The Insider’s Guide to navigating the famed mountain town during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
Every summer, the iconic French mountain town of Chamonix swells with ultrarunning fans and athletes alike. The village, really just a few square kilometers in size, houses 4,000 or so residents. A similar number of Chamoniards live in the outlying villages of Les Houches, Servoz, Argentière, Le Tour, and Vallorcine. The last week of August, however, that number goes up — way, way up — by another 100,000 people. That’s the UTMB Mont Blanc factor, and it sometimes makes you feel like you’re at Times Square on New Year’s. Only, instead of Ryan Seacrest, you’ve got Jim Walmsley (admittedly, a big upgrade). And instead of drinking a beer, you’re handed a flask and told to run for the next 36 hours.
If you’re one part of that six-digit number, following a few simple strategies can make the difference between the trail running trip of your lifetime or a European-Union sized migraine. The goal, after all, is to leave the valley feeling like you just ran 100-miles around Mont Blanc because you did — not because you went to one too many parties from Hoka, or Buff, or Scarpa or Isotar (don’t ask) or, well, any one of the 100+ trail running companies that are hosting events in the valley during the Super Bowl of trail running.
I’ve lived through the Capitale Mondiale du Trail human frenzy something like ten times now. If you love trail running and can swing the cost and days off, it’s a must-see moment at least once in your life. Here are a dozen tips for surviving it all intact. (I’ve got dozens more, but you’ll have to bribe me with chocolate almond croissants from Al’pain. Just, please, not during UTMB week.)
#1 Plan Stupidly Far Ahead.
It’s too late for this year, but if you’ve got one eye on Chamonix, start planning early. Tour companies, for example, have already made their hotel bookings for 2023. If you’re headed to “Cham” this year and looking forward to some nice dinners out, make your reservations online before you touch down, or as soon as you arrive in town. If you simply show up at a restaurant hoping to get a table, expect a look of incredulity akin to, say, asking at the Super Bowl on game day if any tickets might still be for sale.
#2 UTMB is Trail Running’s International Convention. Act Accordingly.
Be forewarned: if you think you’re coming to Chamonix for a trail race, you’re only partly right. UTMB has become trail running’s de facto international convention. Which is great because where would you rather meet a world of new trail running friends, Dallas, or Chamonix? Long ago, the week reached a sort of critical mass that sucked everyone else up in its gravity. UTMB now also doubles as the place to meet folks, whether you are working in the heart of the trail running industry or just orbiting nearby. Put it this way: at the “Salon Ultra-Trail” — the exhibitor’s area — there are over 130 exhibitors. I once counted no fewer than eight energy gel purveyors. I rest my case.
What does this mean for you? Brace yourself for a world class case of FOMO. Approach the week the way you would a manic business convention. Strategize carefully about which parties and events you are going to check out. And block out plenty of time for sleep, especially if you’re racing.
#3 Airbnb Alert.
After, say, 15 years of UTMB, a number of locals have decided to score a few extra euros, and go somewhere quieter for the week. When you rent, get exact details about the location. If it’s on a busy pedestrian street, such as Avenue Ravanel le Rouge, ask if the apartment faces the action or is on the quieter backside. And always bring earplugs (better yet, Ambien, but you didn’t hear that here). If you have a hotel room, specifically ask if a quiet room is available.
#4 Ditch the Car.
When UTMB says to use public transportation or carpool, please believe them. The Chamonix valley is narrow, and there is just one major through-road. Les bouchons form quickly, bringing traffic to a standstill, since there are few alternate options. If you must drive to the valley, take advantage of the UTMB and the commune of the Chamonix valley’s host parking lots on the outskirts. They also provide transportation into town.
Better still: take one of the great shuttle services from the airport, and make use of the train, the excellent bus network, and free buses added especially for the week. You’ll stress less, and you’ll be helping all of us out. Guests at hotels receive a free “Carte d’hôte” guest card that gives you free transportation within the valley.
Still not convinced? The valley needs your help. Auto exhausts can get trapped in the valley’s V-shaped topography, making the air unhealthy at times. And those glaciers? They are receding from climate change. Every positive action helps.
