Hiking around Monte Rosa in four days (150km, 11000m of ascent)

So while I typically blog about my adventures around the world, I do have another hobby I love almost as much as travelling – hiking and mountain running!   So my ‘holiday’ this week is a wonderful jaunt around Monte Rosa – through the mountains of Switzerland and Italy – 170km with c. 11,000 m of vertical ascent.  To make life easier, i have signed up to a stage race, as it means there is company and you get the luxury of clean clothes ferried from town to town.  Fortunately its a small race with only about 150 people doing the four day version.  I am recovering from a chest infection I picked up in Niger and have an old back injury which is a pain, so will be taking this race nice and slow 🙂

Day 1 Grachen to Zermatt, 37km +2224m/-2206m, 8hours

Start line

Up at 5, a quick breakfast and three espressos and off to the start line.  Given i am sick, i hung to the back, and promised myself i wouldn’t run.   Unfortunately it took more self discipline than I possessed to walk when everyone was jogging past, so i gently jogged the first 10k and then settled into a steady hiking pace.

View from Europa Hutte

The first 14k was pretty flat, and then there was an epic 1800m climb up to europa hutt.  I managed to overtake quite a few people on the way up, but to be honest was puffing like thomas the tank engine as my breathing was off.  I loaded up on coke at the checkpoint at the hutt then headed back down to cross the longest swing bridge in the world – 500m and hanging over a sheer drop.  I am petrified of heights, so kept my eyes firmly fixed on the back of the runner in front, 100m ahead.

Worlds longest swing bridge

Between the bridge and the next checkpoint, 9k away, I was blissfully alone, and the trail was wonderfully technical (but bless the swiss they had ropes so you wouldn’t fall off).   I got overtaken by one lady between the bridge and the checkpoint at Taschalpe.

I love motivational check point signs

From there it was an easy couple of hours up and then down to Zermatt with epic views of the matterhorn (which I have never seen before).   I wanted to run down the hill, but knew my back wouldn’t thank me in the morning, so strolled and tried not to be irritated as i was overtaken by three people.

Trail markings and my first view of the Matterhorn

I came in 33rd woman out of 52 in just over 8 hours, which is not bad given how ropey I have been feeling!  My delightful roommate Tabea actually came in fifth, but she is not in social media, so she didn’t know!  Time for carbs and a lie down.

View of Matterhorn from above Zermatt
Day 1 race photos
Day 1 race photos
Day 1 race photos

Day 2 Zermatt to Gressoney la Trinite 42.9km +2984m/-2971m, 11 hours

View of the Matterhorn from 2000m

We were up at five and loaded up with coffee, croissants and nutella!  Our host at the City hotel was delightful and even patted our back on the way out.   The start was a bit more frenetic than usual as everyone knew we only had 1.5km before we got stuck on the single track to do the first relentless 1700m climb up to Theodul pass at 3300m.  After the first hour people were huffing and puffing behind me, and I slowed myself down as i knew we had at least two more hours to go.  The views on the way up of the Matterhorn were amazing, and i managed to get some photos in between huffing and puffing myself (note to self, it isn’t a great idea to race when you are recovering from a chest infection – it makes breathing very difficult).  The glacier at Theodul pass was amazing, though i did lose feeling in my fingers

The glacier at Theodul pass
The glacier at Theodul pass
Heading down to Italy

From the pass we headed down into Italy, which was unfortunately hidesouly ripped up mountain side for skiers near Lago Cima Blanche (Checkpoint 2).  We eventually got up to the Col Nord with stunning views down to Grand Lac, and it was like being back in the alps again.  It was a long technical way to Refugio Carrera, and i thought it would never arrive.  I was grateful i finally got there at 1.30pm, as the cut off was 2pm.

TMR this way
prayer flags
Italian lakes
Italian lakes

From there, i struggled mightily up the 700m of climbing to Saleroforko.  The people in front of me disappeared in the distance, but at least only one person overtook me – i was going so slowly it was going backwards.  The heavens opened up, the fog rolled in, but it was still nice to see the view from the pass.  From there I rolled down the hill – a punishing 1000m of descent over 3k into the town of Gressoney.  I only jogged about 1km today (in zermatt) and hiked the rest, so was heartened to finish before quite a few runners.   Came in 36th in 11 hours (one hour before the cut off out of 52 starters (6 DNF’d).

