Race across the glaciers

The Patrouille des Glaciers is regarded as the world’s toughest ski mountaineering race.

Night-time traces left by the headlamps of competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

The race begins at night; competitors wear headlamps © Patrouille des Glaciers

 

This year’s event, which finished today, saw a clutch of records and firsts.

A Swiss-French women’s team knocked 14 minutes off the record previously set for an all-female patrol in 2010, completing the course in 7 hours 27 minutes. More than 4,900 skiers arrived at the finish line, more than ever before. This year’s event also saw the launch of a “Patrouille des jeunes”, for young people aged 14 to 19.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The ski mountaineering competition has been likened to racing two marathons, back-to-back – with the additional challenges of competing at night and climbing to altitudes of more than 3,600 metres. The full course, from Zermatt to Verbier, involves nearly 4,000 vertical metres of climb over a distance of 53 km, with departures from Zermatt staggered at intervals, starting at 9pm. The “petite” Patrouille follows the second half of the route, starting in Arolla, with nearly 1,900 vertical metres of climb over a distance of 26 km, and staggered departures starting at 3.30am.

The 2014 competition was the 30th anniversary of the race in its modern form. Over the years, the biannual event has attracted so many entrants that racers now compete in two batches, a few days apart. However, the weather has to play along: in 2012, organisers interrupted the race at Arolla because they considered the snowpack too unstable.

For the whole week of the event, Patrouille fever grips the Valais. Local TV runs extensive coverage every evening, with detailed speculation about weather and snow conditions. This year, unstable weather and fresh snowfalls forced the organisers to postpone each leg by 24 hours.

The competition is open to patrols of three, who have to cross the finish line together. Anyone can enter, although you must be able to prove you have what it takes to complete the course. You have be a keen ski tourer who has already taken part in mountaineering competitions, be an excellent skier, have a high level of fitness – and have experience of skiing downhill, roped-up in a team.

Helicopter pilots deployed during preparations for the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, 2014. In the distance, the Matterhorn

© Patrouille des Glaciers

That’s in case one of your team falls down a crevasse as you ski across a glacier. The risk is genuine: an entire patrol fell into a crevasse on the Mont Miné Glacier during the race in 1949, and their bodies were not recovered until eight days later. After the tragedy, the event was cancelled altogether – only to be resurrected in its present form, 30 years later.

The Swiss Army devised the race during the Second World War as a way of testing the operational readiness of its troops in high-altitude terrain along the country’s south-eastern border. The course: the famous Haute Route between Zermatt and Verbier, for which ski tourers normally allow four days. Of the 18 patrols that entered the first race in 1943, only two crossed the finish line intact.

Today, the contest is open to civilians as well as the military. Interest is greater than ever: even though the Swiss Army increased the maximum number of patrols this year by 400 to 1,800 – male, female and mixed – it had to turn away nearly 1,500 would-be racers.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race to Verbier setting off from Zermatt, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

In all, the 2014 race featured teams from 29 nations including Britain, Canada, USA, China, Singapore, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, with patrols from ten foreign armies. About one sixth of racers were women.

The route from Zermatt begins with a gruelling climb to the highest point of the whole course, the Tête Blanche at nearly 3,700 metres. During the first race this week, the temperature here was -9C at 2am – with wind chill, equivalent to -17C. The course then leads via the Col de Bertol to the resort of Arolla, starting point for those competing in the “petite” Patrouille. From here, racers skin up to the Col de Riedmatten before skiing down to the Lac des Dix and then climbing back up to the Rosablanche before the long descent to Verbier.

The race is a great spectacle for non-participants, too. One of the most impressive viewpoints is the top of the Mont-Fort, the highest point in the Verbier/Four Valleys ski area (3,330 m). From here, the patrollers crossing the vast snowfields on the flanks of the Rosablanche appear like microscopic specks, dwarfed by the sea of snowy peaks that stretches to the horizon.

© Patrouille des Glaciers

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The racers face one short climb up to the Col de la Chaux before their long final downhill: along the foot of the Bec des Rosses (site of the Xtreme Verbier in March, finals of the Freeride World Tour), joining the red piste that runs from Les Gentianes and under the Jumbo cable car to La Chaux, and through the forests below Les Ruinettes down to Verbier.

The second day of the race, Sunday 4 May, was also the final day of Verbier’s ski season – but these lower pistes closed to leisure skiers days ago, through lack of snow. Spectators, even those on skis, rode down on the gondola instead – while the racers in the forest below skied on every last patch of snow they could find before taking their skis off and running through the mud, still in their ski boots.

From Médran, about 1.5 km of shopping street separated them from the finish line. Husbands, wives and children waving placards and balloons cheered on the competitors as they ran, walked, lurched and hobbled to the finish. Out of 1,715 patrols that started the race in two batches, all but 78 made it to the finish line – and if conversations overheard there are anything to go by, most are already dreaming of 2016.

Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

Patrouille des Glaciers: facts & figures

  • 2014 fastest time for a men’s patrol: 6 hours 1 minute (9 minutes short of the record set in 2010)
  • The Swiss Army deploys about 1,500 soldiers to stage the race
  • 210 tons of equipment – about 50 trucks with trailers
  • 13 special heated tents to accommodate soldiers along the route
  • 40 doctors at 13 first-aid posts
  • 16 trained avalanche dogs
  • 3 meteorologists for 8 days
  • 6 avalanche experts for 15 days
  • 40 cooks: on the four competition days alone, they prepare 75,000 meals
  • Total cost: CHF 7.5 million
Competitors in the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier, Switzerland, May 2014

© Patrouille des Glaciers

The next race will be held in 2016. Further details: www.pdg.ch. Full news and results in French and German: www.pdgnews.ch

Info on the Patrouille des Jeunes (in French and German): www.patrouilledesjeunes.ch