Mid-way through 2014, I was drawn towards the idea of a 170km race through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, set against the stunning backdrop of the Mont Blanc massif. The race was the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB); the jewel in the ultra running crown. However, qualifying for the race is almost as tough as winning a golden ticket into Wonker’s Chocolate Factory. I was relatively new to trail running and the only ultra I had under my belt was the 45km Six Foot Track in Sydney’s Blue Mountains (a sprint by most ultra running standards). With no hope of qualifying anytime soon, I decided to create my own UTMB, following the popular Trail du Mont Blanc (TMB) hiking track that most people cover over 10 days; I decided I could comfortably run it in 5 stages during the start of the European Summer, carrying my own supplies and spending each night in a mountain hut or in a valley. The lure of trail running and the opportunity to discover the French, Swiss and Italian Alps saw myself another runner Ian, board a hellish overnight train from Paris to Chamonix, where we travelled to Les Houches and what would be the start of a 5 day, independent running traverse of the Mont Blanc Massif.
Day 1: Les Houches – Le Pontet (22km, 1,167m)
Setting off on a cold and wet morning from Les Houches, the pack was filled with the bare essentials; 1l of water, a sleeping bag, dry clothes, snacks, toothbrush, toothpaste, thermals and basic first aid, yet it felt like I was dragging a heavy bag of rocks up the mountain with me. It took a while to find my trail running legs as I ascended up the long, steep 5km climb to the Col de Voza.
Lesson one; running around a mountain unsupported for five days means your bag will be heavy.
Once we reached the Col, the route became a steady, slightly undulating trail; peppered with some fun, open downhill sections where you could really stretch the legs. Despite the European drizzle, the thick fog which enveloped the valley cleared at times and gave way to some spectacular views. Cowbells became a regular sound from the cattle that roamed the land through the valleys.
Making good time, we reached the commune of Les Contamines-Montjoie, a cute little town with a church square and row of boulangeries and cafes that were dwarfed by the giant, snow-capped backdrop of the Mont Blanc ranges. Excited at the prospect of staying in this friendly little French commune for the night and to grab a hot shower and glass of wine, we stepped into the Information Centre to ask for directions to our pre-booked mountain hut. My French isn’t great but I could still understand when the lady said, “ascenter le grand montagna“. I roughly, and correctly translated this into “It’s a (stupid) long way, up the (crazy stupid) big hill”.
Lesson number two; never underestimate how long it will take to climb a mountain to reach a hut when the weather is against you.
Uncertain that we would make it before nightfall, the lady took pity and went out of her way to re-arrange accommodation in a gite (French holiday home) in Le Pontet at the edge of town, which was only a few kilometers away. The gite was set beside a lake, which was shrouded by low cloud and surrounded by lush forest. After a slow, hilly 17km start, a hot shower and glass of red lulled me to sleep, full of anticipation for what lay ahead for the rest of this epic Alpine journey.
Day Two: Le Pontet – Refuge des Mottets (24km, 1,865m)
The next day saw us wake to more drizzle and spirits were further dampened by an old, niggling ankle injury that had been slowly chipping away at Ian and was now starting to get more serious. But this was the start of an amazing 170km running journey through the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. We were both crazy enough to start this journey and after just 24 hours, I wasn’t going to throw the towel in just yet.
We left the warm comfort of our gite at Le Pontet and started the steady climb up towards the Col de la Croix. The climb was steep and drizzle turned into rain, visibility was lost to a cloud of mist and the more we climbed, the more the legs burned. But pain gave way to determination. A quick look at the GPS told me that we were now at 2,000m; we had covered 1,000m of elevation in 10km! Unfortunately, the unseasonably bad weather meant any views were blanketed by the thick fog, making the trail look eerie by the time we reached 2,400m at the col. Underfoot was a mixture of scree and rocks and the only thing I could make out was Refuge de la Croix du Bohomme; it was like warm beacon standing high in the distance, offering a safe haven against the cold and exposed land. We put our wet runners and soggy socks by the fire to dry and enjoyed a warm bowl of soup and steaming mug of hot chocolate, grateful for the brief respite from the cold and wet day outside.
Back out in the rain, it took a while for the legs to get moving again. There wasn’t too much running however, as the steep descent towards Chalets de la Raja was like a thick, muddy water slide. Torn between treading carefully or making the most of some fast switchbacks, I chose the latter. Of course, it was just a matter of time before I stacked it. Sat there in a boggy marsh of mud and rain, I decided there was no point in trying to keep clean and dry now. Despite the mud and the steepness of the trail, it was amazing to see the chalets below us appear through the mist, which looked like a toy houses with toy cars and toy people. Once past the chalets, we continued onwards to a final steep descent, which brought us to the small valley of Les Chapieux.
Unfortunately, the steepness of the descent disagreed with Ian’s ankle, which by now was looking about twice the size of what it should be. This was the first time that there were serious considerations about being able to complete the full circuit. However, we continued on past Les Chapieux and up a fairly boring, winding stretch of road towards Refuge des Mottets. This was a former dairy farm which had been converted into a charming chalet and next to it, a small paddock with a couple of horses. By now, the rain had stopped and blue sky had broken through the cloud. The fire had recently been lit in the drying room, so with wet jackets and socks strung up, it was time to settle into the small dining hall with a mug of France’s finest vin chaud and a four-course meal. If this wasn’t surreal enough, dinner came complete with a concertina performance, put on by one of the chalet women. It was like I had come through the fog and into a dream. I was surrounded by mountains at 1,800m, completely lost to the wilderness, yet I also slicing into a creamy brie and sipping on a smooth, velvety red. This was civilisation in the wild.
Day Three: Refuge des Motetts – Courmayeur (16km, 1,209m)
The thing about being in the mountains is that the weather can change so quickly. What was a summer’s evening became a winter’s morning overnight and we woke on day three to a blanket of snow.
