Lindsay's written a great blog article on showshoeing for the timeoutdoors.com website — featured below too. We've still a few spots on select trips this winter: join us and enjoy the experience the beauty of the Alps on snowshoes. Contact us for more information.
❄ 'Snowshoeing in the French Alps' - by Lindsay Cannon ❄
What better way to experience the winter mountains in the Alps than a six-day traverse of the stunning Chablais, a true winter journey in an area renowned for its marvellous snowshoeing country? Escape the crowds, climb over high passes and marvel at the winter landscape, sample delicious local food, and just generally have a brilliant time!
Traverse of the Chablais, France
The Chablais is simply a winter playground of high alpine pastures, forests, jagged ridges and peaks. Geographically it lies in the Pre-Alps between Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and the Mont Blanc range in France. And snowshoes are the best way to explore this wonderland. Forget the idea they look like tennis racquets — that was ‘back in the day’. They are a great high tech piece of gear that you strap your boots into, made of light materials, with spikes on the front and bottom which allow you to gamble your way through the snow. Not to mention they come in a dazzling array of colours to suit every wardrobe!
Snowshoeing — what’s it all about?
Well, for starters it is the fastest growing winter activity in Europe — according to the snowshoe manufacturers sales are increasing by 40 per cent each year. Clearly there are people who enjoy walking in the mountains in summer who are realising what a wonderful way it is to experience the winter mountain landscape!
Snowshoes today are a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and did indeed look like something which would come in handy for a game at Wimbledon. Their use can be traced back to Central Asia and today, some 6,000 years later, they continue to prove very effective for travel in a winter landscape. The idea is simple really: the greater the surface area you have attached to your walking boots, the less chance you have of sinking into deep snow. Some say watching hares travelling across the snow pack inspired early humans to copy them in so far as they provided an understanding that large hairy hind feet stopped them sinking. Okay, there aren’t hairs on snowshoes, but it does make sense. Rather, the typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections. Having pushed my fair share of different snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.
How much previous experience do I need, if any?
Snowshoeing is open to anyone who likes to walk in the mountains. The great thing about snowshoeing is that you need no prior experience to do a trip like the Traverse of the Chablais, a fabulous six-day journey across the mountain range. You simply need to be able to walk in the mountains with a good level of fitness and be happy to be out for most of the day. Within half an hour of putting snowshoes on your feet you will be proficient, and will walk along quite happily. Typically we leave after a good breakfast at around 9 am, hike up to our highest point where we have our picnic lunch, and then spend the afternoon descending to the next valley, where we check into our cosy hotel.
Will I need to carry a heavy rucksack?
No – you’re spared the ordeal! A trip like this, a six-day journey totalling around 80 km over the week, is much more enjoyable with a light rucksack with just a few items for your use. Your main luggage will be picked up each morning from your hotel and taken to your next hotel by taxi. It makes life simpler, and the walk easier. You will need to carry a small day rucksack of about 25-30 litres in size with some items such as lunch, water, spare warm and waterproof layers, spare gloves, hat, and equipment such as a snow shovel, very useful for digging a seat in the snow for lunch! Your snowshoes, walking poles and all other equipment is supplied for you and included in the trip fee.
What is it like to ‘journey’ through the mountains in the snow in winter?
Quite simply it’s magical! It can also be an effort, as with all mountain journeys, but I’ve never met anyone yet who has done anything other than love the quiet satisfaction of a day well earned, and a summit won.
So it’s the morning of day one, and a few hours later we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottis at 1548m. A quick stop for views across the Chablais to the impressive limestone walls and jagged peaks, which in the days ahead we discover are a daily feature of this beautiful landscape and then it’s onwards to our first destination. By the time we reached the remote village of Bellevaux at the end of our first day you will be ready for a glass of wine or beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the journey ahead.
