As one of the world’s most famous trail races kicks off in Chamonix, France this friday, The Outdoor Journal gives you an insight and a detailed coverage of the event
The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc enters its eleventh year in 2013 and has grown from being called ‘a tough race in Europe’ to ‘one of the most difficult foot races on earth’. Back in 2003 when it began, it had a total of 722 runners (of which only 67 finished) and has picked up in the past 11 years to reach an overwhelming 2,300 in this year’s edition. The unique factor of UTMB (as it’s also called) is that the runners traverse through three countries en route- France, Italy and Switzerland, a complete round trip of the Mont Blanc!
UTMB has it’s own justifications for being called one of the toughest races on earth- a total distance of 168 kms, running at a cumulative elevation of 9,600 mts (31,496 ft) and racing uphill and downhill- through rocky terrains and ridges. It has a cut-off time of just 46 hours, after which the race is closed. Pros and elite runners finish way before the alloted time. Trailers from around 75 countries take part, average age of a runner being 43yrs and who has a minimum of 7 qualification points (the 7 points have to be acquired with a maximum of 3 high endurance races under his/her belt).
With, surprisingly, ‘no prize money’ awarded to the winners, UTMB still attracts the adventurer runner. For Frenchman Gael Couturier, The Outdoor Journal’s Editorial Director, ‘finisher’ in four already, this would be his fifth UTMB. According to him, already in Chamonix today, “trail running is more about the purity of running in nature..as soon as you introduce money into this, it loses it’s essence. Fortunately for the race, since it’s so famous now, brands bring over their own runners from around the world and pay for their expenses. But this year, some great runners have kept themselves away from the run, including Kilian Jornet (Spain)- three time winner, Lizzie Hawker (UK)- five time winner, and also Americans Dakota Jones, Dylan Bowman and English Ellie Greenwood. Are they skipping the race because there’s no prize money? That’s the kind of talks doing rounds among top-notch athletes here in Chamonix!”
Gael added: “UTMB is one of the most famous and difficult races out there. Period! Being a finisher is in itself a great achievement. It means you’re tough. Weather and elevation gains are crazy here, a place where the phrase ‘never, ever, quit’ means a lot. It’s often weak temperament that forces runners to stop, not as much as their body, which is in pain for sure, but which can also probably take some more. It’s also a very beautiful race as this mountain is fascinating.”
The 2013 edition of The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc will kick off this Friday, August 30, from the center Chamonix, France at 16:30 hrs (local time). It shall witness 2,000 volunteers accompanying the 2,300 participants through the alpine terrain.
It’s a complete loop around Mont Blanc, with runners crossing borders of three countries in the entire course. The route stays the same: Chamonix (France)- Col de Voza- Les Contamines- Croix du Bonhomme- Les Chapieux- Col de la Seigne- Mont Favre- Courmayeur (Italy)- Grand Col Ferret- Champex (Switzerland)- Trient- Vallorcine- and then back to Chamonix, France. Phew!
Looking back into the previous editions of UTMB, Spaniard Kilian Jornet (read more about him) won it 3 times (2008, 2009 & 2011) and has the second best time in UTMB (20h36), close behind Dachhiri Dawa Sherpa (who clocked 20h05 in 2003, the very first year of the race). Frenchman Francois D’Haene took 10h32 to win the 2012 edition.
Note: In 2010, the race was simply put to a stop. In 2011, however, it was a bit longer due to unfavourable weather conditions along the original route. Last year again, hostile weather conditions forced the organisers to shorten the route. We hope 2013 stays a ‘normal’ year as far as weather forecasts are concerned.
Petite Trotte à Léon aka PTL, an enlarged UTMB
By Gaël Couturier
‘Far from the beaten tracks’- say the web ads for the race. Looking at the happy and relaxed faces of runners slowly strolling their way to the start, it looks more like your average 10 km run. May be it’s the loaded backpacks that betrayed them or the excited voice of Catherine Poletti, the Race Director, giving them- the runners, their families, passers-by and journalists- a motivational speech.
A quick look at the figures and you can infer that this race is the most insane of them all, around the Mont-Blanc: 300 kilometers on a route that is different every year; a route that’s not way-marked but only mapped (GPS waypoints and maps supplied), with about 24,000mts (78,740 ft) of altitude and an absolute rule to be self-sufficient on anything, including water- yes, including water!
A Brazilian runner on my left is already itching for the race to begin but is already overawed by the grandeur of the event. You don’t decide to run or trek 300 kms non-stop with a maximum authorized time of 136 hours over the weekend. He could probably have spent months and months training, saving money for this trip, to a different part of the planet, to run one of the craziest of races. And there he was, at the starting line!
Someone once said, that being alive and in good health while at the starting point of an ultra, was good enough. The rest- the race in itself- was the cherry on the cake. For this South American trailer, this statement was certainly true.
The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.
Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.
No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.
A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.
We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.
These lands, however remote, are important.
Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.
The Mongols invented the modern world*
The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.
Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.
REAL MEN TROT
I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.
I learned what that meant the next day.
The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?
And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.
Sabine crosses a river along with Stinky, the resident guard dog, who followed the horses and was very much a part of the team.
Mongolians worship the sky and we understood why after witnessing the big blue skies and red sunsets of the steppe.
Though every Mongolian doesn’t ride, those who do seem to have horsemanship in their blood. Here, expert horseman Buyana races up a hill at one of our campsites.
Our horses enjoyed grazing freely by the tents every evening, as the riders ate dinner and got settled at the campsites for the night.
Jackson was interning with Stone Horse over the summer and showed us a few tricks, including how to throw a lasso.
We met a group of students who were practicing their archery skills just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.
a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities
But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.
When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.
We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.
The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.
One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.