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the cliff face of the Gemmi Run
Gemmirunning: One of the World’s Most Unusual Trail Runs

Gemmirunning: One of the World’s Most Unusual Trail Runs

Jul 29, 2021

Sometime a bit more than 20 years ago, a trail runner approached Stefan Tscherry, the operator of the tram at the base of Leukerbad, Switzerland’s Gemmi Pass. The lift runs from the village, climbing 949 meters to its finish at the top of Gemmi Pass in the Berner Oberland region, roughly across the wide Rhone valley from Zermatt.

The runner asked what might be the most common question Stefan gets. “How long does it take to hike up there?”

Stefan gave his usual reply. “Two hours to walk, an hour and 15 minutes if you’re running.”

“75 minutes? That’s very fast,” replied the runner.

“If you can do it in 75 minutes,” replied Stefan on a whim, “I’ll give you a free ride down!”

He succeeded. And thus was born Gemmirunning, arguably the Alps’ most interesting trail run.

Look closely, and you can follow the route nearly all the way through the image. The Gemmi Run climbs 949 meters– and much of it is carved into a cliff. (Photo courtesy of Gemmi Bahn)

The timing was good. In 2001, the Gemmi Triathlon came along, and triathletes could train on the climb and take part in the challenge.

In the intervening years, hundreds of trail runners have tried to beat the challenge. Runners fill in a card at the base station, punch their time on the card using an old-school time clock, and run out the door. The Gemmi company, owners of the lift, the hotel, restaurant and spa, started a web site. Within a day after a completed run, each runner’s time is listed.

Over the years, the challenge has grown incrementally harder. Today, the men’s division needs to summit in under one hour, and women need to finish the Gemmi Run in under 65 minutes.

Later, a great prize was added. The tram company’s then-Director and a regionally known politician, Wolfgang Loretan, signed an agreement with the Leukerbad Thermal Park. Runners who met the challenge also received a free entry into the famous baths, located in the middle of the village.

A runner and his dog run up the Gemmi Pass route
Run the Alps Doug Mayer and his dog Izzy tackle the Gemmi Run.
Two technicians climb along cables that support the Gemmi Bahn lift.
This is how the Gemmi Staff gets directly to the top station. Well, not really. But they do need to climb the cables to perform maintenance. (Photo courtesy of Gemmi Bahn)

There is no shortage of history associated with this route. Roman coins found over the years confirm that the trail, which connects the Bernese Alps with the Valais region, has been in use for many hundreds of years. The Gemmi Pass is even mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Final Problem, as Holmes uses the route to get to Meiringen, in the Berner Oberland. Mark Twain and Pablo Picasso are among the tourists who have walked this route. The pass reaches a height of 2,270 meters, with the trail climbing to 2,322 meters at the top tram station.

Today, the Gemmi run is as popular– and as quirky fun– as ever. The women’s record is currently with French mountain runner Anaïs Sabrié, who ran to the top of the pass in 2018, in a time of 45:50. Sabrié, from Lyon, was France’s mountain running champion the following year. The men’s record , 35:57, is held by Andy Wacker, of Boulder, Colorado, USA. It’s no surprise– Wacker, sponsored by Salomon, is one of the world’s fastest trail runners. Close to the internationally recognized Sierre-Zinal trail race, it’s not unusual to see names of well known trail runners listed in the results.

Gemmi-Running: How to do it:

  • Get to Leukerbad by car or SBB train and Post Bus. Park either at the main tourist office or at the tram base, where limited parking is available. Both locations charge a nominal fee.
  • Get ready to trail run! The route is 5 km long with 937 meters of climbing.
  • Go to the counter at the tram station, and complete your entry information. There is a 5 CHF fee for participating.
  • When you’re ready, ask Stefan to punch your card. Put it in a pocket of your trail running vest, and run as hard as you can!
  • Follow the blue Gemmirunning signs. In about a kilometer, the climb starts! You’ll switchback up the cliff face. In two locations, the route moderates gently to give you a bit of a break. But otherwise, it’s pretty unrelenting!
  • At the top of the pass, follow the trail signs for the top station. You’ll take a right, then run parallel to the cliff wall.
  • In about 5-10 minutes, you’ll reach the finish. Run inside, and get your card punched!

Congratulations! It’s over! How’d you do?

The Gemmi Run is on the first day of Run the Alps’ Guided Matterhorn Ultraks trip, and is also available as part of any self-guided Run the Alps trail running vacation. Contact us for more details.

For More Information:

Mission accomplished! Left to Right: Run the Alps’ Doug Mayer, Senior Guide Emily Geldard, Gemmi Running founder Stefan Tscherry. (Photo: Doug Mayer)
Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.