Saturday two weeks ago, I was looking forward to the outing I would be doing the next day to the valley of Hérens in the canton of Valais (or Wallis in German) so as to be able to run on ski slopes. I had only discovered the beautiful ski resort of Arolla about a year earlier while staying at the nearby village of Les Haudères but I had been longing to go back there ever since my second trip to the region towards the end of March of last year.

Arolla_snowshoeing_4 March 2012

On our first trip to the region early March of last year, while doing some snow-shoeing on the hills above the village of Arolla, I had spotted that some other people were doing some snow-shoeing on the main ski piste. I was a little intrigued to say the least.

Arolla 24-25 March 2012

So that when we returned some three weeks later for an extended snow-shoe weekend at Arolla, I made sure we would start our little snow-shoe tour from the main ski slope. We were thus able to see that the main slope was used by many ski mountaineers to go to the top of the mountain of Arolla (or to any other mountain nearby). For our part, we were unable to reach the goal of our last excursion (the pass of Riedmatten, 2919m) because we had started a little on the late side (see my wife’s entry).Arolla_col de Riedmatten

Unsurprisingly, this left me hungry for a second attempt. As I was unable to do so last summer, I had been thinking of going back to Arolla this winter. But time just passed so quickly that we did not even go on a single snow-shoe outing this winter season (although we did get to cross a frozen lake on foot).  So a week before the official close of the ski season at Arolla (21 April 2013), I felt that there were not that many opportunities left to go back there to enjoy the beautiful snow landscapes and I decided that I would be doing so on Sunday (14 April). However, I made a last minute change to my plan: instead of snow-shoeing my way up to the pass of Riedmatten, I would be doing so by running on the snow – as this would give me some extra training for the 20km of Lausanne (which I shall be taking part in this evening) as well as the opportunity to use my Salomon Fellcross shoes. The map above (courtesy of Swisstopo and Suissemobile) shows the route I intended to follow.

Avalanche bulletin until Sunday, 14 April 2013

Hoping that my friend Jan would join me (his parents own a chalet near Les Haudères), I told him about my trip. Unfortunately, he had to turn down my offer because of family commitments, but he kindly reminded me to check the avalanche bulletin of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SL), which I did. To my dismay, I found out that the SL were predicting a high risk of avalanche in Valais! This left me pondering whether or not to go. Finally, I decided that I would go to Arolla, climb the ski slope (as it was still officially open and therefore should be reasonably safe) and, once at the foot of Petit Mont Rouge, assess whether it would be safe to carry on or not. However, I would be taking a snow spade and I would be wearing my avalanche transceiver.

Looking at the still snow-capped mountains in France and Switzerland from the train near Vevey_ 14 April 2013

I got my timing wrong and I was at Lausanne railway station too early (6:26 instead of 6:46 am). Once on the train, I was able to admire the beautiful scenery from the window. This picture was taken not far from the point where I like to run to on my 40km plus runs

Les Dents du Midi while passing through the canton of Valais on 14 April 2013

I could not resist taking a picture of this mountain, Dents du Midi, hoping that it would act as an incentive to take part in a trail race around it this summer (until 2002, a sky marathon had been run around it, a pity it was cancelled, I think, because it was deemed too dangerous).

Les Haudères, Dent Blanche, Dents de Veisivi and valley of Ferpècle as seen from the postal coach while heading to Arolla 14 April 2013

At Sion railway station, I got off the train and boarded a yellow postal coach, which took us up to Les Haudères and then above. This picture shows Les Haudères, Dent Blanche (left), Dents de Veisivi and valley of Ferpècle while the bus was driving to Arolla.

First sight of Arolla from the coach 14 April 2013

Finally, the mountains above Arolla were in sight.

Start point near Les Magines_Arolla 14 April 2013

I did not get off the the postal coach at Les Magines but at Arolla Poste because I wanted to go to the tourist office and obtain some information on a race in the area I shall be taking part in September, called Collontrek. Bad luck: it opened only at 10 am. So I ran back to Les Magines and changed from my Addidas ClimaCool into my Salomon Fellcross. It was 9:23 am when I started running uphill on one of the two main ski slopes. The altitude at the bottom of the slopes is slightly less than 2000m.

DSCN2471_Arolla 14 April 2013

As it was early in the morning, the ski lift was not operating yet. In addition, the early ski mountaineers had not started to ski downhill either … so I had the whole piste (as we call skiing slopes here) to myself 😉

DSCN2472_Arolla 14 April 2013

Less than 10 minutes into my run uphill, I had reached a point where there was much more sun. What a change: the snow was now reflecting the full force of the sunshine. I felt really energised.

Arolla_go up ski slope_14 April 2013

Further up, the sun was shining so strong that I decided it was time to remove my running top with long sleeves and apply some sun lotion on my face, arms and hands (I had already removed my gloves).

