Tschingel Glacier (7000')
Matterhorn Hornli Hut (10700')
Monch Hut (12000')
Tschingel Glacier (7000')
Matterhorn Hornli Hut (10700')
Monch Hut (12000')
|Mountain Running in the Swiss Alps|
This report details a 2-week trip I took to Switzerland in August 2018. This was my first time traveling outside the United States as well as my first time venturing into truly world-class big-mountain terrain. After several summers of building fitness, confidence and capabilities on the standard Colorado mountain running loops (Pawnee-Buchanan, Four Pass, Tenmile Traverse, High Lonesome) and 14er/13er hiking, I decided it was time to challenge myself in the Alps.
I flew from Denver to Zurich via Atlanta and used the train system to get around while I was in Switzerland. In addition to the travel days, I spent 3 days in Davos, 5 days in Wengen and 2 days in Zermatt. I worked off and on over several months to learn & plan the logistical details and (most importantly) the running routes & peaks in each place.
The two most useful websites for learning about trails and running were Dan Patitucci's AlpsInsight page (https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/) and a Swiss trails guide on iRunFar (https://www.irunfar.com/2014/07/trail-running-in-switzerland.html). There are also a lot of trails detailed on the National Geographic trail website (https://map.geo.admin.ch/index.html?zoom=5.894477143558608&lang=en&topic=ech&bgLayer=ch.swisstopo.pixelkarte-farbe&catalogNodes=457,687,702&layers=ch.swisstopo.swisstlm3d-wanderwege&E=2638047.89&N=1158372.92&layers_opacity=0.8) and on TrailRunProject. None of the routes I ran are on TrailRunProject in their entirety- often only segments are described, though the remaining trails are usually visible on the map.
I used the main Swiss transportation website (https://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html) to determine train & bus routes, schedules and prices. The Seat61 guide (https://www.seat61.com/train-travel-in-switzerland.htm) was also helpful for general information about train travel. I also used https://www.myswissalps.com/ for general tourism information.
The first stop was Davos. I chose this place first because it's an annual stop on the cross-country skiing World Cup circuit (my primary sport is cross-country ski racing) and the mountains were a little easier than the marquee areas of the Swiss Alps. I ran a loop up from my hotel up & down Schiahorn, a mountain just north of Davos, on my first full day in the country.
The main Davos tourism website (https://www.davos.ch/en/) has good information on lodging, hiking, trails, activities and several different webcams in the surrounding mountains.
After flying and taking buses/trains for 2 days, I slept like a dead rock for 8.5 hours and got violently awoken by the alarm the next morning. The loop climbed from town to Strela Pass via the Schatzalp Hotel. Schiahorn is right above the pass, so after tagging the summit I returned to the pass and then descended gradually to the east.
The climb up to the treeline above Schatzalp was on a mountain bike trail- rough gravel and much wider than regular singletrack. Lots of switchbacks between steep straightaways. It was hot and the top of Schiahorn looked ungodly far away. As I broke the trees the trail went to grass & tundra. I passed a hut with a hose-fed cow water trough and dunked my head in. The hardest part of the day was a series of switchbacks 2/3 of the way up Schatzalp. Just steep and hot. I took another break at a hut and had an easier time up to the top of the climb at the saddle below Chupfenflue. I could see all the mountains above the Fluela, Dischma and Sertig valleys, and mountains west.
The traverse to Strela Pass was quick and easy. I took a break at the Strela Pass restaurant and headed up Schiahorn. The climb was easier and faster than I expected, despite looking quite burly from down below. Just more steep, steep switchbacks all the way up. The summit is tiny- sheer cliffs on the west & north, and a narrow ridge to the east. I spent 15 minutes up there taking pictures and looking around. Really great views east of Davos. Weissfluhgipfel was farther away than I thought, and I decided to head down.
I bombed to Strela Pass and took the Panorama trail around to the Weissfluh train tracks, then went down and west back to town. I passed several streams and put my hat in each one to cool off. Lots of cows grazing next to the trail- they wore big bells that clanked with every movement. Legs felt good all the way back to the hotel. Big clouds came in and started pouring rain at dark. It was very refreshing to stand on the balcony in the cold spray. I didn't know most European hotels don't have AC (neither do the trains, which was fairly unpleasant) so having the cool mountain air blow in at night was quite welcome.
