Saturday, July 27, 2013

Eiger Ultra Trail - an adventure with a smile

"Switzerland is the most antifragile place on the planet."
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Eiger Ultra Trail: an ultra trail runner's dream come true!

When Eiger Ultra Trail was officially announced, I signed in for E101 at once. I've been looking for a race like this. Swiss National Team skier Marcel Marti is the creator of the idea and the designer of this fantastic course. Just one look at the map assured me it would elevate European trail running to another level.

The three race courses all start and finish in Grindelwald. Aid stations are marked on the map.

The counterclockwise loop course consists of two sections. They are separated by Burglauenen AS with your dropbag at halfway. The first part climbs to Faulhorn (2680m), the highest peak of the course. The second part contains the Eiger Trail, traversing the notorious North Face with a stunning 1800m tall rock wall.

The 101km course is divided into two sections by Burglauenen. Total elevation gain is 6700m.

Ueli Steck, a speed climber who set the 2h47min Eiger North Face record, is a member of the organising team. He has stated that Eiger Ultra Trail is harder than North Face solo. I'm not sure if he meant this as a joke, slogan or warning, but it works in all three ways! 

Grindelwald valley from an Eastern hill, looking towards Interlaken in the West.
At the race briefing on Friday evening the RD Ralph Näf warned us there might be a thunderstorm before 8pm. If see saw lightnings we were instructed to stay still and low, away from high objects or water. He also mentioned course changes were possible after that. As a professional mountain guide, he knows the mountains well.

[SPOILER ALERT: That's exactly what happened on Saturday. Still many claimed the storm came as a total surprise!]

My Swiss trail running friends Rita and Guido.
I calculated confidently that I should be able to run the Eiger Trail before the storm started. I should be there in 12 hours by 5pm, right? I packed my OMM Kamleika rainjacket in my backpack. It isn't waterproof anymore, but who cares, it's summer! Somehow I failed to toss my heavier 100% stormproof rainjacket in my dropbag. Uh-oh, that turned out to be an epic mistake!

Notice Guido's Trail Verbier StBernard 110km finisher t-shirt! It was only 3 weeks ago!
After a typical nervous night of semi-sleep I woke up 3am. It was dark, clear, warm and humid. An early breakfast was served for the competitors at the hotel. It would probably be a hot day, so I decided to race in short tights, t-shirt, cap, socks and Stinson Evos only. I'd also carry my trusty old Mountain King aluminum sticks as always. Poles are really helpful in steep slopes, just ask anyone.

Too tired to hike? In a hurry going someplace? No worries, take the Grindelwald Taxi!
At 5am RD Näf sent us off with a great piece of advice, "Take this race as an adventure and finish with a smile on your face." It was dark, but it would dawn soon. I took it easy and kept my two headlights in the pack.

Pasta party and Mättenberg. You see the cable car station Pfingstegg about halway up? That's our last challenge.
After 8km we were already up at Grosse Scheidegg (1959m) - a 1029m climb from the start. The first AS was there. I filled my two bottles. I grabbed a bit of everything on the table and loved it all.

The event was catered by Sponser, who have been dealing with sports nutrition for 25 years. They are the market leader in Switzerland, and obviously for a reason. They had a great variety of foods and products available. In addition to a sports drink with eight carbohydrates they offered a long energy drink with protein, beetroot and what not in it. They also provided plenty of gels and bars. The gel with caffeine, taurine and salt was the best gel ever.

The stations were never too far from each other, so there was no need to carry nothing but a small emergency reserve. In Swiss Alps there are plenty of drinking fountains as well as ice cold streams. Even on a hot day like this it was easy to compensate for the excessive sweating.

Sunrise at the top of the first 1000m climb Grosse Scheidegg (8km). Celebrating too early perhaps? :)
Our spirits rose higher with the sun and there was a lot of wild yodling going on. Soon I reached First, the first peak at over 2000m height. The course went straight down to Bort only to climb up again to First again - this time with an even more scenic route. At the top I had climbed a total of 2003m and felt fine. I thought I was going strong, but Rita told me Guido was far ahead of me. They are a nice Swiss trail running couple, but obviously too fast for me. She was his crew today.

After 22km and a 2000m uphill, a steep downhill for a change.
The scenery and weather were super-fantastic. You could see all the Alps around clearly. Upon arrival at Bachalpsee (2265m) I just went "wow" all the time! It was so wonderful, it was like unreal. Like running through a virtual dreamscape. This has to be one of the most beautiful trails in the world. I could see the shadow of Eiger North Face looming in the distance. It was still 50km ahead, I'd better speed up and try catching Guido!

