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Mountain Running Tips

Hillary Gerardi scrambling up the south ridge of the 4017 meter Weissmies, above Saastal, Switzerland

This post is the conclusion to Running Mountains Instead of Races.

Here in the Alps, or whichever mountain range you find yourself, there are a lifetime of peaks to climb. Finding the ones that inspire you and include a difficulty level that keeps you interested is the first big step. We’ve created the Way Ups as our own list for the Alps. We know that with a solid fitness level there is something for every trail runner who wants to climb a mountain. 

For some runners, a trail to the top of a high peak with loads of vertical is challenge enough. Others might want to combine running with easy technical climbing. Still others may want to push things further and explore technical and committing ridge traverses or climbs in an alpine environment.

Mountain Running Confession

But first, before we continue, an important piece of information… “Mountain running” doesn’t necessarily mean you actually “run up” a mountain. You might “run to” the mountain, and “run down” the mountain, but you will most likely walk up the mountain, at least a good portion of the way. Why? Because running up mountains is actually quite hard and often less efficient than power hiking. And using your hands to scramble up steep rock probably doesn’t qualify as actual “running” either. Running Peaks really means moving fast and light up them in a more performance oriented approach. Okay, I said it!

Decision Making

One of the most critical components of determining a route’s requirements takes place before you start. It’s a series of decisions that must be made to insure that you are getting on the right objective. This process is part of what makes mountain running so interesting and is a key component to the outcome. In races, much of this is done for you so you can show up and simply focus on what you need to do to perform at your best. But when you are on your own, decision making is part of what makes the entire experience so engaging. 

Making responsible decisions is the difference between having a relatively safe experience, or putting yourself into an unnecessarily risky situation.

Roped up and ready for glacier travel while “running” the Balfrin Traverse

Choosing a Mountain Objective

Some, but certainly not all, questions and points to consider when choosing an objective.

  • Study maps! Get to know where you are going by becoming intimately familiar with the route. There are many tools at your disposal that allow you to study the type of terrain you’ll pass through, how steep that terrain is, potential for objective hazards and if there are any reasons to carry specific gear. FATMAP is a dream tool for this with tools like gradient, aspect, distance measurement, and of course hi-res 3D imagery. Get to know this resource.
  • Will you scramble? If so, how steep is it? How exposed? Will there be loose rock above you with the potential for rockfall? Would one pair of running shoes be an advantage over another on this terrain?
  • Will you travel on glaciers? If so, do you need crevasse rescue gear? While this answer is most likely a firm, “Yes!”, there are times, especially later in the summer and fall, when glaciers are melted off and down to their base ice layer. Perhaps you don’t need all that extra gear and weight… but be 100% sure that your reasoning for not taking it is correct and true.
  • Be confident in the weather forecast and what it means for the terrain you’ll be in. 
  • Are you prepared to navigate through the landscape without visibility?
  • When looking at the numbers, the terrain, the time involved and the conditions – do you have the proper fitness level not only to do the route, but do it without so much fatigue that you may get into trouble?
  • Learn how to filter the information for the route you choose. Reading someone’s terrifying account of their own experience needs to be considered, but not as a rule of what will happen to you. You probably don’t know the whole story or who they are. Learn to think and act autonomously in the mountains.
  • Since you are trying to either run much of the route or do something big in one day, you need to be as light as possible. But, when going into the mountains some gear is mandatory to get you up and down as safely as possible. Finding the balance between too light (risky) and too heavy (slow) is critical. Taking into account all of these points will hopefully allow you to make the best gear choices. Erring on the heavy side is obviously preferable to being caught out with too little. Experience is the big factor here!
  • Understand the abilities of yourself and your partners. Know your limitations and always be willing to turn around.
Unroped and running on a glacier? The route is familiar, conditions are clear and an appropriate decision has been made.

Conditions

In 2015, I was in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley with Ueli Steck. He was getting ready for a go on Nuptse with Colin Haley, and I decided to spend his acclimatization period with him. Ueli had been lapping Lobuche Peak (6119 meters) in running shoes, saying that it was in perfect shape for fast ascents. After he managed to summit from Dzongla in less than two hours, I decided I had to have a go at it. Given that most parties take 2-3 days to get up the thing, it was clear that conditions were allowing for a fast ascent. Sure, it was Ueli, but if he was blazing up the mountain in running shoes I could do it solo, but in light alpine boots, crampons and an ice axe. 5 hours after leaving Dzongla, I was on top. I would never have attempted this alone had I not known conditions were perfect for my style. Being alone on a big Himalayan peak, managing my breathing, climbing cautiously but also comfortably and efficiently showed me that I had learned how to move in the mountains as I had always dreamed.

With late summer conditions, where crevasses become obvious, a light and fast ascent of the Sustenhorn is possible.

One thing I state repeatedly in the Way Up route descriptions is that “running” a peak is not always so difficult, understanding when you can run the peak can be the tricky part. And that is the critical information required to understand the peak you’d like to do. Some considerations about conditions:

  • Maybe the map shows a steep snowfield getting to the summit. Is that snowfield going to be rock hard ice in late summer? Do you need to time this route for when there is snow so you can more reasonably get up and down it?
  • A rock ridge you’d like to climb has a south facing aspect. In the summer season, it holds snow and has tricky passages that become relatively easy when dry. Unless you prefer that snow and iced up terrain, wait until you know the route has dried out. Patience is a skill too. The Alps 4000 meter Weissmies is a classic example of this scenario.

Gaining Experience

Mindfully moving through the big mountains is about far more than the moving part. It’s a process that must be trained as much as any physical preparation. Experience only comes by doing and learning from both failure and success. 

When you put it all together, you will learn so much more than how to run in the mountains. You’ll learn how to make important decisions. Ultimately, this combination will give you more confidence for everything you do as a runner, for races, or simply pursuing more of what’s possible in the higher mountains.

