Trail des Aiguilles Rouges
by Kingsley Jones, Icicle Chamonix head UIMLA guide
Chamonix the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges has achieved an
almost legendary status, despite only running for three
years. It is famed for tough cut off times, huge height
gains, and technical running conditions with very rough
terrain to negotiate. About one fifth of those who start
the race do not reach the end.
In terms of the length of the race, it is 51km, so falls
into the ultra-marathon category. Then you add in the
height gain of 3300m, and a height loss of 3500m, and
you start to get an idea of what the race is really like.
Less than a kilometer of the race is on roads, and the
rest is on single tracks and for a good while over bare
rock and scree slopes. It may come as a surprise, but
each edition of this race is becoming filled with competitors
earlier each year, so for the 2009 race nearly 700 racers
had signed up.
This mountain ultra-marathon had to be semi-autonomous,
due to the terrain and lack of access for supply or rescue
vehicles, so there were only a few drinks and food supply
stations along the route. All runners had to carry compulsory
safety gear including fluids, snacks, waterproof jacket,
head torch, survival blanket, whistle, strapping tape,
mobile phone, and trekking poles.
I'd done enough training through the summer, and my guiding
work had ensured that I was well acclimatised, but even so it
was the end of season and I was concerned about the effects
of cumulative fatigue, especially in my legs. Still, enough
of the excuses, I was looking forward to this race as neither
the distance or height gain was a real concern, just the effects
of combining both! On the day before the race I travelled to
les Houches to get my race number and to have the kit checks
and race briefing. The briefing was important as the majority
of the race route was through national parks, where the key
focus of on preserving nature and not littering. Clearly some
people didn't heed the briefing too much as I saw several energy
gel wrappers dropped on the ground, which was a shame, and totally
against the whole ethos and ambitions of the race organisers.
the morning of the race, I got up at 03:00am to quickly get
dressed and to walk across town to catch the free bus to the
start of the race at Vallorcine near the Swiss border. While
on my way to the bus, I saw other runners leaving buildings
on their way too, and soon a procession of us walked across
town. We passed some confused looking people who were on their
way home after a big night on the town. It pretty much summed
up what Chamonix is like; a wierd mix of those passionate about
their sport, and those equally passionate about their beer.
There's only a few people I know who manage to live both lives
simultaneously, and the majority of them aren't especially good
at either. Still it was amusing to get cheered on by drunks,
when we hadn't even started yet.
The race bus was full of some
sleepy runners, and some hyperactive runners who had clearly
eaten their museli that morning. At Vallorcine we were treated
to a breakfast, then it was time to get warmed up a bit and
drop off the warm clothes and get tagged on the way to the start
line. The start was scheduled for 05:00am, so it was still pitch
black and all runners had a head torch on to see where they
were going. There was the usual dubious choice of music blaring
through the speakers, and a MC who hadn't got a job on a radio
station to 'get us going'. It was a relief when we started and
left it all behind. Off into the dark we went, and soon left
the village behind and headed into the woods and onto the trails.
The photo above shows the visibility - pretty much nothing apart
from a pool of light in front of you. I'd never done any night
racing before, so this experience was quite exciting. It started
raining a little bit, which was fine as it kept me cool, but
it made the rocks and grass very slippery.
threaded our way through Barberine on the Swiss border,
then back to Vallorcine, where we crossed a road for the
last time until a few kilometers from the end of the race.
Then it was a steep uphill section through the forests
to the tiny hamlet of Les Granges. I can't count the number
of times I have walked, snowshoed, or skied through the
chalets there, but in the dark it was slightly unfamiliar
and ghostly. Then back into thick forests on the traverse
past the Val de Tré Les Eaux to the Berard valley.
As I climbed upwards the race pack was spreading out a
little, and I managed to get my pace a bit better. Eventually
I climbed above the treeline, and entered the upper Berard
I could pretty much walk this upper valley blindfold,
but when running you look at the familiar through different
eyes, and whilst I recognised it all, it seemed to pass
in a blur. No I wasn't running that fast, but I was going
quicker than I had expected. Soon I crossed the final
bridge over the stream and made my way up the steep zig-zags
towards the hut. As I neared the hut I saw the guardians
on the terrace and when they spotted me they run the cow
bells they held, and cheered me on. This was a great boost,
and welcome support.
the Pierre à Bérard refuge, it was the first
drinks station, and another key feature of this trail
race was that each runner had to carry their own cups
for drinks to avoid the huge wastage that you see at road
races. This was a great idea, and didn't hold the runners
up at all really. Hopefully this is the way of things
to come, and will be adopted at other races. After a quick
drink I took off my headtorch as it was light enough to
see now, and headed up the steep hillside behind the hut,
towards the high point of the race at the watershed of
the Col du Salenton, at 2526m.
