I’m at the Musée du Guides in Courmayeur, at Italy’s oldest guide society (founded in1850), and the second oldest in the world after Chamonix. Guide, Stefano takes us around the exhibits, explaining how everything here exists because of Monte Bianco.
Before it was first climbed, by chamois hunter and crystal collector, Jacques Balmat and physician Michel-Gabriel Paccard on 8 August 1786, Courmayeur was a small village of farmers and hunters. In the 14th-15th century, the glacier was feared as it was believed monsters lived there, and Mont Blanc and its range were known as the cursed mountains. Back then, the region was neither Italian, nor french, but Savoyard and according to Stefano, Mont Blanc took three days to climb.
Times have certainly changed. In 2013, Catalan ultra runner Killian Jornet ascended and descended it in a record-breaking 4 hours 57 minutes 34 seconds - on foot from Chamonix. In triathlete Alistair Brownlee’s book, ‘Relentless: Secrets of the sporting elite” Jornet, who also has the speed record for Mount Everest, told Brownlee he thinks “we can now possibly link different summits in the Himalayas.”
“At home, you can do ten summits and start running home- that’s normal in UK or Norway,” he says. “ In the Himalayas, you do an expedition, so you stay two months in a base camp and climb one summit. I think in future it will be possible to stay in a village in the mountains and maybe run to Everest, and then follow the ridge to Lhotse and go down to another village and climb another summit”
“In a way,” he adds, “I think that’s what Everest was kinda letting me know- that this would be possible to do in the future.”
Now obviously these are not (yet?) feats for mere mortals. For now, challenges such as the 171 km Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, which follows the route of the Tour du Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland is still something out of reach for many of us. The ultra trail takes the best runners around 20 hours to complete, and most runners between 32 to 46 hours to reach the finish line, meaning running through two nights in order to complete the race. But the race is why I’m here: to take in some of its best sites and key locations and learn about the history and future of the event.
Having recently witnessed lycra-clad runners in just lightweight crampons and rope, training by running up and down the Briethorn in Switzerland, I’m curious about what’s ahead for the sport. Yet a resounding ‘No’ from Stefano when I posed him my question about running and alpinism, put me back in my place. He did not like that idea, especially from a safety point of view.
I started my trip in Chamonix, taking the Flegere cable car to its summit and walking back down to the town following the route of the course through the forest tracks. We are accompanied by ultra runner and Columbia coach Caroline Freslon, who asks us to imagine that at this point we’ve not slept and run about 160km. “Very few people run up the climbs,” she says. In fact, “it’s much more like hiking.” We begin to run down a little to get a feel for it. Caroline tells us to avoid landing on our heels because if you land on a rock your foot can twist easily, so it’s better to land on your toes. Similarly to mountain biking, you must check all around you, rather than focusing on, for example, the tree root you don’t want to hit. We reach the pretty chalet Floria, where we can take in views across the valley to Mont Blanc itself. The mountain clearly still has the same allure to runners, climbers and hikers as it did all those years ago to the early mountaineers who raced to be the first to summit it. Thousands of visitors come to the towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur every year to experience it and for many trail runners, the UTMB Mont Blanc is the ultimate goal.
This is why its organisers say they had to make some changes to the entrance procedure. The UTMB was born 18 years ago, in 2003 and now, around 10 thousand runners descend on Chamonix in the last week of August to take part in one of the races. In 2019 more than 26,000 applications were received for a place to run the OCC TDS CCC or UTMB.
UTMB co-founder, Catherine Poletti, tells me this is why they decided to introduce the UTMB world series, of which the main event will be the UTMB Mont-Blanc. To apply for a spot on one of the races you must collect a certain number of ‘running stones’ by previously running one of the events of the series, such as the UTMB Gaoligong, Ushuaia, or Oman, ( which I ran in 2019).
On first appearance, it seems quite a complicated system and some athletes aren’t happy about it as they see it as a further commodification of trail running. But Poletti explains “we wanted to organise a network of races around the world offering the same standard and experience, with the same rules. The criteria are mountains in iconic places ... but also where there is already a community of runners.”
“We want to go to the runners instead of them coming to us. In this way, they travel less and travel better...not just going from one part of the earth to another, but having a real experience.”
For Poletti, the recent tragedy at the 100km (60-mile) ultramarathon in the Yellow River Stone Forest, in northern China, where twenty-one runners died after extreme weather struck, also highlights the importance of standards and rules. “It’s crazy. We are connected with a good forecaster and all the security services. We will send a text during the race if we need to stop … in five languages! Part of the mandatory kit is a phone!”
“In 2010 we had very bad weather and we stopped the race.”
“This is why we changed the system to create the UTMB World Series, so the rules are the same in different countries. Some people say we want to buy everything, but it’s not that. We need to be completely involved in strategic decision making so for the runners, the rules are completely understandable.”
“We can’t avoid risk, but we try with software to reduce it as much as possible. So this means a standardisation.”
