The Patrouille des Glaciers is a gruelling ski mountaineering race between Zermatt and Verbier. Teams of 3 compete to traverse 53km and climb 4000m, it’s a tough race that some claim to be the hardest team event in the world. It’s huge in Switzerland and gets a lot of coverage. The fastest time is just under 6hrs, but this is superhuman, most teams are happy to finish within the 16hrs cut off. The event I supported saw half the teams fail. Due to its popularity the PDG is now held twice in the same week. Nowadays there are always a few British teams that compete, the most famous of which included Pippa Middelton in 2016. This meant the race was featured in all the major newspapers in the UK. The best article was written by one of the team for the Telegraph, though if you want to see Pippa from every angle the Daily Mail is the place to go. But for a less showbiz write-up and probably the best pictures then have a look at Ben Tibbetts blog.
Supporting the Patrouille des Glaciers
This article is not about the race itself. I’ve written it to help anyone that wants to offer support for a team at the halfway point in Arolla. The organisers do provide water, Coke, tea and chocolate apparently there are some oranges towards the end so support is not strictly necessary. But many people appreciate something a bit more personal and also the possibility to sort out any equipment issues (forgotten suncream?). I had received conflicting reports about how easy it was to access Arolla on the night of the race. The local tourist office had said I could not. However others thought that I could, so I set the satnav and aimed to arrive at 1am. This would mean I could grab a few hours kip in the car and be ready by the piste at 5am.
Driving up from Sion on ever narrowing roads that night I immediately felt the presence of the race. I had managed to get myself sandwiched in a convoy of Swiss Military logistics trucks! After you pass Evolene the road is very rough, narrow and precipitous, there are even some sections of single-track tunnels. Thankfully these were rendered safer by military personnel stationed at either end. If the weather is good there will be little to worry about. Otherwise don’t forget that Arolla is at 2000m altitude. If any snow is forecast make sure you and your vehicle are properly equipped! On arriving at Arolla much of the town will be occupied by military vehicles and logistics equipment. The Swiss military must treat this event as one of their major logistical exercises. Thousands of them are involved. Near Arolla they had set up a helipad, refuelling facilities and even a field hospital.
Despite this civilian supporters are welcomed. They had provided parking, toilets and had plenty of people on hand to advise. Once the parking is full then the sides of the road are used. I parked about 15min walk from the checkpoint, and walked the full distance a couple of times but also used the military transport vehicles that were shuttling up and down the road.
The Arolla checkpoint is 28km into the course, the competitors will have climbed 2000m. In theory it is almost halfway, in practice the second half of the race will be harder thanks to the effect of the sun and fatigue. There is mandatory time cut off at 06h30 here and as you can imagine there will be no negotiating with the organisers! The competitors choose when to start the race the night before, so anytime from 22h to 02h in the morning. You should be able to do a basic calculation to estimate what time your team(s) will arrive. There is also the PDG App available on Google and Itunes, this will give you real time data for the location of each team. There is a good phone signal at Arolla too. However the App seems to struggle from time to time so it can’t be relied on.
Finding your team
This will be much easier if it has been discussed beforehand. It’s not easy though, there will be 1,200 competitors that squeeze past in a 3 hr period, more than half of them will have people offering support. Add darkness into the mix and the fact supporters are not allowed onto the course and some thought is required. The support was fairly tightly packed along the fence. Take a look at what I have marked on the enclosed plan. To help my teams find me I had elected to bring along a multicoloured flashing led strip. I was the only one to have done that, everyone else had flashing bike lights and orange warning lights. There were also flags, banners, balloons, tables and even a BBQ. You can imagine what the competitors are faced with!
Most of the teams that stop for help spend at least 15min sorting themselves out. Then they are off up an icy piste. Every half hour they end up mixed in with 500 or so setting off in waves on the “A” race start; something which is probably worth avoiding. Once 6h30 is reached everything calms down significantly. I caught a lift back up to my car in one of the military transporters and set off home. Again no grief on the road at all. If you want to drive around to the finish in Verbier, you will have plenty of time. It’s a 2 hr drive and for most teams you will have at least 6 hrs in hand!