Up, Over, and Around: Mike Ambrose Ticks Off an Alternative Tour du Mont-Blanc

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“The concept was to experience the mountain and cross over it twice from the valley floors, sharing it with friends and family along the way. I wanted to move in the mountains in a way that made me feel whole. Sometimes you just need to do what inspires you and makes you feel good.” — Mike Ambrose

No matter where you live, one of the great things about trail running is the creativity shown by the community. That’s as true in Boulder and Flagstaff as it is in Hong Kong and Chamonix. The most often used word to describe this broad category of creative challenge and personal adventure is “project”– an alluringly vague word that piques one’s curiosity.

This past weekend, here in Chamonix, Run the Alps Ambassador Mike Ambrose ticked off one of the more challenging and creative projects in recent memory here in Chamonix– and, here in the hyperactive trail running hub of Europe if not the world, that says a lot.

The stats on Mike’s Alternative Tour du Mont-Blanc are impressive: 96 km long with over 7,000 meters of vert, the route took over 27 hours to complete. (Full stats and a few credits, below.) But, sometimes, the numbers don’t capture the full reality. Like a -16c/3.2f temperature at the high point on Mont Blanc. Or hours in mountaineering boots and crampons on a wildly exposed ridge.

Mike Ambrose on early morning ascent of Mont Blanc.
Early morning on the ascent of Mont Blanc. (Photo: Dave Searle.)

When he’s not daydreaming up big projects– or ticking them off– Mike works as a Product Line Manager for Salomon, and is based in Annecy, France. His wife Steph Lefferts, crew chief for this project, is also Run the Alps’s Tour Manager.

Says Mike, “I’ve been fortunate to run all over the world, on different continents. I’ve gotten to experience the communities and races and styles of the sport in different ways. Being in Chamonix is a great celebration of all of that.”

To really understand what Mike’s project was like, we sat down with him to hear it from his fatigued-but-contented perspective. Here’s our talk.

Run the Alps: Mike, what inspired this idea?

Mike: Well, first and foremost, the Mont Blanc Massif has been a huge source of inspiration, since I discovered trail running. It was one of the first mountains, and mountain races– the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc– that I had heard of.  It’s cool to look back and remember the first time I saw Mont Blanc. I remember seeing it in a Salomon TV episode and couldn’t believe you could run on and around that mountain. I have always felt a “calling” to Mont Blanc and all the different ways to explore it. It’s fun to look at a map and just think about ways you can go up, down, and around both on the mountain and in the valleys.

I have to say that the pure beauty of the mountain, and how it’s played a role in my life and my trail running career to this point, have also inspired me. I also wanted to do something that allowed me to combine different sports, like trail running, mountain running and light alpinism. I am new to the alpinism world, so it’s fun to set objectives that allow me to learn and be safe too.

Run the Alps: What appealed to you about this idea?

Mike: I’ve always been captivated by Mont Blanc, and what types of adventures it brings out of people. I wanted to do my own version of that, in a way that was inspiring to me. It was fun to dream up something that fit me and my abilities, but also challenged me too. To me it seemed like the right balance of beauty and challenge.

It was great to experience the mountain in so many different ways and places, especially from the valley floor to high points along the way. Friends, family, and community were a big part of the appeal, too. I wanted to share the experience with them as well.

I enjoyed this project because it allowed me to go with my good friend, Dave Searle, who was guiding me on the high ascents. It also allowed me to drop into the valley and see friends and family. It was so cool to see the mountain from the valley floors. It was fun running with my friends Alexis and Meg from Les Houches to Le Tour and looking back up at the mountain, and being like, “Oh, I was just up there!”

Ever since I saw Kilian climbing Mont Blanc, I’ve been inspired by the idea of climbing mountains from the valley floor and doing it all in a pure style. (Editor’s note: Kilian Jornet, generally considered our generation’s greatest mountain runner, has set a number of records trail running from the valley to high peaks, notably on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Both of those records fall into the category of Skyrunning– a discipline where, among the main principles, are going up and down the mountain, not around it, as well as altitude.)

Run the Alps: How did you feel leading up to it, the night before?

