I’m wandering back and forth in the French Sector of Geneva Airport, searching for the shuttle company that’s supposed to take me to Chamonix. There’s little time to waste — the moment I set foot inside my rental apartment, I intend to strip down, don running clothes, and dash off into the mountains without a care in the world. At last I find my shuttle (not in the French Sector at all), and we are on our way, flying along at nearly mach one-hundred in our minivan on the highway surrounded by bigger and bigger mountains. That is, until the biggest one of all comes into view, like a gigantic dollop of melted vanilla icecream hovering above rows of black, craggy pinnacles. I gasp: “Le Mont Blanc!“
Cham is always a flurry of sensation and experience: mild culture shock; overpowering mountain scenery; fantastic food; and warm people all generally stoked about alpine sports round out the atmosphere. I intended to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter within my first or second day in town but fickle weather kept me playing at lower altitudes. One week isn’t enough time to expect to summit Mont Blanc — unless you get a perfect weather window early in the week — and then rest sufficiently for a demanding ultra a matter of days afterwards.
The moment I arrived (June 20), I sprinted up the hill to check out the first climb of the Mont Blanc 80K. The race begins in town, climbs steeply on pavement for ~5min, then funnels onto tight singletrack that switchbacks past the refuge of Bel Lachat to the summit of Brevent. I knew from my race last year that I didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of people, so I realized that if I could move quickly for five minutes at the start of this race, I’d secure a good position and be able to cruise uncontested for another hour until we reached the top of Brevent.
One notable episode of this run was crossing paths with a burly boucton (ibex), who I addressed in the same manner I communicate with Canadian goats and sheep — by blahhht-ing like a sheep at them. He simply snorted in response. Stuck-up French goats… I descended to Planpraz via the Mont Blanc Marathon route, then back to town underneath the gondi line. Woo! (2h56m/18km/1412m)
Day two (June 21), I flirted with ideas of trying to bag Mont Blanc or Mont Buet but the weather appeared rather poopy when I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I didn’t really feel like taking the bus anywhere either, so I just headed out the door intending to slog up to the famous Mer de Glace lookout at Montenvers, then scope out the final part of the course.
My hike up to Montenvers was hot and sweaty and I greeted the cool breeze of the Mer de Glace glacier with arms outstretched. I promptly bagged Signal Forbes — at least the part where all the people stop and take pictures — looked around and said, “what next?” I looked up along the broken ridgeline extending from Signal Forbes toward l’Aiguille de l’M and started scrambling. It was very pleasant scampering up huge plates which stayed in place as I hopped and leapt between them, and offered texture via their coating of lichen. Once I reached the “summit”, I continued along the exposed ridge for awhile until I wasn’t really comfortable anymore, then headed back.
This run marked the introduction of my trail buddy/pet goat, Giggles. After marveling for ages at clouds churning off the knifeblade edge of the Drus, and clearing views of the other Chamonix Aiguilles — Grand Charmoz, Grepon and Aiguille de la Plan — we headed down and across the Balcon Nord beneath these brooding towers to get a feel for the final stretch of the Mont Blanc 80K. A trail constructed from huge, flat stones, I found the Balcon Nord pretty conducive for skipping along at a decent pace to the Aiguille du Midi midway gondola station, slash, final aid station of the race, before dropping like a stone back to Chamonix for the finish.
Giggles and I reached the top of Plan de l’Aiguille and were tempted by warm cafe ou lait and stopped to refuel before descending back to Chamonix. (I imagine this was around 20kms and maybe 1300m of climbing, but I didn’t have my watch charged.)
My “free time” to bag peaks and such in Chamonix was constrained in a merry way by an appointment to visit two friends I know from Banff. Justine and Marion, two French twins, became acquaintances a couple years ago and we quickly became hiking buddies, poring over maps and shooting shit for hours about places to see in the Canadian Rockies. These girls were crazy about backcountry hiking in Canada, and are two of the most driven and competent peak-baggers I’ve ever met. Though the effort of the previous two days hadn’t seemed too extreme at the time, I woke up on day three (June 22) with legs sore — trashed, even — so my appointment to meet up the girls came at the right time. I caught an early bus to the picturesque ski commune of Megeve, where the girls work, and we tore off on harrowing mountain roads to climb Le Parmelan, a long escarpment overlooking Annecy.
Upon returning from Annecy and its surroundings, I had two days to kill, and while the 700m climb up Parmelan hadn’t been too detrimental, my body seemed to be taking its time to recover and feel fresh again. Hence, I mainly bummed around my apartment; skulked around shops and tried on gear; did a few last minute race things including collecting my bib; sketched the mountains from my balcony; and did typical tourist things like going up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar and visiting the cemetary… I knew from reading Mark Twight’s books what I would find there and wanted to see for myself: a bunch of young kids forever entombed in the massive of Mont Blanc. What I love about Chamonix is its lack of coddling or knee-jerk reaction to the deaths of young alpinists doing what they love. Their loss is profoundly saddening and I teared up reading many of the placards, but what is more inspiring is the celebration and support for individuals who push and challenge themselves in the mountains. That support extends to the cheering that takes place in Chamonix for every single ultrarunner coming in at ten hours, twenty hours, or twenty minutes before cutoff, in the wee hours of the morning.
With one day left, I didn’t do much besides head up Brevent via the cablecar to seek a little solitude, like Herb Elliott advises before an athletic performance. It was good to be there, clearing my head, condensing some of the thoughts that had been rolling around all week, and just being with the Aiguilles Rouges — the mountain I have the most relationship with here and the first I would have to traverse in less than 12 hours — and the Mont Blanc, so impressive across the way. Chamonix is a special place, and the Mont Blanc massive has an aesthetic and ambiance which can hypnotize and transform one’s psyche. I went home that evening, crushed a jurassiene calzone from the pizza joint next door, packed up my running vest and went to sleep, with two alarms set to 2:30am and thoughts of gnarly mountain races dancing in my head.