Friday, September 21, 2018

Peaks and valleys

The Swiss Peaks 360 — a 360-kilometer trail race through the high country of the Valais Alps, beginning near the headwaters of the Rhone River and paralleling its valley all the way to Lake Geneva. It's a fantastic concept, and this was the first year for the long event, which offered 25,500 meters of D+ (84,000 feet of climbing) on a marked course with a 160-hour time limit. With the success of the Tor des Geants, these multi-day trail races are gaining traction in Europe, and the first-year event had more than 300 runners at the starting line in Oberwald.

When Beat signed up for this race, I never took him seriously. He was already committed to another Petite Trotte à Léon, and Swiss Peaks started three hours before the final cut-off of PTL. There were grand declarations that he and Pieter would finish Saturday night (something Beat had managed in two out of six PTLs), grab a few hours of sleep, and get in the car for a three-hour drive to the start of Swiss Peaks. Again, ridiculous. At best the endeavor involved unbelievable sleep deprivation and physical suffering, with unacceptable risk and danger at worst. I voiced my opposition from the beginning. I even threatened to not aid and abet in this ridiculousness by refusing to drive them to Oberwald. My threats were not taken seriously. 

Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I chose to believe that Beat would never start the Swiss Peaks 360. It just wouldn't happen. Instead we'd find something more pleasant and relaxing and fun to do in Switzerland during the week. Or we'd just hunker down somewhere and work. Both sounded so much better to me than dragging through yet another race. I admit to some burnout. I didn't expect this, having run none of my own races this summer, but lingering on the periphery of these long events was beginning to get to me. Bryce 100, Hardrock 100, Ouray 100 ... so much hurrying up and waiting, living by schedules that weren't mine, eating from remnants of crappy food, staying up all night. 

To be clear: I enjoy being a part of Beat's races, and volunteered to crew these events. But mid-way through PTL, I realized that something had cracked. This feeling came on quickly, like a wave of nausea that leaves one feeling fine one minute, and rushing to a bathroom the next. I was walking through the UTMB expo in downtown Chamonix and thought, "I am so sick of running." The realization startled me. 

In assuming Swiss Peaks would never happen, one outcome I hadn't anticipated was Beat's partner needing to stop PTL early due to injury, while Beat remained healthy and raring to rectify a DNF. Of course Beat couldn't start the Swiss Peaks fresh — he still did 115 really hard kilometers followed by only three days of rest. But this situation was more realistic than completing both. The Swiss Peaks course seemed less dangerous than PTL, and Beat had managed plenty of sleep beforehand. I could swallow my own nausea and be supportive. So on Sunday morning we woke up in Chamonix and drove to Oberwald. The race started under clear skies and soaring heat at 1 p.m.

One big drawback of not believing Beat would start Swiss Peaks is that I made none of my own plans. Initially, he said he didn't think he needed any crew support, and I should spend the week on a trek of my own. I looked into hiking the Haute Route — a bit too long and out of the way — or a self-planned trek in Valais, but became frustrated with the logistics. Backpacking in Europe isn't as simple as it is in the western U.S., where one can hike freely all day, throw down a tent almost anywhere, and replenish supplies at any number of small-town convenience stores that are open all night and on Sundays. Here, wild camping is at least discouraged if not outright disallowed, so one must plan their exact mileage and schedule every day, make reservations at hotels, refuges and village campgrounds, and map out places to buy meals or groceries based on the limited hours they are open, doing all of this research through a language barrier. It's all a bit daunting for a non-planner such as myself. In some ways, signing up for a 360-kilometer supported race is easier. I can see why these events are becoming so popular.

My fall-back plan for the week was to bounce through each of the Swiss Peaks life bases and stealth-camp nearby. For this purpose I brought a bivy sack, a Thermarest and a light sleeping bag. Driving to Oberwald on Sunday morning, I realized that this wasn't a great plan. I might be in for a hard week.

