What is the Tor des Géants?
The Tor des Géants, TOR or TDG is an anti-clockwise loop around the Aosta Valley in Italy starting and finishing in Cormayeur in the west, and extending to Gressoney Saint-Jean in the west.
The route divides into two unequal halves; the first goes south from Courmayeur to Gressoney Saint Jean along the Alta Via 2 for around 200km. From Gressoney it returns north to Courmayeur along the Alta Via 1 for about 130km.
In the local dialect spoken in the Aosta Valley, Tor des Géants means Tour of Giants or Giant’s Trail and refers to the 4 four-thousand plus metre mountains surrounding the valley; Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Monte Cervino (Matterhorn).
Its a single stage race with around 50 checkpoints with food and water, 7 of which are called Life Bases which really means they are big checkpoints with more facilities. You have a drop bag that you can access at a Life Base for new kit, snacks, etc. which gets transported to the next Life Base for you when you hand it in.
There is a 150 hour time limit with corresponding cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. You can sleep at the Life Bases and at some checkpoint, space permitting. The race starts midday Sunday so you have until 6pm the following Saturday to get round the loop and back to Courmayeur.
The route is marked with little yellow flags marked TOR, TDG or Tor des Géants. There are literally thousands of them. In addition, green spray paint is used on roads and some stones to point the way. The route is easy to follow.
This is an interesting graphic that the organisers produced with all the hills, checkpoints, Life Bases, cut-offs, etc. Essential reading for all runners.
Preparation for the race had gone particularly badly. Firstly, I’d had a achilles problem at the end of February that prevented me from running until June and then when I started training again I got a knee problem at the beginning of August that set me back.
I hadn’t run for several weeks before the start of the TOR so I had made my mind up to walk it. Its so far that this won’t have been much of a disadvantage for me but did mean that I would have to go on minimal sleep rations.
Anyway I wasn’t hopeful about getting up and down the hills with my knee problem but I thought I’d give it a go and see how it went.
I pulled together all the info I thought I’d need in a spreadsheet. The mandatory kit was fairly standard except for the crampons (we’d be going over high mountain passes above 3,000m so snow and ice is possible in September).
The organisers had supplied several GPX files of the route. Because of the size of the files, I had to load them as seven files, one for each Life Base to Life Base section. I also loaded the waypoints supplied by the organisers that gave the Life Bases, most of the checkpoints and some of the higher mountain passes.
I arrived in Courmayeur on Saturday morning and checked into the hotel I was staying in, just outside the centre in an area called La Saxe.
Unfortunately, somehow my watch strap had broken on the trip to Italy so I went back into town to see if I could buy a new one. Now, buying a new Rolex would have been fine, but no chance to get a new watch strap.
So I gave up on the watch strap and decided to swing past registration as it was just about to open. I had not seen anything saying that registration would include a kit check although I suspected it would, and as I arrived at the Mountain Sports Hall I could see everyone had their kit with them, so I went back to the hotel to collect mine. By the time I got back to the Mountain Sports Hall with my kit, the line had grown a bit so I took my place.
It was a very slow moving line.
After about 3 hours I got to the front, passed the kit check, registered, got my race numbers, drop bad and GPS tracker.
So I went back to the hotel to sort out kit, drop bag, etc.
Section 1, Sunday
The instructions were to drop our drop-bag off and be at the start before 11:30am otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to start.
So I got to the start just after 11am and waited near the back. Since I was intending to walk this I was quite happy being at the back. There was a party mood on.
At midday we got underway with a run around town. There was quite a crowd out to cheer us on.
After a mile or so we came to the start of the trail which is single-track so we all stopped for about 10 minutes to get onto the trail. Once on, it was slow going up through the forest as we kept coming to a standstill.
Eventually we were through the forest and onto open pasture, heading up our first climb to Col d’Arp at 2,571m (a climb of 1,350m). It was sunny and quite hot on the climb so no bad thing that the pace was slow.
I was pleased to make it to the top and immediately start the descent down the other side. I had been worried about my knee which had been fine, I would soon find out how it would be on the descent!
The first checkpoint was half-way down the first descent at Baite Youlaz.
