The Siren Song of Mont Blanc
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The week before I am to run Europe’s famed Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, several friends and I get to talking late one night with a grizzled Frenchman. A self-described wine aficionado, the man has a brawny face, thick with the kind of sun-spackled wrinkles one earns from a lifetime working outdoors. His teeth are crooked and coated in a thin film of spittle. From a silver flask, he pours us shots of plum liquor and proceeds to tell us stories in rambling French—impervious to our lack of understanding.
My friend Elodie, who speaks the language fluently, translates as much as she can for us between the man’s breathless, elated sentences. He’s explaining how years of drought are good for grapevines. The less water there is, the deeper into the soil the roots must delve to find it. In this way, the rich textures of the earth are better imparted to the wine, drawn up from some otherwise unreachable depths.
“It is good for the plants to suffer,” Elodie translates. “The wine is richer that way.”
The man pauses to draw a breath, immersed in thought. Then he chuckles and adds something. Elodie translates: “Like the poets.”
Or ultrarunners, I think.
Spectators line the course in the towns. Photo by Matt Trappe
In a sense, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB—a 170ish-kilometer foot race that circumnavigates Western Europe’s tallest peak, the 15,771-foot Mont Blanc—is a phoenix that rose from the ashes of disaster.
Just before 11 a.m. on March 24, 1999, a Belgian truck driver named Gilbert Degraves left the French mountain hamlet of Chamonix with a truckload of flour and margarine. Bound for the Italian town of Courmayeur on the other side of Mont Blanc, he entered the 11-kilometer tunnel that burrows through the belly of the massif.
Deep inside the tunnel, the cargo in Degraves’ truck began smoking. Within minutes, it burst into flames. Temperatures in the tunnel rapidly soared to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything in the tunnel was incinerated, including 38 people trapped inside. It took five days for the temperature to cool enough for local rescue personnel to enter the tunnel, and three years before it reopened to the public.
The tragic fire also marked the demise of a previously successful relay-style stage race around Mont Blanc. Starting and finishing in Chamonix, the race passed through Italy and Switzerland on its circuitous route through the Alps. Teams of seven could compete. For logistical reasons, the closure of the tunnel forced suspension of the race. When the organizers tried to resume it in 2002, only one team signed up, so they canceled it altogether.
That summer, a small group of friends and runners in Chamonix began wondering if there was a way not only to revive the race, but also to improve it. Much of the course could be shifted from roads to trails. And, they wondered, what if they challenged individuals—rather than teams—to complete the entire loop, in one marvelous fell swoop?
“At this time, we had no idea what was organized in the United States,” says Michel Poletti, one of the visionaries who now serves as co-race director with his wife, Catherine. “We did not know about Western States. But we did know about Grand Raid de la Réunion”—founded in 1989, a 162-kilometer race on a French island off the coast of Madagascar—“so we knew it was possible to organize such a race. It was just an adventure at that point, just to try to do it.”
They had no idea how long it might take for someone to run the 153-kilometer route they’d plotted out. Michel guessed 38 hours would make a reasonable cutoff. (After the first year, they extended it to 46 hours and, to allow more time, shifted the race’s start from Saturday morning to Friday evening.)
To their surprise, in 2003, more than 700 people signed up for UTMB’s inaugural running.
A cooling dip during the 2015 UTMB. Photo by Matt Trappe.
For years, trekkers had already been coming to Chamonix to complete the circuit of trails around Mont Blanc in an 8-to-10-day pilgrimage.
The Tibetans have a word for this kind of journey: kora, a meditative, circumambulatory journey in which pilgrims are transformed by the entity (often a mountain, lake or place of spiritual significance) they circle on foot. The pilgrimage can be further enhanced by “prostration”—the act of bowing or kneeling, and a term that also means, according to Merriam Webster, “complete physical or mental exhaustion; collapse.”
For centuries, pilgrims have traveled to Tibet’s 21,788-foot Mount Kailash to complete a loop around it on foot. To do so is to honor the Tibetans’ belief that climbing the peak would be sacrilege. (No one has ever stood on its summit; even renowned climbers like Reinhold Messner have declined offers from the Chinese government to make a first ascent.)
In her memoir, Runner, five-time UTMB winner Lizzy Hawker writes, “I didn’t realize during that first race in 2005, but for me this is what the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc embodies. It is a celebration, a pilgrimage, a circumambulation—it is a kora for those who choose. … A pilgrimage is often associated with a physical journey, but it is also a search for moral or spiritual significance.”
