The Alps in High Style
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I lean over the La Téna bridge, just a few miles up the road from the village of Les Contamines, France, and rest my arms on the moss-covered stone arch. A hundred feet below, in a narrow chasm, the Bon Nant river rushes past. In this brief moment of stillness, the history here floods over me.
Thousands of years ago, Celtic traders traveled this path. Later came Roman soldiers headed for their conquest of ancient Gaul. Throughout the centuries smugglers, foragers and hunters passed where I am standing. Soldiers from two world wars walked over this bridge, too. More recently, farmers, their carts laden with milk and cheese for market.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s line, deep-sixed since college, resurfaces. There is so much history here it is almost jarring.
I need to get moving. My group is speeding away. And that, in fact, is kind of the point.
We’re running the Tour du Mont-Blanc, or “TMB”—setting a quick walking pace on the rugged climbs and running lesser grades, using trail-running and ultralight-hiking gear as we pass through some of the world’s most beautiful alpine terrain. We’ll take four days, halving the usual time to cover the 105-mile route that encircles 15,781-foot-high Mont Blanc. The international footpath starts in the alpine mecca of Chamonix, France, then passes through Italy and a wild corner of Switzerland before descending back into “Cham.”
On this early fall trip are outdoor-sports photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci, Swiss mountain-tourism expert Bruno Schaub and expedition logistician Mara Larson, who splits her time between Chamonix and Kathmandu. I’m along after a busy summer organizing trail-running trips in the Alps.
With our light kits, we’re cruising past heavily laden hikers as we head toward our first foray into the alpine zone at 7,676-foot Col Bonhomme. It’s one of the major alpine passes along the route. With 4,200 feet of steady climbing over the course of eight miles, the approach is well-known to everyone on the route. Two-thousand-three-hundred runners pass through the col as part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc trail race, during what for most will be the first of two nights out. The weather here is often infamously dicey. In 2012, a foot of fresh snow and whiteout conditions at the col forced organizers to replace it with a lowland route.
First hiked recreationally in 1767, the TMB is dotted with full-service huts and mountain inns that make for easy rest and resupply. In a week, you can sample the cultures of three countries. It’s hard to know what Horace de Saussure, the Swiss alpinist and scientist who pioneered the Tour du Mont-Blanc, would make of our neon trail-running shoes and technical layers—much less, say, the mocha-flavored, caffeine-infused energy gels shoved into the pockets of our shorts.
The light gear pays dividends, though. A moment later we roll past hikers that look only slightly updated from de Saussure’s era. Packs loaded, mitochondria screaming for oxygen, they groan under the weight. Backs only lightly burdened, we’ve got O2 to burn, and we make the best possible use of it—laughing uncontrollably as we tag team Bruno with an American slang primer on the difference between a dude, a bro and a poser.
“Can a bro become a dude? Absolutely! It can happen. I’ve seen it.” Dan’s emphatic—training from a childhood spent in a garrulous, borderline-combative Italian-American family.
Douche concludes the lesson as we near the pass. Bruno’s bewildered. How can a word that means “shower” in French mean “abject loser” in English? Janine, ever Dan’s steady counterbalance, calmly parses connotations and denotations, even as the rest of us steer the conversation into the gutter.
Light packs, twisted humor. This, I think, is going to be a good trip.
The beauty of our approach—we’ll call it “hutpacking” as opposed to fastpacking, where you carry and employ your camping gear too—is that it’s accessible to all fitness levels. We’re moving at a pace that’s not too far off many of the runners of the UTMB, with its 46:30-hour time limit. But, after eight hours, we’re calling it a day, and warming our hands over bowls of café au lait and hot chocolate at huts and inns en route.
And we take breaks—lots of them. Our first comes just a few hours in from our start in the village of Les Contamines. Not far from the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, we’ve already covered those long eight miles and 4,000-feet-plus of climbing. The refuge is a modern reincarnation of the original 1924 accommodation. That first hut was built by the French Touring Club, a social organization devoted to travel. Today, Bonhomme is run by a trio of bakers. Georges, Charles and Coco are renowned for their welcoming atmosphere and substantial meals.
