I am leisurely eating a pizza on the patio of the brasserie Le Bartavel in Chamonix, France, when they pass along the pedestrian boulevard with the weary eyes of soldiers returning from combat, pack sacks weighted on their backs, their feet dragging over the pavement like they’re encased in concrete. Some are speaking French, others Japanese and English. Maybe just a few are babbling nonsensically with fatigue. Rising above us, like a formidable castle of rock and ice, stands Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps—indeed in Western Europe—at 4,810 meters.
Skirting the entire Mont Blanc massif, with its sharp ridges that catch clouds and scratch the sky, is the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 170-kilometer circuit through France, Italy, and Switzerland, with more than 10,000 meters of climbs and descents—an accumulative height greater than Mount Everest from sea level. If you take a gander at the geographical profile of the TMB, it looks menacingly like a jagged row of shark’s teeth. No intimidation factor there.
The appearance of the zombie-hikers returning from walking around “the roof of Europe” gives me serious pause. The route is normally hiked in seven to 12 days, but I’ve opted to walk/run it in just five, staying at mountain lodges along the way. Based on what I’ve read, I’ll be doing lots of “jalking” or “wogging”—fast walking with jogging breaks, not the other way around. Yes, I am nervous that my legs will get crushed by the relentlessly steep terrain, but what really scares the crap out of me is navigation. The weather can be transient along the route, and getting lost in the fog is a very real concern.
• • •
It’s 5:30 a.m. when I wake to the sound of chirping birds and the hopeful absence of rain. I shower, dress, and do a final dummy check of all my gear. Trekking poles, check. Lightweight rain jacket, check. Vaseline, yup, check (don’t ask; don’t tell). My pack weighs in at more than seven kilos, a lot more than I’d like to run with, but I take solace that two kilos is my perishable energy powders that will be whittled down as the days progress.
I check out of the hotel and walk down the silent boulevard, the cafés closed, the umbrellas folded down. There are no tourists lounging on patios sipping pints of beer, or hikers gobbling down plates of crepe or steak frites, making up for lost calories. The light is still dull, the sky grey and threatening rain. The surrounding mountains are veiled in a vapour of clouds.
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For now I’m walking briskly. There are at least 33 kilometers ahead of me today, so there is plenty of time to jog. I leave Chamonix’s manicured neighbourhoods and start down a path that meanders through damp pine forests.
It’s strange setting off on such a physically demanding journey knowing that my father, who is 85, has just broken his pelvis in a fall and is totally immobile at a hospital in the south of France (my mother and sister are with him now, and I will join him after the TMB). For me, it’s a poignant reminder of the temporary nature of all things physical, including my own health and fitness.
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At the ski village of Les Houches, the official starting point of the TMB (if you are taking the more popular counterclockwise route), I stop off at a bar for a shot of espresso, then start up the 600-metre Col de Voza, the first of the shark’s many teeth (a col is the lowest point of a ridge between two peaks). Under drizzling skies, the hike takes me along paved roads as well as ski maintenance paths. As my father would say, nothing to write home about. I keep my walking pace swift, passing hikers burdened by big packs and heavy boots. Still, the steepness and length of the uphills on the TMB means I will save the running for flats and downhills.
The TMB splits off in two directions at the top of the col. The circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif may first have been undertaken by the Swiss scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure way back in 1767, but over the centuries the route has changed numerous times, which now puts me in the position of having to decide which one to take: the shorter, less strenuous path, or the longer and more intense hike up and over the Col de Tricot (both paths lead to the town of Les Contamines).
The low hanging rain clouds decide for me, and I leisurely jog down the other side of Col de Voza. This is, after all, what I have come here to do. I dialed into the region in the first place because of my interest in ultramarathons, and particularly the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a race that covers the entire TMB, with a 46-hour time cutoff to complete. I ran my first ultramarathon last year, the 82-kilometre Meet Your Maker in Whistler, B.C. [read that story here], but I decided it would be more enjoyable to undertake Mont Blanc as a solo journey, with no time cutoffs or overnight running. By the way, the fastest runners make the entire 170-km trip in under 24 hours. Mindblowing.