Refuge des Mottets is dwarfed by the Col de la Seigne, the boarder between France and Italy, which stands at 2,480m. The start of the 600m ascent to the col is directly behind an old Cowshed-turned-dormintory building. There was a lot of commotion amongst the hikers that were on a guided tour of the TMB, as you could barley see the trail which was now covered in thick snow. Another 600m at the top and it would be a near impossible to traverse across into the Italian village of Courmayeur. The lure of crossing into Italy on foot was too great an appeal for me, so at the very least I decided we should give it a go.
The majority of the Summer hikers had chosen to have their tour bus pick them up and take them around to Courmayeur by road, so the steady climb towards the col was devoid of the ‘click-clicking’ of their sticks and clatter of their boots. The thick covering of snow absorbed any other sound and there became a calm deafness which descended the surrounding mountains, save for the crunch of snow underfoot. This was supposed to be one of the best parts of the TMB with the guided notes promising that;
‘Arrival at the col is an eye-opener. Standing at the borders of France and Italy views in all directions are magnificent‘.
However, the heavy snowfall masked any of these magnificent views but the stillness of the trail made the initial climb magical and other-worldly.
But as we rounded each corner and climbed higher, the snow became thicker and visibility started toying with me, like a magician playing tricks on his audience. What looked like a large mountain hut in the distance with the promise of a warm fire and hot tea, turned out to be a corner of a small, insignificant rock, which was mostly covered in the thick snow. The eyes started burning and I could only see pure white ahead and behind. It was impossible to make out any of the trail which was covered in snow and whiteness hid any other would-be waymarkers. With no way of knowing where the trail was or the direction of the col and with each footfall becoming wasit-deep, continuing forward looked like it was now out of the question. Our tracks were being covered up by the snow as quickly as we were making them, so trying to back-track was even less promising.
Lesson number three; listen to those who are on a tour bus.
As panic and snow-blindness started to set in, a few of the hikers who had decided to attempt the climb started to come up behind us. More appropriately dressed in their thick-soled waterproof boots and gaiters and with their sensible walking sticks — which I had previously ridiculed — they urged us to continue forwards with them. It was like the blind leading the blind but strength in numbers made more sense, and so we each followed the other, completely lost on the mountain pass.
Luckily, one of the hikers had a compass and the other had a reasonably good knowledge of the trail and somehow we managed to locate the col ahead of us. This marked the boarder crossing between France and Italy, usually an opportunity to pause for photos and take in the views. The guide notes said;
‘Given calm settled weather, Col de la Seigne is not an easy place to leave‘.
But with the icy wind and numb hands and toes, frostbite became a genuine concern and so I half-slid, half-ran down from the col as quickly as the deep powder would allow a very slow pair of very frozen legs.
Once down from the col and a bit more sheltered, I could really start to appreciate the mountains which dwarfed me from all directions. It was a strange feeling of being so small and insignificant in the world, yet completely alive and free at the same time. The snow fell on Val Veni, more gently than at the col, like a dusting of icing sugar on a Christmas cake. Finally, we reached Rifugio Elisabetta where we stopped for warmth and the best mug of rich, Italian hot chocolate that I’ve ever tasted! I would re-write the guide notes to say, ‘given wild, snowy weather, Rifugio Elisabetta is not an easy place to leave‘.
Despite the dry change of clothes and warm belly of hot chocolate, it was still bitter outside and we had another 18km to go before we reached the Italian valley of Courmayeur. The conditions at col de la Seigne had added on a good couple of hours to the journey. Leaving Rigugio Elisabetta, we continued the descent towards the valley floor and past the milky blue Lac Combal. We had to resort to the ‘bad weather’ route to get into Courmayeur and most of the running was now on road. Ian’s ankle had become a lot worse and things weren’t looking good. As we were winding down the narrow road, a car which had zipped past us, came to a stop and in very broken English, the Italian driver — a little old lady with the kindest of smiles — offered us a lift. There was still another 10km to Courmayeur and this offer was more than welcomed, although I couldn’t quite hide the disappointment that I felt as I knew the dream of completing the full circuit of the TMB was now out of reach. I had only just began my love affair with this trail and her mountains, yet I knew it was already over.
And so we reached Courmayeur by car, a small town in the Aosta valley of Italy. It’s very quaint and very Italian, with narrow winding roads and secret alleyways surrounding the Church Square, leading to gelato stores and pizzerias. This would be our final stop on the TMB running journey, but we agreed that we would still complete the section from Courmayeur to the infamous Refuge Bonnati, named after Italian climber Walter Bonatti who was most notable for the first solo climb of the North Face of the Matterhorn.
Day Four: Courmayeur – Refuge Bonatti (13km, 2,025m)
It was the final stage and the most stunning section so far. The snowy skies had cleared and the sun shone over the valley, it’s yellow rays kissing the peaks of the mountains. The climb to the Refuge Bertone is an extremely steep series of endless zig-zags but the views at the top are spectacular; Courmayeur shrinks into miniature Leggo-town 700m below. After Refuge Bertone, it becomes a more undulating and fast stretch of trail and this was the first time since day one that I felt I could open up the legs and let them free on the earth. The trail is a balcony which runs adjacent to the Grande Jorasses, with the rock face offering an imposing but majestic backdrop. I really enjoyed this section of trail and it was with disappointment that I reached Refuge Bonatti and the end of the run. I desperately wanted to continue this journey, to explore the Swiss Alps and more of these impressive mountain giants. Although the TMB journey had come to an early end, a fire had been lit in my heart and this was just the start of my love for running in the mountains. I’m already excited to come back here, to play in and discover the secrets of the Alps.
Check out the whole route on Strava