This section of the race
was always going to be very tough on the legs, as it is
brutally uphill, gaining over 600m in about 1km. The first
part is up steep rocky tracks, which were quite slippery
with mud, then the paths gave way to bare rock. This is
where I was more confident that my climbing background
would help power me through. Marker flags showed the way
up through the rocks, and I overtook several people. A
few runners went off route, which I knew from guiding
work, would loose them time. Then the fog came in, with
a little bit of sleet mixed in from time to time. The
temperature was around freezing.
was raining lightly, and the fog became denser and denser. The
photo above shows me making the final steps across the traverse
to Col du Salenton, which was only visible from less than 10m
away through the fog. There was a medic there to assist runners
with problems. I stopped for a second at the col to put on a
jacket, as the next section was a long descent past the Chalets
de Villy. The first part from the col was steep loose rock.
Screes of slates, shales and limestone, which were tricky to
run on, as with each step my feet sank in to deep wet muddy
scree. Finally the screes gave way to nice spongy grass on the
alpages above the valley floor.
next objective was the Moede Anterne refuge, which at a regular
walking pace would be 2 hours away. It was quite hard to look
after the ankles and legs on the descent, whilst still pushing
on the pace. I could feel my legs suffering a bit after the
ascent to Salenton, and it was good to get supported as I ran
through the small collection of farm buildings at the Chalets
de Villy. After the farm was a nice flat track, which then turned
the corner past the ruined buidings, then headed upwards up
the long rock ramp to award the first views of the Moede Anterne
refuge. After the corner the track rises and falls, crossing
several streams, before the final approach to the hut. Here
was a food and drinks station, and I made a point of eating
to replenish my energy levels, as I was nearly half way.
terms of timings, I had built up a good margin above the cut
offs, of over an hour and a quarter. This was great news so
early in the race, but I had a feeling that I'd be calling on
that margin in the closing stages. I set off from the hut towards
the Pont de Arlevé, which marked the half way point in
the race, and also the start of the largest single height gain,
the huge ascent up to Brevent. The descent to the bridge was
muddy, and I wanted to try and keep my feet dry to avoid blisters.
Just before the bridge I swallowed an energy gel, to provide
a boost on the climb. At the half way point a runner limped
up the hill towards me, having clearly twisted his ankle and
abandoning. As the climb started I past the half way at just
over 5 hours, so one and a half hours ahead of the cut off margin
above the bridge the track zig-zags steeply upwards through
rhododendron bushes with big drop off back down to the river
gorge. I set my pace and tried to keep a good pace on the way
up the hill. In my head I had set the ruins of the Chalets d'Arlevé
as the next objective to focus on, as this was a good 300m above
the bridge. After I reached the ruins, I knew the path flattened
out for a while, which was good to slightly rest the legs a
had planned to eat another energy gel at this point, but
perhaps mistakenly I felt fine so carried on until I could
see the steep zig-zags above me stretching on up to the
Col du Brevent. Suddenly the legs were feeling it more,
and so I grabbed an energy gel. It tasted disgusting,
but did the trick, and soon I got my rhythm back and was
powering upwards again. The ascent was long and it was
quite hard to keep up the pace, but I knew that the col
was approaching. Here in the photo on the right is the
final approach to the Col du Brevent.
Here there is a traverse across to Le Brevent itself,
and it goes on for quite a while. At the end of the traverse
the track was crossing quite steep ground on solid rock,
and at the far end of the traverse was a series of ladders
leading up to the cliffs. This caused a bit of a bottleneck,
as you can see from the photo below, but after the ladders
the runners spread out more on the final haul up to Brevent.
There were a fair few well wishers who had hiked up to
Brevent from Chamonix, and they cheered everyone onwards.