I run downhill through beautiful French hamlets with wood walls and slate roofs. Further on, I cross over a moss-covered Roman bridge. As it turns out, Roman legions were stomping through here 2,000 years ago, conquering and building roads. It seems history is everywhere in these mountains. The Alps themselves have long been a zone of migration and settlement, including evidence of a Neanderthal presence tens of thousands of years ago. Later, around 5,300 years ago, the likes of Ötzi the Iceman, with his Copper Age tattoos, loincloth and fur leggings, called the Alps home.
The rain persists all the way to the family-run Refuge de la Balme. Forty euros gets me a bed in a dorm, dinner, and a light breakfast. One of the great things about the TMB is that there are literally dozens of sleeping options, from pitching a tent to rustic alpine refuges with dormitories and private rooms, located right on the route. If you’re a planner like me you can book online, or you can take your chances and just show up. There are also many lodgings in the villages below, where you can stock up on perishables.
I take a hot shower to get the chill out of my bones and change into my après gear, which consists of a pair of feather-light running shorts, long compression socks, a thermal top and a fly-weight windbreaker. Stylish, I know. But travelling light is essential. Hikers have a saying, “a pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back.” The weight issue is even more critical when running—every ounce counts.
The good news is that I have plenty of gas left in the tank, having stayed in my comfort zone all day. A one-day race is one thing, but to make sure I can recover each night from what amounts to covering close to a marathon distance five days in a row, requires a degree of restraint. Tomorrow will be a 37-kilometre test of my recovery, with plenty more climbs and descents all the way to Italy.
I cocoon under the blankets in the dorm and temporarily nod off, waking up to a brood of kids horsing around and banging on the windows. My dorm mates have arrived. As it turns out, those kids, aged seven to 11 years old, have hiked 15 kilometres today. OK, I am impressed.
Over a dinner of potato soup, a leg of chicken and some local cheese, I strike up a conversation with my table mates Sylvain and France of Trois-Rivières, Quebec. They left Chamonix three days ago and still have nine days to go. “Next time, we’ll go to the beach,” says Sylvain, only a little bit kidding (I would later learn they ended their hike in Courmayeur, Italy, after bad weather and an injured knee forced them off the trail).
With the rainy weather, there isn’t much to do after dinner so I retreat to the dorm. When the lights go out, noises emerge from the shadows around the beds like odd sounding animals. My dorm mates have transformed into sleeping warthogs, mouth-smacking bears and wild-throated pelicans.
• • •
I spend the night staring at the ceiling, catching perhaps 20 minutes sleep. Just after 6 a.m., I hike into the rain toward the Col du Bonhomme (at 2,329 metres), the first of three big climbs today. I’m able to run sections of the trail, but the longer I go, the colder and wetter the conditions get. In the fog and pelting rain, I briefly lose the path among the boulders and streams forming in every depression in the ground. Nowhere to be seen are the vistas of alpine grandeur.
I slog it out for two hours. After a particularly gnarly river crossing that threatens to suck the shoes off my feet and has me muttering angrily to myself, I arrive at the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme on the other side of the col. I am shivering, my toes numb, my fingers curled like frozen shrimp. The rustic dining hall is jammed with forlorn looking hikers contemplating going outside to face the elements.
With major storms and rivers bursting their banks all over Europe and more than a dozen people killed while summiting Mont Blanc this summer (bad weather being a contributing factor), I remain realistic about my prospects of running the entire TMB under a rain cloud.
Despite my desire to stay indoors, I warm my appendages for a few minutes and then start the walk/jog toward the valley below. The trail passes through several communities. Some farmers stop to utter a brief bonjour, but we of the trail don’t seem to be objects of curiosity. The locals have more important things to do, like rebuilding roofs and fixing fences so their animals don’t escape.
Up ahead, I see a young woman in running shorts and a sleeveless shirt speeding down the wet marshy terrain, where the paths are currently doubling as streams. I try to keep up, but she doesn’t seem to slow at all, and eventually she vanishes into the folds of rolling pastures. Clearly, she is a member of the mountain runner’s tribe.