Perhaps it is this hope—of some kind of transformation at the flanks of a mountain—that now draws 7,500 runners from more than 80 countries to Chamonix each August for UTMB and the four sister races that take place the same week.
As cultural historian Rebecca Solnit writes in her book, Wanderlust, “Pilgrimages make it possible to move physically, through the exertions of one’s body, step by step, toward those intangible spiritual goals that are otherwise so hard to grasp. We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there, however arduous the journey.”
“The jagged aiguilles flank the blindingly white hump of Mont Blanc’s summit like sentries in dark veils..” Photo by Matt Trappe
My boyfriend and I arrive in Chamonix on a gloriously sunny morning in early August. Our friend Doug Mayer, a fellow Trail Runner contributor who owns a trail-running tour company in the Alps, takes us on a sweltering jaunt up the vertical-kilometer course. It is a 2.3-mile route with 3,280 feet (one kilometer) of climbing. We hike out of the narrow valley on dizzying, zigzagging singletrack. When this gives way to precarious rock ledges, we scramble higher by clutching to metal cables and ladders drilled into the mountain.
Incredibly, we are not the only ones “running” this trail today.
“A lot of people in Chamonix come run this on their lunch breaks,” Doug tells us.
This makes more sense later, when I learn that most places in Chamonix shut down for two or three hours in the middle of the day. Lunch breaks tend to be a little longer on this side of the pond.
And trail runners are everywhere. Seeing someone decked out in trail-running gear at the grocery store here—head-to-toe spandex, flanked with trekking poles and a bulging hydration pack—is as common as seeing someone in yoga pants at Trader Joe’s back home.
Chamonix boasts a number of specialty trail-running shops, a dedicated trail-running club and an extensive race calendar that brings thousands of runners to local trails on many summer weekends. In recent years, a number of foreign-born athletes like Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg have moved to this valley to pursue their careers as professional mountain runners, climbers and ski mountaineers.
Forget Bend or Boulder or Flagstaff. If our sport has ever had a so-called “trail-running capital of the world,” Chamonix is it.
At the top of the trail, breathless and drenched in sweat, we take it all in—the cloudless sky, the town of Chamonix distant but directly beneath our toes, the glistening glaciers and their crystal-blue seracs opposite the valley from us, and the jagged aiguilles (translated, literally, “needles”) that flank the blindingly white hump of Mont Blanc’s summit like sentries in dark veils. Dozens of colorful paragliders drift soundlessly through the air around us.
Poles and compression garments are commonplace. Photo by Matt Trappe
It is the last day we see the sun for a while. For the better part of three weeks, a thick blanket of clouds muffles the landscape. Rain pours incessantly. On one such dreary afternoon, Doug and I meet up for café au lait with Philippe Plantié. Philippe, now 52 and a resident of nearby Les Houches, has run UTMB every year since 2003 (with one exception, in 2009, when he instead opted to run the 119-kilometer Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie, or TDS, one of the UTMB sister races).
We take cover under a large patio umbrella at an outdoor café. While we talk, rain hammers down all around us in violent, icy sheets. I watch miniature rivers and lakes crop up in the cracks of the cobblestone and wonder how many minutes the ultralight waterproof jacket I plan to run with at UTMB will keep me dry in rain like this.
Indeed, “rain like this” has plagued nearly every edition of UTMB—beginning with the first year, 2003, when terrible weather translated to only 67 of the more than 700 starters making the complete circumambulation of Mont Blanc. Given that I can hardly hear Philippe speaking over the rain, it seems rhetorical to ask his thoughts on why so many people tend to drop out midrace—typically about half the field—but I do anyway.
“I think the weather is a significant factor, because it makes it so much harder,” he says. In 2011, he remembers, the rain, snow and mud was so intense that it washed out part of the course and required a bonus-miles reroute through the Swiss town of Martigny.
He points out, though, that the bleak finisher stat from the inaugural year is a bit misleading. The weather was rotten, and race organizers had told runners that they could try for the whole loop if they wanted, or they could stop in Courmayeur and still be credited with a race finish (in a separate rankings list). In other words, several hundred runners didn’t drop out mid-race so much as agree to run a shorter race.
Due to terrible storms—and in the context of several weather-related deaths at other European trail races in recent years—the 2010 edition was canceled mid-race. In 2012, the course was shortened due to dangerous weather.
This year is different. Two days before the race, the fog lifts and the air sizzles with heat. So dry and balmy is the weather forecast that the race organization sends an email warning us that temperatures could rise to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) on Saturday. We are advised to carry twice as much water as originally suggested, and cool off our bodies in mountain streams.
