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Tracing the High Route from Annecy to Chamonix

Annecy has its lake; Chamonix, its glaciers. The two towns are symbols, the French capitals of outdoor adventure, and the two hotspots for trail running in the Alps. From the marinas on the Lac d’Annecy to the church in ‘Cham’, there are just 60km (40 mi) as the crow flies. One hour, twenty minutes behind the wheel on the autoroute. And on the steep trails of the Glières and the Aravis massifs? Around 110km (68 mi) of technical tracks with around 9,000m (29,500 ft) of climbing. On 12 June this year, five friends, brought together by ultra-trail-runner Vincent Viet, ‘traced’ the route across the mountains, plateaux and valleys. Almost 24 hours of running, with support, but with no grandstanding desire to set a record – the goal was less to make an impression than to inspire.

The idea for this route between Annecy and Chamonix – the ‘AnnCham’, as Vincent calls it – had been floating around in his head for two years. The Frenchman has often shone in races around Annecy (several podiums in the MaXi-Race) and Chamonix (5th in the CCC in 2016). But it was during lockdown that Vincent, faced with a summer without competition, refined his project.

A former Parisian, Vincent now lives in Annecy – of course! And it was at his Annecy apartment that he convened his four companions for the crossing: two young French talents, Paul Mathou and Romain Berger, and two old comrades from previous adventures, solid trail-runners Pierre Gapihan and Adrien Tarenne.

The five set off under slightly menacing skies from the Petit Port in Annecy, at 8 P.M. on Friday 12 June.

The first kilometres until dusk take the runners above the lake. After an hour of climbing they reach Mont Veyrier and are sprinkled in a shower. The sun has already gone. The warm-up is over.

“What the Strava Routes planning tool brings is a breakdown of the different parts, of each mountain range. Thinking segment-by-segment is the essence of Strava,” says Vincent.

After 17km (10.6 mi), night has already fallen and it’s time for the first break, near Dingy Saint-Clair – a food-stop organised by Camille, Tess and Charlotte, Vincent’s wife. Coffee, coke, cookies: morale is good.

For Paul, the youngest of the five, the 'AnnCham' route a leap into the unknown. The 27-year-old runner has never run further than the OCC's 59km (39 mi), the race in which his fourth-place finish in Chamonix last year revealed his talent. “I was a bit apprehensive,” he tells Strava later, “because it [the ‘AnnCham’ crossing] was also the very first time I’d run at night like that. We climbed the Parmelan beneath the stars, I loved it!"

After the hors-d’oeuvres above Annecy and a night spent crossing the Glières plateau, the next day breaks with the third segment of the route, the Aravis mountains, confront the runners in the dawn light. To the west, the Tournette (▲ 2,350m / 7,709ft) is visible, rising above Annecy Lake. To the north, the Jallouvre (▲ 2,408m / 7,900ft), with the Pointe Blanche (▲ 2438m / 7,999ft) by its side. The course of the AnnCham crosses a col, slightly lower, that links the Lessy lake to the Chinaillon. It is just after 7 A.M. when the team reaches the Col des Annes which, at 55km (34mi), is the halfway point of the course.

The five gain altitude, cramponing over the snow in the shadow of the Pointe Percée (▲ 2,750m / 9,022ft). After an hour's ascent, they reach the Col des Verts (▲ 2,499m / 8,198ft), the highest point of their whole mountain crossing. “It was a euphoric moment,” says Pierre. "We had to take care on the climb, but it was worth the effort: when we made it over the top the view over the Mont Blanc range was awesome."

It clouds over as our AnnCham group, after 13 hours of exertion, move toward Sallanches. From the Col de Doran it’s a long downhill, losing over 2,000m (6,500ft) in altitude. It’s steep going at first, and then covered in snow, so it is only after the Doran Refuge that the five finally pick up speed.

“I don’t recommend doing this route in a day, it’s too difficult,” says Vincent Viet.

On the AnnCham route there are several refuges, as well as towns and villages to pass through. Chop it up into segments and it could be done in two, three or four days – far more manageable, and enjoyable, for most of us.

“Fall is the best season in which to take on this route, the trails will be clearer, and free of snow,” says Vincent.

After Sallanches, they stop at Saint-Martin-sur-Arve. The long descent has taken its toll – drawn features, and eyes closing between slices of pizza. The sky is threatening, locals are talking about a storm. It is almost midday and they are three hours behind their schedule.

“We’ve just had 10 days of rain, but, more than that, because of lockdown we are undoubtedly the first people covering these trails since last Fall. We lost a little time everywhere – descents that we should have done in 30 minutes were taking 45.” Vincent

A downpour provokes a decision from Vincent. Wet through since they began the climb to the Platé rocks, they branch off their itinerary and descend to a food stop at Plaine Joux without passing by the Dérochoir. It’s not just the rain – storms at altitude demand caution. The team finally decide that they’ll loop back via the valley.

“That’s the moment the adventure took on a new dimension,”says Romain.“You leave your competitor’s ego to one side and you make a rational choice. We came together as a group and took a joint decision, it was very powerful. It passed into the realm of human experience, and that’s why I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

Just before 8 P.M. the streets of Chamonix – which has just left lockdown – are almost deserted. Coming up the valley from Les Houches, Vincent, Paul, Romain, Adrien and Pierre finish in a little under 24 hours at Chamonix church, the traditional finish of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc races.

“Last year I abandoned the UTMB,” says Adrien. “It's weird to arrive here when it's so quiet. It’s difficult to be fully satisfied, since we had to miss out the end of the route, but even so we ran 110km (68 mi), and it’s really satisfying to have accompanied Vincent on this incredible project.”

“There are ways of improving it, little tweaks to the route,” says Vincent. “This story isn’t over for me, and I’ll definitely come back and do the end.”

Inspiring others was the aim of the five AnnCham runners – and they did not have to wait long. A week later, the American Hillary Allen and the Swede Mimmi Kotka – who live in Annecy and Chamonix respectively – completed the course in two days (Stage 1 / Stage 2).

Key segments of the route

- Montée d'Annecy au Mont Veyrier
- Crètes des Glières
- Montée au col des Verts (depuis le col des Annes)
- Montée aux fiz et au désert de platé
- Descente du dérochoir
- Col de Brevent
- Planpraz-Chamony

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