Crossroads to a runners paradise
Innertkirchen. A small, sleepy village, nestled in the heart of Switzerland, at the foot of two famous passes. Cyclists, bikers and tourists will transition through this village every year, after traversing either the iconic Grimselpass or Sustenpass. Few stop for more than a bite to eat, unless visiting the tourist hotspot, Aareschlucht, an impressive 200 metre gorge just outside the village.
Arriving in this humble village after driving over Sustenpass, I was greeted with impressive vertical rock faces, majestic waterfalls and rustic buildings, giving a traditional Swiss feel. All of this was enough for me to book an initial two nights at ‘Camping Grimselblick’ a perfectly placed campground a stones throw from the river Aare. My gut told me I’d be here for a lot longer.
I decided that my first running venture in this part of the world, should be at Engstlensee. This area had been recommended and after setting eyes on it, I could absolutely see why. The autumn colours were already starting to make a subtle appearance in the September sun, making the lake and the weeping glacier above feel even more magical.
After exploring the lake and soaking in the so-called ‘energy’ which the rock faces towering above are known to omit, I opted for a protein filled energy boost from the Alp, before hitting the trails. Cows graze alongside the lakeside in the summer months and their fruits are used to produce dairy based delicacies, enjoyed by tourists and locals. That day, I chose a freshly made milkshake and some yoghurt, both of which were delicious and the perfect top up, to fuel my run.
Like many of the trails I had already opted to run, I chose the yellow hiking trail that day. Hitting the trail in the late afternoon sun, it didn’t take long to warm up, but luckily, the dense pine forests gave a welcome break from the surprisingly strong September sun. Within minutes of hitting the trail, I was surrounded by an incredible wilderness of natural beauty and firmly back in my favourite place to be.
After descending for an hour or so, the majestic pine forests cleared, to reveal a vast valley, with magnificent waterfalls and glimpses of glaciers in the distance. Running through the valley, with green pastures either side, I met my running buddies for the afternoon. Marmots.
These cute and furry animals, can only be described as beavers with fur. You will spot them in open mountain landscapes, often with rocky terrain, where they basque in the sun and hide between boulders. Like me, you may mistake them for a kind of bird to start with, due to the high pitch screeching sound they emit. After scanning the sky and realising there aren’t any birds in sight, you may be lucky enough to spot one of these cuddly looking creatures scurrying along the mountain floor. The high pitch noise, however, is to warn others of danger, so you’ll have to be quick and lucky to spot one, before they burrow back into the depths of their underground homes.
After leaving my running pals that afternoon, I weaved my way through forestry trails back towards civilisation. These trails linked up with the bottom of Sustenpass, where I gradually began to be re-introduced with society again. This route had provided real variety, both in terms of the landscape and also terrain, and was the perfect introduction to my trail running journey in this part of Switzerland.
Staying at the foot of Grimselpass, I heard cyclists and bikers speak about this infamous pass on a daily basis over a morning coffee. From hearing their tales, I knew I couldn't leave the area without running along this iconic pass. Standing at an impressive 2,164 metres, the mountain pass connects two major cantons in Switzerland, Bern and Valais.
Due to the high altitude and significant snow fall in the area, the pass is usually closed between October and May. It was already late September, and although the top of the peaks had already had a dusting of snow, it was hard to imagine that these trails would be impassable in just a matter of days.
On my first day in Innertkirchen, I took myself up to the top of Grimselpass and hiked some of the trails running parallel to the pass. At the top of the pass, I met a very friendly Swiss tourist, who insisted we shared a small glass of red wine, despite it being only 11am, before sending me on my merry way with an apple to fuel my journey. These encounters, as well as the absolutely incredible surroundings were what made this journey so special and memorable.
So you might be thinking, this is meant to be a running article and I’m writing about hiking. You’re not wrong! I won’t pretend I ran the whole length of Grimselpass. Running the whole pass is certainly possible, but in my honest opinion, there are more beautiful options in this area, where you are immersed fully with nature, rather than feeling like you’re still dangling on the edge of society. Instead, I did a hybrid option - hiking one section, and running along the rest of the pass.
The trails on this route were reasonably wide and runnable, with some more technical sections, but it was still entirely possible to maintain a decent pace throughout. Some sections of the trail were cut directly out of the rock, giving a striking feeling as you traverse along the edge of the many dams in this region. Half way down the pass, you’ll have the option to de-tour towards Gelmersee. Again, this is a ‘must see’ in the area and entirely possible to add on as part of a trail run. Some of the trails in this area are fairly challenging, however, especially if you’re wary of heights like myself.
