Chamonix to Champéry – a taste of the Alps and the Dents du Midi trail race
Our small group met in Chamonix and got to know each other over dinner at ‘Bizes’ restaurant, a Run the Alps favorite here in town. Frances and Michael were happy to find some tasty vegan options, too– it’s not all ham and cheese in the French Alps! We discussed running plans for the week and narrowed down our options to suit us best – Frances had recently injured her ankle, so was wary of how big a run she could manage, whilst Michael wanted to save some energy for his 32km Dents du Midi race at the end of the week. At the same time, both were excited to see the best of Chamonix during their three day stay.
We chose two classic Chamonix runs – the Grand Balcon Sud, with its excellent views of Mont Blanc, and then the next day, the Grand Balcon Nord, which traverses underneath the needles, or “aiguilles” of the Mont Blanc massif. The Grand Balcon Sud loop started with a pleasant warm-up alongside the river. Then we quickly adjusted to the steep climb up to Flégère, which was a chance for Frances to get to grips with using poles for trail running – a first for her. Our final section, the traverse along the Grand Balcon Sud to finish the high mountain base of Plan Praz, provided beautiful views as hoped. Here, we chatted about famed Catalan runner Kilian Jornet and others racing this trail, which comes at the end of the Mont Blanc Marathon and Cross du Mont-Blanc races. Although Frances was keen to run more as her ankle was bearing up well so far, we decided to take the cable car down to Chamonix to save our legs for the next big day! Before descending, however, the high cliffs of Brévent beckoned us up to the top of the mountain for a few minutes of sightseeing. The tram soared over several climbers scaling the cliff as we neared the top. Here, we had time to fully orient ourselves and marvel at the aiguilles on the other side of the Chamonix valley.
With the weather gradually warming throughout the week, it helped that the next day was on the cooler north-facing side of the valley. On our way up through the forest we stopped to admire all the different mushrooms and toadstools growing at this time of year. This loop also included an impressive three café stops! The first was deemed the best – the stunning Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille. After 1200m of climbing straight out of town, this flowery mountain hut seemed like a mirage. Wanting to try as many of the tarts on offer as possible, we ordered a mix to share between us and discussed which was the best – raspberry, wild blueberry – or “myrtille,” or pear and almond. (We probably need a few more tastings to fully decide!)
The views on this run kept changing, with the highlight being our arrival at “Le Signal,” where the Mer de Glace glacier and the mighty Dru mountain came into sight. This was when Frances revealed that Michael had been on a few race podiums in his short trail racing career, and our thoughts started to turn towards the Dents du Midi, or DDM trail race at the end of the week. Having run the course last year, I knew the main challenges would be the long, steep ascents and the rocky, technical descents. We’d certainly started to work on our uphill skills, so today we practiced our downhill techniques, thinking about body position, cadence, and field of vision.
Having seen the famous Kilomètre Vertical of Chamonix over the past couple of days, Michael and Frances were keen to give it a shot before we headed over to Champéry. Frances, now using her poles like a pro, peeled-off just after halfway, taking a more gentle path back down to Chamonix to make a nice loop. Michael and I powered on up, swiftly moving through the ladders and scrambling sections near the top. We made use of the cable-car again to get back down to Chamonix and meet up with Frances. We then showered, packed and journeyed over the border to Champéry, Switzerland for part two of the trip.
On Friday, the day before race day, Michael decided to rest. Frances was keen to get out and explore the new area, so we planned a long but mostly downhill circuit by starting with Champéry’s tram up to Croix de Culet. Straight out of the tram station, the contrast with Chamonix was clear: bright grass-covered mountains, smooth gentle trails, and lots of cows! We ran to Col de Cou on the gentle trail known as the “Route du Lait,” or milk route, named for the many cow pastures through which it flows. Arriving at the Col presented the novelty of being able to stand with one foot over the border in France, and one still in Switzerland! We continued down a beautiful crest and then Frances took advantages of mini water falls on the trail back towards Champéry to cool off. That evening, over a delicious risotto, Michael reported he had got some serious napping in while we were out. We were joined by Catriona Moxham, who had just finished Run the Alps’ Via Valais tour, and chatted logistics and tactics for the race the next day.
Sunday dawned clear and sunny, and Frances and I set off to support the race once we had seen Michael and Catriona off at the start. Both did very well in the DDM 32km race. So well, in fact, we all found ourselves at the prize ceremony that evening! We embraced the friendly atmosphere and headed to the bar for a local 7Peaks microbrew, while we waited for the call to the podiums – taking note that three “air kisses” are exchanged on this side of the border – unlike two in France – when the prize is handed over! Michael was first in his age group category, and Catriona second in her category. The prize of a large local charcuterie, or dried meat basket posed some curious challenges: Catriona wondering if she would end up featuring on the Australian TV show “Border Security,” as she brought her edible prize through customs, and Michael wondering if there was a vegan alternative. (Answer: Not quite yet!)
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed another great dinner, with some choosing the ‘chocolat fondant’ – a delicious dessert of warm chocolate cake with a melted middle – for the third night in a row! We reminisced over all the great runs, cafés and views we’d experienced during the week, and congratulated Michael and Catriona on their impressive race results once more!
Frances running along the Grand Balcon Sud on our first day, exploring the trails of Chamonix (Photo: Geldard).
The best tarts ever! Up at Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille (Photo: Geldard).
Descending from Le Signal down to Montenvers, with the Mer de Glace glacier below (Photo: Geldard).
Michael nearing the top of the Vertical Kilometre above Chamonix (Photo: Geldard).
On the ‘Route du Lait’ above Champéry, our trail up to the Col de Coux visible in the background (Photo: Geldard).
Michael on the podium for his 1st place in the 32km race (Photo: Franco).
Catriona in 2nd place on the podium (Photo: Geldard).