I love spending time in the mountains, I can’t get enough of it. Snowboarding trips are the highlight of my year and I didn’t manage to get one in the 2012/2013 winter season so I was miserable. When spring rolled round I started looking up summer trips but it was looking quite difficult to get something interesting while travelling alone so I shelved the plans for a while.
A month or so later I was training for my first marathon and a friend recommended I give the Marathon Talk podcast a listen to help me pick up some training tips. I’m not really a podcast fan but, as a complete running newbie, I needed as much help as I could get to get me to the finish line of the marathon so I gave it a go. I really liked their easy-going attitude and how it comes across as if it’s just a couple of mates chatting about running. One of the hosts, Martin Yelling, mentioned he was hosting a trail running holiday in the Alps so I did a bit of Googling and the itinerary looked perfect. The trip is organised by a company called Adventures in the Alps so I fired off an email and got myself booked in.
The trip is based in a chalet in the Col de la Forclaz, overlooking Lake Annecy. It’s a beautiful building with views to die for, a pool, a hot tub and a sauna; it’s pretty much got everything. Unfortunately when we arrive what it doesn’t have is good weather. Low cloud means I haven’t yet seen the view, but everyone’s quite excited for the first proper run and in a good mood. This run starts at the chalet itself so we don’t have to travel and it’s a nice, relaxed, run to get to know everyones ability and give us a taster for what’s in store.
We set off from the chalet and head down through a couple of little villages before we start our first ascent. The route is really muddy from the deluge they’ve had the week before we arrive and everyone is slipping and sliding up the hill, making the 15-30% incline even harder than it would be on its own. It’s slow going, and we slide back as much as we go up, but we make it and then we contour round the mountain to a little cafe where we stop for a quick coffee. The cloud is so low that it’s quite chilly to stop after working up a sweat running up hill so we don’t hang around for long. Beside the cafe there’s a switch-back road to take us up another 200M to the Col de l’Aulp. The cloud begins to lift and as we make it round to the viewpoint we’re rewarded with our first glimpse of Lake Annecy, with Annecy itself in the distance and a hint of sunshine through the breaks in the cloud on the ground below.
From here it’s downhill all the way home. The weather is really starting to clear and the parapenters are getting ready to go as we head past the launch site. It’s taken us a couple of hours longer than expected, mostly due to the mud, so it’s straight in the shower and then the hot tub to watch the parapenters sail down towards the lake.
Day 2 started with an introduction to running with poles. A steep uphill from Lathuile to the ridge top, climbing 500m over 3km, meant we could try a few different uphill techniques. Poles are a somewhat controversial issue amongst runners and race directors: some love them, some view it as lazy, and some as outright cheating. As an example: in lots of races organised by French companies they’re permitted but in most races organised by Swiss companies they’re forbidden; considering how easy it is for a mountain race to pass through both countries this can be quite confusing. Are you allowed to use your poles on the French side of a mountain but not the Swiss? For races in the UTMB series it seems to be that as the organisers are French and allow poles you can use them in that race no matter which country you’re passing through.
Along with Martin, Julia Tregaskis-Allen is our other guide for the week. Julia is a qualified IML and co-founder of Tracks and Trails with an amazing fitness level that gives her the ability to keep chatting while the rest of us are struggling just to try and breathe as we’re going up 20% inclines. Julia handles the more mountain-specific side of the coaching (navigation, ascending/descending techniques, mountain safety, etc) and shows us how to get the most out of the poles with which we’ve been issued. It doesn’t take long for us to get the hang of the technique and it feels great to be able to take some of the load off the legs and share it with the arms and shoulders.
As we’re struggling for breath on the climb Julia gives us a potted history of the old Savoie region and we pass some abandoned mining buildings, which is as good an excuse to get our breath back as any so we stop for a couple of minutes to have a look around. We head up over the ridge, pass through the village of Entrevernes, then come back up to the ridge from the western side. The run joins up with the path at the top of the ridge, working its way through the trees. This stretch is amazing: a gentle descent with beautiful views as we head towards Duingt. Duingt is a slight promontory so you get glimpses of Lake Annecy through the trees to the east, north and north-west and each break in the trees makes you want to stop for a photo.
The final section breaks out from the woods and takes quite a steep descent in to the town. We know we’re on the last couple of hundred metres of our trail when it turns to asphalt and starts to get busy with tourists after seeing no-one all day. We get some very strange looks from the busload of school kids but they’re very polite and move to the side of the pavement as we fly past.
We hop back in the minibus and head to the lake shore for a quick swim (the water is freezing!) and some lunch in the sunshine.
