Double espresso, apricot almond pastries, pistachio gelato, wood-fired pizza, cheese fondue, wine, good friends, and oh yeah–some of the most stunning mountainous terrain in the world. It’s hard not to fall in love with the Mont Blanc region of Europe the minute you step off the plane in Geneva. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to return to this, one of my favorite corners of the world, thanks to Columbia Sportswear. We were there to not only test gear from Columbia’s new Spring ’17 line, but to also get a taste of the trails featured in the legendary Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) ultra trail running race where Columbia is the main sponsor.
Held every August, the UTMB prides itself on being the one outdoor event that everybody dreams of participating in at least once in their lifetime. Even I, not the most brilliant trail runner, had visions of teaming up to run the 290 kilometer PTL race by the end of our trip.
The full UTMB suite of events includes 5 races around the Mont Blanc Massif, ranging in distance from 55 kilometers to 290 kilometers. Each year, over 7500 runners from 87 different countries descend on Chamonix during the last week of August to take part in the races. The premiere event is of course the UTMB itself, starting and ending in Chamonix, covering 170 kilometers of trails and 10,000 meters elevation gain (and loss!) through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While the fastest runner will complete the course in around 21 hours, the average runner finishes in about 30 hours, with a maximum time set at 46.5 hours for safety. To simply finish is to win. There is no prize apart from bragging rights at the pub.
Even though this event is technically a race, it’s more about runner versus the mountains rather than runner versus runner. The 2000+ volunteers and innumerable spectators also play an important part–each time you cross a border the spirit changes, with each community along the course coming out to support the runners (day and night) and show their pride in their beautiful corner of the world.
For those that may not wish to blaze past all this epic scenery is less than a day or two, hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a popular way to experience the exact same trails at a more leisurely pace. And a well established network of alpine huts mean you don’t have to carry extraordinary amounts of gear. At the end of each day, you are guaranteed a warm meal, cold beer, sometimes a shower (though not always warm!), and dry bed. What could be more civilized than that?
There are over 50 huts to choose from on the TMB, spanning the three countries of France, Switzerland, and Italy. Depending on the mileage you want to do each day, the route should take you 7-10 days, staying at one of the mountain huts along the way or down in one of the charming towns you pass through along the route such as Courmayeur or Chamonix. Up to 40 of the huts are reservable online, making it easy to plan your trip in advance and guarantee a place to sleep at night.
During our trip, we had the opportunity to experience three different huts–two of which are on the TMB. Rifugio Bonatti was by far my favorite–amazing view across to the Grandes Jorasses, delicious food, and modern, roomy facilities. Rifiguio Maison Vieille was the most fun. The main house features a dining area packed to the gills with a variety of weird paraphernalia where the Italian folk rock band L’Orage played for us all night. Copious amounts of wine meant that it didn’t matter we had to sleep with 15 of our closest friends in the adjacent bunk house.
If you want to hike the TMB for yourself, here is some of the gear you will need:
Trail Pursuit 40L Backpack ($179): You don’t need to carry a tent, cooking supplies, or lots of extra gear, so a 40L pack is more than enough. While the backpack itself is water-repellent, the integrated rain fly comes in handy for the inevitable rain shower sometime along the route. I like the simple, lid-free roll top closer with a zippered front pocket great for storing maps and quick access items like snacks, headlamp, hat and gloves. The padded back panel and cushioning shoulder straps make for a comfortable carry.
Rain Gear: While you will have to wait until next spring to get the new OutDry Extreme ECO shell, you can bring the OutDry Extreme Gold jacket ($175) and pants ($150) with you this summer. Fully waterproof and breathable, these pieces will keep you dry both inside and out.
Conspiracy Titanium OutDry Trail Shoes ($135): Comfortable out of the box, these waterproof hikers give you the support you need for mile after mile, day after day. The high traction outsole delivers great grip on everything from loose rock, mud, and even snow to scrambling up steeper terrain.
Columbia Titan Peak Pant ($80): Some of the best fitting and most flattering hiking pants around. They offer UPF 40 sun protection and are quick drying in case you should get caught out in the rain or want to give them a quick wash at one of the huts.
Hut Attire: You want something dry to change into at night and these Brooklyn Bay Capris ($65) are super comfortable for lounging or sleeping.
Hiking Shirt: I love the Spring ’17 Titan Ice Hoodie ($85) for cooling, long-sleeve sun protection but any of the current Titan Ice shirts are perfect for hiking through the warm day sun–they help cool you off as you sweat but are moisture-wicking enough to ensure you don’t get cold once you stop.
Hat and Gloves: You will want a cap for the day and a warm hat for night at higher elevations. Gloves are also a bonus for those cold morning starts. I absolutely love the Northwest Trucker Caps from Sunday Afternoons.
Sleeping Bag: Unless you are ok with sleeping on who-knows-the-last-time-it-has-been-cleaned mattresses and blankets, you will want a lightweight bag for the huts. The Mountain Hardwear Down Flip 35/50 ($180) features a semi-rectangular shape for more relaxed sleeping and has more down fill on one side than the other, so you can flip it according to the temperature.
Headlamp: In case you get stuck out on the trail after dark or for those middle of the night bathroom breaks.
BioLite SolarPanel 5+ ($80): Some of the huts have WiFi so you can stay in touch on the trail but charging outlets can be sparse. Hook this lightweight solar panel to the back of your pack during the day and charge your phone from the integrated battery at night.
LEKI Micro Vario Carbon Poles ($200): Many Europeans trail run using poles and with a route that features tons of up and down, your knees will thank you if you use them. Learn how to stash your poles quickly through your shoulder strap–“Cham style”–for those times you might need to use both hands to scramble up a rock or via ferrata.
Tour du Mont Blanc Guidebook: Cicerone makes the absolute best guidebook for hiking the TMB, including variants and day excursions.