In recent years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of alpine cross-country running, particularly ultramarathon distances (anything beyond 42 kilometers). Some trail running events are even broadcast on European sports channels and sponsored by some of the biggest names in athletic gear. Thousands more spectators turn out, lining the streets and trails to celebrate the heroics of a few strong-willed individuals. Here, the likes of Kilian Jornet, the record-breaking Catalan ultra-runner, aren’t just legends but household names.
There is, in fact, a new breed of traveller, whose vacation revolves around cross-country running. Several local and international tour operators cater to ultra-distance runners, providing professional guides and baggage transfers (and I’ll attest to the joys of running without a pack).
In just under an hour, I run down to the village of Chapieux at the base of the valley and slip out of the rain to drink a quick espresso. Before I get too comfortable (I drink my daily espresso standing up), I leave the warmth of the bar and start my second big climb of the day up and over the Col de la Seigne (at 2,516 meters). For a limited time, I’m offered up views of La Vallée des Glaciers, whose vibrant colour can usually only be matched in photographs when the saturation levels in Photoshop are cranked way up. In time, the technicolor views are snatched away, and I’m walking in the clouds again.
A creeping nausea overtakes me as I climb, and my pace slows. I take a few ginger pills and keep moving. I begin to wonder why I’m pushing so hard to complete the TMB in five days, when I could leisurely walk the damn thing in ten. No answer comes. Up ahead, I hear a strange sound, a sad squeal, then see green and red apparitions emerge from the fog. The cyclists’ ponchos flutter in the wind, as they work their squeaky brakes on the muddy downhill.
“C’est fou ça,” I say, grinning. They grimace and continue to let gravity pull them down.
For a second time today, the big ascent offers no prize, no views of Il Bianco, or The White One, as the Italians call Mont Blanc. Just a wall of grey. The signage on the Col de la Seigne isn’t perfectly clear either, so I ask the French hikers who have just arrived which path takes me to Italy.
“You are in Italy!” they reply heartily.
As I run down into Italia, the heavy clouds magically begin to lift, and I feel energized, forgetting that I’d been feeling pretty crummy on the uphill. The trail itself seems far more populated, and I occasionally startle unsuspecting hikers as I overtake them on the path. Several more groups of mountain bikers pump their way past. It’s inspiring to see how many people are out here sharing the trail—young families hauling babies in backpacks, groups of kids, and lots of older couples. I think of my father and mother, who just a few years ago would have considered a hike like this. “Do things while you can,” my dad has always counselled me and my sisters. So here I am.
Around a bend, I come upon the stone edifice of the Rifugio Elisabetta perched on the slope with a perfect view of the Glacier de la Lée Blanche. As the ice has retreated, it reveals rock worn perfectly smooth like polished bone. Glaciers cover nearly 100 square kilometers of the massif (but shrinking), and during the last glacial maximum, the Chamonix valley was entombed in an impressive 1,000 meters of ice.
The path leads down the lower valley, and somewhere along the way, I miss the turn off to the trail. I’ve been out for nearly 10 hours and nothing saps energy faster than being uncertain of where I’m going. I turn off at a campground and lacking any Italian ask the proprietor in Spanish where the trail is. I have made a wrong turn, she explains, and if I want to get up to my accommodation, I’ll need to climb.
She describes an ad-hoc route that takes me straight up a ski slope, across a cow pasture, and eventually through someone’s backyard to a road that leads to another path. A bucket of sweat and 600 vertical meters later, I am back on the TMB in clear view of Rifugio Le Randonneur, where I hope to catch up on some lost zzzzzzs.
• • •
I wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath and in a panic. Am I having a heart attack? I check my pulse and everything seems to be thumping normally. Perhaps the effort, the altitude or just lack of sleep are messing with me. Or perhaps I’m worried about my dad’s health. I can’t be sure, but I can’t settle back to sleep, either. Fortunately, the early morning paints the walls in bright light—the first sunny morning on the TMB—which provides a needed boost.
At the start of my run, I cross paths with a hiker and a friendly dog saddled with a small backpack, then head down forested switchbacks to Courmayeur. Beginning the day going downhill may be a gentle way to wake the lungs but not the legs. From above, I spot the entrance to the almost 12-milometer Mont Blanc Tunnel that connects Courmayeur with its French neighbour, Chamonix.
