Author interview: Kingsley Jones, Tour du Mont Blanc
- Thursday 18 June 2020
Kingsley Jones is a Tour du Mont Blanc expert having guided trekking and running groups with his company, Icicle, multiple times and competed in several Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc running events. His new book is the definitive guide to walking, trekking, fastpacking or running the Tour du Mont Blanc, containing customised itineraries to cater for a pace that suits you. As one of the most famous long-distance treks in the world, here Kingsley tells us what makes the Tour du Mont Blanc so incredible.
What do you think makes the Tour du Mont Blanc so popular?
The obvious answer is that big shiny white blob that you walk around! Mont Blanc is a household name, even among those who never have any intention to circumnavigate it, let alone to climb it. It's iconic, as it's well known as the highest peak in the Alps and Western Europe. So, before anyone every thinks of completing the TMB, it's already in our heads, on our radar. Next is the fact that there's virtually nowhere else in the world that you can visit three countries on foot, in just a matter of days, whilst making a circuit of a famous mountain. One day you're eating Beaufort cheese in a farm kitchen in France, and the next you're filling your face with pizza in Italy, followed by a rosti for lunch the following day in Switzerland.
On the TMB you feel like you are travelling around a massive Monopoly board, with the different zones being countries, and the Community Chest being full of different local food and drink delicacies. The 'roads' are in fact the trails and the variations, and there's a huge amount to explore. If you land on 'Go To Jail', it's missing a section to bypass it on public transport. So what are 'Park Lane' and 'Mayfair'? That's easy, it's the Refuge du Bonhomme in France, and the Rifugio Bonatti above the Italin Val Ferret. These are true highlights of the TMB. The analogy of Monopoly is quite accurate. Each day, each move, you can win big. That's what make it so amazing.
The smorgasboard of languages, cultures, food, landscapes, architecture, wildlife, geology and people, is quite unique. Then there's the range of places to stay, from remote mountain huts, to swanky hotels, as well as the choice of over how many days you wish to complete the TMB. The appeal grows, the audience grows, and the popularity soars. For some, completing the TMB might be a ten-day walk, while others are against the clock, measuring their cumulative time in a matter or hours. This is part of the attraction, in that however you choose to enjoy your TMB, it's mountain-people-watching on a fascinating scale, and the interaction of the different groups in the huts each night, is ever interesting. A true melting pot.
You've guided trekking and running groups on the Tour du Mont Blanc well over fifty times, what keeps the job fresh?
People! Will a one word answer do? No? Thought not. But it's true, as every day you watch people pushing their limits, growing their appreciation of the beautiful mountain region, and meeting others from all over the world. It's not just people setting themselves the TMB as a challenge, but how they adapt to the environment, to each other, and to the way of life on the trail. I've mentioned the psychology before, and I'll avoid a cliché such as saying people leave the TMB a changed person, but it is interesting watching how different people imerse themselves in the experience, and what moments trigger those changes.
On the first day, people are always worried. They ask the questions such as how long it will take to get to each point, as though it's some pre-prescribed coach tour. After the first few hours on the trail, the stresses start to crumble away, and the questions change to more inquisitive and personal. People want to find out about the trail and the people on it. Over the years I've had quite a few memorable groups, all of whom finished the TMB in style. I've guided a team who each were missing at least one limb, and they all completed the Aiguilles Rouges ladders as quick as any other group I've seen. There was a group about fifteen years ago who were sure they were going to be the first gay group to complete the TMB, and were gutted when they met not one, but two, other all-gay groups in one of the huts on the last night on the trail, followed by a mad rush the next day to reach the end in Les Houches. My team lost, as the others had set off at 1 a.m. that night, to be the first!
I've seen blisters, tears, smiles, people getting engaged, huge celebrations, and everything in between, but the most memorable elements are watching the people who open their hearts to the TMB, and who use the experience to consider other elements of their lives, and what they want to change. One day the salesman for the mobile phone company was glued to his phone for a three-hour meeting, as he hiked to the next hut. That night he was quiet. The next day he called them back to resign, saying he'd realised they controlled his life, and he wanted to be free. Now he lives in Chamonix, and is a friend.
Seeing other colleagues guiding on the trail is always rewarding. Some you see each time. Others you haven't seen in years. It's always nice to see a friendly face from afar, and to catch up, especially if you're staying in the same hut that night.
How do you think people's attitudes towards the outdoors has changed during lockdown and what do you think the future of trekking/running the Tour du Mont Blanc will look like post pandemic?
Yes, I think that attitudes have changed during lockdown. For those who already loved the outdoors, they have become even more precious and valued, and then there's those who the lockdown has actually proved to ignite a passion for escaping into the outdoors for the first time. I think once lockdown is over, there will be a lot of people wanting to achieve something that has grown in importance to them, during the long boring days of furlough or lockdown. This summer will not be busy on the TMB, as I'd expect busy mountain huts to be the last place people will feel confident of staying in, but to me the idea of wild camping the TMB is more appealing than ever. I want to see those landscapes again, and to speak to my friends on the trail; the hut guardians, the farmers, and the guides.
