We had run 110 miles in 6 1/2 days. We had climbed 38,000 feet over seven mountain passes. We had traveled through three European countries on foot. We had run in fog/rain so thick we couldn't see more than 50 feet in front of us, and sun so searing I ended up with very, very bad tan lines on my legs.
And after all that, when my friend Ken asked me, "what was your favorite part?" it didn't take long for me to answer. It was day #6, when we came to the top of the Col de Balme, the border between Switzerland and France. Because that was where I could finally see the finish.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is considered one of Europe's classic long-distance walking trails, and is normally completed in 11 days. It circles the Mont Blanc massif, through the countries of France, Italy and Switzerland.
But why take 11 days to walk it, when you can run it in half that? At least, that was the thought my trail-running buddy Ken had. When he heard I was going to be traveling in Europe for a couple months, he suggested we tackle it together, since it was something that had been on his bucket list for a while. I figured, why not?
So getting back to my favorite part of the whole experience. You may think that by saying 'seeing the end,' it means I didn't enjoy the rest of the trip. But that is not the case. For some reason, my attitude is always better when I know where the end is, or how much father I have to go. I like having a visual of the destination in my mind – and when I can't see it or don’t know how much farther it is, I tend to get a little discouraged.
We came up to that pass in a fairly thick cloud, and originally couldn't see much. But it was also super windy, and for a few short seconds, the wind parted the clouds enough for us to get a peak of Mont Blanc – and the valley below. And while I could not actually see our end point, I knew it was down there, and it was then that I got a sense of elation, of having really done it. Even though we had about 20 miles to go, I knew that we would make it, and that was the best feeling of the whole trip.
Ken and I started planning the trip in early 2015. A third person, Christian (another Seattle trail running buddy), came on board in the spring. We all met in Paris and then took the train to Les Houches, France, where we got a late start on our first day, at about 4pm. Clouds obscured any views of the high peaks, but we had fun getting used to the trail, and each other's running personalities (Ken "the outdoor elitist" Turner, Carolyn "cranky pants" Kresser and Christian "everyone is always waiting for me" Sorenson).
We stayed in a climber's hostel in Les Contamines that first night, and awoke on Day #2 to lots of rain (good thing Ken took my advice and brought his rain jacket!). Not only did the rain make it fairly miserable, but it also made route finding difficult on the first pass we crossed, as there was quite a bit of snow obscuring the path, and zero visibility to see what direction we should be heading (and we were freezing – this was by far the coldest day of the trip). But Ken led us the right way, and eventually the clouds began to clear and later in the day we even got some sun. 22 miles and two mountain passes later we ended up in Italy at the Refugio Elisabetta for the night.
Day #3 was thankfully clear and we got some spectacular views of Mont Blanc along almost the entire route. We needed an easier day after yesterday's monster trek, so we cut our day short at the Refugio Bertone, which was probably my favorite hut of the entire trip, as the view was just spectacular.
Our team ended up splitting up on Day #4, as Christian had developed some pretty serious blisters on his heels and wasn't up to doing the more difficult trail variant with Ken and me. So Christian took the low route, while Ken and I climbed the Mont de la Saxe ridge, with more spectacular views of the mountains. We all met up later in the day and continued up yet another mountain pass, this time to the border between Italy and Switzerland.
We split up again on Day #5, with Christian taking a bus to the next town, while Ken and I ran down a picturesque Swiss valley and then up a steep mountain pass to a great view of the Trient Glacier, one of the more spectacular glaciers seen along the route.
Day #6 started off with my favorite part of the trip – finally getting back to the valley where it all started, and knowing we were closing in on the finish. We ended up that night at the Refuge Flegere, which had fantastic views of the range from the French side. The clouds were covering the mountains right up until the sun went down, and it made for one of the best sunsets of the trip.
The final day included a short climb up to Mount Brevent, where there is a gondola that takes people to the top, and also a little café that sells extremely expensive, but delicious pie. And then it's all downhill from there. About 4,000 feet of downhill to be exact. That felt good on the knees after six days of running! But Ken and I ended up back in Les Houches, seven days after we started, with all our gear still intact and no injuries to speak of (just that really really really bad leg sunburn I mentioned earlier). A short bus ride later and we were in the resort town of Chamonix, where we met up with Christian and ate and drank the night away in celebration.
The trip really was amazing. It's hard to believe something I planned so long for is now in the past. We also got pretty lucky with the weather – aside from the first day, we didn't have much rain at all, and the Alps had a pretty bad year for snow, so we didn't have to trek through much snow at all (so glad Ken convinced me to bring my micro spikes!).
I enjoyed all the time I got to spend with both Ken and Christian, although I learned I am not a patient person, and got super annoyed at Christian basically every morning when it took him an hour to pack one small backpack (everything smells, just throw it in there!!). Ken and I shared a lot of great moments out on the trail, and broke out into random song more times than I can count (for some reason 'too legit to quit' kept coming up).
We climbed ladders up rock cliffs, we saw teenage mountain goats wrestling, we waited (a lot) for Christian to catch up, Ken snored so loud one night someone grabbed their mattress and moved downstairs to the kitchen floor (not me, I would have just thrown a pillow at him), I tried catching a marmot to take home, we saw a rainbow, we ran through a pasture that was literally full of cow poop, and we all got the greatest leg tan lines I've ever seen.
Thanks guys, I couldn't have done it without you!