Creating the quintessential trail-running grand tour through the Alps.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
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?
World’s Best Running Trails
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.
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.
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.
Shoes on the Ground
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.
The first morning, all together, we tagged one of the tour’s bonus peaks, the Pigne de la Lé, a rocky scramble 600 meters above the hut. We started up early to see the sunrise light the tip of the Matterhorn far in the distance. Passing back through the Moiry Hut, we continued toward the town of Zinal. Traversing above the length of the turquoise Lake Moiry, we climbed up and over the col from one valley and into the next. We raced into the back of the Val d’Anniviers with views of the Zinalrothorn, Weisshorn and Dent Blanche, just a few of the surrounding 4000-meter summits poking jagged points above their glaciers. After descending to the valley floor, we followed the river right into Zinal, the tiny town that’s the finish of the famed Sierre-Zinal trail race.
‘You never remember sleeping in,’ said Dan, as he roused us all from our comfortable hut bunks. It wasn’t the first time we’d all heard his line, but we still grumbled back at the pep talk interrupting the darkness.
After Zinal, there’s not another town on the route until Randa, and that comes after 40 kilometers, a night at the remote Turtmann Hut and surviving the Queen Stage [section with the highest amount of vertical gain] of the Via Valais. The crux of the tour is the Schöllijoch, an exposed descent using ropes, cables and ladders to reach the remnant of a glacier below. The glacier is old ice, small, and has no crevasses. What makes this day adventurous is the descent from the pass to get onto the glacier. But before we descended the Schöllijoch, we planned to tag the 3610-meter Barrhorn for a summit sunrise, following the Alps’ highest official trail and only a short detour.
“You never remember sleeping in,” said Dan, as he roused us all from our comfortable hut bunks.
It wasn’t the first time we’d all heard his line, but we still grumbled back at the pep talk interrupting the darkness. Dan doesn’t have an off switch, or even a snooze button. In a single motion, he’s dressed, eaten, packed and waiting outside in the dark. After about an hour of stomping uphill in headlamps, though, we all agreed with the enthusiasm behind the early wake up.
Thinking it was just a straight drop to town, the gorgeous, high traverse was wearing on me. The descent had a surprising amount of up, and it had been a long, hot day.
“If we have to drop 2000 meters to Randa, why are we going up, again?” I asked, more than once, with no response from my bounding partners too far ahead to hear my complaint.
The next morning, a steep climb from the valley led to the Charles Kuonen suspension bridge, the world’s longest hanging bridge at 494 meters. From there, the trail rolled smoothly in contrast to the previous days’ big ups and downs. This stage was one of the biggest for gain, but after the initial climb to the Europaweg, the high trail connecting the towns of Grächen and Zermatt, the meters accumulated in a runnable grade. From the Europaweg to the Matterhorn panorama trail, the two-day cruise above Zermatt was some of the smoothest running of the Via Valais. Almost too soon, after hurtling down the final descent, we hit the main street of town.
From the Finish Back to the Start
After six days of sunshine and perfect trails, we finished the Via Valais. Well, almost. We quickly decided we could make it even better, and a few stages longer by changing the starting point to Verbier, a chalet-dotted hillside town well-known for its steep skiing.
That meant more running.
We took our tired legs immediately on the train down from Zermatt on to Verbier, starting over without a break. Huts were beginning to close, and soon the high trails would be covered in snow and essential bridges removed. Suddenly the pressure of a changing season chased us along the trails.
We ran a promising new first stage out of Verbier, but there was a gap we just couldn’t get right. The trails we tried to connect weren’t ideal for running. One traverse was too rooted to run with any rhythm, one dwindled and disappeared, and there wasn’t a logical overnight stop to separate the stages. After three more long days of running, we split up to cover more sections of unknown trails. We were stumped, tired and needed to do laundry. We decided we’d have to reimagine the route, and come back.
Beneath Switzerland’s highest peaks, beside glaciers and weaving in and out of wildly beautiful valleys, the tour passes through the very best views of the Swiss Alps.
Finally, after a 1600-meter climb out of Evolène, we stood on frost-covered ground on the shaded side of the Pas de Lovégno, a wind-blown grassy mound that was the gateway from the Val d’Hérens to where we wanted to go. Looking out from the pass, poised with one hand against her eyebrow like an explorer, Janine asked, “You know what’s on the other side over there?”
This time I did. The barren landscape, and the trail we ran on scouting day one unraveled below us. Our own route: the Via Valais.
“We found it,” Janine stated in triumph. “It goes.”
The final route: over 225 kilometers and 14,000 meters of gain on trails ideal for running. Connecting Verbier and Zermatt in nine stages, the terrain is technical and challenging on its high passes and summits, but with long stretching ribbons of perfectly buffed singletrack. Beneath Switzerland’s highest peaks, beside glaciers and weaving in and out of wildly beautiful valleys, the tour passes through the very best views of the Swiss Alps. It passes some of Europe’s biggest, highest and longest, and breaks at alpine huts for overnight bunks and fresh baked fruit pie. It’s a route to aspire to. It’s hard. And to make it harder, each stage has an optional bonus peak to run or scramble for the overly motivated.
Kim Strom is an outdoor and adventure writer, and co-author of Run the Alps Switzerland: 30 Must Run Trails. She is a partner at ALPSinsight.com helping to expand its trail and peak-running resource Elevation.