Next morning, as with each morning, it’s a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on the way, before reaching the high point of the day, in this case Tré-le-Saix at 1486m. A little further on, a stunning plateau awaits us and it is common not to find a single person in sight. Where is everyone else on these perfect alpine days? Three cols later and we drop down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for the tiny village of Biot.
There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most have beautiful squares with impressive stonework along with the inevitable elegant chapel, sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass.
One of the great things of course about a multi-day journey is it provides such a wonderful opportunity to forget about the stresses and strains of everyday life. You get up in the morning, consume several mugs of coffee and several hot croissants with generous dollops of jam, pick up your rucksack and start walking, until eventually you arrive at another hostel and a further opportunity for eating and drinking. What could be better?
The standout experiences and sights of snowshoeing in the Alps.
1. Standing on a high pass in the winter, taking in a view of sparkling snow-covered mountains that stretch to the horizon.
2. Walking through a landscape that is silent in its winter cloak of snow and ice, hearing nothing but the soft crunch of the crystals under your feet.
3. Leaving the crowds behind, and feeling quietly satisfied that you have chosen a winter activity that means no lift queues, no noise, no terrors on the piste, or the need to hire downhill kit or buy expensive lift passes.
4. Seeing your tracks laid out behind you and realising that you were the first person to set foot on the snow since the last snow fall, a pristine environment there for your enjoyment, but knowing you will leave no trace of having been there when the snow and your footsteps melt away.
5. The food — sampling local cheese from the farms we pass in the mountains is a real treat. Not to mention the local Savoyarde dishes that our small family-run hotels prepare for us — wonderful comfort food to see us through a day in the mountains!
6. The accommodation is really characterful, located in remote valleys in cosy family run hotels where a warm welcome awaits us. So far we have always been the only non-French group staying at these lovely little hotels. A chance to really experience the local culture and way of life.
When to go
The Chablais mountain range in France is best explored from mid-January to the beginning of March. This is usually the best time for snow cover, offering a real winter wonderland experience. It is generally not too cold at this time, but cool enough that the high passes have a plenty of snow: all the better for taking those stunning photographs! Furthermore, the days are getting a little longer — allowing more time to make the journey and savour the ice crystals sparkling in the trees, the snow flying around your feet, and the spectacular mountain scenery.
We supply all the equipment you will need for snowshoeing so you do not need to have the expense of hiring or buying before your trip. This includes snowshoes, walking poles, snow shovel, snow probe, and avalanche transceivers. Do not be alarmed at the mention of ‘avalanche’ – nowadays everyone who spends time off the beaten track in the winter mountains wears a transceiver. After all, we have the technology so why not use it? A transceiver is simply a device that gives out a signal that allows you to be located. It’s rather like buying a car with an airbag — you’re not planning to need it, but having it provides an extra level of security.
At first, to be quite honest, I could never quite appreciate the appeal of cross country skiing, having only briefly tuned in to see the epic exertions of Lycra-clad athletes on Eurosport one Saturday afternoon - from the comfort of my own armchair. I wondered whether a decade’s training might not be enough to get me to that level. Then I realised I was missing the point entirely!
As with any sport, cross country skiing can be enjoyed at many levels: just as many of us enjoy a gentle jog around the park on a crisp autumn morning, others choose the running track on weekday evenings to build stamina while following carefully crafted training regimes. We can all find our own initial level of ability, then set whatever objectives we wish to pursue while learning and developing the new skills our pastime requires. Cross country skiing is a rewarding activity where the initial learning curve allows us to quickly build confidence and enjoy the thrill of gliding through woodland and across snowy, serene landscapes.
Much of the appeal in learning the skills of cross country skiing undoubtedly stems from the discovery of a winter environment that stirs the senses, imparting memorable encounters within a natural setting that frees us from the everyday clutter and commotion of daily life. Often overlooked is the charm of Nordic skiing as a means simply to unwind and rediscover a gentler pace of life, and by which we become more attuned to appreciating the stunning beauty of the outdoors.
