1000m Straight Up and Running Les Petits Balcons

More bad weather.  That means more running, hiking, blogging, coffee and beer with new people, croissants, then more coffee; reading, guidebook oggling, some drawing, some outdoor cragging, some indoor climbing, more coffee, some broken french, and so it goes!

Before coming to Chamonix, I had no idea that this is a paradise for running and hiking, even when the weather is bad.  The folks I have spoken with at the guide huts and gear shops are quick to mention the runs they might complete on their days off.  As I have strived to keep training despite the rain, I have had the chance to explore two great options for hiking and running: Les Balcones and the 1000m hike up to Planpraz on the North side of the Valley.

Les Balcones  (particularly Les Grand Balcon) are an engineering marvel, and testament to the popularity of outdoor activities and high-mountain access in the Chamonix valley.  The Chamonix valley runs from roughly SE to NW, and there are two sets of “Balcons” on each side of the valley: Les Petits Balcons et Les Grands Balcons.  This means in total there is the Petite Balcon Sud, the Petit Balcon Nord, the Grande Balcon Sud, and the Grand Balcon Nord. The most confusing part is that the Les Balcons Suds are on what seems to be the North side of the valley (see map below).  Each of these is a well-maintain path, hypothetically big enough for a 4×4, which can be used by bike on or foot. They essentially extend from Argentiere to Les Houches, the towns at the South and north ends of the valley.

Les Grands Balcons traverse the valley at roughly 2000 meters, while the village sits at 1000m.  The Grand Balcon is typically run as part of the Marathon du Mont Blanc, which is in the next few weeks.  Right now, giving the late-season snow, the Grand Balcon is still covered in snow, so it is questionable as to whether the marathon will still be run there or not.

In contrast from Les Grands Balcons, the Petits Balcons are very accessible and maintain an elevation of roughly 200m above the valley floor. They make for great running access out of Chamonix and the neighboring villages. I few days ago, I was able to run from my apartment, north to Les Bois, a more forested area with nested clusters of chalets, attain the Petit Balcon Nord, continue up to La Joux, cross the road, then run back along the Petit Balcon Sud and the river.

 

The above map has pins to geography of all this and a map of my run (elevation details here).

This is the first run where I actually mapped it out before hand.  Previous to this, I’ve just taken advantage of the fact there are trails everywhere, using each time out as a chance to explore.

On the Petit Balcon Nord, about 8km miles north of Chamonix near La Joux. Most of the houses in the foreground are chalets that can be rented for a few weeks at a time.
On the Petit Balcon Nord, about 8km miles north of Chamonix near La Joux. Most of the houses in the foreground are chalets that can be rented for a few weeks at a time.

 

One of the best parts of running here is that everything is well-signed. It would be pretty hard to get lost.
Everything is well-signed.  It would be pretty hard to get lost.

On Wednesday, instead of running, I took the gear for a walk.  A local fiend I’ve now been out with a few times, Simon, had told me about the nearly exact 1000m hike up to Planpraz from Cham central.  I threw a rope, a double rack, and two full Nalgenes into my backpack, laced up the mountain boots and followed the tight switchbacks up the lift line.

It is 1000m directly up under the cleared lift line in the middle of the photo.  Talk about access...
It is 1000m directly up under the cleared lift line in the middle of the photo. Talk about access…

Zoom in and check out those switchbacks right under the lift.  I have never seen anything like it!  The full map with data is here.

During each step, the views get more spectacular and the route a little steeper, all the way until you reach a set of (quintessentially-European) cables and steel ladders that guard the last 50m.  This hike is on the north side of the valley, so I crossed the Petit Balcon Sud near the bottom of the valley.

Looking down at Chamonix from Planpraz, 1000m from the valley floor. Planpraz is only half way the north side, where there are the Aiguilles Rouges.
Looking down at Chamonix from Planpraz, 1000m from the valley floor. Planpraz is only half way the north side, where there are the Aiguilles Rouges.  In the left side of the frame on the other-side of the valley, you can make out the Montenverse train tracks which crawl up the hill side at low elevation.  The train takes you from the village into the Enverses area of the massif.

Hopefully the weather will shape up, though its not targeted to for the next few days.  Until then more exploring down low, and more reading and drawing and writing, oh my!

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