Week 3 – bye bye Chamonix, it’s been a blast!

And so week 3 of marathon training came to an end with a mixture of unbridled joy and also some potential despair and trepidation. The joy came not from the running per se (there’s definitely another word other than joy to describe it at times!!) but from the time that Melanie and I had in our nine days in Chamonix, culminating in a paragliding adventure. The despair and trepidation came from a twisted ankle for Melanie, which happened on the penultimate day…..

Week 3 was all spent (on holiday 🙂 ) in Chamonix in the French Alps. To those who don’t know it, Chamonix is a small town/commune in the Haute-Savoie region of the Rhone-Alps. It has an incredible history in terms of mountaineering and skiing, and was the host of the very first Winter Olympics in 1924. Home to around 9,000 residents, it is a ‘proper’ French town (as opposed to a purpose built resort) and has a history of agriculture as well as tourism. It is situated in a glacial valley at 1,035m (3,400 feet), and is dominated by the incredibly majestic mountains which surround it, the highest in Western Europe, and they themselves topped by the highest of them all, the mighty Mont Blanc.

Very much visible from the town itself, Mont Blanc sits like a slumbering giant directly above it, and rises 4,808m (15,774 feet) above sea level. Straddling the border of France and Italy, it was first climbed in 1786 by local doctors and alpinists Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, following the offering of a prize by the local mayor, and this is acknowledged as the date of the beginning of modern mountaineering. A statue of the two gentlemen sits in the town square and is a very popular ‘Kodak moment’ spot, the finger of one of them pointing towards the mountain, it’s elusive summit often shrouded in clouds rolling in to top up the permanent snow and ice which sit on top.

One of the statues in Chamonix looking up to the dominant features of the Mont Blanc massif

I’ve visited Chamonix on five previous occasions, twice to attempt (unsuccessfully, due to weather each time) to climb Mont Blanc, and the others just to enjoy the surrounding mountains and countryside (the latter word does it such an injustice). It is the ideal, and in my view best, base for mountain adventure, with around 200 miles or so of mountain paths and walks, many used in the Tour du Mont Blanc and the notorious Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, widely regarded (perhaps ranking just behind the Marathon Des Sables) as the most prestigious ultra marathon on the planet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-Trail_du_Mont-Blanc. The race itself is over 171km of arduous mountain trails spanning three countries (Italy and Switzerland as well as France), and has over 10,000m (33,000 feet) of climbing involved!

On one of our walks up to the Albert 1er Refuge by the Glacier du Tour, Mont Blanc and Chamonix itself in the valley far below in the distance.
Enjoying ourselves up on the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m, views into Switzerland behind us.
Enjoying some of the local beer from a mountain restaurant at Brevent on the Balcony du Sud – it would be rude not to!
At the stunning Mer de Glace glacier, also known as Le Vallee Blanche, one of four main glaciers which flow into the Chamonix valley, this one 14 kilometres long……
…..which we got to go inside! Yes you can go into an ice grotto, tunnelled into a 14km long glacier – fabulous!
Melanie on the stunning Balcony du Sud, heading towards Lac Blanc above Argentiere, probably the prettiest walk I’ve ever done.
And part of Lac Blanc itself, a truly beautiful and amazing place of great tranquility and majestic views.
Life can’t get much better than moments like this – I cannot even describe to you how good this all tasted 🙂

Anyway – onto the week itself, it was all going so well! The mornings in Chamonix, even when the weather is a lovely 21/22C during the day, falls to around 7 or 8 degrees overnight. We thus did almost all of our runs early in the day, so that firstly they were bearable (especially after last week’s 37 degrees in the Uk we were looking for something much cooler, and it was wonderful), and also so that we had the rest of our days free to explore, or chill (although little chilling was actually done, as we didn’t want to waste a moment here).

We had four runs of 5 miles each before the final day, two at tempo pace (roughly 9m/mile for us) and two of intervals, one hills, one 90 second sprints. All were great, until the last tempo run on the Saturday, post paragliding. Early in the run, Melanie rolled over on her ankle trying to circumnavigate a lot of market stalls to get to our usual and beautiful route along the River Arve, which flows its glacial and glassy meltwater at sometimes alarming rates down the valley. She said it was ok at the time, and carried on the run just fine, but later that day she was limping and had to put ice on it to stop swelling and bruising. Not good with a half marathon scheduled for the next morning….

Flying high above Chamonix, having jumped from Plan Praz at 2,000m…..
And yes, those knuckles are quite white!!

And so to the Sunday morning, which as it was also the day we were due to fly home, and we wanted to have a nice indulgent lunch before we went, we’d aimed to get the run done at 7am. Upon getting up however (or actually as it turned out not getting up at all), Melanie was clearly not fit to run. She urged me to go, although I was in several minds as to whether I should or shouldn’t. In the end I did, and the run was cool, with stunning cloudless skies, and despite the fact that (due to Chamonix’s position in the valley that runs up and down) there was rather more uphill than I would ever have liked over such a distance (almost six miles continually uphill for example) it went great, and I felt good, even if I did spend almost the whole run worrying about whether her injury would have significant consequences for New York.