Complementing the sensations and thrills of learning to ski is the enjoyment of sharing the discovery with others on your holiday. Skiing in a group and learning together creates a great sense of camaraderie, support and friendship that enriches the experiences we share together in the mountains. The time we spend together exploring the trails on skis is but a part of the adventure. Enjoying the cuisine and hospitality; learning of the unique crafts, traditions and folklore of the region; capturing the amazing alpine light in our photos shared with others; exchanging stories of our exploits across the dinner table; getting to know our generous hosts at our evening retreats - all add to the blend of excitement and relaxation that you’ll experience on our winter trips.
At Tracks and Trails we have carefully selected and curated a choice of different cross country skiing trips to appeal to individual tastes. Each of the regions in which we run our ski weeks and weekends has its own distinctive appeal - our trip pages and itineraries provide all the necessary information to guide your selection.
If you’ve any questions or need more information on any aspect of our cross country skiing packages, please do get in touch - we’re happy to offer advice and help in choosing your trip. Should you wish to organise a private trip according to your own schedule and itinerary we shall gladly help with arrangements - pleased do phone (+44 (0)20 8144 6442) or get in touch by email. At Tracks and Trails we pride ourselves on providing a personalised, attentive service that best assures an unsurpassable experience for all our guests.
We look forward to spending time with you on the ski trails this winter!
This year I turned the ripe old age of 40. As an enthusiastic trail runner living in Chamonix, I have run many trails and taken part in a number of Ultra trail races. This year I wanted to make my 40th a little different: make it more of a challenge, push my boundaries and take me out of my comfort zone. I chose to do a triathlon, but not just any ordinary triathlon: this one was very different!! I am not a great swimmer, and to be honest don’t really enjoy it that much; I tend to find long distance swimming quite uninteresting. I am also not much of a cyclist. I own a mountain and road bike but they both really had very little use (until I took on this challenge). I thought the run section would be easy….. ‘I can do that, I thought!’
So, having worked with the Branson family and been the Manager on Necker Island, their private retreat, some years ago, I knew that every 2 years a charity challenge organised by the Virgin supported charity, ‘Big Change’ took place. It so happened that 2016 had the perfect section for me to attempt. Starting from the fishing point of the Virgin Strive Challenge 2014, this year’s event was to see participants hiking into northern Italy from the base of the Matterhorn, cycling the entire length of the country, swimming from the Italian mainland to Sicily, mountain biking to the foothills of Mt Etna and trail-running to the summit of the active volcano. They hoped to raise over £1.5m for Big Change, a social impact accelerator that helps young people thrive in life, not just exams. The final stage was arguably the toughest - the triathlon was a completely new format for the STRIVE Challenge series.
For the Core Team members (the 25 who were completing the entire Challenge in just 30 days) this meant swimming from Calabria to Sicily across the Straits of Messina, an infamous and treacherous stretch of water. Due to local regulations, Stage Strivers had instead to swim a coastal course of 3.3km off the northern coast of Sicily. Day 2 and 3 took the ‘Strivers’ on mountain bikes up steep ascents and then onward following the Perloritani ridge line for 65km approaching the foothills of Mt Etna itself.
There are few words to describe the beauty of this trail: from crests to gorges, to crevices and stunning views that suddenly open onto the Ionian sea, Etna, and the Tyrrhenian Sea where we could glimpse the volcanic archipelago. The final day of the entire challenge had all Strivers run a half marathon to within 10km of the volcano’s summit, where we meet volcanic guides and hiked the final 10km to the crater ridge, an incredible finale to a month of striving for the Core Team and a tough few days for the triathlon strivers. The event was a greater challenge that we had expected. We found elements of it tougher than we could have imagined, and there were many times when we had to dig deep to keep going. All-in-all it was a pretty epic event to be part of and, indeed, complete.
