The UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) is the Everest of trail running, the big one that every one has heard of. The race take over the Chamonix valley for a week at the end of August with a range of 7 races and over 8000 entrants. It describes itself as the world summit of trail running.
To get an entry into the UTMB in itself is a massive task. First you need to complete other ultra races to collect UTWT (Ultra Trail World Tour) points, before entering the ballot system. It is normal to be knocked back 2 or 3 times before getting an entry, making the UTMB a 4 or 5 year project for most people.
The trail though, is always there. So rather than go through all of that I thought I would go for my own adventure and run the route over 4 days. Going solo and staying in mountain huts along the way.
At 2665 meters above sea level the Col des Fours was the highest point of my route, with large sections of each day being over 2000 meters. Although this is not particularly high in mountaineering terms it is definitely high enough to increase the effort required if you are used to living at sea level! So taking time to acclimatise is important before setting out.
The week before I arrived in Chamonix I spent a week in Switzerland and did two really cool mountain runs, then had one big day in the Chamonix valley before a rest day.
Augstmathorn & HarderKlum ridge - 26km, 1500m ascent. Highest point 2138 m
- An awesome exposed ridge run above Interlaken
Burgle & Gantrisch - 11km, 900 m ascent. Highest point 2180.
- 2 peaks over 2000m meters with steep climbs and descent.
Mont Buet & La Cheval Blanc - 30km, 2350m ascent. Highest point 3100.
- Arriving in Chamonix I really wanted to have a crack at Mont But after failing to get to the top last year from the Samoens side due to bad weather. At over 3000m this was higher than I really needed to go to acclimatise and I was definitely feeling it for the last 500m or so, but it did set me up well for my tour.
There are various ways of managing your kit for the TMB. If you stay in the valleys each night you can arrange a baggage transfer, this way you can run with a light bag and still enjoy luxuries, like clean socks each day.
Some people go around the route completely self-sufficient. Camping each night and carrying huge loads is not my idea of fun.
My route took advantage of the many high mountain refuges along the route. These provided a bed, dinner, breakfast, a picnic lunch and even a shower each night. This allowed me to travel relatively light. Just carrying essential kit. I didn’t weigh it but I guess my pack was about 4-5kg without water.
Inov-8 Race Ultra Pro 2in1 Vest, with 10L capacity this was plenty and really comfortable to run with.
Waterproofs. Inov-8 Ultrashell jacket and trousers
Inov-8 All terrain pro mitts
Inov-8 Terraultra G 260 shoes.
Leki micro trail pro poles
Garmin InReach Mini - Emergency beacon & communication
Clean clothes for the evenings: Compression tights, light shorts, Merino top
Spare running kit: 1 t-shirt, 1 pair pants, 1 par socks
Silk sleeping bag liner for huts
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Tour du Mont Blanc Route Choice
The UTMB route takes several detours from the traditional walkers route to visit some of the towns along the route for commercial and logistical reasons. Rather than following the race route I chose to follow the walking route, with a couple of variations along the way to add some extra highlights.
In total over 4 days I covered 166km and 10200 meters of ascent (and decent!).
Day 1 - Les Houches to Le Refuge la Balme
25m 1975m ascent - 5 hours 45
The tour starts from Les Houches with a 600 meter climb up wide tracks through the ski area towards the Col de Vosa. With your back to the views of Mont Blanc this is not the most attractive part of the route and it was hard to resist the temptation to push the pace to get on to more interesting terrain.
From the Col de Vosa I took my first variation. Instead of dropping straight down towards St Gervais I took the high traverse towards Mont Blanc, then the descent, climb, decent and climb through the Col de Tricot. This adds a bit of ascent but the views of the Bionassy and Miage glacier are well worth it and it cuts off a few kilometres of valley running to Les Contamines.
From the end of the road at Notre Dame de la gorge the route follows a roman road, climbing steeply at first towards the Col du Bonhomme. Just before half way up this climb I arrived at my destination for the day, Le Refuge La Balme, one of the more basic on the tour.
