Monday, September 18, 2017

The final Tor?

One day before the eighth edition of the Tor des Geants, it had become obvious that Beat wouldn't be able to run this year. While we visited his mom in Switzerland, Beat spent a week off his feet, and his shin was still swollen. A tendon squeaked when he flexed his foot; I held my fingers on his leg and could feel the crunching as it moved. Walking down a single flight of stairs caused him pain. It was the kind of tendonitis one might be able to grit through to finish out a day hike, but 200 miles in the Alps? It couldn't happen.

Beat still decided to start the race, although we both knew it was mostly ceremonial at this point. This was Beat's eighth start under the pink banner in the center square of Courmayeur. Since the Tor des Geants began in 2010, Beat had finished all of them, earning an increasingly rare status as a "Senatore" of the Tor. I would joke that Beat valued his Senatore status more than he valued his PhD. It wasn't true, of course, but there's a chance I valued Beat's Senatore status more than he did. As he raced the first Tor in 2010, our relationship was just beginning. I was glued to the online updates although I could scarcely understand them. For our first date, he brought me a few uniquely colored pieces of shale that he collected on a high pass and packed for more than a hundred miles. I first joined him in Italy in 2011, and found a special affection for Courmayeur, the people, and the mountains of the Aosta Valley. I attempted TDG myself in 2014. In hindsight I was in the best shape I likely could possibly be for such an endeavor. It went wonderfully until it didn't. About 200 kilometers in, I fell down a wet boulder and wrenched my knee, resulting in a torn lateral collateral ligament, a painful crawl over 14 kilometers of rocks and mud that took me almost ten hours, and a DNF with months of recovery. Although my confidence in my mountain-running abilities and fitness have only continued to decline since then, I still dream of racing the Tor once more.

But will I? I don't know. My fitness is still up and down and I now know without a doubt that I'll never be a graceful mountain runner. Even if stars aligned, my health normalized and training went well, there's still a lottery to contend with. As racers sprinted down the narrow street, I suspected that this may be our last Tor, at least for a while. Beat would know early whether his shin could support him for 200 difficult miles. Neither of us was optimistic.

I figured it would take Beat about four hours to reach the first aid station in La Thuile, so I made a quick run up to a ridge 3,500 feet above town and sat on the grass in the cold wind, enjoying a lunch of crushed cheese crackers and chocolate chip cookies that both made the trip from Colorado and had been rejected as trail snacks thus far. An older Italian gentleman hiked by and spoke several sentences to me, after which I made my standard head-shaking gesture and said, "Mi dispiace. Parlo solo English." He stood there for another minute until a woman caught up. They spoke for a few seconds, and then she turned to me and said, "He wants to wish you a bon appétit." I laughed. "Grazie. Thank you," I replied, and waved. It seemed a lot of effort for niceties, but then again I don't make nearly enough effort to improve my communication skills in Europe. I wander the streets despising my illiteracy and avoid speaking to others because of self-consciousness about my limited language and tendency to mispronounce everything. And yet I haven't done anything about it.

Beat did end up calling me from La Thuile, once as he wavered on leaving town with the amount of pain he was experiencing, and again after he had limped up the trail for an hour and decided it was not to be. He was disappointed of course but had an upbeat attitude about ending his streak at TDG. Again, I was probably more bummed out than him — in a mostly selfish way, because this meant no shadowing the race this year, or possibly again.

Beat decided to drive back to Switzerland to spend more time with his mom, while I stayed in Italy with no obligations besides my work deadlines. I'm one of those people who loves short stints of solo travel, because it means I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I had six more days in Courmayeur, and I was going to do all of the hiking. On Monday I traced an incredible 25-mile route across a ledgy, often exposed traverse while buffeted by a cold and strong crosswind. I walked up and down cols all the way to the French border at Col de la Seigne as thick fog moved in, followed by snow, sleet, and intensely bright rainbows. I took dozens of photos that turned out to not exist, because the memory card had ejected inside my camera, so nothing recorded. I was incredibly disappointed about this, so much so that emotionally I deemed the day a complete loss, as though it never happened. Then I pondered this strong attachment I have to photos and documenting my experiences, and the reasons why this persists and why it's ultimately meaningless. Another good lesson in letting go.

