You’re supposed to do these routes in typical Euro-climbing style: walk to hut, sleep in hut packed with other climbers, wake up too early after not really sleeping, fumble around in the dark, leave hut with other groups, climb mountain, descend mountain, drink beer.
That’s one style of adventure with its own rhythm. But there’s also the “wear boots, carry extra stuff, move slowly” part of the tradition that can be avoided or streamlined.
Running up peaks into increasingly technical landscapes isn’t a new concept, but moving faster and lighter in alpine terrain is becoming more attainable for a broader range of trail runners. For many trail runners, as fitness improves and skills develop, we’re seeking ways to not just go farther, but to go higher, beyond where the trail ends.
Do we call it trail running, mountain running, skyrunning, light alpinism?
The 2018 Skyrunning World Champion Hillary Gerardi started scrambling, climbing and mountaineering long before running. “After starting to run, I always gravitated toward races and objectives that allow me to combine those skill sets.” She’s won several of Skyrunning’s most technical races—Tromsø (Norway), KIMA (Italy), Glencoe (Scotland), Monte Rosa Skymarathon (Italy)—but beyond racing she’s always looking for new ways to challenge herself as a climber and a runner.
“It’s exciting to realize that some of the goals I initially thought of as multi-day mountain projects are attainable in a day, thanks to my acquired experience and a good pair of mountain-running shoes.”
Along with Gerardi, the photographer Dan Patitucci and I teamed up for many peak-running objectives in the Alps. Here, we present five of our top travel-worthy “runs” in the Swiss Alps. The five runs—each progressively tougher—require the endurance and savvy to handle lots of vertical gain (more than 2,000 meters each) in alpine settings.
The Mettelhorn and Barrhorn runs stay almost entirely on trails, training ground to develop mountain legs. The next three peaks, the Sustenhorn, Balmhorn and Weissmies, build on the ability to run big days, and then continue after the trail runs out. Some outings break the beautiful simplicity of running, perhaps requiring that you pack an ice axe and possess basic climbing skills.
PEAK #1: METTELHORN
Close to the Matterhorn
but No Hands Required
“You look happy,” said the stranger.
She lobbed the comment and kept walking without waiting for a reply, disappearing between the campground rows, overpacked on all sides with summer-vacationers, van-lifers, giant rental RVs and a few tents.
She was right. Sitting on the ground at the edge of the crowds and finishing dinner cooked on a backpacking stove, Dan and I were quite happy to be prepping to run up the Mettelhorn, a steep and direct climb to a sharp summit—one we’d done many times and couldn’t wait to come back to.
Just before 6 a.m. the next morning, we boarded a train in Täsch to car-free Zermatt, then continued the ride for another 12 minutes deeper into the Matter Valley. Starting early, just as the sun rose from behind the peaks, we had the trails to ourselves. The trail immediately climbs 1,000 meters in under four kilometers, meaning more steep walking than running.
The reward for that vertical push was a break before the next 1000-meter climb and a direct view across the valley to the jutting Matterhorn that inspired the Toblerone logo. The next section featured smooth singletrack and the trailside Trift Hotel, a flamingo-pink mountain hut with green shutters that serves homemade iced tea. After passing a flock of Valais black-nose sheep, the pastures faded into the treeless alpine. Just before our final steep push to the rocky summit, we crossed a small, low-angled glacier, and witnessed an inspired hiker cannonball, naked, into a semi-frozen glacial pool.
From the top, we were surrounded by the region’s highest peaks: Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrothorn, Weisshorn, Dom and, still, the Matterhorn, all grey and white shards protruding into the blue sky. It’s not a view to rush away from, but the descent is just as good as the way up. Fast and fun, first doubling over the ascent route until splitting off on longer switchbacks to loop back down right to the Zermatt train station.
PEAK #2: BARRHORN
The Highest Trail
Starting in a dead-end valley that parallels the Matter Valley, the one that leads to Zermatt, the Turtmann Valley has more cows than tourists. The best trail runner’s route to the Barrhorn is via the Alps’ highest official trail, reaching the summit at 3,610 meters.
Like many runs in the Alps, it begins in green gentle pastures sprinkled with cows. As the trail goes higher, it stretches across a grey moraine, and follows a buffed scree track steep enough to slide backward if you slack off on your uphill push. Besides these extra-steep stretches, the trail is often a runnable gradient. While it doesn’t require special gear, doing it in a single day does require toughness and endurance, plus well-prepared quads and calves for the hours of up and down.