I also had a couple of physical issues to add to my concerns. My right Achilles, which has been acting up on and off all summer, was incredibly tight again after a big week of climbing in Chamonix. And there was also the hematoma on my right shin, still painful and swollen after I bashed my leg on the sharp edge of a boulder in Colorado two weeks earlier. I was beginning to wonder if this purple goose egg was possibly masking a minor fracture. One would assume that a broken bone is much too painful to use in the way I'd been using it. But then again, runners' stress fractures are a thing, and I've known other friends with blunt-trauma breaks who managed to walk on them for weeks or months before finally getting an X-ray, a cast, and many weeks of recovery. I did a little bit of WebMD research, which was inconclusive. Mostly I wanted to keep doing what I'd been doing, which is ignoring the persistent dull pain until it got better.

That sounds like a terrible plan, and it probably was. Now, two weeks later, with pain and swelling gone and bruise almost faded, I can write off these concerns as a symptom of my mental state that week, which was ... well ... a bit weird. I'll expand on that soon. So, with the "ignore" plan in place, I deciding to take my sore shin, tight Achilles and fatigued leg muscles on a trek from Reckingen, a secondary aid station at kilometer 27 of the race. I followed the course flags along a nicely graded forest road that climbed into a beautiful valley with a cascading stream and views of fresh snow on the Blinnenhorn ridge, bordering Italy. "Swiss Peaks is a nice race," I thought.

Then, five kilometers into my own hike, the teeth came out as the Swiss Peak flags suddenly shot up a primitive, rocky path that barely cut through thick brush on a brutally steep slope. The sky threatened rain and the trail was already slicked with mud — terrible conditions for my Achilles — but I was being weirdly stubborn about this whole thing and kept climbing. My monkey mind had been racing all morning, and finally, here on this sinister mountain, it was calm. The tranquility was worth the pain.

Evening was closing in as I climbed into clouds above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) and realized that the peak — Chummehorn — was still a thousand feet higher in what had to be not much more than a half mile. And it was starting to rain. Oof. "Swiss Peaks is a mean race," I thought.

I'd calculated when I thought Beat might arrive in Reckingen and set a time limit on myself, which I'd already surpassed, so I turned around. Back in the valley, I had to weave through a thick herd of cattle, after which I encountered this jovial farmer. He talked at me incessantly for at least five minutes as I nodded and laughed, but could only guess that he was funny, as the only repeated word that I understood was "essen." "Yes, yes, dinner time," I responded. As we chatted, the first runner and ultimate winner of the Swiss Peaks 360, Patrick Bohard of France, passed by. The farmer turned and talked at him. Patrick didn't respond and I snuck away. "This guy is going to have 300 racers to talk to soon enough," I thought.

My calculations on my own pace were incorrect, I ended up missing Beat at the aid station, but just barely. He was climbing out as I descended. I'd purchased a sandwich and Apfelschorle for him that was in the car, but no matter. He was moving strong and chatting with Dmitry, a Russian friend with whom he'd traveled much of the 2012 Tor des Geants. I was glad he had a partner.

As the sun set, I drove to the next life base in Binn, at kilometer 56. For Beat it was a direct jaunt over two enormous mountains, but I had to descend into the busy Valais corridor and then climb a winding and narrow mountain road to the next high-altitude station. This would prove to be the theme for the week — it was at least an hour of driving to get anywhere, often an hour and a half, and all of the driving was stressful for me. Probably more so than it should have been, but I don't know my Swiss road laws as well as I should, and none of these mountain roads were actually wide enough for two vehicles to fit side by side. Driving here involves a lot of pulling over, both for oncoming traffic and aggressive drivers coming from behind, on roads with a sheer drop-off on one side and a cliff or stone wall on the other. The final kilometer into Binn cut through an incredibly narrow tunnel. It definitely only looked wide enough for one vehicle, but there were no signs or lights to indicate which direction it traveled, or how to deal with oncoming traffic. As I pulled up to the tunnel, I saw lights approaching, so I pulled over. After that car left the tunnel, I pulled up again, to more lights. I waited there for at least ten minutes as car after car went by, and finally saw an opening. I gunned the gas into the darkness, only to see more oncoming headlights. Damn it! As it turned out, there were a few pull-outs inside of the tunnel, which the oncoming car used. But, really, how is an American driver to navigate such a free-for-all? Self-regulated single-lane streets are not common in the U.S.

