Where is your Mecca?


I thought I would try and find out where other people make or try and make trips to, whether it’s a music festival, ski resort or an awesome holiday destination. It would be great if you could comment with your places on here, whatever or wherever it is the only rule is that you have to find it incredible. Here is an account of somewhere that I find amazing.

I’m quite a bit behind with this but back in August myself and two mates from the Marathon des Sables travelled to my Mecca of the outdoor playground in Chamonix, France. It’s an amazing place during the summer it’s packed with everyone from mountain bikers to climbers then during the winter there are thousands of skiers and snowboarders and many other winter pursuits.

We were there for one thing only and that was a long weekend of hard trail running.

After catching late night flights to Geneva and after being welcomed to I think the worst, most expense and lukewarm spaghetti bolognaise I have had, we set off in a rental car up to the top end of Chamonix. We walked further up the valley to find a secluded spot to camp as all the camping sites were shut. After a great team effort the tent was up and we were tucked up in our sleeping bags before falling asleep to the sound of a gurgling river and incredibly excited about what day 1 would involve.

Day 1 – Mont Buet

We woke at 6 am.

Mont Blanc in the background at 6am

It turned out we were camped on a mountain bike track and were greeted to incredible views of the mountains including Mont Blanc. Our plan for the 1st day was to run up Mont Buet (3,096m high) a peak not far from Chamonix near a wee village called Vallorcine. As we drove over we were trying to work out whether we could see the peak but unfortunately it was sitting just behind a bit of cloud. By 8am we were preparing physically and mentally in the car park for a hard days trail running and looking bleary eyed. The sign at the base reckoned 6 hours to the peak.

Before the start - a bit tired but raring to go

We started slowly getting used to the exposed tree roots, rocks and boulders, a bit different to potholes, uneven paths and pram or shopping laden people on the roads and paths of London. The plan was to follow a stream up into the mountains through huge pine forests where the smell of the mountain air and pine was incredibly refreshing. This slow pace didn’t last long and soon we were running at speed a long a u-shaped valley (great gcse geography knowledge) with peaks towering around us. Part the way a long we met a French group one of whom was an elder lady who mentioned that the peak had “knee deep snow”. As we reached the halfway refuge we changed into longer clothing despite not entirely believing the description from the top, she was much shorter than us after all. A quick look at the map confirmed what we were all thinking, that the next section was going to involve a lot more ascent than the first. It looked like we were to ascend 1000m in 1.5km roughly; it was going to be tough.

After the refuge the terrain became much steeper, the other two had walking poles but they became a hindrance tip toeing around, over and between large boulders. We were certainly working up a sweat as we over took all those in front of us. Coming out of the boulder field into a bit of a bowl covered in slippery small pebbles, we hit the first section of snow at 2500m. I was beginning to think my road running trainers might be inappropriate for what we were doing. However we were still flying up the mountainside and took full advantage of these flatter sections.

The Start of the Snowfields

The sun felt very strong as it was reflecting off the snow now all around us. We could see what appeared to be a summit and as we slipped, slid and sunk in the snow up towards it we realised pretty quickly that it was still below the top on Mont Buet. Reaching the top of this dummy peak we could see the true summit in front of us. It was our very own mini Everest for the day. We carefully traversed a ridge but the drops and more importantly the bottom looked a long way down. Although not quite the drops I imagine from the top of Everest. However it wasn’t ideal when your trainers feel like they would rather do anything else than grip the terrain we were crossing. There was a final 50m push to the top.

The Ridge to the Summit

We reached the summit in glorious weather with a cairn on top decorated in flags from over the years. Unfortunately Mont Blanc was covered in clouds. We ate and admired the views while climbers appeared equipped with crampons, ice axes and a whole arrange of other serious looking kit.

The Summit
On the Summit Feeling pretty Elated

Before setting off we had hoped to do a loop but on seeing the cornices and the steep snowy ridges that lay in front of us. We decided to ask the climbers who had come up a similar route to the one we planned to descend what the route was like. They casually looked us up and down and said it was far too hazardous and very dangerous as the going was much more technical than the way we had come. Especially when they realised we were in running shoes.

