Sunday, July 18, 2010

Courmayeur Champex Chamonix: my very own CCC

Last year, I tried to complete the UTMB solo in two stages but failed because of a "too" delicious omelet at La Peule and had to drop in a rainy storm at the Col de la Forclaz (see my post: Tour du Mont Blanc: unfinished business). This year, we stayed in Chamonix for only three days so I aimed at running the second part of the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) course, which I believed was also the course of the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix). On Thursday night (July 8, 2010), I was preparing my run and discovered that the CCC was actually getting from Courmayeur to the Refuge Bertone a different way (8 kms through Planpincieux, instead of 4 straight steep ones) and 2 additional kilometers and additional cumulative elevation to go to the top of the Tête de la Tronche. Unsure about these sections, and not really willing to add 10 kilometers, I decided to stay on the UTMB course instead.
To minimize the impact and burden on the family, I wanted to take the bus between Chamonix and Courmayeur, across the French-Italian border, through the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, but the first bus was not leaving before 8:45 AM which would have led to a 10 AM start. Instead, Agnès dropped me at the Bus Station of Courmayeur so I could start my run at 7:15 AM. The weather was perfect: blue sky, temperature of 13C (low 60F) and some breeze. I climbed up to the Refuge Bertone in 48 minutes (consistent with previous years), alternating some running and walking in this very steep section which gets us 2,700 feet of elevation gain in less than 3 miles, similar to the Western States start in Squaw Valley but for a rocky single track and many switch backs (instead of a large fire road in Squaw).

The views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc from Bertone were magnificent, and pictures are better than words to describe them so I invite you to look at my Picasa photo album. The section between the Refuges Bertone and Bonatti is my favorite section, very runnable, rolling and with amazing views over the Val Ferret. I felt good going down to Arnuva and decided to make a 10-minute stop to buy and eat a small bag of chips and a piece of fruit tart before the ascent to the Grand Ferret pass and the border between Italy and Switzerland.

I passed quite a few hikers before and after the Refuge Elena and did a short halt at the summit before going down through quite a few névés on the Swiss side. As opposed to last year (the "killer" omelet), I did not stop at La Peule which was crowded with hikers from all nationalities (including a contingent of 20 or more Japanese!).

Feeling much better than last year, I did speed up on the steep down hill to La Fouly. However, I started feeling tired after a short stop at the fountain of La Fouly and slowed down a bit as I was not even half way (km 31 of 90...). At mid-day, the temperature was quite high, in the low 90s, and I took advantage of all the fountains to splash myself to cool down. Although not strenuous compared to other sections, the ascent to Champex seemed quite long and I was happy to get to this major town to refuel. Unfortunately, the grocery shop was closed during lunch time but I got a bottle of Coca-Cola and an ice cream at the bakery before leaving Champex. I left a second text message to Agnès, to learn that she was getting them with a 2-hour delay, not quite real-time...
After Champex we have several kilometers down the valley before the terrible ascent to Bovine. I was only 53 kilometers in my run and could not imagine how harder it would have been 130 kilometers instead, in the UTMB race, potentially during a second night for many runners. High steps over large rocks, lose rocks, crossing of icy torrents, endless switch backs, and, when you believe you are done after reaching the pastures of Bovine, still quite some elevation to finally reach the cattle door marking the beginning of a steep downhill to the Forclaz Pass (Col de la Forclaz). Another bottle of Coca-Cola and ice cream at the pass before going down to Trient and another steep and long ascent to Catogne, at 2,000 meters, 700 meters above Trient.
It was around 6 PM and nobody was to be seen on the course at that time, but a fox which quickly disappeared when he saw me coming on the trail. Albeit slower, I ran all the way down to Vallorcine. I reached Vallorcine as the train to Chamonix was getting at the station, but decided not to hop on it despite the day light fading away. I called Agnès to let her know that I was moving forward although I decided not to finish the run with the new route up to La Flégère but Argentières as I had no head lamp and that was giving me the option to finish on the road if it was getting too dark.

I stopped at the Montets Pass (Col des Montets) for a couple of pictures (nice panoramic view over the Chamonix Valley and the summits, from les Aiguilles to the Dôme du Goûter). I felt so lucky that the sky was still completely clear, which is unusual at the end of the day in this region (we got a storm in the afternoon, the following day...).
The descent to Argentières was easy. After, the last segment to Chamonix seemed endless: the trail signs were saying 2h00, then, 10 minutes later 2h00, then, 10 minutes later, 2h20 (yikes, quite discouraging, like I was running in circles!), and the trail was rolling at an elevation of about 1,300 meters. Finally, I reached the Bois du Bouchet, the last flat section along the Arve torrent, close to 10 PM, in the dark. I finished the run in 14 hours and 50 minutes (elapsed time), rushing to the MacDonald's as I was starving and eager to get some fries!

During all the run I thought of my Quicksilver/RhoQuick team mates, Jim Magill and Sean Lang who are in UTMB this year. Unfortunately, Sean is not coming for business reasons, but Jim is, after running the San Diego 100-mile last month. I tried to memorize each rock to let him know when I'm back in the Bay Area in August, although his "suffling" is much different from my stride, so he will have to improvise... ;-)

I was really happy to have completed the run I did not last year, this "unfinished business," although I still have to (1) do the actual CCC course and in particular the last section from the Col des Montets up to La Flégère and (2), of course, the actual UTMB race itself... When we don't have to be in town for the kids' back to school days that week...

Again, please make sure to visit my Picasa photo album (120 pictures) and enjoy the views of this UDTMB (Ultra Demi-Tour du Mont Blanc), or half tour of Mount Blanc.
Quite some cumulative elevation, actually almost as much as Western States, 17,646 feet over "only" 92 kilometers (57 miles):


Stephane Couleaud said...

Hello Jean,
Congrats, but you missed the ascend to La Flégère from the Montet Pass ! Since 2008 both UTMB and CCC goes through the Tête aux Vents point of view ;-)
Tell me next time you go to Chamonix, I live there part-time now.
See ya !

Chamonix said...

Great effort - I'm familiar with those signposts that read 2hrs at every marker!

Joe Grant said...

It gave my goose bumps looking at those pics! Can't wait to go back to UTMB this year...Mt Blanc is a pretty special mountain.

Jean Pommier said...

Chamonix, thanks for visiting the blog and reading the whole post. Glad you confirm the glitch about the signs, that it was not me who was hallucinating... ;-)

Stephane, damned, if I had known you were in the area, I would have pinged you. Yes, I know I cheated with the last section but I explained why (lack of light). Better be careful in these mountains... BTW, congrats on your 6th place at la Montagn'hard! (Agnès saved the page from Le Dauphiné Libéré, great coverage!)

Jean Pommier said...


Back to UTMB after your amazing 20th place in 2009 run?! Wishing you all the best on this tough course.

Safe training,