Now completely rattled, I arrived in Binn at dusk and pulled into a campground. Feeling embarrassed about not having a tent, I waited until dark to throw my bivy sack on the ground, and ate a dinner that consisted of a can of tuna, cheese, apples, and cherry tomatoes. I continually checked my phone for Beat's position, but never got the tracker to load. This would prove another major stressor for me over the week. The tracker never worked properly for him, not once, so I had to guess his arrival times with nothing to go on. At least in past races without tracking, I had splits to work with — if not his own splits from past years, then a list of splits from current event for people ahead of him. Swiss Peaks didn't even list the runners' positions, so I had absolutely nothing. I had been reduced to the math of distance, D+ and a rough kilometer-per-hour pace, which I used to guess that he'd probably arrive in Binn around midnight. At 10 p.m., I crawled into my bivy sack and set an alarm. 

The rain woke me up before my alarm, pelting my bivy sack with jarring force. I startled and sat up inside of my bag, then wrestled my way out as confusion sank in like a thick fog. Where am I? For some reason, my addled brain fixated on this idea that I was in the Tour Divide, so much so that I looked around for my bicycle. There was no bicycle. There was a gray car. Was that my car? I don't know this car. Where am I? When is this? The brain fog persisted for more minutes than I care to admit, and I became increasingly distressed about my amnesia. This wasn't just the effects of waking up from a deep sleep, this was more like the brain fog I experienced when my thyroid disease was at its worst, and I began to fear early-onset dementia. Coming back to reality — Switzerland. Swiss Peaks. 2018. Rental car. Beat — just caused me to feel disheartened. I was already convinced I was facing a period of low function, and this was before the anxiety intensified, insomnia set in, and I forgot to take my meds for at least three days (genuinely just forgot.) I was in for a rough week.

As it turned out, my guess at Beat's arrival was off by a half hour, and I caught up with him just as he finished his meal and was about to snooze for a couple of hours. I waited in the car, wrapped in most of my coats as the temperature dropped to 3C, but couldn't sleep anymore. Beat and Dmitry left around 4 a.m., and I thought about leaving myself, but there was no way I was driving down that road in the dark. Sleep still eluded me, so at dawn I set out to avoid the tunnel for a little longer by hiking on the Swiss Peaks course up to the Eggerhorn.

This was a pleasant hike. Steep, but not technical, with sweeping vistas. The weather was improving, but the surrounding mountains were still mostly shrouded in cloud. All of the runners had already passed through, and it was eerily quiet. I was surprised that the race organization had already removed most of the flags, but not all of them. As it turned out, they may have removed no flags, and that was just the way the course was marked. It seemed sparse to me, but then again I've never been great at following marked courses. GPS told me where to go, and after I summited the 2,455-meter Eggerhorn, I veered off course to climb a smaller summit with views of the Eggerhorn's impressive west face.

My night in Binn had been sufficiently bad that I decided there would be no more car camping if I could help it. It's a bit funny that I even try to live frugally, because the moment I have any kind of problem, I will gratefully throw any amount of money I possess to make it go away. For Monday night, I booked an AirBnB room in Stalden, about six kilometers from Beat's next life base. The AirBnB proved to be fortuitous, as the owner, Heinz, was friendly and fascinating. His family had lived in the region for hundreds of years. As a boy, he helped his grandfather tend to a herd of sheep in the mountains, and kept a museum of artifacts passed down through the centuries. He led me on an in-depth tour of his museum, apologizing that nothing was "worth any money." I love archives and antiques. I could have spent hours there, with its kettles used until they had holes in the bottom to become flour-sifters, and a huge cart on skis that as a child I would have described as a "one-horse open sleigh." Just great stuff and history, which I never take enough time to explore when I travel.

