Seeing the ultra runners with their minimalist vests and lightweight trekking poles on Corsica’s GR20 earlier this year set the seed. Whilst we hauled 20kg backpacks over the rugged terrain these guys passed us with ease, skipping through multiple stages en route to completing the long distance hike in only a few days (a rare few in as little as 32 hours). On their minds must have been the thought as to how miserable things looked for us sluggish, over equipped hikers! It wasn’t long after arriving back in Chamonix that the the thought of repeating the Tour du Mont Blanc in as few days as possible came to fruition – we had met a couple of Americans back in 2015 when we last did the hike who were completing it in 4 days against the usual ten. I could do better than that I thought.

Then there was the UTMB, the ultra run around Mont Blanc. The event had already been canceled for 2020 but usually went ahead at the end of August – I knew there was no chance for me to get anywhere close to accomplishing the 170 kilometres in under 46.5 hours in one long push, but maybe spread over a couple of days there was a possibility. If I wanted to knock this thing out in under 4 days it was going to take around 60 kilometres of distance and a few thousand vertical metres minimal per day!

TMB in 3 Days
Beginning in Les Houches at 6.45am Tuesday, ending in Les Houches at 7.45pm Thursday

My calculations went something like this… Moving at approximately 5 kilometres an hour I could cover around 60 kilometres in 12 hours without stopping, then add in a couple hours for eating, resting and admiring the view and the daylight hours would be pretty much maxed out. So three days was plausible. Two on the other hand meant upwards of 18 hour days, traveling in the very early hours or late evening, with no mental support from seeing other hikers on the trails – definitely may as well go and qualify for the UTMB and do the well supported, impressively run event with other like minded nut jobs! The scary part was that now I’d decided on a number of days there was no way of knowing if I was up for this.

Sixty kilometres every day for 3 back to back days was going to hurt, still hopefully bringing me to the finish in a moving time of under 36 hours – the cutoff for the UTMB is 46.5 hours so I’d be well under (bearing in mind that UTMB racers don’t stop for 2 nights sleep!). Was I really in shape to be able to do that? As I’d never covered more than 42 kilometres, whether it be hiking or running, in a single stretch before I needed to see what that felt like didn’t I. Andrea suggested I at least go out and hike the local Tour du Fiz without stopping but the thought of doing what had recently taken us 2 full days in a single day was not one I could handle. I didn’t need to know how much misery I was going to be in beforehand so doing 5-6 hour day hikes was going to have to suffice!

My training ground – Brevent in the top centre

Aiguillette d’Argentiere on the way to Flagere

For lightweight packing things were going to be limited, everything having to fit into a Salomon 12 litre running vest – not that everything was going to be much! I had checked the compulsory gear requirements for the UTMB and so based my minimal packing on that list. Basically for clothing I was carrying a lightweight Haglof Goretex pac-lite plus rainjacket, Outdoor Research lightweight midlayer, thin gloves and a spare pair of socks – this was in addition to the ultra breathable stuff I was wearing and the newly purchased Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 trail running shoes. Throw in a small ziploc bag containing an emergency blanket, knife, Black Diamond headtorch and watch/ phone charging cables and the vest still barely weighed anything. For food I packed 5 of Andrea’s homemade healthy energy bars, 6 GU’s, a pack of energy blocks and a handful of watermelon flavored electrolyte tablets; all snacks that were enjoyable. Even after filling the 2 x 500ml water pouches things still felt very minimal.

So what else was necessary? I knew the first 20 and final 30 kilometres well enough to not get lost; the big chunk in the middle paying closer attention to the TMB trail markers and Gaia’s iPhone app. Although I did have loosely optimistic expectations as to how far I’d like to get I hadn’t bothered making refuge reservations, choosing only to check availability at Rifugio Maison Vieille in Italy and Gîte Bon Abri in Switzerland a couple days prior. Worst case scenario I’d rely on the fact that Courmayeur is a little over a third of the way and Champex Lac another third. Both of these were towns so hopefully no shortage of beds.

TMB Day 1: Les Houches (FR) to Rifugio Maison Vieille (IT)

Distance: 64.2km, Ascent: 4,323m/ 14,153ft, Descent: 3,404m/ 11,168ft, Moving Time: 11:57
Total Distance: 64.2km, Total Ascent: 4,323m, Total Descent: 3,404m, Total Moving Time: 11:57

I’d gotten up at 4.45am, still not even sure that I’d walk out of the door. I felt good but nervous with the thought of not being able to pull this off – it was a long freaking way! I wanted to be in Les Houches outside of the local Mairie by 6am, soon pushed forward by 30 minutes, ready to go but was still fumbling around trying to make up an excuse at that time. It was Andrea rising from hibernation asking what time we were leaving that forced me into at least starting this thing. After all, living 5 minutes drive from the start meant that I could bail after 10, 20, even 30 kilometres and still be home for dinner!

