Taking on the Chamonix vertical kilometre

Last weekend saw the 2019 staging of the Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometre. Here, Paul Halford recounts his 66 exhausting and tense minutes taking on the ascent last year with UCPA trail running camp

I’m gripping a steel cable and pulling my legs on to the next stone, then the next... wishing my lower limbs were just an inch longer while not daring to look down to see how far I could fall. 

‘How did I end up here?’ I ask myself. Me: the person who usually runs away from thrills rather than seek them out; the man who had even been slightly nervous coming down the same mountain the previous day in the relative safety of a cable car. 

Yet here I am, climbing a staggering 1000m of ascent in just 3.8km of distance without a safety rope.

This is the famous Chamonix Vertical Kilometre, a lung-bursting, nerve-jangling trail route from the town centre to Planpraz gondola station. It’s another rite of passage in my initiation into trail running, in the valley that almost seems to have been created especially for it (although skiers may beg to differ).

After two days of relatively non-technical trail running on a trip arranged by Action Outdoors and UCPA, we were told the night before that day three would be a little different.

When not gaining 1km in height over a 3.8km distance, there was plenty of time to enjoy the views around Chamonix on the UCPA trail running camp

When not gaining 1km in height over a 3.8km distance, there was plenty of time to enjoy the views around Chamonix on the UCPA trail running camp

After a short bus journey from the UCPA hostel in Argentière to Chamonix, the seven of us warm up at the running track and jog to the Place du Triangle de L’Amitié. Just 11 days earlier, this square was packed with spectators as the finish line of the annual UTMB. It’s from here that the official Mont Blanc Vertical KM takes place each June, in the build-up to the Marathon Mont Blanc, although many runners take it on off their own backs, as we did.

Perhaps the language barrier is to blame, but I’m totally unprepared for what happens next. About all I know is this is going to be incredibly steep. After all, to be classed as an official vertical kilometre, a course needs to rise 1000m within a space of 5km or less; this had that ascent within only 3.8km. That’s a quad-crushing 26.3% gradient.

The first suggestion this may get my heart racing more out of fear than exertion comes when our guide, Ludo, tells me (the only English speaker) to be careful as it can be slippy at the top and there is a metal wire and ladder at various stages. ‘Is it too late to back out?’, I ask myself

Before I can answer, we’re off. It’s not a race but I do have a competitive streak, and I tag along with top-class trail runner Ludo, who leads the way while the others sensibly save their energy. The first half a mile is entirely on the road, gently ascending before we turn on to the trail, which zigzags relentlessly for the next two miles.

As Ludo speeds off ahead, I settle into a rhythm of running the zig and walking the zag, with hands on knees except for when waving at incredulous cable car passengers passing just overhead. But
I soon need my hands for scrambling along boulders as the trail disappears. This I hadn’t bargained on, although it is nothing compared to what follows.

Eventually, the cable car station comes into view, although I sense the hardest bits are to come. Steel cables periodically nailed into the rocks and, on a couple of occasions, short, totally upright ladders rack my nerves like nothing before.

There is no turning around as I know going back down would be far more dangerous. I would later discover that, just three months earlier, an English hiker had died after a fall of just 10m while descending this route.

You would never have persuaded me to go rock climbing. Yet this is effectively what I’m doing, albeit of low-grade technicality, under the guise of ‘running’. And as if this isn’t bad enough, certain leg muscles are severely cramping up.

Yet I don’t feel how I’d expect to in such a situation. I can’t afford to think about how scared I am as I’m far too busy trying not to fall. 

After what seems like forever (actually it was 66 minutes from the bottom), I arrive at the top, legs and hands covered in scratches. Ludo has been there waiting for 20 minutes. 

To put my effort into perspective, Britain’s Jacob Adkin won last year’s Mont Blanc Vertical on this route in 34 minutes. My time would have put me behind 300-odd of the 500 or so finishers. It will remain my PB as
I don’t intend to it again...

Had I known what I was letting myself in for, I perhaps wouldn’t have done it. But then again, looking down to the distant town we had climbed from, the satisfaction of accidentally becoming a skyrunner is a sensation that makes the white-knuckle ascent worthwhile.

The UCPA trail running camp

Working at Trail Running, I’m often teased with the question of whether I might run the UTMB one day. However, given my disastrous inability when it comes to ground that is anywhere near technical, I have tended to rule it out.

However, on day two of my recent trail camp in the Chamonix Valley with Action Outdoors and UCPA, we ran nine miles over a tiny part of the UTMB course. The scenery was, of course, amazing and I started to think maybe completing the UTMB wouldn’t be out of the question after all. As we ran from Argentière, a village just outside Chamonix, the terrain was, in general, very runnable.

But 24 hours later it was a different story. Setting off from Plan de l’Aiguille at 2200m elevation, straight away it was much stonier and, although not nearly as technical as your average fell race, I was soon picking my way down the mountain like Bambi. The others, probably a little slower than me over firmer ground, were eventually well ahead, nowhere in sight. Such was my novice technique, I used just as much (or more) energy than them, getting nowhere. Concentrating hard on every stone, I couldn’t avoid using my body to reduce my speed.

It was a relief when we reached Mer de Glace, France's largest glacier, for some sightseeing in an ice cave.

All in all, the three days provided a reminder of how extremely tough the UTMB would be, but it was also wonderful to see the many sides of trail running in the Chamonix Valley. 

From the easier trails we encountered on day one, where we could fully appreciate the scenic backdrops, to the more testing ground on day three where we had moments now and again to take in the mindblowing vistas, this trip’s scope was wide-ranging.

ABOUT UCPA

Thanks to French non-profit organisation UCPA and UK partner Action Outdoors, it’s easier and cheaper than you might think to run in this very exclusive area.

They organise all-inclusive activity holidays with everything taken care of: from equipment such as hiking poles to lift passes, food and guides.

Although there were only around 15 in our running group, around 100 action junkies trying various sports stayed at the UCPA hostel in Argentière that week and activities stretched into the evening, too, with organisers laying on entertainment at the bar to help create a social, multinational atmosphere. 

See more details at www.action-outdoors.co.uk or click here for pricing details.

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