Bachalpsee lake (2265m). Absolutely wonderful, but the shadow of Eiger looming behind me!
Oberläger Bussalp was the AS at 30km. From there it was 608m straight up to Faulhorn (2681m), the highest point on the course. The steep slope slowed everyone down, but I kept moving up as fast as I could. Fresh E51 runners, who had started two hours after us and took a shortcut here, were passing me left and right. Dang it, that was demoralizing!

Running through a fantastic dreamscape. It looked even better there than in this photo!
I conquered Faulhorn exactly 11am, six hours after the start. 33km done, with 2950m total gain and 1347m total loss. Jeez what a view opened up from there! I just had to stop and look around for a long time. You could see most of Switzerland simply by turning 360°. I wished I could have spent the whole weekend there. I was standing beside Mountain Lodge Faulhorn, which used to be Europe's highest hotel back in 1832. The rooms are said to be in original condition. Moving on!

Trailplodder's arrival at Oberläger Bussalp AS after 30km. [photo]
There were lots of snow fields on the way to Schynige Platte. It was fun to do some downhill skiing with Hokas. The snow didn't slow me down at all, but the groups and families hiking to opposite direction did. Some of them gave way and encouragement, some of them just didn't care. Maybe they were astonished by the amazing landscape.

Schynige Platte (1985m) 44km: great views! Lakes Brienz and Thun and Interlaken on the other side of this ridge. 
Schynige Platte (1985m) had large vertical rocks not unlike the Dolomites, and the view from the ridge over Brienz and Thun lakes was to die for. I spent a good 10 minutes staring at the brilliant scenery. I thought seeing this alone was well worth the trip here. Hello, wake up - you're in a race!

I arrived at Burglauenen AS (905m, the lowest point) around 2:30pm, 9:30 hours after start. 52.5 km done, with 3355m total elevation gain and 3494 loss. The E51 runners would go directly from here to the finish in Grindelwald, only 5km away. We E101 runners had a much bigger challenge ahead. I cleaned my feet, fixed the blisters and cuts, and put on dry clean socks and t-shirt.

It was hot and there was a shower for runners. To my delight they had watermelon! I was well ahead of the 6:30pm cutoff. Still I had better move on fast, while the weather held.

The climb up towards Wengen wasn't too easy. They had told us dangerous places were clearly marked with signs. Now these danger signs popped up every few minutes! The forest offered welcome protection from the scorching sun. There was a nice lady in front of a hut, offering a cup of water for weary runners. Finally the 768m climb was over and the rest of the way to Wengen was easy runnable downhill.

Wengen (1280m) is advertised as "the most beautiful village in the world". It's located in Lauterbrunnen valley aka Valley of 72 Waterfalls - one of the largest nature conservation areas in Switzerland. There are 400-metre high cliffs that draw basejumpers and wingsuits like flies. In summer they average 14 rainy days in a month.

J.R.R.Tolkien's watercolor painting of Rivendell. Looks like Lauterbrunnen to me.
Jungfrau Marathon goes from Interlaken to Kleine Scheidegg via Wengen. They claim it is "The world's most beautiful course." That was before Eiger Ultra Trail, which is obviously much more beautiful.

Goethe was a fan of Lauterbrunnen. He wrote the poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern there - which was then the basis for a composition by Schubert. Our soul is like water, our fate is like wind.

Seele des Menschen, 
Wie gleichst du dem Wasser! 
Shicksal des Menschen
Wie gleischt du dem Wind! 

19-year-old J.R.R.Tolkien hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen on a holiday in 1911. The wonderful valley provided the model for his imaginary valley of Rivendell. Tolkien then continued his journey to Kleine Scheidegg, Grindelwald, Grosse Scheidegg and all the way to Brig and Zermatt before returning home. You may have seen Rivendell in recent LOTR and Hobbit movies.

I left this enchanted valley somewhat reluctantly. But big clouds were gathering up in the sky. I knew what that meant. Or at least I thought I knew what that meant.

This was the only big climb left before the finish. The next AS was only 6.5km away, but it wouldn't be easy to get there. The steep trail to Männlichen with over 1000m elevation gain is called Gemsentest (Chamois Test) and you need to run it in 90 minutes to get ranked on the website.

Gemsentest = Chamois Test. Run Wengen-Männlich in under 90 mins and win!

I made good progress, but not quite fast enough. With maybe about a third left, the thunderstorm began at 6:30pm. Balancing on the ledge, it took some time to put my rainjacket on. In minutes I was soaked in the pouring rain. There was thunder and lightning. It was dark as night inside the cloud. Except when a lightning lit the landscape. I was exposed here, so I kept going up full speed on.

