European Trail Running; It's Steep

Having spent a good amount of time traveling around Europe through family vacations, I thought I had it pretty figured out. Fly to airport, jet-lagged for two days, wander museums, check out the city, probably listen to an audio tour in scrappy english, eat A LOT, struggle to find a water fountain, relearn the lesson that in some countries the towns shut down during the typical American lunch hours, proceed to buy bread and cheese and have that instead.

This time around it was a bit different. My girlfriend, Natalie, and I headed to Switzerland and France for a full month. Longer than either of us had ever travelled abroad (excluding Nat’s stint living in Spain for a few months). Instead of the doing the typical city tour circuit, we opted for the high country of the alps and were totally blown away. Coming from Colorado, the land of really big hills, the alps felt like actual mountains or at least they looked like the ones from story books. Around nearly ever nook and bend in the valleys were a seemingly endless amount of glaciers, which made high rock travel a little tricky for us (more on that later). Seriously, every single day we would find our selves gawking on switchbacks or hootin’ & hollerin’ after reaching a crazy view.

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Instead of touring cities, we toured the alps via trail and rock. More trail and rock, though I think we both wished for the opposite by the end (destroyed legs). It was a really unique experience to travel through landscapes and the small towns that were built due to the inspiration from the landscape. We had stints in Wengen, Switzerland and Chamonix, France.

Since a lot happened throughout the past month, I’ll recount a few specific events that I found outlandishly fun or utterly tiring. Usually most of the days included both of the previously mentioned feelings.

Schynige Platte

If you’re looking for an absolutely beautiful trail running tour of the Jungfrau Region in Switzerland then the Schynige Platte cannot be beaten. For us the whole day was awesome, until it really wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the views, place, and trails were all exceptional. BUT the development of the area (trail signs everywhere, proximity to cities, tons of water troughs) made us ease into this sense of comfort despite still being up in the alpine. We admittedly dropped our guard a bit.

From Interlaken, we trained to Wilderswil to then take an ancient cog train up to the Schynige Platte. The Platte is located along the ridge that sits between Interlaken and Grindelwald. From there and along the whole run, you have absolutely breath taking views of the Jungfrau and the infamous North Face of the Eiger.

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We loaded up on sunscreen and hit the trail, running along a well trodden path in splitter weather. It was blue skies and great temps. Earlier in the morning we had checked the forecast and it predicted severe thunderstorms in the late morning. But from the valley, it looked clear so we went ahead anyways.

Being a traverse run, we didn’t do a whole bunch of uphill. Probably only 3000’ of climbing in total along 14ish miles. As we made our way through the landscape, we were treated with great views and the sound of music -like scenes. Our plan was to run to the cable car named “First” that took you down from a ski hill above Grindelwald and back into the city. Upon reaching the last climb we could finally see the cable car station just about two miles away. We were psyched seeing as it was early afternoon (3pm) and the weather had not hit, yet. Turning around offered a different story. Huge clouds seemed to form in seconds, darkening by the minute. I’ve truly never seen weather form that quickly and I’ve been in my fair share of unpredicted storms (lessons I’m still learning).

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Natalie and I started getting nervous about the lightning strikes down the ridge where we had been thirty minutes prior. So we began booking it downhill despite the heavy weight of our legs. While running, the adjacent hillside became encased in a thick dark cloud with winds suddenly picking up so much that both of us were nearly knocked over at one point. The trail we were on was pretty popular among tourists who take the cable car up to have a look at the Eiger so we had some company. When the rain hit, it became pretty chaotic. A lot of people were up there without the slightest bit of rain gear and were visibly getting worked. Though I don’t really know if it mattered since both of us were soaked to bone an hour later. The wind paired with hail and rain made it tough to continue so we recouped in an old farm shack with about twenty other runners and hikers.

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We gave up on waiting it out and tried to make a run for it to the station getting pelted along the way. Upon reaching the station, nearly 200 people filled the station. According to the cable car operator something along the lines had blown out due to being struck with lightning. Thus, we ordered a beer and dried off. It was about 3 more miles down into town and about 4000’ of decent and we were mentally getting ready to head off into the storm. The 200 hundred in the building ended up waiting nearly three hours until the lift was fixed.

We continued down to the mid-station via an access road only to find the mid-station lift was broken down. The top lift then started moving bring down about seven cars of people until it shut down again. THEN the city of Grindelwald sent up a city bus to begin shuttle people back into town. Honestly, I was very impressed by the bus drivers ability to maneuver the tight switchbacks and steep cliffs despite the loud crowd of seemingly clueless tourists. Down we went and barely caught the last train back to our campsite in Interlaken (missed a few buses along the way) and arrived around midnight.