I explained Beat's race to Heinz, and he apologized that he could not recommend good hiking trails in the area. "I don't hike," he confessed. Later, we were having tea, and he began to describe his long pilgrimages across Switzerland and other countries, then pulled out a scrapbook with hundreds of stamped cards. As it turned out, Heinz had completed most of the major pilgrimage routes in Europe, walking many thousands of kilometers and visiting hundreds of cities and towns in the process. When I teased him about his insistence that he doesn't hike, he clarified. "I don't like to walk in the mountains." That's great, Heinz. You and I are a bit different. I still find your life completely fascinating.

I actually slept fairly well at Heinz's place, and woke up Tuesday feeling a little more with it. Heinz made breakfast, and we chatted about more interesting places to visit in the area. I regretted that I didn't have more time to explore Stalden, but I had to carry on with stressful driving to Zinal. Zinal had a fantastic setting, with stunning views of the Weisshorn and other glaciated peaks. I expected Beat's arrival in the mid-afternoon — I'd started prodding him to send me texts whenever he reached notable spots on the course — and had already purchased the sandwiches and other snacks he preferred over a somewhat limited race menu. I'd even completed a fair amount of my day's work already, and figured I had at least four hours to hike, so I followed the Swiss Peaks gpx track to Corne de Sorebois.

The Swiss Peaks course was again mean, rising straight up the 35-percent incline of a ski slope when there was a nice access road going to the same peak. (Spoiler alert: I took the access road down.) But the views, wow! I really enjoyed climbing up to 2,900 meters with a cold wind biting at my nose, and commiserating with a Swiss Peaks runner near the top about the steepness of the slope, even though he had a lot more to gripe about than me.

Beat and Dmitry arrived at the life base 10 minutes before me, but for the most part, the timing was perfect. For this night I needed a reliable Internet connection, and actually found a surprisingly cheap hotel room right in town, which I justified by reasoning that Beat could sleep there for a few hours, since it was just five minutes of walking past the life base. But at this point Beat was so tired he didn't even care, and went for the closer cot. I was happy that Beat was doing reasonably well, and didn't have any major complaints at kilometer 160. Even though I wasn't thrilled with crewing at the race's outset, and had a bad first day, I was beginning to think this week wouldn't be so bad. That wasn't entirely the case, but it's nice to look back on the good moments as they happened.
Saturday, September 15, 2018

Chamonix, after

After "only" 115 kilometers with 10,000 meters of climbing in the PTL, both Beat and Pieter decided they could use a little rest and relaxation in our quaint little village chalet. I was grateful that we didn't need to leave the Chamonix Valley right away. Beat still planned to start the Swiss Peaks 360 on Sept. 2, which meant not much rest for him, but three more days of hiking for me. Yay! 

Pieter and Beat lounged around the chalet and Beat enjoyed the company of the neighborhood cat. We never figured out the name/sex of this cat or who he/she belonged to, but the cat showed up at the window at regular intervals in the morning and evening, almost on schedule. He/she seemed completely uninterested in the kitty treats we purchased, but loved to bask in attention.  

Rain persisted through Wednesday night, and Thursday brought a low cloud ceiling and light drizzling rain. It seemed a dull day for hiking, but no opportunity should be wasted. Beat and Pieter recommended I follow this year's PTL course to the Albert Premier hut. The high mountain refuge is part of the famous Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, but PTL shirked the popular trail in favor of an obscure track along a sharp ridge that gains most of the necessary 5,000 feet of altitude in less than three miles. Pieter called it "efficient."

The trail proved even sketchier than I anticipated — although I really should know PTL better by now. Mist wafted through the fog as I clung to wet rocks and thin branches, skooching along ledges slicked by greasy mud. There were spots where slipping could have been catastrophic, and whether or not my feet would stick to the muddy ground was always in question. Usually I am frightened when footing is bad and exposure is high, but on this morning my mood skewed more insolent. "You really should know PTL better by now."

As I cleared treeline and found better traction on a rocky spine, the fog began to thin. Soon I rose into something I definitely wasn't expecting — another bluebird day. Hazy views of a gray moraine sharpened to jagged blue ice on Glacier du Tour, crowned by pretty peaks like Grand Fourche.

Okay, Beat was right. This was an awesome route.