There really was no excuse – sleep was okay, minimal gear was double checked, phone and GPS watch were fully charged, and the weather was looking to be sunny and warm for the next 3 days. The moment Andrea dropped me at the TMB start sign in Les Houches the excitement kicked in.

And it was time to put one foot in front of the other…

The time was 6:42am, I had a short road section to warm up the legs quickly followed by a 770 metre ascent up to Col de Voza. If the rest went as well as that first 62 minute climb and I could average 5 kilometres every moving hour then this may not be as bad as anticipated! Col de Voza was followed by the longer and hillier TMB variant up to Col de Tricot, a steep descent to Chalets de Miage and on to the quaint town of Les Contamines-Montjoie. It had taken me 3:40 to do what took Andrea and I a full day back in 2015 – this was worthy of a cappuccino break. From here on out I needed to show self-discipline and make this the only time I stop for coffee!

TMB in 3 Days

Making it up the TMB’s first climb to 1650m Col de Voza in an hour was a positive sign!

Trail turned to road as the TMB route headed through town, following the Bon Nant river for 4 kilometres on the flat before it headed uphill and past the refuges of Nant Borrant at 1459 metres and La Balme at 1706 metres. There was still a lot of climbing with two significant ascents over the next 40 kilometres. On the trail continued, familiar places from 2015 around each bend and over every brow – this time I’m out in our new back garden and these places feel like home. Eventually I arrive at Col de Bonhomme and the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme a little further on. Some 6 hours had already flown passed – I was hopefully halfway into the first day and definitely hungry. Unlike some refuges that close during the day this one stayed open, its menu offering ample choices for calorie replacement and liquid refreshment.

So far there had been no concerns about getting food and drink with a continual stream of mountain refuges, gites and the occasional small town. This wasn’t about to stop as next up was the small community of Les Chapieux – a 900 metre descent would see me there within an hour. The few restaurants, their colourful umbrellas and tempting menus almost made me stop for lunch number two. I had to tell myself to keep moving as the next pass, Col de la Seigne, was still 10 kilometres away! The weather remained perfect as the luxury of dirt road quickly took me up to Refuge des Mottets, the end of our second day in 2015 – I remembered the trail up from here and wasn’t too excited about it. At least I’d then be in Italy and from what I remembered, on top of the days last big slogs.

The top of 2516 metre Col de la Seigne was exactly 50 kilometres in, taking almost 9 ½ hours of forward movement to reach! It felt great to know that I was now in the second country of the TMB’s winding circuit. …and assuming that my Garmin watch is usually off by around 10 percent, so in this case 6 kilometres, I probably had a maximum of 16 kilometres left for the day (10 miles). The only concern so far was the niggling discomfort in my right hip, almost definitely due to the sections I had decided to run – the rest of the day would be all about speed walking!

Day 1: Refuge de La Croix du Bonhomme at 2443m

Night 1: Rifugio Maison Vieille at 1965m

Day 2: Rifugio Elena at 2062m

Where there’s an up there’s a down, this one taking me past Rifugio Elisabetta at 2195 metres, before an easy flat 3 kilometres of road walking to what I’d forgotten was another lingering steep ascent. A testing 470 more metres of ascent! The only highlight that put a spring in my step was an Italian shepherd yelling at me in his foreign tongue, saying what I have no idea – just keep on moving Wayne. It was after 6.30pm now and although I’d long seen the majority of other people there were still a few mountain bikers and hikers floating around (incidentally next time I’m mountain biking this as they were having far too much fun!). By now I could see the ski lifts of Checrouit, the Rifugio Maison Vieille nestled somewhere off in the distance. Please let them have availability!

Within 45 minutes of leaving the top of the final climb I was sitting having beer and pasta, the first course of a typical 3 course refuge dinner, in a comfortable bar – although the feet and hip were sore life was very good at that moment! I had covered 64 kilometres in a moving time of just under 12 hours, bettering the 5 kilometres an hour hoped for. At least if for some reason I felt like bailing the following morning it was an easy descent into Courmayeur.

TMB Day 2: Rifugio Maison Vieille (IT) to Gîte Bon Abri (CH)

Distance: 54.7km, Ascent: 2,543m/ 8,343ft, Descent: 3,043m/ 9,984ft, Moving Time: 9:58
Total Distance: 118.9km, Total Ascent: 6,866m, Total Descent: 6,447m, Total Moving Time: 21:55

Relentless snoring from across the dorm, hip pain and an uncomfortable bed made for a crap nights sleep, not what was needed for another big day! With breakfast not scheduled until 7am I’d also end up with a later start …and there’s no way I’m putting one foot in front of another until the stomach has coffee and food. Fortunately the planned day has a little less distance and substantially less climbing as it winds its way from just above Courmayeur in Italy to the quaint Swiss town of Champex Lac – I’m okay with a shorter day and was already excited about reaching kilometre 87, the point of no return. What I wasn’t excited about was how the hip was going to behave.