Not wanting to let go of the wide-ranging view of the French Alps, we find a grassy patch on a nearby ridge and snack on chocolate and local cheese. I keep one eye out for the wild Ibex that often graze here. Nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, they are now protected. Their return has been an Alps success story. Other species, such as chamois, are easier to spot, if you know when to look.
After the break, we drop four miles from the col into a collection of a dozen houses that together comprise Les Chapieux, where, 72 years ago, a battle between Axis and Allied forces took place. It’s hard to reconcile, on the peaceful September day we pass through. We down cappuccinos in the shade outside Les Chambres du Soleil, a five-bedroom hotel that’s been in business for over 150 years. Outside, local seniors banter over plates of omelettes du fromage whose pungent scent I had picked up 100 yards outside of town.
Les Chapieux takes quaint and doubles down. It’s hard to pass without a few photos, and we grab a round café table and nudge it into a shaft of sunlight. Dan photographs Bruno and Mara, encouraging them to shift their chairs couple-close. The Swiss are famously reserved, but in Bruno’s case the cultural gene expresses itself as endearing shyness.
“So … you want me closer?” he asks.
Nothing phases Mara. Every social situation is easily dispatched, once you’ve been an Everest basecamp manager. She laughs often and easily.
“I am so glad we left the kids at home!” she says, playing along with Dan’s couple ruse.
Moments later, we’re on our way out of the hamlet. I stop at a battle memorial. I look up and spot the earth-and-rock machine-gun nest in the hillside. It’s another reminder of the TMB’s rich past. Like all human history, some of it is dark and unsettling.
We spend the night at Les Mottets, one of the more memorable stops on the TMB. A collection of farm houses
at the head of a valley, Les Mottets has been converted to welcome travelers without losing any of its rustic vibe. Retired farm implements hang from the walls, while sheep and cows graze outside. Well-fed and rested the next morning, we climb Col de la Seigne to the Italian border. The Veny valley, with its flowy singletrack, then leads us to the largest town on the Italian side of the TMB, Courmayeur.
Before descending, though, we poke are heads into Refuge Maison Vielle, a favorite stop for coffee and cake, and are followed in by an inquisitive horse. Even for farm animals, life here can be a bit too quiet, it seems. An hour later, we’re in town, wandering the twisting, narrow cobblestone streets of Dolonne, a Courmayeur hamlet, in search of a hotel for the evening.
With light packs, uphills can be social. The next morning, climbing out of the medieval village of Courmayeur, Italy, toward Refuge Bertoni—the first of three huts we’ll pass by today—it’s a chance to chat. For Bruno, this trip falls during a career shift. His tourism job in a renowned ski village was a mismatch for his lively personality. Despite a veneer of cosmopolitan trendiness, Alp mountain culture can be rigid and confining.
“They were very … Swiss,” says Bruno, his politeness obscuring
Patitucci bluntness comes to the rescue. “Mountain towns here can be small-minded,” Dan observes. “You’ve got too much energy and too many new ideas, Bruno.”
Bruno’s eyes light up as he explains that he’s joining a mountain-guiding business in Switzerland’s capital, Bern.
Dan, Janine and I idly wonder if Mara and Bruno might indeed be a match. “It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened,” Dan says, shaking his head and laughing. He and Janine have been on enough multi-day remote alpine photo shoots to see lives get … entangled.
“You learn a lot,” Dan says, “when you can’t get to sleep in a hut. There was one time…” Janine knows where he’s going, and interjects. “That guy was married!” She says, continuing the awkward flashback.
“And not to her, either!” Dan clarifies, snickering as his eyes bulge cartoonishly.
Late in the day, having covered 14 miles and 4,000 vertical feet, we arrive at 8,170-foot-high Col Grand Ferret, the TMB’s high point. It is on the border between Italy and Switzerland and sees snow throughout the year. Today, though, we experience the col’s gentler nature: alpine grasses rustling in gentle breezes and cool-enough temperatures to call for an extra layer.
The views here encompass a wide swath of the Alps. In the far distance, up the Ferret and Veny valleys through which we’ve just run, we catch a hint of Peuterey Ridge. With over 14,000 feet of climbing, it’s one of the longest technical climbs in Europe. Tucked away next to it is the Innominata, a knife-edge ridge of mixed snow and ice.