My next stop was Wengen, in the Bernese Alps in the center of Switzerland. I took the trains from Davos back to Zurich, then down through Bern, Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen. The mountains around Wengen are the largest I've ever seen in person. The Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch summits are visible from north of Interlaken on the ride in and absolutely captivate the scenery in the Lauterbrunnen valley. From the hotel in Wengen I had views of the Jungfrau, Breithorn, Tschingelhorn, Gspaltenhorn and Schilthorn summits rising 9000' into the air.
The main Jungfrau Region tourism website (https://www.jungfrau.ch/en-gb/) has lodging, transportation, trail, restaurant and activity information. The webcams on this site are amazing and worth a look any time of year. This site also has information on the Jungfraujoch train that goes up through the Eiger to the observatory station on the glacier below the Jungfrau summit.
After the travel from Davos, I ran a short loop up & down Mannlichen, a summit directly above Wengen. I went directly up the trail behind the hotel- it 105 minutes of steep, steep power hiking on a ridiculously steep slope to the top. Avalanche fences dotted the slope the whole way up. I went up in Level 2 because I wanted to get done with enough time to come down and eat dinner. Legs felt great and the view just got more incredible as I went up. I could see the top of Schilthorn and the Jungfrau glaciers as clouds moved in. I got to the top and got to see the entirety of the Eiger. Never did see Monch- too many clouds.
I spent awhile on top of Mannlichen taking pictures and looking around. I descended slowly, making sure to stay relaxed. Running down demanded attention- one slip or trip and it's a long tumble down the slope.
The next day I ran a loop up & down Schilthorn from Stechelberg, at the southern end of the Lauterbrunnen valley. The climb from the valley floor is a burly 7000 vertical feet over 8 miles, with outrageous views of the glaciated peaks to the south & east. There is a restaurant that rotates 360 degrees on the top of the mountain. The summit was also the location of Ernst Blofeld's lair in the Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
I had a 40-minute commute via train and bus from Wengen to Stechelberg. The initial set of switchbacks up to the long valley were quite steep. The trail leveled out somewhat but continued climbing up a long valley toward Gspaltenhorn. The peak slowly grew larger, as did the summits of the Monch and Jungfrau behind me. They tower enormously far above everything.
The trail eventually cut up the valley wall and climbed sharply toward Rotstockhutte. This section was long, steep and not very scenic. I could only see glimpses of Gspaltenhorn and a huge wall to the north blocked the views there. Slowly I inched upward. Eventually I broke the trees and could see clouds on the top of Schilthorn. A huge headwall loomed behind the hut, perched on a bluff. Below was a large herd of clanging, mooing cattle. I pulled into the hut and took a long break to eat, drink and gaze at the scenery around me.
Next up, the enormous green headwall to the col below the Schilthorn summit ridge. I hiked out of the hut and followed tight, steep switchbacks up a steadily steepening slope. I stopped high on the hill to refill water from an icy, clear stream. Hopefully I was high enough to avoid any essence of cow. Shortly after the stream the tundra gave way to rock. Many more steep switchbacks led through the rock. The top of Schilthorn was fogged in but the view of the hut and Jungfrau were huge. The mountains just go so high into the sky. The rock changed to scree and I quickly arrived at the col.
I put on sleeves and gloves before continuing. There was a steady breeze and the sun was blocked out by the fog. The first part of the ridge was more switchbacks on easy rock and scree. The top looked close, and I was catching some hikers ahead of me. The ridge was all easy hiking & basic scrambling over some not-small exposure at times. One 200-fot tower had a short staircase in the middle that bypassed a vertical crack. 10 more minutes of power hiking and I was on top. I sat on a bench on the restaurant deck and took a break. The deck was swarming with people looking at the James Bond stuff and wielding selfie sticks. Nothing to see in the fog, so I headed down.
The first big drop was down a slab-scree ridge to a service road under the tram, then another hill down to a small lake. Now I could see the Eiger trio and the entire valley 1 mile below me. The next drop was down some bonkers-steep switchbacks. I had to focus completely on my feet and time out each turn to avoid plunging off the trail. I missed a turn and had to come back up 200 feet before traversing to the long ridge.
The ridge was awesome. Perfect singletrack and all the glaciers & peaks south of Jungfrau right in front of me. The scenery was awe-inspiring. I had another steep, twisty descent to a hut near Murren. There was a water spigot out front- I stuck my head under and quaffed water. It was hot the whole descent.
Another steep set of turns brought me to Gimmelwald, and from there it was another 1000 feet down yet more switchbacks to Stechelberg. My legs held up well on the descent. I stayed relaxed on the switchbacks and never went very fast on the steep stuff. Despite the terrain, I felt okay at the end. The summit altitude was lower than most trailheads in Colorado and the incredible surroundings certainly contribute some inspiration. The route I took is essentially the Schilthorn route described on AlpsInsight at https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/switzerland/lauterbrunnen-schilthorn/.
