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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Tour du Monte Rosa. 08-10 August 2014

Having already completed my annual weekend training run around the UTMB course, I decided on something completely new for my final weekend of training before tapering starts. The Tour du Monte Rosa (TMR) has been on radar for quite some time now, ever since I stumbled across it’s signage on the Europaweg trail whilst fast packing the Chamonix to Zermatt Walker's Haute Route a few summer’s back. The Europaweg is pretty mind blowing in itself; a dramatic section of high level contouring trail that defies logic given it’s perilous position. From this I had a strong sense the TMR would be a great route to run and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The TMR is much more low key when compared to the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), and consequently the information available on the route as a whole is fairly sparse. I got hold of the Cicerone guide book and a route map from the map shop in Chamonix, but there are several route variations between the two. I decided to stick with the mapped route (a) because it seemed relatively ‘official’ and up to date, and (b) I didn’t want to carry the guide book.

The overall distance and elevation gain involved wasn’t 100% clear, but seemed to be around 100miles with 10,000m of ascent / descent. It was however noticeable that a lot of the running would be above 2,000m, and there were numerous passes over 2,800m as well as climbs of 1,500m vertical ascent or more. A challenging route for sure. The plan was to tackle the whole thing in 3 days starting and finishing in Saas Fee and with overnight stops in Zermatt and Alagna. Easy hey.

It didn’t prove too difficult selling the idea to US team mate Mike a Foote who is over in Europe training for UTMB. He was as excited as I was about using the route as an excuse to explore new trails and escape the Chamonix hubbub. We met in Martigny late on Thursday evening, stayed overnight in Brig before setting off from Saas Fee on Friday morning after a relatively leisurely start.

I haven't been to Saas Fee before, but it’s another one of the Zermatt style car free towns where you have to park up on the outskirts and transfer in. Even the views from the sides of the multi-story car park were pretty mind blowing and immediately raised the excitement levels.

Saas Fee to Grachen was the first leg, running the high-level balcony path known as Hohenweg. It's a very well established section of trail averaging about 2,100m in height and offering plenty of exposure. There are all sorts of impressive bits of Swiss trail engineering to negotiate the glacial outflows, rocky outcrops and steep valley sides the route traverses. It feels safe because it is clearly is so well established, but you wouldn’t want to take your eye off the trail too long…

Playing around on the Hohenweg

Foote on a northern section of the Hohenweg
Me on the Hohenweg
Hohenweg provided a great overview of the Saastal valley before we turned to enter the Mattertal valley, which then leads into Europaweg. Grachen was our first taste of civilization, and being a Swiss village, of course it really is. The only negative being it was lunchtime and the shops were shut. It was naive of me to walk into the local patisserie, the only food option to be found open, and enquire about gluten free options. Cue puzzled look from the assistant; that’d be a ‘no’ then.

From Grachen it's good pull to get up on to the Europaweg trail, and it tops out at over 2,600m, but plentiful visual distractions make the leg work more than worthwhile. There is even a EU flag to mark the start! That confused me a little being in Switzerland but I shall avoid any politics. The Mattertal valley below seemed a very, very long way down - which it is - but there are numerous 4,000m summits all around to feast your eyes on and keep you looking up. The trail is also somewhat precipitous in places, traversing live boulder fields and scree slopes. From afar these sections frequently look impassable, but aren’t quite so bad on closer inspection and provide a bit of fun when conditions are dry, as they were. The red and white painted markers to guide you across are excellent, but almost certainly the boulder fields would be a different proposition in poor visibility. It was never fast going, the trails often being technical and bouldery, but that made it all feel a lot more natural than TMB.
Foote on Europaweg

Foote and I on the Europaweg

Awesome Swiss engineering!
Our opening 'easy' day, wasn't all that easy, so it was good to finally arrive in Zermatt at the head of the valley, and the foot of the famous Matterhorn, unfortunately concealed by a blanket of cloud. Refueling was high on the agenda, as was a good night’s sleep in preparation for a long middle day that would take us through to Alagna in Italy.

The mixed forecast had been an ongoing cause for concern leading into the trip, particularly given the minimal kit and clothing we were carrying for the 3 days – basically our UTMB compulsory kit. Day two would start with a 1,700m climb over the glaciated Theodulo Pass topping out at 3,317m. Heavy rain at any point would almost certainly necessitate a wait-out at a refuge, and probably a high degree of cold and suffering! It rained heavily overnight, but eased for our departure from Zermatt, although it was still damp and grey at 7am when we made our way out of town and back on to the trail. Wouldn’t a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast be a little more sensible?

Foote on the climb out of Zermatt
Leaving the rain behind in Zermatt
We maintained a sense of humor despite the glum weather, and our patience was quickly rewarded as the rain eased and we caught glimpses of blue skies towards the top of the climb. At around 2,800m we caught out first view of the summit section of the Matterhorn through the parting clouds and we literally jumped with joy!

The Matterhorn revealing itself. Me getting excited….