I didn’t really stop here as I knew we’d soon be at the bottom of the valley in La Thuile. I knew the way down to La Thuile and was soon in the town. A marquee was coming up which I assumed was the checkpoint as I could see people inside eating and drinking. Surprisingly, we were marshalled around and away from the marquee and up the road. Eventually, we came to the checkpoint and I got some Coke to drink, bread and cheese and biscuits. This was to be our rations for the week supplemented by pasta and soup.
From La Thuile it was another climb of just over a 1,000m to Refugio Deffeyes, and some more food and Coke.
A bit more climbing brought us to Col Haut Pas (2,857m). From there we dropped down to the checkpoint at Promoud at around 2,000m. It was getting dark now so headlamps on and our first excursion onto the TOR at night.
Navigation was pretty easy. Each yellow flag had a reflective tag on it so they showed up very clearly in our headlamps.
The last climb of this section was Col Crosaties (2,829m).
From there I started the descent to Planaval. Somewhere on the way I came across the sobering memorial to a Chinese runner who had died in a previous edition of the TOR. He had fallen and hit his head. RIP Yang Yuan.
From Planaval it was a few kilometres to Valgrisenche, the first Life Base, which was at about 50km. I had been moving for about 15 hours.
I drank some Coke and ate some snacks. I also had two portions of pasta with tomato sauce. I reloaded trail snacks from my drop-bag and topped up with water. I didn’t sleep here.
Section 2, Monday
So after the Life Base, was climb of 550m to the checkpoint at Chalet Epee. For some reason I was not feeling well. I had only gone a couple of miles from the Life Base when I was sick. Without any food in my stomach I quickly lost all energy. All I could do was move 100m and sit down for 5 minutes to rest and repeat. After an hour or so of this I started to feel better and my pulse began to come down so I carried on on the climb. With hindsight, I would have been better having a couple of hours of sleep in the Life Base before setting off!
Some folks had elected to sleep at Chalet Epee (there were various rumours of some Refugios being quieter, and therefore better for sleeping, than the Life Bases).
From here, we continued climbing to Col Fenetre, 2,840m.
I arrived there at daybreak, which was great for the views. From here it was a big 1,100m descent to Rhemes-Notre-Dame and another checkpoint. After that we had our first three thousand metre col, the Col Entrelor at 3,002m.
From here it was a 1,300m descent to the next checkpoint at Eaux Rousse. This was exhausting! But my knee was holding up. I was still nervous on the steeper descents but so far so good.
The last climb of this section was to Col Loson at 3,299m the highest point on the course. It was a real moonscape of boulders and scree and we were all moving slowly due to the altitude, but eventually we got to the top and had some wonderful views down either side.
There was a checkpoint at Rifugio Sella on the way down, and then on to Cogne and the second Life Base (1,531m). I had been going for just over 30 hours so I was planning to get some sleep here.
Firstly I got my drop-bag and got some food. Then I had a shower. Then I found the sleep marshall and said I wanted to be woken up in 3 hours.
This was a disastrous sleep. I don’t really remember sleeping at all (although its possible I dozed for a few minutes). Anyway, I got up after just over 2 hours as it seemed pointless to lie there, with my eyes closed, not sleeping.
After getting up I had some more food to eat and prepared to set off again. I handed my drop bag in, set my watch up on the third segment of the TOR and departed.
On paper, the next section looked fairly benign. One climb and a long descent to the next Life Base at Donnas at the lowest part of the course. Obviously there would be a gotcha!
We climbed out of Life Base to checkpoints at Goilles and Refugio Sogno, before continuing the climb to Col Fenetre de Champorcher (2,827m).
The terrain here was rougher than earlier with lots of boulder hopping. Good fun, but slow going.
I found a cow on the way to accompany me!
Eventually, the boulders came to an end and as we got lower there were some nice waterfalls and landscapes to see.
We came out into a picturesque town which I initially thought was Donnas.
Turned out that Donnas was a fair bit further on, but we eventually found the famous Roman arch; the gateway to the city.
After passing through the arch it was a few more kilometres to the Life Base. It was afternoon by now and very hot. My feet were hurting and I was very glad when the Life Base finally appeared.
I collected my drop bag and got some food and drink. After that I had a shower and planned to have another sleep. I think I went for 3 hours. This time I did sleep although I still remember waking up a few times.
