Les Alps vs. The Rocky Mountains – trail and race course comparisons
As the sports of mountain trail running, trail ultrarunning, and “skyrunning” become more international, there is increasing discussion about the differences between trails in various parts of the world. This is particularly the case when comparing trails in the Alps with those in the Rocky Mountains. You hear from US-based athletes that the Alps are “so steep” (such as in this video interview with Mr. D. Jones starting at about 1:00) and from European athletes that Rocky Mountain trails are “flat” (such as in this interview with Mr. K. Jornet). Additional comments from Mr. D. Jones on the steepness of the Alps when compared to the Rockies are here:
Here is a quote from Mr. D. Jones on the subject:
“It’s, like, crazy! I was blown away. I ran a relatively long interval workout on the section of trail from Canazei up to treeline and slightly above, and gained nearly 3,000 feet in the process. That’s a good run in most places. But after finishing the intervals I jogged up to the top of the Passo Poido and realized, “Whoa. I’m only halfway.” Halfway, literally, in terms of vertical. These mountains are on another scale than what I’m used to. In Europe, a 2,000 meter climb is normal. That’s nearly 7,000 feet. How many 7,000 foot climbs do we have in the US? The Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Whitney, and a few others. But they stand out; they are out of the ordinary. An ‘out of the ordinary’ climb in Europe is nothing less than ten to twelve thousand feet. What blows me away the most about this is that this kind of terrain is ubiquitous in the Alps. From France to Slovenia the mountains maintain this kind of monstrous vertical, with valleys at 3,000 ft. and summits above 13,000 ft. It’s unlike anything I’m used to, but at the same time it’s a mountain runner’s paradise.”
“If someone were to run up the Colorado mountains, he would have to be prepared to deal with altitude. The same could be said for the Alps….if you started halfway up the mountains. The Alps offer a training advantage in that one can run up steep and sustained climbs without feeling the adverse effects of altitude until five or six thousand feet above the valley floor. With more air to breathe a runner can train much harder than if he were sucking wind at 11,000 feet, which is usually only two or three thousand feet above Colorado valleys. Yet the summits are at the same elevation as in Colorado, meaning European runners can gain the blood benefits of high altitude and the strength benefits of low altitude, all on runs less than thirty miles. That is accessibility.”
And, of course, there is Mr. K. Jornet’s now (in)famous comment (at about 3:00 in following video) as he finished the 2011 Western States Endurance Run that he will likely not return because the course is “too flat”:
These comments fly in the face of the perception by many Rocky Mountain dwellers that the typical mountain trail in the Rockies is quite steep. Just run a good selection of some Rocky Mountain trails and you might agree. Do the same in the Alps, and you will come to realize what “steep” really is.
Much of this discussion seems to center around which trails, those typical in Les Alps or those typical in the Rocky Mountains are “tougher” including variables such as vertical ascension, grade, and elevation. This is presumably being discussed to opine upon which athletes have optimum training grounds for mountain trail competition, particularly ultra-distance events. When the top Europeans come over to the US and win events that are considered iconic of the Rocky Mountains (e.g. the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, the Leadville Trail 100, the Speedgoat 50K, and the Pikes Peak Marathon) or other such mountain ranges in the US (e.g. the Western States Endurance Run) much discussion ensues as to the advantages of living in or near to the Alps for training for mountain ultrarunning events. My purpose here however is to familiarize US runners with what to expect should they have the opportunity to do some running in the Alps. After an initial 3 week stint into the trails there I was surprised at (and unprepared for) the typical grade and length of the climbs. Of course the views, the glaciers, and the generally verdant nature of the valleys are spectacular. The Alps are great place to run and I can highly recommend it as a place to consider for a running-based vacation (aka runcation).
Not that it really matters but, there seems to exist a general lack of understanding of the topology of the Alps when compared to the Rocky Mountains, at least in the US. I have been introduced to a new meaning of “steep” on my trail running forays into the Alps over the past few years and thought it might be of value to show some trail comparisons, both topological and functional, to illuminate what a US runner can expect should they be fortunate enough make it over to Les Alps for some running.
This post will compare some typical trails in three areas of the Swiss Alps with some well-known and some not so well known trails in the Rockies. In addition comparisons of some notable race courses in the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Dolomites with some representative Rocky Mountain (and one Sierra) race courses are presented.
I will show a few trail comparisons here as examples of what I have found to be typical across the broad expanse of the Alps, but first a few geologic comments. The Alps are significantly “younger” than the Rocky Mountains, like about 30-50 million years younger. What this means is that the Alps are less denuded than the Rockies and it is clearly evident to even the casual observer. The valleys are typically deeper and the peaks are typically steeper partially due to less weathering and erosion. The erosion debris fills up valleys and “rounds-off” peaks and is one reason that the valleys in the Rockies are not as deep as in the Alps. Although there are numerous other reasons for the topological differences between the Alps and the Rockies the age difference is a primary one.
