With only 4 weeks separating the Lakeland 100 from the UTMB I wondered what to do about training, how to keep ticking over without doing anything too punishing. In the end I decided that a couple of 5 milers a week and a bit of hill walking around the middle weekend would do the trick. When I discovered that on August 10th I would be seeing Julia off back to Gatwick from Geneva airport after a week's climbing it all became too clear, the best hillwalking in Europe was on the doorstep, I would just have to do a Tour. About 4 days should cover it without too much stress so I booked a flight home for the 14th. With all the usual TMB paraphenalia, plus a sheet sleeping bag, towel and washkit, enough spare clothes to deal with weather changes and to make the evenings a bit more pleasant for both me and my fellow refuge/gite occupants, sunscreen for 4 days and a couple of maps, I certainly wasn't going to travel light, in fact my sack weighed in at over 6kg, but that wasn't the point, this was to be a walk not a run. And in fact that's the way it turned out; I walked every step of the flats and uphills, and only broke into a shamble on the downs when it was easier than walking, the steeper descents in practice.
Day 1: Chamonix to the Refuge Croix de Bonhomme, 27.9 miles, 9504ft ascent, 9hrs 45min.
I left the faded but somehow still charming grandeur of the Hotel Richemond at 8am on a cloudless morning and was soon off alongside the river to Les Houches with the Col de Voza on the skyline. When I reached the col I still hadn't decided on a detailed game plan. The classic TMB walk skirts the valley side around to Les Contamines, losing no height, whereas the UTMB trail drops way down to St Gervais almost 700ft lower than Chamonix. I pondered over a Mars bar, then made a decision. I would follow the UTMB trail in its entirety - at least that meant I wouldn't have to make any more decisions. I set off up to the Chalet at La Charme, then down the 3000ft drop through the treelined ski area to St Gervais.
|Les Contamines and the distant Bonhomme pass from La Charme|
|Chalet at La Charme|
|Down the piste toward St Gervais|
The reward was the beautiful Sentier de Val Montjoie all the way through woods and pastures along the stream up to Les Contamines, where I sat eating a late lunch at around 2pm in the town square. But there was till a fair way to the Bonhomme col, gentle for the first part up to La Balme, then tougher up to the top
|Towards La Balme|
|Final ascent to Bonhomme (lowest point on ridge ahead)|
In the UTMB race all this territory from La Charme to the Bonhomme and beyond is covered in the dark, so it was a real joy to see it all in daylight. From the Col de Bonhomme the trail traverses the ridge to the left, slightly rising again to the Croix de Bonhomme refuge at around 2500m altitude. I reached the hut at 5.45pm, plenty of time to carry on down to Chapieux but I like being in the mountains rather than the valleys so I checked in for the night, feeling that I'd earned my dinner.
|The Bonhomme refuge|
Day 2: Refuge Croix de Bonhomme to Rifugio Elena, 32.6 miles, 9715ft ascent, 12hrs30min.
This was going to be my big day as I was aiming for the Elena right from the start. I was first out of the hut at 7am and down the long descent to Chapieux. This is tricky at night because it's steep and in many places there are numerous pathlets rather than one clear trail, but in the daytime when I could see both the detail and the bigger picture at the same time it was a real cruise and I was down in under an hour, just about coinciding with the general leaving time at Chapieux. It's 3000ft from here up to the Col de la Seine, but the first 1000ft are done on a traffic-free road - traffic-free that is apart from the donkeys which seem to be gaining popularity as a means of carrying your bags while walking the TMB!
|Down to Chapieux|
|And up towards the Col de la Seine|
The climb to the col itself is steady but with a very smooth track and goes quite quickly. I was greeted on top by a chilly wind - I've been up there half a dozen times and never known it different. For some reason I decided to take a photo of my sack at the summit cairn, after which my camera kindly informed me that its memory was full, so that was it - and I hadn't got to any of the spectacular views yet!
But then it was down into Italy and the warm sun was beating the chilly wind so things were looking up again.
I spent all of this day gazing upon the spectacular wild side of the Mont Blanc range, none of your tasteful trees and gently-sloping glaciers here, all rock and sun and crazy tortured ice. I remembered climbs done in the past, the soaring South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire; the remote Gugliermina pillar on the Aiguille Blanche where we had a freezing bivouac on the Col Innominata after not quite making the trip in the day; later on, the beautiful Route Major on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc, and the long tiring way down from the Grands Jorasses after climbing the Walker Spur on the north side. A bit wistful too for I know my days of Alpine Grands Courses are over now, but I still love these hills and it was a privilege just to be there and reflect on "those happy highways where I went, and cannot come again".
