Last September, with autumn not quite on the calendar but already in the air, a gondola car opened above the million-dollar chalets of Verbier. Four of us piled out. We’d all slept poorly the night before, and we blamed jet lag. Truth is, we were twitchy.
Numbers explained the nerves: Ahead, the Via Valais meandered in and out of a half dozen valleys on its way to the Matterhorn, with a total elevation gain of 42,000 feet. (Keep in mind that when you’re not going steeply up, you’re usually going steeply down.) Any given part of the route would be a stout 13 to 20 miles, with 3,000 to 6,000 feet of climbing. If anyone’s legs still felt frisky after that, there was a “bonus peak” we could bag on each stage. (Total number of bonus peaks I bagged: one.)
I double-knotted my running shoes and surveyed the small group of new friends who’d also signed on. Greg Hanscom was a grinning gazelle—the same height and nearly the same age as me, but burdened by 15 fewer pounds, and with two 100-mile race finishes on his résumé. Beside him stood Grace Butler and Annavitte Rand, who’d grown up together on the rocky trails of Vermont. Both had been college athletes—Grace a cross-country runner, Annavitte a nordic skier—both were half my age, and both possessed the ability to chat away as they bopped up the rudest terrain. They laughed at inside jokes forged in childhood; for them this would be a nine-day cruise.
That left me: oldest, heaviest, and creakiest, but I knew I’d done everything I could to prepare. Eight months earlier, I put myself under the tutelage of Alison Naney, who cofounded Washington-based Cascade Endurance and specializes in training mountain athletes. “Throw it all at me,” I said.
She did, carefully, knowing my recent history with injury. The following months passed in a blur of sweat and Bengay. I swung kettlebells. I ran hill sprints until I tasted copper in my mouth. I rehabbed my shambolic running gait, the source of all my problems, until I started moving with more respectability. I kept running, and by June of 2021 I was doing hours-long routes in the mountains above my home in the Cascades. It was the hardest I’d ever worked for anything. Many nights I crawled into bed before nine o’clock, feeling trampled.
I grew stronger, but it all felt contingent—like I was still an old building, with a new facade. Just two days before the run began, during my transatlantic flight, I took several ibuprofen to tamp down a last-minute rebellion from my legs. I felt worried then, and I kept worrying as we got ready to go.
As if sensing my jitters, the Via Valais started out flat, on a footpath that traced the Bisse du Levron, an irrigation ditch built more than 500 years ago to move water from high in the mountains to farmers below. The morning air was blue and cool, the sun not yet showing itself over 12,696-foot Mont Blanc de Cheilon. We started slowly, laughing and talking as we jogged out of the ski area, excited to be on our way after so many months of anticipation. For the moment, nerves and tweaks to the body were forgotten. The bisse chuckled along with us.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to carry much stuff, thanks to the Swiss hut system. More than 150 commercial overnight structures dot these mountains, offering dinner, breakfast, and a soft down comforter for the mountaineers, hikers, and, increasingly, runners who pass through—all usually for no more than $110 a night, including food. We mostly stayed in the huts, sometimes in valley-bottom hotels, and these accommodations allowed us to run for days carrying little more than rain gear, a toothbrush, a stick of dried sausage, and a wallet stuffed with Swiss francs for post-run beers.
Any given part of the route would be a stout 13 to 20 miles, with 3,000 to 6,000 feet of climbing. If anyone’s legs still felt frisky, there was a “bonus peak” on each stage.
We trotted around a curve and left Verbier’s stunning chalets in the rearview. Up ahead we could hear belled cows in a green meadow, bit players in a perfectly Swiss mise-en-scène. “More cowbell!” said Greg, who, we’d soon find, brought serious dad energy to his jokes.
We rounded another bend and the cows disappeared. The bisse got louder; up here it was a rowdy mountain stream. The easy path beside it bucked upward, and the Via Valais became a true mountain wanderweg, or hiking trail. Switzerland has more than 40,000 miles of trails like this, testament to the national passion for hiking. We followed blazes on rocks that led us higher, and suddenly we were in stunning alpine wilderness.
As we gained altitude, the Via Valais uncorked the first of its many lessons: trail running here isn’t like trail running back home. Often it isn’t running at all, because the paths are so steep. How steep? I’ve been on escalators with less pitch. But aren’t there switchbacks? No, these apparently are the invention of lazy Americans. The Swiss favor the diretissima, the most aesthetic and uncompromising line straight up the mountain. On trails like this, a runner’s pride will ruin him faster than any blister. He must find a humbler rhythm to match the terrain.
