Fastpacking the Tour du Mont Blanc in 4 Nights

Fastpacking the Tour du Mont Blanc in 4 Nights

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The Tour de Mont Blanc is one of the most popular and scenic long-distance hiking routes in Europe. It passes through France Italy and Switzerland while circumnavigating the Mont Blanc Massif, a distance of more than 170 km with 10,000 meters of elevation gain plus descent. The route is typically hiked in 10 or 11 days but we'd be spending just four nights on the trail while traveling fast and light. This would be a training run for us in preparation for UTMB, a race that follows roughly the same route that we'd be competing in less than 3 weeks later. But during that race we'd miss some of the best views while running at night.

So this was our chance to really enjoy all that this incredible trail has to offer. The Mont Blanc Massif is located right on the border between France, Italy and Switzerland. We'd start the route in Chamonix, France heading counterclockwise and staying in refuges along the way in France, Italy, and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix where we started. Okay, so it's 8am and we just arrived here in the center of Chamonix. We're actually right at the start finish area for UTMB.

This is where we're going to start our fastpack of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Technically the route actually starts way over in Les Houches down the valley but part of our goal is to get a feel for the course so we're gonna start and finish right here at the start / finish line for the race. So we've got the root loaded on our watch. It starts by running through town and I think we're all set.

We're set. Okay, here we go. We're in les Houches and this is the official start and finish of the TMB. We are here. This is the TMB course but we're going to take this little deviation here because that's going to be more fun. After leaving Chamonix, we had run to Les Houches which is the usual starting point for the route.

From there we'd now climb to Col de Tricot, getting incredible views of just a few of the 4,000 glaciers on the Massif before dropping to Les Contamines in the valley below. We'd continue up the valley, climbing slowly to the refuge where we'd spend our first night on the trail. All right, here we go. Feels like we're starting again. I remember coming down this when I did TDS in 2019. It's kind of the last big descent to Les Houches.

See how steep this is? Yeah, it's pretty steep. Not bad. So this is where we're going to diverge from the UTMB course.

It looks like UTMB goes that way down to St. Gervais les Bains. But we are going to stay high. We're going to climb up that way. As much as we do want to scout out the course, we also want to have a nice experience here and to avoid some towns where we can. So this is one of those cases. Should we just take the train? Wow.

So we're gonna climb all the way up there to Col de Tricot which I remember vaguely from the TDS course again a few years ago. Except I came up from the other side and then came down this way. Okay, now we climb. Now we climb. Wow, this trail is busy! This is what UTMB is gonna be like.

So we're up here at Col de Tricot having our lunch, some cake that we bought back in Chamonix which is delicious. The best lunch. And we're gonna drop down into this valley here and then climb up to that little hill there, Le Truc and drop dow to the other side, to the bigger valley which should be les Contamines and then we have just one more big climb.

So we're sort of at the high point for the day. But we have to do another climb, almost this high, pretty close to this high up to our refuge before we're done today. Okay, down we go. We're going to climb up to that little viewpoint there. A little extra elevation gain never hurt anybody.

We were there earlier, that's Col du Tricot. So we're dropping down into the valley here, down to Les Contamines which we could see from up top there and then we've got one more big climb left up to our refuge. So we just left Les Contamines and we're back on the UTMB course and it looks like it kind of ducks in and out on a bit of pavement, then on to some gravel and we're basically just kind of following this up the valley and then we'll start climbing. They even have local craft beer.

It's too bad we still have a big time ahead of us! So we're about to start the climb, which looks to be about 800 meters, maybe 780 meters to our refuge for the night which is called le Refuge des Pres and it sits at 2,200 meters so it's pretty high up there. Okay, so this is where we diverge from the TMB and from the UTMB course. Bonjour. That guy was rad! Okay, less than 200 meters of climbing to go.

Nice eh? Stunning. We have arrived. We think so anyways. We think. That must be it.

Nice. Refuge Des Pres. I see beer on tap.

I'm happy to be done for today. Nine hours. Yeah. 37.5 km.

