Saturday, September 17, 2011

Italy, day seven

After my ten-hour strenuous hike, having finally crawled into bed at 11 p.m., I was back up at 2 a.m. to begin the two-hour drive out to Gressoney. Timing Beat's checkpoint arrivals was a mystery wrapped in an enigma of guesswork. I at least had last year's splits to go on, and he was generally running similar times about three to six hours ahead of his 2010 pace. But timing Beat's exact arrival required exhausting margins. If I estimated he would arrive around 6 a.m., I really had to be at the checkpoint by 4, and not be terribly surprised when he didn't show up until 8. The Tor des Geants life bases were not exactly welcoming of crew members. We weren't even allowed inside the buildings unless our racers were physically there and a kind volunteer let us slip through the controls. I learned to get comfortable in my little rented Volkswagon compact, snacking on jam sandwiches and occasionally getting out of the car to jog a few blocks to stay warm, because gas is expensive in Europe.

Beat was tired and quietly cranky when he checked out of Gressoney at 9:30 a.m. I followed him along the first five kilometers out of the base along a rushing glacial river. We moved along at a pace that can only be described as painfully slow, about 2 mph on a flat river path, as Beat tried to put his game face back on. Accompanying us was a Russian runner who had become so tired on the second night that he walked right off the trail into a head-over-feet tumble down a scree slope, smashing his face and badly spraining his nose. He was wrapped in gauze and sniffing loudly through his swollen purple nose, ranting about the lack of Neosporin at the life bases. "They have everything to fix feet and no Neosporin," he repeated incessantly while Beat argued with him about the merits of the antiseptic ointment. I probably would have found this all hilarious if I wasn't grappling with my own sour stomach from sleep deprivation and an admittedly poor diet.

Pacing is prohibited in the Tor des Geants, although short periods of accompaniment are viewed as okay. So I couldn't hike with Beat, but I had driven all the way out here and wanted to explore, so I broke away and headed up the steep trail on my own. Like every pass on this wide loop, the trail was rocky and relentless. The trail signs listing elevations in meters consistently fooled me into underestimating the effort. A climb from 1,200 meters to 2,700 meters doesn't seem so bad, until you realize that the relatively small number converts to nearly 5,000 feet. But the horizontal distances are relatively short, and if you're willing to expend a gallon of sweat, these climbs can go by surprisingly fast. Despite his slow plod along the river, Beat consistently shadowed me about a quarter mile back, and admitted he used my bright green hat in the distance as a rabbit of sorts to pick up his pace.

Beat's camera battery died sometime during the night, so I waited at the pass to take his obligatory self portrait at the Col. I guess technically it's not a self portrait if someone else shoots it, but he managed to get one of these on every pass on the course but one.

From Col Pinter, I noticed yellow trail markers continuing up the shale toward a high peak, and figured I might as well go for broke. Keep in mind that I hiked ten hours the day before, hadn't slept, hadn't really eaten much, hadn't brought all that much water for my "short" morning walk, and still felt like roadkill. But comparing myself to Beat, I felt no justification to slack off or complain.

As "trail" 11A crested the summit ridge, it became increasingly more rugged and technical. I am normally extremely shy when it comes to exposed scrambling, especially when I am alone and there's no one around to spot my broken body on the rocks, but I admit I can be swept with summit fever. The marked route also fooled me into a false sense of security that landed me well outside my comfort zone, clinging to a precipice over what looked like, and literally was, a 7,000-foot tumble down to the Gressoney valley. All I can say is that if we were in the States, what passes for a hiking trail in the Alps could easily be labeled class four and even lower class five bouldering, incorporating crack climbing and all. At one point I just had to ditch my poles and was unwilling to relinquish my three-point contact, so I just propped them against the wall. It didn't seem necessary to fold them up and put them in my pack because I would be  back at this spot within minutes, and I hadn't seen a single other person since the Col.

On the final pitch, I had to press my back against the wall to allow another hiker to go by, a man who only grunted when I said "buon giorno" in a breathless whisper. I didn't think anything of it. He descended quickly and was already moving along the summit ridge while I made my final overcautiously slow ascent. I basically did little more than tag the top and start back down before vertigo really kicked in and involuntary crying commenced. (I didn't cry. I did come close.) I was angry at myself for pushing so far beyond my personal limits and blamed sleep deprivation for clouding my judgement.