I suffer from extreme shyness when I'm traveling internationally, to the point where I will go out of my way to avoid public spaces where I might have to talk to someone. It's unfortunate, I know. Not only does it mean I don't meet new and potentially interesting people, but it also means most of my meals are a variation of bread, cheese, tuna, raw vegetables, and fruit that I purchased one time at a grocery store. I walked past the Albert Premier refuge and marveled at this huge modern building (140 beds, built in 1959) built atop a rugged ledge beside the lip of a glacier, thousands of feet above the nearest road, with any amenity one could hope for in a hotel-restaurant ... and kept walking. I rounded a saddle and continued along the moraine beneath Aiguille du Tour, where I enjoyed my apples and cheese as a cold wind carried the billowing fog closer. Brief lulls amplified an expansive silence. This was no place for a human, this desolate land of rock and ice. There may not be much wilderness in Europe, but you don't have to walk far beyond the fingers of civilization to feel infinitesimal.

At 9,000 feet, it was too cold to sit for long. Amid my revelry in solitude and the raw indifference of nature, I noticed a long string of people making their way across the Tour glacier. There must have been at least 20 in the group, moving in an evenly spaced single-file row over a steep section of ice. I speculated that they were a group of novices learning glacier travel by following a guide — and what spectacular trust this would take on such intimidating terrain. My main mental barrier to learning new things is that I don't trust anyone to make good choices, least of all myself.

For the return, I opted to follow the main trail. Even still, I didn't see that many hikers. Just this group on the ridge, then three more groups heading up with big backpacks, helmets, axes and ropes. Later I learned that the cable car, which was running when I left for my hike, had shut down. I know this because I stopped and asked about purchasing a ride down the hill (so lazy, I know, but I was proud of myself for approaching someone and talking to them.) The guy seemed extremely apologetic — not the usual attitude I see in France. I guessed he'd already told a number of disappointed tourists that they were going to have to human-power themselves down the mountain.

The weather was beginning to clear at lower altitudes, and I still had extra time on my schedule thanks to a lightning-fast descent on real trail, so I opted to make a side trip across the Swiss border via Col de Balme and the Croix de Fer. Grassy exposure! It was a bit of excitement, and then it was time to walk my own butt down the mountain.

By Friday morning, the rain had settled in at all altitudes, just in time for the start of UTMB (every year!) I lounged around with Beat and Pieter, but by late morning decided it would be best to get some steps in. Why? I don't even know. I tend to become a bit manic here in the Alps, and even drizzly, gray days are not to be wasted. PTL had passed right through Les Tines, so I followed the GPS track blindly up the nearest mountain. The route worked its way from a steep trail to a faint path along rocky outcroppings with waterfalls, until I was clinging to ladders and precarious cables strung along a narrow ledge slicked with mud. Oh, PTL, I really should know you better by now.

Somewhere along the cliffs, my GPS batteries died. After I replaced them, the GPS took a full hour to find satellite signal again. Since I no longer knew where the PTL route went, and didn't really care, I veered onto a faint cat track. Hard rain pelted my coat as I crawled up a grassy slope so steep that at times I was literally on my knuckles and knees. Weirdly, I was really enjoying myself. There's something so eerie about a ski area in the summer, shrouded by fog, with lift chairs creaking in the wind. Chamonix, after the apocalypse. I cued up a Modest Mouse album — The Moon and  Antarctica — and indulged in exquisite melancholy.

So long to this cold, cold part of the world.
So long to this bone-bleached part of the world.

After my GPS came back online, I chose to descend something that looked like a road on the map, but was merely a cat track that plummeted off the mountain with frequent 50-percent grades and gravel so loose and muddy that I had to walk backward and dig in with my knuckles to prevent butt-sliding (which would have ripped apart my pants and most of the skin on my backside.) Ugh. I should have stuck with the PTL cable luge, although there was likely at least one easier way off this mountain. Well, at least I was back in time to meet up with British friends who now live in Les Houches. We gathered at their favorite pub to watch 2,500 UTMB runners pass, eight kilometers into the race. I was enjoying my drink and too lazy to join the fray, so this is the best photo I got — Jim Walmsley blasting through the streets about ten seconds in front of the pack. Most people who read my blog probably followed UTMB to some degree, so you know what happened. Most of the top runners — and all of the U.S. favorites — gradually imploded in both predictable and odd ways, until the guy who was disqualified from Hardrock won. (Blah blah blah.) It was an exciting race to be sure, but I admit to caring less about UTMB as years go by. I was avidly into this race when we first came to Chamonix six years ago, but now I have doubts I'll ever go back myself. No, my failure to complete a loop around Mont Blanc will likely outlive me. And that's okay.