As we tried to layer up before the exposed summit, a sudden gust tore the jackets out of our clawed hands. Every time I’ve run the Barrhorn, it’s been frigid. And windy. And super steep at the top. And this ascent was no exception.
PEAK #3: SUSTENHORN
Just Another “Horn”
in the Swiss Alps
Looking over the map, Dan and I noted a marked trail led to the Chelenalp Hut, but then became a disconnected dotted line up a ridge. The dots rose steeply over the contour lines of the map and traversed a small glacier to the Sustenlimi, a pass in the ridgeline giving access onto the Sustenhorn’s low-angle glacial plateau, a section of blank white paper.
“I know the Sustenhorn from ski touring, but there’s little info on the mountain for summer and the route we want to try,” said Dan as we worked out the logistics for this more technical adventure. “One thing I love about being in the climbing mountains is uncertainty, and you don’t often get that with running. You typically just get on a trail and run.”
Dan was a climber long before becoming a runner and running for the sake of running usually wasn’t enough for him. I’m the opposite—a trail runner who simply wants to go farther and higher into the mountains, which means learning and practicing new skills. With routes like this, Dan had an outlet to use his mountain skills, from fitness to gear to planning.
“We’ll just have to go have a look,” I said.
And so we did. With running shoes and headlamps, Microspikes stuffed into our tiny packs and a thin rope coiled on top we cast off in the still-dark hours of morning.
Up and down from the peak, we never used the rope, as the few crevasses were visible. Our Microspikes provided just barely enough traction for the day’s conditions and allowed us to run over the glacier. We saw only a few people close to the hut and a few more roped together at the summit, a rarity in the well-traveled Alps.
PEAK #4: BALMHORN
Steel Tips Required
We started the run in the dark, dodging salamanders and frogs that use the trails in the off hours. After a steep forest climb that took us to the head of the valley, we trudged over a steep moraine and frontpointed up the remains of the Schwarzgletscher, a rapidly shrinking glacier. We didn’t feel the first thawing from the sun until we hit the Zackengrat, the southwest ridge of the peak. Finally, on the rocky ridge, dark slabs led to more glacier and back to crunching our way up the ice and snow.
A snowy ramp led to the top of the Balmhorn, a sheer cliff on one side and a sweeping glacial bulge on the other. After reaching the summit and looking way down to the valleys below, we began to retrace our route. Morning had warmed the icy surface enough to absorb our steps and we glissaded down to the scree field, re-packed our gear and shifted back to summer trail-running mode.
We trotted along the Spittelmätte river valley, butterballs blooming beside the trail, a big summer sun overhead warming bare skin and ice axes strapped to our packs. I noticed the added weight of the gear and clothing packed back inside with ice still clumped to our crampons. We’d made our way back down to a rolling trail in a green river valley after a morning of ice and rock.
PEAK #5: WEISSMIES
Climbing a 4,000er
When we first climbed the Weissmies, the old boot-and-hut way, we realized it would be a peak perfectly suited for running, given the right conditions. The trail leading to the hut begged to be run, fairly smooth with plenty of switchbacks. The ridge climb to the summit would be a good scramble in dry conditions and running shoes. The classic descent route, the north-side glacier, mazes through abysmal crevasses and a refuse of serac falls, not ideal or even tempting to want to run. We could avoid this altogether: up and back on the south side would be the way to go.
We came back to the Weissmies with a condensed plan. Simply: run up mountain, run down mountain. Maybe drink beer. And this time, we could bring Skyrunner/mountain woman Hillary Gerardi along.
“I hadn’t ever been to the Weissmies before, and I admit to being a little anxious about it,” she says. “We agreed that if conditions weren’t right, then we were all OK to turn around, accepting that this kind of mission is less about getting to the summit, and more about experiencing moving through mountains.”
We waited for dry September conditions so we could run in, scramble up and down the southeast ridge without ice on the rock, and run out. Starting in Saas Almagell after lunch, and, after a long debate about crampons vs spikes, we trotted up to the Almageller Hut and continued past the groups sorting their next day’s gear on the patio after the “walk-to-hut” part of the usual itinerary. We hoped to reach the summit, have the route entirely to ourselves, pass back by the hut and be all the way back down in the valley before everyone else got to the “sleep-in-hut” line item.
All the pieces came together for this run, on this day. From the summit, we watched the sun glow pink, made our way off the technical ridge before needing headlamps, past the still-awake hut, through the forest switchbacks, and draped our tired bodies over bar stools down in the valley for last call.