We quickly tossed aside any concerns about time and pace in favor of a new philosophy: Run when you can, walk when you must. I sputtered this mantra early and often, starting on our climb above tree line, past tarns set like gems in spare environs, toward the Col de Louvie, a 9,000-foot pass. On that ascent, for the first time, several of us used hiking poles to take some of the load off our hardworking legs, click-clicking along like tin soldiers. Through necessity or exhaustion, we probably walked one-third of the mileage—or more—every day.
Even with help from the poles, by the time we reached the first hut—the Cabane d’Essertze, set high above the city of Sion at 7,188 feet—I was so shattered by the 20 miles I’d done that I puddled on its deck.
Greg raised a beer to my prostrate body. That fit bastard had been here for an hour already, chatting with the hutkeepers and eating a plate of cookies with his brew. They were French-speaking Swiss, a little more gregarious than their buttoned-up compatriots to the east. Anthony Sermier, one of the keepers, reached into a carved wooden water trough, pulled out a cold bottle of local white wine, popped the cork, and tipped the neck toward me in a gesture that said: What you need is this, yes? I waved off the hospitality and staggered inside to find a bunk. Soon we were shoveling down plates of his fabulous pasta. Not a bad way to start.
Each morning on the Via Valais was a small resurrection. The difficult yesterdays were put away, the pink dawn promising great things. There was no sense of hurry. Pace and attention did not compete. We got out of bed and tumbled down the stairs toward muesli and coffee.
We tried to be out the door by eight, starting slowly, warming up with the sun. As we trotted away from the hut, we argued good-naturedly about the names of wildflowers that lined the trail—snow gentian, alpine aster, anemone. The mornings were gratifying for another reason, too. While the afternoons were tough, often because they concluded with a sapping climb to a high hut, mornings reversed that routine. They were a time for going downhill, or at least traversing on flatter ground.
By late morning every day, the runners in our group were shifting positions as each person settled into their own pace, one galloping ahead if feeling strong, another slowing down to admire the view. I liked it best when some of us came together again, whether it happened 30 minutes or two hours later. Usually, this occurred at a place where the trail turned a corner to reveal something new.
This happened dramatically on the second day. Greg had loped ahead, out of sight. Grace and Annavitte had rounded a corner and crossed a temporary bridge over roaring water. Above us the Dent Blanche, 14,294 feet, appeared in full and leaned its Egyptian bulk over a blasted valley too freshly abandoned by glacial ice even for grass or trees. It was a place worth stopping for, and so we sat on the rocks and ate fat chunks of Gruyère with slices of crisp apple on thick brown bread. We were tired, happy, and grateful for one another, and for strong bodies, and to be there in the sunshine. It was enough to know these things and not talk about them, instead listening to the froth of the wild stream rolling boulders toward the Rhine.
Late that afternoon, toward the end of a second 20-mile day, we ran-walked to the door of the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges—the Cabin of the Red Needles—which sits beneath an 11,962-foot peak of the same name. The place offered all the gemütlichkeit you’d expect from a Swiss hut, with its facade of stone brightened by red shutters, its dining room made of cozy blond wood.
The hutkeeper was less cozy. Think Hagrid without the smile. When Greg told him we would run the next morning to the Cabane Becs de Besson, our third 20-mile day in a row, he laughed without kindness. “Take a helicopter,” he growled. On the other hand, it’s possible he preferred to show his love through food: that night, he served beef with red wine sauce over roasted potatoes. It was unreasonably good. We licked our plates and passed out early. The next morning, the trail away from the hut looked like an easy break in our routine. It plummeted through a fairy forest of soft-needled larch tipped yellow by cold nights, went past the Windex-colored waters of Lac Bleu, and threaded a gang of black cattle that charged us, apparently viewing our group as human salt licks. We kept running down, through meadows and past carved chalets.
Now nearly 7,000 feet below the previous night’s hut, we reached the valley bottom at Evolène, the first hamlet we’d seen in days. The bakeries were all shuttered—merde!—so we bought lunch and supplies at a small grocery, then sat at a bus stop like ragged through-hikers, shoveling in calories.
I’d been studying the maps, and I feared what we had to do next. From the valley floor, that night’s dinner and bed was nearly 6,000 vertical feet above us and about ten miles away, on a far ridge, at a hut called the Cabane Becs de Bosson. We started at two in the afternoon.
The trail out of Evolène lulled me at first, rolling past ancient chalets with timbers as creased as the faces that leaned out their windows to watch us pass. In a little village stapled to the mountainside above Evolène, a man asked where I was headed.
Zermatt, I told him, in pidgin French. His wife puffed her cheeks and made a sound like air hissing out of a tire. “Bon courage,” he said, sounding unenthusiastic.