But I was playing a different game now and the day passed easily enough, quickly down to the Rifugio Elizabetta then up again to the Arete de Mont Favre, the lovely descending traverse ending so unpleasantly in the ski resort desecration of the Plan Checrouite. But the descent to Courmayeur was good, no dust cloud being kicked up by runners ahead today. Although I knew it would probably cost me my dinner at the Elena, I just couldn't resist stopping for lunch in Courmayeur, raw ham paninis and ice cream washed down with a litre of coke. Fortified by that the near 3000ft back up to the Bertone didn't seem bad at all, I didn't bother to get my poles out, just drifting up the well graded zig-zags to the hut.
Not far beyond the hut I had a bit of cow trouble. Picture the scene: the trail is a horizontal balcony maybe three feet wide, above and below is very steep grass, and coming round a corner I came upon a herd of cows parked on the path. They didn't want to leave the path and neither did I, we all thought it better for our health that we stayed on the horizontal. I herded them along in front of me for maybe a couple of hundred yards, looking for a better place; there wasn't one, neither were they inclined to move very quickly - their territory I suppose. Eventually we reached a spot where the uphill slope relented marginally and I scrambled up and round. Further along the path for the next mile or so I came upon narrow tracks that left the main trail on the uphill side, ran parallel for thirty yards or so then returned. Next to a superb track they could only have one purpose - I just hadn't been patient enough to keep herding until one of these "bovine bypasses" turned up.
This is one of the very best parts of the whole TMB, a good track and spectacular views. But eventually the bit of up to the Refugio Bonatti arrived and so I came to the hut. At 6.15pm I could justify staying here the night, but it was great weather and I was feeling good so I pushed on. A loping descent to Arnuva (the half-way point in time for the majority of UTMB competitors though at over 60 miles well over half the distance) then a little sting in the tail with the best part of 1000ft back up to the Elena. I arrived at 7.30 and as I walked into the Rifugio people were eating. The crucial question, was I still in time for dinner? The chef would be consulted. The word came back, it was OK, eat now, check in later. The plate of spaghetti was a good enough meal, but it was followed by veal and ratatouille with polenta, apricot tart, fresh fruit and coffee. I do love Italy.
Day 3: Rifugio Elena to Col de Forclaz, 25.5 miles, 6607ft ascent, 9hrs45min
The Col de Grand Ferret is the high point of the TMB (unless you take the Fenetre d'Arpette from Champex to to Forclaz, which the UTMB doesn't) but at the Elena you're quite a long way up already so in less than an hour from starting out at 7,30am I was up and over, arrivederci Italia and bonjour La Suisse. The trail down to La Peule is normally brilliant, except last summer when it was a slippery slide all the way, very runnable but this time I just strode out at an easy but fast walk. The sun was warming up and I stopped to take my long-sleeved top off at a spot where six years previously Jan and I had sat and watched a huge bird of prey, a lammergeyer we thought and hoped, circle effortlessly in the thermals with hardly a flicker of wing movement. Today I had to make do with the squeal of a marmot poking his head out of a hole not twenty feet from me to see what the day had to offer.
At La Peule the TMB trail goes straight down to Ferret then along a valley trail to La Fouly, and so did the race last year due to the difficult conditions; but this years race takes two significant detours, one to the left before Ferret and one to the right after it, both of which involve significant height gain but are both stunning tracks (if you're in a state to appreciate them during the race....). I followed these then the trail down the river and along the amazing Crete de Saleina down to Praz de Fort. I was hoping for a cafe there but no luck. But all was well and I got my cheese sandwich and pint of coke at Issert just a bit further on.
Issert is the beginning of the end, for although you are still a long way from Chamonix, this is where the roller coaster 30 mile home stretch starts. From here there are almost no flat bits, it's up or down all the way to the end. The first climb up to Champex winds through the forest along the Sentier des Champignons, along which are many carved tree stumps - mushrooms yes, but also all kinds of animals and insects, and at one point a pot of soup and a bottle of wine. Champex was Jan's favourite stop when we walked the Tour six years ago, and when I got there this time I saw a vintage Bugatti (her favourite car) parked outside the Hotel des Glaciers (where we had the best meal of the trip) - I just had to send the text. Then I was up and out of the town and on the track down to Champex Bas. At one point I came upon an adder crossing the track in front of me. It didn't like the hot stony ground much as its movements were quite jerky, but it seemed completely oblivious to me as I stopped to watch it.When it reached the grass its became much more silken and the beautiful creature was soon out of sight.