Okay, maybe I still care a little about UTMB. On Saturday afternoon I set out toward Flégère with some hope of spectating the leaders as they blasted down their final descent. I missed seeing Xavier but did manage to catch two through four. This guy is Norwegian runner Hallvard Schjølberg, who went on to finish fourth. Go underdogs!

After passing the aid station, I continued into thickening fog toward L'Index, for no other reason than a desire to rack up some vert and close out a big week. For the Sunday to Saturday seven-day stretch, I ended up with 36,383 feet in 70.6 miles, which on paper closely shadows but in reality doesn't even compare to Beat's 34,500 feet in 71.5 miles of much more difficult terrain that he did in about 50 hours of PTL. In writing these blogs two weeks later, one issue I forgot to mention was the shin I bashed on my birthday, which continued to bother me throughout the week. I wrote it off as a deep bruise until Saturday, when it occurred to me that I might have actually fractured the bone in a minor / stress-fracture sort of way. This possibility gnawed at me throughout the night — how could I have been so stubborn to keep hiking on it? And even worse, what if I can no longer hike the rest of the time we're in Europe? Since Swiss Peaks 360 started the following day, I opted not to confess my fears to Beat. But I did decided that if my shin continued to hurt in this way in Switzerland, I'd take it easy, for real this time. 
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Before the end of an era

Hello blog! I'm back. I didn't mean to drift away for three weeks. It's just that you're no longer an entrenched habit. You're a sort of a sidebar, an extraneous detail to be ignored when I can no longer focus. I've been traveling and busy with the typical traveling busyness, but that's not really an explanation for the way my thoughts fragmented until it took all of my remaining mental energy to piece together a few sentences for Beat's race updates on Facebook. 

It's been more than a little weird, to be honest — this bout of "brain fog." Perhaps I'm too much a creature of routine, dependent on my own odd but consistent patterns to function. Perhaps this is because I'm old (see previous birthday post, and now I'm nearly a month older.) Perhaps it's a reoccurring symptom of my mostly controlled but certainly not cured autoimmune disease. Perhaps it's classic fatigue, although hiking has been my only (temporary) cure for feeling generally confused, anxious, and "out of sorts." Maybe there are no reasons, and it doesn't matter. I've returned to my blog to do what I always do here, which is sort through all of my fragments and save the shinier pieces.

So we'll take it back to Aug. 26, a couple of days after Beat and I arrived in Europe for yet another round of ridiculous 200-mile mountain races — this year, the Petite Trotte à Léon and the Swiss Peaks 360. I speculate about the effects of being thrown off my routine, but have to admit after seven years, late-summer trips to the Alps are now part of the routine. Whether racing or simply crewing, these events are beautiful, overwhelming and exhausting ... and perhaps we're both too comfortable with the effects? For this reason, I tried my hardest to talk Beat out of racing this year. Although I'll never complain about an opportunity to visit this place, I thought a different sort of adventure could do us both some good. But his habits are the toughest to break. So we returned to Chamonix for the last week of August, although he vowed that this year would be the last for such racing (for at least a while.) And I vowed that if he was insincere (which I suspect), I will say home with new-to-me Rocky Mountains next summer.

But I do love being in the Alps. With only a few work obligations and fairly minimal support duties for PTL, I'd at least have a lot of time to hike. As Beat and Pieter arranged and rearranged their race gear on Sunday, I set out from our small rental chalet in Les Tines toward Mer de Glace. Similar to most bodies of ice in the world, this glacier has shrunk substantially in just the six years I've known it. The visual change was disheartening enough that I didn't feel like descending hundreds of feet along a staircase that marks the glacier's dramatic retreat in mere decades, so I continued uphill toward a viewpoint at Le Signal Forbes.