Mike: I was pretty nervous! A lot of that was because I had never climbed the Italian side of Mont Blanc,  and any time you push your boundaries it’s going to make you a little nervous. I also have never run for more than 24 hours in one push, and I know I am not great at night. Although I was nervous, I was also excited. The “Pope” route was totally unknown for both me and Dave Searle, who was guiding me during that part.

Dave and I started in Val Veny and then approached Mont Blanc on the Miage glacier, which ultimately goes up to the Gonella refuge. Then, it gets really steep from there up to the Dôme glacier which leads to the Piton des Italiens, the Italian Point, at just over 4,000 meters, and then it’s a pretty narrow Ridge over the Glacier du Dôme, then it intersects with the normal route, the Gouter.

Anytime you go into the high mountains, it’s a little scary. But I think the fear is more out of respect that the mountain doesn’t care and you are at the will of mother nature. I felt confident with Dave, though. He was great. He’s an expert alpinist, a super accomplished skier and mountaineer. I thought it was a lot of fun to go with a friend and someone I trust who’s skied and climbed every nook and cranny of this massif and having the chance to do something that was new for him. I think we both got a lot out of it.

Run the Alps: What was the high point?

Mike: Climbing the Ridge to the Italian Point.  We had a full moon on the approach. Sunrise was remarkable, seeing the orange glow and thinking about my friends and family down below and thinking that they were just waking up. Being super high on the massif and seeing the world come to life while still being hyper-focused on traversing this ridge, that was definitely a high point, both physically and emotionally. Plus, it’s just so beautiful.

Run the Alps: And what about the inevitable low point?

Mike: A low point was probably on the climb leaving Le Tour and going up to the Refuge Albert Premiere. It was really hot, and at that point I’d been on my feet for about 15 hours. I was struggling, trying to wrap my head around climbing 1,700 meters and then another 1,000 meters to a long descent of 2,700 meters.

That was tough, but I had a really great pacer with me, Alexi Rosset. He kept me positive and made sure I was drinking enough. Once I got up to the hut, Dave really brought me back to life. It’s crazy how people can bring so much good energy out of you when you’re struggling.

Run the Alps: When you look back on this a few years from now, what do you think you’ll remember?

Mike: I’ll remember the beauty of the mountain, being up high and traversing multiple glaciers and ridges, and just admiring the beauty of the Mont Blanc massif. I tried to be as present as possible, just taking the route piece by piece, enjoying the moment. I think I’ll remember that simplicity too, just focusing on what’s in the moment. I will definitely remember all the support and love I received from everyone along the way too. That was special.

Another thing that’s really interesting is that, because of climate change, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to do these routes and see these glaciers. It really hit me while I was up there. I had the thought, “Wow, I don’t know how much longer we will get to do this.” I’ll always remember the chance I had to be part of this mountain and hopefully I will live long enough that I can share some of the beauty that this mountain has brought to my life.

I hope it doesn’t all go too quickly, and I hope that I can have some positive impact on slowing some of these changes and educating people on what’s going on.

Run the Alps: We can’t go without asking— what’s next?!

Mike: I’m signed up for UTMB’s TDS race at the end of August and Madeira Island Ultra Trail in November. Closer to home, I want to link up some local peaks with friends in a single push. And there is still a lot of alpinism I want to learn, so I would like to put some new skills to use in the high mountains somewhere.

But, yea, I think these types of runs and adventures are something that I want to keep doing. It brings me back to the reason I do what I do, I love being in the mountains and outside.

Run the Alps: Congrats on accomplishing what I am sure will be one of the great projects and memories of your life, and doing it in such style. It strikes me that this project of yours sounds like a sort of celebration. Do you think that’s accurate to say?

Mike: I do. A celebration of where I have come in my life, and a celebration of friends, family, community, and of course the mountains. 

Mike’s Alternate Tour du Mont-Blanc Stats and Credits

Start: Val Veny, Italy
Finish: Col Ferret Parking, Italy
Countries: Italy, France, Switzerland
Distance: 96km
Vert: 7000m
Time: 27:37
Crew Chief: Stephanie Lefferts
Guide: Dave Searle
Pacers: Alex Earle, Alexis Rosset, Meg McKenzie, Doug Mayer, Izzy the Run the Alps Labradoodle
Guest bike support: Hillary Gerardi

Curious about the world of running up and over high peaks, and along high ridges? You can learn more about Skyrunning at the International Skyrunning Federation web site.

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