I certainly got the ‘Challenge’ that I set out for, and was happy that to have completed the swim section, which I had been most nervous about. The whole event was completed for a very worthy charity that is working hard to find, fund and support extraordinary projects that have the real potential to drive positive change for young people in the UK.
The fundraising continues, so if you’d like to support the Big Change charity you can sponsor me on the following link: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BexMcNeillie
Here's a great link to see the whole months' challenge in just 1 minute on YouTube
We are pleased have now confirmed our new cross country ski tour to Sweden.
Skiing entirely on groomed trails we will be leading a tour in the charming Dalarna region. Our itinerary offers a true taste of the region both on and off your skis. The trip starts with two warm up days around Sälen, exploring both the tracks and wilder mountain trails then progressing onto a fairly luxurious four-day point-to-point tour along the route of the historic Vasaloppet. All whilst travelling at a comfortable pace. There is also time to visit the capital of Stockholm.
Our Swedish Vasaloppet ski tour offers 120kms of relatively easy to moderate skiing over 6 days. We have graded this trip at 'Intermediate' level. This is the perfect introduction to classic ‘track touring’ as well as time to make improvements to your technique along the way. The four-day Vasaloppet tour also allows for a preview of the racecourse for a possible future challenge!
The trip at a glance:
- 4 nights in an historic hotel in Sälen with spa facilities
- 120km of reliable track skiing
- Perfect introduction to track touring
- Ski the Vasaloppet trail at a leisurely pace - 20kms per day
- Luggage transferred while you ski
- Qualified Nordic Ski Instructor
- Single rooms available
- Optional nights in Stockholm
For full trip details please visit our Scandinavian trip pages.
Please contact Julia on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions at all about this trip.
Why we should all be cross country skiing this winter: it’s the perfect boost for your running fitness.
Cross country skiing (a.k.a. Nordic skiing, or ski de fond) is currently enjoying a serious renaissance. Like the boom in road cycling and ultra trail running that’s taken the UK and US by storm in recent years, it’s no longer just nerdy endurance geeks and burly army boys who are hooked on this now-fashionable-again winter sports pursuit.
Unlike their Scandinavian forefathers, today’s Nordic newschoolers are decked out in on-trend, technical gear (from brands such as Oakley, Maloja and Salomon), while events such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden have attracted celebrity participants including Kate Middleton’s sister, Pippa. The Swiss Engadin Marathon – one of the biggest XC Ski events (even looks cool in writing!) has between 11,000 and 13,000 participants every year.
A US report from SIA (Snowsports Industries America) estimated that cross country skiing participation was up 29% from 2013 to 2014. Downhill skiing plummeted by a similar percentage. Possibly a reflection of a poor winter season? Or many defecting to join the free heel skinny ski crew? Probably a combination of both, and for good reason.
So, why is cross country skiing so perfect for runners (as well as for other endurance sports athletes)?
It goes without saying that cross country skiing is one of the best all body work outs around. Not only are you working both lower and upper body simultaneously, but the benefits to your heart and lungs are second to none.
Cardio vascular fitness
Professional cross country skiers consistently rate as having amongst the best cardio vascular fitness levels of all sportspeople. Skiers such as Espen Harald Bjerke have recorded V02 max recordings as high as 96, surpassing the cyclist Greg LeMond (92) and long distance runner Kilian Jornet (89.5). The combination of continual aerobic activity, endurance, bursts of power (when you hit a hill) and keeping warm at altitude make cross country skiing one of the best possible ways to improve your heart and lung capacity.
The kit (skinny skis with free heels, trainer-like boots with rigid soles and long carbon poles) might be lightweight, but it’s pretty clear from looking at the physiques of any serious cross country athlete that the skiing builds not just cardio endurance, but muscle power too. And the beauty is not just in building muscles, but also in that it builds the right muscles. Whether your main sport is running or cycling - or in fact any other endurance activity - the balanced muscle tone you earn from days on the cross country tracks will help you build the optimum base for your next endurance challenge.
