Canmore Runner and Fitzy go to Courmayeur

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The sunny side of the Mont Blanc massif – Photo: Canmore Runner

Lured by the prospect of sensational weather, amazing scenery and trails, friendly locals and delicious post-run food, Fitzy and I headed off for a day of trail running around the stunning Italian mountain town of Courmayeur on, as some refer to it, “the sunny side of Mont Blanc”.

Located in the Aosta Valley in north-west Italy, around a 90 minute drive from Geneva via the Mont Blanc Tunnel, it’s no surprise that Courmayeur, like it’s French neighbour to the north, Chamonix, is a trail running paradise. It features in the legendary 170km Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and hosts the start of the UTMB’s “little sister”, the 101km CCC, or Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, which, according to the organizers sets off in “an atmosphere that only Italians can provide, a rare emotional moment to the music of Vangelis”. Golly. It also boasts it’s own 105km Gran Trail race, not to mention the 330km Tor des Geants among others. It even has a Canmore Trail Culture equivalent in the Courmayeur Trailers.

Plan A for the day was to run some run-able parts of the Val Ferret, a truly stunning valley that heads north-eastwards along the bottom of the Mont Blanc massif, with stunning views of the Grandes Jorasses.

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Looking towards the Grandes Jorasses in the Val Ferret Photo: Canmore Runner

However, the closure of the Val Ferret due to the extreme avalanche risk put paid to that and so we headed a short distance past Courmayeur to the village of Palleuseiux. Our plan B was to pick a up the number 1 hiking trail from Palleusieux back up the Aosta valley towards Dolonne and Courmayeur along the banks of the Dora Baltea river. Again, the avalanche risk scuppered our plan but undeterred, and after a quick map consultation, we continued down the valley a few minutes to the small spa town of Pre Saint Didier. From here, plan C was to pick up the number 6 hiking trail, and proceed up and into the, hopefully sun drenched and relatively snow free, Thuile Valley and basically take it from there. And that’s what we did, and wow, as Plan Cs go it was superb. It might have been a relatively short 8km out-and-back-ish but what it lacked in distance it more than made up for in ascent (1,416m), challenging trails and incredible views.

On Strava, it all looked like this:

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We began at the rather luxurious looking QC Terme Pre Saint Didier thermal baths from where you can pick up a trail that leads you into the bottom of a very steep-sided gorge before heading up the side of the gorge along a series of relatively steep but mostly run-able switchbacks:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

..with some beautiful views…

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Photo: Canmore Runner
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Photo: Canmore Runner

After around a kilometer or so, the trail flattens out and takes you to the the Parco Avventura Mont Blanc. Follow the trail to the car park at the far end of which you will see a sign for the number 6 hiking trail. Follow the number 6 which continues to wind it’s way up (emphasis on up) along the side of the valley:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

At around the 2.6km mark, we caught a first glimpse of the valley opening up and got a sense that good things weren’t all that far off:

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Looking towards La Thuile – Photo: Canmore Runner

And sure enough, it wasn’t much longer before we reached some abandoned buildings…

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Photo: Fitzy

from which we were presented with views like this:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

At this point, the trail splits and you can either continue to follow the number 6 and now number 3 hiking trails along the valley towards the village of Elevaz or, as we did, follow the marked trail that continues to zig zag up the side the valley. After around 1km we completely lost the trail under a foot of snow and resorted to a combination of bush-wacking and post-holing, albeit with a great backdrop:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

This continued for the next 700m, more or less straight up towards Monte de la Nonna in the hope that at some point we would be able to see back along the Aosta Valley towards Mont Blanc. That point soon arrived and we were not disappointed. First there was Monte Corme to the east:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

And then Mont Blanc in all its splendour:

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Mont Blanc – Photo: Canmore Runner

By this stage, overwhelming though the views were, we were also beginning to fixate on the delicious food aspect of this Italian road trip and promptly retraced ours steps to the trailhead:

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Photo: Fitzy

…drove back to Courmayeur and got on with the serious business of ordering foccacia e birra in very poor Italian:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

Ciao for now.

Canmore Runner and Fitzy go to Annecy

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Fitzy taking a moment. Photo: Canmore Runner

Annecy, France. A mere 25 minute drive from Geneva, the “Venice of the Alps“, home to those gear gurus Salomon, and, it turns out, some spectacular trails.