Four years ago, Kilian Jornet left Courmayeur, Italy, climbed the Innominata, and arrived on the other side in Chamonix, France, in under nine hours. The usual time for the route? Several days. It’s a feat so impressive it’s hard to comprehend. Closer to us lies the Grand Jorasses with its great north face. Together with the Matterhorn and Eiger, it forms the “trilogy”—three of the most famous technical climbs in the world.
My eyes are drawn to a seemingly equally massive object in my immediate foreground. It’s a backpack, and it’s, well, humongous. The bearer is a solo Israeli hiker. She’s setting up camp for the night. After a few days of moving fast and light, a conventional load makes me recoil.
We carry 20-liter packs—the largest size for comfortable trail running. There’s room for necessities, with space left over for in-town niceties so maître-ds don’t scowl. Our loads are 10 pounds, not including a few tools of the trade. For Dan, that means a Sony a6300 camera. For me, an 11-inch Mac Book Air. Some work assignments are better than others.
Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink asks where she can find water to prepare dinner. Dan’s got food on his mind, too, it seems.
“Dinner in La Fouly?” he proposes to our group. Six miles of coasting down 3,000 feet and we’ll be at the end-of-the-line Swiss village of La Fouly. Encircled by some of Europe’s highest peaks, La Fouly with its 66 residents has a frontier-outpost feel.
His suggestion snaps me out of a traumatic flashback to Coleman stoves, eight-pound tents and external-frame packs.
“Croute au fromage!” I holler. “Let’s get the f*ck out of here!” When I’m really hungry in Switzerland, there’s no editing happening in my brain. One of the fastest descents on the TMB is the only thing that stands between me and baked cheese with a thick slab of bread.
In the few minutes we’ve lingered here, the sun has moved behind the range, and there’s a sense of calm that comes with the end of the day in remote mountain settings. It would be easy to stay, but my stomach always wins. It’s time to move.
Five minutes later, rounding a corner at full speed, I barrel into a herd of sheep. A shepherd and border collie are above me on the hillside, just a few yards away, overseeing the flock. She’s decidedly low tech in her clothing, with faded work jeans, a wool sweater and vest. One hand rests on her dog’s head, the other holds a four-foot wooden staff. I wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Swiss Tourism ad.
I nod, smile and move at a polite pace through the wooly obstacle course. This path, with all of its thousands of travelers each season, still holds moments that are largely unchanged from centuries ago.
Flock parted, I am practically free-falling to food. I’m calling on a number of trail-running skills now: a fast cadence, attention to detail as my feet dance down the flowy singletrack, arms adjusting for balance.
We stop at the first inn we find, in lonely Ferret, Switzerland. A dozen buildings a mile up the road from La Fouly, Ferret must be one of the smallest suburbs on the planet. Our day ends with piping-hot local dishes in a family restaurant. We dispatch with plates overflowing with polenta and cheese, my croute au fromage and grated, baked potatoes with, yes, more cheese.
Not quite dairied-out, I order a Rivella—the Swiss soda made from milk. Forget glacier-covered peaks. Switzerland’s motto should be, “It’s the cholesterol, baby!”
Tartiflette. Pain chocolat. Peach tartes. Breakfast on our last morning is at Boulangerie Patisserie Gentiana, a bakery and cafe in Champex, Switzerland, owned by Leon Lovey, one of the UTMB race organizers, and the namesake for the Petite Trot à Leon, at 330 kilometers, the longest of the UTMB series of five races. PTL is a notoriously brutal epic that covers untrailed passes and other less-traveled terrain.
Leon’s energetic, jovial wife, Claudine, plies us with more pastries, but it’s time for us to move. One of the benefits of the TMB are variants that weave in and out of the standard route, and one’s on the agenda today—the steep col called Fênetre d’Arpette. Outside town, we turn left off the TMB, and minutes later we’ve climbed into one of the wilder corner of the Alps, in a high valley on faint singletrack, moving quickly past remote farms.
The mountains close in and we tilt our heads up to take in the col. The ascent is short and steep, as we switchback on an improbable route on the headwall to a tight passage just a few yards wide. Fênetre is “window” in French, and Arpette is aptly named. We pass through and an up-close view of the Trient glacier tumbling off the Aiguille du Tour is waiting for us.
