I am on a glacier, crawling across a ladder, a gaping abyss of a crevasse below, when the thought occurs. Ice Trail Tarentaise has got to be one of the most extreme trail races in all the Alps.
This race, founded in 2011, has quickly garnered attention in the Alps, where there is no shortage of off-beat, challenging alpine trail races. But, Tarentaise might just take the médaille d’or when it comes to throwing one alpine challenge after another at its participants. The cumulative effect is nothing short of head-spinning.
The 40-mile-long course, based in the ski resort of Val d’Isère, climbs 16,400 feet—a cumulative uphill push that’s very nearly one-and-a-half times summiting Everest from basecamp. Starting in the predawn darkness at 4 a.m., the race rolls through bucolic countryside and through the sleepy village of Tignes, before tackling the big challenge of the day: Grande Motte. Just under 12,000 feet, it’s a legit alp peak in its own right. And to get there, course organizers require participants to bring Yaktraks or Katoolas for traction. The route is steep, and near the summit, ropes are placed to assist runners, with guides keeping a watchful eye on each passing racer. Fixed lines help runners ascend a short couloir, or gully. On the summit ridge, the ropes keep any errant runners from raining down on the herds of cows, three feet left… and three thousand feet down.
And that’s just the warm-up.
Ice Trail Tarentaise has much more in the miles ahead. Rolling pastures, one high, rocky col after another. Huge, big-sky style vistas. Intermittent, gentle snowfields that beg for a playful, standing glissade. And when the wipeout comes, as it invariably does, the snowy results are blissful for the sweaty runner. There’s a dance across a ridge to the 11,100-foot summit of Aiguille Pers. At one point along the arrête, I step too far right, and recoil. A stumble, and my obit is a post-script in tomorrow’s race results. A few kilometers later, we reach the final aid station at Col de l’Iseran and then—what’s this?—a tunnel through the mountain? This race never ceases to surprise and entertain. Tarentaise is a plastic-free, alpine Disneyland for trail runners who want a true adventure.
Like other marquee events, Ice Trail Tarentaise is expanding its offerings, too. Val d’Isère’s Club des Sports now offers an associated vertical kilometer on the same weekend. For those looking for something a little less intense, the Ice Trail’s parent organization, Traileurs Pays de Savoie, has organized the 20-mile long Altispeed trail race and the 11-mile-long Balcony of Val d’Isère.
Since its inception, the race has been part of the International Skyrunning circuit. This year, Ice Trail Tarentaise also served as the European Continental Skyrunning Championships. Emilie Forsberg was there, as was the trail runner who is arguably Kilian Jornet’s closest competitor, Spain’s Luis Alberto Hernando. Both won. It was one of the most competitive fields to be found in any trail race, anywhere, this year.
It’s hard to imagine a race like this happening in the United States. We’re too litigious. Land managers would cringe at the very thought of it. The disclaimer would run on ad nauseam.
For a US runner, Ice Trail Tarentaise is a big bite out of a ripe piece of forbidden fruit. All of which makes it that much more alluring. Which is exactly why I’ll be back next year, too.