We spent six years running trails in the Italian Dolomites, ran 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 place to run for several reasons. Thanks to a gift from the geologic Gods, the trails tend to be smooth, ground gneiss without roots or many random rocks to trip over. They’re the silky smooth Swiss tarmac of trail running. 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?”
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.com, smiled wide and without hesitation announced, “We can call it the Via Valais”. And so we did.
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, for the 2019 summer season, we’re thrilled to release what we feel may well be the world’s best trail run. And, we have a big goal… to establish the Via Valais as an iconic tour that tops every trail runner’s life list.
For all the information, and the route, visit Elevation’s Via Valais page.