Finally departing the refuge at 7:34am the steep and dusty descent into Courmayeur flew past – I remembered it well. It was far too early to be considering more food or drink so I blitzed right on through and began the ascent on the opposite side of town, the first goal being Rifugio G. Bertone at pretty much the same elevation as the beginning of the day. I was continually finding that whatever times the trail signage stated I could half, often reducing it even further, before assuming how long it would take to the next refuge, col, or place of interest. Rifugio Bonatti was another 2 hours so I expected to be there in under an hour – I had just been told I could buy bottled water but couldn’t be provided tap water due to the bathrooms being closed so was hoping my time to Bonatti was close! The following part of the trail was pretty flat and incredibly scenic, the views to my left of the Grandes Jorasses, the Mt Blanc Massif and everywhere else around me green forested hillsides of the Aosta valley. I was now on the opposite side of Mt Blanc, the exit to the tunnel right below me and a mere 17 kilometres from home.

TMB in 3 Days

Courmayeur at around kilometre 70 after a steep dusty descent

Leaving Rifugio Bonatti behind it was now time to descend a few kilometres in prep for the days 2537 metre highpoint, the Col du Grand Ferret. The base of the climb was the perfect place for a quick lunch and to carry out some blister damage control – I was also beginning to get concerned with slight ankle pain, hopefully just due to overuse. With road access the few eateries and loads of daytrippers/ hikers made this place a busy stop.

The ascent was broken up visually by the perfectly located Rifugio Elena, only unlike in September 2015 this time it was open for business, crowded with people relaxing on sun loungers. I had no time for this, taking no more than a passing glance – there was still 500 vertical metres of a hill to climb. Many switchbacks later came the rock summit marker, the Swiss border, the midway point of the second day and now overall closer to the end than the beginning. This was a happy moment as I was now confident I’d finish what I’d started! Beginning with…. 21 kilometres of predominantly downhill terrain.

Injuries were coming and going but at this moment things were feeling pretty good – it was time to run! The trail was perfect; meandering, relatively easy under foot, and pleading to be run on. It wasn’t quick but it sure felt great to be moving that little bit faster than a walk. I arrived at Gîte Alpage de La Peule in what felt like no time, my reward a cold lemonade and Swiss apple pie. A paved road now took me down to the small town of La Fouly where I’d stop once again to grab another cold drink and chocolate bar – got to keep those calories up! Back on dirt the revenge of the ankle pain decided to make itself a bit more noticed – this was still perfect running terrain. I was now back to a slow-for-me fast walk. What the hell was going on; the hip didn’t seem to care if I ran but the ankle was becoming more and more pissed the further I pushed it!

The long track passed Aiguille Noire de Peuterey

Trail to Rifugio Bonatti after leaving Courmayeur

Paved road towards the climb up to Champex Lac

May have to do the TMB again for this view alone!

Historical Casermetta at Col de la Seigne

By the time I made it back onto road at the small hamlet of Praz-de-Fort I had been moving for 8 ½ hours and covered almost 47 kiometres – I knew exactly where I was and that a final climb would take me to Champex Lac and the end of the second day. Going up was tough, the bend in the ankle causing the most discomfort – being on tiptoes for the steeper sections worked but couldn’t be sustained. The climb wasn’t substantial and I was soon making the walk along the shore of the pretty alpine lake, my planned accommodation a couple of kilometres through town. Once again I hoped it had availability!

I lucked out as not only did they have lots of empty beds but myself and one other 4 day TMB hiker got to share a 12 bed dorm to ourselves – there was no need to worry about snoring tonight. The ankle was definitely not happy but the distraction of fondue and a few large beers worked a treat! I’d sleep on it and hopefully wake up raring to go…

TMB Day 3: Gîte Bon Abri (CH) to Les Houches (FR)

Distance: 53.8km, Ascent: 3,521m/ 11,552ft, Descent: 3,914m/ 12,841ft, Moving Time: 11:25
Total Distance: 172.75km, Total Ascent: 10,387m, Total Descent: 10,361m, Total Moving Time: 33:20

Sleep was certainly better than the previous night but things still weren’t right – the swelling in the front of my right ankle hadn’t gone down. The painful walk to the bathroom left me expecting that the day would be over before it had even begun! Still, I prepared drinks, packed, and hobbled downstairs for breakfast. By the time 7.15am came I had no intention of not at least departing – unfortunately day 2 was the easy day, unlike today where this final 50+ kilometres included almost 4000 metres (or 4 vertical kilometres) of ascent.