#5 Racing? Sort Out Your Matériel Obligatoire Before You Arrive.
UTMB is strict about its required gear list and for good reason. The Alps are big mountains, and every now and then a raging mountain storm passes through, bringing cold temps and, sometimes, snow. (See: 2017, Grand Col Ferret, when runners battled snow and high winds.) Local shops will be well-stocked with the required gear, but nonetheless often run out. So, be fully packed with all the right gear before it’s time for wheels-down.
#6 Use Some French, Any French– and Always Say, “Bonjour!”
This is not specific to UTMB, but it will help in Chamonix, too: To a French person, it’s rather rude to wander up and say, “Hey buddy, where’s the bathroom around this joint?” The French are, to broadly stereotype, gracious and polite. All conversations, no matter how mundane, begin with shared hellos.
Case in point: I once witnessed a friend who runs a local cafe glare at a customer who walked in and ordered. After a long, very awkward silence the vacationing Parisian — Chamonix’s equivalent of a New Yorker — realized the error of her ways, and offered a Bonjour, allowing the conversation to start. No matter how little French you have, use what you got. Whomever you’re talking with will almost certainly switch to English to help you out, but the gesture will be appreciated.
#7 Sneak Off and Enjoy Some Quieter Trails.
At the risk of raising the ire of my local friends, there’s a lot more trail running in the Chamonix valley than just the Balcon Nord and Balcon Sud. (Those are classics, however, and if you just have a few days, you should do them. See the Fatmap link at the bottom of this article for the routes.) A few suggestions:
#8 Head Off for an Overnight Timeout.
If you’re coming to Chamonix for the week, take a day or two and enjoy one of the villages elsewhere in the Espace Mont Blanc. There are a lot of great, atmospheric places to visit that are along the UTMB course. Top picks: Courmayeur, Italy, Les Contamines, France, and Champex, Switzerland.
#9 Dodge the Tunnel.
The Mont Blanc tunnel, connecting Chamonix with Courmayeur, Italy, is a marvel that has changed the very nature of life in the region. But, during busy periods — and UTMB is chief among them — traffic can be brutal. It’s not unusual to spend an hour waiting for access. Stack the odds in your favor by going through early in the morning or late at night, or better yet please use the bus from Chamonix’s bus station. There’s regular service courtesy of Flixbus and Savda. Want to check the “fluidity” and traffic forecasts for the tunnel? Grab the TMB Mobility app.
#10 Duck Down the Alleys.
During the height of UTMB week, it can be hard to move around town at busy times of day. But… keep your eyes peeled. Chamonix locals know all kinds of local side alley shortcuts. Once you discover them, you’ll feel like you found a break in the fabric of space-time. (Hint: Start your search behind SuperU.)
#11 Here’s Your Chamonix Mini-Guide.
Like every tourist town, some restaurants are tourist traps (here’s looking at you, Irish Coffee). And, some service providers can be, well, lacking at best. Here are the companies we like to use for Run the Alps — they’re reliable and friendly, even during the mad crush that is UTMB week: Mountain Dropoffs for airport shared shuttle transportation, Clinique du Sport, who are the best physical therapists in town, bar none, book well ahead), Moody Coffee Roaster for serious bean aficionados, Galerie Café des Aiguilles for Emily’s great cuisine, L’Atelier Cafe for people watching, Chez Richard for the best baked goods, Bizes for a quiet night out, La Calèche or Le Monchu for cheesy Savoyard dinner. There’s a full guide, here.
And you must go to Poco Loco for a burger, because, well, it’s Poco Loco and you’re in Chamonix. And when it’s all said and done? Book some down time at the new QC Therme spa, and soak outside taking in the mountains.
#12 Expect Delays and Road Closures When Traveling During Races.
If you have to travel to support a runner or simply want to take in the races from around Mont Blanc, use the special buses arranged by UTMB. Better yet, watch the races when runners are returning to Chamonix, and the rest of the time, kick back and stream it courtesy of UTMB’s excellent live coverage, which sets the bar for live play-by-play of the races with hosts like Dylan Bowman and Corrine Malcolm.