Enjoy three trail runs, all at altitudes between 1877 m and 2372 m
above the bustling alpine town of Chamonix, France. Enjoy a morning
run, an afternoon run, and an all-day adventure run!
It was early summer in Boulder, Colorado when I got a call from my
Belgian cousin Nicole.
"Freddie, you've got to come to Belgium in early September for our big
family reunion." "Let me think me think about that for a while." was
my excuse of a reply -I'm not big on reunions
Eventually Nicole bribed me to come to the family reunion by agreeing
to drive me to my spiritual home of where I could indulge myself in
yet another adventure.
I can't seem to get enough of Chamonix. As a child growing up in
England, I was fascinated by the grand beauty of the Haute Savoie
region of the French Alps and the legendary climbers it produced. I
eventually parlayed my interest in mountain climbing into a lifelong
passion for adventure and spent my formative years in the Chamonix
valley. Since those days, I have been climbing , running , trekking
and skiing all over the world , but the small town at the base of
massive Mont Blanc is the place that keeps calling me back.
I'd been there the previous winter and climbed some superb classic
lines on the famous granite walls and frozen waterfalls , so I didn't
have the itch for some climbing this time around. But what to do in
the fall with a non-sporting cousin from Belgium? The answer was
simple - TRAIL RUNNING!
We drove to Chamonix the morning after the reunion in a 12-hour dash
from Antwerp. The final section of our road journey took us from
Martigny, Switzerland, over the Col des Montets and westward into the
Haute Savoie valley. This route contains the hamlets of Vallorcine, Le
Tour, Argentiere, Les Praz, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, Les Boissons and Les
Houches, all in a perfectly straight line.
Rain greeted us on the run down from the Col des Montets.
"Typical 'Cham' weather," I muttered over the click clack of the
windshield wipers as we pulled into our reserved hotel, Hotel L'Arve,
smack dab in the middle of town. Isabelle, the French girl at the
reception desk, was expecting us.
"Bon soir Freddie, would you like your normal room?" she inquired in
her native tongue.
It was good to be home.
"Come Nicole, as my running manager and photographer, let me buy you a
plate of local cheeses and sausages. Red or white wine?"
And so we stumbled into the Bumble Bee restaurant. One of the smaller
eateries, located on pedestrian Mill Street, the Bumble Bee is one of
my favorites because of the characters it attracts.
On that particular night we bumped into Dave Cumming, a Scottish
mountain guide affiliated with the prestigious G.D.H. M (Guides des
Haute Montagne). He was with clients, discussing the days ahead.
"Here again for more alpinism?" he asked.
"No, running, actually," I replied, and received a blank look from my
"Weather forecast?" I asked.
"Great for the next week," he confirmed.
Next morning, I called up another friend who calls this valley his
home, Stevie Haston, renowned ice climber and alpinist who is known
for his ideas and opinions.
"Hi Steve, we're here for the trail running. What's it like?"
"Man, like it's only the best place in the whole world for running,"
he replied enthusiastically. "It's Fantastic!" That evening, while
enjoying an excellent local dish of duck, along with some white wine,
I looked in wonderment through the picture windows of the restaurant
L'Atmosphere. With the glacier river L'Arve in full view I could
definitely see that Stevie was right: Chamonix was the best place on
earth for trail running.
Earlier, I had completed what was to be one of the more memorable runs
in my life, a 90-minute adventure from La Flegere (above the village
of Les Praz) to Plan Praz (below the mountain of Le Brevant, and
perched 3,000 feet directly above Chamonix)- but it was the scenery
that really took my breath away.
The run offered impressive views of
the mountains that make this region unique- the Aiguille Chardonnet
and Argentiere, the Pillar of the Dru below the lofty peak of the
Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses, and the majestic Mont Blanc
I had perfect running conditions, the kind you dream about: clear blue
skies, warm temperatures and a well-worn trail. It's an ideal trail
because you don't have to 'wreck' your knees with a lot of 'downhill'
and a restaurant is never more than an hour away.
The second day of running I chose the Grand Balcon Nord (Great North
Balcony Trail) from Montenvers to the Plan de l'Aiguille, and it
turned out to be a real trip down memory lane. I took the cowheel
train from Chamonix up to Montenvers Train Station and Restaurant that
offers a spectacular glimpse of Europe's longest glacier, the 3.5 mile
Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).