Monday night was cold and snow line dropped down to 2,000 meters. The wind persisted and although temperatures warmed enough to melt most of the snow, the air was piercingly icy above tree line. When I packed for this trip I thought I was bringing too much warm clothing. But I tended to wear it all, often pulling rain pants over thick wind tights — which is actually more layers than I wear in Alaska if temperatures are above zero. It wasn't nearly that cold, but mountain air somehow just feels colder.

I had a fair amount of work to do, so I made a "quick" run to Testa di Liconi, by which I mean I climbed 6,000 feet in five and a half miles and spent nearly six hours making the round trip. The route to this 2,900-meter sub-peak is relentlessly steep and I loved every calf-straining step. The persistent climbs are the only reason I would thrive in the Tor des Geants, and the descents are the main reason I'd falter. As years pass I've grown to highly doubt that I'll ever improve my descending. There's an innate factor that I lack, and only begin to develop when I'm so tired that my brain stops sending the neurotic signals that skew my proprioception. My descending skills actually tend to improve during the brain-dead moments of an ultra, as I discovered during the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. But I can't rely on this. The brain will always eventually turn back on, and then I suddenly awaken to find myself teetering over a precipice, frozen in fear.

Even during easy-going day hikes, I have moments like this. I'll glance down at the edge of a narrow switchback and realize it's effectively carved into a near-vertical grassy slope, and all it would take is one slip on a snow-covered rock to spin into a death somersault all the way down to Val Sapin. Then I feel dizzy and vaguely nauseated and kneel down to cling to clumps of grass for a second or two before I realize that, "actually I'm fine." Why do I keep subjecting myself to terrain that I'm so clearly disinclined to manage with any kind of grace or style? Honestly, I remain baffled. It can't just be the views.

On top of Testa Licony is a sturdy shelter called Bivouac Luigi Pascal. It's a beautiful viewpoint but fully exposed to the weather. The brisk breeze that followed me up the slope was blowing at full gale on top. There were already several hikers inside the bivouac when I arrived, and my fear of having to mispronounce "Mi dispiace. Parlo solo English" kept me from joining them. It is an incredible shelter, though — solar panels and a rainwater system give it electricity and partial plumbing. There are beds, a kitchen, even an indoor bathroom. But this peak can be fiercely cold and windy, and it would still be a rough place to spend a night, in my opinion.

Because I had to work all night on Tuesday, I slept in on Wednesday and set out in the late morning under overcast skies and light rain.

Standing on Tête de la Tronche, looking toward what had originally been my objective for the day, Colle Battaglione d'Aosta. See, I'm working on overcoming my mountain uneasiness by pushing my limits in small degrees. Colle Battaglione features steep, loose terrain in a no-fall zone, with some difficult route-finding. But Beat walked it in PTL and described it to me in enough detail that I thought I could manage the navigation. However, by Wednesday I already felt fatigued, and the iffy weather was the tipping point that made me chicken out. Maybe next time. If there is a next time.

So I settled on Col Malatrà, which is the last big pass in the Tor des Geants, but still somewhat far away from Courmayeur (I took a loop route over several passes, so my trip was 22 miles with 8,500 feet of climbing.)

With a stunning approach and hidden views, Col Malatrà is probably my favorite place in the Aosta Valley — a friendly little notch allowing passage through a toothy knife ridge.

I arrived just as the eventual fourth-pace TDG finisher, Carlos Sá, made his way through the notch.

He was limping quite noticeably and staggered in a somewhat nerve-wracking zig-zag as he made his way down the trail. It was interesting to watch a top TDG finisher — clearly a talented mountain runner to make it this far this fast — stumble around as though he'd never walked down a rocky slope in his life. Clearly he was hurting and exhausted, but still ... it gives me hope, somehow.

Looking through the notch to the other side of the pass.

Mix of sun, snow and clouds. This would become a theme for the whole week.

This place is called Gieu Damon. Pretty much everything that's remotely a place has a name on the map, whether it's a village or a single farmhouse or a ruin. More often than not it's a ruin, which can be disappointing if you've spent miles hoping for a rifugio with water and polenta. (Note: I generally do not go inside refuges because the prospect of speaking terrifies me so.)