I was nearly "safe" when I reached the place where my poles should have been, and they weren't there. I had laid them horizontally on a solid ledge, so the chance they fell off was extremely slim, and even so I scanned the surrounding area several times over. They were simply gone, and the best explanation I had was that this one hiker dude actually stole them, right out from under me. I was more sad than angry, as it was my fault for ditching them, and also because I really liked these lightweight carbon Black Diamond poles. I bought them in Anchorage right before the Susitna 100 and they essentially saved my race, and have been trusty hiking companions ever since. Not to mention they weren't cheap, but what made me even more sad was the fact I was now going to have to descend 7,000 feet of steep, rocky trail without poles. To the random hiker dude who didn't even say good morning back to me and then stole my poles: I hope they break and you fall on your face and sprain your nose.

I later learned the peak I climbed was Testa Grigia, a 3,315-meter (10,875-foot) peak that's famous for skiing and even has a bivy hut stationed just below the summit ridge (I saw it, but was too sad about my poles and mentally exhausted from vertigo to check it out.) Then it was just down, down, down, to wrap up a twelve-mile hike that took eight solid hours. Testa Grigia looked impressive from the valley, with its stark gray wall and crown of clouds. On the way back to town I met up with Angela from Canada and Anne from Anchorage, who were traveling together out of the Gressoney life base. I turned around to walk with them for a bit. We passed an Italian bakery and I mentioned off-hand that I was absolutely starving and would likely hit this place after I returned. Angela turned to Anne and said, "We're vacationing in Italy. I haven't even had a real Italian pastry yet. Let's go get something." We all went inside together and Angela treated everyone to apple pastries while I quietly stocked up on breadsticks, tuna and apples for sustenance for my next long life base wait.

 I was impressed with Angela's attitude. She seemed so laid back in the midst of this effort that was burying me in much smaller doses, and she appeared to be truly enjoying herself. Anne unfortunately was hurting, and during our bakery excursion decided she should drop from the race to avoid cementing a reoccurring case of plantar faciitis. I walked with her back to the base as she explained to all of the departing racers that she was dropping out and they all enthusiastically encouraged her to sleep on it first. Amazing attitudes, all of them. I also saw my friends Steve and Harry just before we reached the life base. They seemed extremely out of it and initially reacted like they didn't even recognize me.  I warned them about the rough climb ahead and Harry insisted that the trail to the first refugio "wasn't steep" because it didn't look that way on the elevation profile, even though I had just told him I was actually there two hours earlier and personally clocked it gaining 1,200 feet in three quarters of a mile. I didn't feel compelled to argue with him, because in a race like this, denial can be an effective strategy. I left my friends and began the long-way-around drive to the next life base and the long night ahead.


  1. Bravo pour votre volonté et tous nos encouragements.
    ... pas de bons souhaits à celui qui a fauché vos bâtons.
    Bonne séjour en Europe.

  2. Great pics as usual, would love to be down there too but at least now I am back in Europe it's not so far away.

  3. Thieves suck.
    Question, so is this race really a power hike and not a run? I have tried to "run" with poles but it slows me down.

    Also, I learned long ago not to compare myself to anyone! Beat's feats(hee hee) are his, you are awesome even if you climb a peak or don't....

  4. Bummer about the poles. You can replace them though. The hike sounds interesting. I would have likely cried.

  5. Mary,

    The winner of the TDG finished in about 80 hours, for an average of less than 2.5 miles per hour — hiking pace. Even factoring in average stops, the top guy probably maintained a moving speed slower than 15-minute miles, among a strong field of 500 people. So, yes, the TDG is a trekking race, not a trail run in the traditional sense.

    I will say that I have never encountered trails quite like this anywhere in North America. They're old, eroded, boulder-strewn and cut directly up these huge mountains. They even make the established routes in Alaska's Chugach Mountains look comparably flat and mellow. To an average to beginning runner like myself, the TDG trails are almost entirely unrunnable, whether I'm traveling five miles or 200. Even the best technical runners would likely have a hard time holding on for 200 miles. It's definitely a race that favors strong hikers with good endurance and better knees.

  6. It may well have been he thought the poles were forgotten and that he took them with him to leave them in the village or the hut. So I wouldn't be to judgemental.


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