After the sleep I got some more food and drink, reloaded my rucksack and loaded up the next stage on my watch and was ready to go again.
Section 4, Wednesday
It was getting dusky as I was setting off from Donnas, so there was just time for a few photos before it got dark.
I switched into night mode as we continued the climb out of Donnas. It was good to be travelling in the cool, but my feet were vert stiff and it took a few miles to loosen them up.
I was wearing my relatively heavy, but very robust Scott’s. These are a good trail shoe and cope with most things. I knew if it was wet they would do well and that they would cope well with rock. The only downside is that they don’t offer as much cushioning as, say, Hokas, and my feet were starting to feel this. The lack of training, combined with the rocky terrain were giving my feet a real battering.
Leaving Donnas, the lowest point on the course at 330m, there was only one way to go… up! There were checkpoints at Sassa (1,398m) and Rifugio Coda (2,224m) which meant almost 1,900m of climbing; the longest climb on the course. It was pretty exhausting!
After that there was a descent then another climb. Half way up was the checkpoint at Rifugio Balma where I got some food and drink before continuing up to Col Marmontana (2,350m) at daybreak.
Down the other side and the next checkpoint at Lago Chiaro where some barbecuing was going on, in addition to the traditional fare on offer.
After the short break I set off again, as ever following the little yellow flags.
Next up was the summit at Crena du Ley.
From here we traversed along to the Col della Vecchia before starting the descent down in Niel, and the next checkpoint. I don’t remember this checkpoint at all, but I probably got some food and drink and passed on through!
There was one more climb to get over before the next Life Base at Gressoney at the 205km mark. This point would mark the end of the first “half” of the TOR and from here we would start heading west on the return to Courmayeur. We would also change paths; the Alta Via 2 would end and we would be on the Alta Via 1.
So one more climb upto Col Lasoney, 2,385m.
Then down to the checkpoint at Loo before moving on a few more miles to the Life Base at Gressoney.
I got some food and drink and had a shower and decided to go for a longer sleep here. The facilities at Gressoney seemed pretty good, a large sports hall with a separate sleeping area. Showers were above average. I think this all contributed to extra faffing about. Anyway, I arranged a wake-up with the Sleep Marshall for 3 1/2 hours and went to sleep. Sleeping was quite good here.
On being woken I got sone more food, reloaded my backpack and prepared to head out.
Section 5, Thursday
The Totdret (baby TOR) starts in Gressoney and travels 130km to Courmayeur along the second half of the TOR route so we would have extra companions on the trail from here. They had already started so were by now, long gone.
Out of the Life Base, we climbed upto the first checkpoint at Rifugio Alpenzu. I passed quickly through here and continued the climb upto Col Pinter, 2,776m. On the way we passed some slightly lower cols.
Then it was downhill to the next checkpoint at Champolac and another at Saint-Jacques. After that I began climbing again, this time to Rifugio Grand Tournalin, 2,535m and then onto Col di Nana, 2,770m. From there it was a short hop to Col des Fontaines, 2,695m.
The sun was out and the views were fantastic. There was a photographer who pointed out Mont Blanc, Monte Cervino (Matterhorn) and Gran Paradiso.The Matterhorn was covered in cloud but then it conveniently cleared for a photograph!
Then it was a long descent to the next Life Base at Valtourneche. We came off the hill into the valley and then had a few miles on the road to cover to reach the checkpoint. When I got there they had rolled out the red carpet for the runners!
So it was the usual Life Base sequence of actions: get some food and drink and then have a shower. After that off to sleep on the camp beds, this time for 2 hours.
On awakening, I had some more food and drink, reloaded my backpack and launched the next section of trail on my watch, handed in my drop bag and set off.
Section 6, Friday
First off was a climb upto Rifugio Barmasse, 2,175m. There were some interesting sights on the way. Disused farms and villages, not accessible by road and therefore not attractive for modern living.
I continued climbing past Rifugio Barmasse, to Fenetre d’Ersaz, 2,293m.
From here we descended to the checkpoint at Torgnon before entering a section of undulating terrain for the next few miles. There was another Col Fenetre, 2,162m before the light starting failing. I was hoping to make the next checkpoint before it got completely dark, but in the end gave up and got ready for night, only for the checkpoint to be round the next corner. Rifugio Magia.
