There’s much more to the Alps than Winter!
When most people think of the Alps, visions of pristine white snowy peaks, skiing holidays and chalets covered in deep powdery snow are what frequently spring to mind. It’s true the European Alps offer some of the best venues for winter sports from snowshoeing to skiing but most people miss out on what they have to offer in the summer months. As the snow melts, the lines of stark rock reveal hidden flowers and where deep snow once lay, the true beauty of the Alps is revealed in lush green alpages covered in a rainbow of colour. Brightly coloured, sweet smelling flowers with magical names that would inspire JK Rowling such as rampions, bistorts, gentians and alpenroses take back the black and white, cold world of winter. Cows amble along through the high meadows which were once ski pistes, munching on the fresh green grass and bringing with them the musical chorus of clangs from bells hung around their necks. Marmots emerge from their long winter hibernation, summoned by the heat of the sun and call excitedly across the valley side, whilst a golden eagle circles high above. Village hamlets previously abandoned over winter, spring back to life, with villagers busying themselves, following a way of life unchanged for centuries. Flowers are draped over window sills of wooden “chocolate box” houses. All of this, set against a background of steep and formidable high mountain peaks. Do I have your attention?!
The European Alps stretch over 1,200kms and span over 8 countries, wrapping round the north of Italy. Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the range stands at 4,810m and is permanently covered in many metres of snow, but many high peaks remain snow bound during the summer months and it’s this contrast of lush summer valleys and hillsides vs the permanent icy peaks and their glaciers stretching high above that creates such an amazing setting. The UK for all its beautiful wild areas just cannot compete on scale with the extreme verticality and shear grandiose of the Alps.
WHY TRAIL RUNNING IN THE ALPS?
In the summer months, high footpaths and trails reveal themselves as the snow subsides, mountain refuges open their doors to weary explorers and areas previously completely inaccessible in winter suddenly become inviting, especially to hikers and trail runners. Summer in the Alps is so much more beautiful than that of its winter cousin. Being about to run through meadows, over high passes above the clouds and have views that stretch far into the horizon is a liberating experience and one that provides amazing memories for a lifetime. Trails can last for weeks, climbs for days, and a trail run downhill for hours. The Alps offer an adventure into the wild for all, and have done for many years. If you are a trail runner then you are able to explore further and go lighter. Using gravity to your advantage on the downs as well as being able to jump ahead of the crowds on the more popular routes. Running in the Alps is like no other running you have ever experienced before, the mountains are big, the paths exhilarating and the views spectacular. The sense of freedom and adventure is unparalleled.
Since the dawn of alpinism; mountaineers, climbers, walkers and hikers have all flocked to the foot of Mont Blanc. More specifically to the town of Chamonix, which stands at its foot, just 200m short in altitude of the UK’s highest mountain. In 1760, a botanist from Geneva, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure offered a reward for the first person to summit Mont Blanc. Suddenly, Chamonix was on the map, and ever since then it’s remained a mecca of mountaineering and nowadays all extreme sports, from base jumping to skyrunning. Today, the Alps are a bit more accessible than in Saussure’s time. A flight from a UK airport will land in Geneva, Switzerland in just over an hour. From there, following a drive of a similar length and you can be standing in Chamonix looking up towards this enormous tower of jumbled snow, rock and ice, just like many that went before you. However, Geneva also offers easy access to Switzerland; Verbier, Zermatt and Interlaken. Since the Alps range is so extensive, there are plenty of other access points that can be achieved in just over a few hours, including Milan in Italy and Innsbruck in Austria. Driving is also very straight forward as well as taking the train via Eurostar and then using the domestic train lines.