The next day I took the cog trains from Wengen up to the Jungfraujoch train station on the col between Jungfrau and Monch. This is the highest train station in Europe, at 11400 feet. The ticket was 150 Swiss francs (~$150), which is expensive, but I thought it was well worth the price for the scenery and being able to walk around on the glacier near the high summits.
The train from Kleine Scheidigg to Jungfraujoch took 30 minutes. The above-ground observation areas were incredible. I walked to the west area and saw some people descending from the Jungfrau summit through the binoculars. The observatory deck had great views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers and a view straight down to Kleine Scheidigg, 4000 feet below.
I did the 1-mile walk to the hut at the base of the Monch route. There were climbers headed up the summit ridge. The trail was a groomed path on the glacier. I took pictures along the way, took more at the hut and walked back. Incredible views in every direction.
I stopped in Kleine Scheidigg on the way down to get a bratwurst for lunch and ate it at a table facing the Eiger. What an outrageous spot for lunch.
The next long run was a variation on the Obersteinberg Loop detailed by AlpsInsight at https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/switzerland/lauterbrunnen-obersteinberg/. I went from Stechelberg to Obersteinberg, then up to the Tschingel Glacier before running over to Schmadri Hut and back down to Stechelberg.
The first 700 vertical feet were the same as Schilthorn. The path from the split to Hotel Tschingelhorn was steep and overgrown with roots. Not much to see in the trees except the sheen of sweat on my arms. It was 60 degrees but man was I hot. Eventually the trees thinned out and I could see the entirety of Jungfrau to the left. Good god what a huge mountain. Ahead of me loomed the trio of Grosshorn, Breithorn and Tschingelhorn.
It only took 90 minutes to reach Hotel Tschingelhorn, and only 10 more minutes to Hotel Obersteinberg. The trail flattened out after leaving the trees so running was easy. I crossed a bridge over a torrential river of freezing, silty glacial meltwater. There are so many waterfalls around here. The hump to Oberhornsee was steep, as usual, but now I was able to look at the enormous mountains around me instead of the next tree. I took a brief pause at the lake to gawk at Jungfrau, then continued up.
The Tschingelfirn moraine was tough. A short ridge was easy, and then I crossed a stream and went from cairn to cairn through the rock. Soon, below Tschingelhorn, I came to a 200-yard wide panoply of waterfalls. Hmmm. I slowly moved across until I was confronted with an impassable torrent. After 15 minutes, I found a path lower down that was doable. I did have to wade in shin-deep water for 5 steps. The final bit of ascent was up trail-less scree & shale talus. Reminded me of Frodo and Sam slogging up Mt. Doom.
I stopped at a rock just below the glacier. Huge views of all the mountains to the east, the snow and the east side of Gspaltenhorn. No tourists with trekking poles either. I navigated the waterfall crossing again and took a longer break to dry my socks, shoes and insoles. I also refilled water- nothing better than glacial runoff that melted 5 minutes earlier. The insoles kept bunching up in my shoes, so I took them out and ran with just orthotics.
The drop to the big waterfall valley was good- clouds kept the temp down and I was staring at Jungfrau the whole time. The climb to Schmadri Hut was steep but mercifully short, and at the top was the most scenic outhouse I've ever seen. I put it to good use while looking at Schilthorn and the Lauterbrunnen valley 5,000 feet below. Great views of Tschingelfirn too.
I bombed back down, keeping 1 eye on the black storm clouds moving over Schilthorn. As I came down to Schwarm I got stuck behind some hikers and a group of goats on the trail. Then, I missed the turn that would keep me on the high trail to Stechelberg. I walked around for 10 minutes looking, but there was no trail. All I saw was a goat paddock. What the hell. Thunder was booming over Schilthorn. My hand was forced- time to head down.
I eventually reached the valley trail to Stechelberg and followed it to the bus station. The rain started as I finished. The high trail would have taken awhile and I would have been caught in the weather up high. Oh well. The rain continued into the evening. I sat in the hotel room, editing photos with the balcony door open while the cool rain came down and the fading sunlight slid over Breithorn. What an incredible place.