The stance of a cross country skier – proudly upright with open chest and poles pushing behind you – is the perfect antidote to modern life’s postural disaster zone. Too many of us spend far too much time sitting slouched at desks, in cars, hunched over our handlebars, or running the same repetitive routes on tarmac. Our shoulders are rounded, our bellies are soft, our hip flexors and hamstrings are over-tight, our glutes don’t work properly, and we often have backache. Enter the cross country ski remedy. It is impossible to Nordic ski without engaging those lazy glutes and fire up your rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles and bring your shoulders back into line. Result: a long-term solution to improved posture.
Balance, proprioception and core strength
Not only does cross country skiing give all your major muscle groups a serious work out, you’re also challenging those little-used muscles that tend to get neglected. In particular, the muscles that keep your ankles and knees strong and safe from twists and sprains. While the uneven surface of trail running also has the same effect, the reality is that most of us switch to tarmac when the nights draw in. We end up in a routine of repetitive pounding without working on proprioception and balance. Core strength is absolutely critical for Nordic skiing too. You can’t ‘get away with it’ on cross country skis as your core is essential for holding form and keeping balanced, while you change weight from one ski to the other.
Joint protection and injury prevention
The smooth motion of cross country skiing is perfect for protecting your joints while you exercise. Although the sport is weight bearing, your skis are in constant contact with the snow, which means you avoid pounding. Any keen runner will know about the effects of impact, no matter how good your shoes and technique. Get into cross country skiing and your knees, hips and lower back will thank you, not just because you’re helping re-build muscle, but you’re also giving your body a well earned rest from being beaten up on winter tarmac. Taking the impact out while you build your fitness and strength helps protect your joints and prevent injuries.
Natural interval training
Most cross country skiing is relatively flat, especially when you’re starting out. But as you progress in the sport, the playground becomes a natural interval work out. Unlike running where you can slow to a walk or even stop, when the track starts to head uphill and you run out of puff you don’t have the same luxury on skis: slow down too much and you’ll start slipping backwards! Undulating terrain provides the perfect interval session as you’re forced to hit the accelerator to make it up each hill. And you’ll be so busy concentrating you’ll hardly even notice that extra effort. Plus of course, what goes up … which is a skill in itself (and a lot of fun, especially when you’re learning) on slightly wobbly cross country skis.
Cross country ski tracks are usually on the lower slopes of ski resorts, ranging from an altitude of 1,000m to around 2,000m in the French Alps. Not high enough to cause a problem with acclimatisation, but definitely high enough to benefit from the effects of altitude training. Spend a few days working hard at around 1500m and you’ll notice your usual sea level run or bike ride feels a whole lot easier when you go home.
Thrills, spills and adrenaline rushes
It might not feel like it when you first start out, Bambi-like with too many arms, legs, skis and poles to coordinate, but you’ll be amazed how quickly you ‘get it’ and can start picking up speed on cross country skis. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the wind in your hair as you whizz through snowy forests, propelled completely under your own steam. It also goes without saying that anything involving balance and speed will also involve a little dose of adrenaline.
Challenge and fitness
Cross country skiing is simultaneously challenging and accessible for all abilities – from complete beginners to experts. To get going enough to enjoy it and feel the fitness benefit is relatively easy. To become technically expert is an ongoing investment. Learning something new is one of the best ways to improve your fitness, whatever your training goal. If you don’t keep challenging your body in different ways it will never need to change or improve. So, while you might still be doing your usual 10km or clocking up 100km per week on the turbo, you’re not actually getting any fitter or seeing results. Frustratingly, you’re just maintaining your fitness level. Learning a new sport and seeing your own progression and improvement is a fast track (and fun!) way out of that plateau.
Whether or not you wear a heart rate monitor and clock your effort while you ski, your body will pretty quickly tell you it’s hungry! The combination of head to toe exertion, altitude and cold air temperatures make cross country skiing top of the list of fat-burning activities. A boost to your metabolism and absolutely no excuses needed to indulge.