How do you get that experience? Ideally with either a mentor or through a training course.

Your first decision may be to simply educate yourself about the big mountain environment. In Switzerland, the Swiss Alpine School, Bergpunkt.ch, offers programs for these very things.

You can also read more at our skills page, Mountain Running.

Finally, those of us that have been at the mountain sport game for a long time all have stories, of close calls, things nearly gone wrong, and things gone right. If you have a story, please tell your tale in the Comments section. I’ll start with one of my own.

By Dan Patitucci

The goal is to feel what summits give us. And then to get down safely.

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Comments 4

  1. Post
    Author

    A friend and I were descending Mt. Darwin after a long day in California’s Sierra Nevada. The descent required getting down a permanent snowfield that is just steep enough to be tricky.
    It wasn’t until after the experience that I realized that my experience had saved me from trouble. As we began descending, I moved away from him so as to position myself to never be down climbing the frozen snow above anything that I would hit if I fell. Where I was, if I fell and began sliding, I’d simply rocket down a steep face and slow on lower angled terrain.
    But my friend went straight down from where we initially started the descent, directly above a big dry talus field in the snowfield. I made it down safely only to watch in horror as he started to slide. He hit the boulders moving pretty quickly and catapulted further into them upon impact. I thought the worst.
    When I reached him he was mostly fine, just very banged and bruised and with a few obvious broken fingers.
    It was a long walk out for him.
    The lesson learned, and one I have tapped into countless times since then, is to pay attention to what you are above if you fall. This is true on a snow field or down climbing rock. If you have a choice about where to go, go where if you fall you have the least likelihood of injury.

  2. First off, thanks Dan and everyone at Alp Insights- I continually visit your site to keep me inspired with future adventures in the Alps. Covid cut short a ski trip to Chamonix last spring and this summer, like most, I am hunkering down here in the States; however, I look forward to spending more and more time in the Alps and getting to run the Via Valais.

    I thought I would share an event that occurred last year in the Tetons. I was running (or so we say) up the Grand Teton and traversing the Middle and South Teton and then finishing up at Nez Perce. This is a section of the Grand Traverse, which requires a few climbing moves, up to 5.7sh, but you get to skip the N Face of the Grand, which is more technical. It was a busy day up on the Grand with lots of guided groups and I was able to get in front of them, having run up that morning. After coming off the summit, I worked my way to the Middle Teton where I ran into a few of my guide friends and then continued to the South Teton. It was such a beautiful day and it was one of those “flow-state” runs.

    In between the South Teton and Nez Perce is a long ridge line with more abundant loose rock. I was climbing between two prominent points, called the Gilky Towers, when I saw a climbing group of 3 roped up, skirting along the base of the rock on the snow just below. As I saw them, I made a mental note, knowing they would be directly below me and to be extra careful of causing any rock-fall. With that being said, as I got to the top of the second prominent peak (Gilky Tower #2), I did just that.

    I stepped on a large boulder, just like any other I had that day, and heard and felt this massive rock give-way under my feet. My stomach dropped, as I watched the refrigerator-size boulder fall directly towards the climbing party below. I yelled “rock, rock, rock” as loud as I could but I was sure when I heard the crash and screams that I had killed someone. As I looked down below, two of the climbers were moving and yelling up at me, for good reason, while the third was moaning and not moving. After some time assessing his injuries, it was deemed, he had an upper L leg injury but no head injury or thoracic injuries. Plus he was in mild shock from the whole event. He was able to move, with the aid of his friends to the saddle, where I climbed down and began assessing him, as I was the only medically trained person there. It was quickly apparent that he was unable to bear weight on his L leg, so I called the Park Rangers and initiated a heli-rescue. While waiting, I was able to explain what happened and they all realized this was just a shitty accident and happened to be wrong place and wrong time. Eventually the helicopter came and long-lined him out and he was diagnosed with a spiral fracture of his L femur. To this day, I am so thankful it wasn’t worse and no one died.

    Needless to say, it freaked me out and as I continued on the ridge that day, I double-checked every single rock I stepped on. My confidence was shaky at best. I ended up stopping at the rangers station once I got out of the mountains and they were great. They re-iterated that it was no ones fault and that sometimes these things happen.

    My big take-away from all this, is that for me, rock fall is the summer equivalent of avalanches in the winter. Sometimes you cannot predict them and sometimes you can. So with that being said, go into the mountains with at least minimal rescue gear (ie. phone with battery life) and take a basic wilderness medicine course. The more we all do these things, shit can and will happen and having an emergency plan and tools to initiate the response is critical. I will be back in the Tetons this summer, trying to get back to my “flow-state”.

    Have a great summer in the mountains, wherever this might find you.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Matt,
      Reading that turned my stomach. The feel of loose rock shifting beneath your feet or in your hands is a kind of guaranteed terror. Agreed, these things happen. In the Alps, where we are so often among a lot of people in tight places, this sort of situation can very easily occur. I have seen both rock fall and avalanches caused by parties above other parties. We do our best to not let this happen, and as you said, “this was just a shitty accident and happened to be wrong place and wrong time”. Sharing the story serves as a reminder to pay extra attention the next time we find ourselves in the same scenario.
      Thank you for sharing!

  3. Really good point about busy climbing zones and avoid being on top of one another. The mountains are definitely seeing more traffic and I try to do my best to stay away from the crowds and at the very least from being on top of folks and vice versa. Interestingly, the section I was on, when the accident occurred, doesn’t see much traffic; where as the Grand, Middle and South are often stacked with folks. I’ve definitely turned around due to too many people in a certain zone and moving forward, I will be more willing to do so, knowing full well the consequences.

    Keep up all the good work with the site!

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