Chamonix: An Epic Adventure

Reportedly, sleeping at altitude can be a little tough. The person who discovered this fact had obviously never spent the night in a mountain refuge at 2000m in a dormitory with a dozen or so boisterous 10 year old kids the night before a 4am start! Tough just ain’t the word!!

How on earth did I find myself here?

The Trail Running Team that Simon and Julie at freestak have put together has been well publicised on this blog, and this weekend was the fruition of all their amazingly hard work. On Thursday evening six intrepid runners finally met in a gîte in the village of Les Houches, just a little outside of Chamonix in France. Tim and I were the last members to arrive as our flight was delayed by a storm in which lightening hit the air traffic control tower at Geneva airport.

Gîte Michel Fagot
Gîte Michel Fagot
the view from the gîte
the view from the gîte

Finally all in the same room together we said our hellos, shook hands, hugged and shared a glass of wine before retiring to bed; six runners ready to brave the alps in the morning. A few hours later, after very little sleep, we probably felt less intrepid, but very excited as we decided what to pack for the adventure that was set out before us.

We bundled onto the bus headed for Chamonix and tried to remember where it was that we were supposed to get off, we were mostly successful and we found ourselves at the meeting point outside the Micro Brewery Chamonix. It would be a few hours before we found ourselves back here again.

Julia, our guide for the weekend, pointed out the mountains in the distance and we talked about the possible effects of altitude on our efforts.

Mont Blanc looming above us
Mont Blanc looming above us

We set off on the trail as Julia explained that much of todays route would take in the Mont Blanc Marathon route. She told us that much of the first half of the race is flat. If this weekend taught me nothing else, it taught me a whole new classification of flat:

Alpine Flat! The first four miles of a 'flat route'
Alpine Flat!
The first four miles of a ‘flat’ route

I’m not really sure what else to say about this part of the run. I can’t think of enough superlatives to describe the act of running through the crisp, clear air of the alps with an amazing and inspiring bunch of runners, we ran a bit, we power hiked a bit, we looked up and enjoyed the view a LOT! Maybe this will help:

We're going, up there?
We’re going, up there?

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Reuben and Hannah making new friends
Reuben and Hannah making new friends
First attack of a hill with some walking poles
First attack of a hill with some walking poles
Waterfalls everywhere, and lots of fresh water to drink!
Waterfalls everywhere, and lots of fresh water to drink!
Still some snow to cross on the tops
Still some snow to cross on the tops
victorious ascent of L'Aiguillette des Posettes
victorious ascent of L’Aiguillette des Posettes
lunchtime. Croissants, Quiche and Ham & Cheese Baguettes. Oh, and Torq products!!
lunchtime. Croissants, Quiche and Ham & Cheese Baguettes. Oh, and Torq products!!
Trail Running Team at the Summit of des Possettes. Copywrite Roy Belchamber
Trail Running Team at the Summit of des Posettes.
Copywrite Roy Belchamber

The descent from L’Aguillette des Posettes was absolutely brilliant. Julia was not simply guiding us around the mountains, but advising us how to get the best from them and, fundamentally, how to traverse them quicker. We set off down the mountain and as I let my legs open up a bit and I picked up some speed I was soon at the front of the pack and loving this crazy descent. I reached a fork in the footpath and stopped to wait. Lindley, Tim and I seemed to be waiting for ages as we stopped to chat. I think the others had gotten caught up with the photographers whereas we just ploughed on. Whoops!

I have a feeling now, that this descent had more sinister undertones.

From here we set off back towards Chamonix and had a more relaxed descent from this point as we posed for the photographers. At the final, obligatory, coffee stop we found ourselves in a pretty little hamlet where the cafe served incredible cakes and tartes.

Apricot tart. What more do you need at 20 miles?
Apricot tart. What more do you need at 20 miles?

From here we simply followed the river back towards Chamonix. It was much flatter than the rest of the day had been and we were finally able to get our legs going over a bit faster. I think the massive descent had shredded my quads though and as I covered those final couple of miles my left knee really began to hurt. I hoped that stretching when we got back would sort everything out.