And … Adventure
As a runner, cyclist or other endurance athlete – at whatever level – a large part of why you love your sport is about the journeys that you go on. Travelling, exploring, seeing new places, meeting people, participating in events, improving, spending time alone with your thoughts or connecting with friends. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned skater, cross country skiing also taps into that sense of journey and adventure. If getting away from it all is your goal, then with minimal kit and a small pack you can spend days travelling point to point under your own steam in some of the most stunning and remote winter environments that Europe has to offer.
Feeling inspired? Then take a look at our Nordic ski holidays.
Julia Tregaskis-Allen, Director of Tracks and Trails, was interviewed as an inspirational piece for the website Love Her Wild. Set up to acknowledge all the great female adventurers out there Love Her Wild has been created to share, inspire and inform women adventures all over the world.
Last month publisher Bex Band met up with Julia to find about her job and career path to becoming an International Mountain Leader and the setting up of Tracks and Trail.
Read the full article here.
"Last September I was looking for a trail running holiday and came across Tracks & Trails’ week-long Alpine Trail Running Camp. I booked and headed to Chamonix - little did I realise what it would lead to...!
The Camp, for all levels of runner wanting an introduction to mountain trail running, covered a lot - from orienteering, speed hiking a climb on the world famous Mont Blanc Marathon route and other mountain runs practising technical trail technique, to running form instruction and heart-rate monitoring. Coupled with accommodation in a lovely chalet close to town with a hot-tub looking to the mountains (perfect for
relaxing tired legs!), it was an excellent week I really recommend.
Now I'd heard of the Mont Blanc Marathon (a tough 42km mountain marathon with 2,800m ascent / 1,700m descent), but the Camp inspired me to try it - I got lucky in the ballot for 2016 and faced the task of getting myself ready to join the 2,200 odd runners at the start in nine months' time!
The discussion on Camp about building training plans came in very handy and I made one. Sticking to it and setting myself some intermediate race goals to keep focused (including a cross-country ski marathon, instruction for which again thanks to Tracks & Trails!), I completed the 2016 Mont Blanc Marathon in a very satisfying 7 hrs 12!
For all you runners, it's definitely one for the list - an incredible race through some stunning mountain trails and an amazing atmosphere
(notwithstanding some lads at about 6km in, brandishing bottles of beer, their van stereo pumping out "Highway to Hell"...)!
If you've never been mountain trail running before, don’t worry - book one of Tracks & Trails' running weeks as they will certainly get you hooked and who knows what you'll be signing up for next...! Thank you Tracks and Trails"
Greener adventure tourism: how we can better protect nature’s resources
As an adventure travel company, Tracks and Trails has been a pioneer in developing a more sustainable approach to both summer and winter tourism. Our long-term commitment to protecting the environment is best evidenced by the approach we created and nurtured in our ongoing sustainability programme. Over time we’ve further developed and enhanced this program for our clients in each of our travel products. Recognising our approach, as early as 2010, when the Tracks and Trails business was still in its infancy, we were identified as a leader in greener, more sustainable travel. Ten travel and tourism experts judging entrants in The Guardian Green Travel List selected Tracks and Trails as a leader amongst travel companies that had significantly reduced their business’s carbon footprint. Tracks and Trails was chosen primarily for its innovative and sustained engagement in finding solutions to develop lower impact travel by encouraging the use of public transportation and more environmentally friendly accommodation services in its products for travellers. In 2011 we gained yet another stamp of approval from 'Much Better Adventures' - a website working to promote companies offering a genuine, sustainable approach to travel and adventures in the outdoors.