Joined – all the way from Canmore – by Fitzy, my much missed running companion and leader of Canmore Trail Culture, our objective for the day was an 18km loop with, according to Strava, 2370m of climbing (not sure that’s right) up and over the summit of Mont Baron, on the east side of the beautiful (even on a grey day) Lac d’Annecy:

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Monts Baron and Veyrier. Photo: Canmore Runner

You can shorten this run by a good 5km if, unlike us, you choose to begin at or near the trailhead, rather than parking in town and running along the lake front. It seemed like a good idea when we arrived but a terrible idea two and a half hours later as I laboured back along the lake front. On Strava, it all looked like this:

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The trailhead is located just off the D909 which is the road that follows the east side of the lake heading from Annecy towards Veyrier-du-Lac. It’s reasonably well signposted:

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Photo; Canmore Runner

..and the trailhead is quite obvious:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

But if you are in any doubt, just look for this wonderful sight: Ecrin des Gourmandises Boulanger, right smack dab at the trailhead, with the most amazingly dense and delicious pain au chocolat aux amandes. This was surely shaping up to be a good day.

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Photo: Canmore Runner

A word to the wise, however. Tempting though it will be, don’t stuff your face because from here it’s more or less uphill for the next 5.4km and the start is steep and rocky:

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Fitzy, showing little sign of jet lag – Photo: Canmore Runner

And it more or less continues like that all the way to the Plateau du Mont Baron. The route is relatively straightforward – just keep following the signs for Mont Baron and Mont Veyrier, of which there were quite a few:

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Photo: Fitzy

The climb is a beautiful twisting affair, that takes you around the backside of the mountain with a few dips long the way to give you the chance to recover.

If we’d studied the map a little more carefully, we would probably have taken the steeper trail that heads off to the Col des Sauts and Mont Veyrier around 2.5km from the trailhead and from where you can run along a balcony to Mont Baron. But alas, we didn’t study the map carefully and headed to Mont Baron via the Creux du Loup. But I wouldn’t say we were disappointed. It was something of a winter wonderland:

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Photo: Fitzy

You’re in the trees for most of the climb to the Plateau du Baron, which would probably be quite welcome in the heat of the summer. But you just know that the trees will give way at some point and spectacular things await and so they do. A mere 300m further on from the Plateau and the trail brings you to this:

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

From here, you keep heading along the balcony and the trail drops down a bit:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

…before eventually delivering you in around 500m to the Ancien Telepherique:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

From here, we took the trail down towards Veyrier-du-Lac which involves navigating a slightly steep and sketchy staircase, albeit with a great view:

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Photo: Canmore Runner

At the Balcon des Contrabandiers, we continued to follow the signs for Veyrier-du-Lac which took us down a wonderful free flowing singletrack with lots of hairpins and chance to really open up the legs.

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Photo: Canmore Runner
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Photo: Fitzy

Rather than heading into Veyrier-du-Lac, we followed the trail that was signposted for the Col de Sauts and Mont Veyrier but later dropped off this and onto the trail leading to Chavoire and Talabar. This eventually put us back on the trail we’d started out on from the trailhead which, of course, led us happily back down to the boulangerie.

Until next time, happy trails.

Sulphur Mountain (from the Cave and Basin)

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View from Sanson’s Peak, looking towards Tunnel Mountain, the Bow River and Lake Minnewanka – on a day that was, weather-wise, nothing like the day that I ran Sulphur Mountain – Photo: Canmore Runner

Sulphur Mountain, 2,451m elevation and, it turns out, a total treat. I hadn’t expected it to be thus. This was never on my ever-burgeoning list of “must-do runs”, partly because of its status as one of Banff’s major tourist attractions. Every summer, thousands of tourists take the 8-minute gondola ride to Sanson’s Peak, or hike there from the Upper Hot Springs along a series of switchbacks that wind their way up beneath the gondola. Of course, there has to be a reason why it’s so popular and it might just be the “breathtaking vistas in every direction” and the “stunning bird’s-eye view of six incredible mountain ranges”. As luck would have it, you can still enjoy those same vistas while mostly avoiding the masses en route by taking an alternative and challenging 8km trail to Sanson’s Peak that begins at the Cave and Basin historic site. Continue reading

