Trail running Courmayeur to Chamonix over three days
If you're here for just some daily journals/blogs, I suggest just going to Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 at the links provided. If you're interested in doing something like this yourself in the future and want advice on the run, gear, accommodation and food, keep on reading!
The 5,000 metre head-pounding
My head was pounding. Like the 'someone has a head in a vice grip that is slowly tightening, and they're hitting the vice-grip with a hammer' for to pounding. What had I let myself in for?!
I was sitting at over 5,000 metres in altitude, halfway through the Annapurna Circuit in October 2008 with my girlfriend of less than a year. Only two weeks since I'd left Ireland and three days after charging out from the start of the trek at 2,600 metres, I was sitting at 5,000 metres in altitude at the final Thorung Pass of 5,416metres. And for the first time in my life at altitude, I was looking for drugs of the high-altitude kind to relieve the pressure on my now-stressed body. Luckily enough, Girlfriend did have some as she had conveniently (for her, at least!) spent the previous month attempting some new routes in the Indian Himalayas and was well acclimatised. As for me........
As for the Annapurna Circuit, it's one of the famous treks of Nepal, that "usually takes about 15–20 days". Our idea was to do it in 7-8 and in many ways, it was the start of many brilliant ideas to come. Go light and fast. Every other trekker we met had at the very least a 60-litre of gear, massive hiking boots and some even had a sherpa with them carrying an extra bag of equipment! For us, it was 45-litres of space (for us both) and a pair of trail runners. In the end, we succeeded, blasting around in the allotted time (in short, doing double the distance of every other trekker daily) - if you want a small bit more details, see here for my original blog post on what we carried.
*A final aside: my 'the girlfriend' above is now my wonderful wife of 5 years and the same partner for the most recent activity - so it all worked out perfectly!
I bring this up as our most recent trail run from Courmayeur to Chamonix on this summers trip brought to mind this trip. While most other people make the plan to do the Mont Blanc loop, i.e. the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), our ideas usually end up compressing time. So the plan was to do ~100km of the TMB (and ideally the UTMB ultra-running route which has some small detours) over 3 days. I'd love to also say we came up with this idea on our own, but alas no, it came from the excellent Cicerone-produced 'Trail Running in Chamonix' (Amazon UK, Amazon USA) book as one of the recommended runs in the region. Note that the recommended route includes some additional running on the first day, however as it's not on the TMB or the UTMB we made the decision to stick with those routes instead.
I also write this up as I could only find a solitary blog post on the topic of this run, and a couple of guided trips (one very interesting guide-supported trip at €135/person, and bizarrely one of them taking 8 days and costing $3200 per person which would be slower than walking?).
Looking at Rob's notes, it looked like they had some very wild weather throughout their experience, starting the final major climb "in t shirt and shorts but by halfway up we were wearing hats, gloves and 4 layers including puffy jackets and GoreTex rain shells". As myself and Naomi had 3 full weeks in the Chamonix valley, we were more flexible around time so made sure to fit in three days where the forecast was looking perfectly clear. We went very lean with our kit (having spent enough time at 3-4,000 metres, I was comfortable enough with the idea of going without gloves/hats and the bare minimum of clothing if our maximum height would be 'only' 2,500 metres. Possibly naive however as we were almost certain of clear weather also, it was worth the gamble to get weight down on our bags (details of which are below).
We brought the Cicerone guide with us along with a map we had purchased showing the full Tour du Mont Blanc loop. Again, we'd made the decision to not carry the proper maps for the region as the belief was we'd be following signposts on the heavily travelled Mont Blanc trekking routes. As we learned, this decision as absolutely the right one if you're doing the TMB route, however the UTMB ultra-running route is different in a few sections and is not marked - we struggled at one point to find the correct route and ended up just following the TMB route instead. Future plan would be to put the UTMB route into Strava or a Garmin mapping watch so we could check on the fly where we were meant to be going.
- We bused from Chamonix to Courmayeur for the start, leaving our camper parking in Chamonix.