My final run in the Bernese Alps was a point-to-point from Wengen up over the hill to the bottom of the Eiger then down to Grindelwald. I followed the majority of the AlpsInsight route detailed at https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/switzerland/lauterbrunnen-grindelwald/, but starting in Wengen instead of down in Lauterbrunnen. This route also follows several parts of the Eiger Ultra trail race (https://www.eigerultratrail.ch/en/) and the last few miles of the Jungfrau marathon (https://www.jungfrau-marathon.ch/en/). This was without question the most incredibly scenic run I've ever done, anywhere. The weather was perfect for the whole day and it was a euphoric experience to spend 8 hours traveling through such astounding terrain.
I started the run at the hotel. I ran past the hordes of people at the train station and up through Wengen. It was overcast and slightly humid. I was asked directions to Wengernalp by a British guy. The trail ascended steadily through the trees. I could see the whole Lauterbrunnen valley below, but above me was just forest. After 80 minutes I came into a large clearing where the route turned east. Jungfrau and Monch were 7500 feet overhead. Gspaltenhorn, Schilthorn and Murren were all visible across the valley to the west. The sky was still gray but the summits were clear.
The trail went downhill for a bit and dropped into the drainage coming directly off the west face of Eiger. The face rose up improbably high. The trail started climbing again, gradually at first. The first 1500 feet went up out of the trees across the tundra. Not too steep, with absurd views of the Eiger trio the whole way. The sun came out and all the high clouds dispersed.
The climb got steeper as the trail changed to glacial moraine. Now it went right at the bottom of Rotstock, with the Eigergletscher train station on the left. The Sphinx Observatory was visible too. The surroundings were brain-meltingly incredible. I reached the base of the Rotstock climb and took a short break. The slabs looked easier up close- I could see people making their way down.
There were 2 sets of slabs to negotiate. Despite the angle and lots of scree on the rock, everything was class 2 or easy 3. I followed the cairns and blue paint markers. There were fixed ropes (with visible anchors) in spots- I used them twice, each time to get up/down an 8-foot smooth class 4 shelf. The views behind me got more outrageous as I headed up. I reached the col where the via ferrata route came up the front and was on top 5 minutes later.
The views from the top were incredible. Enormous mountains in every direction and big exposure right off the summit. I took many pictures, ate a bit and headed down. I stopped at the top of the slabs to refill water from glacier melt, then ran & climbed down to the train station in 25 minutes. I stopped for a bathroom break at the station, ran down around the construction and joined the Eiger trail.
After 5300 feet of hiking and climbing I was looking forward to running downhill. The Eiger trail did not disappoint. I got 5 miles of not-too-steep, above-treeline singletrack in the shadow of the Nordwand. I passed many hikers and ran really well. I splashed in several stream crossings and stared up at the Eiger. The scale is impossible to capture in pictures. Eventually the trail went into the trees and started rolling up & down as it went east. I slowed down a bit as the trail wound underneath the Mittellegi ridge.
The trail kept going. I was getting tired and Grindelwald was still far below. Finally the train plunged downhill. After a long series of steep switchbacks, I finally hit the pavement in Grindelwald. I still had 15 minutes of running through town to the train. I ended just as the train to Lauterbrunnen was boarding. I hopped on and stared 10000 feet up at the Eiger summit on the journey back to Wengen.
The final stop of the trip was in Zermatt. I ran only one long outing here. Using the AlpsInsight 2-day Tour (https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/switzerland/zermatt-trail-running-tour/) as inspiration, I mapped a route that went from the village to the Hornli Hut on the side of the Matterhorn, back down to the west side above Trift, up & down Platthorn & Mettelhorn (https://elevation.alpsinsight.com/switzerland/mettelhorn/) and finally back down to town. Unfortunately, steady thunder & rain forced me to bail on Platthorn & Mettlehorn so the run was slightly less extreme than originally planned.
As with Davos & Wengen, the main Zermatt tourism website (https://www.zermatt.ch/en) has a lot of good information, webcams, maps, etc. I stayed at a hotel in the center of town, which allowed me to start & finish the run from the hotel.
I ran by some tourists on the main street and made my way through town, then through the easy forest trails and up past the cow pastures. The tram lifts were spinning above me but there wasn't much activity on the trail. It was clear, cool and breezy. It took about 45 minutes of run-hiking to get past the restaurant at Furi. After this the buildings thinned out and the trail started to climb steeply upward.
The first big climb was up a downhill ski trail from Furi to the moraine below Schwarzsee. It put some sting in the calves but my legs felt good. I stopped for a break about halfway up and got a good view of Weisshorn, Platthorn, Mettelhorn & Zermatt to the south, and the huge glaciers on the Italian border to the east. The upper half of the ski trail took me out of the tundra and onto the scree moonscape of the glacier moraine. The wind was blowing hard and it was cold enough to put on sleeves. The Matterhorn came into view below Schwarzsee. I could see the whole peak, but there were clouds to the south.
