"For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, by mid-summer our ski kits have been packed up for four months and are likely to continue gathering dust for another four until first snow. Sure, summer's long, light-filled evenings are marvelous, but there’s some excitement as the days become shorter and the next ski season draws closer.
In the meantime, summer presents all kinds of other opportunities for escaping into the mountains. Among them are the increasingly popular trail races that provide quick, intense jaunts through the hills in the company of merry bands of like-minded alpine obsessives. Ascending peaks, crossing passes, and cutting through valleys, you're forced to become intimately familiar with the mountains. There’s pain and sometimes heartbreak, but in reward you become closer to the exquisite splendor and serenity of the land that surrounds you.
Earlier this month, the second annual Verbier-St. Bernard Ultra trail race was held in the Swiss canton Valais, which borders Italy and France. Nestled on a hillside around 1500m near the end of the Bagnes valley, Verbier is an expansive collection of mega chalets that feels less like a village and more like an adventure in alpine urban planning.
Just valleys over from Zermatt and Saas Fee, Verbier is one of the world's iconic ski resorts and part of the Four Valleys ski area, which boasts an impressive 410 km of marked runs. Without a major attraction like the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc, though, Verbier is not a top destination in the summer, and when we arrive on an early July Friday afternoon, the relaxed off-season vibes are a nice contrast to the town’s winter intensity.
Only in its second year, the Verbier-St. Bernard Ultra offers four different races, from 6 km to 110 km. I ran the Traversée, a 61 km "mid-distance" race with more than 4000 meters of ascent. Starting in La Fouly at the civilized hour of 10 AM (many ultras start at dawn or even before), you run on pavement, gravel, rock, dirt, ice, and snow. Early on, a group of traditionally-attired Swiss alphorn players provide a soundtrack quite different from that of the classic bullhorns and rattlers at road races.
Beyond the stunning Lac de Fenêtre, which is still covered by patches ice, you climb towards the Grand St. Bernard Pass, briefly dipping into Italy on the way up. The approach is tough and requires scrambling through snow but the real challenge waits beyond the pass. To descend the steep snow-covered slope you essentially ski without skis, using your poles to alternatively brake and propel yourself.
The aid station at Lac de Toules near Bourg St. Pierre is a chance to load up on Swiss chocolate and other fuel before continuing through alpine scrub, fields, and forests. A rest stop in Mille is followed by a long climb up and then a high alpine traverse, affording expansive valley-wide views of pastures, hills, and impressive peaks.
Soon the Val de Bagnes comes into view and you see Verbier directly across the way. There's a brief moment there where it feels incredibly close, but then each step along the long, steep descent to Lourtiermakes the finish feel further and further away.
Having already run 50 km, the prospect of doing a vertical kilometer (1000m vertical ascent over 3km) is daunting and it's a tough slog to the top. By the final aid station at La Chaux, you're already in the Verbier ski resort area and you feel yourself beginning to return from the wild.
After the race, your muscles soon recover and what you’re left with is the bright, wild, unimaginable beauty from 10 hours of running through the heart of the Alps."