Despite this being my shortest day on the tour I had pushed to make good time so that I would arrive before the forecasted afternoon thunderstorm. I needn’t have worried as this didn’t arrive until after 8pm. A spectacular sight as it came up the valley towards us and a very good reason not to be camping!
There was certainly no shortage of food with which to refuel, my selection of cheese would have fed 6 people and yet the staff seemed offended I hadn’t managed to finish it all!
Day 2 - Le Refuge la Balme to Maison Vieille
31.5km 2270m ascent - 5 hours 44
There are a few high cols on the tour that cannot be avoided without a lengthy drive, the Col du Bonhomme, Col de la Seigne and the Grand Col Ferret. Getting good weather for these crossings is the crux of a successful tour really. Today I was crossing the first two of these and there was a significant thunderstorm forecast for the middle of the day, from 12 until 2pm.
Knowing I was able to move quickly at least gave me some flexibility to manage this. Some of the walking teams got up at 4am to get ahead of the storm.
Confident in the forecast I set off after breakfast at 7.30 under clear skies for the 700m climb to the col. I was rather surprised to find after 30 minutes the first spots of rain. Arriving at the col it was not too heavy but looking down to the South East now I could see a wall of rain and flashes of lightening approaching. At 2300 meters, this exposed spot was no place to be in a lightening storm so I raced the 2km around the hillside to the next refuge as fast as I could.
I spent the next 5 hours waiting for the weather to clear as the hut slowly filled up with bedraggled hordes of walkers.
I had a cut-off time of 2pm that I knew I had to leave the sanctuary if I was to get to my overnight destination in time for my dinner. At 5 minutes to 2 I put on my waterproofs and braced myself to head out into the rain. Within seconds of opening the door the clouds cleared and the vista below was revealed, perfect timing!
The improvement in the weather meant that I could take my second variation of the tour, a short climb to a higher col, le Col des Fours, cutting the corner and avoiding the decent to the village of Les Chapieux. An interesting descent to la Ville des Glaciers and another climb to le Col de la Seigne and I was in Italy.
6km of easy angled descent into Val Veni gave the first long section of good running on the tour which had been mostly hiking so far. With spectacular mountain scenery emerging from the clouds I was definitely enjoying myself.
The clock was ticking though so I pushed hard up the last climb before enjoying another great section of trail as I traversed into the Courmayeur ski area and arrived at Maison Vieille with 30 minutes to spare for a shower before dinner. Being Italy this was a feast!
Day 3 - Maison Vielle to Champex-lac
55.6km 3150m ascent - 10 hours 46
With a good weather forecast, the pressure was off in terms of time today. I had estimated the day at 50km and I had 11 hours to do it. So long as I could maintain an overall average of 4.5 km/h I would be fine. Surely that shouldn’t be too hard, should it?
Day 3 stared with the rather stiff warm up of a 750 meter decent down the ski runs and then the same amount of climb back up the other side of the valley to Refuge Bertone, traversing through the morning routine of Courmayeur on route. It was worth a stop here for good Italian coffee and a chance to enjoy the first proper views of the Italian side of Monte Bianco!
The trails coming into Italy yesterday had been the primi piatti (starter) of the running potential of this side of the tour, but today was definitely the Secondo Piatti (main course)! This was almost certainly the best day of trails I have ever run (outside of Scotland - of course!). From Refuge Bertone I climbed the ridge to Mont de la Saxe. This rounded, grassy ridge would not look out of place amid highland hills and in itself gave some really pleasant undulating trail running. The views it gave though were very much different! Probably the best viewpoint of the whole tour, everything from the Innominata ridge of Mont Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses and along to Mont Dolent. Rocky ridges split by numerous glaciers, it is a view that takes a while to look at!
After a couple of small summits the ridge ended, and another small climb to the strangely named Col Entre Deux Sauts (pass between two jumps) lead me into a stunning 3km descent to the refuge Bonatti and then another amazing undulating traverse toward the head of Val ferret.
