Saturday, July 4, 2015

Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy, and Switzerland

Hiker: Topher Gaylord, ultrarunner and president of Mountain Hardwear

Executive summary by darmansjah

Circling Mont Blanc—the rooftop of Western Europe—is one of the most special hiking experiences in the world. You travel through three different countries (France, Italy, Switzerland) and over several mountain passes with some of Europe’s most dramatic glaciers on display. You can soak it in and take your time over seven to ten days or fast pack in three days. No matter how you choose to do it, it is an adventure of a lifetime! —Topher Gaylord

Length: 104 miles

The Details: The most famed long-distance walk in the Alps circumnavigates the massif of the highest peak in the range. The 15,781-foot mountain is always there, looming above, but the trail itself is constantly changing. It dips down into seven different valleys in three different countries and tops out twice at 8,743 feet atop the Col des Fours, France, and the Fenêtre d'Arpette, Switzerland. It rambles along hair-raising sections of exposed rock as well as wildflower-choked meadows as it takes walkers back around the classic start and end point in Chamonix, France.

But it’s the civilization in between that really makes the trail special—you won’t have to worry about carrying a tent or even food here (which makes the trail an easier possibility for kids and older hikers, too). Stop at villages or huts along the way to gorge yourself with fondue, wine, slices of local cheeses, and homemade bread—then keep walking to work it all off.

You can pitch a tent if you choose, but there are plenty of options for a bed at night, ranging from high-end hotels in a resort town such as Courmayeur, Italy, to a bed in one of the cozy refuges up high. The walk normally takes about ten days, though it’s worth taking it slow and making side trips, including a climb of Mont Blanc itself, most often begun from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains or Chamonix. Or you can be like Gaylord and run the 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race in just over 24 hours.

When to Go: Summer, when huts are open and snow won’t block paths

About Gaylord: There are two, equally successful sides to Topher Gaylord. First, he is the top executive at Mountain Hardwear, an outdoor brand now owned by Columbia Sportswear that manufactures technical outerwear, tents, packs, and sleeping bags and has long been associated with authenticity in the outdoor space. Before that he ran an even larger operation, serving as the president of VF Corporation’s Outdoor and Action Sports International brands, which included the North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Reef. But don’t think he’s a stuffy executive planted in an office chair—Gaylord can also pound out adventures with his brand’s athletes. The accomplished skier, climber, and windsurfer is also a top ultrarunner. He came in second in the first North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in 2003, which he has run eight times since, and has been a top finisher in major races including the nefarious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Miwok 100K Trail Race, and Dick Collins Firetrails 50.

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