After this summer season, with all the current travel uncertainty, I think a lot of people will make bucket lists and plans. Next year, I anticipate will be very busy, as those plans come into fruition. Hopefully in the meantime, medication or innumisation against Coronavirus will be discovered and available, to allow people to confidently travel, mingle, and sleep in the mountain huts again. It's the huts that are one of the most memorable features of anyones TMB, and as confidence grows gradually again, it will be amazing to see them full once again, with laughter and voices babbling away over packed dinner tables.
Dreams have become even more valuable during lockdown. We have had time, arguably too much, to thing about what is important in our lives, what we want to achieve, and what we actually need or not. Every single person will reach their own unique conclusion, but for me, I have grown to recognise the value in the silence of remote landscapes, and how to appreciate them more. Too often in the past, I travelled through them without taking enough time to really take them in.
I expect after lockdown, to even spot trail runners on the TMB, stopping that bit more, to absorb where they are, and to engage with the landscapes. They'll stop, and perhaps sit and stare in wonder. Others will get up earlier to watch the sun rise over the mountains, and the light flood the valleys. The natural rhythm of life was always there, but we rushed too much in the past to appreciate it enough.
What makes a good guidebook and what's different about this one?
Inspiration! When reading it, the book should ignite a spark, to make you want to do the route as soon as possible. What generates this level of interest must be expertise and gems of information, which make you want to discover those details for yourselves. The guidebook will exude authority from the evidence that it's knowledge acquired over a long time, that has been carefully sifted, selected, and edited, to be punchy yet considered. A great guidebook needs to earn its place in your pack, and to be invaluable. It needs to look dog-eared from multiple reads and references, and in doing so, it becomes an even more valued companion. I know that my collection of guidebooks at home, are discernable by the well worn great ones, and the fairly pristine average ones. The evidence on the bookshelves does not lie.
Writing a route description for the TMB is at first glance, very easy. Turn left, and keep turning left, until you arrive where you started. That's wrong, and it was just the starting point for this book. It went back to the drawing board, to ask why one way around is better than another, and which route variations should be considered, and what the actual best route is. That was harder work, but it came together. Then we kept on smashing walls down, and moving back and back. How do we accommodate different user speeds, such as trail runners and slower walkers? How do we calculate their times? Is there a method for doing this? No, there wasn't. OK, so we break down another wall, and make a method, so a new formula was built to accommodate different ascent and descent rates, and horizontal movement speeds.
The Jones-Ross formula is revealed in this guidebook, and it was designed for timing calculations for different mountain user groups. The accuracy as good as the data that each user inputs into it. Your ascent speed may match mine, but our descent speeds could be different. It enables a completely customisable timing formula for each stage. My approach was to identify four distinct user groups, and imput average timings data from my experience of over fifty laps of the TMB. The timings groups enable this guidebook to be unique in that it is geared as much to a speedy trail runner, as it is a laden steady backpacker. I'm very proud of this inclusive approach.
As well as stripping back all the elements of the guidebook, to build it completely from new foundations, it's got custom mapping, that is clear and uncomplicated with unecessary detail. The 1:40,000 scale mapping is included in the guidebook, and is a popular and practical size for a long distance trail, with lots of scope for spotting escape routes or alternatives. There's also a great selection of photos in the book, that give you a great insight into the variety of views along the trail. Other items that make this book a good guidebook, are the personal recommendations of where's the best places for wild swimming, who are the characters of the TMB to look out for, and where are my favourite places to stay.
I'm really proud of this guidebook, as it is very personal to me, and it's been amazing to share some of these tips, to help people explore the TMB on their own. Already I've received some lovely feedback from those who have alredy bought this new book. That's the best feeling any author can get!
If you weren't leading groups round the Tour du Mont Blanc, where around the world would you like to work?
Despite quite a few laps of the TMB, my guiding job has taken me to mountains all over the world, and my home is now back in the UK Lake District. Each year I work several months in the Alps and especially the Chamonix region, so that's still very much a home-from-home. Change of location is definitely good for my brain, so a peripatetic lifestyle still very much appeals to me. People always ask me what my next big mountain challenge is, or trip I want to lead, but it's this current job of writing guidebooks, that has been the most interesting for me, and offers an avenue of where I'd like to work more.
Writing a guidebook isn't just a case of doing a trail once, and writing about it. There's many that are just that, but the good ones stand out, with a level of knowledge and expertise that comes for weeks, months, or even years in an region. I'm coming to the conclusion that I have about five ideas of awesome guidebooks, buzzing away in my head, that fit areas of my knowledge, and I want to write them. They'll involve me revisiting the areas again, taking loads more notes, and doing more research, but that's the work I increasingly enjoy.
If I wasn't allowed to choose leading groups, or guidebook writing, in another life I'd want to be a full-time mountain rescue paramedic, such as with PGHM Chamonix, or Yosemite rescue. That would be a perfect mix of dynamic and exciting risk assessments in the mountains, climbing judgement calls, and helping people in their hour of need. I suppose it's really the same skills as now, but repackaged. My books enable people to discover the mountains, and are designed to keep them safe, using experience from my time in the mountains. Maybe the question is a little like the story of the Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho, and actually I've already found what I am after, but I haven't realised it yet. Anyway, got to go, that's my Mountain Rescue pager going off again!