Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Trying to find these perfect places

Thursday's weather promised to be awful — steady rain progressing to heavy rain in the afternoon, temperatures in the 40s, and wind. I'd already racked up 26,000 feet of climbing in the four hikes since Sunday, plus 65 miles on my feet. It seemed prudent to take an easy day, but why would it matter? I only had a week in Italy, with no transportation to visit friends at TDG life bases, so covering as much ground as possible (and eating a pizza or two) were the only things I wanted to do. 

I consulted Wunderground, which is a Web-based weather service that my European friends told me not to trust over local sources. But Wunderground isn't afraid to be specific, and I like that. The hourly forecast showed light rain, heavy rain, and finally sleet every hour through 4 p.m. But after 4 p.m., sudden clearing. Full sunshine, as indicated by a bright yellow circle graphic. It seemed so unlikely, but maybe? If I slogged through rain for enough hours, I could be rewarded with sweeping views in a spectacular, far-away spot. 

I set out genuinely believing in the possibility. For my far-away spot I picked Grand Col Ferret, a 2,500-meter pass on the Swiss border. I'd hiked from Courmayuer to France on Monday, so rounding out the week with a trek to Switzerland seemed apt. I knew it would be at least 15 miles one way. Usually I average 30-minute miles on the steep and rocky routes of the Aosta Valley. But I planned to follow the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, the "easy" route, so I ambitiously guessed 20-minute miles, with some leeway for the occasional 1,800-foot rise in one mile. If I left at 11:30 a.m., I could be standing on the pass when the weather cleared! 

Cold rain pelted me in the face all the way up to Rifugio Bertone, where I stopped to cheer for a few Thursday Tor des Geants finishers who were making their way into Courmayeur. I took this one photo just before fog dropped into the valley. The rain picked up intensity. Having picked the TMB for its friendliness, I'd forgotten that this makes it the most trafficked route in the region, and there are a lot of cows as well. The mud was gruesome. Slimy, sticky, ankle-deep, and shoe-swallowing, the mud forced foot-skiing down the short descents (and some of the climbs, unintentionally.) To top it off, a herder was directing his cattle uphill, so there were cows and dung and puddles of piss everywhere. I passed a group of Japanese backpackers slipping down a hill where cows were climbing up. One backpacker fell on his butt, and this set off an impressive chorus of yelling and ranting from the whole group, possibly directed at the herder. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but you can bet I felt it.

By the time I passed Rifugio Bonatti, I was coated in cow-piss mud and soaked to the skin in both my rain pants and shell, shivering as the rain turned to thick sheets of sleet. The descent into Arnuva is one I'd rather not recall. Since I was already soaked and covered in mud, I did some of it on my butt. I dipped wet mittens into a creek just to clean them off, then slipped the clammy things back over numb fingers. In my pack I still had one pair of dry mittens, a dry hat and a down coat, which I frequently thought about with fierce longing. But it seemed purposeless to put them on when precipitation was still coming down hard.

I finally reached the tiny village of Arnuva, ready to head directly down the road through Val Ferret and forget any part of this hike ever occurred. And then the strangest, yet most expected thing happened. The sleet stopped. Seconds later, almost an instant, beams of sunlight cut through the fog. I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 p.m.

It was late in the day. I'd definitely get back after dark if I climbed another 2,500 feet to the pass. But the scenario couldn't have been better if I planned it, which I pretty much did. So I continued up the TMB trail, still slipping on mud, shedding layers as the sky cleared and the sun burned and steam wafted from my coat.

I'd been over this pass once before, during the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Col Grand Ferret was where I really shut down after a hundred kilometers of wheezy climbing and battling cutoffs. I'd take a few steps and lose my breath, as though I was climbing an 8,000-meter summit in the Himalaya. The number of breaks I need to take just to catch my breath as I slogged up pass resulted in finally timing out at kilometer 110 in La Fouly. At the time I was in the beginnings of uncontrolled asthma and hyperthyroidism that I didn't yet understand, but I knew that my body was broken somehow. And I remember well what it felt like to look up at these impossible slopes, wondering if I'd find the strength to reach the summit, or any summit, ever again.

It's difficult to describe how amazing it felt to stand at Grand Col Ferret, looking out over the snow-dusted slopes and clouds streaming through the La Fouly valley, feeling strong. My heart pumped warm blood and my nerves tingled with exhilaration.

And the views! In 2015 the weather had been hot, but the mountains were shrouded in clouds. So I didn't even realize the spectacle surrounding this pass. There may have been a tear or two as I stood facing the Pré de Bar glacier with the cold wind streaming around me.

