All-night glacier race tests the toughest

Posted: Monday, May 08, 2000

ZERMATT, Switzerland (AP) -- Yodels and cheers echoed through the chilly night air this weekend as hundreds of competitors laden with skis, ice picks and ropes set out in an arduous race across the Alps' glaciers and peaks.

Called Patrol of the Glaciers, the race originated in maneuvers to defend neutral Switzerland against the Nazi threat during World War II and has evolved into one of the world's most prestigious mountain competitions.

The race, which begins in darkness after midnight, stretches from the resort of Zermatt to Verbier. It attracted 2,300 participants this year.

''It's a celebration of the majesty of the Alps,'' Bernard Mayor, commander of the Swiss army's 10th mountain division, told competitors packed into Zermatt's main church just before they set out early Saturday.

Each three-person team carried skis, radio receivers, avalanche beepers, altimeters, ropes, ice picks, snow shovels, food and water for a route that involves running, climbing and skiing. Hundreds of locals climbed mountains or chartered helicopters in the middle of the night to cheer on the patrols.

As the crow flies, the start and finish lines are about 19 miles apart. But on the ground, competitors covered 32 miles, trekking up and down the landscape of glaciers, ravines and potentially treacherous peaks. The course's highest point stands at 9,850 feet above sea level on the Tete Blanche mountain.

''We were asked if we fancied having a go, and we said yes,'' said Billy Rodgers, a Scottish native with the Royal Marines. ''It should be a good laugh,'' he declared just before setting out with teammates Kian Murphy and Craig Haslam.

Twelve hours and 35 minutes later, the trio sprinted in ski boots across the finish line in Verbier -- a 25th place finish. ''Yes, it was a good laugh,'' panted a flushed but jubilant Rodgers.

A Swiss border guard patrol broke the course record, finishing in 7 hours and three minutes for the victory.

For the vast majority, finishing rather than winning was the main goal in the race, held every two years. There was no prize money, just medals, photographs and personal pride.

The logistical challenge was huge: The race involves 42 tons of equipment and 900 support staff, including guides and doctors scattered throughout the mountains.

The race was conceived during Switzerland's general wartime mobilization by two captains in the mountain brigade charged with defending the central Alps. To test soldiers' endurance, they organized a contest for three-man patrols over the Zermatt to Verbier route in 1943.

A 1949 race met with tragedy when one of the teams fell into a glacier crevasse. That incident sparked such a national uproar that the government banned the competition for 35 years.

When resurrected in 1984, the race was opened to nonmilitary participants. Some two-thirds of the patrols this weekend were from sporting clubs rather than the army.

Especially notable was the increase in female competitors -- up from a handful in 1984 to 300 this year.

''We won! we won!'' Cristina Favre screamed in delight as her team defended its 1998 female title, finishing in 9 hours and 47 minutes. They won despite getting lost in the forest just before Verbier while trying to take a short cut.

Favre, who has a 2 1/2-year-old child and is still nursing her 9-month infant, said she had an added motive to post a fast time.

''I had to get back to feed the baby,'' she said.

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