Anyone who has visited Chamonix will know that, amongst the picturesque alpine chalets, cascading waterfalls and bustling towns, a single mountain dominates the landscape: Mont Blanc. At 15,771 feet / 4,808 metres, Europe's highest mountain has been attracting the curious and adventurous alike for centuries, all drawn to a peak that, to this day, presents a formidable challenge to anyone attempting to scale it.
"I live in the Chamonix valley," explains Hillary Gerardi, who recently set the women's FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the mountain. "Mont Blanc is above me and I'm looking up there all the time. It is the FKT here. There are tons of races around Chamonix but it is the peak that is emblematic, symbolic for lots of reasons, and that had a really stout FKT on it."
The pursuit of FKTs (Fastest Known Times) became formalised in the early 2000s with the launch of fastestknowntime.com. Like Strava Segments, FKTs are records of the fastest runners, bikers or hikers on predominantly long-distance backcountry routes. In the case of Mont Blanc, the 'traditional' FKT route begins at the church in Chamonix, follows the Mont Blanc tunnel through the Grands Mulets to the summit - and back down again. A 19-mile / 32km round trip, the route takes in 12,700 vertical feet / 3,877 vertical meters.
While FKTs have been a feature of outdoor adventures for years, their prominence in the outdoor community exploded during COVID. "2020 was a fabulous year for me because all of the races were cancelled, so I got to go back into the mountains. I went up Mont Blanc with Mimi Kotka, and she said, 'You seem really competent and confident in this terrain - have you ever thought about the record?'. That planted the seed."
That seed was, however, put on hold while successive warm winters in the Alps meant that Gerardi was unable to make an attempt. "In 2021 and 2022, it was starkly obvious that we would not have the snow conditions necessary to fill in the crevasses and get across La Jonction. You know in March whether or not you can do it. It's not that you couldn't get across La Jonction, it's just that you couldn't do it safely and quickly. So for the last two years we were in drought, and I was able to say that it wasn't going to happen."
In 2023, however, conditions were different. Gerardi, who grew up in Vermont but now calls France her home, was able to call on the expertise of a network of local experts - including her husband, Brad, who is an ecologist and qualified mountain guide. After looking at the snow and weather conditions, she made the call that June 17 2023 would be the day for the attempt.
"I approached it by saying, 'there is a window to make an attempt - I don't know if it will work so I might have to go again later in the season – is that okay?' I went in thinking the conditions might not be right, but at the very least I will learn a lot and be better prepared for later."
As it turned out, conditions were good that day.
"I actually slept pretty well the night before – sleeping well from 9pm to 12:30am. I went to the church in Chamonix and took off at two in the morning.
It was 2 am on a Friday night and all of these people were coming out of the bars and partying as I was running hard through town, and I thought 'we are going to have a very different day'.
"You start in trail running mode in the forest – with fast hiking. In the same style, after 1,000m [3,200 feet] I put my helmet on, a windbreaker and tons of other layers. Then the fast hiking was the same, but first you use micro spikes and then steel crampons and then get roped up. All of this is in the dark.
"After La Jonction I took the North Ridge on the ascent because it's not exposed to serac fall, but it's a pretty steep pitch. I had fantastic conditions. But you're very much in the full Alpine zone – you can see giant seracs." [note: seracs are blocks and columns of glacial ice, usually formed by crevasses]
"I was working really hard, but I was also appreciating what was going on around me.
"I got up to the ridge, and it was really windy. My husband was guiding a client, and I got to cross paths with them on the way up and the way down. At that point I was alone, and it was a big boost to get to see him, even though we were shouting at each other as it was blowing so hard.
"Then, on the descent – man, that was where I appreciated my surroundings the least because you have to be so concentrated. Especially on the ridge I was going in cowboy mode saying 'don't catch a crampon'. I ran the snow – it was super hard so it was like running on downhill pavement until getting back to trail where I changed shoes.
"My friend Meg Mackenzie was at 1,400m [4,593 feet] with a pair of running shoes. So I got off the snow, pulled off my micro spikes and then I was like, 'Now we're switching back to trail mode'. We did a total Formula One change – she had brought a trash bag and I threw my backpack in, took off my shoes and pants, put everything into this bag which we hid under a rock and then ran back down.
"When I got to the bottom – to the road – and there was 2km to run, Meg said: 'Now's the time to empty the tank'. It's like the end of the race where you know you're nearly there and think, 'I don't need anything in the reserve tank now'. So there was physical exhaustion, but I didn't expect many people to come to the church, but there were all these people and so an upswell of joy, and I was like, 'holy shit, we went maximum!'."
Gerardi completed the 19-mile / 32.6km round-trip from Chamonix to the top of Mont Blanc and back to Chamonix in seven hours, 25 minutes and 28 seconds. It was nearly 30 minutes faster than the previous women's FKT set by Emelie Forsberg in 2021 (07:53:12). And it's a record that, given the changing conditions on the mountain, may be increasingly difficult to challenge.
"Before it was always possible," Gerardi explained. "There was a question about whether it would be possible, and this is something we will have to start thinking about in the mountains: there will be things [like FKTs] that are not even possible anymore. I was beginning to think it might not be possible to try this record again - and that some of these records would never be beaten - as climate change would make it so they cannot be repeated."
Whether or not the combination of the mountains and the climate 'allow' someone to challenge Gerardi's FKT remains to be seen. However, One thing is certain: if someone does stand a chance of bettering her time they will depend on many stars aligning.
"There are a lot of people interested in going from trail running to try and run higher things," Gerardi concludes. "In trail running we can focus on the things we can control – things like nutrition, fitness, knowledge of the route, gear – all of that stuff. But if you want to get into the mountains you have to accept there are a whole lot of things you have no control over.
"Being able to accept that there are a lot of things out of your control is really hard to do, but you have to accept it"