Race Report – The Eiger Ultra Trail E101
The seatbelt light pinged on above our heads as the plane shuddered again, we were somewhere above France on our way to Basel and I was grateful to have something to distract me from worrying about what was to come. We were due to participate in the second running of the Eiger Ultra Trail E101 in Grindelwald that coming Saturday, the 101km race with 6700m elevation gain would be by far the hardest challenge any of us had ever tried to tackle, I had never climbed a peak higher than 1309m the highest peak on the race profile more than double that at 2681m and to top it all off I had recently hurt my calf and was unsure if I would be able to run, I mean it even hurt to walk.
The first thing that hits you as you step off the train into the picturesque village of Grindelwald into the warm summer sunshine is the scent of pine on the fresh mountain air, with the Mattenberg and Wetterhorn towering majestically behind the brown wooden buildings of the village, with snow on their steep grey and craggy slopes. Looking around the village we were made to feel very welcome with banners, some hand written and draped from balconies above shops welcoming trail runners to Grindelwald.
After checking into our hostel and discovering that one of our roommates had done Hardrock and Western States several times, we headed down to the start line for kit inspection and registration. There is a particularly strict kit list for the Eiger Ultra Trail and all kit is inspected before you can register. Once registered there was time to relax in the sun before the pre-race briefing and soak up the beautiful views of the glacier, we even witnessed an avalanche whilst looking up at it from the exhibition village. The race briefing was interesting with lots of talk about a potential storm and how to avoid being electrocuted by lightning if it came as well as the usual advice to stay hydrated and follow the course markers. Then it was straight to bed early for our 4.30 race start the next day, though a combination of worry about my calf, adrenaline and noisy lodge mates meant I got almost no sleep anyway.
After strapping my dodgy calf up with a cohesive bandage which seemed to remove the worst of the pain when running, we grabbed some breakfast and our drop bags and headed for the startline. It was a beautiful clear starry night as we stood on the start line listening to the Eiger Ultra Song, any worries or reservations we had replaced by excitement about what was ahead of us. Then we were off surging forward and then slowing to a walking pace almost immediately for the first small hill out of the starting area.
The first section was along the road, a sea of head torches and brightly coloured running jackets slowly ascending out of Grindelwald and up on to the steeper off road trails that led to First. Some of the trail was fairly forested and technical, climbing steeply, intersected by flatter more runnable trail. There was a pinch point of very narrow trail next to the river where overtaking was forbidden. It was a great feeling to emerge from the trees to see the great bulk of the Wetterhorn looming to your right, the snow on it’s summit glinting orange in the rising morning light. After the aid station at Grosse Scheidegg the trail flattened out and became very runable affording the most amazing views of the Wetterhorn, the Mattenberg and the Eiger to the South. I had dreamed for so long of seeing the North face of the Eiger, having read the White Spider and the great tales of climbing triumph and tragedy on the majestic peak, the thought that I would be running along the base of the North Face itself later in the race spurred me on up to First.
After First there is a long descent to Bort along some very runnable trail, passing herds of cows, their cowbells jangling musically in the still morning will always be one of my favourite memories of this race. After reaching Bort you begin the long climb back to First, including a very long staircase through an alpine pine forest. After emerging from the forest we passed a cow herder herding his uncooperative cows up the hill and after sidestepping around a particularly aggressive looking bull, began the steep climb to First. Emerging onto the plateau at first to shouts of bravo from the super supportive onlookers it was great to grab some ice cold water before beginning the climb then descent to Oberlarger Bussalp, I was also relieved to notice that I was way ahead of schedule and feeling strong.
Then began the very long and steep climb of over 1300m vertical to the summit of the Faulhorn, a 2681m high peak. The climb up was sustained with very little respite, I found myself walking reasonably slowly, just placing one foot in front of the other, knowing eventually I would reach the top and enjoying the scenery. A runner from the E101 passed me going the other direction clearly returning to the previous aid station, beaten by the climb, which disturbed as he looked a great deal fitter than me. Eventually after stopping a few times to drink water and rest I emerged onto the summit of Faulhorn and after some snacks felt immediately refreshed and set off at speed down the otherside. The descent from the Faulhorn to Schynige Platte was very technical in some places, with lots of loose scree and exposed drops in some places. At one point not long after leaving the Faulhorn one of the runners from the E51 tripped and went over the side of the mountain, he began sliding down the scree slope, he seemed too in shock to stop himself and started sliding faster. I stopped and reached out my hand to grab him, which he took hold of and pulled himself to safety.
