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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Hillary Gerardi '09 wins Strava award for record-breaking climb of Mont Blanc

Seb-Montaz Rosset
Seb-Montaz Rosset

In the early hours of the morning on June 17, 2023, Hillary Gerardi ’09 set out from the steps of the St. Michel Church in Chamonix, France. While much of the town slept, Gerardi donned an athletic vest and running shoes as she ran a straight course towards the cloudy peak of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Seven hours, 25 minutes, 28 seconds and one ascent and descent of the mountain later, Gerardi had rewritten history, becoming the fastest woman ever to summit and descend Mont Blanc. 

Then, in December of last year, fitness app Strava declared Gerardi’s run, which spanned over 20 miles in distance and over 2.4 miles vertically, as its Activity of the Year to its 95 million registered users worldwide. After Gerardi conquered Mont Blanc’s summit at more than 15,000 feet, the award launched her name to even loftier heights.

Although the final run took place entirely throughout one morning, preparation for the ascent was years in the making for Gerardi. Climbing and descending one of the world’s highest mountains requires meticulous strategy on top of incredible mental and physical strength. In addition, the ascent of Mont Blanc has multiple passable routes that are constantly shifting depending on snowfall and glacial movement.

One section of the glacier, called the Junction, is a particularly challenging portion that becomes nearly impossible to traverse at speed if there isn’t enough snow. A complex web of seracs and crevasses, the Junction did not see enough snow in 2021 and 2022 for a speed record attempt to be possible. Despite an inauspicious start to 2023, the mountain finally saw enough snowfall in April and May to make Gerardi’s record-breaking attempt possible.

“The conditions did make me wonder about the impact of climate change on these kinds of records,” Gerardi told The Campus. “At some point, the glacier might not even be passable there at all.”

The day of the ascent, Gerardi assembled an all-women team to guide her climb. First, former professional Nordic skier Valentine Fabre met Gerardi at the base of the foot of the mountain’s glaciers to hand off her mountaineering gear and accompany her on the early slopes of the glacier. On the descent, fellow trail runner Meg Mackenzie paced her on the run down into the town center of Chamonix.

“I am really lucky to have these really strong and motivated women in my entourage,” Gerardi said. “Everyone who helped out lives here in the [Chamonix] valley.”

Gerardi is far from a stranger to the spotlight. The runner had previously established herself as a major player in extreme endurance sports by winning the 2021 Marathon du Mont Blanc 90K and setting the first speed record on the Haute Route, which connects the mountain towns of Chamonix and Zermatt via ski routes. Gerardi’s Mont Blanc record was not an exception, but rather the newest line on an already gleaming resumé of extreme endurance feats.

While her arsenal of endurance sports knows no bounds, Gerardi’s primary sport is a form of running known as skyrunning. The sport takes place on trails, but the extreme nature of it differentiates the level of competition from other trail running events. To meet the qualifications of a skyrunning event, the track must rise over 2000 meters in altitude and include inclines of more than a 30% grade, according to the International Skyrunning Federation.

“If at some point you don’t need to use your hands to scramble on something, it’s probably not a sky race,” Gerardi said.

Running was not always in Gerardi’s blood. While it is nearly impossible to detach her name from the sport today, her days at Middlebury were rarely marked with runs. Even after her first brush with trail running, when she won the Great Adirondack Trail Run a year after her graduation, Gerardi still wasn’t sold on the sport.

“I thought for a long time that I hated running because I thought it just meant running down a road,” Gerardi said. “Even after my first race, I just thought, ‘Well ok, that was fun.’”

A love of the mountains, however, has been a constant in Gerardi’s life. The Vermont native grew up in St. Johnsbury in the Northeast Kingdom and spent her childhood exploring Vermont’s landscape both on foot and on skis. An avid member of the Middlebury Mountain Club and a longtime skier, Gerardi spent her Middlebury summers in the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Following her relocation to the French Alps with her husband Brad Carlson '10, Gerardi continued to explore the mountains as a researcher, hiker and skier. It wasn’t until after a bad skiing accident that Gerardi switched her attention to skyrunning.

The extreme nature of the sport might appear to be anything but relaxing, but for Gerardi, scrambling up steep, rocky inclines is a cherished form of mindfulness. The intense concentration necessary for the sport allows Gerardi to equate her experience skyrunning to meditation because it forces her to be fully present in the moment.

Though she already conquered her biggest goal of 2023 at Mont Blanc, Gerardi is yet to decide her next skyrunning objective. Despite the fact that she is quickly running out of races left to win in the Chamonix region, Gerardi hopes to limit her traveling and be deliberate in the challenges she chooses.

“I don’t want to fly across the world for three days just to do a race and come back,” Gerardi said. “I try to reduce my carbon footprint when choosing these races, so that’s part of the calculus when selecting a race.”

Gerardi’s record-breaking summit of Mont Blanc will be captured in an upcoming documentary to be released in 2024. The film is set to be titled “Always Alive,” a clever nod to the runner’s favorite alpine plant — the sempervivum, Latin for “always alive” —  and to Gerardi’s indomitable appetite for life.

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Charles Crounse

Charles Crounse '24 (he/him) is the senior sports editor for the Campus. He has previously worked as a writer and staff editor for the section. Charles is pursuing a major in environmental policy and a minor in French, and in his free time he enjoys biking, hiking, and exploring Vermont. He is also a member of the club soccer team on campus.