It was incredibly difficult heading back down the snowfield with our feet sliding under the crusty snow surface. I had the constant thought of not knowing what was underneath the snow and how it could be a slight problem if any of us injured an ankle up here. On approaching the dummy summit we came across a French group who we had already passed on the way up.

After a quick dialogue they asked if we were Mont Blanc guides.

I am pretty sure all our heads suddenly exploded with that ego boost, we must have looked nuts or highly professional. At least I would like to think so. We did point out that we weren’t guides but were just having fun running in the mountains. I borrowed a walking pole off Si just to help balance on some of the more precarious sections as we bolted down the mountainside, only slowing slightly as we re-entered the boulder field.

Running into the halfway stage at the refuge we certainly received some slightly startled and surprised looks. Without stopping we continued on down back along the river and now hoping to have a quick dip at some point in the cool mountain water. It wasn’t to be as the thought of food, beer and camp took priority for the final sprint to the finish.

We finished in 6 hours smashing the idea of it taking 6 hours just to reach the summit.

We went and grabbed a beer from a local cafe, I bought some trail running shoes hoping they would help over the next few days and we headed off to a campsite. The campsite was further down the valley to the previous night and sitting below the Argentiere glacier with spectacular views of Mont Blanc. After stuffing our faces with food we passed out.

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One thought on “Where is your Mecca?”

  1. Great post Benno, I can almost feel the tired legs and feet and the end of the day. Seeing as nobody else has commented, I’ll tell you a happy little story of my own.
    I have a similarly hardcore (or so I thought) experience in my own Mecca. I grew up having France camping holidays most Summers with my family then when I was about 12 we decided to branch out and try out Wengen in Switzerland, a place family friends had recommended to us. My parents were always into walking so I guess they thought I was approaching the age where I was a bit more capable of hitting the mountains. We started in a town called Grindlewald – just over the hill from Wengen. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, proper mountains, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Anyway, the plan was to get to Wengen – where there were no cars, just mountain railways in and out. We took a train half way up the mountain and walked the rest of the way to the top. A long walk, a mornings walk, higher than I’d ever been and some proper patches of snow. It was pretty cool but it was long enough for me to think my days work was done and we’d get the train down the mountain to Wengen. We we’re promised an amazing outdoor pool in Wengen would be waiting for us to cool us down in the afternoon – and I bloody love swimming so naturally my mind was focussed on that and I wasn’t particularly happy about being all the way up a rock. Turns out my dad had no intention of getting another train that day. I was moaning pretty hard because the pool needed me. Luckily there was a viewpoint on the Männlichen looking down the Valley into Wengen. We were in the clouds but down there looked like a sunny heaven, and we could clearly make out a tiny, crisp, shiny, shimmering blue rectangle in the village. Seeing it managed to convince me that some more walking would make the cool water even more worthwhile, after all it was pretty cold at the top. Then I looked at the way ahead – either a million miles of zig zagging path down the mountain, or a death roll down. So we had to choose slow burn over quick death. Just what my dad wanted, it was a mere stroll for him.
    Eventually, after probably another four hours of my little legs (I wasn’t 6″4 then) trying to keep up with my 6″4 brother and ultra keen parents, we made it and walking downhill was way worse than going up. There was definitely no hotel searching until after a dive into the crystal pool.
    That was my own childhood marathon. I didn’t enjoy it at the time but wish I had. It wasn’t actually hard, I just hadn’t walked that far before! And I didn’t notice the Eiger hanging over me as I swam all afternoon, but I wish I had because the photo that’s hanging in the toilet at home of me jumping off the diving board with the Eiger in the background is pretty cool.
    Since then I’ve been back a few times and it really is my favourite place in the world. Now I haven’t been back for a few years so there’s the slight fear that it’s not as I remember. I’m not sure which is my Mecca though – my 12 year old self would say the pool, now I’d say the Alps, but deep down I reckon it’s the journey/struggle that is what makes a place like that special. I reckon you probably found the views a lot more spectacular than those who walked it and I bet right now you wish you’d spent 30 more seconds soaking it up!
    Keep up the blog man – sorry for my long story.

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