The Heart of the Alps: Trail running in Italy’s Aosta Valley
We looked up at the steep mountains surrounding Gressoney Valley. “So, how high are we climbing tomorrow?” I asked our guide, Davide:
“Maybe 700 or 800 metres for the first section, straight up the side of the valley”, he replied. “But it’s worth the effort, because at the top, you will find Paradise!”.
As trail runners, we are always going to be enticed by the prospect of a tough climb. Whether it’s for the physical challenge, fitness benefits, technical training or the thought of a rewarding view or drink at the top; the reason doesn’t matter as long as the desire to do so exists. So I found myself, the next morning, wielding my hiking poles and making slow but steady progress up the side of the valley.
I wasn’t disappointed. Just like our experiences during the rest of the week’s trail running tour around the Aosta Valley, the paradise that awaited us at the top of the climb was worth the effort. It reminded me of Yosemite, full of lush greenery, steep-sided rock faces with plunging waterfalls, streams and evidence of wildlife. If you are passionate about running (or hiking) in the mountains, you have to have this place high on your list – it was stunning.
The reason doesn’t matter as long as the desire to do so exists
Where we ran
We spent most of our time in two valleys:
- Ayas Valley around the town of Champoluc, and
- Gressoney Valley.
They both sit in the Aosta Valley, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography (as I wasn’t, before visiting), sits south of Zermatt, on the south-side of the mountain range that includes the Matterhorn and Breithorn mountains, and the Monte Rosa Glacier.
A tale of two valleys
Each valley has a different character. The main town in Ayas Valley (Valle d’Ayas) is Champoluc, at 1,568 metres above sea level. Champoluc is surrounded by well-marked hiking trails and many ski pistes, making it part of the Monte Rosa ski area in winter.
The mountains immediately around the town are not as steep as those around Gressoney, meaning it was easier for us to get out running without a long steep hike to kick things off.
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Gressoney, on the other hand, reminded me of a smaller version of the Chamonix Valley. While also part of the same ski area as Champoluc in winter, in summer you can bag a vertical kilometre for breakfast, if you have the desire and strength.
The running around here was more technical (and – for me – more hiking than running, both up and down!) and the place offers a great alternative to Chamonix if you are looking for world-class technical trail running without the crowds of hikers and climbers. This is one of the many reasons world-class ultra runner Lizzy Hawker did much of her UTMB training in this area, and has chosen to created a tough race of her own that passes through here: The Ultra-Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), which is taking place in September.
In summer you can bag a vertical kilometre for breakfast
In both areas you can find stunning mountain and glacier views, attractive old buildings and castles, not to mention many welcoming mountain huts (‘Rifugios’) offering beer, excellent food, and, of course, the option of Genepy or Grappa to spice up your day.
Enjoying some downtime
One of the other big attractions to the region, apart from the trail running itself, was to have the opportunity to explore and learn about the culture and history of the area. Many of the surrounding villages are so remote and it was humbling to consider what life may have been like for the Germanic merchants and farmers who originally came over the mountains from (modern-day) Switzerland and settled in these valleys more than 700 years ago, building and living in small, wooden houses perched on the mountainside.
When not out in the mountains there is plenty to do in the towns. Three of our favourite experiences were the thermal spa in Champoluc (Monte Rosa Therme), practicing our swing in the shadow of the mountains, at Gressoney’s golf driving range, and a combination of local wine-tasting and a tour of the Walser Museum in Gressoney centre. These filled our afternoon downtime before we headed out for one of many filling and tasty meals at a local restaurant.