There amid the granite needles is where I cut my teeth as a climber
and honed my alpinist skills some 30 years ago. My mind wandered back
to the late 1960's and what inspired me so about this mecca of world-
renowned alpinism, adventure, legends, disasters, death, humor and
I remember the famous Burgess twins, Al and Aid, as they arrived at
the British base camp called the "Biolet". Fresh teenagers with big
ideas, they promptly told us which of all the hard routes they were
going to climb and in what order they were going to do them. And
because they were so good, they did just as they said they would.
Running under the Nantillons Glacier, I decided to pick up the pace.
It's an ominous and eerie place because the summits are often shrouded
in mist and clouds until midday and again in the early evening. Set at
the base of one of the world's greatest climbing ranges, it's a
delightful place to run-especially because there is little change in
elevation on the trail. But 25 years ago this place smelled of death,
and, quite frankly, it still makes me uneasy.
One time, I narrowly avoided being engulfed by an avalanche when large
ice blocks broke off several thousand feet overhead. Two years later,
I was involved in a full-scale rescue in the same place, only this
time it was at night and windy and very cold. I had been climbing in
the area but wound up loading survivors into a helicopter. There was
no room for me in the chopper, so I was left all alone on the glacier
with my pack and climbing gear and not much more.
Memories of that long, cold night sent a chill through my spine as I
negotiated the talus trail near the end of my 3.5mile run. On the
saddle below was the Plan de l'Aiguille cable car station at 7,620
feet, a favorite launching area for paraglider pilots. For me it was a
place to get a much-needed refreshment and a ride back down into town.
I had time for one more epic run before leaving town, so I headed for
the Eagle's Nest near the quite town of St. Gervais. The Eagle's Nest
is the last stop of the Tramway du Mont Blanc near the bottom of the
Bionnassay Glacier. Given that my legs were spent from my previous
runs I decided to ride the train to the top (7,825 feet) and run
downhill into the village of Les Houches (3,360 feet).
It was yet another gorgeously sunny day with spectacular scenery. But
the 6-mile run down seemed to fly by all too fast, perhaps because I
knew I was about to leave town. I soaked in the panoramic views and
clean, crisp air and began looking forward to a return trip where I
might run the lower-elevation trails through the lush valley floor.
As we drove out of the valley and headed north we compared notes.
Nicole had visited all the shops and made a list of her favorite
restaurants, made new friends and was ready to return as soon as
possible. My mind was full of running in the sky and memories of my
As with all my visits to Chamonix, this trip was all too brief. But
like the others, it left me yearning to return as soon as possible.
"Well would you believe it here comes the rain" said Nicole with a
smirk. "Typical Cham weather".
RUN 1: LA FLEGERE TO PLANPRAZ
Starts at the village of Les
Praz, 1060 m, a 15 to 20-minute walk from Chamonix. Option 1: A steep
run up a rough access road to La Flegere (1877 m) Option 2: Take the
cable car (one-way or as the French would say, "Aller" up to La
Flegere. The panorama from here will be with you for the whole of the
1 - 1.5 hours of the run. Starting at the west end of the range with
views of the Aguilles Chardonnet and Argentierre, the pillar of the
'Dru' below the lofty peak of the Aguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses
and the majestic Mont Blanc; all help to create the overall granduer
which makes this region unique.
From the cable car station head southwest on a superb trail along to
a downhill grooved trail with wooden steps and a handrail. From here
cross the Gliere Ravine, which is a little trickier. Stop here to
check out the magnificent views of the complete Mont Blanc Massif.
Onward, undulating, up and down, passing the Chalet Charlanon at 1812
m. Avoid the path down to Chamonix. Instead, follow a ledge system
that leads to the Charlanon ridge. Soon, the Altitude 2000 restaurant
is reached at Planpraz, with its telecabine or gondola offering you a
well-earned ride down into Chamonix.
Morning run gets the sun.
Option 1: 1060 to 1990 m (939 m gain); strenuous uphill running.
But, a magnificent run! This is part of the Balcon Sud, or South
Option 2: Little change in elevation.
RUN 2: MONTENVERS TO PLAN DE L'AIGUILLE
Begins and ends in Chamonix.
