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Courmayeur to Chamonix – overcoming heat and snow, then nailing a race too!

Giles Ruck
Guided by Giles Ruck
Running through Italy, Switzerland and France around the northern side of Mont Blanc we encountered a heatwave, snow and river crossings, as well as bright flowers and incredible views. After our journey, we enjoyed taking part in the Mont Blanc Marathon series of races.

The group was made up of Gloria, Lisa, Zoe, Angus, Catriona and Dessa, who had travelled from the US and Australia as well, to come run the northern stretch of the Tour du Mont Blanc, from Courmayeur, Italy to Chamonix, France. There was also a surprise visit from Run the Alps Interns Chase (Dessa’s son!) and Jordyn, who joined the group for a day to run and take some photos.

This particular trip was very hot – in the 90’s every day. The group coped well with this, however. We did our best to stay cool by starting running early, drinking plenty – more than 5 liters of water a day per person, and putting our caps, and sometimes our heads, into the cold streams and troughs along our route.

The two days with a lot of height gain were particularly hard, but the group did really well mitigating the heat. The bonus? As we got higher, it got cooler. In fact, all the mountain passes, or “cols,” still held snow. Our highest, Grand Col Ferret, was particularly snowy. This provided a chance for some fun glissading, which is a rather elegant word for bum-sliding down a snowy slope. Angus, our youngest group member, had already taken any opportunity to slide down snowfields. But it was Lisa who bravely set off sliding down first, followed quickly by Zoe, leaving Angus chasing them down afterwards. Zoe revealed that she followed her family saying, that if you hesitate over something for too long you’re not likely to do it. So you need to just go for it!

At some point everyone in the group decided to just “go for it.” During our Courmayeur shakeout run, Gloria summited her first mountain – the striking Tête de la Tronche. Although Gloria had recently completed 7 marathons on 7 continents, climbing up the steep slope to Col Sapin on the way to the summit, she felt very tired. However, she pushed on and reached the peak. It was rather emotional, as Gloria realized what she was capable of. Later in the trip Gloria took on another challenge and– wait for it– she went paragliding in Chamonix! (Nicely done, Gloria!)

The Italian side of Mont Blanc also allowed for some more relaxing moments. The hot chocolate at Refugio Bonatti impressed everyone – thick enough to stand a spoon up! After these feats of culinary adventure, our run continued along the beautiful 4km traverse to Arnouva. There was a magical moment when we encountered Tibetan prayer flags in a gully, where the sun was glinting off the torrent as we hopped over rocks to cross it. Our jaws dropped as we questioned if, just perhaps this once, we were in fact in Shangri-La.

Another highlight for many was the Shepherd’s path after Grand Col Ferret, which traverses the valley before descending into La Fouly, Switzerland. It’s a beautiful, gentle dirt trail lined by flowers, and for most of the route, you can see your destination of La Fouly nestled in the valley. 

Our day running along the valley from La Fouly to Bovine was one of the hottest, but ended with a great run from Bovine to Trient, where we spent our second night in La Suisse. Here, everyone enjoyed the single track descent, regrouping often, and it didn’t take as long as we expected to reach our stop for the evening.

As we crossed the border into France at Col de Balme, we bought very old, or as I call them, “second-hand,”  postcards at the refuge there. From here, we ran down into Chamonix, where we prepared for the Mont Blanc Marathon races. We completed the straightforward bib pickup process, and then enjoyed the lively atmosphere of Chamonix during the busy race weekend. The group set targets for their races and, I am pleased to report, they absolutely nailed them. For everyone except Dessa, it was their first alpine race. After the previous days of running, everyone chose one of the shorter races, most doing the 23km Cross, and young Angus going for the 10km. It was great fun to support each other, and to be there to watch and cheer during each finish.

The day after the races, we did a nice long run across the Aiguillette des Houches, high above Chamonix, with incredible views of Mont Blanc across the valley. Taking the tram up to Brevent at 2,525 meters, or over 8,300 feet, meant we could minimize the climbing and allow for some bonus chilled-out time up high. Here again, we benefitted from the crystal-clear views during this heatwave!

Overall, I was impressed by everyone’s efforts to cope with the heat combined with the touch of altitude. It was also great to see how everyone grouped together as a team and was happy going at different speeds, to accommodate one another. The trip has given everyone a chance to push their personal boundaries and see what they are capable of. Well done, everyone!

Could this trail be any more inviting?! On the way down from Aiguillette des Houches (Photo: Dessa Willie).

Enjoying the thickest hot chocolate in the world at Bonatti (Photo: Giles Ruck).