Running up to the top of Männlich the Chamois route in heavy rain, thunder and lightning.
There was a brave or mad laughing race photographer taking photos. He had a strong flash installed on the mountainside, which he kept on flashing as runners hurried by. The rain made the trail slippery, but I finally got to the top. It was a 600-meter dash downhill to the Berghaus. They had sent out a rescue team to ensure everyone got safely up to Männlichen or back down to Wengen. The race was stopped until the storm subsided. It was all very well organized, there wasn't any chance of getting lost or panic.

In the Männlichen Berghaus AS we were given food, drinks and blankets. It was about 7pm. I had done 68km with 5163m total gain and 3988m loss. Soon a course change was announced. Eiger Trail was declared off limits. There might be another storm coming soon. Competitors were now required to descent directly to Kleine Scheidegg and Alpiglen. From there the rest of the course would remain the same as before. Runners waiting in Wengen were lifted up in the cable car. The Chamois slope I had climbed had become too dangerous in the rain.

I felt low motivation for this alternative shortened course. I run for new experiences and adventures, not for finisher t-shirts and medals. I wanted to experience the Eiger Trail. That's what I came here for. So after some mental gymnastics, I decided to call it a day at 7:20pm (14:20 after start) and take the cable car to Grindelwald. The cable car station happened to be very conveniently located, right next to the Berghaus.

The town bus didn't run anymore so late. Fortunately a friendly local guy gave me a lift to my hotel in his car. Soon I was chillaxing in the hotel sauna and jacuzzi. Perhaps I could run Eiger Trail and the the rest of the race course on my own next morning. The road to the finish went right beside my hotel, and I could hear the announcer through my open window every time someone finished.

Now the weather was better and I felt slightly guilty for dropping. But there was no way of knowing if continuing would be safe, and safety is my first priority. I don't take unnecessary risks. I had fun and enjoyed the race today. The trail won't be going anywhere. Now I have a good excuse to come back and try again.

An alternative mountain transportation.

I woke up 7am. After a breakfast I returned my chip to the race HQ and got my dropbag. Then I climbed back up to the mountains. The weather was great again. My legs were not sore. I was feeling very strong, perhaps even stronger than the day before.

It was great to see Alpiglen, Kleine Scheidegg, Lake Fallbodenseea, and Eigergletscher Station. Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks seemed to be close.

A drinking fountain with crystal clear ice cold mountain water.
The highlight of the day was running through the 6km long Eiger Trail. It wasn't as challenging I had imagined it would be. Nevertheless it was spectacular in full daylight. There was a tourist woman crying, as she was too scared to go on. The North Face of Eiger was huge and looked impressive. Beware the Ogre!

A sign showing Eiger Trail is open again.
The rest of the race course was easy and nice. It went through a forest to Gletscherschlucht (Glacier Gorge) bridge and restaurant. Not far away is Marmorbruch (Marble Quarry) and a Guest House. I visited the quarry, which is not in use anymore. They used to get a lot of marble out from there for the Swiss Parliament building in Bern for instance. Instead of marble, I collected some wild strawberries in the nearby forest.

A mountain stream along the Eiger Trail.
The little climb up to Pfingstegg was actually pretty hard for the tired legs. Up there was a restaurant and a luge, neither of which I visited this time. There was another thunderstorm forming in the sky!

An unknown tourist probably trying to get a lift back to Grindelwald.
Then there was just the road down the hill and the last little uphill to the finish in Grindelwald. Of course this wasn't the same as finishing the race. I just wanted to see what the rest of the course looked like. Recon for next year. And most importantly, I was smiling!

A great cold free shower here if you need one!
This Sunday outing took me 7 hours. Because my Suunto Ambit had managed to stop itself for some odd reason (stop button wasn't pushed and the time was still ticking, but no distance/altitude) while I was on the move, I don't have complete data. My best estimate is that it was 32km with a little over 2000m total vertical gain. Thus my total for this and the race combined would be about 100km with over 7000m gain. Not a bad weekend!

Eiger Trail cairns.
On Saturday evening also Guido had been listed among DNF. Later I heard the good news: he had finished in 17h and change after all. He didn't get to run the Eiger Trail, as the storm had began before he got there. On his way down a lightning had hit the earth beside him. It had been a scary close call, but fortunately he was ok.

Eiger Trail view towards Grindelwald.

Out of 449 registered E101 competitors, 370 showed up at the start line. 257 (69%) of them finished, on the 101km course or the shorter course. 113 (31%) had a DNF.

Eiger Trail, Lauberhorn and Tschuggen on the right.

Despite these difficulties, I think most of the participants would agree that Eiger Ultra Trail was a hugely successful event. It was tough, but nobody expected it to be easy.

Eiger Trail view to Grindelwald.

I'm not familiar with all the ultra trail running events, but Eiger Ultra Trail has to be one of the most scenic and beautiful courses in the world. It's certainly the best race I've participated in. Nothing else comes even close. Also the race management and organisation is absolutely superb. And I've already mentioned that the nutrition services at the aid stations were top-notch.

Eiger Trail and Eiger North Face.

Iker Karrera (Spain) and Francesca Canepa (Italy) will go down in history books as the first winners of Eiger Ultra Trail. These youngsters were really fast: 11:38 and 16:18 respectively. However let's not forget the true mountain King and Queen: Christoph Geiger (71) and Monika Dewald (70) who both finished in 20:47!

A sign showing the route up on the North Face.

RD Ralph Näf commented the thunderstorm this way: "We actually got off fairly lightly. The second thunderstorm, which ultimately passed a few kilometres to the north of us, was clearly much more serious. Our partners at the cable car station as well as the local rescue organisations reacted absolutely correctly."

Eiger Trail and Fallbodensee reservoir.

A certain race in Chamonix has become hugely popular in recent years. A bit like a holy grail for trail heads. They require you to collect a certain number of points before you can participate in their lottery. Then if you win you have to send your medical certificate. On race day you will share a crowded trail with thousands of runners.

Kleine Scheidegg and Lauberhorn, the site of world's longest downhill ski course.

At the breakfast table of my hotel I mentioned that I planned to apply for UTMB in 2014. Another runner asked me, "What's so special about UTMB?" I said, "Come on, it's the UTMB, everyone knows Mont Blanc right?" While I said that, I realized it's all just hype. UTMB has nothing to offer that would compare with Eiger Ultra Trail - except distance of course. 168km is a lot more than 101km. But perhaps 101km is more enjoyable to run?

Eiger Trail.

The second Eiger Ultra Trail will be on 19.-20. July 2014. I'll definitely try to be there. Now that the word is out, those places will sell out really fast though. Probably in a few days, or even hours. So one has to be quick to get a bib for next summer!

Thank you organizers for showing us the future of ultra trail running. Eiger Ultra Trail 2013 was a huge success. The race was already nearly perfect, and I'm sure it will be even better next year!

Fallbodensee reservoir.
Thank you fellow competitors for great fun attitude and friendliness along the course.

Hotel Bellevue, Kleine Scheidegg.

Thank you volunteers, you did a good job and made the race very efficient and enjoyable.

A nice trail between Alpiglen and Kleine Scheidegg.
Thank you for all the supporters along the way - your encouragement helped us keep moving on!

The last tiny climb to Pfingstegg.
Thank you Grindelwald - see you again next year and let's keep on smiling!


wcooperjr said...

TP, as always, great! race report. Is english your first language? I would guess it so. I can't believe (but can believe) your comment about UTMB. Hype? We both know it to be so. Except the hype lives on because most American elite's have failed to even finish! Anyway, good luck at the UTMB...I know you will do well. Congrats on a great run at Eiger.

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Will, you're too kind. No English isn't my first language, as you can surely tell by the weird mistakes I make! In Finland Finnish and Swedish are the only official languages. Other languages like English, German, French may also be studied at school. I've always wanted to improve my English as it's my fav and that's why I'm writing this blog.

Eiger is the new UTMB. Maybe UTMB had this level of excitement when they started in 1993. The only thing you need to believe is that you've got to run this race in July 2014. It would be incredible to both finish and beat you next year!

If I win in UTMB 2014 lottery, then Eiger will be great preparation for 100 miles. Having run CCC, I'd say UTMB trails are easier and faster than Eiger. But Karl Meltzer is wrong, 100 miles IS a long way!

What do you mean most American elites have failed UTMB? Krissy Moehl has won it twice. Two greatest American ultrarunners ever, Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek, have finished UTMB. Both Mikes, Foote and Wolfe have run it. Hal Koerner has hiked around it. What else do you want?

I bet nobody can answer this question: Who is the only American to have finished the full UTMB (going around Mont Blanc) in under 24 hours? What was the year and time?

The Fool said...

What a stunning race, you make it sound relatively easy though :)
Also some stunning race photography.

Will add this one to my bucket list...

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks! Eiger is never easy, but it's so gorgeous that you may not feel troubled by the challenges.

sporty44 said...

T.P Thanks so much for sharing your Blog & pictures.I now have a good understanding what lays before me as ive entered E101 for 2014. Going to be one big fun Adventure. Cheers & well done you.

Trail Plodder said...

You are welcome sporty! We are going to run in the same race then. Yes it's a fun adventure. See you there and good luck!

librankris said...

I happened to stumble upon your blog and I must say this is a good article on the Eiger trail. I hiked up from Grindelwald to Klein Scheidegg in August last year and it was one of the most scenic trails I've hiked in.

After reading your article, I do hope to do the full leg of the trail someday!