The last pass before heading to Gressoney

I was soaking wet and freezing so went for a shower, and then sorted my email.  Thankfully we are in Italy so while too long, dinner was a wonderful four course affair with appetisers, risotto, roast beef and tiramisu!  excellent

Day 3 Gressoney la Trinite to Macugnaga 48.2km +3276m/-3583m, 12 hours

Today was supposed to be the longest stage, one big uphill in the morning and another in the evening….., I decided to pace myself and not worry about the cut offs, as I had pushed it too hard on Day 2 and run out of steam in the afternoon.  Our first big hill climb was directly underneath a chairlift – there was a lot of grunting from my fellow runners up the hill.  (For those of you who aren’t accustomed to ultra running, there was a lot of blowing your nose with your finger and peeing in bushes also).   It was a tough climb, but there was coca cola at the top.

Heading up the Passo dei Salati
500m is still a long way when it is straight up!

This followed by a very long 2000m descent through beautiful villages into Alagna- one of the adorable villagers even left out free tea for the ‘athletes’.  And when we finally made it to Alagna  there was an outstandingly good checkpoint with boiled potatoes!.

Descending to Alagna
Descending to Alagna
Village houses

From Alagna there was an endless grunt up a 1700m climb.  it wasn’t steep enough to kill you, but it was too flat to get you to the top fast.  I was going very slowly, but so was everyone else.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make the 12 hour cut off in Macugnaga.  We were all moving so incredibly slowly

I reached the summit with two Swedes with 2h45m to go before the 6pm cut off, so we thought we had plenty of time to go 14km…. except it was 17km, and lots of it was pretty bouldery.  I kept waiting for the mythical checkpoint that was supposed to be 4k from Macugnaga, and when it finally arrived (3km after my GPS said it would), they had updated the sign to say I had 7km to go to Macugnaga and only 45m to do it in.  Oh well, i could have run it in that time, but my back really didn’t want to.  So, i strolled into town arriving about 10 minutes after the cut off.  Hilariously the Race director decided later that evening to extend the cut off by 20 minutes as the course was longer than it had been previously.  I wasn’t too fussed either way, i was just happy to have made it.  I scoffed down two pieces of pizza and hobbled to the hotel.  My lovely roomie Tabia bought me some crisps and that was pretty much my evening, I wasn’t hungry enough to go for dinner

Colle de Turlo
On top of the Colle

Day 4 Macugnaga to Saas Fee 20.2km +1728m/-1400m, six hours

Another night of not much sleep, and up early again for the steepest start of the race…. a 1500m grunt up Monte Moro to the border with Switzerland.  The sky was clear, and we had the most extraordinary views of Monte Rosa in the morning light.

Monte Rosa as the sun comes up
Above the clouds
Full morning on Monte Rosa

Unfortunately I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to my feet, and too much attention to the mountain, so i tripped and badly twisted my knee.  It felt ok provided i didn’t put too much weight on it, so i continued up the hill slowly to finally arrive at the best checkpoint of the race 3 hours after starting (apple strudel was amazing!).

Trail marking above Monte Moro
Final glance at Monte Rosa before heading down into Switzerland

After the checkpoint we passed the famous golden madonna and begun the icy boulder scramble down into Switzerland.  Unfortunately twisted knees and downhills are not happy companions, so while it was a stunning beautiful morning, it was a tortuously slow descent.  I descended a full 1500 m and 10k to the road, and then managed to hitch the final 4 k to the half way check point at Sass Fee before dropping out.

Cows! Big cows!

The great thing about it was a midd-day icecream and a good gossip with all the other runners who had timed out at this checkpoint, and we had a bus back to Grachen.  I spent the afternoon in the sun cheering runners in and eating sausage and chips.  It was a great race, highly recommended!!!

The final motivational sign I saw



Grachen, 8 September 2018

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