Another big difference between the two mountain ranges is that the Alps are still in a significant state of active glaciation retreat. Glaciers are everywhere in the Alps, whereas it is a rare occurrence in the Rocky Mountains. In fact it has been said that there are more glaciers in just one of the many valleys in the Alps than there are in all of Glacier National Park in the US. So if you want to see glaciers- go to the Alps. It is also educational to see the magnitude of the erosion and denudation that these glaciers in the Alps are responsible for. You are seeing geologic processes in real time as the rivers and streams are rushing with whitewater, not only because of the flows but because they are full of erosion debris.
Trail Comparison Area 1- Zinal, Switzerland
I have had the pleasure of running in the Zinal area (Val d’Annivers) and can highly recommend the area as a base for running. Zinal is very much a “European” vacation spot meaning that you will not see many other North Americans or Japanese when there. The town is quaint and not at all Disneyland-like as many other Swiss Alps villages are. The language in this region of Switzerland is French. Once in Switzerland (through Zurich or Geneva) you can easily get to Zinal in about 3-4 hrs by train (to Sierre) and then bus up the very scenic, steep, deep, and treacherous road through Val d’Annivers. Zinal is a small village at the head of the valley and is most famous for the mid-August Sierre-Zinal 30 km Skyrunning race that has been around for over 30 years. The village sits at the base of the Dent Blanche nappe in the Pennine Alps including a large group of “four thousanders” (meters, that is) such as the Weisshorn, the Bishorn, and the Grand Gendarme. In the distance to the south are some more “four thousanders”- Dent Blanche, Zinalrothorn, the Matterhorn (Cervin/Cervino), and others. The “four thousanders” (13,200 ft) in the Alps are essentially the equivalent of the “14ers” in Colorado.
The Sierre-Zinal course is a classic trail run exemplary of what one will find in the Alps; the course is also the site of one of the most popular Skyrunning races. To run this route, if you are staying in Zinal (which I highly recommend), take the first bus down to Sierre (it is usually scheduled at about 7:30A), get off at the Bois de Finges stop (be sure to tell the driver that you want to get off at the Bois de Finges stop when you get on) and you will find the “yellow Z” markings for the Sierre-Zinal course at the end of the pull out. From here you will go straight up for 6 miles and 5000 ft of ascension. The first mile or so has small religious monuments adjacent to the trail periodically along the way.
To give you an idea of what this really looks like, plotted below is a plot of the entire Sierre-Zinal Course with a reference climb. I chose Green Mountain near Boulder as a reference because so many runners both in Colorado and outside of Colorado are familiar with it as it is often referred to by numerous bloggers and is famous for being Mr. A. Krupicka’s “daily grind” for some years. I have used the units of miles for distance and feet for elevation as is typical here in the US but have also included a plot using kilometers and meters, respectively for our European friends for this comparison. In addition the elevations have been normalized to facilitate direct comparison, but realize that the absolute elevation is significantly different as the start of the Sierre-Zinal course is at about 1870 feet and the Green Mountain course start is at about 5870 feet.
It is clear that the climb up Green is just as steep as the climb up from Sierre but the real difference is the length of the climb at this grade- it is much longer, about 2X longer. This is typical of many trails in the Alps as you will see below. These common extended steep climbs are what the athletes quoted above are remarking about when they compare the two regions. This comparison also nicely characterizes the extent of the deepness of the valleys in the Alps as well as the steepness of the slopes.
Just to flesh this out a bit more, another comparison is plotted below that includes another typical Rocky Mountain climb that I have in my backyard- Baldy Mountain (Sun Valley). Here, although the ascension is greater than Green, the steepness is substantially less and nothing like Sierre-Zinal. Climbs such as that shown for Baldy are common in the Rockies. Another point here is that once you get up to the peaks in the Rockies it is often relatively flat as you traverse a typical ridge line, there are exceptions of course. However, in the Alps ridge lines are typically quite corrugated and steep, meaning that once you get up there you still have a lot of climbing available
Here is a comparison showing a typical steep Rocky Mountain climb up a ridge line to a prominent peak in the Boulder Mountains of Idaho with Sierre-Zinal and Green Mountain. This climb is representative of a ridge climb in the Rockies and shows that, although steep, the length of the climb at this steepness is substantially less that one typically finds in the Alps.
Here are a couple of the more difficult running loops here in Central Idaho as compared to Sierre-Zinal. Note that although the net vertical is similar (although still less), the length of the climbs in Idaho are just not extant.