DSCN2475_Arolla 14 April 2013

Once I had reached the tip of the slope visible on the previous photo (see the bump above the ski mountaineer on the left), this was the beautiful panorama that unfolded before my eyes to my left: Pigne d’Arolla, ridge running from the pass of Tsijiore Nouve to the pass of Tséna Réfien, with the glacier of Tsijiore Nouve just behind the ridge right in front of me.

DSCN2476_Arolla 14 April 2013

Before carrying on and taking the path leading in between two steep hills near La Remointse, I decided to capture a panorama at 180 degrees.

DSCN2477_Arolla 14 April 2013

Then it was a steep run uphill while trying to overtake as many ski mountaineers as possible.

DSCN2478_Arolla 14 April 2013

This is what I call bliss, running uphill more than 2000m above seal level, leaving the ski mountaineers trailing behind …

DSCN2480_Arolla 14 April 2013

Once close to the top of the slope, I shot another panorama, showing Tséna Réfien, Pas de Chèvre, Petit Mont Rouge and Mont Dolin. What a splendid view it was, no?

DSCN2481_Arolla 14 April 2013

Further up, I noticed that there had been several snowslides on the mountain to my left, Tséna Réfien. Hhmmmm, not great an omen, I thought to myself.

DSCN2482_Arolla 14 April 2013

Then to my right, I also spotted traces of snowslides on Mont Dolin. So the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research were right, the risk of an avalanche coming down today seemed to be high.

DSCN2483_Arolla 14 April 2013

In fact, further up, once I had reached the area near the foot of Tséna Réfien, I saw that the path had been barred with a notice warning ski mountaineers of the danger. Not that the sign managed to deter everybody from taking this path: I saw ski mountaineers moving to and fro this point. But I would not be going beyond this point as I did not want to take the risk of being covered under an avalanche.

DSCN2485_Arolla 14 April 2013

So I carried along, but on the ski slope. Only a few minutes later, I heard a deep, roaring sound: it was an avalanche falling off Petit Mont Rouge. This was the first time I had heard and seen an avalanche and I can tell you that it was impressive. A group of ski mountaineers nearby stopped and I heard one of them say ‘Oh my God, I hope nobody was caught under it as it was so close to the piste‘. I looked at her and replied that I hoped that it was not the case, too. Despite having voiced their concern, this was not enough to prompt the group of skiers to retrace their steps and check that nobody had been buried under the snow as they set off downhill.

DSCN2486_Arolla 14 April 2013

My intention was to go to the foot of Petit Mont Rouge and check. However, skiers were coming down the slope (from the right) really fast, so that in order to avoid them I ended up walking off the piste on the far right, where the snow was no longer compact: my feet kept piercing through the snow, almost like butter at times. I did not have any snow-shoes or ski poles with me. So I decided to give up some fifty metres to the right of where the ski-mountaineer stands on this picture. I did not feel too good about it, but there was not much I could do. I only hoped that if anybody had been buried under this avalanche they would have been seen so that a rescue team could be sent in (I did not hear about anybody having gone missing in the area later on — nor any helicopter hovering above this area, so I guess everything must have been OK).  So I called it quits probably 30 to 35 minutes from Pointe du Pas de Chèvre, the point I had intended to reach to the left of Petit Mont Rouge, the mountain off which the avalanche had come down (i.e. above the ski mountaineer).

DSCN2487_Arolla 14 April 2013

A little further down, I could not resist taking this beautiful shot with Pigne d’Arolla, the ridge running from the pass of Tsijiore Nouve to the pass of Tséna Réfien, Pas de Chèvre, Petit Mont Rouge … Although I was a little unsettled about this avalanche, I was nevertheless happy I that I had run beyond the point I had reached last year.

DSCN2488_Arolla 14 April 2013

Now what awaited me were some very steep downhill stretches ….

DSCN2490_Arolla 14 April 2013

… for instance, through the two steep hills near La Remointse. Although they made a very convenient setting for a snowslide, I felt safe as there would be dozens of skiers coming down.

DSCN2492_Arolla 14 April 2013

The beautiful view while running downhill, with the following mountains opposite me: Grande Dent de Veisivi, Dent de Perroc, Pointe des Genevois, Aiguille de la Tsa.

DSCN2493_Arolla 14 April 2013

So as to avoid being hit by any skiers, I made sure I would remain on the far edges of the main piste.

Snow giving way while going downhill_Arolla 14 April 2014

However, this turned out to be a mistake. The snow was much less compact: my legs kept piercing through the snow, like a knife through half-melted butter. I think I must have dug myself out (thanks to the snow spade I had been wise enough to carry in my rucksack) at least five times while running downhill …

Almost there_Arolla 14 April 2013

However, my little ordeal would soon be over, as I was almost back to where I had started … there was only this steep stretch to run down and I would be on safe ground again 😉

PS I warned anybody I chatted with on the way down that it was unsafe to go up to Pas de Chèvre, but it seems that I only managed to deter a snow-shoer.

To be continued in part 2 ….

Entries related to this region on my wife’s blog:

Other entries on running in winter, this time near Lausanne: