Running to Extremes

In Europe, trail runners are heading higher—and some are dying. Will it happen here in North America?

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Mont Blanc, with the Bionassay Ridge in the foreground. In the distance, rising from left to right, is the Arrête des Bosses, leading to the summit of Mont Blanc. Trail runners are tackling the route— sometimes with fatal consequences. Photo by Alex Hernandez

In Europe, trail runners are dying. Not just one or two, but six in the last two years—just on France’s Mont Blanc, alone.

They are dying as they push the boundaries of our sport, mixing in technical, rocky and icy terrain with more traditional trail-running pursuits.

Max Fabbro, a high-mountain guide, was the last to witness one of the Mont Blanc fatalities (whose name has been withheld), high on the glaciated peak on an icy ridgeline two summers ago.

“He was dressed like a trail runner: sneakers, poles, no crampons or ice axe. I asked him how it was going. He said, ‘Well enough,’” says Fabbro. Just below the final push to the summit, the parties were experiencing the full force of Mont Blanc’s higher reaches, at 15,777 feet—the highest point in western Europe. The winds were gusting, with fog reducing the visibility to near zero.

“He slid about 900 feet, then fell 75 feet into a crevasse.” Fabbro paused, contemplating the outcome. “Now he is dead and leaves behind a wife and two children.”

A few weeks later, it was Jack Geldard’s turn to witness a trail runner falling to his demise. A past Editor-in-Chief of UK Climbing magazine, the Chamonix-based Geldard was guiding not far from the Mont Blanc summit. Several trail runners had already passed him and his two clients that morning. Yet another came along.

“He tried to pass a group and started sliding,” says Geldard. Conditions at the time were icy. The runner had no traction devices on his trail-running shoes. “I remember he didn’t shout or scream,” continues Geldard, who watched as the runner, later identified as Matthieu Craff, age 29, of Saint-Renan, France, slid out of sight. He knew a jumble of icy blocks, or seracs, awaited Craff.

“I had read that people were trying to run up Mont Blanc,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this really is a thing.’”

While Chamonix is the world’s mecca for extreme sports, the phenomenon is happening throughout the Alps. In Grindelwald, Switzerland, mountain guide and President of the Eiger Ultra trail race, Ralph Näf, is seeing trail runners on routes that were once the exclusive domain of technical climbers, like the West Flank of the Eiger.

“Runners are crossing the boundary into climbing,” Näf says. The results are not always pleasant, says Näf, who is also a licensed Swiss Air Rescue specialist and head of education for the regional alpine rescue group. “We’ve had injuries, absolutely,” he says.

In the United States, a Growing Trend

Is Europe’s trend of recreational runners heading into alpine terrain coming here to North America? Will the resulting risks bring more injuries and fatalities to our sport?

“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Hillary Allen, 30, of Boulder, Colorado. Allen is in a position to know. A professional athlete, she’s raced many of Europe’s most technical trail races. She’s finished first and third in Europe’s competitive Skyrunning World Series. At home in Colorado, she’s linked up a number of demanding alpine trail-running routes, notably through the Elk Mountains range, including technically challenging Capitol Peak. The lure is clear.

“I love being out all day, scrambling on challenging terrain in the mountains. You don’t necessarily have to move fast, either. That kind of stuff really makes my heart sing.” Her prowess has earned her the nickname, “Hillygoat.”

“One moment I took a step,
and the next thing I knew I was in
the air,” she says. “You know how you have
that, ‘Oh crap! I’m gonna fall!’ moment?”
Allen says. “That never happened.”

Seattle-based trail runner Trisha Steidl also sees a growing niche. “There are a lot more people mixing in scrambles or climbing in their trail running,” she notes.

She and her husband, Uli, have tackled a number of the highest peaks in the Pacific Northwest, moving fast and light thanks to their trail-running backgrounds. Uli has the speed record on 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, a feat he ticked off in 4:24:30.

“Because of social media apps like Strava, it’s easier to communicate and see what other people are doing,” says Trisha. That flood of information is inspiring creative new projects. “It sparks a lot of ideas like, ‘Oh! I had never thought of linking this peak and that ridge together!’”

Five thousand miles away in the Swiss mountain village of Grindelwald, Näf is seeing the same effect.

“Trail runners looking for new challenges are being influenced by social media from pro athletes. They get the GPX track and go,” says Näf.

Hillary Allen after ticking off a thousand-meter climb to the high point of 2017’s Skyrace in Madeira, Portugal. Photo by Ian Corless

Download and Run

Both in Europe and the United States, that social-media factor is a driving force in the growth of trail runners exploring alpine terrain.

“Athletes are promoting a trend of combining running and climbing without ropes,” says Allen. “It’s awesome, because it encourages people to try it, but it can be dangerous.”

Says Uli Steidl, “Instagram and Strava have a lot to do with this growth. Someone posts a photo. Someone else says, ‘I want to do that.’ They download the GPS file and think, ‘If I follow the track I should be fine.’ But, it doesn’t always work that way. What’s safe to do with a thick snow cover in June might turn into a dangerous loose-rock scramble by August.”