The day just got better. As evening light descended over Val Ferret, I slipped and slid down the mountain and started running when I hit the pavement. Both ankles were sore from the day's weird footing and my quads were unnaturally heavy, but it still felt wonderful to run. Miles disappeared behind me at a speed I could scarcely comprehend after weeks of 30-minute miles. Twilight turned the sky a rich violet, drenching Grand Jorasses and Monte Bianco in stunning silver light. Moonlight took over and the forest was an abstract maze of shapes and shadows. The faint roar of whitewater in Dora di Ferret was the only sound. I'd run out of trail snacks two hours earlier and my stomach churned, but there was genuinely no pace I'd rather be.

On Friday, temperatures remained low enough that snow stuck around, along with the wind. The sky was a thin overcast film. Days earlier I'd decided if the weather was workable at all, I wanted to repeat the route I walked on Monday when my camera wasn't working. Although it was all decent trail, parts of it were very narrow and exposed, and there were landslides that required short stints of exposed scrambling. I felt nervous about the prospect of traversing those slopes under snow and icy conditions, especially if there was a gale like the one that knocked me around on Monday. Still, these opportunities don't come every day. I figured I could turn around if conditions were iffy.

Col d'Arp is just a little 4,000-foot climb first thing in the morning. I was feeling all of the week's efforts in small ways — tightness in my calves, sore shoulders, general leg fatigue — but in other ways the grind becomes easier after days of grinds. Above 2,500 meters, there were several inches of snow that had been blown around. So the ground was bare in spots, and there were shin-deep drifts in others. Although I don't enjoy skittering on rocks in microspikes, I strapped them on for good measure.

Glancing over the edge of one ledge I was traversing, I looked toward future ledges. This practice had been much more intimidating on Monday, when I had no idea what was around the next saddle. But experience hadn't made these views as agreeable as I'd hoped. That segment in the upper lefthand corner of the photo still looks like a narrow notch above sheer cliffs, which it is.

Before the narrow trail traverse are a few airy scrambles to skirt around a knife ridge. I found good purchase on the snow with the microspikes, but rocks were coated in verglass. I decided that I really didn't want to come back down this way, and hoped the loop worked out.

On Monday, when I hiked around a pass called Colle Berrio Blanc, I was hit with a moment of déjà vu that caused me to openly gasp. I pondered the origin of this disquieting but forgotten association as I made my way though yet more vaguely familiar territory. It took me a while to figure it out. Suspicions simmered, but it took digging up my Strava track from the 2013 Petite Trotte à Léon to be certain. Colle Berrio Blanc. This spot. This was the spot. The place where I finally cracked. My teammates and I came around this corner, and the GPS track led me to believe that the route would take us over that horrifying ridgeline to the peak called Berrio Blanc. Actually, what it did was drop down the talus slopes directly off the pass, which wasn't much better (remember those intimidating cliffs mentioned earlier. Yeah.) In the past 10 hours of incredibly difficult trekking, I'd eaten all of a granola bar and a packet of peanut butter, and that was after starting out the "day" (before midnight) quite hungry. I remember doubling over on this pass and vomiting. The vomiting didn't stop until hours later, when there was truly nothing left. But that was only the beginning of my unravelling.

If these blog posts make it seem like I spent much of my time in Chamonix and Courmayeur reconciling past failures in the Alps — well, that was the case. TDG and UTMB are one thing, but PTL is very much another. I've been grasping to find closure from this experience for four years. I acknowledge that it was an optional, recreational activity and the decisions were mine alone. But the trauma was real, and it lingers. It haunts me in dreams. It haunts me when I'm curled up in a sleeping bag along the Poorman River deep in Interior Alaska, feeling subzero air slowly warm around my body, and remembering the times I've truly feared for my life.

What's the shortest way to tell my PTL story? Well, in 2013, I was still fairly new to "running." I had a lot of hubris but no mountain experience. I thought I had mountain experience from youthful excursions in Utah, and difficult off-trail hikes in Juneau and Montana. But no. I knew nothing. Beat raced PTL in 2012 and his pictures were beautiful. The race sounded just like TDG with a bit more spiciness, and I was enthralled. I found a team with two people I barely knew, a Spanish woman and an Italian man, and signed up.

