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Jul 02

The Tour

Lizzy Hawker


Traditional Walser house in a hamlet above Alagna!


True, Ultra Tour Monte Rosa is only in its second year as an organized running event, but the long-distance hiking route around the Monte Rosa massif has been trod by people for quite a while previous to this. Wild and high and ridiculously scenic as it is, it’s punctuated by signs of habitation—vestiges of ancient paved paths and isolated villages—all along the way. Rather than marring the wilderness, these manmade landmarks only add to the variety and historical context of this unique trail.

Parts of the TMR have been employed as trade routes since some rough-dressed folks left behind stone tools, so it’s kind of surprising that the whole 100-ish mile circuit wasn’t actually connected for hiking purposes until 1994. As such, the entire circumnavigation is usually an eight- or nine-day itinerary. The route, which has some variants, was designed with both practical logistics and views in mind, so it made perfect sense to follow the existing trail rather than devising something just for the purposes of the race—no need to remake the wheel.

Photographer and writer Alex Roddie hiked TMR in 2015, following in the 1842 footsteps of Professor James Forbes, who Roddie admired. Roddie noted in his blog prior to the journey:

“The Tour du Mont Blanc is a very popular long-distance hike in the Alps, looping around Mont Blanc, but the circumnavigation of Monte Rosa is less frequented. Both routes are approximately 100 miles in length. However, the relative unpopularity of the TMR – and its more severe elevation profile, featuring numerous major ascents and descents – make this route the more serious proposition.

The main challenge here is the brutal elevation profile. … I’ve climbed plenty of 3,000m and 4,000m peaks so am quite happy with climbs like this, but I’ve never done so many day after day before. What the TMR lacks in wildness it makes up for in physical difficulty.”

Starting in Cervinia and proceeding counter-clockwise on the Italian side of the massif, you’ll cross back into Switzerland at Monte Moro Pass, finishing in the umlauted town of Grächen. This year, the route does not include the highest point on the whole circuit, 3,900-some-odd meter Theodul Pass. If you feel cheated by this, you have options for restitution: Sign up for UTMR’s Grachen-Cervinia hike extension, simply keep running from Grachen, or sign on for UTMR again in 2017 when it will cover the full monte. Ha.

While UTMR ultra runners will experience the cultural variations between the Italian, Swiss and small Germanic Walser communities at a brisk clip, there are some clues that can be appreciated at 8-minute pace

If there is pasta at the aid station and the caffe only has milk in it between the hours of 6 am and noon, you’re in Italy.

If there is rosti (a potato fritter) and chocolate on the table, you’ve crossed into Switzerlan

Gressoney la Trinité, Alagna and Macugnaga are traditional Walser communities along the route. If there is beer and ham on the refreshment table, it is culturally sensitive to eat and drink quite a lot.


Faces. On a doorway in Saas Fee!

Faces. On a doorway in Saas Fee!

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