Gandegghutte (3,029m)
It was still chilly up high, particularly after an early soaking, but moving across the glaciated pass somewhat swiftly kept us warm enough, and the novelty of running uphill on snow became a welcome distraction. We eventually reached the Refugio del Theodulo perched right on the pass, straddling the Switzerland / Italy border, before descending an un-glaciated south facing snow slope to reach the grey moraine filled bowl of the upper Cervinia ski resort. Foote was a happy man to have crossed into Italy; the thought of pizza, espresso and warmer restaurant service was a real motivation.

Upper Cervinia ski area
A short (relative) descent and then re-ascent took us over Col Cimme Bianche, and then down past the beautiful turquoise Gran Lago, before a fine trail took us along a hanging valley past old farming settlements and into the ancient hamlet of Resy. It was fascinating to read up on the history of this area afterwards; these inhospitable high valleys providing a summer home to farmers and their livestock for many years. Farming at this height (2,400m plus) with such limited access must have been a real challenge, even just for the summer months.

Vallone di Verra before Resy
The polenta feast at Refuge Ferraro, Resy
Now starting to feel a little depleted I insisted on a proper lunch at the next refuge - Refuge Ferraro in Resy. Polenta was menu of the day, and it was suitably fine, with the portions generous and runner-friendly. Happy days. The afternoon would bring two more hefty passes, taking us up to 2,672m and 2,880m respectively. Running in and amongst the clouds provided real atmosphere, depth and constantly ‘teasing’ views. The first pass was Colle di Bettaforca and was the more straight forward of the two. We didn’t dwell in Stafal, the valley bottom village between the two climbs, but marched straight into Col d’Olen at 2,880m.

Col d'Olen - great cloud display

The whole the of the final descent was in the cloud, possibly not a bad thing, concealing the 1,700 metres of downhill running before we were done for the night. We seemed to go a little astray in our route choice into Alagna, but it took us down in a fairly direct manner, so mattered little. In the end even singletrack connoisseur Foote was happy to cruise down a vehicle track despite it being boring and gently graded. Running hard downhill for over an hour was certainly ideal preparation for UTMB. The rustic village of Alagna was our overnight stop for the night, and offered excellent local Italian cuisine and lodging – certainly a place to go on the list for a return visit.

We had company in the mist descending to Alagna
The final day involved a mere two passes, but both involving ascent of c. 1,600m so not to be under estimated. I was unsure how long the final day would take, but what I did know was that I needed leave Saas Fee in the hire car by 4pm at the latest to ensure I made it to Geneva Airport in time for my Sunday night flight back to London. There’s nothing like a deadline to help focus the mind. Experience on the route suggested it would be relatively slow going, so I conservatively planned for a 6.30am start. It was too early for a hotel breakfast, so a banana and no caffeine it had to be.

Leaving Alagna behind on the climb up Colle del Turlo
The first climb followed an impressive flag stoned vehicle-width track over the famous Colle Del Turlo. The grading was gentle making it a little too drawn out for my liking, but it is a real marvel of historic trail engineering. It has clearly been an important trading route for many years, something you can’t help but ponder as you gradually work your way up. In many places it is even retained and built up on dry stone walls, and is near perfectly intact, again a testimony to the quality of it’s original construction. The top of the pass was again cloud covered so it was a shame to miss out on the views, but I was grateful to start a descent.

Colle del Turlo (2,738m). Picnic anyone?
There were quite a few lingering snow patches on the north facing upper part of the descent, but they soon disappeared and I could settle into around 1,500m of descent and a section along the Valle Quarazza took me to the popular tourist village of Macugnaga. The local shop there offered plenty of options for a late breakfast and a good refuel which I knew would be required to get me over the final pass. I got some strange looks as I wolfed down a tin of peaches and a pot of yoghurt whilst sat in the village square watching the Sunday morning world go by.

And then straight back up 1,700m to the final pass of Monte Moropass (2,868m) and back into Switzerland at last. No less impressive, this pass is complete with a gold Madonna statue and various bits of handrails and walk ways to help the traverse of big slabs of rock that form the pass itself. 

The golden Madonna statue on Monte Moro at 2,868m!
Time was certainly getting on by now, so I had to keep moving quickly on the descent to Mattertal Lake and then round the valley corner back to Saas Fee. I managed to move well despite another 10 hour day, and was relieved to have made an early start. Around the lake there were tourists abound, getting bus transfers up from the Saastal Valley. It soon hit home how much solitude and great alpine running I had enjoyed along the way, despite several sections through unsightly ski resorts.

The final descent towards Mattmark & Saas Almafell / Saas Fee
The views of the many surrounding 4,000m+ peaks unfortunately hadn’t been very frequent due to the cloud, but somehow the constantly changing skies had really added to the atmosphere of being high up in the mountains. It’s a route that must be respected when travelling fast and light, and I would generally advise on allotting a little more time. But despite it’s fast-pace, it was certainly a weekend to remember and ideal preparation for UTMB.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this detailed report, spectacular pictures and for going out on this training run. A future route to travel to in the future. Best of luck at UTMB, Go Smash the course, have fun, smile and finish safely the race.

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