Soon the trail bucked skyward in a new and horrible way—past the front doors of shepherds’ cabins that clung by fingernails to the mountainside, past men haying impossible slants of ground. I hiked on the balls of my feet, heaving like a plow horse working tough soil. My neck felt sunburned. I dully realized that, for days, in a fog of exhaustion, I’d been fighting UV rays with thick applications of dandruff shampoo.
Greg raised a beer to my prostrate body. That fit bastard had been here for an hour already, chatting with the hutkeepers and eating cookies with his brew.
Somewhere above, the Green Mountain girls were not struggling. They were laughing. They chowed down on gummy bears and traded lines from Talladega Nights and snacked on spinach straight from the bag. After a while, I could see Grace above me. She’d been waiting. “Can I take anything from your pack?” she asked. Sweet, lovely, red-haired Grace, with her iron calves and her generous smile, an innocent only wanting to spread kindness.
I said something unprintable to her. It was the howl of a wounded old boar who still remembered what it was to be young and bulletproof, and who was ashamed to be neither anymore. Shocked, she turned and disappeared up the trail. I trudged higher, weighed down by a new shame. (True to her name, Grace seemed to forgive, later.)
At the Becs de Bosson hut, at 9,800 feet, a crowd of hikers and climbers were drinking beer and lounging in patio chairs. The Alps were showing off, the view all violent geology and grand blue airspace. Inside there was fondue to order, and pichets of wine served by smiling hutkeepers. The scene was the best of the Alps, what I had worked toward for so long. But I viewed it all as if through smudged glass, because I was obliterated.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna make it,” I mumbled as I crawled off to bed that night. Strangely, though, the thought came unburdened by worry, because I was too tired to care.
The others helped keep me going. Greg was so relentlessly positive that he always made us laugh at the dinner table, even when he was unable to bend his knees without his legs cramping. Annavitte, who back home is a structural engineer, would tell us cool facts about the buildings we saw—like a modern addition to an old stone hut cantilevered over a glacier.
Whenever I was grinding away with my head down, or moving too fast, Grace’s sensitivity and eye for beauty always reminded me to lift my head and pay attention. One day, after we’d departed the Cabane de Moiry, on a morning so misty it belonged in the English moors, the clearing storm began to reveal the 13,848-foot Zinalrothorn, brushed with new snow. The glimpses were brief—a fan dance of sublimity that heightened the effect. Annavitte noticed that Grace had tears in her eyes.“It’s just a little bit much right now,” she said.
Of course, there was always the landscape, its grandeur urging us onward. We ran past more old cabins high on mountainsides, their stones patterned with lichen, their ruined doorways framing vistas that the rich back in Verbier would pay millions to have. We ran beside Lac des Dix, with its water the color of scuffed opal, caused by the glaciers of Mont Blanc de Cheilon wearing down the mountain’s bones. And then there was the surprise of the Via Valais path during this portion of the trail. It went up ladders. It skirted dizzying steeps. It passed through tunnels. It wobbled over suspension bridges. I wanted to keep going because I wanted to see what the route would do next.
On the sixth day, something happened. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly go on, I woke and realized I wasn’t sore at all, and I could go on. The training by my coach had prepared me for this. Sure, I was very tired. Yes, my imperfect running form wasn’t helping. I still used my calves too much, which caused them to bark, and I bent at the waist too much, which made me inefficient. But maybe I can do this, I thought. Maybe I’m the runner I wanted to be after all—or close enough, for now.
The Via Valais began to change as well, in subtle ways. The daily mileage got modestly shorter. The surrounding peaks rose taller and were even more inspiring. Yet the trails became more runnable. The days stopped subtracting from us. Now they gave more than they took. The others felt it, too.
Up and out of the village of Zinal we climbed, the trail lined with rain-washed heather. Bilberries stained our fingers purple as we gorged. The air held the sweet, melancholy smells of scythed hay and manure and winter coming. Then we went higher, to 9,429-foot Forcletta Pass, where we crossed the Röstigraben (“potato ditch”), that invisible cultural border that divides where the Swiss traditionally speak French and where they speak Schwyzertütsch and eat rösti, their beloved dish of roasted potatoes smothered in cheese and smoked ham.
That afternoon, over drinks on the sunny deck of the stone Turtmannhütte, the designers of the Via Valais—Dan, Janine, and Kim—told us the trail’s origin story. A few years ago, the three of them were completing a book on trail running in Switzerland when an injustice came to mind. U.S. hikers have the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, they thought, and European skiers have the Haute Route. Why doesn’t trail running have an iconic tour?
They set out to create one in the Valais, which they knew offers some of the world’s best trail running. (All three live at least part-time in Switzerland.) Several marked-up maps and worn running shoes later, the Via Valais was born, linking up some of the best existing trails. The route roughly parallels the Haute Route, but it takes a more running-friendly path when possible, Dan said, contouring around the ends of valleys and climbing higher than the summer hiker’s version of the route ever does.
