The Grand Raid Cristalp, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and the Patrouille des Glaciers. These names mean nothing to the average North American, but for some reason are household words for most European mountain bikers, trail-runners, and skiers. If you need a little background: the Grand Raid, held two weekends ago, is a crushing marathon mountain bike race that starts in Verbier and ends in Grimentz, five valleys east and 137km away, with 5628 meters of climbing. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), run this past weekend (but shortened due to dangerous weather at altitude), is similarly abusive – only on foot, and traversing 3 countries, 166km, and 9500 meters of climbing. It takes the average competitor about 35 hours to complete, the fastest do it in 21.5 without stopping or sleeping! Finally, the Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG) is the “original” randonee ski race. First run in 1943 as a way to test the abilities of the Swiss Army’s border guards along the Italian Frontier, the “haute route”. A grueling 53km and 4090 meters of climbing, at elevations up to 3700m, the course record was broken this past April by the Swiss Army men’s team, who finished in 5 hours and 52 minutes.
The first thing that goes through my mind every time these events arise is why? Is this fun? Is this even good for your health, mentally and physically? What drives people to these extremes? And it’s not a limited list of elite competitors that make up the field. The Ultra trail Mount Blanc UTMB caps out at 2300 people, the Patrouille de Glaciers at 4300, and every year there are disappointed people who are not accepted. I know a local family that made up a team of three generations (father, son and grandson), and I can safely say that the eldest was not a hindrance.
What’s interesting about these events is that you have only a small percentage of professional athletes competing; the rest is comprised entirely of amateurs. The oldest participant I’ve heard of in the PDG was 66 years old. In America, these types of athletes are “dismissed” as super-human and somewhat insane. In Europe they are respected and revered for their commitment and training. A Swiss military officer put it best: “It’s not enough to train one or two years for the Patrouille, training is an attitude towards life”. Beyond any cultural differences lies what I believe to be the motivation behind the European obsession with Mountain races; the mutual respect for the spirit and camaraderie that come from accomplishing a challenging feat in the mountains. And in truth, isn’t that the root of all of our addictions to the mountains? The friendships formed, and the memories of challenges and success’ that live on forever.
At Epic Europe, we believe a physical challenge is good for the body and spirit, but we also believe that there should be a balance. Too much training and devotion to these types of marathons would not leave time for the other good things in life. Like enjoying a glass of wine or conversation with great friends after a day recreating in the mountains, or appreciating the rest the Alps have to offer, like the seemingly never-ending cultural opportunities. This is why we propose taking your time when attempting any of the above mentioned routes; the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 7-9 day circumnavigation, staying at comfortable mountain inns and refuges, allows you the time to enjoy and reflect on the magnificent surroundings as well as recover from the day’s hike. While the Haute Route is a pilgrimage for so many experienced skiers, we prefer some less-traveled routes with secret powder descents, and more comfortable accommodation. And the Valais region we call home is the starting point for so many epic mountain bike traverses, long descents, and secret villages, that it seems endless. So join us this year for a “Pilgrimage” into the Alps and rediscover the simple joys of a week in the mountains with your friends. We promise it won’t hurt…
Check out the video of this year’s UTMB