Mid-pack UTMB runners are treated to two sunrises. Photo by Matt Trappe
Past races have, at times, reduced me to a mess of tears and blisters and pleading with the universe to get it over with. So, from the moment I set off from the famed church square in Chamonix for my jaunt around the rooftop of Europe, I await suffering. Steel my mind for it. Perhaps even anticipate, with a smidge of eagerness, the opportunity to plumb my own depths for untapped reserves of tenacity.
After all, as Victorian mountaineer Edward Whymper wrote in his 1871 book, Scrambles in the Alps, “Out of toil comes strength … and from the strength arises pleasure.”
I am a grapevine, I tell myself, willing to suffer in the name of richer wine. I am a mountaineer. I am a pilgrim.
Whatever I am, I am ready.
UTMB is really like a road marathon with a trail ultra tacked on at the end. The first 20 miles or so are mostly rolling and runnable. Many are even paved with asphalt or cobblestone. They are fast, crowded and supercharged with the energy of the throngs of spectators in every town along the way—Les Houches, Saint Gervais, Les Contamines. They cheer us on by the nationality flags on our race bibs—“Go, go, go USA!”—and cry out, “Bon courage!” over the ceaseless clamor of cowbells. I wolf a handful of pineapple chunks at the aid station in Saint Gervais, only to discover they’re cubes of cheese.
And then the crowds thin. Night falls, solitude settles in and climbing begins in earnest. I enjoy the change of pace in my muscles, the slow burn that snakes through my legs. The sky is so clear that when the full moon rises Friday night, its light is reflected by the bright shawl of snow draped over Mont Blanc. I no longer need my headlamp to see.
And they’re off in the 2015 edition of the UTMB; the eventual women’s champion, Nathalie Mauclair, is pictured in pink. Photo by Matt Trappe
UTMB is a race made famous by its difficulty—its relentless climbs (some 32,000 feet of vertical ascent), its notoriously erratic weather, its Friday-evening start that requires even elite athletes to run through one night—and the rest of us mortals, two.
Its precise course varies slightly from year to year, but generally falls between 166 and 173 kilometers. (This year, perhaps to compensate for the lack of storms, we get a bonus climb after Col de la Seigne that tacks on a few kilometers of steep, midnight scree scrambling.)
It’s not the toughest race in Europe, let alone the world; others are far more technical, remote or at higher altitudes. Neither is it the longest race, nor the oldest. But for all that UTMB lacks in difficulty, longevity or historical significance, its hometown more than compensates. Chamonix has been luring adventurous souls from around the world for centuries.
In 1741, two Englishmen, William Windham and Richard Pococke, “discovered” the valley—then only sparsely populated, primarily by monks and farmers. Clad in hobnail boots and saddled with ample wine for the journey, the men set off to explore the glaciers on foot.
“I am extremely at a loss how to give a right idea of it,” wrote Windham. “I know of no one thing which I have ever seen that has the least resemblance to it.”
Their romantic reports—published widely in literary journals—inspired generations of explorers, alpinists, travelers, painters, philosophers and poets from all over the world to come see what all the fuss was about. Over time, thousands grew enamored with the valley’s mountains and glaciers, indifferent in their majesty (sometimes fatally) to their human admirers.
In 1786, two Frenchmen—Michel Gabriel Paccard, a doctor, and Jacques Balmat, a hunter and crystal collector—made the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc. When they returned home from their journey, they were thoroughly frostbitten, sunburned and snow-blinded—but exultant in
It was the beginning of the valley’s celebration of suffering as a handmaiden to triumph. In Scrambles in the Alps, Whymper waxed poetic on how “patient, laborious toil” in the mountains helps us “come back to our daily occupations better fitted to fight the battle of life and overcome the impediments which obstruct our paths, strengthened and cheered by the recollection of past labors.”
A nod to the valley’s tradition of alpinist ethics, UTMB has always championed this kind of self reliance. As Catherine Poletti says, the race pays homage to “the individual, the possibility for a person to be well in life.”
In keeping with this spirit, pacers are not permitted. Runners must saddle themselves with several pounds of mandatory equipment, such as head-to-toe waterproof gear, additional long-sleeve base layers, two headlamps with spare batteries, an emergency blanket, a cell phone and numerous other sundries.
UTMB has grown into a kind of de facto world championship of trail and ultrarunning, and a proving ground for many elite international athletes—but the race organization has never offered its fastest runners prize money.
