Monday, September 17, 2012

After the TDG

Looking toward Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) from the Italian side
The day after Beat finished the Tor des Geants, he was predictably wrecked. Also predictable, for a person whose body had carried him so far over so many days, was the way he didn't fully believe he was done. One minute he'd be scheming about running 22 miles out and back to the iced-over pass that the TDG skipped, and the next he'd unintentionally doze off over an empty pizza plate. In making travel plans, we'd opted to stay through Sunday's awards ceremony. So we had two more days in Italy. Although to a much lesser extent than Beat, I was feeling fairly worn down myself. But, like Beat, I figured my body had handled these daily mountain outings just fine thus far. Why wouldn't I be able to continue indefinitely?

Before we came to Italy, I had ambitions to fast-trek the Tour du Mont Blanc trail on my own over three days. I only planned to do this if Beat ended his race several days early — mostly because the minimal support I could provide Beat in the Tor des Geants was more important to me. Not that he really needed it — but I did hate the idea of not being available if things went bad out there. So I never did get to see that much of the TMB route during this trip, but on Saturday I set out to explore a small section from Courmayeur, traveling toward France. My legs felt sluggish, and there were flashes of muscle pain and cramping in the first steep miles up to Delorme. As I climbed, I revised my expectations to the Maison Vielle refuge, only about three miles and 2,500 feet of climbing from Courmayeur. I was going to turn around after that. But as I gained elevation, the day revealed itself as the most perfect kind of bluebird — warm and brilliantly clear. Sunshine and mountains are really the purest source of energy there is.

Although I've only seen sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, and even then mostly in fog and night, I have to say — this has to be one of the best sections of the whole route. A long, rolling traverse crossed the slopes above a glacier valley. It was blissfully runnable, which I tried despite cramping legs, and also bikeable. I think I actually started drooling when this guy rolled by — as much as I love hiking and running, wheels still hold the deepest affection in my heart. I mean, look at that — all that scenic singletrack. The trail was deceptively steep, and it would be a tough ride. But maybe someday I'll come back with a bike.

I crossed up and over L'Arp Sup Vielle and chatted with a two men from New Zealand who claimed they were on a "weight loss trip" and that the abundance of French food along the TMB wasn't helping them in their quest. "Wait until you go through Italy. Italians make really amazing food," I replied. "Don't tell us that!" they proclaimed. They were also noticeably distraught when I told them the gondola down from Delorme didn't appear to be running that day. "You mean we have to hike the whole ten kilometers into Courmayuer?" they moaned. Funny guys.

I wasn't ready to be done just yet but didn't want to descend too far on the TMB, so I cut over on a side trail that continued climbing up the ridge, even though I had no idea where it went. I thought I might climb about 500 feet to a better viewpoint. But the trail kept going up, and became continuously more rugged. Eventually I was crawling across boulders above 8,500 feet elevation and thought, "Huh. I must be climbing a mountain."

Mont Fortin was the name of the mountain, a little peak at a modest 9,050 feet elevation — little, but rugged. The route, marked with yellow paint, wrapped around the boulder field on a steep face, still ice-slicked despite the rapidly warming temperatures. Some of the terrain left me a little sketched out, and I nearly turned back three times. But if I looked around, I always I figured out a better way around the obstacle that was tripping me up, and continued to the top. The panoramic views were worth it.

Enjoying the last of my Reeses Peanut Butter Cups at the top. Of the six packs I brought with me to Europe, I saved these for a special occasion.

The ruins of a stone building, possibly a former refuge or bivouac on a ledge atop Mont Fortin.

An equally tempting traverse down into the next valley over. If I had a map with me and had a clue where it went, I likely would have taken it.

So many incredible views. Since I told Beat I was going to go for a short hike and now looked like I'd be out for nearly seven hours, I texted him with this as an excuse.

I had to return to the sketchy traverse on the way back down. There were only a few fields of snow left on the mountain, but they were rock-hard ice and any falls, while not fatal, would have really hurt. I took my time.

Then back down the TMB. I tried to run to make up time, but the legs were angry with me again. Still, I was bursting with energy. Mountains and sun. That's all I need (and peanut butter cups.)

Courmayeur to Mont Fortin, round-trip distance: 17.2 miles
Total climbing: 6,829 feet
Total time: 6:37


  1. Jill, the section of trail from crossing the Arete du Mont Favre to Col Checrouit is my favourite stretch of the TMB and the UTMB course, and its gently downhill in the "normal" direction.

    I ran this in early July in perfect weather. I had to do some maths crossing the Arete and realised I needed to rush to make sure I got the 1.45 pm bus to Cham. The views are so astonishing that I felt no pain, even closing in on 45 miles in 2 days.

    That photo of the chap on the bike brought it all flooding back.



  2. Hi Jill, the ruins a the top of Mt. Fortin are those of a small military outpost. It was built in late XIX century, then destroyed during WWII. The Seigne are has seen a lot of warfare over the centuries, mainly between France and Italy.
    It's way better to reach the Fortin via the Col des Chavannes. From the summit you can go directly to Courmayeur via col du Berrio Blanc, col Youla, col Arp then reversing the very first section of the TdG

  3. I love the second photo in your post (mountains with purple flowers in the foreground). I want to frame that and hang it in my house. So beautiful.

  4. Aah, we share the same addictions: "Mountains and sun. That's all I need (and peanut butter cups.)"

  5. Morgan, of course I'd love to see more of the TMB someday. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Luca, thanks for sharing the history of those ruins. It's incredible to me how old some of those buildings are. I've only lived in the western United States, and I almost forget that there are mountain communities in the world whose history dates back before mining and tourism. It's sad to think of all the medieval architecture that was destroyed during WWII. Also thanks for the route info. Next time I will arm myself with a better map and info to explore more ground. I hope to visit again next year!

    Missy, if you want a larger digital file to print out I can e-mail one to you. Just contact me at

  6. I need to get back to the Alps someday, although there's a lot of places I'd still like to see for the first time, so who knows if I ever will.

    These pictures are especially interesting to me because I'm reading Ab Urbe Condita by T. Liuius, which is a history of Rome, and I'm now at the part where Hannibal is crossing the Alps.

  7. @Jill: the best map (by far and large) for the Italian side of MB is "Courmayeur - Monte Bianco" 1:25K published by "L'Escursionista". Can be bought in the bookshop near the church square or in any most of the tobacco shops. Updated every couple of years, very detailed etc. Everything else is somehow less useful

    @Cumulus: They used to think that Hannibal had crossed the Alps quite close to the Seigne (at the Petit St. Bernard), but now the consensus is that the most likely spot is a col above the town on Susa, near Turin (so more south than that)

  8. You are really making me jealous with all your great pictures of all that beautiful scenery!


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