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Photo: Dan Kullberg
Photo: Dan Kullberg

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Try speed hiking on Mount Blanc

There’s a lot to see in the Alps. If you want to cover greater distances and see more, speed hiking – a cross between backpacking and trail running – is the perfect option.

The path from Argentière runs through the forest landscape towards the steep mountain side. The bees are buzzing. My thighs are burning, and Dan, my photographer, tells me I'm not alone in that. Also, our water bottles are becoming lighter.

A few climbers are sitting enjoying a cup of coffee on a peaked, vertical cliff formation alongside the path that continues with vertical iron steps.
Suddenly an avalanche of rocks dislodged by climbers higher up the mountain crash onto the path below us. That could have been disastrous.

A mountain goat balances proudly on a rock, almost within touching distance. However, its long horns dissuade us from a closer look. Below us, the mountain seems to curve in on itself. It is a case of keeping your nerve and your foothold on the 20cm wide rocky ledge that forms the path. Then the rain and wind arrive. A large boulder offers some protection, but the cold penetrates under our skin. Time to get our legs moving again.

Running in the sky

Photo: Dan KullbergThe sky clears and the running trail down towards La Flégère looks breathtakingly beautiful against the magnificent backdrop of Mont Blanc. This is our reward for all the hard work getting here. This is the euphoria of mountain running. The pathways are packed in the Chamonix valley. Like us, many people are dressed in running gear, with walking poles and lightweight running backpacks. The less you carry, the easier it is to enjoy mountains. That’s the philosophy of speed hiking.

And for those who want to take it to extremes, there’s Skyrunning – mountain running at altitudes above 2,000m, with an incline of 30% or above. Emelie Forsberg, a Swede who lives in Chamonix, is the Skyrunning World Champion. She spends as much time as she can running with a light pack.

 “I love running for a day with a small backpack containing just a change of clothes, a packed lunch and a credit card so I can check into one of the many mountain cabins dotted around the area here. The sense of freedom you get from moving freely in running shoes and a small pack is indescribably delicious.”

A post-hike beer in fine company

From La Flégère, we make our way along the high and more technically demanding path to Col de  Brevent. Rapid French pensioners march unburdened along the narrow paths that snake along the sheer drops. The views are breath-taking, heavenly even. We also encounter happy students and one or two speed hikers along the trail. The final stretch before the summit feels somewhat carefree, but our water bottles have long been empty. Running from the summit to the valley is a 1,500m drop that gives your thigh muscles a glorious burn. We pass a heavily laden hiker heading upwards. He grunts and groans with his heavy pack.

We round off our run with a well-earned beer on the square in Chamonix, alongside the famous statue of the first men to conquer Mont Blanc: Dr Paccard and a hunter called Balmat. The year was 1786, and it would mark the beginning of the golden era of Alpinism. The thermometer shows 28°C. Climbers, hikers, runners, and walking tourists enjoy the last of the summer warmth. As usual, the day ends with the Aiguilles Rouges (Red Peaks) turning red.

 

Text: Fredrik Ölmqvist

 

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