The Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is one of the world’s best known ultras, and one I dream of entering. For now a 100 mile race is beyond me, but I still wanted a taste of the UTMB…
So instead of racing, with my running buddy Bo, we fastpacked the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, setting off from Chamonix where we watched the start and some of the finishers of this year’s UTMB.
A promise of the mountains from Chamonix centre at the UTMB start line
Day 1 – Chamonix – Les Houches – Les Contamines (France)
A day of two halves – spectacular views of glaciers from the Brevent (2526m), followed by an exhausting and seemingly never ending descent into Les Houches (1007m).
After a quick lunch we revived in time for the hot and steep ascent to Col de Voza (1653m). The rest of the day was a pleasant wander through small French villages, following the river to Les Contamines where we stayed at Camping le Pontet (1,200m).
Day 2 – Les Contamines – Les Chapieux – Rifugio Elisabetta (Italy)
The morning started with a long ascent through a classic alpine landscape of green valleys cradled by snow topped mountains. We made quick time up to Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Croix (2,483m), and even quicker time down the steep switchbacks into Les Chapieux (1,554m).
From here we climbed again, a long haul up to Col de la Seigne (2,516m), the border of France and Italy, a place with an incredible view down into the distant valleys Veny and Ferret. We descended a short way to Rifugio Elisabetta where we found a spot to wild camp.
At 2,200m it really was wild, rough and cold. It was all worth it for a magic moment when the wind dropped in the middle of the night. In the stillness the Milky Way was visible in the clear sky above, while lightning flickered over distant glaciers lit silver by the moon.
A wild place to camp, beneath Rifugio Elisabetta at 2,200m
Day 3 – Rifugio Elisabetta – Courmayeur – Arnuva (Val Ferret) (Italy)
After a short trot along the floor of Val Veny we rose into dense cloud as we set off for what would be a long day. There was no reward of a view as we reached our first summits on a trail that undulated up to 2,400m several times. The sun finally came out as we descended steeply down a perfect pine scented trail into the city of Courmayeur (1,200m).
The next ascent to Rifugio Bertone (1,989m) was long, up steep rocky trails through woodland. From here we continued on runnable trails, out of the woods with views of glaciers on the opposite side of the valley until we reached Rifugio Bonatti (2,025m). It’s one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Taking in the view from Rifugio Bonatti
We pressed on in warm sun along sandy trails, surrounded by views of Italy’s expansive grey green granite. We had been aiming for Rifugio Elena, but on impulse stopped at Chalet Val Ferret in Arnuva (1,784m), unable to resist the promise of clean beds, hot meals, and a chance to wash and dry our clothes.
Day 4 – Arnuva – Grand col Ferret – Champex Lac (Switzerland)
Leaving the beautiful Val Ferret behind, we climbed through morning cloud which, with perfect timing, lifted just as we reached the Grand Col Ferret (2,537m), the border of Italy and Switzerland.
If the Italian Alps are characterised by seas of granite and woodland, the Swiss Alps are softer in appearance, coated in a lush green that reveals miles of perfect runnable trails.
Clouds lifting to reveal perfect trails as we leave Italy for Switzerland at Grand Col Ferret
We made relatively fast progress here, successfully navigating several cows on the trail, and stopping for lunch in La Fouly (1,610m). The final stage of the day was much flatter, following a riverside trail at around 1,100m with one final steep ascent to Champex Lac (1,466m) where we camped.
Day 5 – Champex Lac – Argentiere (France)
The day started with a good runnable trail, followed by a very steep and rocky climb to Alp Bovine (1,987m), where we recovered with home made Tarte Maison. From there we dropped to Col de la Forclaz and La Peuty (1,328m), the start of the last big ascents of the trip.
As we reached Col de Balme (2,191m) and re-entered France, Mont Blanc came into view for the first time in days, giving us a sense of the enormous circuit we had run. The trail dropped steeply here, and although there was a lower option, we chose to make our way back up to Aiguillette des Posettes (2,201m). At this stage it was hard work, with several false summits to overcome. It was well worth the effort for some of the best views of the whole route.
Mont Blanc back in our sights as Bo heads for home on the descent from Aiguillette des Posettes
This was followed by another very tough descent as we dropped steeply to camp at Argentiere.
Day 5.5 – Argentiere – Flegere – Chamonix
We had intended to start our run in Agentiere, but had to dash into Chamonix at the last minute to buy replacement poles for Bo. On the last day we ran the final part of the route without our rucksacks, which was a total joy.
If there’s a more perfect trail than this, let me know and I’m there…
The TMB route is slightly different to the UTMB race route, taking in higher variations. It’s not necessary to camp or carry meals as there are plenty of mountain huts, but we wanted to complete it in a self-sufficient style.
We carried camping and cooking gear, basic food for 4 days, and clean clothes as well as emergency gear (medical kit, waterproofs) map, compass, and headtorches. Our bags weighed around 7-8kg each.
By running long distances over a sustained period I learned a lot about the best conditions for running well, especially what a difference a good nights sleep and hot food makes. All useful for future races and trips.
It was an epic journey, unforgettable. Thanks so much to my most awesome running buddy Bo, who always brings the perfect amounts of psyche, science, and personal space!
This seems to be the best (only) selfy we managed to take!