At the end of the pass, I stumbled across more furry friends except this time, they were not so friendly. A herd of cows, who seemed very unfamiliar with hikers and people in general. That, coupled with one of their young standing right in the middle of the narrow trail, I decided it was a battle I wasn’t ready to take on that day. A detour it was to be.
Not all trail runners will run religiously on trails, and I am no exception to this rule. The weather was truly dreadful for one weekend in Innertkirchen. Although I desperately wanted to explore new trails, I decided a road run was the best compromise that day.
I decided on a route which would take me along the river Aare, through beautiful forest trails before skirting the village of Meiringen. This conurbation is best known for its links to Sherlock Holmes and from claiming to be the first place where the sweet treat, meringue, was created. From there, I picked up small, country roads, which took me through quaint villages, farming communities and perhaps one of the less scenic parts of the route, alongside Meiringen airfield before reaching Lake Brienz.
Although the cloud had descended into the valley, hiding the usually proud standing mountain tops, the onset of water from the clouds had made the abundance of waterfalls even more impressive than the day before.
Reaching Brienz, a pretty, lakeside village a stones throw away from the popular tourist hotspot of Interlarken, I was just 5km away from completing a half marathon distance. I knew I still had enough miles in my legs to reach this goal, so I retraced my steps down a pleasant and picturesque trail alongside the turquoise waters of Lake Brienz before hitting the 21km mark just as the heavens opened once again, seemingly to congratulate me on finishing my run for the day.
During the 3 weeks in Innertkirchen, I had already cycled and hiked in the Rosenlaui area and traversed across the impressive Grosse Scheidegg pass, which rewarded me with breathtaking views of the world famous North Face of the Eiger, and nestled at the foot of this impressive peak, the picturesque tourist town of Grindelwald.
This mountain pass stands proud at 1,962 metres, showcasing wildly beautiful views across Bernese Alps of Switzerland, as well as showcasing the spectacular Rosenlaui Glacier, towering above the pass. I knew it would be impossible for me to leave Switzerland without lacing up my running shoes in this unforgettable area.
On my final day in Switzerland, I set off to do just that. Like always, I had a full spectrum of potential ideas for the day. A ‘nuclear’ option which would involve running a half marathon distance from Rosenlaui to Grindelwald. These type of ideas would usually result in being close to exhaustion and wanting to sleep for about a week.
I knocked some sense into myself, given I was due to drive half way across the continent the following day. Instead, I settled with a relatively gentle trail run down the Grosse Scheidegg pass, which I knew would leave me beaming with happiness, with every step I took on the trail.
A few kilometres into my run, I stumbled across a herd of cows close to one of the Alps in the valley. I knew to expect this from a few hundred meters up the trail, with the sound of cowbells echoing in the distance between the wild mountain peaks. Again, I enjoyed sharing the trail with some furry friends, and this time, I received a friendlier welcome.
I continued to weave down the pass, with the trail taking me through lush green pastures, over rustic bridges and along impressive ravines. I passed bikers and hikers, everyone seemingly in a great mood with the sun shining and autumn colours starting to make an appearance. It was hard to think of anywhere else I’d rather be. A pair of bikers shouted ‘bravo’ as I skipped across the trail, boosting my motivation to keep up my pace.
I took an early break to soak in some of the beautiful surroundings properly, rather than constantly watching where I was placing my pounding feet on the trail. Taken aback, I felt tears appearing in my eyes as I watched the water flow across the river bed, with the magnificent mountain peaks making me feel so small in comparison. I was alone, but I’d never felt so connected to myself and my surroundings.
Pulling myself together, I continued to put one foot in front of the other on the trail. Descending a few more kilometres along the pass, I couldn’t help but make a short de-tour to Chaltenbrunnen, the highest moor in Europe. I slowed my pace for the steep gradient and climbed up the trail, which gave me an elevated, front row seat of the impressive Rosenlaui Glacier. With most of the elevation complete, I treated myself to some fresh mountain water and a break to fully admire and soak in the exceptional view, whilst reflecting on my journey.
I felt bittersweet, arriving back in civilisation with the post run high, but inner sadness that this would be my last adventure in Switzerland that summer. It was over for now, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until I returned.