Trail Running in Chamonix France

published in:
Trail Runner Magazine Sept/Oct 2000


Running Home•••
An Adventurer Returns to Chamonix to get Grounded

By Freddie Snalam : Photos by Freddie Snalam and Nicole de Brabander

© 2001 Alpine World

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 Scottish friend.

"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.

above_Cham 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 (15,771 feet).

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 life.

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 ChamEaglesNest 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 youth.

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".

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 Balcony Trail.

Option 2: Little change in elevation.

Begins and ends in Chamonix. Cham_Mtns 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 restaurant. High across the valley (to the southeast) lies the stark Aguille Rouge range. 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).

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 wine!

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.

Chamonix :
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 - 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 the river.

Cable car/train prices
Aguille du Midi Plan d l'Aguille $10 o/w
$13 rt
Brevent Planpraz $7 o/w
$8.50 rt
La Flegere Les Praz - La Flegere $6.50 o/w $8.50 rt
Montenvers Train $8.75 o/w
$11.50 rt
Mont Blanc Tramway $13.50 o/w
$19.50 rt

© 2001 Alpine World