The Patrouille des Glaciers returns

The art of high-altitude skiing

François Perraudin / David Carlier
Winter 2023-2024

The 24th edition of the most celebrated (biennial) ski mountaineering race returns April 15-21, 2024, linking Zermatt (or Arolla) and Verbier. The new brigade commander Christian Sieber sat down with helvet to discuss how the event has evolved over time.

Three people roped together traverse 53 km at high-altitude — the equivalent of 110 km — tackling 4,386 m of altitude increase with skis on their feet. Meet the Patrouille des Glaciers (PdG), an event that’s (in)famous for the sweat, tenacity, exhaustion, solidarity, and emotions it requires.

The race was the brainchild of two 10th Mountain Brigade Captains from Valais: Roger Bonvin (future Federal Councillor and President of the Confederation) and Rodolphe Tissières (future Téléverbier SA founder). It was 1943, and they wanted to test the capacity of their men to defend the country’s highest borders in the midst of WWII. They chose the Haute Route course — going from Zermatt to Verbier and which normally takes four days — as the challenge to be completed in one go. The event ran successfully until 1949, when a three-person patrol tragically died, resulting in a federal ban for the next 30 years. Then, in 1984, the event was revived, opened to civilians (opened to women in 1986) and has been evolving dramatically ever since. In 1944, the winning team took 13 hours to complete the course. The current record (set in 2018 by an Italian patrol) stands at a mere 5 hours, 35 minutes, and 27 seconds.

“Achieve Greater Heights Together”
The Patrouille des Glaciers is now part of the Swiss ski mountaineering championships and the long-distance world championships, which “reinforces its iconic status as one of the most prestigious races in the world in this discipline,” emphasizes the new PdG brigade commander, Christian Sieber.

Taking over from Colonel Schwery (the regional chief of police for Mittelland Emmental Haute-Argovie) as of 2023, Commander Sieber says it is an honour to be stepping into this role. “As someone from Bernese Seeland, the mountains have always been part of my life. I look forward to overseeing this prestigious event and I feel both excited and determined. My primary objective is to ensure safety and satisfaction for participants. I hope the event will be a success for every one of our patrols and a tribute to their exceptional endurance and dedication. The slogan for the 2024 edition of the event is “Achieve Greater Heights Together,” which perfectly illustrates the spirit of unity that both drives and transcends this exceptional race.”

A new organisational structure
Over time, the PdG has grown in scale. At least 1,600 military members and 100 volunteers are enlisted every year to support the race. The 2024 edition also marks the start of a new organisational structure, which sees the army collaborating with the new Patrouille des Glaciers Foundation, led by the former Chief of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Philippe Rebord, and operating under the Canton of Valais. The army is responsible for the event’s organization and implementation, while the foundation coordinates PdG promotion and marketing. “A collaboration that has already been constructive and positive since the planning stages,” says Brigadier General Sieber.

Regarding other updates, Commander Sieber adds: “There have been no other major changes since the 2022 edition. We are just constantly working to improve the experience for patrols and the public, while minimizing our impact on the environment.” Proof that, even though the race is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its revival, modesty is still a driving force for the PdG.