We’re not even at the beginning and our jaws are already on the floor.
It’s not just the surroundings that are heart-stopping: no matter how many times our guide tells us the numbers, 57km and more than 4,000m of climbing around Région Dents du Midi seems a far greater bite than we can chew. But it turns out he has a shortened version of the Trail des Dents du Midi in mind, and with the promise of a homemade cake at today’s halfway point, he gets us off the start line.
Don’t expect a tale of heroics — not by the author or Luke, the photographer, anyway. We are surrounded by some of Europe’s most extraordinary summits and our modest plan for the next two days is to get to know the trail that circumnavigates the Dents du Midi range, a remarkable seven-peaked mountain with an unforgettable shark’s-teeth silhouette located in the French-speaking corner of Valais (‘Wallis’ in the German-speaking area), one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.
The route is that of the annual Trail des Dents du Midi Seven Summits Challenge, a one-day race that attracts superhuman participants from far and wide and offers them variously terrifying (in my opinion) itineraries. We’ll be led by our friendly local expert, Candide Gabioud, whose brother is Jules-Henri, owner of AlpsXperience (a guiding outfit) and an elite trail runner (whose resumé includes winning the unspeakably gruelling 330km Tor des Géants).
Trail running in the Dents du Midi, Switzerland.
Jules-Henri is out for a casual two-day run around the range with a group better conditioned and more daring than us, trail runners who have come from all over Europe to pit themselves against the challenging singletrack circuit while gleaning some tips from their leader. As we are mere mortals and nothing of the sort that conquers this range in such a rush, we’ll move at a slower stride, but we’ll be meeting Candide’s brother along the way.
When I think of Switzerland, I think access. I’m not talking about getting here — although that is easy by train, plane, car or however you like to travel. When I talk about Swiss access, I refer to the ease in which the country’s mountains can be opened up for hiking, running, mountain biking, sightseeing, or merely drinking a strong coffee at a fairy tale chalet very far up a hill. Valais epitomises impeccable Swiss infrastructure: the roads, cable cars and paths that crisscross the area deliver users to improbable destinations in hidden valleys or far-fetched peaks. There really is nowhere in the world quite like it.
Hiking in Switzerland surrounded by hidden valleys and fairy-tale peaks
The Trail des Dents du Midi race has been taking place since 1969. Every year at the end of summer, adventurous souls gather in the pretty town of Champéry (one of six resorts in the Région Dents du Midi and part of the expansive and trail-rich Portes du Soleil area) and set off in any of a handful of distance- and experience-graded categories. For the pros, there’s the full measure, the brusquely undulating 57km loop that climbs and descends a number of landmark passes in the shadows of those seven unmistakable summits. (2020s’s winner, Jean-Philippe Tschumi, completed the race in an unfathomable 6h43seconds.) There are also 32km, Team, Junior and Kids races — however experienced you are, there’s a category or event with your name on it.
There isn’t a category with my name on it, and so it is that we set off on our abbreviated recce of the trail. We leave ahead of Jules-Henri’s group — they’ll catch us up not much later. Although we are taking it relatively easy, this weekend adventure will still involve plenty of metres of climbing (around 2,500m elevation gain) and will cover 30-or-so kilometres on some of the most exciting sections of the trail, while also taking several detours so that Candide can show us the best views over Valais.
Candide is familiar with crossing entire mountain ranges — like his brother, he competes in some of the world’s most arduous trail races — so we decide to open his eyes to our way of doing things. Nice and slowly. Not a problem for Candide who, while perfectly at home running ultras in summer and ski mountaineering in winter, takes great pleasure in sharing the mountains with guided groups and passing on his intrinsic geographical knowledge of the (quite literally) staggering expanse of natural grandeur that is the Dents du Midi. He’s as happy at his own pace (gazelle) as he is at ours (retired sloth) and takes the time to explain the glacial period (with perfect relevance to our speed) that gave form to the impeccably flat Rhone valley some thousand metres below us while it chiselled away at the very mountains on which we now walk.
There is suitable terrain with impressive scenery for all abilities
With hearts pounding and blood coursing, our senses are heightened as we make the climb up to the shore of Lac de Salanfe at 1,925m altitude. On the uphill, we are immersed in a magnificent setting — rocks glistening in the pure morning light, gnarled tree roots underfoot, a stream crashing down beside us, a cool breeze whistling off the mountain ahead. Popping out above Salanfe’s impressive hydroelectric dam, we opt to continue past the mountain refuge and skirt around the lake; we’ll be back later for that famous homemade cake.
Here, we join the route Jules-Henri’s group is following (there are tracks everywhere in these hills, but the Tour des Dents du Midi is a well-worn path, although rarely crowded). They’ll be through soon, so we jog across the wide valley, the lake to our left, multicoloured alpine flowers bordering the trail on both sides, and begin to ascend towards the Col de Susanfe, the 2,494m mountain pass we can see from all the way down here.
Halfway, we are caught by the group. They’ve been running and hiking all day, and everyone looks thrilled (and worryingly fresh — they’ve been going for five hours already). We trek to the pass together and take in the mighty views and sharp breeze before they disappear down into a much greener valley on the other side. One of the amazing things here is that with each pass summitted, you drop into a new valley with a quite starkly different landscape. Along the Dents du Midi route, you might take in blissful sunshine and biting cold in the same day; bare rock and verdant meadows; winding footpaths and savage climbs. The many contrasts are part of its allure. One tip though: arrive early for the cake — there is none left when we show up mid-afternoon.
Jogging along the Dents du Midi route, in the blissful sunshine
Later in the day, fuelling up (homemade plum pie) ready for the short but worryingly vertical-looking route Candide has planned for tomorrow, we thank the farmers, shepherds and hunters that first roamed these mountains some centuries ago, creating the trails so many people now link into life-affirming journeys. As we recover in the surprisingly vibrant but traditional centre of Champéry, we consider how much trail usage has changed over the years, how fast people can move through the mountains these days, and how slowly we’ll meander again tomorrow. Blissfully sauntering through the larger-than-life scenery of the Dents du Midi.
Word of caution: as COVID-19 regulations can change at short notice, make sure you check the latest official government guidelines for Switzerland before travelling.
To discover interesting and useful information about Région Dents du Midi, its summer and winter activities and villages, and to book your stay, visit regiondentsdumidi.ch
The Trail des Dents du Midi Seven Summits Challenge is open to all; it’s a fun event that is as challenging as you make it. This year the race is set for 19 September.
The Tour des Dents du Midi route is easy to follow and achievable for most fitness and experience levels. Refuges and villages along its route make it a perfect long weekend’s walk or agreeable two-day run.
We were guided by AlpsXperience, which we recommend highly.
For information about hiking and trail running in the Valais canton, as well as offers, travel information and other services, click here.
Ready to organise your trip? Click here to head over to the Valais online shop.