Freshmen year of high school in Louisville, Kentucky, we had to state our preference for a foreign language of choice as we chose our classes before the start of the year.  Our options were simple and binary; Spanish or French.  I remember sitting in some classroom, discussing this incredibly monumental decision with my two wise friends Waffle and Mike.  With an amazing amount of prescience, Mike proposed that we should probably take French, because he heard that was the class all of the cute girls were signing up for.  Waffle and I didn’t hesitate to get behind this brilliant idea, and my path to the French language was cemented just like that.

Cut to 2001 when I first met my lovely, beautiful, and technically French (born and raised in LA) wife Maureen.  She charmed me with stories of a romantic and quant alpine chalet owned by her French father’s family, and wooed me with stories of the amazing glacial hikes in the area that she remembered from her childhood.  The family chalet was in a tiny mountain village named Le Buet, at the base of Mont Buet and sandwiched between Chamonix and Vallorcine, near the border with Switzerland.  It sounded like an idyllic place and in my mind I dreamed of a luxurious, sprawling mountain getaway and considered this a definite perk of joining the family. 

The Alps and the Chamonix Valley were literally in her blood, which meant that when we had our first son Sage in 2009 it would be in his blood as well.  Not being ones to ease into any of our wilderness adventures, we decided in the summer of 2011 that a perfect way for him to connect with his alpine roots would be to thru-hike the GR-5, a long distance 600+ kilometer trail that traverses the French Alps from Lac Leman to the coast of Nice.  We would carry Sage in a Deuter Kidcomfort backpack and haul as much food as we needed to make it between the villages to resupply, not relying on refuges for shelter but knowing that they could be a safety net if necessary.  We took off at the beginning of July after returning our one-way rental car at the start, knowing that we had 6 weeks to hike to our flight back to the US out of Nice. 

Younger versions of all of us, high in the Alps, in 2011

This was my first exposure to the alps, and what an exposure it was.  We started in a heat-wave, getting pummeled by the steep vert as we climbed into the mountains loaded down with packs a bit too heavy for our own good.  We trimmed our gear two days in at La Chapel and mailed a box back to the States as we continued pushing south.  Sage seemingly enjoyed the days spent in the pack, and when he dozed off we put our heads down and tried to make as much mileage as we could before he woke.  We let him walk on his own for about an hour after lunch each day, progressing at a painfully slow rate as he bumbled down the trail, chasing marmots through the grass.  Toward the end of the first leg it began raining, a hard and cold mountain rain that was relentless and wouldn’t let up.  We had thought about weather of course, but had based our equipment choices on the mild Sierra summer we were used to, not the volatile and quickly changing weather system that surrounds Mont Blanc.  We walked full days through the downpour, Sage only wearing a pair of Keen sandals on his feet as we had somehow set off on the trip with no boots or shoes for our son.  We couldn’t handle the full descent à pied off Le Brevent into Chamonix, and ponied up for a one way trip on the téléphérique, eager to take off our soaking boots for a couple days of rest and relaxation at the Cane family chalet.

The chalet was adorable and impeccably positioned for mountain access, but it was far from the sprawling compound that I had imagined in my twenties.  It was so quant that it was full with Maureen’s uncle and his kids, and so we happily pitched our tent in the rain in the yard right next door.  We had a few days to head into town and tweak our gear for the many weeks of walking ahead of us, and we readjusted our gear with our newfound respect for the big mountains.  We bought Sage some waterproof boots at the Columbia store in Cham and upgraded everyone’s rain layers and warm socks.  Mo’s uncle filled us up on food and wished us well on our journey as we continued south on the GR-5, now overlapping with the popular Tour du Mont Blanc trail, or the TMB.  Things went smoothly enough as we climbed out of Les Houches, too cheap to take the télécabine to the top, and the rain picked up again as we headed down the next valley into Les Contamines.  We spent a pleasant afternoon in a café on the main “strip” of the village, deliberating what to do next.  Eventually we fell back to the thru-hiking default and threw on our packs (and Sage) and kept plodding along toward the coast, walking directly into a snow storm that would continue for the next two weeks.

The view from the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme in 2019. On our first trip we couldn’t see 3 meters in front of us through the snow.

The trail was hard to trace as we climbed upwards to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and the massive CAF refuge on the pass, scoring a room and warm meal for the night as many of the shorter distance hikers had canceled their trips due to weather.  That was our first real refuge experience of the trip and the steaming hot polenta and sausage tasted absolutely amazing. Eventually we turned off the TMB as we headed south through the incredible Vanoise National Park, experiencing the scenery covered with snow and devoid of other visitors.  After many ups and downs and many more weeks of walking that got hotter and hotter as we neared the coast, we finally made it to Nice where we lay on the rocky beach for a couple of glorious days before flying back to the US.

