Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Vertical Kilometre
I have been lucky enough, or foolish (some might say) to have taken part in a lot of unusual and challenging events over the years. My recent trip to Chamonix, however, was something rather different altogether.
As we rolled into the beautiful Alpine town of Chamonix on Thursday afternoon, France and much of Europe was in the grips of an unseasonably hot heatwave. This was no sightseeing trip though (mostly), we had a date with a mountain and the Chamonix, Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometre. The Vertical Kilometre was part of a series events over the weekend including a 90K Ultradistance race, half marathon, 10K and the famous Mont Blanc marathon on the Sunday.
The VKM is a challenging event taking in 1000m meters of ascent over 3Km, straight up the mountain. Kirsty and I were invited by our friends to join them and after many weekends of repeat climbs of Boxhill it was time to see what this mountain had to throw at us, quite a lot as it turns out.
With the temperature in the mid 30s the race was put back an hour and although this helped there was no escaping the furnace. With our hydro packs brimming with water in every available pocket it was time to join the start and await your call up. This event is in a classic time trial format with each participant setting off individually every 15 seconds. I stood in the shaded start tent, my soaking wet hat, now almost dry after it’s pre-line up soaking only a few moments earlier. The timer counted down 5,4,3,2,1 and off into the sun I went, ready to take on the mountain and the unknown.
Setting off on this race I have never been so slow, or should I say conservative. The road quickly winds to the edge of town and the first “warm up” hill of the day up to the base of the mountain by the ski lift. Immediately my throat was raw, dry and my chest heavy, the 1000m of suffering had begun.
While this event could be described as a run, most of those who do run are superhuman athletes or more like mountain goats. It was something very special to see these highly skilled elites glide up the mountain. My tactic, however, was to run-walk until the incline became too steep and then adopt as fast a power hike as I could muster.
The initial 300m of the ascent were brutal and probably some of the hardest. The combination of the heat, incline and daunting nature every time you glanced up meant finding a groove was hard. The route is largely a zig zag trail and I managed to run most of the zigs and walk the zags. This helped me find a rhythm and catching fellow competitors meant I had a little rest-bite alongside some of my more unplanned stoppages, to catch my breath and take in the view.
The course largely follows the path beneath the cable cars and the welcome banging and cow bells from those passing overhead offered some needed support and a moral boost. At the 600m mark the path starts to curve to the right of the mountain with the decidedly narrow single-track path not affording you much margin for error or fatigue. The mountain trail STILL weaves ever upwards and the notion of running finally ebbs away, it was time to focus on “hiking with intent”. At around 750m the course starts to take it’s expected transition from zig zag trail to technical assault course.
The upward momentum now accelerates as you climb and clamber over rocks, up ladders and pulling yourself up using heavy duty cables and ropes. As you climb the metal steps forged into the rockface a head for heights is a necessity, but upper body strength and nerves of steel aren’t a bad set of tools to have either.
At this point some of the faster participants had started catching me up and made the narrow pathways even more congested. Finding safe points to let them through became harder, but the rest was welcome each time.
With the final 100m in sight the noise from the top was getting louder and my determination not to lose ground to the five closest competitors with whom I had been jostling position with over the previous 900m kicks in. I take a deep breath, grit my teeth and decide to ignore the burning in my legs and push on up the pass, largely on my hands and knees.
As I reached the top of the winding section of path everything drops away to reveal the stunning mountain range on the other side of the valley and Mont Blanc itself. As I do the cable cars swings overhead and is an image that will never leave me. The marshals are ready and waiting to stop weary competitors from staggering too close to the edge. I am ushered up the final rocks and grab the cable and haul myself up the final stretch of trail.
Finally, I reach the ladder onto the cable car platform and the crowds are roaring. I step up and find the last of my energy returning to my legs and run (I say “run” loosely at this point) to the final winding set of stairs. As I reach the top I can see the final 100m to the finish line and the last mini climb of the day.
Crossing the line, I immediately make good use of the benches for competitors, shaking hands with those finishers around me. I had managed to climb the 1000m in 1 hour and nineteen minutes and while unlikely to break any records, this event challenged me in ways, I have not experienced in a long time.
I am delighted to say that everyone in our gang made up the mountain successfully and we all enjoyed a well-deserved victory beer on the finish line. While I would not say that this event is for everyone, it has proved to me, yet again that there are always new ways to challenge yourself and new ways to experience the benefits of living a healthier lifestyle.
It has been wonderful to have so much support from everyone as I took on this more unusual challenge and I want to say a very big thank you to everyone for your kind messages and emails of support and encouragement.
We all have our own mountain to climb when it comes to living a heathier lifestyle, mine was just a little more literal in this case. I hope this story has inspired some of you to step outside the ordinary and try something just a little bit crazy with your next goal.