Leading the way both on the ground and online is Kilian Jornet, arguably the world’s best trail runner. No one has done more to advance this new hybrid world of running and climbing than the 31-year-old Catalan trail runner, who has laid down highly technical Fastest Known Times (FKTs) around the world, from Mont Blanc to Mount Everest. YouTube videos of Jornet on the Matterhorn showing him alternating trail running with solo climbing have been viewed more than a million times.

“We like to think that
faster is safer,” says Näf. “But a lot of trail
runners lack mountain knowledge …
As a result, the safety margin is very small.”

Not everyone appreciates the light-and-fast approach to tackling big peaks. Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of St. Gervais, France, where the standard route for Mont Blanc begins, decries what he has called the “Kilian Effect.” In response to the recent fatalities, Peillex has issued a suite of regulations requiring summit-bound climbers to bring required safety items. Mountain police, stationed on the standard route, now routinely stop climbers to inspect their packs. In the villages surrounding Mont Blanc, many found Peillex’ choices heavy-handed. The reality, they say, is more nuanced.

“That kind of reaction isn’t fair,” says Allen. “I see things Kilian does, and I understand just how many skills he has. You can’t summit Mont Blanc on your first trail run. We need to educate people. Trail runners need to be proactive, and gain some skills to go into the mountains. You have to have the tools, the knowledge and the mental wherewithal to make good choices.”

For the moment, authorities in the U.S. seem to be agreeing with Allen’s approach. Truckee, California, resident Andy Anderson works and plays on both sides of the equation. He holds FKTs on Colorado’s Longs Peak and Wyoming’s Grand Teton, the latter record, at 2:53:02, 59 seconds faster than Jornet’s prior FKT on the same route. An avalanche forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest, he’s also been a National Park Service climbing ranger on Mount Rainier and in the Rocky Mountains.

“It’s tempting to try something you’ve seen on Instagram,” says Anderson. “But trail runners should consider starting with something that’s comfortable. Run to your local climbing gym, then climb a few routes. Then, try running to the local crag and scramble up the descent route. A year later, you can try that big route and get that great photo for Instagram!”

For her part, Allen says: “I engage with my intuition. I listen to it. I don’t have summit fever. I can turn around and think, ‘Hey, the mountains will be there another day.’ Some days it doesn’t feel right, and that’s OK.”

She shares those moments with her social-media followers, too.
“Instagram can be braggy. I’m not afraid to highlight the days when I felt like doing something big, but turned around. To be flexible is important.” People get in trouble, she says, because, “They think it’s normal to have a big day. It’s not.”

On July 11, 2013, Kilian Jornet running down Mont Blanc through the Grand Mulet, on his way to setting the record of 4 hours 57 minutes 34 seconds for the fastest ascent and descent of the mountain from Chamonix. Photo by Seb Montaz

Sometimes Shit Just Happens

Even with proper planning, accidents will happen. Allen knows something about those risks, too. Despite years spent in the mountains and a reputation for careful planning, she was victim to one of the worst trail-running accidents in recent history. In 2017, racing in Norway’s Tromso SkyRace, she fell 150 feet.

“One moment I took a step, and the next thing I knew I was in the air,” she says. “You know how you have that, ‘Oh crap! I’m gonna fall!’ moment?” Allen says. “That never happened.”

Allen broke a dozen bones. Her recovery took a year, and some mental trauma still lingers. “You need the skills to manage the risk, but you can’t mitigate all of it. No matter how good anyone gets at this, that five-percent risk is always going to be there,” she says. “Tromso was a freak accident. I was not out of my comfort zone. I train in that kind of terrain all the time. Sometimes shit just happens.”

Freedom of the Hills

As runners edge higher, the mountaineering world might have something to offer them: The philosophy of the freedom of the hills—namely, having the right to freely evaluate risks, make personal choices and accept the consequences. When you err badly, as Jack Geldard and Max Fabbro witnessed, or just have bad luck, as Hillary Allen understands, the consequences can be severe. But the right to make those choices, free from bureaucratic intrusions, is a cherished one among the climbing community.

The ethic places responsibility squarely on climbers, skiers and now, trail runners. With the freedom to judge risks and make equipment choices for oneself comes the responsibility to minimize casualties through education, sharing information and skills, and spreading wisdom picked up along the way. “Education works better than, say, having an agency close a route because they think it’s dangerous,” says Anderson. “No one wants to be told what to do. But educate them and give them options, and they’ll make safer choices.”

Ranger shirt off, Anderson practices what he preaches. “I cheated on my records on the Grand Teton and Long’s Peak,” he jokes. “I lived there, and could pick the perfect day.” He’s been less lucky on a more distant project. “I’ve made four trips to Italy to try running up the Matterhorn,” Anderson sheepishly confesses. “But the weather hasn’t cooperated.”

Back in the Alps, the coming summer will almost certainly include more injuries and fatalities in the trail-running community. Ralph Näf will be there, rescuing some of them.

“We like to think that faster is safer,” says Näf. “But a lot of trail runners lack mountain knowledge and have much less safety equipment, compared to climbers. As a result, the safety margin is very small. In the end, it is each person’s responsibility to determine how much risk he or she takes.”

—Doug Mayer works and plays in the mountains around Chamonix, France, wearing trail-running shoes down low, climbing boots up high. He manages the trail-running tour company, Run the Alps.

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