The idea to run the Glacier Haute Route evolved in about a two minute conversation with our Run the Alps Switzerland book partner, Kim Strom. Driving to Arolla for a run, we spotted the expanse of glaciers at the end of the valley that surround Mont Collon. Seeing them reminded me of 2013 when we hiked the Glacier Haute Route. I started telling Kim about the trip when it suddenly hit me, “We should run it next year!” Next year became a few weeks later. We couldn’t wait.
With all the running for our book project this year, we had the fitness, but most importantly we had the endurance for long days and big ups. I had been feeling frustrated with too much running and not enough other things. I am more of a climber who runs for fitness, and less of a runner who runs just to run. Come summer, I prefer to put the running fitness to use for bigger things. I needed a goal and running the Glacier Haute Route seemed on target.
The Glacier Haute Route sticks to a similar route as the skier’s Haute Route, and is a much more direct line than the summer hiking route linking Chamonix and Zermatt. In recent years the Glacier Haute Route has become increasingly popular, possibly because it’s actually easier than the summer hiking trail, which has massive vertical days. Or because people want to see the glaciers before they’re gone, and they’re going quickly. For me, the appeal is that it passes through the world I love, alpine terrain and 4000 meter peaks.
So, why run it? Why not slow down to enjoy the experience? Ah… but this is the standard question when it comes to mountains and the style in which we choose to move through them! For this trip, the answer was simple. We hate boots! We love to go up things quickly and carry very little weight. But for this tour, what we really wanted was to go down fast and comfortably, and then to move as rapidly as possible on the flatter sections of trail.
Our style was not overlooked by some guides we passed on the tour, and we did hear the comments from the big groups. “Nice shoes!” At one point Kim asked a very simple question, “So what exactly is the difference between those big guided groups and us?” My answer, “Boots”. It came down to boots. They had boots on their side, but we had something else.
Our group was myself, Kim, and top Swiss Sky Runner Pascal Egli. Both Pascal and I are long time climbers with extensive experience on glaciers. We feel very confident in our skills to navigate on them, and perhaps more importantly, we have the kind of experience invaluable for decision making while in this kind of terrain. The first decision came by studying the weather and adjusting the plan to the conditions we’d find. We saw our window, knew what to expect, and felt the time was right to be able to complete the route in the style we’d chosen. To stay as light as possible, we carried the least amount, but most efficient clothing. We also carried all the necessary glacier travel and crevasse rescue gear, all of which was the absolute lightest available thanks to Petzl’s RAD system. With our decision made, we set off with 20 liter packs and running shoes for what we hoped would be a three day tour.
Beginning from Le Tour, we passed the Refuge Albert 1er, after which the trail ended and we reached the tour’s first glacier. I immediately noticed that the access was much higher than just four years ago, the glacier had receded about fifty meters and was a scrawny version of what I remember from the early 2000’s. 2017 has been a tough year for the Alps’ glaciers. A very low snow winter combined with near record setting spring and summer temperatures have been a bad combination. As a result, the glaciers are unusually dry, and where there is still snow covering them, it’s sickly thin. Less than an hour on the ice, we encountered our first detour due to the changing state of the glaciers. Normally, parties pass the Col Supérieur du Tour to access the Trient Plateau, but we found an impassable, dry gulley littered with rock fall. Like other groups, we were forced to continue to the Col Blanc and rappel from a fixed rope to the glacier below.
On the Plateau du Trient, we discovered just how truly nasty the glaciers are this year. What is typically a beautiful, pure white landscape had become a sea of grey, dirty ice, cut with deep crevasses. The route across, usually a straight-ish and direct line, required a series of zigs and zags, a procedure we’d use for the entire trip when we got above the firn line where the holes are hidden.
Once off the Plateau du Trient and it’s maze of holes, we took full advantage of our running shoes and ran the entire 2000 meter descent to Champex. There, we cherished our shoe choice and cringed at the thought of a spine jolting, toe jamming descent in stiff boots.
Similar to the skier’s Haute Route, we’d be getting a ride from Champex to reach better access back into the mountains. In our case, it was to Lac de Mauvoisin where we’d continue on to the Chanrion Hut. But, what had been a decent forecast deteriorated into wet and grey. After much back and forth, we decided to stay in Champex to see just how bad it would get. No one wanted to be on the glaciers in the rain. What we got turned out not so bad, but instead of our second day being the Chanrion Hut to Bertol Hut, it was only to Chanrion after waiting out a wettish morning.