We believe as a business that we can do our bit by offering activities that are kind on the environment while subtly educating our guests and local people about the need to protect and preserve the environment. Tracks and Trails takes the time to develop itineraries that are sensitive to the needs of the environment and also help sustain the local communities in which we travel by engaging and supporting small local businesses and having a strong "no trace" policy where they leave only footprints. We understand that in developing our activities and providing a positive travel experience for our clients we can also pass on our knowledge and expertise to those businesses, public agencies and other individuals whom we come into contact on a daily basis - in this way we share our understanding of sustainability and develop its practice, but also take the time to listen and gain feedback from others living and working where we travel.
The process of engagement and discussion often provides us with new insight and opportunities to further develop our approach to sustainable tourism and encourage other tour operators to participate in dialogue and work towards limiting our long-term impact on the environment and the depletion of natural resources. In this respect we see our ongoing engagement in working with other partners in the outdoor and travel industries to develop access to outdoor programs and sports activities for young people as a key part of widening consciousness, and recognition that sustainability is critical to our long-term wellbeing as a society.
South Tyrol, known by the Italians as Alto Adige and German-speakers as the Südtirol, is a picturesque, tranquil region in northern Italy and home to the Dolomites mountain range. The Dolomites, also known as the ‘Pale Mountains’ for their limestone hue, are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the South Tyrol’s truly unique natural wonder. It’s no exaggeration to say that the forests and mountains here are widely regarded as being among the most attractive landscapes in the world. Indeed, the recognition given by the protected status of UNESCO since June 2009 is testimony to just how well preserved and unspoilt the natural environment remains.
This region of the Alps originated from the collision of two tectonic plates, forcing the rocks to soar skyward and create the dramatic limestone vertical walls, sheer cliffs, ridges and narrow, deep valleys for which the Dolomites are known. The mountain range in fact took its name from another Francophone, the geologist Deodat de Dolomieu, who spent much of his career exploring the region. In 1788 he identified the composition of the calcium magnesium carbonate that is found in varying proportions in the whitish-grey sedimentary limestone rock. Within the Dolomites, which extend across nearly 142,000 hectares, there are eighteen peaks that rise above 3,000 metres, while some of the cliffs here rise upwards more than a kilometre and are amongst the highest limestone walls found anywhere. In fact, the remarkable geology of the landscape is such that the Swiss-French architect and painter Le Corbusier once described the Dolomites as the world’s finest example of natural architecture!
The mountains here were first settled in the Iron Age, after which the territory was inhabited in turn by the Rhaetians, Romans and Lombards, who first brought the Tyrol its distinctive Germanic influence. During the First World War, Italy joined the Allies and the front line during the conflict ran through the Dolomites from May 1915 to November 1917: the Austrians on one side, the Italians on the other. Nowadays the via ferrata (or ‘Iron Way’), made up of steel cables and ladders used by the Italian soldiers and partisans to carry supplies through across along the cliffs and through the valleys, are used instead by climbers with a head for heights! Thankfully the rich cultural legacy, including the beautiful architecture of the Habsburg era in the Tyrollean towns from the period of Austro-Hungarian rule, was left unblemished for future generations to enjoy.
Today the unique cultural diversity of the province matches the two traditions that prove perfect compliments: a harmony of Austrian Alpine custom with the Italian dolce vita (and passion for great food!). The local way of life has been well-preserved and the traditional hospitality is very much alive and well in South Tyrol's inns (gasthaus) and is handed down through the generations. The Tyrol is truly renowned for the unforgettable warmth and friendliness of the local people. The area is also blessed with fertile valleys in the southern part of the region which are well-known for winemaking, fruits, cheeses and other alpine dairy products: these staples of the Tyrollean cuisine are a great attraction for hikers and runners with a good appetite!
We’ve scheduled 4 week-long hiking trips on which to discover the exceptional beauty of the Dolomites this summer and hike the Alta Via. For trail runners we’ve also created Alta Via running weeks to experience this amazing high altitude trail: read more on our dedicated trip page to the Alta Via Run. Along its 120km length we’ll explore the wild alpine meadows, scenic valleys and villages and dramatic vertical peaks that make this trail such a memorable experience. Choose from one of the scheduled departures to hike or run the trail in either July or September - contact us if you’d like help choosing your dates!
