours from the main Via Valais trail to access summits. Some Bonus Peaks are quite alpine, like the Pigne de la Lé, but never require more than easy scrambling.
For what we call the Via Valais Queen Stage, we include the 3610-meter Barrhorn, the Alps’ highest summit with an official trail to the top. Because of our decision to include this peak, the trail crosses a steep alpine pass, the Schöllijoch, and descends to a small glacier (crevasse free as of 2018), before dropping 2000 meters to the next valley. This passage, probably the single most beautiful and difficult day, was another key to making the Via Valais a unique line from the Haute Route.
It took us four goes to find the right start, then one big push all the way to Zermatt before we had it. The Swiss Alps’ first trail running grand tour! A nine stage, 225 kilometer, and 14,000 meter vertical route that, thanks to the hut system, can be done with only 15 liter running packs.
Now, we are thrilled to release the discovery of what we feel is the best trail run, anywhere. And, we have a big goal… to establish the Via Valais as an iconic tour that tops every trail runner’s life list. Let’s do this!
To maximize the experience, arrive prepared for nine days of running through the mountains. This means considering all the logistics, choosing the right gear to be as light as possible, and especially being fit for the journey. While no single day is very hard, nine days of averaging 25km with 1500 meters of gain is going to take its toll.
Runners should arrive to Verbier mountain strong, which means being tough more than it means being fast. One consistent thing I see is American runners arriving to the Alps strong and fit, only to struggle with the Alps’ relentless vertical.
Since the Via Valais starts and finishes high, it does not have any single climb of more than 900 meters. Instead it rolls along on medium size climbs of about 500 meters, which, for me, is more tiring than one big effort. There is, however, that descent of 2000 meters on day 7, which inflicts some serious damage to tired legs and a taxed cardio system.
Since the Via Valais follows “runnable” trails for much of its distance, your fitness level should strike a balance between being able to actually run long sections with hiking the steeper climbs. For some people, the running will be the tough part thanks to the weight you’ll be carrying. For the solid runners, walking the climbs may be more punishing.
Regarding pack weight and what gear to use, we address these topics on our Via Valais Pack & Prepare page.
The Via Valais is hard. But, it is also very attainable with the proper preparation for the required demands. Part of the fun is the planning; logistics, gear, strategy, and especially training. The team at Uphill Athlete understands the requirements and can best help prepare runners for what we sincerely believe is going to be a great trail running experience.
UA training tips
If this challenge appeals to you, and what mountain lover wouldn’t want to run though such incredible scenery, let’s talk about the best way to make it even more enjoyable.
At Uphill Athlete we’ve proven thousands of times over with climbers, ski mountaineers and mountain runners from rank beginners to some of the world’s best that well designed training based on proven training principles works wonders.
The Via Valais will tax most mountain runners, but it is not out of reach, provided you are willing to apply yourself to focused preparation. To help guide your training we’ve created a 16-week Via Valais Training Plan designed to address the specific demands of this spectacular tour. It is engineered to prepare you for the massive elevation gain and loss each day. The 16-week Via Valais Training Plan works best for those with ready access to mountainous training grounds but can also be completed by runners living in the flat lands who are willing to put in their time on a steep treadmill using specific workouts we’ve used for years to help mountain athletes become more durable and fatigue resistant on mountain terrain. You can read more and purchase that plan here.
All Photos by Dan Patitucci