The trail here was mostly downhill which meant I could let loose and speed down the less technical sections of the trail, the scenery was fantastic with the two turquoise blue lakes at Interlaken occasionally visible to the right and some peaks of jagged banded and folded metamorphic rock to the left. After Schynige Platte the descent into the valley took you across some fields and into some humid forest. At some points running down through this forest the path is very narrow and exposed, at one point there is only a board attached to the cliff edge with a chain or climbing rope strung along the cliff wall to protect you via ferrata style. The descent through the forest to the halfway point in Burglauenen was undulating with some technical forest terrain, apparently when asked the patron of this race Ueli Steck when running the E51 said he had found this the most difficult section of the race.
At the midway point in Burglauenen I was reunited with my drop bag and I enjoyed the goodies within and a light shower from a sprinkler someone had set up to help runners cool off. Then it was off across the road to the start of the forest ascent and then descent to Wengen. The ascent through the forest was quite challenging, the road part at the start was easy enough however it became progressively more challenging in the offroad section which seemed to go on forever. It was in this section I started to get a pain in my left hip, this worried me as I have had an injury there before years ago and know it can get bad. After finally coming out of the forest I took it easy on the descent into Wengen, which according to a fellow runner holds the title of being one of the most beautiful villages in the world and almost entirely car free. From here we began the ascent to the top of Mannlichen up an intimidatingly steep slope looming over 1300m above the village of Wengen, the lower part heavily forested and the top crowned with avalanche barriers for the winter. The climbing was less steep through the forest as the path zigzagged and I found it relatively easy despite the pain in my hip. However the climbing became much steeper towards the avalanche barriers and quite exposed in places, my hip started hurting more now and I pushed on to the top of Mannlichen.
At the aid station at the top of Mannlichen I had a chance for a short break, some snacks and an assessment from the physio stationed there. Apparently I have a severe case of snapping hip syndrome, I had no idea what this was at the time but it sounded nasty. Thanking the physio I started the descent down from Mannlichen, all the major ascents were now done though there were a few hills left. Apparently my hip was even worse going down hill and I was reduced to a slow hobble, just as well I was a few hours ahead, I was going to need them if I was going to make it to the finish on time. The descent was followed by a short climb to Lauberhornschulter and then down onto the flat tarmac road to Kleine Scheidegg following the banners and glow sticks that were guiding the way.
Kleine Scheidegg was the starting point for many of the Eiger epics and a place I had always wanted to visit, sadly after a quick stop at the aid station it was off again up towards the Eiger north face. The journey up was along a steep rocky ridge, which seemed to have very steep drops either side in the dark. At one point along this ridge I stopped whilst being buffeted by some high winds that seemed to come from nowhere and wondered about the wisdom of continuing on so injured, what it my tendon gave up altogether, would I have to get a rescue party out to carry me back down to the train station at Kleine Scheidegg? I thought back to the journey so far, checked my map and watch to see how much time was left to go and decided to press on. On the way up to the Eigergletscher Station along loose scree we passed a large boulder with a plaque in memory of a climber who I assume is now long gone but still has his name written on this giant rock.
From Eigergletscher Station the path rounds around the corner and onto the foot of the Eiger’s imposing North Face, or Mordwand which is it’s German nickname, literally meaning Murderous Wall. This part of the path is covered in loose scree and tricky rocky sections, with several patches of hard snow and icy waterfalls running off from melted snow and ice on the face itself. My hip did not like this section at all and I had to take it super slow, which sucked as it looked like it would have been great fun to run down. Then the trail descends into the meadows to Alpiglen and I made it through an hour before the cut off time, then it was a downhill section along roads and short trail sections followed by an ascent through the forest to Marmorburch. At Alpiglen we were joined by two women from the aid station who ran down with us tidying up after the race, they were very encouraging and gave us great support which I was very grateful for. Just before Marmorburch there is a bridge across an incredibly steep gorge through which the meltwater from the Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher glacier drains, it truly is an impressive sight and probably more so in daylight if you can actually see the glacier.
From Marmorburch all that was left was a steep climb to Pfingstegg through the forest and then a descent into Grindelwald, this descent was all on tarmacked road which was especially annoying as I had to hobble down them instead of letting fly and running down. Then after a short but steep incline in Grindelwald and a flight of stairs down to the finish the race was over! Despite my injury it had been a fantastic race, capturing the very best that mountain trail running has to offer, not once was I bored on the trail, even when hobbling slowly! I highly recommend this race and look forward to seeing you there next year, when hopefully I can finish in a good time injury free!
Author – Justin Boylan-Toomey
Thanks for reading!
Happy trails and routes folks! 🙂