In need of a refuel before the climb into Switzerland I stopped in the Refuge Elena where for €8 I had the best pasta I have ever eaten. I really don’t know how it is possible to make a simple tomato sauce taste so amazing, although 3 hard days of running might also have contributed!
In to Switzerland and the quality of running didn’t drop. Instead of the knee busting descents of France, this was another great angle for letting rip, dodging snakes of Korean tourists and wooping all the way to the road at La Fouly.
A quick reappraisal of the route still to come showed 10km of downhill running along the valley, before a stiff 400 meters of climbing up to Champex lac. With 2 hours to get there before dinner I couldn’t afford to hang about and it was with tired legs that I made it into town that night, envious of the teams relaxing around the lake and playing about on stand-up paddle boards.
Day 4 - Champex-lac to Les Houches
54km 3310m ascent - 12 hours 28
On the final day I knew I had options to cut the day short if I needed to with busses available from Forclaz & Trient back to the Chamonix valley. Once in the valley I could stop at Argentiere, and from the Aguille Rouge I could drop down to Chamonix at any point. I didn’t really need to go all the way along and over Le Brevent to Les Houches if I didn’t want to.
Having this in my mind was reassuring to my tired legs as they shuffled out of Champex on Friday morning, without it I might have lacked the commitment and taken the transfer taxi with the American group who I shared dinner with the night before!
Knowing the scale of the day ahead I opted for the standard route via Bovine, rather than the higher and more scenic Fenetre d’Arpette, although this was still a fair ascent to warm up the legs and gave great views down into the Rhone valley.
The beauty of the Tour route is the frequent opportunities to re-supply. All along the route there are lots of water fountains and refuges. An amazing peach tart at Bovine, then an ice cream and a couple of bananas from the shop in Forclaz and I was fuelled for the big climb over the Col de Balme and back into France. Here the re-supply situation changed dramatically. In stark contrast from the quiet trails of the morning, the hill was now buzzing with hundreds of walkers, some of whom had come up on the chairlifts for a stroll. This meant that my planned lunch spots, the two huts in the ski area were fully booked. With one sandwich and two bars in my bag I looked along the length of the Aguille Rouges to the summit of Le Brevent at the far end of the valley, this could be a problem!
Without much of a choice, I descended down to to the road crossing below the Col des Montets where I hesitated for a moment, should I press on with limited supplies, or take a diversion to find some food. My stomach won the argument and I set off down the hill. I thought there was a hostel/refuge down here, but was very pleasantly surprised to find an amazing spot for lunch at Tre le Champ, just a few minutes from the route and tucked into a massive quiche, salad and bread and washed it down with an icy Orangina. The climb back up to the road was well worth it and without this stop I would have struggled to complete my route. Once into the Aguille Rouge the regular re-supply options dried up.
The steady climb up is broken by the section of ladders by the Aguillette d’Argentiere which can be a real bottleneck on a busy day, luckily I was quickly through and on to the long traverse around through the two ski areas. Here I was expecting to find water, but the renovations at La Flegere meant it was all closed up. In the heat of the afternoon I was soon out of water and still facing a few hours of running. If I couldn’t get more I knew I would have to descend from the Brevent, not completing the route over the summit to Les Houches. In Scotland I am so used to collecting water from streams, but here all the drainage channels were bone dry. Luckily just as I came through into the Brevent ski area I found a small water trough, perfectly designed for the weary walker to bathe their sweaty feet! Ignoring this fact I had a good drink and filled up both bottles!
With no excused left I knew I would complete my circuit. My finish time crept backwards as my estimated distance proved woefully optimistic! The sting in the tail of the route was the final climb up to the rocky summit of Le Brevent at 2525m. A moment to enjoy the full 360 degree panorama of the Mont Blanc range, the Aguilles Rouges and the Tour de Fiz to the west and then it was time for the final descent. With 1500 meters of height to lose you could expect this to be a painful knee-wrecking end, but instead it is 6km of spectacular, exposed trail, winding its way around the hillside and down into the forest. A fitting end to a spectacular 100 miles of mountainous trail running.