We were not a good team. They're great people, but we didn't mesh at all in this scenario. Our common language was English and they weren't fluent, so communication issues dogged us from the start. I was the sole navigator and it turned out to be a huge responsibility, tracing a rough GPS track over miles of incomprehensible off-trail terrain. Sometimes the track would connect two far-away points straight up a wall, and I had to route-find around it, managing Class 3 and sometimes Class 4 scrambling with almost no experience in route-finding. Ana frequently refused to trust my directions, even when I showed her the GPS, so we had team mutinies that cost us time we did not have. We were pressed against cut-offs from the very start. We never had time to spare, so we didn't sleep. Every kilometer took us much longer than any of us anticipated possible, so we were always low on supplies, food and water. I got got water by scraping slush off the tops of snow fields, dirt, bugs and all. I went hungry, until my urine smelled like ammonia from muscle breakdown. The stress of navigation, tricky scrambling, and sleep-deprivation strained my eyes to the point I couldn't focus on anything. I had to wear reading glasses for six months afterward. We trekked through surprisingly remote areas, staying well above treeline for 12 hours at a time. When we finally arrived at the few support stations offered by PTL, they'd kick us out immediately because we were out of time, or they were out of food because earlier teams had cleaned them out. When we left for the 6,000-foot climb crossing from France into Italy, we'd eaten just a few crumbs of bread and finger-scraped jam from empty jars. We had almost no food left in our backpacks. In four days, we'd only laid down for 90 minutes total. For me, only a small fraction of that had been sleep.

Okay, I guess I can't tell a short story about PTL, but I had to set up the background to why I was so far gone at Colle Berrio Blanc. After the vomiting started, my body seemed to shut down in spurts. I couldn't even stand or lean on my trekking poles during these episodes. I had to sit or I'd become so dizzy that I'd lose my balance ... and we were not traversing places where I could afford to lose my balance. I begged my teammates to go on without me, so they could try to make the next cut-off that we were sure to miss if I continued in this manner. They didn't argue ... as I said, they're good people, but we were not a good team. Then I was alone, shivering for no discernible reason as I picked my down down the tundra.  I knew it was over, but it was still far from over.

The memories become more blurry. I was deeply bonked, confused. At one point I looked down at my GPS, and I was no longer on the pre-designated PTL track. I was lost. "I'm lost!" A primal scream pierced through me, and I panicked. My legs started tearing through the woods, a full sprint through spiky brush, and there was nothing my brain could do to stop them. I remember actually speaking, out loud, to myself: "Please stop running. Please, please stop. Please just stop." I don't know how long it took to regain control. For a time I was sleep-walking through grass, and then I dropped onto a paved road, and then I was sprinting full speed through dark road tunnels with no shoulder and seemingly no end. Running through the tunnels was probably my worst decision of all, but I was so addled that the risk hardly registered. Eventually the sun had set and I was sitting on a bus bench in Pré-Saint-Didier, my shoulders limp and shoes tossed angrily into the street. For long minutes or perhaps hours I stared blankly into nothing. My mind, my body, everything was absolutely done. Who knows how long I would have sat there? All night, at least, if PTL volunteers didn't set out in a van, looking for me.

So I suppose the only short way to tell it is that once, back in 2013, I attempted a long mountain traverse that I had absolutely no business attempting, and it was so scary and difficult and stressful that I lost my mind. The losing my mind part is what sticks with me — the understanding that there's a capacity in me to make such poor decisions, to relinquish so much control. I vowed to never go back to PTL. But the truth is I go back there all the time, when I'm frightened or angry. And here, on this high traverse above Val Veny, I went back there for real — unintentionally at first, and then on Friday, a little more intentionally. At times the wind was still and the air was intensely quiet. I knew there was no one around for miles. I stopped frequently to look around: There's the pass where we crossed between two glaciers and slid down 200 feet of ice at dawn. There's the boulder field with the amazing view of Mont Blanc. There's the cliffy traverse with the cables — the place where Beat spent hours huddled in couloir waiting for daylight so he could find the way.

When I came to the spot where I planned to drop into Val Veny — Mont Fortin — all of these unsettling PTL memories still dominated my thoughts. Mont Fortin holds the ruins of a military fortress from Roman times. The face of the mountain was cast in shadow and covered in a lot more snow than I expected to see. It's a scrambling route with yellow dots to mark the best way through steep rubble and cliffs, but there was too much snow to find any of the markings. Exposed rocks were clearly coated in ice. I've climbed down Mont Fortin before and remember it being a little tricky when dry, so there was no way I was going to attempt it in these conditions. 

My backup plan was to continue down into the valley and up to Col Chavannes, which I hadn't travelled before, but knew it to be part of the Alta Via 2 trekking route, so it would have a trail. On Monday I traversed a boulder field to go all the way to Col de la Seigne, but this detour was already likely to add two hours to my day, and I hoped to be back in Courmayeur before Beat returned from Switzerland (or at least before dark.)