The ground underfoot was very broken rock. Finally I rounded
the final corner, and the Brevent was right in front of
me. I got my race number tagged and went to the drinks
stopped at the Brevent for a couple of minutes, as I had built
up my margin ahead of the cut offs to just over two hours. Also
a couple of my toes were rubbing, so I taped them up. The mists
had descended again, as you can see from the photo below, the
amazing views you usually get across to Mont Blanc were sadly
missing. The quick break was much welcomed, but it was time
to go again, and I knew the next part of the race was potentially
where I was going to lose the most time, due to the steep descent
towards Servoz. I got going again, and headed down towards the
Aiguillette des Houches. The legs were definately feeling it
at this stage, but I had to press on.
first part of the descent is towards the Bel Lachat refuge,
which is perched on the ridgeline far above the Chamonix valley.
The track is good, but it is rock steps, and so quite tough
on the knees. My legs weren't too keen on running at this stage,
but I pressed on and passed a couple of the flashpoint photographer
points. I remember feeling quite sorry for the paps as the Brevent
cable car was closed, and so they had all hiked up from the
valley to take their shots for the runners, so a good effort
from them! Soon I past the Bel Lachat after the section with
handrails, then run across my favourite section of the course,
the lakes of the Aiguillette des Houches.
had often walked my dog on this section during the summer months,
so knew every twist and turn, but by this stage I was approaching
a full marathon distance, and so the footwork wasn't too good,
and I wasn't gaining time any more. As the waypoint of the Aiguillette
des Houches approached, I knew that I had run the last sector
in exactly the minimum required time. No I hadn't eaten into
my two hour time margin, but it still was a shock to see that
I had gone from gaining a margin to maintaining a margin, and
the realisation spurred me on to push towards the small summit
ahead. On the way I ran past several hikers, who had chosen
to walk the same route as this part of the race. They looked
a bit depressed to be overtaken by yet more runners, but cheered
this section I was running with someone with a Basque flag wrapped
around their head, who was suffering too. This didn't help much,
but it was good to see I wasn't the only one. Below is a photo
of me on the way to Aiguillette des Houches, and you can see
from the look on my face that it wasn't a feel good moment!
Anyway the top was reached and then ahead lay the 1500m descent
to Servoz. This was the section we had been warned about in
the race briefing, but fortunately it was dry on the upper section,
and so the mammoth descent began!
I ran across the top narrow ridge I passed a group cheering
runners on by ringing cow bells, then as I rounded the corner
I saw the ridge dropping away in front of me. I slowed down
as it was loose underfoot, and several runners overtook me,
but I was concentrating on the ground under my feet, so happily
let them by. I looked at my altimeter and saw that the rate
of descent was about 20 to 25m per minute, that meant 5 minutes
per 100m, so 50 minutes per thousand so about 1 hour 20 for
the total descent. That was a bit slower than I'd been hoping
for, but I was keen to finish without a twisted ankle. It took
what seemed like ages to reach the treeline, then again ages
to reach the 1500m contour. My mind was working against me,
as I compared big mountain descents to sections of this route,
so knew that from 1500m to Servoz was still the same as descending
Mont Blanc du Tacul to the Col du Midi.
also didn't help that as I descended that the ground turned
from rock and dry track to wet and muddy grass. I slipped around
a fair bit, and just ahead of me one runner took about a 10m
fall, before bouncing up onto his feet and carrying on. After
what seemed like an age, I finally reached the upper chalets
in the forests above Servoz, and the ground dried up a little
but was now covered with a good coating of autumn leaves.
the halmet of Montvaultier the route twisted around a
fair bit, and then it dropped steeply onto the track leading
into Servoz. The photo on the left is on one of the last
sections of the forest track. About 100m above the village
I got onto the road. Here there were lots of people cheering
the runners on which was a good boost to the morale. I
turned into the village, and crossed the main road to
enter the old village centre. Here was the final drinks
and food station of the race. By this stage I had already
run over a marathon distance, and so the energy levels
were running a bit low. Several other runners sat at the
drinks station, totally spent and some pulling out.
Across the road from the drinks station is a small bar,
where the locals were sitting outside, to watch the runners.
On the speakers I remember they were playing Hallelujah
sung by Jeff Buckley. It was far too relaxed a mood, and
far too soft and emotional a song to hang around. Everything
was telling me to stop, but I knew I had to keep pushing
onwards or I would stop. On the descent I had lost nearly
half an hour from my margin, which was not a surprise,
but it still gave me a good hour and a half margin before
the cut off time. My legs felt like lead, but I soon got
running again and headed off from the drinks station.
The weather was good now, and some sun was shining through.