I was very tired by now and plenty of people were asleep in the checkpoint.
I decided to push on.
I think it was after here that I tripped up on something and found myself face down on the ground. Not sure what had tripped me up, but fatigue meant that whatever it was, I was unable to arrest my fall. Anyway, that woke me up!
Next stop was Rifugio Cuney. I rested my head on a table and closed my eyes for a few minutes. When I left the warm checkpoint the cold air was quite refreshing and I felt better.
From here we went over Col Chaleby, 2,693m. It was raining slightly and the wind had got up. I had my waterproof coat on over my tee-shirt which was plenty warm enough. Most people had plenty more layers on, including hats and gloves.
After a while I could see a strange green glow and then a green light. This turned out to be Bivacco Clermont, 2,705m, one of the checkpoints.
Again, there were plenty of people asleep here, but I thought it best to push on. It was a short climb to Col Vessonaz, 2794m.
This col marked the end of the undulating terrain, and there was a long downhill to Oyace. Once I got off the upper slopes the wind dropped and the temperature picked up.
I don’t really remember the checkpoint at Oyace, but I knew there was one more climb and descent from there to the next Life Base at Ollomont.
After Oyace, the climb upto Col de Brison, 2,508m had a checkpoint about halfway up. By the time I got to the top, daybreak had started.
There was a temporary checkpoint just after the col with water and some biscuits. The organisers helicopter these temporary structures into position for the race. I didn’t stop for long.
Then it was downhill. There was a checkpoint at Berio Damon and then it was onto the Life Base at Ollomont.
Section 7, Friday and Saturday
Ollomont was the most disappointing Life Base. It had the smallest footprint of the Life Bases, and was the most crowded. There was very little space to sit down anywhere. I got some food and drink and managed to find a bit of space in the sun to sit down and eat it. I had a shower (worst facilities) and went for a sleep. There was no sleep marshal so I had to set an alarm on my phone. The sleep tent was next to the finish line so there was constant cheering and cow bells so sleeping was terrible. I got up after about 1 1/2 hours and decided to move on.
First up was a 1,300m climb upto Col de Champillon, which was broken 2/3 of the way up by a stop at Rifugio Champion. Then it was onto the col.
It was good to get this one out of the way at there were only 2 big climbs on the section so getting one done meant that there was only one left in the whole race.
After the col, we tracked around some mountains for a while before reaching the Rifugio at Ponteille Desot. From here we were on fire track that was reasonably flat; a good runnable section for anyone still running!
The checkpoints came along; Saint-Rhemy, Bosses and Merdeux as the light faded.
It was dark as we set off on the final climb upto Col Malatra. I’d been travelling with Phil for a while; sometimes he would push on and get ahead; then I’d catch him up.
Phil had done the race several times before so knew the route pretty well. He pointed out the next checkpoint at Rifugio Frassati. We could see the orange lights high up above us. It looked a way away but not too far. Of course, its impossible to tell distances at night.
Getting to Frassati, however, took an age. The lights would disappear as we contoured around the valley to the right; then reappear as we contoured to the left, then disappear again. Every time we saw the lights of the Rifugio, it looked no nearer.
Phil was getting very tired.
We chatted about past races and other things, and the lights of the Rifugio disappeared once again. I got the feeling we were on the final push now. And eventually the Rifugio itself came into view.
Phil decided to sleep here; a good decision. I thought I would push on. We were only a few hundred metres below Col Malatra, the last climb on the TOR.
I got some food and drink and rested my head on a table for a few minutes before moving on.
Outside in the cold air again, I moved on quickly to get warm. It was slow progress but I could see headlamps ahead of me higher up. The col gets steep near the top and is slow going. There were some lights and I could hear voices.
As I got fairly near to the lights a voice shouted: “Hello”. So I replied: “Hello”. There was then some Italian, so I assumed some other conversation was happening. Then some more Italian which I ignored. Then some more agitated Italian. So I asked the faceless voice if he, because it was a male voice, spoke English. To which the reply came to use the rope on the left.
So looking to the left I saw some rope so grabbed onto that and followed it for a while. Then the smallest bit of Via Ferrata. Then some more rope and then I was in a gap at the top of Col Malatra, 2,925m face to face with the voice. He congratulated me on surviving and I was off again down the other side.