Do get in touch if you’ve any questions!
Standing in front of the church in the centre of Chamonix, looking up at the sun setting on Mont Blanc. Breathing slowly to control the nervous energy. Waiting. Trying to make a personal space in a crowd of more than two thousand runners. Wired bodies and minds, tense, yet totally still. All poised to cross the start line. Ready to run into the night. Preparing for whatever the next two days will bring. Nervous, yet calm.
Then suddenly, running down the main street in a blur of cheering home crowds, hearing that haunting soundtrack that marks the start of every Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. And just running. Running, walking, crawling a full lap around Mont Blanc. For nearly two days, broken beyond broken but still putting one foot in front of the other. And all the way, feeling the support of the thousands of people involved in this incredible race. Not daring to imagine what it feels like to finish. Just once in a lifetime …
Long distance runner or not, it’s easy to see why the UTMB is legendary in trail running circles. One of those seemingly unachievable ticks for the bucket list, alongside The Hardrock 100, Badwater Ultramarathon and the Marathon des Sables, finishers of this race are awarded ultimate trail community respect, whatever their time. The UTMB has captured the imagination of runners all over the world, who flock in their thousands just to run on Chamonix’s trails and test their bodies and their will in the ever present shadow of Mont Blanc.
Now in its fourteenth year, this epic race crosses into three countries: France, Italy and Switzerland - a 170km/ 104 mile circuit around Mont Blanc with a staggering 10,000m+ of altitude gain. Taking place at the end of August, the whole mountain community in all three countries comes alive with runners, supporters, film crews, medics and an army of thousands of volunteers.
Places in this ultimate suffer-fest are highly coveted. On paper, it’s a race for super-humans, including Spanish Salomon runner Killian Jornet and The North Face’s British athlete Lizzy Hawker, both multiple winners of the UTMB. The fastest athletes cross the finish line in an unbelievable 19-20 hours, while the back of the pack are still on their feet after 2 nights and 2 days, non-stop.
American ultra runner Scott Jurek is a seven times winner of the Western States 100, author of Eat and Run and holder of the Appalachian trail record. Even as one of the US’s top ultra runners, he seriously underestimated the UTMB. Whilst he’s gone on to eventually complete the race it took him four attempts before finally crossing the finish line.
But trail running in Chamonix is about so much more than the UTMB. The town and its network of mountain paths have deservedly earned a reputation as a running Mecca, and not just for elite athletes. Quite simply, Chamonix is one of the best trail running destinations in the world; combining jaw-dropping beauty, varied terrain, easy accessibility, altitudes than are easily acclimitised to and unforgettable charm. But most importantly trail opportunities for ALL levels of runner.
Over the summer months and run up to the local trail running events such as the Mont Blanc Marathon, UTMB and Trail des Aiguilles Rouges events the Chamonix valley has an incredible, if not unique, vibe of ‘all about running’: shops dedicated to trail running, people of every nationality out and about the main street pre or post training in their running kit, all carrying small packs and poles! It’s as if the world of trail running gravitates towards Mont Blanc for an annual pilgrimage! And yet due to the thousands of kilometres of trail available in and around Chamonix, once out in the mountains it all still feels peaceful.
Broken down into bite-sized chunks, the route of the UTMB (or its sister race, the 103km CCC – Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix) can easily be an achievable holiday goal for runners of all abilities. With daily distances of 20-30km on mixed mountain terrain, and relaxed nights spent - actually sleeping - in charming mountain refuges or rustic alpine hotels; completing the route of this epic race is a realistic goal for runners of all levels.
Tracks and Trails offer trail running holidays for runners of all abilities. If you are new to trail running or want to simply ‘feel’ the unique vibe of running in trail running ‘mecca’ of the world then join one our Alpine Trail Running Camps
If you would like to run point to point then look at our 4-6 tours including the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail.