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Leukerbad with the backup guide

Leukerbad with the backup guide

I said before that I don’t guide as many of the tours anymore, and it’s really true.  Last year I didn’t guide a single day!  It’s not that I don’t like it, because I actually quite love getting to meet our folks and getting out on the trail with them.  I particularly love the equalizing effect that being on the trail has, where people from all different backgrounds and careers and locations can come together with a common interest of being in the mountains.  We all have a lot in common. But even if it is fun, guiding takes up many, many hours in the day, from 7 am until 10 pm generally, and just doesn’t leave much time for anything else.  As our tours have grown and expanded, it’s just easier for me to be available for logistics, and to rely on our fantastic group of guides to lead the tours.

But things happen, and sometimes we don’t have a guide where needed, so I am the backup.  This year, we have our very first Matterhorn Ultraks trail running tour with Run the Alps, and our guide Alister, could only stay through Zermatt (he said he was busy this week, but I don’t know).  So I picked up the tour in Zermatt and for the next 2 days in Leukerbad.  I have to admit, it’s not a bad gig, starting out with a wonderful 5 course dinner at the 4-star Hotel Europe, a place we’ve called home for 15 years, and one of my favorite hotels in the Alps.  Ruedi Julen does a fantastic job, and his staff are always extremely friendly.  There were just 2 clients on this trip, Tammy from Arizona, and Gary, an American living and working in Sicily at the moment.  They had just been running all over the mountains with Alister, and Gary in fact had just completed the very demanding 30k Ultraks race (while I was hiking around on Hohbalmen).

Tammy and Gary wanted a rest day, so we didn’t do any running the next day, but instead took a detour to Riederalp, one of our more off-the-beaten-path destinations.  Riederalp is a very small, modest car-free village right at the base of the Aletsch glacier, a huge river of ice stretching down from the Jungfraujoch, and the largest glacier in the Alps.  They have beautiful pine larch forests and surreal views of the glacier from the ridge above town, so we took it easy with a short walk along the ridge, for a chance to see something a bit different on our rest day.  By mid-afternoon we were heading back down and a couple valleys west to Leukerbad.

Aletsch glacier above Riederalp
The Aletsch glacier viewed from above Riederalp.

Leukerbad is also one of my personal favorite stops.  It’s not really a top resort, and honestly, I don’t find myself sending many people here.  Maybe 2 or 3 self-guided tours each year and guided trip every now and again (I think this is our 4th guided tour in Leukerbad ever).  But yet I find myself making a personal trip to Leukerbad just about every year.  The town is nice enough, the setting spectacular.  What Leukerbad really has going for it is the unbelievable, serpentine trail up a cliff face to the Gemmi pass (with a fun running challenge that Doug has written about), and thermal baths.  They say 3.9 million liters of hot water pour out of the springs each day, at 122 degrees.  They’re not wild, and you won’t find pools out in the woods, but they are instead piped in to big mixing tanks and then pools and spas throughout town.  It’s the reason to come to Leukerbad.  I love the town pool, the Bürgerbad, with their various massage jets and fountains, hot grotto and cold plunge.

The weather forecast for the next day was bad… rain, rain, rain.  But by morning time I checked the forecast again and it did not look all that bad at all (and someday I’m going to write at length about weather and forecasts and my problems with them), so we decided to “run” up the Gemmi.  Now, I say run, but really this is a fast-hike at best, a 3000 foot+ climb over about 4 miles of relentlessly uphill switchbacks.  Tammy was incredible, powering up in 64 minutes and earning a free trip to the thermal baths in the process, while Gary and I decided to take a somewhat more relaxed pace to the top.  Or at least that’s what we told ourselves.

switchback trail to the Gemmi pass above Leukerbad, Switzerland
The trail to the Gemmi pass winds up an impossibly steep cliff face, but is surprisingly not scary.

From there we had a beautiful flat run along a glacial river (like, 3 minutes removed from being part of the glacier) and a short ascent to the Lämmeren hut, an extremely typical alpine club hut that I had never visited before.  Hut bagging is a bit of a hobby of mine, there are over 600 huts in the mostly manned and selling food and drinks in addition to being a place to sleep.  They’re all in beautiful places, and really fun to go visit for a soup or coffee or schnapps (or all 3), so the chance to visit a new one was particularly exciting for me.  And now that I’ve been there, the Lämmeren hut might even work it’s way into our self-guided tours, if it seems appropriate.  We’ll see… it’s not a priority, but it’s always nice to know as many places as possible.

interior view of happy hikers snacking at Lämmeren hut, Swiss Alps
A well-deserved lunch at the Lämmeren hut.

The weather held for the most part. By 2 pm, we had a cold wind and a bit of spitting rain as we started our descent.  But after about 30 minutes it was clearing again, and both Tammy and Gary wanted to run back down from the Gemmi pass instead of taking the cable car, so that’s what we opted for.  It was a great day.  Tammy and Gary have both talked about how much they loved the trip, which is what I always hope to hear.  After a final dinner in town and breakfast at our hotel this morning, my role as backup guide is finished.

trail runner, Swiss Alps
Trail running above the Gemmi pass near Leukerbad.

They’re off on their separate post-trip plans now, and I’m on a train on my way to Chamonix.  Chamonix is just over the border, in France, at the foot of Mont Blanc, and is one of the top 3 or 4 places that we organize trips to.  I’ll spend the next couple of days there talking with Doug about our running tours, meeting with a couple of existing and prospective guides (we have a tour starting tonight, and many of our European guides are based in Chamonix), seeing what is new and changing, and checking out hotels… I feel that our main hotel in Chamonix is slipping lately, and it might be time to find something a bit cozier.  It should be a full couple of days!

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