This engineering feat broke ground in 1958 and took a painstaking eight years to complete. Tragically, it was also the site of a horrific accident in 1999, when a transport truck loaded with flour and margarine caught fire, trapping and killing 39 people. The inferno burned for 53 hours, melting vehicles in the 1,000-degree-Celsius temperatures.
Now on to more cheerful topics! I cross the piazzas of Courmayeur and follow the signs up the other valley, on my way to Rifugio Bertone. Once again, in my haste, I miss the turn off to the trail and head along a valley road until it simply ends. I’m frustrated with the lost time and double back until I find the missed turn and start the steady climb in the Italian heat. My first blister is also beginning to form, which creates a low simmering fear in me. I still have three days ahead, and blisters, though small, can hobble a runner as much as a torn muscle.
At the hump of the ridge, I find Rifugio Bertone. What lies beyond is a trail runner’s nirvana, the most perfect running paths I’ve encountered in my life. It’s a fairytale of rolling trails of packed dirt. The energy surges through my body and my blisters actually feel better when I’m running. The place is are teeming with families with young kids.
With a superb view of the Mont Blanc massif and its rock spires thrusting upward and glaciers peeling off and spilling downward, the trail follows the contours of the slope on the opposite side of the Val Ferret that leads toward the Swiss border. Compared to the surrounding mountains, which began to form millions and millions of years ago, the Mont Blanc massif is like the new kid on the block, created by a series of geological events, including the violent meeting of the European and African continental plates. The rise of Mont Blanc was completed something like 15 million years ago—just in time for us outdoor types to take advantage of its incredible topography for skiing and running.
My run above the Val Ferret is memorable. Along the way, I stop to take photographs and exchange words with hikers who are lounging in the grass and admiring the views. It’s difficult not to be transfixed by Mont Blanc, with its mighty heights that seem to inspire but also gives us humans a sense of scale in this world (read: right now, I gladly feel like an insect). I find myself envious of these hikers and their leisurely sense of time. Sorry, gotta run!
The cross-country fun ends abruptly at the valley floor, as the trail heads straight up to the Grand Col Ferret. Once again, I am reduced to a methodical hike, footstep over footstep. I follow a hiker up to the crest, watching his giant calves shaped like spades flex and release under the stress of the climb. The good weather in Italy seems to draw to a close as I approach the col that marks the border with Switzerland. The dark clouds gather and thunder rumbles like distant artillery. I run most of the way down, passing more cyclists making the strenuous journey up.
I arrive at Gîte Alpage de La Peule, a hostel and working farm, after having covered more than a hundred kilometers in my first three days. Dozens of cows dot the hillside, mowing the verdant slopes, while the milking station and cheese-making facilities sit next door to the two showers, two sinks and two toilets shared by 30 or so hikers. This has honestly been the stay that I’ve most looked forward to. What could be better than staying at an alpine cheese-maker with my bottomless appetite? Think Cookie Monster, but with cheese.
I ask the proprietor if there are any private rooms. No, she tells me, and the dorm is totally jammed. In fact, I get the last bunk, three beds off the ground, close enough for me to kiss the ceiling. There is nowhere to charge my cameras or hang my clothes to dry, and the rain has begun to fall steadily. Just as I settle into my high-altitude bunk, the proprietor calls up to me and asks if I want a private room—her son’s room—because the bunks are over sold. I jump at the chance.
At 7 p.m. sharp (I am now in Switzerland, after all), the feast of the fromage begins. Placed before me is the specialty of the house, a croûte au fromage, a spectacular melange of melted cheese over toasted bread with ham, an egg, tomato, and a touch of garlic and fruit brandy.
• • •
A rain fit for Noah and his ark pelts the roof of La Peule all night. I’m awake for almost every drop of it. I’ve given up wondering why I can’t sleep, but I can see that my hands are a bit shaky, my brain growing hazy. As the blue light of dawn appears in my skylight, I quickly pack and tip-toe into the dining room for a hardy breakfast of coffee, bread, cheese, and a delectably sweet dish like crème caramel. I eat it all and dash into the rain to start the fourth leg around the north end of Mont Blanc.