But, they agreed, would-be runners should think of this as a mountain journey rather than a simple trail run. They’ll need more than just a big set of lungs—they need to be savvy about moving through big peaks in all kinds of conditions. “We didn’t design it for the newbie,” Janine said.
Softening the rigors each day is the incredible hut system. When possible, the trio included favorite huts in stunning settings—including the Turtmannhütte, which perches like an aerie above its namesake glacier. Runners can pay to have the Swiss rail system move their luggage to the next valley-bottom hotel, so they can see a clean pair of shorts now and then. My arrangements were DIY. The trip cost about $2,000, not counting airfare.
Dan and Kim ran with us the next day, and though we’d all been skipping the bonus peaks, they wouldn’t let us bypass what they insisted was the best side trip of the week. As first light fired the tops of the Bishorn and the Weisshorn, we hoofed up to the summit of the 11,844-foot Barrhorn. There, the Patituccis gave names to the teeth and ice around us: The Dent Blanche. The Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps. Mont Blanc and the French horizon above Chamonix, to the west. We could have looked at the glorious views a long time, but the clock finally urged us off the summit.
The next day, our seventh, was the queen stage, the crux of the Via Valais—a huge challenge, and one we’d fretted about for months. From atop the Barrhorn, our hotel lay 9,000 feet below in the next valley. Between us and a shower stood the infamous Schöllijoch, a nose of rock that drops about 250 feet from the dividing ridge to a patch of remnant glacier. Hikers descend the Schöllijoch using a series of fixed ladders, thick ropes, and iron rungs—a sort of Khumbu Icefall meets via ferrata.
I am just smart enough to know that running isn’t the answer to life’s complicated questions. I know what running has given me, though. I was glad to have it back.
Annavitte is no fan of high exposure, and the Schöllijoch had taken up residence in her head the night before. The more we’d tried to assure her, the less it seemed to help. There may have been tears. Now, standing at the edge of the thing, she announced a desire to run around it—a ten-mile detour.
This was meticulous Switzerland, though: the ladders were firm, the rungs cemented to rock. Coaxed expertly by Dan, Annavitte easily made it over the Schöllijoch. She dropped onto the snow and grinned.
For hours we ran on singletrack as it corkscrewed in and out of the skirt folds of the 12,575-foot Brunegghorn. We detoured to the Topalihütte to have rösti and Cokes. The hutkeepers came out and talked in the sunshine. They’d worked here for months and were anxious to head down for the winter.
These languid stops made us aware of something we had not expected to feel this week: regret. Most days we hustled through the landscape, working hard, eyes focused on the trail before us. It felt at times like a dishonor to the place. After all, it’s hard to ponder the grandeur of nature when you’re trying not to upchuck during a 5,000-foot banger to the next col.
“You have made racecourses of the cathedrals of the earth,”wrote John Ruskin, the 19th-century Victorian critic who loved the Alps and hated alpinists, scolding those who’d taken up the new sport of mountain climbing. We all felt Ruskin’s critique, and we stopped often and looked around. We agreed that we needed to come back and next time slow our pace even more.
But for now we had to get moving again, running down the mountainside toward the village of Randa. We approached it for hours, and it never seemed to grow larger than a model-train village.
The last day was the best. We woke at dawn to what looked like fireflies winking on the Matterhorn: headlamps of climbers ascending the Hörnli Ridge. The trail above Zermatt was smooth and wide and fast, and for miles we ran in the shadow of Switzerland’s most famous peak.
Our run felt like a victory lap as we swung high above town, laughing and talking and chasing a rumor of morning pastries.
“I think I smell the bäckerei,” I said, emerging from the forest.
“I only smell you guys,” said Annavitte.
At a huddle of chalets called Zmutt, we demolished pear and plum tarts, and then, fueled by espresso, headed into a lonesome valley beneath the Matterhorn’s crooked thumb. The trail climbed again. We smiled stupid smiles. And we kept running.
A few hours later, we lay on our backs atop a grassy hill on the edge of Zermatt and threw our arms to the sky, as if trying to hold something enormous. Nobody said anything for a long time.
I am just smart enough to know that running isn’t the answer to life’s complicated questions. It doesn’t cure midlife malaise, or existential angst, or the worries and faltering of age. I know what running has given me, though. I was glad to have it back.
Annavitte spoke up. “I would run again tomorrow,” she said. It was a confession of sorts. But there was amazement in it.
We were quiet for a moment as we considered. I would do that, I thought, amazed. I could do that.
Nobody moved. We lay in the cool grass together, content not to go anywhere.