A cog railway deposits hundreds of tourists not far from these rocky paths, and it often becomes a humorous scene of folks in open-toed sandals and jeans clinging precipitously to edges. As usual, I had a deadline and wanted to cover as much ground as I could manage before it was time to head down, so at first I felt annoyed that I had to shoulder my way around all of these people. But as I watched them waver and grapple for handholds, I felt a kind of rapport. I never really belonged on the ultra trail among the fit athletes in streamlined Salomon gear, dancing over boulders as though they were tiny cobbles on a street. No, I belong with the lumbering hoards, battling our best instincts to reach a beautiful place.

The calm before the race, looking toward Mont Blanc from Les Tines at sunset. It looked like we would see beautiful weather for a few days at least.

Team "Too Dumb to Quit," Beat and Pieter, standing at the starting line of the 2018 Petite Trotte à Léon in downtown Chamonix. Beat had finished six PTLs in six years, with his Belgian friend Pieter as a partner since 2015. Each year, PTL follows a varying series of trails around Mont Blanc for 180 or so miles with up to 90,000 feet of climbing. It's not the distance or climbing that makes it a difficult endeavor, but the technical terrain — everything from chossy gullies to endless boulder moraines to unnervingly steep grassy slopes to exposed scrambling along ridges. PTL can be succinctly described as "300 kilometers of nonsense." The difficulty is compounded by fatigue, unavoidable weather changes and sleep deprivation, and the potential danger of PTL has led to my open opposition of Beat's participation since I attempted this nonsense (and realized what it really requires) in 2013. Of course, this is a battle I lose every year. So Monday morning began Beat's seventh attempt. Even he seemed less than enthused.

After the race started, I walked up the street to the start of one of my favorite climbs out of Chamonix, the "Vertical Kilometer." This tightly-switchbacking singletrack up a ski slope gains a thousand meters in about three kilometers — 3,000 feet in 1.75 miles — for a cool average grade of 35 percent. By the final hundred meters, you're clinging to cables along a narrow spine, but you're so blasted you don't even notice the exposure. My goal, as usual, was hike fast without blowing all of my fuses. I have yet to break an hour, but enjoy the challenge of trying and then mildly berating myself when my watch says 1:06. For the last 20 minutes I closely shadowed a woman who was clearly a runner (my own identity here in the Alps is more subtle, wearing baggy hiking pants and huge backpack.) I never caught her, and I think she was pleased she held me off. "That was the worst thing I've ever done," she gasped in a British accent as we crested the final pitch, which was a staircase to the cable car.

"Steep one, isn't it?" I replied. She did a little summit dance there on the platform of Planpraz, and I pumped my fist in response. But I didn't stop walking, because I'd already formulated an ambitious plan for the day amid the endorphins, and I had ground to cover.

I continued another 2,000 feet up to Brevent, then turned right to follow the broad ridge for a relaxing and scenic stroll on a most spectacular day.

Toward lunch time, I arrived at what may be my favorite place yet near Chamonix, the Aiguillette des Houches. With 360 degrees of incredible vistas and nice grassy spots to have a picnic, I settled in to check my phone for Beat's position and munch on ... let's see, what made it into my backpack today? An apple, one of those small containers of Nutella that traveled here from the World Market in Boulder, a Snickers Bar from Pieter's work (Mars Belgium.) Actually I didn't have a lot of food on me, but I was still jet-lagged so my appetite was skewed and I wasn't that hungry anyway.

Instead I just sat and enjoyed the views — looking north toward the nature reserve and the Ayères cliffs.

And west toward the village of Servoz. To the south of course was Mont Blanc, with Brevent already an impressive distance to the east. Starting down, I eyed the spot directly across the valley in front of me, a narrow ridge between the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers called "La Jonction." From my perch, it looked so close — almost as though I could reach out and pull myself across. Of course, actually reaching this spot meant descending all of the 5,000 feet I'd climbed and then regaining it on the other side of the valley. It was a ridiculous notion, but I was operating on fear of scarcity — how many bluebird days would I see here, when I had a whole afternoon more or less free?