Well, all the hiking boots and shoes have to be put downstairs here in the basement and then they have Crocs for everyone to wear around the hut, which is great. We got done just in time, eh? It looks like just a short shower. Speaking of which, we had showers which felt really good and I think we're gonna have a beer now. Looks pretty good! Leaving our refuge on day two, we'd now climb up to Col du Bonhomme for our first views of the day. After dropping into the valley on the other side, we'd then climb back up to Col de La Seigne on the Italian border.

We'd then drop back down and would continue through the valley on the other side before our last climb of the day to our Refugio which sits above the town of Courmayeur just before the halfway point of the route. Day two, here we go. Okay, so it's day two and we're about to join back up with the route here with the Tour de Mont Blanc.

You can see it down in the valley there, that's where we would have continued on and we would have climbed up here by this waterfall coming up had we not climbed up early to our refuge. He just wants to run with us! Hah, no. No? I think that's the Col du Bonhomme just up there. Col du Bonhomme. Beautiful! So it looks like now we traverse up there kind of along the edge of this valley. This is a nice refuge up at 2,443 meters.

Look at this view. Okay, now we drop down to Les Chapieux which should be a little town where we can buy some lunch for the road. Big descent! That was over a thousand meter descent. 1034. And look at this! So we just got to the bottom of this long descent and I noticed that I am missing one of the straps from my poles which is going to make the next - what do we have like, 8000 meters of climbing left over the next few day? It's gonna make that a little bit tougher.

Maybe I can figure something out, maybe MacGyver something here. First we'll get some lunch. Oh yea, that's what I want, thanks. It looks like during UTMB there's an aid station kind of just back there maybe.

I managed to MacGyver a strap. I just had to sacrifice my waistband here. Bonjour. Lots of trail runners out today.

Look at the goats! They're so cute. Bonjour. So I've been testing out a powdered drink mix here from Naak. It's an energy drink but it has protein and BCAAs (amino acids) which makes it unique and makes it suitable for longer distance efforts. So I'm planning on using it for UTMB, not as my primary fuel source, but more as a supplement. The one I have is watermelon flavored, but it comes in lime as well.

I just want to test it out in advance of the race here to see how it sits and how it tastes after a few hours of continual use. So I just have it pre-portioned in little baggies which is probably what I'll do for UTMB as well. I'll have some with me and then some in my drop bag for the halfway point.

Almost there. The col is right up there, our high point for the day. Isn't this just incredible? This has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I'm here doing the thing I love absolutely the most, with my partner, the person most important to me. Just an incredible feeling.

So I've just made it to the top of Col de la Seigne which I think is our high point for the day at just over 2,500 meters. It is stunning up here, lots of glaciers. It's very windy which is nice because it was a hot climb. Jeff's just a couple minutes behind me.

He stopped to fly his drone down below and I just kept going for a bit. He's catching up now. Look at that! A new perspective on Mont Blanc. And this is Italy.

Bonjour. C'est la Refuge Elisabetta. Wow, just surrounded by glaciers.

Incredible. Finishing your sandwich? Well we've got about 7 km left with 400 meters of climbing as we make our way up and then down to our Refugio. I think that's our high point up there.

Look at that view. Okay, pretty much all downhill from here. Made it. We made it. There's that Italian architecture.

Love it. Bonjour. Look at this, eh? Pretty nice! Yesterday we were sharing a dorm with another couple, we had bunk beds and two bathrooms for the whole floor, for everybody.

So this is nice! It's like a hotel. We have our own bathroom, a big queen size bed. Just one night in Italy, gotta have some wine. And pasta as an appetizer. And pasta as an appetizer.

Okay, here we go day three and this is our biggest day of the week. Oh, he wants some belly rubs. Okay, as I was saying, day 3. This will be our biggest day so far in terms of both distance and elevation gain and I'm starting to feel the descents mostly in my quads. I don't know about you.

But overall, I feel pretty good. Not bad. My legs feel good. It's my back, my left shoulder has been causing me some problems. We'd start day 3 by passing through Courmayeur, the start and finishing point of Tor Des Geants, a race I did in 2018.

