As I proudly proclaimed in my previous Trails & Ales column, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to travel around the world, due in large part because of my passion for trail running and beer. Originally it was about traveling to trail running races, but more recently my travels have been equally for the beer. My globetrotting excursions are remembered and memorialized by mountains, trails, races, local beer styles and the people I’ve met in those experiences.
Here is an epic adventure from a tiny mountain town in Leukerbad, Switzerland.
Up early in the morning and feeling groggy but properly fueled from a smorgasbord of coffee, yoghurt, muesli, fruit, bread with jam, Nutella and cheeses–that’s right, multiple cheeses!–I stood next to American trail friends Rickey Gates and Simon Gutierrez and stared up at a huge mountain with a sheer cliffside. “The trail climbs up that cliff face,” Rickey said. “So, you’re saying it’s steep, then?” I reply.
The route from Leukerbad up to Gemmipass is known as Gemmi Run, but merely referring to it as “steep” so understates the pitch, that it’s darkly humorous. We heard that if you reach the top in under 70 minutes you get a free gondola ride down the mountain and a day pass to the Leukerbad Therme, the world-class hot springs/spa in town. There’s even a punch clock system for self-timing in the event you want to validate your effort for the free ride down. Unable to find the starting punch clock, though, Rickey and I just headed straight up the mountain, clinging to chains and rope-lines for safety the whole way up. And for good reason, because it’s ridiculously vertical. No joke, it entails roughly 3,000 feet of elevation gain in about 3 miles. Simon, perhaps smartly, opted for a flat run so he wouldn’t have to run back down. (Click here for more about this crazy steep DIY run in Leukerbad and watch a video here.)
Making the trip more memorable was an old school, grandmaster-aged Russian trail runner named Alekseev Alexander, who offered us a drink of his orange juice with an “extra kick” of vodka and chain-smoked thin Russian cigarettes, claiming it was “guud for da lungs…very smooth.” We passed on the cigarettes but did indulge him on his special orange juice. With lungs and legs burning, we got up well before the time limit (I made the ascent in 50 minutes), but we didn’t get a punch card to get a free ride down and, besides, the gondola was not running anyway. So, no free thermal baths for us. After our run down the mountain, white-knuckling it the entire time, we found my then-travel-partner and now-wife, Nora, enjoying the spa and the view of us high up on the mountain.
Looking back at the incredible view made me feel deserving of the beer I was about to indulge in. Gemmi Run is one of the most exhilarating and breathtaking (quite literally) trails I have ever been on. Anything that has chains and ropes so you don’t fall off has to be pretty memorable, right? While there are some good beers brewed in Switzerland—including Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien Grand Cru “Like a VirJin” by Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes or Valaisanne Ämarich Weizen by Feldschlösschen– Switzerland is definitely wine country.
But I still preferred the grains and hops over the grapes. Indulging in a Swiss beer after partaking in such a memorable ascent with Rickey made everything that much better. It made the camembert, which happened to be extra stinky, taste that much better. The abundant fresh bread that much better. The ripe brie that much better. And the wine that much better. There must have been a lot of wine, and according to my journal entry from that day I partook: So much vin, so much talk, such great friends. This is life! A perfect finish to a perfect day! SANTÉ!
I recently learned there is a brewery in Leukerbad, and, to me, that’s a good reason to go back and have another go at the Gemmi Run. If I get the free ticket for the gondola ride down, I can sample their beers that much sooner.
For me, it’s not about just the running and certainly not only about drinking beer. It’s about the community that is apparent where the two meet. So whether home or abroad, enjoy where you are, who you are with and the social connections that bookmark those occurrences—and if you’re like me, the experiences of drinking a post-run beer and immersing in that community—because, after all, those are among the most memorable stories of our lives.