The sun eventually came out again as we neared the coast

And so, like those rare things in life that somehow immediately capture your devotion and lifelong obsession, the Chamonix Valley and the French Alps became permanently engrave in my mind.  We had such a positive Type II fun experience that year that we returned in the summer of 2013 with our second son Devin, who celebrated his one year birthday by staying up until midnight eating profiteroles in a small castle in the Loire Valley owned by Maureen’s other uncle Michel.  We of course returned to Chamonix that year, hiking and frolicking with the two kids, both in backpacks, until our strength gave out and we just couldn’t carry them anymore.  We packed up our camping gear and migrated to the Atlantic coast where the going was a little bit easier for us all (and the moules frites fresher and more plentiful).

The Squad in 2013

The summer of 2015 brought us back again as we began our tradition of biennial trips to France and the mountains within.  We rented a tiny chalet in the town of Les Bossons, just next to Chamonix, that had a front row seat of both the local train line and the magnificent Bossons glacier that streamed down the side of the massif.  We enrolled the kids in summer day camp ran by Les Guides de Chamonix, and on the days when the boys traipsed around the valley with their counselors Maureen and I explored the trails of the area.  We had both recently started trail running at home, and running on some of the best trails in the world quite literally blew our minds.  There’s at least one moment on every trail in that area where you find yourself gazing in awe at Mont Blanc and her enormous massif that dominates the entire region and infuses it with an undeniable spiritual energy and vibrations.  No matter where you are, she is always there watching over the entire land.

Staying cool in 2015

In 2017 we managed to convince Maureen’s parents to join us for likely their final trip to France.  We now had the chance to play tour guides in the valley where her Dad spent many of his summers growing up – we hiked them up and down the paths, ferried them up and down on téléphériques and had many memorable coffees with a view of the mountains right in front of us.  With the grandparents came a welcome bit of child-sitting, and their graciousness allowed Maureen and I to stretch our range out a bit on the trails as long as we were home by dinner.  Our running had gotten stronger in the past two years and we started getting into some of the real goodness of the area, accepting vert as our savior and crushing as much as we could before heading home and whipping up a feast for a household of hungry people.

By 2017 the kids could knock out distance and vert!

2019 again brought us back to the mountains, this time staying in a luxurious, larger chalet owned by a close family friend in Les Houches.  This spot had a five star view of Mont Blanc, room to spread out, and most importantly was literally ON the TMB.  The boys were old enough to really be into camp by this point, and the days they spent rafting and rock climbing we spent trying to get as far away from Cham as we could and still be there for the afternoon pickup (often literally running onto the petit train as it pulled out of the station).  Things were going so smoothly that we started researching an overnight sleep-away camp in the area, and that’s when Maureen had one of her most brilliant ideas – we could check the kids into camp for a week and run the Tour du Mont Blanc!

Fastpacking the TMB has to be the perfect “Date Week”

And so we dropped the kids off at the equivalent of a YMCA sleep-away camp one valley over, returned to the chalet, threw on our loaded vests, and started running out the door that evening.  We made it to Les Contamines the first night, and on the second day got to experience the Col du Bonhomme on an exquisitely sunny day – a far cry from our experience the last time we headed through that area in a near whiteout.  We completed the loop in a relaxed five days, running a good chunk in the mornings and posting up on the sun decks of refuges with cold drinks and potato chips in the afternoon.  For us, it was the ideal vacation.

Descending into Italy on the TMB

I first grasped the gravity of UTMB in 2014 when I saw a Timothy Olson and Rory Bled North Face video online.  It took me the past three years to bust through the lottery, and thankfully I was grandfathered in as the last year not having to deal with the pay-to-play Stones system.  And so in 2021, pandemic be-damned, I hope to return to the Chamonix Valley, this time starting my run in Chamonix and finishing after I have made it all the back around to the start.  For me this is not just a one-off race, or a physical challenge that I am curious to tackle – It’s the next step in a spiritual journey through a valley that is in many ways my summer home away from home.  As France locks down for another viral surge I am trying to remain optimistic that their vaccination rate will increase and the country will be open to tourists this summer and fall.  And when I hopefully toe the line and the gun goes off on 6:00 PM on Friday night in downtown Cham, after I recover from the excitement of the festivities and the inevitably fast start with thousands of newfound friends, I will humbly offer my trip around the mountain to the spirit of Mont Blanc, and ask for her protection and guidance as I set out to go through the night.  And while I honestly have no idea what will happen over those 170 kilometers, I do know that I will have some stories to tell when I hobble, crawl, run, or sprint into the Place Triangle de l’Amitié in Chamonix and look up for a final time at the big mountain in the middle.

See you in Chamonix.


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