Although I was disappointed in myself about chickening out on the tougher destination, I was glad I made the time to trek to Malatrà. Alpine tundra was soft underfoot and the sky was a dynamic explosion of sunlit clouds, stoking more dreams about Tor — continuing along such a path all day, every day, for as long as it took. It had been a number of weeks since I wheezed up anything, and perhaps I could work harder on my descending, strengthen my ankle so I don't roll it so much, shore up more bravery to practice the hard stuff so this semi-hard stuff is ingrained. Maybe someday I will rectify all of my Alpine failures. Maybe this doesn't have to be the last Tor des Geants. 
Friday, September 08, 2017

Winter is coming

On Friday I woke up to steady rain and a cloud ceiling so low that it enveloped the ski lift chalet. "It's a good day to sleep another six hours," I thought. Although I hadn't planned on meeting Beat at the final PTL life base in Petit St. Bernard, I worried that he wouldn't have enough dry clothing for the weather, which was forecast to feature this and worse for three days. Also, they'd been so happy about the sandwiches I made yesterday that it seemed crucial to bring more. So I packed up every piece of warm clothing in the house and headed through the tunnel once more. 

Courmayeur markets itself as the "sunny side" of Mont Blanc. As someone who only visits in September, I've been a skeptic, but incredibly I emerged from the 11-kilometer tunnel to blazingly bright skies and temperatures that were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than Chamonix. In all of my visits to this region, I've never been to Petit St. Bernard, which sits on the French-Italian border. Driving up from Courmayeur brought back a little PTL PTSD, as I wound through all of the dark, narrow, and long tunnels that I sprinted through when I was lost and severely addled during 2013's PTL. It's a long story. I haven't been back up here since, but it continues to be an unsettling reminder of my capacity for bad decisions.

 Col du Petit St. Bernard is an incredible place, though, worth climbing through the bad memories. Topping out at 2,200 meters, the pass features a six-story stone hospice, or hostel, looming directly over the road. According to Internet sources, this hospice was founded in 1049 (!) and was built on top of ruins from Roman temple to Jupiter. The hospice became famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations. (And I always believed the caricature of a St. Bernard with a little barrel of brandy strapped to its neck was a Swiss thing.) The original building was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt only recently.

Beat and Pieter were fairly close according to the tracker, and based on a difficult-to-decipher map on my phone, I wandered up a route where I'd believed they'd come in. Of course I was completely wrong. But it was a happy mistake, taking me back over the border into sunny Italy, while thick clouds billowed along the ridge in France.

I climbed to a point at 2,700 meters that was directly on the border. At first I wondered if I could loop back to the hostel, but the French side was a mean place of cliffs and talus and no direct line that I could discern. So I turned around.

Ah well. Things are just better in Italy, you know?

Although I was a bit late getting back, I did catch up with Beat and Pieter. I wanted to post this photo because its a typical scene in the race — fumbling with first aid supplies in the drop bag room. It smells terribly of wet shoes because it's right next to the room with the shoe dryer, and the contents of bags have been disgorged everywhere until it's almost certain you'll leave something important behind. Good fun, you know?

The guys told me they wanted to sleep for three hours, which gave me exactly enough time to buy them sandwiches at the bar up the road and climb another mountain, if I hurried. Lancebranlette is just shy of 3,000 meters high, also standing right on the border. It's an intimidatingly sheer cliff when viewed from the Italian side, but the French side offers a friendly grassy slope that only demands you climb 2,500 feet in two miles. Easy peasy. I decided to hike before visiting the bar, which closed at 6 p.m., so I only had two hours to do it. Since descending is the slow part for me, I had to make it to the top in an hour or less. Could I do it? I could try!

My main obstacle was this little ibex, who galloped toward me as I trudged up the trail. She stood facing me near a switchback with a steep drop-off at the curve, and I wondered if this might be one of those cases of territorial maneuvering, like that mountain goat in Washington who bucked a man off a cliff. I admit to slowing my already sedate pace to "sneak" past her.

Well, I suppose she looked friendly enough.

On the summit ridge, the brisk breeze accelerated to become a shocking wind. The temperature at the hostel was 5C — likely close to freezing here, and the wind was gusting 25-30mph. I wasn't quite prepared for the intense windchill, and scrambled to pull on a fleece buff and mittens.