FINDING YOUR WAY AROUND
Heading to Chamonix, France, is a popular option for first and old timers to the Alps. It has a great range of hotels, bars and restaurants, all in the shadow of Mt Blanc. Once here, you will want to explore! France has an excellent range of maps, like the OS maps in the UK. They can be purchased in sports stores, tourist offices and even supermarkets. They have also recently introduced waterproof versions. There are so many routes to choose from and so it’s best to do some planning before you set off. You will need a map, a compass, ideally an altimeter too and some idea of your itinerary. It’s also highly recommended to check the weather forecast in advance and pack accordingly in preparation for your trip. Unlike the UK, the signposting is generally very informative with destinations and ETA listed on each. Beware though, you might not be used to the long steep ups and downs nor the exposure on the routes. Many footpaths are “balcony” paths which traverse along the mountainside, and offer the most amazing views of the valley far below, but they often come with exposure which for the unitiated may feel a bit nerve wracking. Also be aware of routes which take in sections of scrambling, often aided by some metal work such as cabling and ladders. These are usually indicated on the French maps as dashed lines but not always. So after your initial enthusiasm, you might be getting a little worried about going out on your own. Fortunately there are many qualified high mountain guides, should you wish to go climbing or international mountain leaders (accompagnateurs) who will take you trail running or hiking. I would always recommend a guided adventure since they not only will look after you, choose a safe route, improve your technique, but also teach you about the area and the environment that you are passing through.
Apart from the many footpaths that wind all over the mountainside and valley around Chamonix, there are some particularly spectacular routes which should be on your trail running adventure bucket list. The scope of this article is too short to look at many so I’m just going to pick a handful. They are often marked as Grande Randonnées, a network that crisscross over Europe, in particular France and cover up to 60,000km. These can either be point to point or indeed circumnavigate around a mountain range, such as the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). The appeal of Mont Blanc is extreme, the TMB was probably first walked in its entirety by Saussure, it passes by 71 glaciers and offers views of 400 peaks, covers over 100 miles and is equivalent to ascending more than the height of Mt Everest from sea level. Hikers take around 12 days to complete the route, at Run the Wild you can run it in just 6 days. However, if that’s still too easy for you, then take a look at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) which is a race that completes the whole route in 46.5hours, the winner finishing in around 20 hours! There are much longer routes too, such as the GR5, also known as the Grand Traverse of the Alps, and covers around 1,200km, and unless you have a huge amount of time on your hands is best done in sections. There are many other long distance hikes that can be completed in around a week when running, like the TMB, such as the Tour du Monte Rosa, near the Matterhorn in Switzerland, and for the experienced, sure-of-foot The Walker’s Haute Route which starts in Chamonix and finishes in Zermatt. However, there are also lots of routes in the valleys, some which take just a few hours or a couple of days, and when you are first starting out these are a great way to get a feel for the area, explore the valleys first before heading higher.
The French love trail races and although some are well known in the UK such as the UTMB, pretty much every alpine town will host its own race. These vary in distance and price (from just a few euros to hundreds) but be assured they will always include plenty of ascent! Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, where I live hosts a great 4km race – Le Diagonale du Mont Joly and costs just a few euros and accepts entries on the day, but the ascent is +1077m. Larger races such as the Marathon du Mont Blanc, based out of Chamonix includes a vertical km race, 10km, half marathon, marathon and 80km ultra, all sell out in minutes. As mentioned the UTMB is the headline race for a number of distances from 42km to the extreme 290km. However, all over the Alps races are springing up from Zermatt to Courmayeur so hunt around for something that best suits you. If, you, like me prefer heading off and doing a route in your own time without the stress of a race then it’s quite feasible to leave the stop watch at home and arrange either a guided or self-guided adventure following the route but over a few days.
SOME FINAL TIPS FOR TRAIL RUNNING IN THE ALPS
To fully understand the appeal, you have to experience it! Nothing can fully prepare you for the sense of adventure and achievement nor indeed the difficulty of the routes. However, it is certainly worth spending some time in preparation and training before you arrive. A good strength and conditioning program, focussed on your legs and core will work wonders. It will not only help you avoid injury but also help you to enjoy the experience more. Hopping down steep paths requires good strength and proprioceptor control. Invest wisely in some decent trail shoes and lightweight back pack. You’ll want to be prepared for the weather and the terrain. I’d also thoroughly recommend brining running poles which not only help with the long climbs but also the steep descents.
The next thing you need to do is book your flights and start your running adventure…