The relatively gradual descent down the valley keeps me jogging kilometer after kilometer. This may not be the place to have your breath taken away by stupendous views like you find on the Italian side, but it’s a quiet serene landscape of pastoral hills and offers its own good vibe. It’s a solitary journey, and I encounter only a handful of hikers on this section of the trail.
I jog through ancient and sparsely populated villages like Praz-de-Fort, with its large beam farmhouses and bleating sheep, until the path turns uphill toward Champex-Lac. Here, carved wooden squirrels and bears, like friendly guardians of the forest, greet me, and I can almost hear the artist Bjork singing in the mist.
After I down an $8 Coke lakeside at Champex, I start the run along the Bovine route. Soon I’m ambushed by the Alp Bovine, the biggest steepest climb of the day. In all the huffing and puffing, I hear the inevitable question in my head, why am I doing this?! Then a childhood memory returns of hiking in the Pyrenees with my sisters and parents. It was me running off ahead into the mountains, and my father shouting after me, “Robert! Slow down.” So maybe my desire to run through mountains can be found in the marrow of my bones. But right now, there is no speed left. Just a grinding effort.
I spend my last night out on the TMB at the Auberge Mont Blanc in the Swiss village of Trient. I share a room with 12 other souls. After a dinner of soup, salad, and more cheese—a raclette au fromage tomate—with some rice and beef, I sit outside in the drizzling rain to compose some notes from my journey. It is only the second evening on the trip that I have been able to sit outside because of the weather.
I strike up a conversation with a French woman who is doing the TMB in seven days but taking buses between certain sections. As she smokes her cigarette, I tell her that I’m doing the TMB in five, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to sit in any one place to admire the scenery for long.
“That’s too bad,” she says, in French. “Well, at least you are taking some time right now.”
• • •
At 5:30 a.m., I’m dressing in the bathroom so as not to disturb my dorm mates. I pour my carbohydrate powder into my water bladder and hit the trail. No easy start to this day. It’s a straight climb out of the valley. Early morning light splinters through the pines, and it is already getting hot.
Despite my nagging blisters, I forge my way up to the Col de Balme at the border between Switzerland and France, following another mountain runner speeding up to the ridge. By the time I reach the saddle below Croix de Fer, she is running down the other side. It’s a testament to the route that so many women feel safe to run and hike the TMB by themselves.
In the morning light, it is a perfect view down on the Col de Balme and the red-doored refuge overlooking the western flank of the Mont Blanc massif. It is also a perfect section of trail that has me running for kilometers until I arrive at the bottom of the last of the shark’s teeth—a 600-vertical-meter climb to the Refuge de la Flégère. Part way up, I run out of water. The climb and the hot weather kick my butt.
But some of the best views are saved for last at La Flégère. I tell myself to take half an hour to enjoy the vista. But after five days out, I’m like a dog seeking the path home, so I gulp down a soda water and start to run the last eight kilometers to Chamonix. I pick up speed as I go, no longer concerned with recovery for the next day. Do it while you can, I can hear my father encourage me. I glide over the terrain, feeling strong and in sync with the trail. Then, at once, the dirt path drops me at the paved road leading into Chamonix, and the Mont Blanc circuit is complete.
I arrive back at the cafés of Chamonix, having run, walked and shared the trail with mountain bikers, runners, hikers, and even dogs with backpacks. In such a vibrant landscape, it is little wonder the 19th-century poet P.B. Shelley credited Mont Blanc with awakening him to the awe-inspiring power of nature.
But right now, I’m famished and still standing when I order a pizza back at the brasserie Le Bartavel. Beside me sit some fresh-faced hikers, who clearly haven’t been out on the trail yet. Perhaps my ragged appearance will give them a sobering dose of respect for these mountains.
The region has been called many things in many languages through the centuries. But, as I sit back and catch up on lost calories, one thing I would never say about the Tour du Mont Blanc is that it’s just another run in the park.
- Robert Brodey is a longtime contributing editor to Outpost Travel Media, and writes regularly about his many trail running adventures around the globe.