The summit of Lancebranlette. It took me 1:04 to reach the top. If I was less prone to vertigo, I could have taken a photo looking down these cliffs and hundreds of feet of sheer drop-off. This was as close to the edge as I could manage before my hands began to tremble and I felt light-headed.

A little lower on the ridge, I managed to peak around a ledge for a view of Mont Blanc.

Looking down at Ancien Hospice du Petit Saint-Bernard. Incredible location. 

As Beat and Pieter prepared to leave, I tried to sell them as much warm clothing as I could. Beat rejected the puffy jacket but did take the fleece buff that I wore on Lancebranlette. "At least put on some tights," I complained. "It feels like Alaska out there, no exaggeration. There's this frigid wind, and it's getting stronger. It's really, really, cold." This suggestion was rejected as well. I suppose you find your rhythms and stick with what worked before, but damn. I'd been sitting outside for 40 minutes and was wearing three layers of coats and two hats.

With that, Beat and Pieter headed off into the sunset, facing another long and cold night on high, crumbling ridges.

Saturday morning in Chamonix was just as rainy as Friday, and quite a bit colder. I decided to get my steps in by climbing Mont Joly and cheering for Beat and Pieter at the top. It was a bland, gray march through fog and drizzling rain. The briefest sucker hole opened shortly after I reached the ridge. This bolstered my mood. I was certain the storm was clearing, as the forecast had predicted would happen sometime Saturday afternoon.

Instead, the clouds moved back in, bringing more intense winter wind and horizontal snow flurries. I was climbing with the wind at my back and didn't even realize how bad it was, but rime clung to grass and rocks, and ice crystals formed on mittens that were wet from scrambling. Rime ice forms when vapor from fog freezes to surfaces; I remember reading somewhere that it has to be at least as cold as -5C for this to happen. I wouldn't doubt that the temperature was a number of degrees below freezing, before windchill. I was quite wet from the sweaty climb and rain, so the down coat that I brought for the purpose of waiting did little to block the chill. It only took two minutes to feel frozen to the core. By the time I decided it was madness to wait for Beat up here, I felt desperately cold.

The Italian PTL team who took my summit photo were flabbergasted that a hiker had come up here of her own free will.

"She says okay for us because we are in the race, we must," the man translated his partner's objections. "For you, ahhh, stupid."

Of course the descent was directly into the wind, with wet mittens and shoes. Within minutes my hands and feet were deeply chilled blocks of meat. To top it off, the fog had become so thick that everything more than five feet away was an opaque sheet of gray. I found it difficult to stick to the ridge. I kept dropping much too far to the left — better than the right, which was a sheer cliff. The wind and fog made everything seem dangerously intense, so when I was even a little bit "lost," I had to fight the urge to panic. Both hands and feet were entirely numb. I probably should have put the down coat back on, but it seemed better to keep it dry in case I rolled my ankle and needed to crawl downhill.

As I crab-walked on my ice-block appendages down the final scrambly section to a ski lift, I was passed by two teenagers wearing shorts, cotton hoodies, and skate shoes. I hadn't seen them on the way up and couldn't discern where they came from, but they were making impressive haste downhill.

After a few thousand feet of descent, the epic nature of the ridge was almost forgotten. It was only mildly drizzling again, my mittens and hat were off, my coat unzipped, and I was creeping down 30-percent grades on my heels while eating crackers from a little box. In the evening I finally got together with friends for dinner and a semi-fancy French restaurant (I had the Tartiflette. Not as good as Mormon funeral potatoes, honestly.) It was good timing to head over to the finish and watch mid-pack UTMB runners sprint under the arch amid the occasional lumbering PTL team. Beat and Pieter finished just before 1 a.m. Sunday, after a reroute took them around the final high pass (for which I was extremely grateful, given its technical nature and the icy conditions.) They were the 20th team out of 61 finishers and 100-something starters. Of course, because of the reroute, there was a shake-up of rankings near the end. That's one of the reasons PTL doesn't rank finishers. It's not a race. It's a "little trot."

Beat almost sounded annoyed when he heard there was more than a 50-percent finisher rate this year. "PTL is getting too easy," he said.

