Lessons 1-4: Self-guided Fastpacking
In August 2017, a friend and I took our passion for trail running to Europe’s most popular mountain trek – Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) – for a self-guided hut-to-hut fastpacking adventure. Ten lessons we learned from our experience will be covered in a series of three blog posts and will cover the fastpacking style of trekking, route finding, lodging, gear, and life on the TMB.
Lesson 1: Fastpacking is Slower than Trail Running
“Jeez! Who turned up the gravity?” I said to Brian, as we slogged away from our hostel in Chamonix. Our 20-liter packs contained extra clothes, toiletries, sleeping liners, rain gear, and snacks for five days on the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). I’m used to carrying only a water bottle and a couple of energy gels on my trail runs. This is going to be harder than I thought!
The air was saturated in residual cool mist from a rainstorm that dumped 1.5 inches overnight. By habit, we skirted around street puddles on our way out of Chamonix, though we knew muddy footing would be unavoidable in our near future.
Fastpacking – combined mountain running and backpacking – is gaining popularity as the backpacking gear available now is ultra-light. Fastpacking purists carry camping gear and all their food for multiple days in the wilderness. Brian and I would spend our nights in mountain huts with hot showers, meals and wine. Without the extra food and camping gear, our packs weighed only 12-14 pounds including 2 liters of water. Our style for TMB was “fastpacking light.”
We settled into an easy trot along the River Arve toward Les Houches. The river was swollen and raging with runoff from the recent storm. I mentally struggled to come to terms with our sluggish “running” pace until I noticed we were flying by traditional backpackers bogged down to their boots with three times the bulk of our load.
Les Houches was barely awake when we arrived. We strolled past shops that were locked up tight with darkened windows and the only people we saw on the streets were other hikers. Thick dark clouds hung low against the mountains obscuring the peaks from our view. A gusty breeze blew up from the river making my skin prickly with goosebumps. Like characters in a cartoon ,we were led down a set of stairs by our noses toward the aroma of fresh-baked pastries.
We entered a tiny café and our mid-run espresso obsession was born.
Lesson 2: Faster isn’t Always Better
Brian had done the prestigious 105-mile Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race several years prior to our trip. In UTMB, competitive runners do the entire route in one continuous effort.
“That is so cool! It must have been incredibly beautiful!” I said to him. What a huge accomplishment!
His response went something like this: “I didn’t really see much of it. The start was at 6 p.m. . . . I ran through two nights . . . it poured rain the first six hours . . . had to duct tape my blisters . . .”
Wait . . . did he say “didn’t really see much of it”?
Tour du Mont Blanc is touted as one of the most beautiful trekking circuits in the world. Craggy mountain peaks with glaciers etched between, milky blue-green lakes and streams, charming alpine villages, and Mont Blanc in center stage make every segment of the route picturesque.
For years, TMB had been on my bucket list. Brian needed to go back and see it in daylight. We had done a handful of traveling and running adventures together and knew we would make a good team.
Most TMB guides recommend hiking the circuit in 9-17 days. The elite UTMB runners do it in less than 20 hours. Somewhere in the middle of that range is the ideal time span for every hiker’s ability level.
We could average 20 miles per day by hiking up and running down the hills and have plenty of extra daylight hours to explore towns, take pictures, deal with foul weather, or take accidental detours. Five days, 105 miles, seemed like a leisurely pace for us.
Lesson 3: Plan Your Route Before Beginning TMB
We stood at the trail intersection and pondered our options.
“That jeep road straight up the ski mountain is part of the UTMB,” said Brian, “I remember that.”
While waiting for Brian to confirm our route, a chestnut-colored horse with a blond mane strolled toward me and nuzzled my outstretched hand. Her mane was parted over her forehead, reminding me of a hairstyle I wore in junior high school.
“Hey, Brian, this is what I would look like if I was a horse!”
“Um hm.” He was hunched over the map on his phone, pinching the screen with his fingers.
“This sign says TMB goes there,” I said pointing up the road that Brian remembered from the race. Seems obvious to me!
“Yeah, but I think we want to go that way.” He gestured the opposite direction where another post stood with signs pointing four directions.
My gaze followed the direction of his gesture beyond the immediate trails. Snowy blue mountains peeked out from low drifting clouds offering a shifting view of the mountain range across the valley. I could sit and watch this forever.
We jogged over to the other sign post and discovered three directions to choose from – all marked as TMB or some variant. Hikers whom we had passed 20 minutes earlier breezed past us and headed up the TMB variant trail Brian had pointed to earlier.
The “variant” label shook our confidence. We should have done more research on the route before we left home. Many hikers we met carried Kev Reynold’s book The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide. We skimmed through a copy over dinner our first night at Refugé de Nant Borrant and learned about our upcoming variant options.
Of course, UTMB followed more jeep roads and passed through more villages than the classic TMB, so support crews would have easy access to racers. We preferred to be on single track as much as possible and liked the option to skip running on roads through civilization.
Once we surveyed our choices in Reynold’s book, our confidence and decisiveness at trail intersections improved.
Maps.me offline maps application shows all the trails – one time we veered off our planned route and were relieved to see that our path linked back up to TMB. Potable water fountains in and near villages are also symbolized on maps.me, which is helpful for calculating how much water to carry.
Lesson 4: Descending is just as Fatiguing as Ascending
“Oh cool, more climbing! How lucky are we?” I said when we rounded a bend in the trail and saw yet another ridiculously steep rocky climb ahead of us. The switchbacks were twisted tight with loose rocky footing. I teetered on the verge of tumbling backward. Slumped over my trekking poles, I glanced back at Brian just as he snapped a photo of me.
“Stop it!” I cried and started to laugh. How can I possibly be whining? The forest was peaceful, and we heard cowbells in the distance.
When poring over the maps and elevation charts in a coffee shop back home, we had chosen this segment through Switzerland to be our biggest mileage day – a full marathon – because vertical climbing would be less than the other days.
The math made sense, but we neglected to factor in how thrashed our legs would feel after running 3000 feet of descent on sweeping switchbacks from Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly first thing in the morning. The weight on our backs added to the punishment of our legs. Our plan looked so much easier on paper than it felt on the trail . . .
TMB undulates – 33,000 feet of climbs and descents – and subjects you to all kinds of surfaces: rocky, smooth, steep, gently sloping, muddy, and pavement. Rain can make slopes slippery and arduous. Flat stretches are few and far between on TMB!
Follow my blog for notification of Part 2 about our colorful experience in the Refugés (huts), and Part 3 for travel and gear tips.