Two runs, two ranges, two countries, two days

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Mont Blanc and the Bossons Glacier from Chamonix  Photo: Canmore Runner

If you follow me on Twitter (@canmorerunner), you will know that i’ve been on a short European trail running adventure. It involved two runs in two stunning mountain ranges (the Alps and Jura), in two countries (France and Switzerland) in two days. And it was terrific. The weather during the French stage was a bit hit and miss, but there’s nothing like darkening skies and rapidly approaching rumbles of thunder to put a spring in one’s step.

The French stage involved a fantastic 17km run with 1550m of elevation, starting and ending in Chamonix. For the uninitiated, Chamonix is home to the incredible Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc and the less famous perhaps, but nonetheless challenging, Marathon du Mont Blanc (MMB) and Trail des Aiguilles Rouges.

My visit coincided with the MMB and Chamonix really had given itself over to trail running for the weekend. And impressively so. I’ve taken part in the MMB on previous occassions and it’s great to see how the race has grown over the years. It consists of five separate events – a vertical km, 80km ultra, 42km mountain marathon, the 23km “Cross du Mont Blanc” and a 10km trail race. It’s now so popular that this year entry for the 80km, 42km and 23km races was by lottery only. Being a gear fan, I was particularly excited to find that the “marathon expo” had gone from a couple of gazebos parked in the corner of the room where you pick up your race number to occupying an entire square in downtown Chamonix with most of the major gear manufacturers represented. If the pound hadn’t taken such a hit the previous day following the Brexit shenanigans, I might have spent a fortune…

While I wasn’t there to race, I was there for some adventure and to help find it i’d consulted Kingsley Jones’ new guidebook on trail running in Chamonix and the Mont Blanc region.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.04.38What a fabuluous book. It’s the guide book that I would want to write. A great collection of routes of varying distance and elevation, clear and concise route descriptions, colour maps, great photos, and excellent advice on mountain travel and safety.

I opted for the first route in the book – a 15km run that begins and ends in downtown Chamonix. I should mention that it’s 15km if you follow the guide. If, like me, you decide half way down the final descent that you know where you’re going, you might find it’s 17km and involves running through several patches of stinging nettles resulting in ridiculousy itchy legs and two nights with little sleep.

The route is described in more detail in the book, but in short, from the parking at Les Planards, you follow the trail to Les Mottets that gradually winds it’s way up through trees along the side of the valley for 7-8km. At Les Mottets, the trail turns right and climbs more steeply as you head up alongside the Mer de Glace, with excellent views of the Aiguille du Drus. It also becomes more rocky as you continue onwards and upwards towards the Montenvers train station with its great views of the Mer de Glace and Grandes Jorasses. From Montenvers, the trail continues up to to Le Signal – the high point of the run at 2204m. From there begins the spectacular, rocky, undulating and entirely runnable traverse of the Grand Balcon Nord to Plain d’Aiguille. From there you can descend back down to Chamonix on the trail or by cable car. On Strava it looked like this:

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And on a stormy Saturday morning in June, it looked like this:

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Looking towards La Flegere and the Chamonix Valley  Photo: Canmore Runner
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L’Aiguille du Dru  Photo: Canmore Runner
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Mer de Glace  Photo: Canmore Runner
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Grand Balcon Nord, looking towards Mont Blanc  Photo: Canmore Runner

Jet lag and a forecast of thunderstorms at 11am combined to have me out on the trail before 8am. And just as well, as sure enough around 11am the thunder rolled in and the rain came down, just as I was heading down the last couple of kilometers. A quick change in the car and then it was time for brunch at the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix – good food and good service in a town which is a little notorious for providing neither of those things (with the exception also of the excellent Italian restaurant, l’Impossible).

The following day, I set my sights on a more gentle run in the beautiful Jura mountains in Switzerland, just to the north of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). After some quick internet research I decided on a modified version of the Chemin de la Dole, starting and finishing in the quaint little mountain town of Saint-Cergue, about 25 minutes from Geneva. On Strava, it looked like this:

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My route took me from Saint-Cergue and onto a gradual, easy climb through forest and up to the fondue restaurant of La Barillette.

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Photo: Canmore Runner

From La Barillette, the trail continued upwards and into the lush alpine pastures surrounding La Dole, a rather striking radar station that can be seen from miles away.

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Photo: Canmore Runner
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La Dole  Photo: Canmore Runner

La Dole was also the high point of the run at 1,677m and offered exceptional views over the lake:

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Photo: Canmore Runner
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Photo: Canmore Runner
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Photo: Canmore Runner

From there, it was a question of returning to Saint-Cergue but along a different route to the extent possible. While a map would have been useful, i’m not a total stranger to these trails and well, you’ve got to hand it to them, the Swiss really know how to sign:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

Not that that stopped me from getting lost for a short while. But you can always ask a local for directions:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

Sadly, Saint-Cergue is a little short on micro brasseries and brunch spots, especially on a Sunday. However, it more than makes up for it with some superb trails.

Until next time, happy trails.

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