I'm proud of Beat for surviving this thing yet again, although I can sense it really may be time to move on. On Sunday I wanted to get in one last good climb in Chamonix before we left, possibly for a long while. Time was limited so I returned to La Jonction, the glacier viewpoint that we climbed nine days earlier.

This day had the best weather of the week — clear skies and cool temperatures, in the high 40s when I left in the late morning. It was incredible to see these dramatic mountains dusted with new snow.

The time limit compelled me to stop at the saddle, about 300 meters below the overlook. Conditions above did not look great, though, with wet snow and ice for the mild scrambling in this section. I debated whether I would have gone for it if I had the time, I decided that I probably would have.

In trying to climb at least 5,000 feet every day, this was the only day I failed — with 4,900 feet. My nine days in Chamonix were no PTL, but I did log 98 miles with 50,503 feet of climbing — a decent effort requiring four to nine hours of hiking each day. It's funny, because as soon as I finally started to sleep through the night, I didn't feel tired at all. There was perhaps some drag to my legs, but for the most part I improved each day. For example, on this final day I snagged the Strava women's course record for "Chemin du Glacier Climb." Hey, it's a stout segment, 2,386 feet in 2.5 miles. I felt good.

In the back of my mind I'm already in training again, for the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational. My hope is to walk the 350 miles to McGrath one more time, to re-up my ever-aging experience levels and ponder whether I have what it takes for what I consider the ultimate challenge (and isn't there always another ultimate challenge?) — walking the Southern Route to Nome. Of course I could change my mind about all of it and return to the bike or move on completely. But I relish the idea of the thousand-mile sled-drag. There is something deeply primal and satisfying about travel on foot — entirely dependent on your body for every inch of forward motion, naturally ponderous, and a fantastic vehicle for reflection.

The fact I'm thinking about it at all, however, is a sign that I really do feel renewed confidence. People I haven't seen in a year tell me I "look" better than I did last year, which of course always spurs the silent reaction "what the hell does that mean? I looked like crap last year?" But I feel better. I'm excited. This time, I hope to make it stick.

After all, winter is coming. 
Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Getting my steps in

On Tuesday morning I checked the race tracker and saw that Beat's team was just about to the top of a narrow pass called Fenêtre d'Arpette. After that, I remembered, was a long technical section requiring helmets and crampons — obviously featuring a whole lot of nope. But if you avoid the scary route and instead turn left toward the bucolic Swiss village of Champex Lac, you can make a nice loop following the super-easy UTMB course over a 2,500-foot bump called Bovine mountain. It was one of the few segments of UTMB I haven't seen, and Fenêtre d'Arpette looked spectacular. I thought the loop would take me eight hours, which is all I can afford on a Tuesday before 12 hours of working through the night on Alaska time.

It was already becoming hot when I left Trient around 9 a.m. — 27C according to the car thermometer. I'd only packed two liters of water, and was feeling severe drag in my legs as I trudged up a lovely trail along a turquoise glacier stream. This would be day four of steep hiking, logging at least a vertical mile of climbing every day. "I should do this every day I'm in Chamonix," I thought. "Vertical mile." The 5,280 feet of a mile sounded hard, so I rounded the number down to 5,000 feet. Like people who get their 10,000 steps in every day, I would strive for 5,000 vertical feet, every day for nine days. The challenge was on. 

Trient Glacier and its impressive moraine. Sunlight was glaring in the late morning, and I had to squint through my sunglasses. Even with washed-out light, the scenery was spectacular. 

The final 2,000 feet to the pass jut upward on on a talus and boulder slope with a faint trail that sometimes approached 50-percent grades. My legs finally began to perk up and I relished the grind. This is exactly my kind of thing ... steep, only mildly technical, not dangerous. I passed a few PTL teams who appeared surprisingly cheerful given the circumstances — after all, they'd been working hard, really hard, for more than 24 hours. The most bubbly were three Japanese women who I was thrilled to see. Mixed teams are becoming more common in PTL, but all-women teams are still exceedingly rare.

Looking down the other side of "the window of Arpette." It had taken me four hours to cover six miles, and I had to decide whether I could manage 12 more miles that included an equally difficult descent and another robust climb in the same amount of time. I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately I lost the route and burned up many minutes crab-walking and crawling through a large boulder field. I've learned that I have poor ankle stability ... yes, I realize that I can work on strengthening my ankles. But even then, I'll never be a graceful gazelle dancing through the boulder fields. No, I imagine that my skewed proprioception will always require three- and four- and five-point contact until I resemble a slug oozing over the rocks.

