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Patrouille des Glaciers: once a military race, now a fun run

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Patrouille des Glaciers: once a military race, now a fun run

The Patrouille des Glaciers is the largest ski touring race in the world. The race is changing – the cult of performance is replacing the experience on the mountain.

The Patrouille des Glaciers takes place every two years – theoretically. The army often had to cancel the race. Safety is a priority.

Valentin Flauraud / Keystone

It’s that time again: this week over 4,000 ski touring skiers are taking part in the Patrouille des Glaciers, the largest and probably most legendary ski touring race in the world, in Valais. The Swiss Army has been organizing it since 1943. Legends surround the race and it has a history like no other ski touring race. But the patrol is changing.

The Lower Valais Marius Robyr was a brigadier in the Swiss army and led the patrol from 1990 to 2008. He complains about a change in values: “When I was commander, I said: ‘Everyone who takes part knows the mountains perfectly.'”

This year, 1,600 teams of three are allowed to take part in the race. Robyr says: “Today everyone in French-speaking Switzerland dreams of doing the patrol one day. It’s the New York Marathon for ski tourers.” In short: the patrol has reached the general population.

The participants are fitter than ever, says Robyr, but many lack experience in high alpine regions. The Geneva newspaper “Le Temps” recently asked with concern: “Has the Patrouille des Glaciers lost its soul?”

The race was once a military exercise

The Patrouille des Glaciers is one of the toughest ski touring races in the world. There are two routes, the shorter one starts in Arolla, the longer one in Zermatt, both end in Verbier. On the queen stage of the race, the participants have to overcome 57.5 kilometers and 4,386 meters of altitude. Some can do it in 6 hours, others in 17 hours.

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The participants start in the middle of the night, pass glaciers and race down steep slopes on skis. Equipped with headlamps and skins on their touring skis, they conquer five peaks, including the Tête-Blanche, 3,650 meters high. They are constantly accompanied by: darkness, strong wind, icy cold.

The army originally wanted to use the Patrouille des Glaciers to improve the performance of the troops in the high mountains – and thus also Switzerland’s ability to defend itself in the Alps during the Second World War. After a patrol fell into a crevasse in 1949 and three soldiers died, the military department at the time banned the race.

From 1984 the patrol was allowed to take place again. Since then, civilian patrols have also been able to take part in the race in teams of three. Today most participants start in the civilian category and do not have a mountain guide with them.

The race means a lot of work for the mountain guides

The patrol is one of the largest operations ever for the military. The effort is enormous: specialists are already blowing up avalanches at the end of February, and the main sponsor Swisscom is installing antennas on the summits so that 4G reception is guaranteed along the entire route. 1,600 soldiers are deployed, hundreds of them spend the whole week in the mountains, sleeping in tents and huts. They mark the route, trace it, set up supply posts.

It is still uncertain whether the Patrol des Glaciers can even take place this year. Due to the change in the weather, the first races on Tuesday evening were canceled. It is currently unclear whether those on Friday evening can be carried out. For the army, safety is the top priority.

The Patrouille des Glaciers was banned for 35 years, but was allowed to take place again in 1984. Civilian roped parties were now also permitted.

Max Vaterlaus / Keystone

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The patrol is about solidarity in the rope team and the joy of mountaineering, says former commander Robyr. When he was still in charge, civilian participants attended training courses that taught them how to rescue others in an emergency and survive in the cold. Robyr says: “It was people from the mountains who took part.”

Today, the Patrouille des Glaciers no longer has much in common with alpinism; some compare the race to a cross-country skiing race at high altitude. This is sometimes met with criticism. The loudest opponent was Werner Munter, a former mountain guide and avalanche researcher from Arolla. In an interview he spoke of a “banalization of the high mountains”, “the opposite of self-responsible mountaineering”. During the race, the mountains were a sporting backdrop, a lion whose claws and teeth had been pulled out.

Pierre Mathey, the executive director of the Swiss Mountain Guides Association, says most mountain guides support the Patrol des Glaciers. One of these supporters is Roman Haltinner from Zermatt. He has already taken part in the patrol twice, and this year he will accompany participants on the shorter route from Arolla to Verbier.

Haltinner says it’s understandable that the scene is divided. There are mountain guides who fundamentally oppose major events in the mountains. “They are purists,” he says. “The fact is: For many of us, patrol brings work.”

He raves about the great atmosphere, comparing it to that at a wrestling festival. Haltinner thinks it’s good that ski tourers who lack mountain knowledge can also take part: “The patrol is not an event for the elite, but a people’s race.” One thing is clear: The Patrouille des Glaciers has democratized ski touring and made it accessible to many.

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Some are too ambitious in their preparation

Preparing for it is more dangerous than the race. In March, six alpinists in light ski touring clothing set off from Zermatt towards Arolla to train for the patrol. Then they were caught in a sudden storm, five men froze to death and could only be rescued dead. There is still no trace of the sixth person.

The mountain guide Haltinner says: “Certain runners want to achieve a top time and train for it all year round. Things used to be different.” Some are too ambitious – mostly they are good alpinists. They also pushed themselves to their limits in training. Haltinner says: “But there is no backup when it comes to preparation.”

Mathey from the Swiss Mountain Guides Association confirms that performance on the mountain is becoming increasingly important. But the patrol is not responsible for this change, he says: “Our whole society works like that.” Ski touring races are becoming increasingly popular, and the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) is also promoting this development. In 2026 the sport will be Olympic in Milan and Cortina.

The former commander Robyr wants the fun and experience on the mountain to become more important again at the Patrouille des Glaciers. He advises those taking part in the patrol to enjoy being able to run the route in safe conditions. And leave the stopwatch aside.

Traffic jam in front of the Rosablanche: The patrol is fully booked every year.

Jean-Christophe Bott / Keystone

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