Next came the climb up to the Bovine Alp. I was tempted to go over the higher Fenetre d'Arpette because it was a beautiful day and I hadn't been up that way since traversing the ridge of the Ecandies at least twenty years ago, but I had made my decision to follow the UTMB course and I would stick with it. The Bovine climb preys on the minds of UTMB suitors because though it's not the biggest, it is one of the toughest on the course and it comes quite late on. After passing that way a few times now, I divide it into four sections, the jeep track, the steep track, the stream crossings, and the "bad news" (this is how the guide book we used on our first Tour described the final pull up over the boulders and tree roots through the trees to the alp), and taken one at a time they're not too bad.
Then it was the long gentle descent to the Col de Forclaz, reached at 5.15pm. Again I had time to go on, but I had no personal knowledge of places to stay in Vallorcine, Trient is a gloomy little place down in its almost completely sunless valley, and I had stayed at the Forclaz before. I was happy to get checked in, have a shower and spend the next hour and a half sinking beers on the sunny terrace. Now when Jan and I stayed here in 2005 we had chicken and chips for dinner. Daughter Julia, who had done the Tour a few years earlier with one of her friends, said "yes, we had chicken and chips there too." No prizes for guessing what the menu was going to be.then; they feed you well here, but if you came two consecutive nights I suspect you might be a tad disappointed.
Day 4: Col de Forclaz to Chamonix, 18.4 miles, 5548ft ascent, 7hrs30min
The final run in but still no pushover. I was away after the best breakfast of the trip and soon down to Trient in the cool of another cloudless morning, though the waitress had warned there was some risque d'orage apres midi. As I stopped to take off my fleece in preparation for the next climb, a large tick landed on my rucksac. Well, better there than on me I thought as I knocked it off with a pole. I been close to literally hundreds of animals on the trip, and hadn't given these bugs a thought, I would be a bit more circumspect in future.
The climb up to Catogne is long and fairly steep but well engineered and with a good surface. A great place for poles, I wouldn't be without them on this sort of terrain. On bouldery and more technical ground I find they just get in the way, but ascents like this are what they were made for. I got into that effortless rhythm that you normally only achieve on a ski ascent, where every move is identical and economical and you can let your mind wander without having to concentrate on the ascent at all. I must have wandered off a bit too much, because it was only on emerging onto the alp that I discovered the sky had covered over completely and a wind was springing up. But familiar sights started to appear to let me know that I was getting nearer home - the Emossons dam across the valley, Mont Buet behind it, and on my side of the valley the Posettes chair lift, accessing a lot of excellent but not too serious off piste ski-ing if you're ever passing that way at the right time.
Down in Vallorcine I felt a chocolate deficiency so I called into the station bar for a Mars bar and a Coke. As I left to set out on the Chemin des Diligences (the old coach road) up to the Col des Montets, there was a clap of thunder from across the valley. Slightly unnerving. I've had my fair share of electrical storms in the mountains and while the experience may well be character-building it's definitely unpleasant at the time. But looking at the sky and feeling the weather, it seemed less of a hot weather storm than a gradual change in the weather, may be a new front coming in. In these circumstances you usually get a bit of precursive unpleasant but not too serious weather for a few hours before things start to go bang in a big way. I decided it was going to be OK.
By the Col des Montets it was raining steadily so for the first time in the trip I pulled out the waterproof and set off up the claimed sixty zig-zags to the final high point, the Tete aux Vents. With the rain and the rocky track it was rather like a normal summers day in the Lake District. By the time I had traversed halfway to the Flegere however the rain had stopped and the atmosphere was much warmer again. I could finish in comfort, but good old Mont Blanc had had his say, just letting us know who was really in charge around here. I stopped for lunch at the Flegere, but there were lots of people and lots of noise, I had really finished up at the Tete des Vents, the spell was broken now so I sloped off down through the trees to the big town below.
Overall 104.4 miles, 31,374ft ascent, 39hrs30min.
Interesting that without hurrying at any point my total walking time was well inside the 46 hours allowed for the UTMB. This proves or prevues nothing of course, it's a bit like saying that if you can do individual Bob Graham sections within the time allowed then the round itself will be a cruise. But what it does reinforce I think are the wise words of my friend from Yorkshire, who always says that to get round these big events you don't have to be fast, you just have to keep going.
But the real reward for me was that the trip, which started out as a bit of a training exercise, turned into a wonderful journey through the mountains. I was very lucky with the weather. At times, particularly early and late in the day, I saw very few other souls for many miles and was able to take in fully the beautiful and dramatic environment through which this often overused and abused trail wanders. It's an experience I won't forget for a long time.