International

Via Valais

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<strong><h3>I always flip to the last page of a book first. I read the last sentence to see how everything in the story leads to the final punctuation. Creating the Via Valais—a trail-running super route in the Alps—was a lot like that. Spoiler: we knew the final stage. We knew that everything ended well. Actually, it ended better than well. It ended in a victory lap above Zermatt on perfect singletrack before plummeting into the center of town at the base of the Matterhorn.

What we didn’t know on our grand tour was a few key connecting trails. And the biggest question: where would it start?

<strong><h2>World’s Best Running Trails</strong></h2>
Well into another summer of running in the Swiss Alps, a few of us decided it was time for runners to have a grand tour similar to the skiers’ Haute Route, a famous multi-day trip from Chamonix to Zermatt. Sure, you can run the Summer Haute Route or the Tour du Mont Blanc, a loop through three countries around a massive mountain. Both are big, beautiful adventures. But as runners, we’re mostly just borrowing tours that involve more walking than running, and these trails are so popular for hiking that you do a good amount of dodging and weaving through the crowded highways.

The whole thing might have started from Dan’s grumbling about trails worn to deep gullies of overuse when there’s no shortage of ideal trail off those beaten tracks. Or from teasing my disorientation on runs. “Hey, guidebook writer, you know what’s on the other side over there?”

I didn’t. I could take a guess, but even though we’ve run there before, the valleys on either side of a range can be so entirely different that it’s hard to imagine only a thousand-meter up-and-over separates them.

“What if there’s a way to connect the trails? That’s how I’d learn how they relate.”
As I wondered, Janine admitted she had already mapped a rough version of a route that linked several of our favorite runs. And later that night, we leaned-in over a paper map examining the faint line she wiggled in red pencil through the Valais.

Our trail “committee” included Janine and Dan Patitucci, a husband-and-wife team that has forged a unique existence as mountain-sport photographers over the past 20 years. They have run all over the world, and now live in Interlaken in the heart of Switzerland. Running together the previous summer, we created the “30 Must-Do” routes for the first trail-running guidebook to the Swiss Alps.

Combined with our experiences, consulting with other Alps trail aficionados, and scouring maps and aerial photos, we were convinced that Switzerland’s Valais region might just have the world’s best running trails—flowing singletrack between big views and big ups and downs. The landscape induces flinging your arms wide and dropping your jaw in disbelief. The only drawback is the way it stops you in your tracks every time you turn a corner with a new panorama. Its grandeur made it the logical place to concoct our dream, multi-day route. After much discussion among ourselves, our topo expert, Janine, fine-tuned the multi-day route that a group of us would test in the fall. We dubbed it simply the Via Valais.

<strong><h2>Shoes on the Ground</strong></h2>

In early September 2018, intending to run for six days through the Alps, Dan, Janine and I started running from the Crêt du Midi gondola in Vercorin, a little-known village perched above the Rhone River, where we thought our route would start. The plan was to run the 26-kilometer first stage to spend the night at the Moiry Hut (most trail systems in the Alps feature huts for mountain adventurers to utilize, allowing hut-to-hut travel). At the hut, we met two other trail runners from the area, our good friends Kirra Balmanno and Bruno Schaub who would join us for the remainder of the run.

We let it slide that they shortcut day one. After all, they did just finish a 100-kilometer race less than 24 hours before.

Kirra is an Aussie living in a high village in the Valais with no road access. The lift to reach town has been closed for upgrades so she’s been walking up and down to reach her vehicle parked in the valley. When we met her last summer for runs, she showed up in a right-hand-drive van with a big, yellow siren attached to the top, ruffle-edged pillows on the neatly made bed inside and empty gallon tubs of peanut butter stashed in the single cabinet. She’s in Switzerland for one main reason: “to run big bergs,” and the Alps are some big, beautiful bergs.