Take the train from the center of Chamonix up to Montenvers.
Here, there is a hotel, restaurant, ice grottos (for the tourist!) and
for everyone, the magnificent view of Europe's longest glacier, the
Mer de Glace (the Sea of Ice). There are many mountains here to keep a
mountaineer busy for a lifetime, but two that dominate are the
Aiguille des Drus just across the glacier and the mighty fortress of
the Grandes Jorasses at the head of the glacier.
Put your camera away, tie your jacket around your waist and get ready
for the Grand Balcon Nord (Great North Balcony Trail)!
The trail ascends past the nature museum (Temple de la Nature), upward
through tall grasses and plants, including rhododendron bushes and on
to Le Signal (also known as Signal de Forbes at 2198 m), which offers
startling views of the awe inspiring Nantillons Glacier up immediately
to your left. The Blatiere Glacier lies to the to southwest. Both of
these glaciers embrace one of the world's great climbing ranges,
namely the Chamonix Aiguilles (or Chamonix Needles) beginning with the
lowest and aptly named Aiguille de l'M on through the Grands Charmoz,
Grepon, Blatiere, Plan, and Peigne and culminating in the spectacular
Aiguille du Midi, complete with its summit cable car station and
High across the valley (to the southeast) lies the stark Aguille Rouge
Cross both glacier torrents and negotiate the well-travelled moraine
and talus trail before dropping down to the midway cable station of
Plan de l'Aiguille at 2310 m. From here, paraglider pilots have made
this take-off point their favourite launch area. Spend awhile, before
descending in the more usual manner, via the telepherique to Chamonix.
Summary: Afternoon run gets the sun. Little change in elevation.
Option: Can be run in either direction. Terrain differs from well-worn
trail to rocky steps and moraine. A great memorable run along the base
of one of the world's greatest climbing ranges. Ominous, even eerie
when the summits are shrouded in mist and cloud. This trail is known
as the Grand Balcon Nord (Great North Balcony Trail).
RUN # 3: THE EAGLE'S NEST
Leave from the quiet town of St.
Gervais - a 30-minute drive from Chamonix. Ends at Les Houches - 10
minutes from Chamonix by car. Without a car ride you will have to
check into using either a bus or train to the starting point.
Drive from Chamonix to Saint-Gervais-le Fayet (westward and just
outside of the valley). From here, the tramway du Mont Blanc train
takes you up into a magnificent region with a wide variety of options
presenting themselves to the adventurous trail runner! At the end of
its upward journey the train enters and leaves a small 'eye' in the
mountain and suddenly jolts to a stop - there is actually no more
railway line for it to travel on. You have arrived at the Eagles Nest
where there is a very small but excellent restaurant.
Option 1: Descend steeply alongside the railway tracks (loose gravel)
to the ridge at 1794 m. This is the Telepherique Summit Station for
Les Houches ski resort. Trend down northwards toward Belleface and
onto the village of Les Houches (1018 m). You will be on a rough
accesss road all the way. Check out the supermarket behind the tourist
informartion center. They frequently have on offer free samples of
Option 2: More strenuous. Run south, upwards to the north flank of the
Bionnassay Glacier. Zig zag down to the Chalets de l'Arc. Climb back
up (north) to join the railway ridge, then east to Col de Vorza (1659
m). Head northeast and down to Belleface and onto Les Houches.
Located in the Haute Savoie region of of the French Alps. Nearest
airportis Geneva Intenational Airport 100 km (60 miles) to the west.
Buses run regularly into Chamonix along the Autoroute Blanc. Chamonix
also has a bus and train station and is a good a good to get into
town. Car hire is essential for short stays.
Where to Stay :
1. Hotel L'Arve - tel (33) 4 50 53 02 31. email -
email@example.com 1. Centrally located. Excellent staff.
2. 'Gites' or hostels are a must if you are on a budget. They are very clean
with bunk style accommodation. Be prepared to share. Kitchen and cooking
facilities are available. Check with the Visistor Informatoin Centre - tel
(33) 4 50 53 00 24.
Where to Eat :
1. Le Bumble Bee on Mill Street. Very small. Affordable, simple dishes.
2. L'Atmosphere. Located downstairs just off the main square. Traditional
dishes served with style. Romantic ambiance. Ask for a table with a view of