My dad drops Jeff Browning and me off at Notre Dame de la Gorge at 7:30am. We’re running to Courmayeur to preview part of the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) course. It rained constantly the day before, leaving the ground heavily saturated, the air thick and humid. The valley is enveloped in a blanket of fog.
We jog down the creek path at an easy pace, chatting about the weather and the route ahead. It’s misting, the sky undecided whether to clear or to pour. The higher peaks are powdered with a dusting of snow. We’re anticipating a cold ascent over to the refuge de La Croix du Bonhomme. The inclement weather has cleared the trails of most of the hikers. We see but a handful of people on the climb, a rarity in such a popular and easily accessible area.
This is Jeff’s first time in the Alps. I try to share with him what I know of the course, giving lengthy, overly detailed descriptions of what lies ahead. He practices pronunciation of essential vocabulary for traveling in the French Alps such as croissant chaud and café au lait. Such works will come in handy for ordering luxurious alternatives to the typical energy foods at the mountains refuges.
The wide track gradually narrows and steepens as we near the top of the first climb. The clouds are beginning to lift offering glimpses of the majesty of the Mont Blanc massif. We talk less now, both fully absorbed in our surroundings, as we plummet down towards Les Chapieux, a refuge that marks the 50km point on the UTMB course. The track is covered in shale mixed with mud, a nice tacky texture, which is all the more pleasant as we pick up speed.
A herd of sheep stare insipidly at us, in textbook conformity, as we bound by in our colourful clothing. We make a quick stop to refill our water from the fountain in Les Chapieux before the gradual paved climb towards La Ville des Glaciers and the Col de La Seigne.
With the weather gradually improving, our enthusiasm is on the rise, further heightened by encountering numerous other friends, out and about, running by in the other direction.
There’s a wonderful simplicity, an essential quality, that comes from moving swiftly and lightly across such terrain. I love being in the mountains and occasionally, I find my ability meets the challenge that they offer and my experience is filled with nothing but pure joy.
Today is such a day, where I am not just moved by the landscape, but the mood is also exactly right. It’s an intangible feeling, difficult to pinpoint, that adds colour to the whole experience.
After the last ascent up the Arrête Du Mont Favre we drop down to Giacomo’s Rifugio Maison Vieille, one of the more unique huts on the tour. A striking, young Italian couple run the refuge and welcome us inside. The decor is eclectic with nic nacs from travellers from all over the world, quirky artwork, as well as framed pictures from the local mountains.
After some hemming and hawing, Jeff and I both order a slice of homemade apple cake, over the berry pie or zucchini bread. We’re thinking of having it to go, but we’re asked to take a seat. The male host, sporting a thick beard and a mohawk, proceeds to heat the cake, sprinkles it with cinnamon, then covers it with caramel and fresh whipped cream and delivers it to our table.
Jeff takes his first bite, pausing to savour the full quality of the cake before declaring “it’s little things like these that make me enjoy running in the mountains so much.”
Good running, good views, good company and good food is pretty hard to beat. Running in the Alps is an all around delight to the senses.
We leave the hut full, both stating the need to walk for a short while to digest. We pass a couple miniature ponies out front, adding to the fantasy of the whole setting, before beginning the steep descent into Courmayeur with our minds now fixed on the pizza, beer and gelato waiting for us below. The little things do indeed make up the good life.