“It is more important to finish than to be fast,” says Michel Poletti. “The real spirit of UTMB is not the Saturday when the winner arrives in Chamonix. It is Sunday morning or afternoon when all the runners arrive, everyone together, after two nights of not sleeping … and they are happy.”
Photo by Matt Trappe
When the sun rises on Saturday, it casts a kaleidoscope of colors over Mont Blanc. The summit is more rock than snow from my vantage point at Arête du Mont Favre, and the gray rock is cast in fierce shades of orange, red, pink and yellow that spread rapidly like the fire they resemble. I am mesmerized.
It is 13 hours in, and I am still waiting for the inevitable suffering to begin. So far, the race has felt more like dancing than running. The relentless climbs set me into a meditative rhythm. The steep descents have me catapulting down the mountain with joy.
Later, the day’s temperatures climb and the sun becomes a merciless tormenter. I dunk myself in every stream, pond and puddle I pass. The heat slows me—but, still, I feel good.
Midway down the descent from Grand Col Ferret, an emergency aid station has been erected to help mitigate the heat. I’m guzzling water when I hear the slow, parched croak of a voice.
“Yitka … is that you?”
The voice is coming at me from—yes, the ground beneath the aid-station table. I see a familiar face, American runner Sean Meissner, who looks roughly as though he’s been hit by a bus. He’s crumpled against a large tent, curled in the fetal position in the only spot of shade within sight. His face is caked with salt crystals from dried sweat.
He squints at me and chuckles, slowly, when he sees what must be a look of horror on my face. I overcorrect with a broad smile and the ridiculous question of, “Heeey, how’s it going?”
“Not so great,” comes the obvious answer.
He tells me he’s been throwing up all afternoon and has been lying on the ground here for hours. He doesn’t know what to do. I reach down to help him up, forgetting the weakness and exhaustion in my own body for a moment; as I struggle to pull him up, we both nearly go tumbling into the side of the tent.
We leave the aid station together and when he throws up again, it’s a bright shade of crimson.
“Don’t worry!” he says, slurring like a drunk. “That’s not blood. I’ve been drinking shots of beet juice all day.”
There’s more cheer than misery in his face as we continue our long, slow tumble into Switzerland.
American Zach Miller celebrates his victory in UTMB’s 101-kilometer sister race, CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix). Photo by Michel Cottin
For 17 more hours, I run, and wait for suffering to catch me. But for 17 more hours, it eludes me—or I elude it. Whenever it threatens, fellow runners swoop in to bat it away. Once, I sit by the side of the trail to massage my aching calves for a few minutes. No sooner have I made myself comfortable than a jovial Brit draws up next to me and asks, “You all right? Fancy a salty biscuit?”
The sun sets again, and rises a second time over Mont Blanc, and I am still running—battered by a harsh wind, now, on my way to the final aid station at La Flegere. Sleep deprivation has set in and I feel drunk myself, catching my toe on every rock in my path.
I pause for a moment to admire the sinking moon, and a woman flies by me, full throttle. I try to keep up with her, and in doing so, discover new strength in my legs.
I can see Chamonix twinkling beneath my toes now, just as I could the first day I arrived in the valley. Local runners are out for their morning jog up the mountain, and they congratulate us, beaming as we go by.
As 12 kilometers of relentless downhill pounding gives way to blissfully flat terrain, a Spanish runner falls in step with me. We round a corner and begin the final winding route through the streets of Chamonix, surrounded by thunderous cheers on all sides. We have been running for 38 hours.
Industrial-strength cowbells provide encouragement and European ambiance in the towns and along the course. Photo by Matt Trappe
Just a few hundred meters now,” he says. We run harder. My legs burn. In Scrambles in the Alps, Whymper addressed the question that he, as a mountaineer, was so often asked. It is one that we, as trail runners, also often face—the question of why we do it, and whether our toiling in the mountains “repays” us.
“We cannot estimate our enjoyment as you measure your wine or weigh your lead; it is real nevertheless,” Whymper wrote. “My scrambles amongst the Alps have repaid me, for they have given me two of the best things a man can possess—health and friends.”
The Spaniard asks if this is my first time running UTMB; he tells me it is his second. When we reach the final stretch, he drops back and whispers, “Go, you first. This is your moment.”
I protest, feeling we should finish together—but he won’t hear of it. He just smiles at me, and off I go, flying into the exultant embrace of a city that, for centuries, has been preaching the gospel of the mountains.
Yitka Winn is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Trail Runner. She thanks fellow contributing editor Doug Mayer for his immense help in conducting interviews for this story. This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.