Of course, it takes a long damn time to descend a vertical mile, and I became disoriented on a maze trails I still remembered from 2012's UTMB, then had to regain a bunch of altitude to correct my position. By the time I returned to Les Bossons, I'd consumed all of my aforementioned lunch items, as well as half of a Payday bar I'd unearthed from the bottom of my pack. I already had to filter water from a small spring, and collected more from a fountain in town. I was exhausted. The car was less than a mile away. Still, the glaciers loomed overhead, calling to me. Happy memories of my birthday adventure, which was a week earlier, lured me farther. A six- or seven-hour hike, that's just tiring. But a ten- or twelve-hour hike? Transcendent.

Up, up, up. Actually, it takes a long damn time to climb 5,000 more feet. The half of a Payday bar did not last long, but I resolved not to eat the other half until I turned around, so I'd have enough glucose to not pass out on my way down the mountain. Still, I was quite bonked, but in that dazed, fluffy way that feels more ethereal than painful. Hoards of people passed on their way down the mountain, and then there was no one. It was blissfully quiet, with traffic from the valley humming like a far-away song — one that promised pizza.

The light began to deepen and I finally looked at my watch. 7 p.m. When was sunset? Just two hours until it would be quite dark. Of all of the items in my large pack, a nice headlamp was not one of them. All I had was my emergency light that throws a dim beam — not great for the kind of steep, loose, and rooty descending that this trail contains. Hiking after dark with poor visibility when I was already a bit dizzy seemed a bad idea, so reluctantly I started down from the saddle about 600 feet below La Jonction. I still ended up with 11,000 feet of climbing in 23 miles. And I finally had an excuse to gobble the rest of my Payday bar, which made me feel like I could fly ... for about 20 minutes. 5,000 feet is a long damn way to trudge downhill with low blood sugar.

On Tuesday morning I went grocery shopping in Argentiere and ended up hiking from there toward a prominent point called Bec de Lachat. A wide, smooth trail became tightly switchbacking singletrack, which quickly faded to a brushy game trail that shot straight up the mountain on a 45 percent grade.

The "top" revealed a long ridge that kept climbing, but it was the kind of grassy choss that I do not love, and would soon become narrow enough to tip my exposure comfort scale. So I called Bec de Lachat good, although it seemed a "short" hike at just seven miles round trip with 4,000 feet of climbing.

Nice views toward the Glacier d'Argentiere

And Glacier du Tour

Looking toward Mont Buet and that huge dam that I think is in Switzerland.

Amid the crush of Alaska time zone deadlines, I was up all night on Tuesday, but still wandered out the door reasonably early Wednesday to trudge up to Flégère. This was prompted by a sense of urgency, as there were two portents of doom on the horizon. First was the weather forecast, which promised an end to the string of bluebird days, bringing cold and rain. Second, Beat's recent voice mail informed me that Pieter had taken a bad step on a loose descent and had sharp pain in his hip that wasn't improving. They'd gone through the night in an effort to gut it out, and by morning had taken on an extremely difficult via ferrata route to a high alpine rifugio in Val Veny, Italy. They were going to attempt it, but Beat wasn't optimistic they'd continue beyond there. PTL is a team event, and with a single partner, both must continue in order for either to stay in the race. If Pieter had to drop, Beat would as well.

Clouds moved in with astonishing quickness. When I left the chalet at 9:30 a.m., skies were still crystal blue, and by 11 a.m., stinging rain pelted my face. Beat's call came in with the rain. Team Too Dumb to Quit had finally smartened up. After seven years, it seemed like the end of an era. Selfishly I was not too disappointed, because even though it meant cutting my wet hike short and driving through the tunnel into Italy, Beat's safe return from PTL meant a lot less fretting for me. I was glad I binged on mountains in the first four days, because I figured this visit to Chamonix would probably be cut short as well.