We start in a layby on the main road through the Col de Aravis and pick up the GR as it contours round the ski areas of Crête du Loup and Crête du Merle. I’ve never seen a ski resort in the spring before and it feels a bit weird: the winter season has finished, the summer season hasn’t yet started, there’s still some densely packed snow on the pistes but with the empty buildings and static chairlifts it feels a bit like walking through a hastily-abandoned funfair from some disaster movie.
The route alternates between open mountainside and fir tree forest so it feels distinctly alpine and like a real adventure; there’s even mountain refuge huts to explore and abondance cows to avoid. We head around the mountain on a (mostly) flat route, through another ski area at la Blame with fantastic views over the valley with la Clusaz nestled below. We circuit the beautiful Lac des Confins with snow-capped mountains in the background (picture at the top of the page) and stop for a bite to eat in les Confins; another ghost town while it’s between seasons.
There’s a long, flat, section from here before the drop in to la Clusaz and it’s our only day with a net descent so Martin and I make the most of it by racing off in front. It feels great to inject some pace, which has just been impossible with the climbing we’ve been doing until now, and we whoop and cheer while we leap along the trails through the woods.
The trail drops quite sharply down in to town and I find the technical descent quite tough. The ground is a mix of granite & root so I decide to take it slow instead of risk a slip on rock or a trip over a root. This section really highlights how important it is to practise descending techniques as much as ascending techniques as, with a sheer drop on my left and bare rock on my right, I don’t have the confidence to tackle it at much more than a walk.
Day 4 is completely different. We spend the morning on the flat(!!) path by the lake, with Martin coaching us through drills and a speed session. Julia is a speed demon and leaves me for dust but it’s the first time she’s been unable to talk all week so it’s swings & roundabouts. After another dip in the lake, followed by lunch, we hire some bikes and spend the afternoon cycling to Annecy and back. It’s great to be on the bike, on the flat, and able to actually have a conversation without gasping for lungfuls of air between every word. The path stays beside the lake for most of the journey, passing through a tunnel under the ridge we’d run over on day 2, and the views are stunning. Fran works for Adventures in the Alps as our chalet host for the week and, as quite a keen cyclist, joins us on the bike ride. With the pair of us being quite competitive we end up pushing the pace a bit but nothing too serious and my legs are very happy for the afternoon cross-training.
This is our “peak of the week”, as Julia calls it; our first run through deep snow, up to a mountain refuge. The first section is quite easy going. It’s muddy and steep but we’re used to that by now. Julia gives us navigation lessons on the way up, showing how sometimes the farmers move footpaths so you have to pay attention to the terrain details to work out where you really are instead of just assuming the marked footpath has stayed where it says on the map. Useful stuff! Some of the passing locals look at us a bit funny and ask if we’re lost on a mountain with one footpath while stood next to the signpost saying which way to go. We say hello to a dairy farmer and his herd the the chalet Chappuis then leave the lush green meadows and head up through le petit Montoir and on to the bare mountain.
It’s really hard going, loads of soft spring snow that sometimes falls away beneath your feet to leave massive holes, all the while heading up on a 20-25% incline. The highlight of the run for the girls is seeing a local mens trail running team coming bounding down while we’re on our way up. The team must’ve been glad of the attention as one of the guys loses concentration and slips over on a muddy corner, almost plunging head-first down the mountain. It’s quite sobering for all of us if these guys who do it all the time can so easily make such mistakes so everyone turns their focus up a notch or two for the rest of the day.
I don’t think any of us were expecting there to be quite this much snow cover in June. We keep heading up, it’s great fun running through the snow but everyone is being very cautious so it’s slow. We finally break through the snow and climb the steep section to the Téte du Parmelan and stop off for a well-earned coffee at the mountain refuge.
The descent is BRILLIANT! We half run, half ski on our heels, finding as much fresh snow as we can to make our own trails. It’s so much fun we extend the downward section out past the Chalet d l’Anglettaz, loop round and come back up hill again to re-join the path back to the mini bus.
I struggle a bit with the descent again and wonder if I made the correct choice to wear my zero-drop trail shoes all week instead of going for some cushioning to allow me to take slightly longer strides on the downhill sections. I now know I’ve got to practise my ascending and descending, as well as my navigation (and that’s pretty much everything…) so by the end of the trip I’m already planning my next one to try and get loads more practise.
Thanks very much to Martin, Julia, Pip, Fran and Yvonne for looking after us so well all week and to Liz Yelling for putting up with my constant questioning every meal time. Extra thanks to Julia for the fantastic photos of the trip.