I approached the Servoz bridge, I saw my wife Sarah ahead with
our dog Max. It was brilliant to see them, but equally quite
hard. I wanted to stop, and seeing them didn't help those feelings,
but it did spur me on to finish as they had come to support
me. As the track turned off from the road, they ran with me
for a couple of hundred metres, then promised to see me at the
end. As I left them behind I had no doubt that I would reach
the finish, but I had no idea how much I would eat into my time
margin. I crossed the bridge at Chatelard and headed upwards
again. The uphill was agonising, as there was nothing left in
my legs. The track headed straight up a very steep hill through
the trees, and I remember looking upwards to a runner about
100m above me, but it felt like they were a mountain above me.
Finally the ground flattened off a little, but it was a false
top and the route continued upwards. I reached some ruins, which
I knew meant that the route then traversed towards Vaudagne.
My legs weren't capable of much, but I tottered along the traverse,
and got to the roads of the village.
Here I reached a real low in
the energy levels, but all the locals I passed cheered me on,
pointing out the way on. Clearly I wasn't looking too good.
I stopped for a drink at a water trough, then climbed up and
out of the village on a steep track. The energy wasn't getting
any better, and I felt like I wanted to stop again. Runners
overtook me, and on a signpost I saw it was marked as nearly
two hours to Les Houches centre, so didn't feel much better
for it. By this stage I was running with a guy from Luxembourg,
and we passed through the alpage or Charousse. I knew that Les
Houches and the finish was just ahead, perhaps only 2km away.
I could vaguely hear the speakers of the finish announcers,
and I picked up the pace a little. As I reached the edge of
the village people were lining the roads, and offering encouragements
saying that the end was only about 10 minutes to go. The route
then took a little track to cut a few corners of the road, and
then suddenly I emerged onto the road again. A policeman was
ahead holding up the traffic, and I knew that I was a few hundred
metres from the finish. I picked up the pace again, and ran
across the road and made the final turn towards the lake. Hundreds
of people were gathered there to see the racers home and I ran
around the edge of the lake totally forgetting the pain I had
been in for the last couple of hours.
I could see the finish line and arch, and as I approached
the line I saw Sarah and Max waiting for me. As I ran
past them I grabbed the dog lead, so I could run over
the line with Max, as you can see from the photo on the
right. As I crossed the line, I could hear the commentator
shout out my name, and knew it was all over. I got my
race number tagged and my finish time was 11 hours 25
minutes. The winners had crossed the line five hours before
me, but I was happy. I recovered my clothes bag, and then
walked back to the car that Sarah had driven to collect
me. It was all over, but I felt no endorphin high. I felt
empty and finished, yet remarkably proud. I knew good
runners who had failed to finish this race, and I loved
the region I had run through. It had been a very different
experience to race through familiar terrain.
Sarah politely noted a couple of days later, "you've
got to be a bit wierd to run for eleven and a half hours",
but it wasn't the time or the physical effort required
that I remember at all for this race. It was the mental
games that your mind plays with you over that timescale,
and the games you play with it, that create a unique experience.
Sometimes you are at the top of the world, and at other
times, you explore the lows. The emotional journey is
tougher than the race itself, but it makes this race exceptionally
remember telling people afterwards that I wouldn't ever do this
race again, and I definately hurt my feet a bit, but a few days
later felt great again, and went walking and running in the
hills above Lake Maggiore in north Italy. The memories of the
pain had faded to be replaced by a real sense of satisfaction,
and a perverse feeling of having won over my brain telling me
to stop. It was the hardest race I've ever done, and perhaps
because it was so tough at the time the 'high' wasn't immediate,
but spread out over time as you glance up at sections of the
route, and remember running along it. The Trail des Aiguilles
Rouges was an amazing and remarkably personal experience, and
one that I would now love to do again. It's just too soon and
too raw in my mind to even consider signing up for yet.
huge thanks to all the nameless people I shared this amazing
an even bigger thanks to all the supporters who cheered us all
along on the route, especially the guardians of the Bérard
hut, to the organisers for dreaming up such a brilliant event.
Above all I remember feeling like I was running in my mountains.
I knew every inch of the route so well that by exerting myself
to such an extent in my mountains, that I felt closer to them
than ever before. You cannot fail to be after such an experience.
Thank you the Aiguilles Rouges. The final thanks must go to
Sarah for putting up with my wierd training regime and love
of strange mountain races!