After a steep climb, we'd spend most of the day traversing the valley with Incredible views of the Mont Blanc Massif before climbing to Grand Col Ferre where we'd cross into Switzerland. From there, we'd slowly descend the valley to our third refuge in the town of La Fouly. Look at that view though. So we just arrived in Courmayeur.

This is the Sports Center were we did check-in for To Des Geants where we waited for 3.5 hours for for check-in and gear inspection. We're just gonna pass through here but Courmayeur would be an excellent place to spend the night. We could have pressed on last night to here pretty easily.

It only took us about a half hour to get down here from the refuge we did stay at. But we have been here a few times before so we felt like we had kind of done it. Yeah, we felt like we'd kind of seen it and we wanted to spend an extra night up in the mountains. The architecture here is just really cool.

Tunnel Pizza, best pizza in Courmayeur right there. This here is the start line for Tor Des Geants. The big arch goes up right over here and we run up this road. Busy section of trail here. Lots of people getting a late start from Courmayeur I think. It's time for some decisive passing here.

Ciao. So we stayed it's just on the other side of that little hill there last night. So that climb took us about an hour. It said it would take just over two on the sign post. So we've pretty consistently been cutting everything in half, all the estimated times which tracks well, people usually take 7 to 10 days to do this route and we're doing it in just over four, four and a half. So that makes sense.

Technical, this trail. You want a cappuccino? Yea, I'll have a cappuccino. So it hadn't even occurred to me until just now that we actually came through here during Tor Des Geants, we're on the TDG route.

We went the opposite direction, we went down the way we just climbed up here. It would have been at night, probably around 10 or 11 p.m I think, maybe 10 o'clock. Yeah, we must have come through this Refuge. I don't remember the Refuge itself, but I think there would have been an aid station right around here and we would have dropped down into the valley back to Courmayeur.

I've of course got a film on my channel about Tor Des Geants. If you haven't seen it go check that out. We're about to traverse here along the Tor Des Geants route, for a little bit anyway for the next few kilometers. What was that? I just met Hillary Allen! So exciting. She's an American runner.

She's for sure a podium contender this year at UTMB. She ran TDS the year I did it. I think she was third or fourth, like a really solid performance. She is a really strong runner and she's running the full lap this year. So I recognized her and I said hi and I introduced myself and she was super nice.

They're also fastpacking it but they're going all the way to Champex tonight. Anyways, that was cool. Girl crush moment. You guys have cows in England? Now with horns! Cows in England don't have horns this big! These may look like bulls but they're not, they're females. You can see the udders here.

I learned that during Swiss Peaks, and they're usually quite friendly. Give him a little pet! I gotta remember to wash that hand. So these filters get clogged sometimes and mine seems to be pretty clogged from I think all the glacial till that I've been filtering from the glacier water. Giving it a quick rinse like that in not running water but in still water almost always does the trick.

Yeah, that did the trick. I think this is where those cows came from that we just saw, that little stable here. It's funny how they they kind of seem to know where to go and obviously they know where to come back and how to get back home at night. So this is where the TMB diverges again from the Tor Des Geants route.

We would have come from down that valley. We climbed up and over Col Malatra. We had a beautiful view, an incredible reveal of the Mont belong Massif. I was there right at sunset. It was absolutely beautiful.

And then ran down the valley to this point and then back the way we just came. But for now we're gonna say goodbye to the Tor Des Geants course and continue on our way on the TMB. Bonjour! Wow, look at these beautiful horses! Wow. That was such a beautiful Refugio. Next time we do this we should definitely try and book in advance and stay here.

Yeah, it's like a hotel! Yea, stunning, beautiful setting. And the food looked amazing too. The food looked nice. We're about halfway through our distance for the day and it looks like a little over halfway through the climbing.

We are almost done this long traverse here. We're about to drop down a couple hundred meters and then do one more big climb and after that it's all downhill to La Fouly. All right, down we go. Now we climb. I think what I love most about this place is just how it's how obvious it is that everything was shaped by water and ice and continues to be. All around us the rivers and the valleys and the glaciers up above.