Descending through loose scree, there’s no running to be had. The conversation turns to Dan and Janine’s early years. Graduated from Brooks photography school in 1999, they were climbing bums roaming the west coast with their cameras. A summer long-line fishing in Alaska hauled in cash to start a business.
“We’d look at a catch and say, ‘Well, there’s our new camera.’ The break came with a single photo. A climbing company offered us $75,” Dan says, “They knew we were flat broke. With some advice from other photographers, we countered with $750.” The company said yes, and PatitucciPhoto was officially in business.
Later, we find ourselves in the last of our alpine terrain, rock hopping with low bushes at our feet. When we dare look up, we catch our last views of Switzerland’s Alps. While Dan and Janine seize the moment for more photos, I greedily pick the last of the season’s alpine blueberries. The hillsides here have turned various hues of red.
There’s a peacefulness here that comes with the approach of winter in high places. The Dés Alpes celebrations, when cows are marched down from high pastures, has come and gone. There are fewer travelers, and we welcome their company rather than avoid it. We settle into a steady uphill running pace on the last climb of the trip—quiet alpine singletrack, angled gently uphill as it slabs toward Col Balme.
We arrive 20 minutes later. It’s a grassy, wide plateau. A century of weather has taken its toll on the stone hut here, shuttered for the season. Together with the fall foliage and cool temperatures, there’s no shortage of reminders time is running out on this year’s trail-running season. Within a week, snow will make its first appearance here.
A few more steps, and suddenly we are surveying the length of the Chamonix valley. The commune of Chamonix-Mont Blanc is really a string of villages, and we take in the rich alpine heritage: At our feet near the Swiss border, Le Tour. Then Argentière, Les Praz, Chamonix village, and down the Arve river to Les Houches and Servoz. Showers, beers, dinner at a sidewalk table all await, so we short-circuit the long run downhill, and avail ourselves of the Autannes lift, spinning on its final day of the season, a few minutes run away.
The last riders of the summer, we hop on. In four days, we’ve passed through three countries, taking in their distinct cultures. And, like the best moments of trail running, our packs were afterthoughts, even as we moved up steep cols. We were free to let our bodies move with ease through these mountains. I’m tired, but nothing hurts. I think of my 70-liter dinosaur, hanging in the basement at home. I wonder if it’s time to ditch it. Hutpacking will do that to you.
THE GEAR: Ultralight and ultrasimple!
• Osprey Tempest and Talon 20-liter packs
• Hydrapak soft bottle, Hydrapak bladders
• Katadyn BeFree soft bottle with filter
• Dynafit shell and wind pants
• Black Diamond trekking poles
• Lightweight set of town clothes
• Energy bars, electrolyte mix
• Local snacks for the day. (Ours included the following irresistible local selections: Ovomaltine malt-chocolate bar, Kambly cookies, Biberli almond cookies, Gruyere cheese.)
Plan Your Own Alps Adventure
110 total miles
32,000 feet of climbing
20 to 30 average daily miles
When to Go
Refuges and inns along the Tour du Mont-Blanc open mid-June. High cols at that time might require use of traction devices if snowfields linger from a cool spring. Trail-running poles can be helpful. With students back in school and most of Europe back at work, September is an ideal time to be on the TMB. Fair weather often prevails, and temperatures are cooler. At the close of the month, accommodations are closing their doors and preparing for the long winter ahead.
Plan for five or six days to hutpack the TMB without rushing. Recommended counter-clockwise sections:
1. Chamonix to Les Contamines
2. Les Contamines to Les Mottets
3. Les Mottets to Courmayeur
4. Courmayeur to Champex
5. Champex to Chamonix (or take an
extra day in Trient).
Time Tip: Use lifts, busses and taxis to skip less interesting sections.
Taxi services are available that will move your bags, so you can travel light during the day, and luxuriate with a novel and clean clothes at night if you want. Contact Taxi Besson. taxi-montblanc.com/en.html. For hut, hotel and related information, see autourdumontblanc.com/en/. Hate planning? A variety of vendors offer self-guided options on the Tour du Mont-Blanc, and can tailor your trip for hutpacking.