The drop off of Col Chavannes appeared just as steep as Mont Fortin. In fact, it looked like a headwall, almost vertical for the first 50 meters. There was a trail notched into the face, but it had collected at least a foot of windblown snow, pressed against the rock face until it formed a thin cornice blocking the only route down. Because of snow cover, the trail was difficult to discern from the cliff. "This is worse than Mont Fortin," I whimpered, but now I was basically committed. I could go back the way I came, but that would take hours more. Some of the terrain I had climbed wouldn't be much better than this going down.

The wind blew fiercely over the narrow saddle. I put my trekking poles away because they were more harm than good. Carefully I established a mittened grip on an icy handhold and punched a leg into the snow. It sank up to my knees, and the microspikes caught purchase on solid ground. I placed another foot, which hit a small rock, causing me to skitter and quickly throw down another hand to catch my balance. If I slipped sideways, I was going to fall, and then bounce a few times before my body stopped somewhere far below. It was so scary. Scarier than PTL, I thought. "Why do I keep doing this to myself? Why do I keep doing this to myself?"

But after three steps I felt committed, so I continued. Every step took considerable time, minutes even, as I secured my precarious handholds as well as I could, and slowly placed each foot so there weren't any sudden surprises underneath all that snow. The wind blew hard and the temperature was below freezing, judging by the powder quality of the snow. I'd put on my down coat at the pass, and was glad I had. Still, I was frightened and cold. My shoulders quaked. I took a deep breath, and took another step.

After a half hour of horror I'd gotten through the worst of it, but wasn't out of danger quite yet. I pulled out my trekking poles to improve my balance on the still-steep, but less exposed ribbon of talus. As I made my way down tight switchbacks, I came across a plastic baggie full of medicine bottles. I picked it up and considered packing it out. Then again, this was probably important to someone. Better to leave it here in case they came back to look for it later. But who'd been up here? I hadn't seen a soul all day, or any tracks to indicate someone had crossed this pass since the storm.

Below the hairpin, in a similar spot to the medicine bottles, was a pair of track shorts. Odd. Then a Kit Kat bar and scattered bus tickets and receipts. Below that, a tub of hair gel and a spoon. On a fourth switchback, I found a pair of jeans. They'd been wet and now they were frozen stiff, backward and curved up as though someone had crawled out of them here. Really, really odd. The trail made a long traverse and then switchbacked again a hundred meters lower. From this lower vantage point, I looked up and saw a backpack. In a straight line it was at least a hundred meters off the trail. I felt compelled to scramble closer. It was overturned on a steep, boulder-strew slope where no one would ever take a break. It would make sense, if someone fell on those switchbacks, that they'd bounce a few times over lower switchbacks and come to rest somewhere near here. I half expected to find an unconscious person or a body. But the backpack was abandoned, along with all of its contents.

I continued into Val Veny feeling deeply unsettled. If there had been an incident, at least the person was already rescued. But were they okay? Maybe it was just scattered gear from a fed-up backpacker, possibly caught in the storm when it was really bad yesterday. Maybe they jettisoned stuff to get out fast.

Back in town, reunited with Beat and finally sitting down to the pizza I'd been craving all week, I scrolled through my phone for answers. The search led to news reports of a 25-year-old hiker from Indonesia who'd been plucked off Col Chavannes the previous day. He had severe hypothermia, a body temperature of 24 degrees Celsius (75F!) His temperature had been brought back up to 34C at a hospital, but he remained in a controlled coma. The extent of damage or survivability was unknown.

The news reports said he had a heart attack. The scattered belongings told a somewhat different story, and there were earlier reports that spoke of a fall. It appears to me he either fell down the switchbacks, or stumbled in distress for a short time, spilling things from his backpack before stopping off the trail. He possibly crawled back up the slope and removed his clothing as hypothermia advanced. It's a sad and distressing scenario.

His name is Syahrie Anggara. I look for updates every day, hoping to find news about his recovery. The image of his stuff strewn along the talus is pressed into my memory, the frozen jeans most of all. There is something unsettling about the abandoned belongings of a person — the debris we leave behind.

The things we leave behind aren't unlike the memories that stay with us, holding a meaning that only we understand. I went to this place to seek closure from ghosts, and found the ghosts of a man who'd been through something truly terrible. All we can do is is continue forward, hauling our ever-expanding cache of hopes and fears.

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.