Lady Mac – Part Two – the Summit

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Lady Mac (centre), as viewed from the Highline Trail – Photo: Canmore Runner

It had to be done. I’ve climbed Lady Mac several times since my first, chilly and icy ascent in January that I wrote about here. For time or weather-related reasons, i’d only ever managed to make it to the helipad, a still challenging 8km out-and-back with close to 1,000m of elevation. Then, one July morning, I found myself with enough time (and fantastic weather) to make it to the summit. And it was spectacular. I also came to appreciate that those responsible weren’t messing around when they named the last few hundred metres to the summit “Knife-Edge Ridge”. Continue reading

Grotto grind.

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Grotto Mountain (right), Lady Mac (left) – Photo: Canmore Runner

“Friends don’t let friends run Grotto”. It was good to be told this (Simon and Emily), two days after Ms. Canmore Runner and I had ground our way up and down Grotto Mountain. While knowing this in advance wouldn’t have stopped us, forewarned is forearmed and we might have been better prepared for the 10km (with 1,429m of elevation) slog that lay ahead and that really put the Canmore Quad into perspective. As I stood on the summit of Grotto, I thought to myself: “Seriously? You do this and then run up Lady Mac, Ha Ling and East End of Rundle?” My hope of one day achieving this feat was starting to feel as shaky as my legs. And we still had the descent to contend with. Forty-five quad crushing minutes, two falls, a bloodied wrist and shin later, I was starting to think that the “Triple Crown” of Lady Mac, Ha Ling and East End of Rundle would still be a significant – and more enjoyable – achievement. Continue reading

Ha Ling

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Mount Lawrence Grassi from the Bow River. The peak of Ha Ling on the far right – Photo: Canmore Runner

Located at the northwestern end of Mount Lawrence Grassi, Ha Ling looms large over Canmore, along with its fellow Canmore Quad peaks of Lady Mac, East End of Rundle and Grotto. At an altitude of 2,407m, it’s the lowest of the Quad summits and with a distance of 3km from trailhead to peak makes for a relatively speedy if technical climb along some switchbacking rocky and root strewn singletrack that eventually gives way to scree followed by a short scramble over rock to the summit. Once there, the views are stunning. Continue reading

High Rockies Trail – 4 – Mount Buller Out-and-Back

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High Rockies Trail between Spray Lakes day use area and Mount Buller – Photo: Canmore Runner

Have I mentioned how much I love the High Rockies Trail? I might have done. Like here, here, and here. Until now, if I was pushed to find fault with this trail, at least the sections i’ve explored, the most I could manage is to complain about the trees – that as amazing, challenging and fun as the trail is to run, you spend a lot of time staring at trees. Lots of trees. This week’s run, however, a 10km out-and-back from the Mount Buller day use area, with 590m of elevation, changed all that. Yes, there was still beaucoup de trees. But there were also magnificent sections of exposed trail that lay the valley bare before you. On a clear, bluebird kind of day, it would be absolutely stunning.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

An overdue salute to the trail builders

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Ms. Canmore Runner enjoying the superbly built High Rockies Trail – Photo: Canmore Runner

I’ve been remiss. I’ve spent almost two years enjoying spectacular trails in and around Canmore and Kananaskis. And i’ve spent close to 18 months writing about those trails on this blog. But have I once spared a thought – or a word or two – for those that volunteer their time and effort to actually build and maintain these trails? Nope. Time to right that wrong as I wouldn’t be having all this fun and adventure without the vision, dedication and hard work of the trail builders.  Continue reading

East End of Rundle: Short, steep, spectacular

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East End of Rundle (left) – Photo: Canmore Runner

Known locally as EEOR, there is nothing gloomy, depressing or otherwise donkey-like about the East End of Rundle. On the contrary, it’s short, steep and spectacular. At an altitude of 2,530m, EEOR looms large over Canmore, along with its fellow Canmore Quad peaks of Ha Ling, Lady Mac and Grotto. The 2.5km trail to the summit (with 899m of elevation) is steep and shaded to begin. But it soon emerges from the trees to reveal spectacular views of the Spray Valley, Ha Ling and – once you’ve scrambled to the summit – Canmore and the Bow Valley. If it’s not on your list of short, steep and spectacular runs, it should be.

Continue reading