The legend of the PdG

goes on in Zermatt

Text Laurent Grabet / Photo PdG François Perraudin
Date of publication Winter 2019-2020

Between 27 April and 3 May, 1,600 intrepid teams of three will race from Zermatt to Verbier, hoping to win the 22nd Patrouille des Glaciers, the most legendary ski-mountaineering event of them all.

“The Patrouille des Glaciers is part of Swiss heritage. It’s one of the world’s greatest events, right up there with other flagship races like the New York Marathon,” says 58-year-old Swiss Army staff colonel Daniel Jolliet. The newly appointed commander of the Patrouille des Glaciers, his love for a race he has completed seven times in 18 years is clear for all to see. “It’s the greatest one-day ski-mountaineering race in the world because of its length, elevation gain and loss, and the number of participants and spectators.”    

 A sporting and military challenge like no other
“LA Patrouille”, as it has become known, is a very significant contributor to the reputation for excellence enjoyed by Switzerland and Zermatt. It is there, under the stern eye of the iconic Matterhorn, where this gruelling 57.5 km race, running through the spellbinding but uncompromising world of the high mountains to Verbier, gets under way. Along the way comes an elevation gain of 4,386 m and an elevation loss of 4,519 m. Those numbers come as something of a surprise even to the people in the know, who believed the race to be 53km long and the elevation gain only 3,990 m. “The 2020 route is not going to be radically different, though the latest GPS tools have shown that previous calculations of the length of the race and the elevation gain and loss were some way short of what they actually are,” explains the commander. The finishers of previous years will be delighted to learn that, given that their achievements have now become all the more impressive.

By the time you read these lines, the registration period will sadly be closed. Only 1,600 three-strong patrols will have the joy of going down in history between 27 April and 3 May next year, in the long and the short versions of the race. Cheering them throughout the week and at various points of the course will be around 40,000 spectators. There were 300 disappointed patrols following the draw, but safety is one of the watchwords of the competition and comes before all else. The Swiss Army plays its part in guaranteeing it by mobilising with typical rigour and lending its services on the ground for eight whole weeks. At the height of the event, no fewer than 1,600 soldiers and civil defence guards are on duty, among them 200 army doctors and medics, as well as around 40 mountain guides and avalanche experts.

 A major challenge
No one can say if the respective men’s and women’s records of five hours and 35 minutes and seven hours and 15 minutes, both set in superb conditions in 2018, will be bettered. Yet one thing we can be sure of is that although the sole ambition of most of the participants is just to finish the race, this is a legendary event that is not to be taken lightly. Extensive physical, technical and even psychological training is needed to beat the demanding cut-off times. “The PdG is more than just a race; it’s a three-person human adventure, a journey through history, the mountains, friendship and emotions,” says Commander Jolliet. The Patrouille des Glaciers is an epic where the final goal is ultimately less rewarding than the path leading to it. That is something that those who have been fortunate enough, at least once in their lives, to take part in the solemn pre-race briefing at the foot of Zermatt’s church and then set off a few hours later from the Place de la Gare, know only too well.