Here is comparison with another well-known Rocky Mountain trail run- the Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Colorado. Once again, neither the steepness, the elevation change, nor the length of the climbs are comparable. The Rockies really are a much “milder” terrain.
A final Sierre-Zinal comparison is shown below and is in response to Mr. K. Jornet’s remark about Pikes Peak being “flat”. Well, although the net vertical is greater for Pikes, the grade is about 2X greater for the climb on the Sierre-Zinal course. That is a big difference.
This is a run directly from Zinal- I call it the “Cabane Tracuit – Cabane Arpitetta” Loop as the route includes both Cabanes (huttes/refugios). This is another 30 km run on great trails with stunning views of many of the Haute Alps peaks and lots of glaciers.
Once again, another similarly steep 5000 foot climb up to the Roc de la Vache and then to the Cabane Tracuit perched on the edge of the Turtmann Glacier (Cabane Tracuit serves as a base camp for the many alpinists that regularly climb the 14,780 foot class 4-5 Weisshorn). This climb is followed by a return down the ascent to the Roc de la Vache and a traverse over and then up to the Cabane Arpitetta and then back down to the base of the Zinal glacier and a fast run in to Zinal for a total vertical of about 7,000 feet. Nice!
Trail Comparison area 2- Jungfrau-Eiger-Monch area
Lauterbrunnen and Grindlewald are the primary gateways to this area of the Bernese Alps. There are many smaller villages that serve as great bases for running including Murren, Gimmelwald, and Stechelberg. This area is very much an “international” vacation spot, has a bit of a Swiss Disney-esque feel, and many, many Japanese tourists. However the trails and the running are very enjoyable.
There are a large number of trails in this area leading up to the base of the Eiger, it’s associated glacier, and the adjacent Jungfrau. One easily accessible run is to follow the Jungfrau Marathon route. This famous road/trail marathon starts in the city of Interlaken and proceeds up to the Eiger Glacier rail station. A good place to start for trail running is at Allmend Station which is a short train ride from the Lauterbrunen Station. After the climb up to the Eigerstation, a nice downhill section will take you to Alpiglen Station where you can catch a train to Grindlewald and return to Lauterbruunen. There are many other trails around these famous peaks, including some more typically steep, long climbs. I have shown this trail to indicate that one can find trails that are no so steep and that are runnable for the entire distance.
This area is a bit of a tourist trap but if you are going to Switzerland you should at least touch the Eiger Glacier (and possibly take the train ride right through the Eiger where the Swiss constructed a tunnel; they also proposed (but did not build) an elevator in the middle of the mountain to the summit from the tunnel). This area will also make you realize how different and more truly “Swiss” a place like Zinal is.
Here is a plot of the Jungfrau marathon course, the last 11 miles of which is the run from Lauterbrunnen up. It is compared here to the Pikes Peak Marathon, Sierre-Zinal, and the Zermatt Marathon (Zermatt is the village at the base of the Matterhorn) courses. Obviously these two most popular “mountain” marathons in the Alps (and Europe) are nothing like the Pikes Peak marathon as far as grade is concerned. But these marathons are not “real” mountain marathons as Pikes is since they both have significant amounts of pavement and road in the first 1/2 of the course.
There are many nice runs from this valley and I will just show one that is representative. This approximately 14 mile run goes up to the the head of the Stechelberg Valley and the glacier field that sits there. Not as steep or as long as Sierre-Zinal but still a 4,000 foot climb that quite steep in sections. Very scenic and beautiful single track the entire way.
Race Course Comparisons
Hopefully it is clear exactly how steep and long many of the climbs in the Alps are. The trail examples that I have shown above are typical- in other words if you were to live in the Alps, such steep and long climbs would be an everyday part of your running routine something that would be difficult to attain in the Rockies.
So much for trails… and on to a comparison of race courses. I have chosen a few iconic Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites, and Rocky Mountain-based race courses for comparison. These are selected to highlight the differences and similarities and, in my experience, are representative.
Race Course Comparison 1- UTMB and Hardrock
This comparison is of the oft-cited “hardest” Alps race course and the “hardest” Rockies race course. As you will see later, this is an apt description. The UTMB starts and ends in Chamonix and follows a route that essentially circumnavigates Mont Blanc in the French Alps and goes into Italy and Switzerland along the way. Plotted below is the comparison in normalized elevation units, so remember that UTMB starts at an elevation of about 3,300 feet, goes up to about 8,300 feet and down to about 1,600 feet. Hardrock starts at an elevation of about 9,300 feet, goes up to about 14,000 feet and down to about 7,900 feet. The absolute elevation dynamic range of UTMB is about 6,700 feet and for Hardrock it is about 6,100 feet. The average elevation difference between the two races courses is about 6,000 feet or approximately the same as the difference between sea level and the foothills of the Rockies- a big difference.
