My trip basically began the night of the 2018 Boston Marathon.
“There’s a pretty well-established trek that follows the UTMB course (the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) that’s really popular with European hikers. We’d run about 20 miles per day for five days, carry everything we need, and stay at little mountain chalets each night along the way. We could attempt the trek right before UTMB and then finish in Chamonix to watch the race kick-off.”
That was the pitch from my friend, Javier, and he clearly knew his audience well.
The TMB trek he was pitching checked so, so many boxes – it was an excuse to travel as a group to another exotic location (my Chicago/PDX crew has hit London, Berlin, Tokyo, Queretaro, MX, and Leadville), it brought us to a beautiful place that I’d been wanting to see for years (French, Swiss, and Italian Alps?!?!), and it incorporated trail running, adventure, and seeing a race I’d also dreamed about for a long time.
And because we’d be carrying everything needed for five days and 104 miles (other than food and shelter), having EXACTLY the right gear was important as ever.
I’m a bit of a gear nut, so the packing aspect of this trip spoke deeply to my core. My mental checklist of what to bring and, equally important for a trip like this, what to exclude immediately began to assemble.
The problem with traveling light for a trip like this is that mountain running means the weather can shift suddenly and violently, requiring gear for 2-3 seasons. Rain, wind, and sudden temperature drops are serious factors and packing too lightly can be straight-up dangerous.
In the end, I was very happy with the gear I chose to bring (bulleted out below), and everything performed really well. But there were a few MVPs that I wanted to share more detail about.
First – trekking poles. Oh-my-sweet-fancy-MOSES, trekking poles. It’s really tough to overstate how big of an impact these bad boys had on my trip. They basically turn any uphill climb into a staircase climb where you can use handrails to pull yourself up. No science behind this, but I’d estimate a 20-30% workload reduction for your legs when using these properly (which isn’t difficult, but takes some practice).
Our first day was 27 miles with about 9,500 feet of gain, so that 20-30% reduction (again, unscientific) is absolutely massive – especially when you have four days of running and climbing to follow. The poles I linked to above are definitely pricey, but I can’t recommend them strongly enough.
The other MVP I wanted to share has actually been an MVP gear item on countless hiking, fishing, camping, trail running, marathon running, and other outdoor adventures – BUFF®️. BUFF®️ products are lightweight, they provide warmth, sun protection, wind protection, and sweat management, and they also can help regulate heat when soaked in a river and worn around the neck (this last one has been huge). They pack down to nothing, weigh almost nothing, and are one of those pieces of gear that contribute across the board.
I usually travel with like five BUFF®️ products (because I’m ridiculous), but this time I had to limit my stash to an orange BibRave-branded BUFF®️ Original, their new DryFlx Neckwarmer, and their NEW Original BUFF®️.
The BUFF®️ Original multi-function headwear is their bread and butter, but oh man, it’s so much better now! The New Original BUFF®️ is WAY softer, it features a much more resilient four-way stretch (OG BUFF®️ only had two-way stretch horizontally, not vertically). The New Original also absorbs sweat just as well, and still protects from wind and sun (UPF 50+). And the coolest part is, each New Original BUFF®️ is made from 95% recycled materials, including two recycled plastic water bottles!
I also got to sample the DryFlx, which offers a 360-degree, high-visual, reflective pattern for increased visibility (safety first). It’s made from a super lightweight, thermally efficient fabric that pulled double duty keeping me warm and protected, but never overheated. Seriously loved the lightweight but protective fabric on this new model, and it also features the heightened comfort of the four-way stretch (that’s me in the DryFlx on the left, and a jealous, onlooking local on the right).
The Trip and a Few Curve Balls
Unfortunately, Jessica and I both had deaths in the family (her paternal grandfather, my paternal grandmother) which caused our trips to be cut short so that we could attend the funerals, Jess in Taipei and me in Wisconsin.
In the end, we both had to leave the group on Wednesday and we only got to participate in two out of the five days. But I was able to log 50 of the 104 miles so I still got to experience a ton of the majesty that is the TMB.
Before the early departure from the group, however, our initial trek began from our hotel in Les Houches (pronounced, at least by me, as “Lezooosh”) and took us in the same direction as the UTMB. As I mentioned, the first day was a bruiser with 9,300 feet of gain, about 8,700 feet of loss and 27 miles – so our legs really took a pounding right out of the gate. We ran for about 10-12 miles stopped for lunch in the glorious little town, Les Contamines-Montjoie (below), fueled up and pressed on.
We completed the rest of the day’s run/hike/climb/march in about 10 hours.
That night was a bit stressful because four members of our group finished the day at about 7pm, while two others were quite a bit behind and were unlikely to finish before dark. That created a scenario where they could be without natural light at the end of a very challenging day, without food or water (both would be gone by that point), a filter, or a headlamp. Yeah.
So while the four of us cautiously ate our dinner at the chalet (or “rifugio”) and emotionally and mentally prepared to go back out on the cold, dark trail after an already huge day, the two other members of our team suddenly walked in and put all of our worries to rest. It was a pretty tense end to a very challenging day, but the happy reunion was a great end to the day.
The next day we started early on what Javier assured us would be “almost completely downhill” or flat hike into Courmayeur, Italy. But we actually started the day with a 3,000 foot climb! We weren’t stoked about more climbing at that point, but we were rewarded by another spectacular view of Mont Blanc and probably the most amazing sunrise of my life as we crossed into Italy.
We eventually did start to descend and it became a very aggressive downhill descent into Courmayeur that featured about 4,000 feet of loss. We at a sumptuous Italian lunch, and ran the remaining 6-7 miles to my and Jess’ last rifugio. We spent the night, said goodbye to the rest of our group, and made our way back to Courmayeur, to Chamonix, to Les Houches, Geneva, and then parted ways for Wisconsin and Taiwan.
We were definitely sad to cut our trip short, but I’m really hoping to go back next year. Our friend Matt is on the waiting list for his second 100 miler of the year, and if he gets in and completes the race, he’d have enough points to run UTMB in 2019! The race doesn’t allow pacers, but he’ll definitely need a crew… and it turns out my August is WIDE open 😏.
- BibRave BUFF® Original, DryFlx, NEW Original BUFF® (last two not pictured – I got them right before the trip)
- Knockaround Sunnies – LOVED
- Ultimate Direction Fastpack 15 (Orange, obv)
- Black Diamond Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles
- BibRave Cap (out of stock ☹️)
- Nike Terra Kiger 3s (N/A)
- Patagonia Nano Puff
- 2 t-shirts (BibRave t-shirt), 2 shorts, 1 pair pants, one long-sleeve Patagonia
- BibRave water bottle, and (not pictured), an older version of this 500ml hydrapak soft flask, filled up at water stations along the way
- Balega and Wigwam socks
- Miscellaneous sunblock, toothbrush, nail clippers, Pjur Active blister prevention,
- Salomon lightweight jacket
- Teva Sandals
- Zensah Gloves