Looking toward Aiguille d'Arpette. This was the scary route PTL was supposed to take, somewhere up in those cliffs. I later learned that the whole field had been rerouted around the high glacier traverse, apparently because the PTL organization had a change of heart and decided it was genuinely too dangerous for 250-plus sleep-deprived participants with widely varying skill levels. I was shocked.

Predictably, I ran out of water while making my way down the valley. There were cows everywhere, and I felt uneasy about collecting water from a stream and putting chlorine tablets in it. "I'll be able to get water in Champex," I thought. But then the route skirted through the forest above town, and I didn't come across any fountains or even streams until I reached a small restaurant at the base of Bovine. There was an outdoor bar, where I pointed to a cold case with 1.5-liter bottles of water inside. "Can I buy one of those water bottles?" I asked. Although the bartender appeared to understand English, my request was foreign to her. She tried to serve me a tiny glass of sparkling water with no ice for 3.20 Swiss francs. I insisted that I needed "more water," pulled the bladder out of my pack, pointed to the sink and asked if I could buy tap water, and finally succeeded in purchasing a bottle of sparkling water for 8 Swiss francs. The whole exchange was so perturbing that I almost walked away, but was glad I didn't, as it was over 90 degrees and there were no streams at all most of the way up Bovine. I'm pretty much a fish when it comes to drinking water, and it flabbergasts me how Europeans get by with their 25 centiliters of lukewarm bottled water, here and there. This is always one thing I miss most about the U.S. — free and abundant water everywhere.

Anyway, I wrapped up that hike in closer to nine hours ... and 7,300 feet of climbing. I worked through the night until 6:30 a.m., and just after I'd finally succumbed to blissful sleep, I got a call from Daniel. Some family issues had come up that forced him to drop out of the race, while Beat and Pieter went on as a two-man team. He rescheduled his flight out of Geneva to the following morning. After a couple of hours of logistics-wrangling with him, I figured I had about four hours to spare before I needed to pick Daniel up in downtown Chamonix. Could I squeeze in 5,000 feet? Sure I could try!

I picked what I think of as the Skyline route between Flégère and Planpraz stations. I've hiked this route before in the other direction, and had largely forgotten how hard it is. After scrambling directly up a talus slope to avoid construction vehicles on the cat-track road to l'Index, experiencing a big scare from tumbling rocks thrown by a trail crew on a switchback above me near Glière Chapel, and climbing a whole lot more than I expected to Col de la Glière, my time buffer had unravelled completely.

Follow the yellow dots. Just a touch of exposure, but I'd already burned up my adrenaline ten minutes earlier, when I was startled by loud, falling rocks that sounded like they were directly above my skull. I was so frightened that I screamed from below at the trail crew, who just laughed and said "is okay! is okay!" Dudes, just because you can see me doesn't me I can see you or know what you're doing. It's not okay.

At Col Cornu, I could see the storm moving in over Mont Blanc. The hot, sunny weather was predicted to deteriorate into three days of rain, wind, and snow down to 2,000 meters or lower.

These sheep were exceedingly cute. As they approached, the lead one let out a polite "ba-a-a," so I stepped off the trail. They continued on the trail, and the last one also ba-a-a'ed as she passed. "Tell me you don't have a mean dog with you," I said. (I have been aggressively confronted by Alpine sheep dogs in the past.) But they were alone, just out for a Wednesday stroll through the rocks.

After Daniel left Wednesday morning, I drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to catch up with Beat in Morgex, Italy. Morgex is about the halfway point of the route, with dinner served in an old chapel, and sleep on wrestling mats (no blankets) in a gym. It had rained through the night, and they arrived here wet and cold. The sun came out ever-so-briefly while they were resting, only to have to skies open up with more rain just after they left.

Even still, they looked good, despite the sleep deprivation. The previous evening they were caught in a thunderstorm on a high ridge, with lightning and thunder booms following within three seconds. This was only the beginning of the epic weather for them.