A day delayed, our third day was the big glacier stage. We’d go from the Chanrion Hut to Bertol Hut, crossing numerous glaciers and some complicated crevasse zones. The 26km and 2000 meters of gain totals didn’t do the day justice. We moved through slow and difficult terrain, combining what is normally two days on the standard Glacier Haute Route itinerary into one. The first glacier of the day is the Otemma, 7km of only slightly uphill walking on solid, dry ice with very few crevasses. Once past Petit Mont Colon, we veered right and headed for the Col de l’Evêque where we changed gears from power hiking to slow, cautious movement through a very broken and crevassed glacier ramp. I couldn’t help but compare our 2013 tour of the same route where we had simply walked across all the glaciers with little stress. This year was a different experience.
Once on top of the Col, we were able to switch back to running mode and were soon on the Plans de Bertol where a steep 700 meter climb leads to the Cabane de Bertol, perched high in the rocks above. After lots of loose rock, a steep trail, and a series of ladders, we arrived and were immediately eating cake. The Bertol is one of the most unlikely hut locations in all the Alps. There is no easy way to it, yet it was full of hikers, climbers and fellow Glacier Haute Route travelers. And that day only one hut keeper for about 60 people. Noticing her obviously huge workload, we gave the sole hut keeper, Anne-Marie, three sets of helping hands. Our hard work paid off with an invite to Anne-Marie’s quarters after everyone else had gone to bed. There, over a couple bottles of red wine, we stayed up late laughing at mountain stories. Euro hut life is a wonderful thing!
For our final day, we departed the hut at 6 a.m. under bright stars and incredibly warm temperatures. A Swiss Mountain Guide who’d come up from the Schönbiel Hut the day before, on the same route we’d be descending, warned us that this should be the last day to do the route. It was getting too dangerous. With that encouraging news, we marched off with headlamps on high beam. We reached the high point of the tour, the 3707 meter Tête Blanche, in two hours from the hut and with few crevasses. But what would come next we knew would be the crux of the tour, the Stockjigletscher. There we found a mess of deep crevasses which we would have to carefully thread our way through. The crevasses split the entire glacier, sometimes stacked on top of one another with only 20cm wide fins to balance across. Where there was some snow still on the glacier, it sagged heavily into the black holes beneath. In places, we probed each step, seeking the firmest ground. After more than an hour of being on red alert, we reached the Stockji itself, an island of rock that marks the end of glacier travel on the Glacier Haute Route. We were back to dirt. From here, Zermatt was only a 19km trail run away.
We arrived to Zermatt with little more than what the other trail runners coming into town were carrying. Only the ice axe and light rope around our shoulders gave away where we might have been.
In the end, for us, trail running shoes were the perfect choice. We had good weather and stayed out of trouble. But what could have happened? What can a boot do that a trail running shoe cannot?
- Had the weather turned on us, we would be vulnerable to freezing feet.
- Had there been an accident, like a crevasse fall, being able to climb out and/or manage the situation would be more difficult.
- Our feet, in running shoes, are more vulnerable to injury.
On the other hand, running shoes gave us advantages:
- We had the speed to avoid trouble. We reached the crevassed zones hours ahead of the others while it was still semi-frozen instead of late morning when it is warmer.
- Had the weather turned, we could descend far faster.
- We not only did two stages per day, we passed a group after we had already done one, and they left an hour before us, one day ahead!
- Speed = less time in dangerous zones.
- Our feet and knees were very happy to not descend in boots!
Do I recommend trail running shoes for everyone? Absolutely not!
Do I even recommend running the Glacier Haute Route? Not really.
But, if you have the desire to see the higher Alps, this is truly a great way through them. The people that can do the route in the same style will also know exactly when they can do it the same way, and like us, will know what to expect. You need to be 100% sure of not only your skills, but of your ability to make the decision about how you’ll go. It’s possible, but you need the experience to know when it is possible.
You can even go with boots! Just be sure to go.
What are your thoughts about this? Are you critical? Inspired? Feel free to comment.
For more info, visit our Summer Glacier Haute Route Trip.