A short while later, we were back where we started the day, getting changed in the car park whilst Julie and I dipped our feet in the meltwater stream as we had both turned our ankles during the day. It was really cold!! But if I’d have thought about it, I probably should have just sat in there and hoped to get my knee sorted too.

We retired for a refuelling beverage at the MBC we had passed on the way to our start and enjoyed some of their home-brewed lager and ale. Delightful!!

Brewing tanks line the back of the bar
Brewing tanks line the back of the bar

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For the final act of the day we walked into Chamonix centre were the group enjoyed an amazing meal together, and Simon inspired me to eat delicious creamy and stodgy Tartiflette. I could not recommend it highly enough!!!

We returned to the gîte and began to pack as we were staying in the mountains the next night. I slept better on Friday night than I had done previously and woke up full of excitement for the day ahead. Julia had already advised us that it would be a pretty epic day of uphill adventures, the first few hours of which would be hiking rather than running. We assembled outside the gîte and set off with our cases and overstuffed backpacks to the van were we would be leaving everything we didn’t require the next day.

The walk to the van was a short one, but I was feeling pretty chipper and my ankle felt great. At this point that had been my only concern. We dropped of our stuff and headed through the village for the start of today’s ascent. Here, I knew there would be a problem. As we started this run my knee instantly felt uncomfortable. I stretched it out as we prepared to ascend a set of steps and off we went. Halfway up the stairs I knew there was no way I could continue. Stabbing pains were shooting through my knee as I pushed up the hill and just 200m or so up the hill as we paused to regroup, I looked at Simon and told him I simply couldn’t do it.

I was gutted, devastated even, as he phoned Julie for a lift and I began to descend the steps to meet the photography team at the main road. I sat in the car and wanted to have a little cry. How could my weekend be over already?

I went up the téléphérique with Roy the photographer and Philippe and Yves, the videographers, where we hoped to see the rest of the team come across La Prarion summit and run off into the distance. The weather had closed in a little on the mountain top and as we waited I put more layers on and went for a wander round to take some pictures up here, when the cloud allowed.

La Prarion. The team would be coming towards us over this summit
La Prarion.
The team would be coming towards us over this summit

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It was a little spooky seeing the cable cars shut down for off-season
It was a little spooky seeing the cable cars shut down for off-season

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catching glimpses of mountains in the distance through the cloud
catching glimpses of mountains in the distance through the cloud
a phenomenal view from the top
a phenomenal view from the top
Mont Blanc peeking through
Mont Blanc peeking through

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The gang finally reach us and stop for coffee and snacks
The gang finally reach us and stop for coffee and snacks
...before setting off down hill
…before setting off down hill
wow
wow

Roy carried on with the group to take more pictures and I joined Philippe and Yves for the return trip down the téléphérique in order to set off towards our next meeting point with Julie. Finally meeting up with Julie and Roy again I swapped cars as the videographers set off with Roy to find the runners and Julie and I drove to the end of the village to attempt our climb to the overnight stay.

Setting off from the carpark in the dappled shade of the treelined path was lovely as we walked towards our first port of call at Nant Borrant. The old roman road was a long climb of slick rocks, it was hard to believe that vehicles actually drove up it. The route largely followed the river and the waterfalls along the way were spectacular.

fast flowing rivers of freezing water
fast flowing rivers of freezing water
a natural rock bridge
a natural rock bridge

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a tiny cabin at the refuge at Nant Barront
a tiny cabin at the refuge at Nant Barront
sat on the wall, I stared at the map and hoped we didn't have to get to the top of that 'hill'
sat on the wall, I stared at the map and hoped we didn’t have to get to the top of that ‘hill’
sorry for all the river pics, but they were beautiful
sorry for all the river pics, but they were beautiful

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the flattest piece of trail
the flattest piece of trail
What. a. view
What. a. view
the refuge, and the top of 'that hill' in the distance
the refuge, and the top of ‘that hill’ in the distance

In total, the climb took us about two and a half hours as we ascended 2,800ft over just 3.5 miles. It was tough on my knee in places, but the sense of achievement at reaching the top was unrivalled as I soaked up the view, and the chocolate milk!

mmm. chocolate milk
mmm. chocolate milk

Just half an hour or so after our arrival, the team were reunited again as some very tired, but generally pretty happy looking, runners joined us at the Tré la Tête mountain refuge. Not surprising that they were tired really, having covered 18 miles and fractionally less than 10,000ft of elevation gain over that distance!!

