Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.
Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.
It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else.
My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.
All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.
The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.
Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…
We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment. Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.
Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more.
Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference.
This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special.
** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.