Residents of the Vail Valley take part in the Patrouille des Glaciers mountaineering race in Switzerland

Chris Aubel, Edgard Canabillas and their guide, Mario, ran the Patrouille Des Glaciers in April 2022.

In 2019, Edwards’ Chris Aubel found himself plagued by an obsession. Driven by dizzying anticipation, he steadily gathered his AT gear and stripped down Arrowhead, Beaver Creek, and Meadow Mountain, earning a small victory each.

Aubel was inspired by the serenity of the morning and soon had the company of Edgard Cabanillas, a friend and fellow Rotarian from the Vail Rotary Club. After a morning meeting, or maybe it was on one of their skin ups, Cabanillas suggested they take it to the next level. “Let’s race the CEO,” Cabanillas told Aubel.

The Patrouille Des Glaciers, or “PDG” in Switzerland is the “Grandfather” of all ski mountaineering races. “It’s the biggest and worst Skimo race,” Aubel said of remembering thinking at the time. “We are not getting any younger. I’m in.”

As the race only takes place every two years, there was no time to waste; they secured an entry spot for their team, named it “The Vail Mountaineers,” continued training, and waited for the 2020 CEO.

Insert the pandemic here.

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Flashforward to 2022, the two sit on the deck of Loaded Joe’s in Avon in late May. As they recount the adventure they’ve just completed after a long wait, Cabanillas reflects on those early mornings of 2019. “I thought I had to focus on the climb, so that’s mostly what we did “, did he declare. “In reality, the PDG is a mountaineering race in its own right. You ski, you bootpack, you descend so it takes a lot of ski skill to do that. It also requires a good dose of planning and financial resources. We are so glad we were able to come back there and do it.

A scale diagram of elevation changes on the Patrouille Des Glaciers race. The trio ran course A from Arolla to Verbier.
Courtesy Image

The PDG story begins in the early 1940s before World War II. Patrouille Des Glaciers loosely translates to “Patrol of the Mountains”. Originally, it was a training camp on a network of tracks intended to develop Swiss military skills and knowledge in order to defend the country’s mountainous borders if all roads were cut off by the enemy.

Today’s CEO is an accredited ski mountaineering race with over 1,500 teams competing in an expanded four-race format. Military and police teams still participate – in fact, after the war until the early 1980s, no civilians participated in the PDG – but now the PDG welcomes qualified competitors from around the world.

Traditionally, few American teams have won entry. On the recommendation of one of Cabanillas’ Swiss friends, they arranged to hire a guide, a standard practice that helps secure a team spot, especially for non-Swiss competitors. Also, it increases the likelihood of completing as getting lost in unfamiliar terrain can be a hazard.

“We were lucky to have Mario, our guide because even though he had never raced, he knew the area well,” said Cabanillas.

Now a team of three, the group trained for a day together at Verbier ski resort and another day on an early part of their course. Anticipation peaked when a storm rolled in and blanketed parts of the racecourse in fresh snow threatening avalanche danger and once again, the viability of their race.

Some preliminary races were postponed and the Vail Mountaineers team began to think that the whole CEO could be canceled. Fortunately, thanks to the highly organized event staff, the avalanche danger was alleviated and the race began.

It’s a long day no matter what race you’re running. The Z course from Zermatt to Verbier is 53 kilometers (about 33 miles). The runners on this route start at the end of the evening, then the others start in stages thereafter. “Our race was Course A from Arolla to Verbier,” said Aubel. Arolla is halfway between Zermatt and Verbier.

“The most messed up thing was the tee time,” Cabanillas said. “We left our hotel at 11 p.m. and were bussed to the start for our round at 3 a.m. Our gear had been inspected a few days earlier so they checked our pads and then we left. After a while, the people from Zermatt started to pass us. It’s pretty amazing how fast they can go, but we stuck to our plan and set our own pace.

Even with the new snow, the race saw difficult conditions. Race times were generally slower compared to 2018, the last time the race was held. Indeed, about 20% of the participants were unable to complete their races this year. Course A is 29.6 kilometers long, with the most dangerous parts being downhill sections. Using their skills and seeing incredible scenery, the trio reached the highest point, Mount Rosablanche (3,160 metres) just over halfway through their race and descended towards the finish in Verbier from there.

Under sunny spring skies and on another tour at Loaded Joe’s, Cabanillas looks back on his big adventure. “We didn’t break any records, but we had a great time,” he said. Aubel chimed in, “We keep our team time secret!” Let’s just say it took most of a full day and we didn’t finish last.

Cabanillas takes a moment to explain how supportive they have been from friends and family. Her friend, Lindsay Broach’s father, Dudley Broach, was a particularly enthusiastic supporter who sadly passed away after racing a battle with cancer. “Dudley loved Vail and thought what we had accomplished was amazing,” Cabanillas said.

Aubel agrees and brightens up to a memory of the race. “So, we get to the finish area, and we hear ‘Vail Mountaineers!’ Mountaineers of Vail! Turns out Vail locals Fred and Chrissy Rumsford were in Verbier and came out to cheer us on. They must have seen our team’s name on the list. Aubel said laughing. “Next time, and there will be a next time, we’ll have an even bigger cheering section!”