I knew the route to Courmayeur from Col Malatra as I have done it before. In my mind this was almost the end of the race as I knew it was basically 10 miles, mostly downhill, to the finish from here.
I was very tired now but happy to be descending. From talking to others I was aware that the race route had been changed a couple of years back due to some politics. The easiest and most logical way is to follow the valley to Rifugio Bonetti and then follow the well used path to Rifugio Bertone and then down to Courmayeur. However, to avoid Rifugio Bonetti, the race diverts people up a short climb away from Bonetti through Pas Entre deus Sauts, down another valley onto the path between Bonetti and Bertone and then down to Courmayeur.
There was a temporary checkpoint at Pas Entre deus Sauts, so I stopped for a couple of minutes. The folks inside seemed quite agitated about something, so I quickly moved on.
Up the small climb to 2,500m and then down the other side. This path seemed to go on and on, never coming to an end. I was wondering where it would come out. I imagined it would be nearer to Bertone than Bonetti. My left hamstring started hurting and I was forced into a strange walk to minimise the pain.
Eventually it did join the path, but to my dismay it seemed to be near Bonetti so I still had a few miles on this path. There is a rocky river section on this path where I managed to slip and fallover.
Eventually Rifugio Bertone came into view. I only briefly stopped as I knew it was a just a long descent from here to Courmayeur, the lights of which I could see below me. I really just wanted to finish at this point.
It was just starting to get light.
As I descended through the forest and the daylight grew stronger, so I started to meet folks hiking and running up to Bertone and beyond. The TOR is very well known in the Aosta Valley and generally the locals are very respectful of folks doing it. Most would step to the side of the trail to let you pass (even though most were travelling faster) and offers words of encouragement like: “Complimenti” (congratulations).
I made it down to Courmayeur and followed the signs through the park to main road which lead to the town centre along Via Roma. There was hardly anybody about as, although it was light, it was still a bit too early.
I followed Via Roma and then there was a yellow carpet and gantry signalling the end. At first I though there was nobody there as I took a photo of the finish.
But then I saw a few folks at the end to welcome me.
The race merchandise gives a distance of 330km with 24,000m of elevation. This seems to be widely known as understating the course; as if they produced the merchandise incorrectly and can’t be bothered to fix it. On the tracking website they were using 339km and 30,000m of elevation which would be 210 miles and 100,000ft of elevation.
My Strava trace got a bit confused towards the end and incorrectly added some extra miles but around 210 miles sounds about right. I had 95,000ft of elevation.
There were 894 starters and 534 finishers. I came 320th. which given my injuries on the start line, I was very pleased with. I took just under 140 hours to complete the course and had about 12 hours sleep during the race.
There was a presentation on the Sunday; no medal but a blue fleece to add to the tee-shirt and bag we had already been given. Plus, a “Finishers of 2018” photo.
- You can only finish, if you start! The “sensible” option given my start-line injuries would have been not to start this race, but I’m glad I gave it go. You never know. There is a fine line between being giving something a go and being foolhardy and knowing when to stop is a great skill to have, but sometimes you have to give something a go and see what happens!
- Its completely possible to walk the TOR.
- I can keep going on a couple of hours sleep in a 24 hour period. Not sure how long I could maintain this beyond a week though. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 2, 3 and 4 hours sleep in terms of refreshing the mind and body.
- Cat-napping for 5 or 10 minutes when really tired provides noticeable refreshment.
- All my kit was fine. I would however, consider shoes that are gentler on the feet, like Hokas.
- Having an assistant, as permitted in the rules, to aid the runner at the aid stations would save quite a bit of time. I would estimate half my time faffing about at the Life Bases could have been saved by an assistant. This would have amounted to 6-10 hours over the course of the race. The thing to bear in mind with this though, is that faffing time is also recovery time when you are not out on the course, so its not completely wasted.
- People were travelling in groups which towards the end of the race is sensible and helps pull people through the low points. This is probably a good race to do as part of a group.
- We had pretty good weather in 2018, but some of the higher mountain passes are very exposed, so if the weather is bad, it could get very bad. So make sure kit choices would work in bad weather.
- I am a bit of a pole sceptic but they really help in the race. There are very steep up and downhill sections.