The mountains are alive, and they're being reshaped right before our eyes. You can keep up Audrée! I think this is the toughest climb so far in terms of grade and altitude and in terms of what we already have in our legs today. Yeah this climb is no joke.

We'll be well past the halfway point during UTMB here too. So it's gonna be a tough climb! There it is. So now we've just got a massive descent over the next 11 km down to our Refugio and we're done for the day. Of course, seemingly out of nowhere a refuge appears. No, we've gotta keep going. I could use water.

So we are officially in Switzerland. We didn't realize it at the time but I think the Col up there was the Border. So we've been in Switzerland for the last half hour or so.

So welcome to the Swiss Alps! All right, we just got some water and used the washroom. We're back on the road, probably a half an hour from our refuge. It looks like we just follow the river down the rest of the way This place is quite expensive because it's super swanky. So we opted for the dorm tonight which should be fine.

But check out these showers... these rooms... and of course once again, making use of our complimentary sandals. So we were able to do a little laundry last night which felt very luxurious after three days of running in the same dirty clothes.

Unfortunately, they're a little damp still. So I'll give it a few more minutes before we put that back on. Good power hike. He's saying, "thank God we're going up!" "This descent nearly destroyed my quads!" Sounds about right. So day three was another beautiful day. Day one was a lot of peekaboo views where we were sort of in the trees quite a bit and then day two just kept getting better and better and I really didn't think that day three could top that but I was wrong, it did.

La Fouly looks to be a beautiful town, I wish we had more time to spend here. In fact, we'd love to come back and do some skiing. The ski touring here is supposed to be excellent. But it's almost eight o'clock which means it's time to hit the trails again and to say goodbye for now.

Leaving La Fouly on day four, we'd continue the rest of the way down the valley on our way to Champex where we'd now join up with part of the route that I'd run during the Swiss Peaks 360k back in 2019. After a long traverse, we'd drop down to Trient and on to Vallorcine back in France where we'd spend our final night on the trail. This reminds me of all the little villages that we ran through during Swiss Peaks 360. It was one of my favorite parts, aside from the mountains of course. It looks like that's the end of our descent here this morning. Now we're going to begin the first of a couple of climbs, starting with a small one followed by two bigger ones.

We're arriving in Champex Lac which means we're about to intersect with the course that I ran back in 2019 during the Swiss Peaks 360k. We're probably going to stop for an espresso at the lake here because I remember it being just beautiful and of course during the race I had to kind of rush through it. This here was where the tents were. This is actually the UTMB aid station at Champex. We got to use it, it was a week after UTMB.

I remember driving here and driving around forever looking for the aid station. It really wasn't obvious during Swiss Peaks. And so I guess we'll be back here at this aid station during UTMB. Now it's time for an espresso and maybe a little snack, maybe some pie or something. There are crosses like that everywhere in the mountains in Switzerland. Bienvenue en Suisse! I had blocked out that whole last section from Champex Lac pretty much just to here.

But I remember this! It's quite humid today, I've been sweating buckets. So I've been drinking a lot of water and I'm supplementing that with salt pills, just make sure my electrolytes stay in balance. You can see Audrée has been reduced to using one pole because she has a really bad knot in her one shoulder just from the action of using poles. It only seems to bother her on the climbs, not while she's running. So she's giving her left arm a bit of a break.

It started late on day one but I didn't think too much of it. But then on day two got much worse. Yesterday, on day three it was excruciating. It's like this knot and it just pulls up on my neck and down to my elbow. So it's really painful and that's all I can think about.

I've been training with poles all summer, so this is not new, and I've done races with poles and a pack before. So I'm not sure. Maybe from traveling, hey? Sitting on the plane? Yeah, maybe from trying to sleep on the plane in a funky position.

I think it could be a mix of a lot of things. Maybe when we're in Annecy in a couple of days I'll try and find a massage therapist or something. Yea, definitely find you an RMT. Fix me up. During SwissPeaks, there was a little aid station here.