These two races have strikingly similar profiles. The dynamic range of UTMB is a bit larger but Hardrock has more “corrugation”. UTMB has, as expected, longer, steep climbs such as the one from about 13 miles to about 27 miles with about 5,500 feet of elevation change. The longest Hardrock climb (the climb to Engineer Pass or Virginius Pass, depending on the direction the race is run) is from about 45 miles to about 55 miles with about 5,000 feet of elevation change. Add the affect of elevation and I would argue that Hardrock is the tougher course, but not by much, provided one is acclimated to the higher altitude.
Race Course Comparison 2- UTMB, Hardrock, and Western States
Comparing the previous two race courses with the Western States Endurance Run 2011 course and you can see why Mr. K. Jornet considers Western States “flat”. This fact is even more obvious when the Western States course is corrected for the net descention (see the second graph of the comparison below).
Race Course Comparison 3- UTMB, Bear 100, and Wasatch 100
These two Rocky Mountain races are among the more difficult 100 mile courses from a profile perspective and it is interesting to compare them to the likes of the UTMB. Clearly the UTMB course is substantially more difficult (as is the Hardrock course) than either of these “tough” races. Once again, although the steepness of some sections of both the Bear and the Wasatch are comparable to that found on the UTMB course, the length of the climbs at this high steepness is just not evident. This is not to say that these Rocky Mountain race courses are not “tough” as they certainly are. They are just different from many of the typical Alps courses and familiarity with such long, steep climbs as represented by the UTMB course is important to compete in many of the Alps (and other European) races.
Race Course Comparison 4- Skyrunner Ultra Series
This series of races is nice comparison group because it includes race courses in the Canary Islands (Transvulcania), the US (Speedgoat 50K), Italy (Trofeo Kima), Spain (Cavalls del Vent), and France (La Course de Templier). These races are on a vulcanic island, in the Rocky Mountains, in the Italian Alps, in the Pyrenees, and in the Grand Causses (a French dolomitic version of something like Canyonlands here in the US), respectively. These races have become more recognizable in the US because in 2012 some top US runners have participated in a number of these races, winning and finishing in the top 5 consistently, and, importantly, the US-based ultramarathon website iRunFar and the principals there, Mr. B. Powell and associates, have also provided live coverage of some of these races in 2012.
In this comparison group it is functional to compare each race with the Speedgoat as this is a course that many US runners might be familiar with, at least anecdotally. Of course Race Director Mr. K. Meltzer contends that the Speedgoat is the toughest 50K in the US. He may be right but I think you will find that 3 of the 4 European races in this group are in another league with respect to course difficulty. Let’s start with comparing Speedgoat to Transvulcania, the first race in the series (decisively won this year by Mr. D. Jones over a fading Mr. K. Jornet).
Clearly, Transvulcania is much more difficult course than Speedgoat, in both elevation change and distance. A dymanic range of over 8,000 feet is impressive. Although not an Alps course, the steepness and length of the climbs on this course are on par and even exceed most of that found in the Alps. This is a tough ‘kickoff” event for the Skyrunner Series.
Let’s move on to the second race in the series, Trofeo Kima in the Italian Alps. Perhaps this quote from Mr. I. Corless best sums up the race:
Next is the Cavalls del Vent in the Pyrenees, another spectacular race, a bit longer, with very steep, long and unrelenting climbs. The Speedgoat sort of looks like this race’s “little brother”- sort of a “junior” edition.
The final race in the series, Le Course de Templier in the Grand Causses, is very different than the rest of the European races in this series. It is much more like many US races, with quite a bit of net vertical, some incredibly steep climbs and descents, but no extended steep climbs.Below are all of the series races plotted together- a bit confusing but the differential scales are informative.
I hope to have succeeded in offering a “calibration” of sorts for the substantial differences in trails and race courses in the Alps and the Rocky Mountains. In addition a few race courses in the Pyrenees, southern France, and a volcanic island off the coast of Spain have been profiled as well, thereby providing some additional perspective on some of the well-known races in Europe.
What I take away from this analysis is much along the lines of that quoted from Mr. D. Jones at the outset, in that the trails and race courses in the Alps are different, not better. Our Rocky Mountain courses tend to be much more runnable than those in the Alps and this just leads to a different type of racing and training. However, as also described above, there is a potential training advantage when one can run a 6,000 foot climb starting at 3,000 feet.
Finally, I hope that these descriptions and profiling of running in the Alps will encourage you to consider a trip there. You will not be disappointed.