The three course meal that was served up that night was really enjoyable and well deserved by most of the group. Rubbish, broken-knee people excepted!

It was agreed that for our night-run filming section we would get a nice early night and set out at 4am the next morning.

And here is where you joined me at the start of this story. At almost midnight, in a dormitory that sleeps 60, a third of the space taken up by 10 year olds with no teacher watching over them (currently drinking in the bar, but that’s a story for another time). Almost as they began to settle the excitement kicked off big-time as flares were lit outside. As we gathered around the window to watch it turned out that flares were being lit on every mountain top. I can’t for the life of me remember what the French were celebrating, but it looked amazing! It did not help getting everyone off to sleep.

4am seemed to roll around pretty darn quickly and silently (working very hard not to exact our revenge on the kids) we gathered our bits and pieces and set out for a run in the dark to test our new headtorches and get photos as the sun began to rise above the mountain tops.

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At this point we also lucked out by seeing a dozen Ibex just a handful of feet away. It was an incredible way to start the day!

For these short little sections my knee was feeling OK, but I wasn’t prepared to risk it on the group run and Julia didn’t want to risk me slowing down the group. Instead, Simon and I hang back with the videographers and spent the morning being movie stars. I felt horrendously horrible for making Simon bimble along with a cripple like me rather than the rest of the group.

We did have a good time waiting for a race to come through the woods in which Anna Frost was competing. We kept justifying waiting longer and longer to see her, but sadly had to push on. Having checked the results today we would have had to wait for a while longer as the guestimated times that we had picked up on the grapevine were a little inaccurate.

We made it back to Les Houches just after the rest of the group had come down the téléphérique. They looked pretty happy, and pretty knackered! Apparently Tim had not enjoyed the ride. It was pretty steep!

And that was it, the first meeting of the Trail Running Team had been extremely successful and an absolute blast for all involved (I’m fairly confident in that assertion).

We showered and changed, packed our bags, and headed down to town for some food before we flew off. On a sidenote – dinner in Chamonix is ridiculously overpriced if you pick the wrong place to eat! BONKERS!!!

Evidently I don’t have much luck with flights. The return trip was delayed by over an hour and I finally crawled into bed at about 12:30am; then back out again for work at 6:30.

A blooming long weekend, but phenomenal. I want to thank my excellent teammates. Not only for their company over the weekend, but for the amazing support they gave me when I had to make the gut-wrenching decision to pull out on Saturday. They are a truly excellent bunch. I also want to thank Julia at Tracks and Trails who planned a fantastic long weekend running in the alps with a lot of snow-enforced last-minute changes.

But, my biggest thanks has to go to Simon and Julie. The amount of work that went on over the weekend was clear to see, and the amount that has gone into planning such an amazing time was evident! They made a huge effort to help and support everyone and the team that they have created is simply incredible! Thanks guys!!

I hope to see you all on the trails soon!

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12 thoughts on “Chamonix: An Epic Adventure

  1. What an amazing write-up. Thank you! I was truly gutted for you, that you couldn’t continue on Saturday, but it was almost certainly for the best given all the targets you have set yourself and chapeau for climbing to the refuge on Saturday night. Actually spending Sunday down-hilling with you was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Hope to see you for a run on the ‘Alpine flat’ Box Hill soon!

    1. Thanks Simon, that really does mean a lot :-)

      I think I broke most of the rules from your email tonight though! If only I’d seen that first! I think I’d have struggled to condense it though.

      It’ll be good to catch up soon.

  2. […] “The descent from L’Aguillette des Posettes was absolutely brilliant. Julia was not simply guiding us around the mountains, but advising us how to get the best from them and, fundamentally, how to traverse them quicker. We set off down the mountain and as I let my legs open up a bit and I picked up some speed I was soon at the front of the pack and loving this crazy descent… [read more] […]

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