- We pre-picked the time-slot we were going for, with the clear weather window. We did carry full waterproof rain jackets, however we were relatively light on cold-weather kit and no rain leggings. On the latter piece of kit, our assumption was we'd be moving fast so legs would stay warm enough.
- Pre-booking of the huts/B&B's is essential. You may get lucky when you arrive at a hut, but it's likely, especially during peak season that you'll be standing outside empty-handed with slowly rising panic that you've to trek on to the next hut with similar odds of success... In short, don't be daft and pre-book!
- Speaking of huts:
What we Carried
As always, we preach about going light and fast so went as lean as possible. Any extra weight is a significant dent on energy expenditure! E.g. if you weigh 64kg and are carrying an 8kg backpack, that's 12.5% extra weight your body isn't used to.....even 4kg extra is 6% more weight.
Our kit went in two bags: a 10-litre trail-running bag and a 20-litre (both from Decathlon). The 20-litre can be seen in the photo at the top - it's not a pure trail running bag so a bit of skin management was needed in the lower back to stop chafing, but it did work well. Future trips will involve a 'proper' 15-20-litre trail running back (high on back, etc.).
- 2 rain jackets (Ultimate Direction and Patagonia)
- 2 sets of walking/running poles (Alpkit Compact Ultra II's)
- 2 head torches (Petzl)
- 2 sleeping liners (on assumption we'd need them for the huts)
- 2 long trousers/pants (for use at the huts, as well as if it got cold on mountains)
- 2 jumpers (for use in hut as well as use if cold on mountains). Both were thermal jumpers: Naomi had a Patagonia thermal fleece, I had an Under Armour thermal stretch top.
- 2 water bladder (1 x 1-litre, 1 x 2-litre)
- 2 passports (The only official border crossing was between France and Courmayeur via the Mont Blanc tunnel although we weren't asked for ours. However in event you needed a bus/train back unexpectedly and had to cross an international border, seems worthwhile to have!)
- 2 phones, and 1 charger (note: Switzerland uses a different socket to France/Italy!)
- Cash and 1 payment card (we also had our smartphones, one of which had Apple Pay hooked up with a separate card)
- 1 Circerone trail running guidebookand 1 Tour du Mont Blanc map.
- Food (We started out with around 8 cereal bars, 2 energy gels, 2 bananas)
What we'd take out, and add, if doing it again
If I was doing it again in a similar manner, I'd probably dump:
- at least one head torch: if you're leaving early and even if making 8-10 hour days, in June-August the days are long enough. I'd make do with just the single torch most likely
- The sleeping liners. We were leaving around 8am so it was already bright at least an hour and we were finished by 7pm at the latest one day (and that was the first, as we didn't start moving until 11am). i.e. the odds of us being out at night were too slim. Note: The sleeping liners I'd only drop if you were staying in the major villages or town huts/B&B's - the high mountain huts wouldn't be as....clean with washing bedsheets (as they don't have much in the way of facilities).
- I'd also drop the guidebook and the map if we had organised ourselves properly enough to put the maps into Strava or a mapping app. The guidebook in particular is surprisingly weighty!
- I'd love to say you could abandon the phone charger and plug convertor also, however unfortunately the hostels weren't set up well enough with USB sockets to get away with it. (One did have USB sockets built into each wall socket which showed the general trend we're going towards but it's not guaranteed just yet).
- If doing this specific loop, or any run that involves staying in Trient, throw in a pair of swimming togs. There's a sauna in the basement of the Auberge!
If you did drop the items above, you could potentially replace them with either extra rain leggings and hats/gloves, or else cut the bags to just a single 10-litre and a 15-litre trail running pack (drop the liners and I suspect you could get away with two 10-lite bags if you'd ultra-running jackets, etc.
The per-day details
As for more specific details, and if you'd like to read our own story, each title below is a link to the daily journal with numerous photos. Enjoy!
Straight off, it's a great run.