It was after 4 p.m. by the time Beat and Pieter left Morgex, and skies did not look as friendly as they had earlier in the afternoon. I still decided to go for my 5,000 feet on the trail to Testa Licony, where there apparently is a vertical 2K race (meaning 2,000 meters of climbing.) I didn't know about this race beforehand, but began to see markers designating every 100 meters of gain (D+100, D+200, etc.) Hundred-meter markers are somewhat demoralizing, because it takes three times as long to climb 100 meters as it does 100 feet, and yet tired minds process the numbers in the same way. Soon, though, the signs surpassed four digits, and I rose above tree line to see that I really had gained some height.

On grassy slopes the trail became more faint, and at one point I merged onto a goat trail. By the time I realized my mistake, I looked at my GPS to see I'd already gained 300 feet since leaving the trail, and a paralleling switchback was 700 feet higher. The route itself veered way off to the left — for good reason, I later realized. Instead of backtracking I made the always-questionable choice to crawl directly up the slope, which of course became steeper as I climbed. Steep grassy slopes are slippery, and a fall could easily send a person careening downhill the way they would on snow. To top things off, it was sprinkling rain again, which made the grass even more greasy.

The slope tilted nearly vertical, and I found myself death-gripping clumps of grass and regretting every decision I'd ever made. I definitely didn't want to go down the way I'd came, but the higher terrain just continued to become worse. GPS showed only 200 or so feet remaining, and I started to see rocky outcroppings blocking my path. I continued gripping grass strands and side-stepping diagonally until I reached a rib of rocks that looked climbable. It was a narrow spine, and steeper than the slope. But there I found real handholds, which I appreciated. I was so, so ecstatic when I put my hands on the trail and hoisted myself onto solid ground. Never again. You'd think I was trying to mimic the PTL experience or something.

Behind me, a darker storm approached. A winter-like wind blasted down from the ridge. Its chill was distressing, and invigorating at the same time. I'd given myself an absolute turnaround time to get back to treeline and safer trail before sunset, but I was so buzzed after surviving the grass scramble that I continued marching upward long after the deadline passed. Still, I really didn't want to be caught up here on steep grassy slopes and faint trails when it was both dark and pouring rain.

So I settled for a saddle, about 150 meters below Testa Licony, with shrouded views into the Villair valley. I was feeling a bit woozy from not eating or drinking in several hours, and also from the 5,600 feet of climbing I had on my legs just today. But the highest priority was skedaddling downhill to the trees before dark came.

I made it just in time, strapped on my headlamp, took a several big sips of water, ate a Snickers Bar, and accelerated to a knee-thrusting jog. Hard rain needled through the tree canopy, causing me to slip and skid as I reminded myself to lean forward. The forested part of the trail was even steeper than the alpine zone, and now the trail was rippled with roots and carpeted in wet pine needles. I fell on my butt, jamming my pinky finger painfully, but quickly bounced up and ran faster.

I wasn't really in a hurry; it was already dark, and I knew I'd end up back in Chamonix to cook myself a dinner of pasta with red sauce and tuna sometime around midnight. I'd only slept about four hours in the past 60, after days of jet lag and insomnia before that, and the edges around my vision were beginning to blur. My adrenaline was spent, my legs were wobbly, and I had no business running down a muddy 30-percent grade. But I felt joyful. Positively joyful. Why? Perhaps because of all of that. The sharp edge of life is where we live most vividly, where joy and fear ebb and flow with increasingly intensity, and where memories retain their luminosity four, ten, possibly even 20 or 40 years later. More frequently than I care to admit, I think about PTL. I hated PTL. But it stuck with me.

I thought about Beat marching into this rain and wind toward another high pass, again feeling both nervous and envious. What would stop me from marching through the night? The image of my pale white fingers clinging to strands of grass on the near-vertical slope returned, and I shuddered with fear. I suppose I really did want to leave this mountain behind.

"Knees high, pick up your feet," I chanted. The lower-altitude forest grew thick and high, blocking out all light beyond a pale yellow circle thrown by the headlamp. Here the world was small, and yet just as slippery and difficult as it had ever been. Still, the smallness made it more manageable somehow, and there was a steady cadence to every uneven step. My mind settled into the rhythm and slipped into a fantasy where I wasn't afraid of the mountain anymore, and just flowed with it, as naturally as water.