“Oh My God! There are people running up that!”
“Those are my boys!”
To this day, my mom claims it was one of her shining moments. In a gondola car high above the village of Wengen, a fellow rider had shrieked after seeing two dots, steadily grinding their way up switchbacks in high Alp pastures. (In fact, it wasn’t hard running, but I’ve never told anyone. Why crush a family legend, right?)
It was a long time ago—so long ago, I don’t want to admit it to myself or anyone else.
It was also my first trail run in Switzerland. It opened doors for me, and in a very real sense, it led to the creation of what would later become Run the Alps.
It almost didn’t happen.
My brother and I were at a raucous family reunion in the car-free town of Wengen, located high above the dramatic Lauterbrunnen valley, and below the steep walls of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. Wengen, like its neighbor Murren across the valley, feels like a town suspended, one foot on bucolic pastures, the other with loftier aspirations. Our cousins had rented over a large, funky and rambling house-turned-DIY-hotel. Neither my brother or I had planned on trail running, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. We ran that day with road running shoes and long Patagonia shorts, Swiss francs stuffed in our socks.
That day’s run had everything I love about trail running in the Alps. To this day, half a lifetime later, I hold it as a model of why I consider the Alps to have the best trail running in the world.
To start, it’s all just so improbable. Trails in the Alps simply shatter an American’s notion of what’s possible. There is no trail builder in Switzerland who says, “We can’t do that.” Trails wend along ridges, switchback up steep slopes, cross glaciers, and span chasms on bridges that are engineering marvels. They take you places that leave you thinking Tommy Caldwell might have done the first ascent.
And yet, it’s civilized. That day in Wengen, my brother and I stopped for hot chocolate at a Swiss Alpine Club hut, and inhaled warm croissants at a hotel under the North Face of the Eiger. I remember staring at the steam coming off the pastries and thinking, “You have got to be kidding me. This is too good to be true.”
Then, there’s the transportation. Everything you’ve heard about Swiss transport is true- and then some. It’s in the mountains, though, that Swiss engineers have gone double-for-nothing time and won time and again. There are funiculars, cable-cars, gondolas, cog railways, and contraptions that would make Rube Goldberg shake his head in amazement. And they work. That day, we finished our run with a cog train ride back up to Wengen, took a victory lap in the village, and walked through town back to our inn.
There is, in a sense, wildness, too. Transitions are abrupt in the Alps, and on our run, we found ourselves dancing across quiet snowfields, and leaping from rock to rock as we dodged eddies of rapid-running glacial snowmelt.
It’s a Disneyland for trail runners but, the thing is, it’s all real and not the least bit contrived. One moment you’re touching a glacier, the next a farmer is laughing and smiling as you let the rough tongue of one of his cows lick the salt from your sweaty arms.
It settles in your heart, this place. I’ve been coming back nearly every summer since that first trail run years ago. There’s no other trail running in the world like it—and that’s no pitch to come run here. It’s just the way it is. I’ll remain forever grateful for that one day, years ago, when my brother and I grabbed a few francs, tucked them into our socks, and headed off for a run in the heart of the Jungfrau region’s Alps, no particular destination in mind.
By Doug Mayer