This was made up of four big climbs, the first to 2049 metre Col de Portalo beginning after 3 kilometres of warmup trail – the conditions were perfect, the weather warm enough for a tee-shirt, and if the discomfort didn’t get any worse then life was good. The climb ended up being a steady 5 kilometres before heading back down to Col de la Forclaz. Back in 2015 the entire day from Champex Lac was a washout, the memories of waiting out the weather at Forclaz strong in my mind – this time I sat outside the same restaurant in glorious sunshine drinking a cappuccino and chowing down on a croissant. It was easy to stop as time was not of the essence today; I had no worries that this nights accommodation would be full and I would soon know the terrain well enough that if for some reason it became dark I’d still know how to finish!

The small town of Trient was a further 15 minutes downhill, leading directly into the slog of a climb up to Col de Balme and the French border. Quite possibly the dumbest move I had made so far was feeling like I could actually run, so guess what? I did. Only time would tell how this would play out! I was greeted at Cole de Balme by what I now considered mass tourism, access being easy due to the chair lifts operating out of Le Tour – this was something I expected but didn’t particularly enjoy, especially as most of the route so far had been relatively quiet.

Aside from the human variety this was the only wildlife on the TMB

Due to poor signage at the col, back in 2015 we took a wrong turn and ended up in the hamlet of Le Tour – on this occasion I double checked my trusty Gaia app and after a brief descent to 1997 metre Col des Posettes it was time to head back up again to the 2201 metre Aiguillette des Posettes. Although relatively brief I hadn’t expected another climb so soon! The duration for the day was at 4:45 and distance at 25 kilometres; pretty much keeping with my initial expectation of 5 kilometres per hour. However, things were about to begin to get miserable!

From the top of the climb the terrain became rocky and loose, the outcome a recurrence of significant ankle pain. Why now? I was pretty much half way but still had a lot of climbing left, including Brevent at 2525 metres. The descent to Tré le Champ included a lot of expletives and by the time I reached the quaint hamlet it may as well have been throw-in-the-towel time. I doubted that by the end of this lunch stop the situation would have improved! Arguments were getting tossed around inside my head, the logical side saying that there will always be another day and to not make things worse, the gung ho side saying that you’ve gone this far, there’s no way in hell you can call it a day now! So off I went back across the road to the TMB trail marker sign. I knew exactly what lay ahead!

First up, a decent climb up to the rock pinnacles of Aiguillette d’Argentiere, continuing up further using a series of ladders before topping out at 2127 metre La Tête Aux Vents crossing. The trail then eventually dropped a couple hundred metres to La Flégère chairlift, and whilst a little easier underfoot looked a long way off. Every foot placement hurt but I was finding that as long as that foot went down carefully it was tolerable – rocks that moved were no fun at all. I knew that once La Flégère was reached what would start out as a somewhat flat traverse would turn into the final big ascent of the TMB as the trail made its way over to the Planpraz chairlift system.

TMB in 3 Days

Alpage de Bovine en route to Col de la Forclaz

TMB in 3 Days

Aiguillette des Posettes on final day 3

TMB in 3 Days

Tête Aux Vents back in my neck of the woods

With views such as this pain is pushed to the back of your mind

The scenic early stages leading up to the Col Ferret in Italy

I had done this exact same trail only a week earlier and knew that the terrain sucked all the way up to Le Brévent and a fair way down the other side! At Planpraz the signage said an hour to Col du Brévent and a further 45 minutes to the top – even in my state I was confident I could make it in less than half that. By now all the lift systems around me had closed, the minimal signs of life a few TMBers heading to their high altitude bivouacs and the occasional trail runner. It felt great to be up here almost alone.

So there it was, a quick smile as I took in the epic views from the days highpoint, the remaining 10 kilometres of trail first passing by 2152 metre Refuge de Bellachat, Merlet animal park, Statue du Christ-Roi, and finally the valley floor. From Bellachat the torture continued as the tight and steep switchbacks caused continual cursing, my eventual arrival above Merlet a welcome relief – suddenly the trail actually became fun. Underfoot there weren’t so many roots or rocks to trip on. For some strange reason, probably all in my mind, it became almost comfortable to start running – in fact running was less painful than hobbling! Finally I hit road for the final kilometre and a half – it was time to walk again and savour the achievement. Obviously no big deal by some peoples standards but I was happy as a pig in shit!

It had taken 2 hours to get down from Le Brévent back to Les Houches and the finish arch outside the Mairie, and whilst most of the trail was slow by usual standards Strava threw it out there that I had actually PR’d up to Col du Brévent!

TMB in 3 Days

So happy after accomplishing a goal that beforehand I didn’t think I could pull off

Almost a week later I’m still layed up with a swollen and painful ankle but keep asking myself… Would I do it again? Hell yes! Am I thinking about the much harder Haute Route in a similar time? Absolutely! What about Corsicas GR20? No f**king way!

August 25th – August 27th 2020


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