Trail running around Mont Blanc with the UTMB babes
Once again I was given the privilege of guiding the final Tour du Mont Blanc trip of the season, which coincides with the world famous Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB®) in Chamonix, France. The Alpine village and trail running mecca of Chamonix swells with an additional 40,000 people, transforming itself into a frenzy of colorful Lycra-clad trail runners, all of whom wish to fulfill dreams of competing in – and completing – one of the seven trail races during this last week in August.
Alongside these dreamers, we also had our own Run the Alps guests, who themselves were seeking to enjoy the delights of trail running the Tour du Mont Blanc. This “tribe” consisted of two New Zealanders, Jo and Becs (who knew each other from school days) who now live in Australia; Steph from the Netherlands, who now lives in the United States; three Americans— Ele, Atsuko and Tonya; and last but not least, Vic from good old London town, UK.
Yes, I guided a total of seven lovely ladies who named themselves – please note that I did not bestow this moniker – the UTMB® Babes. (If only Simone had made an appearance!)
The vibe of Chamonix was amazing, with events happening everywhere and the shops brimming with trail running gear galore. Our first day of running coincided with the UTMB® Village opening in Place du Mont Blanc, where Everyone and Everything Trail Running can be found in a sort of summer Christmas Market for trail runners. However, we had to fit in a wee trot first, so we took the local train up-valley to the village of Vallorcine, then ran back to Chamonix, taking in the fantastic views of the Mont Blanc massif, stretching our legs and filling our lungs full of the fresh alpine air.
The ladies were then left to look around Chamonix and take in the spectacle of the UTMB® bonanza, before we met up for our evening meal at the Heliopic, which is much recommended for its delightful menu, good service and quiet setting.
The next day, we set to the trails, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Chamonix and following the UTMB® race route to Les Houches. Our final destination was the quintessential alpine village of Les Contamines, and the equally delightful Gai Soleil hotel.
That evening, we had the opportunity to see the frontrunners of UTMB®’s 145km long TDS race coming through Les Contamines. Later runners crept through the village while we were sleeping. The next morning, only a handful of TDS runners were coming through as we headed out of town on our second Tour du Mont Blanc day. We gave shouts of encouragement as weary runners passed by, each with a 1000-yard stare in their eyes, and each knowing they still had a long way to go to get to the finish line by the church in Chamonix.
We, meanwhile, had our own mission at hand: to climb up and over Col du Bonhomme and the Col de Croix du Bonhomme, before dropping to the Auberge de la Nova in the tiny French hamlet of Les Chapieux. Our goal was achieved with a few drink and snack breaks en route, then the tribe enjoyed some rest and relaxation in the gardens before our evening meal. We then settled in for a well-earned sleep.
The next morning the excitement grew as it dawned that we were soon to cross over into Italy and head down into Courmayeur. (Vic asked if we were on the Haute Route yet. The answer? A resounding, “No, not YET, Vic!”, for it was a question I had fielded more than once before.) A steady pace took us out of Les Chapieux and we found ourselves climbing towards Col de la Seigne on the French-Italian border. As we reached the top, we were accompanied by the welcoming sun and stunning views of Val Veny and Val Ferret and what was now called “Monte Bianco”. The whooping and hollering continued all the way down to Rifugio Elisabetta, where we enjoyed a sublime coffee and cake break, before continuing down and along the Roman road to our final climb up to Col Chécrouit, a fast descent into Dolonne and, then, Courmayeur.
Our two-night stay at the Hotel Bouton d’Or, which is always an absolute pleasure, was even more outstanding with the opportunity to get up early the next morning and cheer the lead runners of the UTMB® coming through Courmayeur around 02:30am. Racers continued pouring through town the whole day. We sat at a selection of cafés and restaurants and watched runners from all round the world pass through the narrow paths of the old village, heading out to the Refugio Bertone and points beyond – all the way back to Chamonix.
After our well-deserved rest in Courmayeur, we ran the remaining three days following the UTMB® course leading us out of Italy and into Switzerland via our high-point of Grand Col Ferret at 2537m, to an overnight in the small village of La Fouly. Next, it was on to Champex-Lac, with a coffee and cake break at Leon’s cafe – Leon being the creator of the Petite Trotte à Léon, or PTL, the longest of the UTMB® races. After Champex, it was on to Col de la Forclaz via the Bovine route, which meant a certain amount of prodding of cows to clear the path for Ele, who preferred a bit of space between her and our bovine friends.
Our last day of running started with a cold morning descent from the Col de la Forclaz to the Swiss village of Trient, then up again via Tseppes to Catogne, where we met the sunrise on the higher peaks. Next we headed over the border to France, down towards Vallorcine, and on to the next village in the valley, Le Buet. Our final trot led us back into the Chamonix valley and then Chamonix itself via the Petit Balcon Nord, with stunning views of the Massif du Mont Blanc and smells of fresh warm pine coming from the forest.
We were met on the steps of Église Saint Michel, the traditional finishing point of the UTMB®, by the ‘Creator of the Alps’, Run the Alps’ Doug Mayer. (The “Creator” title is a long story for another time, involving a mis-translated story on an Italian trail running website.) Mr Mayer provided the team with nicely chilled beer from our friends at Big Mountain Brewery. This set us up nicely for the group’s final meal, at Chamonix’s Cap Horn restaurant. Here, memories were revisited, stories told, and certificates presented to the tribe for completing the Run the Alps Tour du Mont Blanc trail running trip.
At this point that I thanked all of our lovely ladies for making this trip a most remarkable and memorable one by giving them their tribe names to accompany their self-created “UTMB® Babes” moniker. They are, as follows:
Jo and Becs: Nui te Whanaungatanga (Mauri for Great Friendship)
Tonya: Runs like the Wind
Atsuko: Warm Heart, Cold Hands
Vic: Haute Route Seeker (She asked more than once!)
Ele: Our Gift from God
Steph: Long Legs, Climbs Fast
With new names bestowed, we left Cap Horn and headed on our own paths with promises of reunions and chats on WhatsApp. So, again, I would like to thank the UTMB® Babes for a fantastic way to finish my guided trips for 2019. I look forward to meeting again in 2020!
What’s on offer at the Chalet de Miage, our café stop on Day 1 (Photo: Jo Sims).
Crossing the suspension bridge below the Glacier de Bionnassay on Day 1 of the TMB (Photo: Simon Conroy).
The trail snack seclection which kept us going (Photo: Elaheh).
After our night in Les Chapieux, heading up to Col de la Seigne – the border between France and Italy (Photo: Jo Sims).
The tribe now in Italy, high above Val Ferret (Photo: Tonya Gray).
Looking back up to Col de la Seigne. (Photo: Tonya Gray)
Moving into the sun at Catogne, on our way back into the Chamonix Valley (Photo: Jo Sims).
Enjoying some beers at the end of our trip – the official UTMB® finish in Chamonix (Photo: Doug Mayer).