I ask Poletti about the origins of the race. She tells me before 2003 there were some people who tried to hike and run the Tour de Mont Blanc. In 1999 there was a race organised by the Club de sport Chamonix, but it was a relay race with a team of 7. In 2000 the fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel meant the race stopped until 2002. They tried to restart it but only a few people registered so it was cancelled by the President of the running club that she and her husband, Michele were members of.
Michele was upset by this decision as the event was considered a symbol of friendship between the three regions. So they decided to start their own ultra run, but not in the same way; this time you run it alone, it starts and ends in Chamonix and is on trails, not roads.
“We wanted to use the path of the GR5 to cross as many villages as possible,” says Poletti. “When I registered the race it was then called the Ultra Trail International of the Tour de Mont Blanc. I announced it on all the websites I could find in the world. It was strange because we saw the first registration was from Denver. And we said, ‘ok we wish for 300’ if it’s 500 it may be a lot. “Then we reached 722 at the start with 25 nationalities at the start.”
“It began like that then we had 1400, then 2000 then after that it became complicated as we had so much demand, registration finished in 24 hours.”
“In 2008 registration was complete in 8 minutes. We were very happy, but on the 9th minute, we understood we had a big problem. People called in to complain. So after that, we asked for experience. Runners had to have done at least two 50km races or 100km and that was the start of the qualifying points,” she explains.
When UTMB races started to be organised in other countries, it was important to offer ‘the UTMB experience’, so they began the UTMB World Series. Director-General of the UTMB, Frédéric Lenart said that each event needs “a specific setting and guidelines”, but “we don’t want to change everything and make a Macdonald’s out of it!” They also want to attract amateur as well as elite runners, so “You have two choices. You either keep it niche and elite or open it to make it popular. Look at western states -- only 400 people can do this race. I could never do it. “
The next day I head through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy’s Aosta valley to experience this stretch of the race. We are joined by former Olympic cross country champion, Marco Albarello, who says the great thing about the UTMB is the spirit of collaboration between the Swiss, French and Italians: “Italians are brothers to the French and cousins to Swiss…” he jokes. Albarello says the event is very important for the region, adding value to their mountains and showing what the territory can offer to visitors.
We walk together from Val Veny, on the path to Lac Combal that’s surrounded by many impressive glaciers I’d never seen before, being more familiar with the French side of Mont Blanc. ( Italians say theirs is the most beautiful side of the mountain.) We reach a sign pointing to Rifugio Maison Vielle, located at 1956 metres. Caroline tells me this is about the halfway point of the race and from there, there is a huge 1000m descent to Courmayeur. At the Rifugio you can eat, sleep and see your family. There’s often a party atmosphere as guardian, Jacamo, who was one of the first supporters of the race, organises musicians to play. But for some, it's strategic not to stop there for too long.
On reaching Lac Combal, we see a mountain known as the Pyramides Calcaires, that’s striped like zebra with its snow and rock patches. Arriving from France, runners come down it at night to the Rifugio Elisabetta via the Col de la Seigne.
Back in Courmayeur, we take a tour of the alpine museum that is dedicated to the Duke of Abruzzi and walk around alpine town, known for its rooftop tiles, like round ‘tegole’ biscuits - typical sweet cookies of the Aosta Valley.
We then head to Val Ferret, where the highest Col of the race, (Grand Col Ferret (2,537 m), which also marks the border with Switzerland) is located. Here, Caroline shows us her extensive race kit, which in addition to compulsory items, contains a tick remover and bottle opener! Most years, there are 3 random kit checks throughout the race and if you don’t have all the obligatory kit you could be disqualified. But this year, due to COVID, it’s going to be more of an ‘honesty booth’.
We then take a night hike from Ristorante Chalet Val Ferret towards Mont Dolent. Located on the border between Italy, Switzerland and France, you could actually have a foot in each country here, says Caroline. With the darkness dimly lit up by our head torches, we head up a muddy path until we reach some snow. We stop here and Caroline cracks open some homemade herbal aperitif, Genepi. It’s very beautiful in the moonlight, but I sense that if I were alone in the dark it might be a whole different atmosphere, especially if the weather turned. From here, runners pass the grand pillars of rock of the Dent du Géant and Grandes Jorasses before finally turning into Switzerland.
The following day we start inSwitzerland at the Col de la Forclaz on a vertiginous bridge high above the village of Trient and head towards the impressive Glacier du Trient, all the time accompanied by the sound of trickling water flowing along the bisse du Trient. The waterway was built in 1885 to transport ice from the glacier to the Col de la Forclaz, which ended up in restaurants as far away as Paris.
After about 7km we reach the Chalet du Glacier where, unlike the runners, we stop for a late breakfast of croissants and local apricot tart.
Under the shade of the numerous larch trees, I admire the tumbling glacier ahead of us. Contemplating the race, I wonder if I could ever go the distance. Besides having the time and the right terrin to train on, do I have the mental strength to run for that long, and overnight? I’ve already told myself I’m more of a ‘intro ultra’ distance person (50km max). But many people I’ve spoken to say doubling the distance is more of a matter of head, as opposed to training. Next year, I’ll think about it, I decide… or maybe the next...