I'm pretty sure I sat and had pasta, spaghetti with tomato sauce if I remember correctly. So I think we might stop here again for a Coke or something. Bonjour. We stopped for a quick little snack at that last refuge there. So now we're dropping all the way down to a town called Trient which is where the TMB diverges again from the Swiss Peaks 360 course. But this ridge here, I ran along it.

It would have been probably three days into the race on just a few hours sleep at this point. It's as beautiful as ever. Big cowbells! We drove through here on our way from Chamonix to Switzerland for the race (Swiss Peaks). I remember driving around here again, looking for the aid station and I remember the cemetery. I'm thinking these tents are going to be the aid station for UTMB. This Naak drink mix has been working out really well.

What do you think? I do like that the taste is quite subtle as well. It's like you have a little flavor but it's not overpowering. There's not much in this town in terms of restaurants or stores even. So I think we'll just press on and eat what we have. Vallorcine. Four hours, so hopefully two-ish for us, two and a half. And then we're done? And then we're done.

That's where we stop for the night. So what about lunch? We miss lunch. There's no lunch. Oh, okay. I guess lunch was that cake. So we just left Trient and we're about to start our last big climb followed by a big descent down to Vallorcine where we're spending the night.

This is one of two possible routes on this section of the TMB. We're following the UTMB course, but we could have taken a higher and likely more scenic route. But unfortunately, there weren't any refuges available on that section by the time we booked in mid-spring. You really want to book this almost a year in advance to make sure you have lots of options with the refuges.

But we did want to kind of stick to the UTMB course as much as possible. So it sort of worked out in the end. That's that pass that we just came through over there. You can see the bridge too. We're about three quarters of the way up this climb and I think this is gonna be a tough one during the race. It comes quite late in the race. And Audrée up ahead getting it done with one pole no less.

Yea, it's beautiful, hey? We're just coming to the top of our climb here and right across there I can see a massive dam. The Swiss definitely love their mega dam projects. And I went over there during the Swiss Peaks 360. I came it to Finhaut over on the right there, right as the sun was setting, and up through those mountains over a Col there and it was just a surreal experience. It's so cool being back here. And you see two more dams right below.

All right, we're just arriving in Vallorcine. It's about a kilometer and a half to our refuge and we're gonna have dinner and a beer. I might have two beers to celebrate because we're almost done this thing! Oh, something smells good. Oh, this is it.

Oh great, that's our dinner that smells so good! It's pretty nice. It's a super old building. It has a lot of character.

Lots of character. I found a book that has some history on the chalet here. It was built in 1723 in a traditional style.

It talks about how the front half was for living the back half was for the animals and the ceilings are so low, I can only imagine that maybe people were shorter back then. Our fifth and final day would be a short one at around 19 km with just one big climb followed by a long traverse high above the Chamonix valley before following the UTMB race course down to Chamonix and through the city center where we'd started our adventure four days prior. A little cold today.

Yeah, it's chilly. Today is a short one. It's about 18 km as we head back to Chamonix from Vallorcene here. So we got a little bit of a later start, about 8:30.

But we've got lots of time to get back by around lunchtime which is our target. So our route today is really just one big climb and fortunately Mont Blanc is back in view. It was largely absent from the route yesterday. Just about done our last big climb and this one going up to La Flagere actually I think is quite fun. Not too steep, it's a nice grade, some switchbacks and big and open. Well there's Chamonix back in view, back where we started four and a half days ago. So we're the final stretch here, how do you feel? Great, I feel like I can for sure bomb down this.

Yea, visualizing the finish line. We're going to be hearing the party and the crowd at the finish line. I'll be running downhill like my life depends on it. Yea, we're just a kilometer and a half from the finish here, running through town.

Unfortunately, we'll both probably be finishing in the middle of the night or at least late at night. Middle of the night for you, early morning for me maybe. It might be light out - hopefully not. Straight down here through the main square to the church.

Four and a half days after we left. An incredible experience, part one of two. We get to do it all over again in just two and a half weeks.

2022-10-15 19:16

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