So with that 13 miles (I had to do the .1 too of course to make it a proper half marathon!) that made 34 miles for the week, another personal record for me. So far though (and Melanie within a day or so had recovered too which was the main worry for us both) all is good and on track, but it is only week 3 of 16, and it shows you how easily you can all of a sudden find yourself with an injury problem and out of action.

So this week I can only say has been an incredible adventure. A beautiful holiday, with fabulous weather, and full of fabulous memories in the most idyllic location. If I lived in Chamonix I’d be out running every morning just to experience the air, and the stupendous beauty of the finest playground that nature has to offer. Melanie loved it, her first time here, and it has also given her (and me) an appetite for trail running too. Maybe that’s for another time though………:)

Next week it is 39 miles, with a 15 mile run on the Sunday – and with no Chamonix to run in, that’s going to be hard. It is getting serious now…

Mont Blanc 2014 Day One

I am in Chamonix (it is Wednesday the 16th July) on the first day of my attempt to climb Mont Blanc for the first time. Mont Blanc is a tough mountain by anyone’s definition, and stands at 4,810m, the highest mountain in Western Europe. Permanently glaciated and snow covered, there are quite a few routes to the top, and all involve considerable care and effort. Our route will be via the Grand Couloir up to Dome du Gouter and via the Bosses Ridge, and will commence this coming Sunday.

The trip is run by a company called Mont Blanc Guides, an English run business based in Chamonix, and Mont Blanc is all they do. I was immediately impressed (I referred to this in an earlier blog post) at their responsiveness and attention to detail, and they got my vote right away. It’s not a cheap trip by any means (about £2,000 for six days excluding travel to and from Chamonix), and much of that is eaten up by the cost of guides. The French insist upon a 1:2 guide to climber ratio on the mountain, which you have to say makes sense – it is sadly the mountain which probably kills more than any other.

Day one was simply a day to travel and meet up with the guides and get settled into the accommodation in Chamonix. The main events happen on days 2 to 7, spilt into three days in Italy acclimatising and doing glacier travel, and then three days to do Mont Blanc itself.

I got into town early (about 11am) after a seamless flight from Luton to Geneva, and then a minibus to Chamonix. As I had until 6.30pm to do the meet ups, after dumping my bags I headed straight up the cablecar to the Aguille du Midi, which at 3,842m has to be about the highest cable car station in Europe. It is incredibly dramatic, and a great place to just visit on foot, which so many people do (I queued for around an hour in the middle of the day, along with heards of ubiquitous Japanese tourists. The return journey was over £50 too, so they are making a bunch of money in the summer months that is for sure.

The cable car ride was amazing and the skies cloudless and crystal clear. Mont Blanc eventually came into view like some brooding behemoth ready to squash the whole valley below it. It really is a staggering mountain, and such a complex one too.

Getting up to 3,842m made me feel a bit slow and light headed, which was a bit worrying. It is the first time at altitude for a couple of years though, and coming straight up from the valley floor is a big jump. It did concern me a bit for what was to come on the trip, but figured that there was not much I could do about it other than just get used to it, so that’s what I did. They asked people not to return to the bottom for two hours after getting to the top station (because of the sheer number of people up there) so I just hung around and took some snaps:

From the cable car on the way up...

From the cable car on the way up…

....and stepping out at the top at 3,842m. That's the town nearly 3 vertical kilometres below.

….and stepping out at the top at 3,842m. That’s the town nearly 3 vertical kilometres below.

The top of the famous Vallee Blanche glacier, looking towards Italy

The top of the famous Vallee Blanche glacier, looking towards Italy

Looking towards the summit of Mont Blanc, a further 1km above us, from the cable car station, the Dome du Gouter is on the right

Looking towards the summit of Mont Blanc, a further 1km above us, from the cable car station, the Dome du Gouter is on the right

After I got back down I had a bit of a wander around Chamonix, and realised what a really nice little town it is, and figured that spending more time here would be a good thing in days to come if there was time.

Looking from town towards the Grand Jurasses

Looking from town towards the Grand Jurasses

The Aguille du Midi and the Dome du Gouter loom large over the town

The Aguille du Midi and the Dome du Gouter loom large over the town

And the ridge leading towards the Grand Couloir looks menacingly towards town too.

And the ridge leading towards the Grand Couloir looks menacingly towards town too.

When back to “The Castle’ (the name of the in the evening, I got to meet the rest of the team that I’d be travelling with, and also our guides. We were Colin, Mick (who was also my roomie), Stuart, Rich, Katya, David, and Jonas, plus me, making 8 altogether. All were from the UK, except Katya from Moscow, and Jonas from Norway. Oh and Colin lives in Qatar, but is from Glasgow. Everyone got along really well it seemed, and I knew it would be a good group, as is in my experience always the case when like minded people come together on trips like this.

Just before dinner, our guides for the week Neil, and Marco, met us and told us that there would be a full kit inspection at 8am the following morning, after which we’d be heading out to Gran Paradiso in Italy (the highest mountain in Italy, in fact). We also met with John, the owner of Mont Blanc guides, which was nice. Dinner was accompanied by a few glasses of wine and a good friendly exchange, and everyone then retired fairly early to get ready for the days ahead. So far so good then…….the mountains await 🙂