I powered up to Schwarzsee and jumped in front of all the hikers coming off the tram from Zermatt. My legs felt good and the wind was keeping the heat under control. The next 600 vertical feet went up through some brown rock to the actual Hornli ridge. The views to the east were enormous and the Matterhorn itself loomed directly ahead.
The final 1000 feet up to Hornli Hut were quite steep. The trail has many switchbacks but there were still 2 spots with metal staircases. I passed several hikers and soon reached the top. I went up just past the hut to the flat spot at the transition to technical climbing. I took some pictures here- the views in all directions were incredible. Zermatt was way below and I could see the tram over the glaciers to Italy. The next part of my loop, across the Zmuttgletscher valley, looked really far away. I went in the hut to warm up and use the bathroom. I ate out on the deck and stared up at the Matterhorn summit. The wind was steady and I was not warming up, so I took a few more pictures, put on my jacket and started down.
I was able to run down most of the ridge. I made the flat spot in 16 minutes, took off my jacket and then bombed down the side of the ridge to the service road 1600 feet below. This only took 22 minutes. My legs felt good and I didn't run too hard. 700 more feet of easier descent on trail & road brought me to the bottom of the moraine. I stopped to refill water, change socks and fuel up. Weather still looked okay.
As I headed up the road to the next set of trail switchbacks the clouds came in. As I started the real climbing the rain started and I put my jacket back on. I continued up as the rain grew stronger. It took about 1 hour to reach the high point of the climb. It rained the whole time, sometimes hard. I was fine in sleeves, gloves and jacket but it was cold. At the end of the day there was snow on the upper parts of the Matterhorn. The sun came through briefly and illuminated the huge valley and glaciers behind me.
As I reached the top of the trail the rain fell harder and the sky got darker. It hailed for a few minutes. It took an hour of easy running to traverse the hillside and descend down to Trift. It rained the whole way. I passed some sheep but no other people. Platthorn & Mettelhorn were getting soaked and clouds covered everything above Hornli Hut and Gornergrat. My legs did not feel great on the switchbacks down to the Trift hotel. I arrived and ate in the rain. It was too wet and cold to commit to the 3 hours it would take to summit Platthorn & Mettelhorn, so I decided to head down.
It took 1 hour of progressively slower running to reach Zermatt. The upper canyon was steep but runnable and I slowly shuffled down. The rain continued. The switchbacks in the lower canyon were difficult. The rock was slick and the muscles in my right leg didn't want to bend, so I had to hop down a lot of steps. I passed a hut as it was getting supplies dropped from a helicopter. Eventually I came out of the trees and onto the paved paths above town, then dropped down to the main street. A few more minutes of limp-running past the tourists and I was at the hotel.
Overall the trip was a huge success and a great introduction to international travel. I ran 37 hours, 117 miles and 37,000 vertical feet. Aside from the last 4 hours of the Zermatt run the weather was fantastic. I would like to eventually do another running trip to run the entire Tour de Zermatt, run a revised Eiger Point-to-Point (go up Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidigg), repeat Schilthorn and climb one of the easier 4000m/glaciated peaks.
My next summer trip to the Alps is very tentatively planned for 2022, to Chamonix. The main goal for that trip is to climb Mt. Blanc via the Gouter Route from Les Houches in a single day. I'll also run several of the smaller mountains and go over the border into Italy too. The mountains of Colorado are a great training ground for larger, taller objectives in different countries and it's been a fun process to expand my skills and get comfortable in world-class terrain.
Each Strava link contains all the GPS data from each run, even more photos and my full write-up of the outing.
Schiahorn Loop (Davos): https://www.strava.com/activities/1742517914
Mannlichen Loop (Wengen): https://www.strava.com/activities/1747615944
Schilthorn Loop (Stechelberg/Gimmelwald): https://www.strava.com/activities/1749882279
Monch Hut Glacier Walk (Aletsch Glacier/Jungfraujoch): https://www.strava.com/activities/1750774427
Obersteinberg Loop (Stechelberg): https://www.strava.com/activities/1754511209
Eiger Point-to-Point (Wengen -> Grindelwald): https://www.strava.com/activities/1756861795
Matterhorn Loop (Zermatt): https://www.strava.com/activities/1761386843
|Comments or Questions|
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