The Story of the Via Valais
The Via Valais is our vision of the perfect multi-day trail running tour. We created the route by connecting several of our favorite trails that we discovered while we were producing our Run the Alps Switzerland book in 2017.
Having run multi-day trail tours in mountains around the world; Patagonia, Nepal, Iceland, Sierra Nevada, the Dolomites, Colorado Rockies, and so on…. we realized the best trails we had ever experienced were right in our home country, in Switzerland’s Valais region.
As we considered the route, we saw that trail runners do not have their own Grand Tour. Hikers have all kinds of long trails, including the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), which of course is made desirable thanks to the success of the UTMB Race. But the TMB is packed and the trail is often like a highway. Then there is the Haute Route, which both ski tourers and hikers have connecting Chamonix and Zermatt. It's here, in Switzerland's Valais region that we turned our attention.
Like the Haute Route, we also wanted our tour to end in Zermatt. And the start? Verbier was a logical place as it would allow access to some of the best trails through the Valais. What we didn’t want was to be on the Haute Route. The Via Valais needs to be its own line and so we took advantage of a runner's ability to cover more ground to access the best possible trails. Occasionally, the route shares the same trail and/or variations of the Haute Route, but it is primarily unique for runners. While the Haute Route tends to go straight up one side of a valley and down the other, the Via Valais follows the contours of the landscape, traversing in and out of the deep valleys and actually heading higher into alpine terrain than the Haute Route ever does.
In the end, after four reconnaissance missions to finalize all the connections, we found the line that will keep runners running. Not only are each stage's trails perfect for mountain running, we added optional peaks to tag along the way. These Bonus Peaks might include in some scrambling and exposure for the extra motivated.
We are thrilled to be able to share we feel is the perfect trail running tour, and we can’t wait for the winter snow to melt, the huts to open, and other runners to set out on the trails we’ve connected.
Dan, Janine, and Kim
The Via Valais is a mountain runner’s tour. It’s a challenge, but not unattainable. Stick to our stages and you’ll arrive to Zermatt with nine days, 225 km and around 14000 meters of vertical in your legs. That’s without any bonus peaks!
Each stage isn’t too long and the vertical is inside the range of an average day out for Alps runners. The issue is that the days get stacked one on top of another. Thankfully, the overnights are comfortable, with hotel nights, hot showers, and grocery restock in Zinal and Randa, balancing hut nights. Get an early start each day and you’ll arrive at your overnight with plenty of time to get a nap in. The route requires managing your output to reach Zermatt, and that’s part of the fun.
Runners planning to do the Via Valais should be all around mountain fit and tough, but especially trained for endurance and vertical. Our partners at Uphill Athlete have a specific training program for preparing, and it’s well named: The Big Vert Training Plan.
The landscape of the Valais is high drama and home to many of the Alps highest peaks, which along with glaciers, fill your views every day. In addition, the route crosses the world’s longest suspension bridge, passes by the largest gravity dam, and climbs the Alps highest trail to a summit. All this with long stretches of singletrack and silence.
It's best to understand each stage, as well as the Via Valais as a whole, by visiting our logistics page. To see what the trail running community is saying about the route, what questions are being asked, and shared experiences, check in at our Via Valais Community page.
Overall, the terrain and trails you’ll pass through are friendly for the body, but mountain running is mountain running, it’ll take a toll. And, there is a Queen Stage! Stage 7 from the Turtmann Hut to Randa is as good as mountain running gets. But, it has a somewhat tricky passage that may not be for everyone and is worth discussion. The Schöllijoch.
Descending the Schöllijoch, the crux of the Via Valais on Stage 7. The rock is fitted with ladders, cables, iron rungs, and ropes to aid with the 80-meter downclimb to the glacier below.
From the Turtmann Hut, the route immediately moves into alpine terrain before reaching the Schöllijoch at 3342 meters. From the Schöllijoch, the Barrhorn bonus peak is less than an hour away. The trail to the summit of the Barrhorn is the Alps highest official trail, reaching 3610 meters.
Crossing the Schöllijoch may be the exciting part for many people, and should be understood before any attempt is made. Also, before setting out from the hut, ask the hut keeper about conditions, and be sure to have a good weather forecast for the crossing.
While on an official alpine trail, the Swiss idea of “trail” can be very different than what others expect. It is necessary to descend 80 meters down a steep rock wall to a glacier.
The descent is fitted with cables, ladders and iron hand holds that are maintained by the region. The route is well traveled and done fairly frequently. While protected with all the iron work, it is very exposed and a fall would likely be fatal. Unlike the ladders on the Pas de Chévre, which is crossed on Stage 2, the Schöllijoch requires movement on rock more like climbing than simply using a ladder. At the bottom of the wall are fixed ropes to pass a bergschrund (a wide gap where the glacier and rock meet). Hand over hand, you make your way down to the glacier. On the glacier, it is a low angle cruise downhill for about 600 meters to meet dry ground. The glacier, as of 2018, has no crevasses, and is more like a snowfield.
While the glacier itself holds no real challenges, crossing it or the Schöllijoch in low visibility, or a storm, could be a bad situation. This is the crux of the tour. Prior experience in the Alps is very helpful.
Can you do it? We don’t know. This is for you to determine. Runners with climbing experience should have no problem. If you have doubts, consider a guide.
When to go?
The Via Valais season is short! A key section on Stage 7 becomes possible only when a bridge is put into place on the descent from the Schöllijoch to Randa. There is a deep gorge that cannot be crossed without the bridge. The bridge goes in when there is no more threat of avalanche from above, so on big snow years the trail opens later. Expect an opening period around early to mid-July. In the fall, the huts typically close from mid to late September. Therefore, the window to do the trail is short, and we recommend going in September when the weather is a bit more stable and the days cooler. Plus, the Alps are at their best when the colors start to swing from greens to golds.
For info on when the bridge is placed and the trail opens, you’ll have to check in at the Topali Hut website.
Two Route Options
The Via Valais is a nine stage trail running tour, starting in Verbier and finishing in Zermatt. To run the Via Valais in fewer days, it is possible to combine stages, or to try the 6 stage variation to fit it into one week. To make the Via Valais more accessible to a wider range of runners, we created this shortened 6 stage version that still travels the bulk of the route, but starts at the top of Vercorin’s Crêt du Midi lift. This option joins the Via Valais on stage three in the Réchy Valley, and goes through to the Stage 4 overnight at the Cabane de Moiry. From Moiry, the 6 Stage option follows Stages 5-9 to finish in Zermatt.
Details on the start of the 6 Stage tour can be seen on the Stage 4 page.
Starting from the Crêt du Midi, the 6 Stage option meets the regular route just before the Becs de Bosson.