Article by Ben Saunders
I’m back in London after a brilliant few days in the French Alps, waking up (except when it was raining) to wood-clad chalet walls, snow-clad peaks, verdant forest, Heidi-style wildflower-dotted pastures and squeaky-clean mountain air. The reason for the trip was to have a bash at the Chamonix Vertical KM – part of the Marathon du Mont Blanc running festival – a 3.8km race from central Chamonix to the top of the Brévent piste, that gains a heady 1000m in altitude along the way. In a straight line the course was 2km, so it was a running race up a 50% gradient, which is about as intimidating a prospect as it sounds, especially to a sea-level-dweller like me.
I’m not entirely sure if it was Tarka or his wife Katie that first came up with the idea of entering the race, but I’m glad one of them did. I do most of my running on the flat (or if I’m lucky a few bits of the British countryside that Chamonix’s walnut-tanned mountain men might generously call undulating) but my experience of genuinely running in the mountains has been limited to a few glorious outings with my brother in the Swiss Alps, and even then we’ve never been daft enough to make a beeline for a summit in a dead straight line, up a 1:2 slope.
Chamonix’s VK route zig-zags up the mountain following the Planpraz cable car, and if you look back halfway up (which I didn’t) offers the most amazing view back over the town towards the Aiguille du Midi. In many ways it was like condensing an entire polar expedition into less than an hour. I lost count of the times I secretly felt like stopping to see if the pain in my legs and lungs might subside, and I wrestled with the idea of quitting completely at least twice on the way up that hill, convinced that a twinge in my right knee was turning into an expedition-jeopardising injury (the voice in my head telling me to take it easy; that I had nothing to prove…)
I never suspected for a second that my performance would worry the Kilian Jornets of this world; the rake-thin world champ mountain goats who weigh in at twenty kilos less than me, the chamois to my shire horse whose hoover-bag lungs have spent a lifetime sucking up thin air at altitude. But the competition –as it so often is- was really with my own nagging self-doubt. I crossed the line in 55:32, and Tarka in 51:25. He’s done a few of these races and has a winter of ski-mountaineering in his legs, so I’m happy with both of our times.
There’s more at the event website if you want to know more (or fancy entering yourself next year): http://www.montblancmarathon.net/en/races/vertical-km
The entire Scott Expedition London HQ team have said they’re running it in 2014, so maybe we’ll see you there…
Aside from the race we’ve had a great few days as a team. We packed in a lot of photography and filming and although the weather was unusually bad on the day we headed up the lift, we ventured onto the Aiguille du Midi ridge in a stormy foray that I’m not afraid to say I found pretty frightening indeed.
We owe a huge thank you to Land Rover France for supporting us with a left-hand-drive Discovery 4 for the training trip, and to Intel, Mountain Equipment, Oakley, Field Notes and Maxinutrition for kitting us out in fine style.
About Ben Saunders: One of three in history to ski solo to the North Pole (and the youngest to do so by more than ten years), Ben Saunders holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Briton. He is an acclaimed public speaker, having received almost 1million views for his TED talks online. He is a Global Ambassador for Landrover, an Ambassador for The Prince’s Trust and a Patron of the British Exploring Society. Ben is currently training for the 2013 Scott Expedition, which aims to recreate Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole.