Racing the Tram, and Other Pleasures of Alps Mountain Sports
It is late September. I am pushing hard up the last few meters to Croix de Culet, my sweaty hand sliding over the chain that separates me from Champéry, Switzerland, a thousand meters below.
In my heart I know I’m not going to make it. As I start to descend to the upper station, I see the tram pull away. The driver and I make eye contact. By this point in the season, we know each other well. I’m the crazy American who times his valley departure to the second, racing to make a mountain-top departure. He waves and shakes his head. Not today, buddy. I shrug my shoulders. I gave it my best.
I like to race trams. In the Alps, you can do stuff like that– and much more. Whether you’re trail running, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, parapenting… or, well, you name it. There are trams, chairlifts, gondolas, funiculars, and cog railways to move people and supplies in and out of the most improbable of places.
Mountain infrastructure is at the heart of what makes the Alps so much fun. Not Disneyland, alpine waterslide-style fun. But more of a throw-open-the-doors, sky-is-the-limit kind of fun.
Here’s how it happens.
First, look at any map of the Alps. Then, realize you can get food and water at every hut, transportation at every cable, and a comfy ride home from any village. Want multi-day? Send your bags around on the train.
Here’s the deal: In the Alps, thanks to the myriad mountain conveyance imaginable, any point-to-point trail run is really a loop.
Realize that singular fact and suddenly, a map that seemed to present one obstacle after another is wide open for opportunity. You’ve schemed enough big days on a single Frey map to last long after the final bits of cartilage in your knees have turned to dust.
The results can be stupendous. I have run through peaceful mountain valleys, past farms, and over high cols—only to finish the day by grabbing my bag at the Zermatt train station and enjoying dinner with a friend at a five-star hotel.
I have rolled out of bed, hopped on the morning train, run to a mountain hut for breakfast, and found myself exploring a glacier during lunch.
I have daisy-chained the best mountain cafes in the Chamonix valley, running 60 km and taking on board fresh baked goods every ninety minutes.
And, of course, I have raced trams—once even hopping the turnstile and sneaking through the closing doors. (Once you know the operator, you can do stuff like that. Even in strict Switzerland.)
Is there a drawback? Of course. Most of the Alps are not wild, in the they’ll-never-find-your-body kind of sense. The infrastructure means cell signals, helicopters overhead from time to time, and a village of some kind often on the horizon. You want the soul-searching wild of the transcendentalists? Charter a bush pilot, fill your pack with several bear canisters-worth of food, and strike out for the frontier. But, want to run all day with just a vest, and taste three different kinds of fresh tarts with your hot cocoa? Well, then, the Alps are your kind of place.
That day in Champéry wasn’t the only time I lost to the tram. When I was slower than expected, I’d linger at the Croix de Culet, a summit plateau with a footprint no bigger than a small chalet. I’d change into a dry shirt, lay in the tall grass, and stare across at the pointy summits of the Dents du Midi, feeling just stupidly lucky to be alive at that place and time. Eventually, when the sun started to lose its strength, or the clouds came, or the wind picked up, I’d wander down to the restaurant at the tram station, wrap my hands around a warm café au lait and wait for the next tram to appear.
Which led to another revelation: In the Alps, losing ain’t so bad.
By Doug Mayer
Doug is the owner of Run the Alps, and can often be seen out the tram window or inhaling torts at huts throughout the Alps.