St. Johnsbury 'Skyrunner' Makes History On 1st Female Team To Complete Historic Swiss Alps Trek
It's a 66-mile journey that traverses 26,600 feet in elevation. It requires skis, skins, crampons and more. But for St. Johnsbury native Hillary Gerardi, a world-class "skyrunner" and mountaineer, the grueling trail through the Swiss Alps known as the Haute Route was more than an adventure: it was making history as part of the first team of women to complete the route. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Gerardi, who, along with Valentine Fabre, became the first women to complete the route between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Give us a quick overview of what a skyrunner is, what you do and what you've been doing in France?
Hillary Gerardi: Skyrunning is, I would say, it's a little bit of a niche discipline within trail running. The easy definition that I usually use is, if you have to use your hands and scramble a bit at some point, then it's skyrunning instead of trail running. But I think that the style of moving through mountains is probably pretty familiar to most Vermonters, because a lot of the trails in the Green Mountains are pretty technical as well.
Yeah, I mean, if you go up Mount Mansfield, there's parts of that to get to the top where you do have to start using your hands and clamber over some rocks and what have you.
But tell us about the Haute Route. What does it take to complete that? Give us an idea of the distance, the elevation, some of the obstacles involved.
It is a famous ski traverse that leaves the town of Chamonix, in France, which is where I'm based, and then leaves France pretty quickly and traverses a large portion of the Swiss Alps to get you all the way to Zermatt, Switzerland, at the base of the Matterhorn. Typically, people do this kind of route with a mountain guide, and they would do it over probably five to seven days or so, staying at mountain huts along the way.
The route that we chose was to aim to go the quickest way possible, shortest distance. Obviously, you can't just draw a straight line, because there's a bunch of mountains in the way, but a relatively safe, straight line across the way.
That involved going up and over eight different mountain passes. At some point we had to sort of take our skis off and put 'em on our backpacks to hike straight up, because it was too steep. Sometimes with crampons and ice axes. We had one occasion where we had to use a rope to rappel down a pretty steep section. But the classic Haute Route that you might do with a mountain guide, typically you don't need lots of technical skills. But because we were kind of trying to go as direct as possible, it was a bit more technical than the regular route.
This is something, you said, would normally, if you're going to do it with a guide, might take about a week's time or so. If I'm getting this right, you completed this route in just over a day.
First of all, how did you do that? And second of all, why did you want to do that so quickly?
As you know, I definitely have a penchant for speed and endurance athletics. And I learned that there was a men's record on the route — and, actually a series of men's records that had been established and beaten over the last few decades — and I admit that that kind of piqued my interest, knowing that guys had been doing it, but women hadn't done it yet.
And also, sort of my background in the last decade or so as an endurance athlete, and also someone who loves Alpinism and ski mountaineering, it seemed like a really cool way to kind of combine different projects. And to put it out there like, "Hey, you know, women can do this too. This is a place for us as well."
You did this with Valentine Fabre, is that the companion you went with on this particular excursion?
That's right. Valentine Fabre, who is a former French ski mountaineering champ, and she did a lot of the world ski mountaineering championships. She's also a doctor in the French Army. So, she's definitely a force to be reckoned with.
So you accomplished this route in just under 27 hours, which is remarkable. And you are the first women to do this, no matter the time, as far as you know, you and Valentine were the first women to ever complete this Haute Route?
In one shot, yeah... We had initially set out aiming to do it in under 24 hours. But one of the things that makes this route so interesting, and a huge challenge, is that there are so many different things that have to line up in order for it to work out. The stars really have to align.
I'm a runner, as you know, and a lot of times when you head out on a running challenge, it's like, well, am I fit? And do I have a good weather forecast? But for this, there's a lot more that goes into it. You also need to be acclimated, because we're up over 12,000 feet for some of it. You have to have the technical skills. There's a whole bunch of gear that you need to have sorted out, from your skis and your boots to your climbing skins and, as you mentioned, the crampons, helmets, harnesses, all of that stuff.
With this kind of huge elevation gradient, you get really variable conditions from top to bottom. We had quite good conditions up high, but it had, unfortunately, already melted out a lot in the base of the valley. So — if you can imagine the pleasure — we lost quite a bit of time in places where we actually had to run or hike in our ski boots, because there was no snow left. So, we lost quite a bit of time on that. And then Valentine did get pretty sick at the end of it, which slowed us down a little bit.
So we ended up with a time of 26 hours and 21 minutes for, as you said, it was 66 miles and 26,600 feet of vertical gain. And we're pretty sure that, you know, that we could do it under 24 [hours], but I'm not quite ready to go back and try it again.
"There are places that you can really see the impacts of climate change, where glaciers have melted a lot and there are large moraines that are pretty unstable, that have been left in the wake of glaciers melting." — Hillary Gerardi
Amazing. You just mentioned some of the incredible challenges you had. It sounds like you were running through mud at some points of this. Are you concerned about the future of skyrunning in the Haute Route, things like that, as we face a changing climate? Because I have to imagine that's going to change a lot, as you continue to do this kind of running and training over the years?
I'm really glad that you asked that question, because it's actually something that I've thought a lot about, and that we've certainly thought about going into this project.
For skyrunning itself, I'd say, as a lot of summer sports are, it's a little bit more resilient. Because it's more on rock and dirt than something like this is. But one of the interesting things — and hard things — about the Haute Route is that the window, for example, in which it's possible, is getting smaller by the year. There are places that you can really see the impacts of climate change, where glaciers have melted a lot and there are large moraines that are pretty unstable, that have been left in the wake of glaciers melting.
I definitely think that this kind of route, the time period when you can do it — when it's not dangerous midwinter condition, and it's not already melted out and crevasses opening up — is getting shorter and shorter. And so that's definitely a concern for me and for a lot of people here [in France], and all of the communities that really depend on these high-mountain environments, both for tourism and, you know, their economies, but also natural resources.
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