The 2021 Monte Rosa Skymarathon - a crazy race to the sky

Covering 35 km and 7000 metres of vertical change, the Monte Rosa Skymarathon is an extreme mountain race.

At 3:45am my alarm sounded, not normally something I would welcome but today was going to be a special day, when the Monte Rosa SkyMarathon returned to Alagna after a years hiatus due to Covid 19.

Making my way to the village in the dark, there was a hive of activity with campervans and tents deposited in any free location, occupants busy waking themselves with coffee, fueling with their food of choice, checking gear and donning harnesses & ropes.

There was plenty of tension and excitement in the air about what was about to unfold.

I have been fascinated by the Monte Rosa Skymarathon since learning of this crazy but beautiful event 5 years ago when I first visited Alagna.  Where super athletes race up the Monte Rosa climbing over 3300 metres directly up from the village of Alagna Valsesia without respite, reaching the halfway point at the Refugio Margherita at 4554 metres making it Europe’s highest race. 

The great Kilian Journet himself called it “one of the World’s greatest races”, and I can understand why.  It’s a fantastic mix of beauty and brutality.

Teams of two, roped together for safety over glacier terrain, return the same route descending back to Alagna covering a total of 35 km with the record time for the pair time being an unbelievable 4h39’59”.  For most people the return trip would be a 2-3 day excursion.

7km shy of a regular flat city marathon, anyone who knows something about travelling in the mountains understands this is far from an inferior event.  Climbing up steep mountain trails, over soft summer snow and crossing heavily crevassed glaciers, the going is exhausting.

Added to that the percentage of oxygen available at 4000 m is only around 60% of the amount we enjoy at sea level creating a unique challenge to the athletes involved.

Athletes passing Bocchetta delle Pisse 2396m on the long way to Refugio Margheritta
An athlete leaves Bocchetta delle Pisse ready for the high alpine section to Refugio Margherita with the Monte Rosa looming in the background.

The event requires an extreme level of fitness and or a  healthy dose of craziness.

Thankfully the event attracted plenty of entries demonstrating both qualities.

The chat around the course was that there was little chance of the record being broken this year due to relatively high amounts of snow accumulations at altitude and the warm temperatures making it soft and difficult for fast travel.

The winners William Boffelli and Nadir Maguet obviously didn’t get the memo however and had a very good attempt at cracking the time.  Completing the event in a staggering 4:43h they were only 3 minutes shy of the record set by Boffelli himself with partner Franco Collé when the event was last run in 2018.

The 5:30am start for the Monte Rosa Skymarathon wasn't enough to deter the 250 or so athletes who took part.
The winner's of the 2021 Monte Rosa Symarathon were William Boffelli and Nadir Maguet who completed the course in a truly staggering time of 4:43h in soft snow conditions. What has to be seen to be appreciated is how fast the top athletes haul themselves down the mountain - a near reckless feat somewhere between sprinting and controlled falling.

The women’s’ event of the Monte Rosa SkyMarathon was won by Swedish twins  Lina and Sanna El Kott Helander in 6h22’12”.  Made all the more impressive considering Sweden is not exactly known for it’s high altitude alpine terrain, and of course they are twins.  I think they won over the fans in Alagna and we hope to see them back next year.

They made up an impressively international field of athletes from 36 countries.  All the more impressive given the Covid 19 travel restrictions around the World and a great turnout for the event and Alagna Valsesia after the race had to be cancelled last year during the height of the pandemic.

One of the Swedish twins Lina and Sanna El Kott Helander - winners of the Women's category

It’s a beautiful day in Alagna, mountain races attract such a positive vibe and interesting mix of people creating an amazing atmosphere in the village.  I would highly recommend witnessing this event if you ever get the chance.

Perhaps you could but it on your bucket list!  If the full event is too much, there is also the shorter but still demanding version – the AMA VK2 or vertical 2km to Punta Indren. In fact if that event takes your fancy – perhaps I’ll see you on the starting line next year ;).

For the official race report and more information on the event visit the Monte Rosa SkyMarathon website.

Monte Rosa SkyMarathon Gallery

about the author

about the author

Nick is a photographer based in the Le Marche region of Italy. Nick specialises in architecture, property and branding photography. He has a passion for capturing the story and beauty of businesses and la dolce vita. In his free time he likes to explore Italy by bike, on foot or on skis. All photos in this post are the property of the author.

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