We were both VERY ready to sleep. Physically we weren’t pushed that far but mentally it’d been a bit tiring. To our unwanted surprise, our tent (which we had tried to fortify) was filled with an inch of standing water, crushed from a massive tree limb, and so soaked through it was almost funny.

Long story short. We tossed the tent after realizing the damage was beyond repair and fell asleep on the floor of an outdoor arcade while our possessions dried around us. The air hockey table was also almost funny.

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More Switzerland, More Running

After the Schynige Platte we spent around another full week in Switzerland, running through the high alpine and exploring some of the most beautiful peaks I’ve ever seen. I’d recommend heading up to Murren & Wengen if you’re in the Lauterbrunnen valley. These quant little mountain towns offer some seriously incredible access to long and fun trail systems. Some favorites included running the to the summit of the Mannlichen & running over to the base of the North Face of the Eiger (how the F**k did Ueli do that so fast?).

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Warning: You’ll spend more money on the dryer in Wengen than you will on food. Don’t wash your clothes in the shower & expect them to dry on the climbing rope hung in your room in a town that has high humidity…

Warning: You’ll spend more money on the dryer in Wengen than you will on food. Don’t wash your clothes in the shower & expect them to dry on the climbing rope hung in your room in a town that has high humidity…

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Lots of Transfers; A Chamonix Tale

We Arrived in Chamonix in pouring rain after nearly six different transfer from trains to buses. Unlike in the states where six transfers would be a headache, the Swiss seem to have efficiency so dialed that you never even bat an eye at the long travel day. It must be the cheese or their fixation with watch perfection…

The next two weeks were pretty awesome. Chamonix in the summer is magical place if you’re into trail running, alpine climbing, paragliding, or dodging tourists while doing all of those things. Seriously, there is so much to do but also so many people. Luckily most of them are just hiking on the popular trails or getting kitted out by a guiding service to go climb Mont Blanc. So it’s quite easy to avoid the crowds and experience a really uniquely psyched community & landscape.

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For our entire time in the Chamonix Valley, we stayed in a small apartment down in Les Houches which was about a 10 minute ride on the bus (basically free, just hop on and act like you know what you’re doing). We didn’t do much around Les Houches as we usually started our days in Chamonix or Argentiere.

If you’re looking to get into uphill running shape quickly, this valley is the place to do it. It seems like almost every trail has at least 3000’+ gain within a two to three mil stretch. After four days we had to take two full days off since we were averaging 10-11 miles with 4500’ of climbing, oof.

One of the runs we kept coming back to was the Refuge D’Plan from the valley floor. It’s a beautifully steep jaunt that takes you near tram line up to the Refuge D’Plan (they have awesome homemade tarts). After the climb you granted viewing access to the high north faces of the Mont Blanc Massif with adjacent views of the Aiguille Rouges across the valley. From here you can continue on up to the base of the massif. SO MUCH ROCK. Almost every time we ran this we also experienced/heard tons and tons of rockfall. The 2019 summer had been extremely warm and the permafrost that holds together the high jagged peaks was melting, releasing deafening blows to the glaciers below.

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Along the southern side of the valley, Aiguille Rouges offered up some really great multi-pitch routes. The classic Friscon-Roche was on the list for us & apparently everybody else as it’s one of the classics of the area. Six awesome pitches up the South Face of Brevént with great views of the valley below. In classic Chamonix fashion we took lifts both up and down for the climb, a different pace from we’d been doing for the past few weeks.

In the clouds, Natalie takes one of the cruxes down.

In the clouds, Natalie takes one of the cruxes down.

There wasn’t any particular story that stood out to epic proportions, so I’m just going to keep rambling like a semi-travel guide. So here, go to Argentière. It’s got some really cool trails (lots of vert like usual) and a beautiful view of the north faces & Mer De Glace. Honestly it was probably the coolest view of them all. You’re able to see all the way down the valley to Mont Blanc. Also, the little town is quite cool with some good options for post run beer & pastries. Which leads me into the section.

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Pastries

You might be thinking to yourself “Will what was the best part about trail running in Europe?” and the answer is the pastries. On almost every run, you’re able to stop and get an incredibly cheap buttery delicacy from small homes to refuges. All of them are great and the least tasty are still better than the best in the states. It’s a big claim, I know. However, this best part was also kind of the worst, in hindsight. Upon returning back to the US you begin to fall into a small state of depression. You can’t get the pastry fix anywhere, it’s never as good as French counterpart. You’ll understand that it’s a curse that no witch doctor can expel from you. You must continue to live with it, day after day. Until you go back, like an alcoholic to the bottle.

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Some More Photos