Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shake it out

The formidable Mont Blanc, as seen from 12,600 feet at Aiguille du Midi. 
I've had a tough time starting a pre-race blog post, clouded as my mind is in a fluctuating haze of anxiety and awe. I feel peaceful and content when I go into the mountains, and less so when I wander through the crowded streets of town or sort through a growing mountain of gear that I want to pack with me in UTMB. The weather forecast has progressively deteriorated from ominous to downright apocalyptic. The race is expected to launch under steady rain and temperatures around 5C (41F), turning to snow on the first pass around 1,800 meters, and throughout the night the higher elevations on the course are expected to receive about 5 cm of snow, temperatures around -5C (23F) and 45 kph winds. So, basically, we're going to get soaked at the start and then climb into snow and subfreezing temperatures with flash-freezing winds, then slip and slide down the wet snow until the ice crusted to our clothing melts and we can be soaked anew at lower elevations. Having experienced long endurance efforts in temperatures down to 40 below, blizzards, and similarly wet and cold conditions at shorter intervals, I feel like I can express with some authority that this could potentially be as bad as weather can be for such an endeavor. The UTMB is well supported with water and a somewhat limited selection of European food, but we must carry all of our other gear. The fear has set in and I've exchange my formally large backpack for an even larger one. My friend Martina lectured me about its weight but I was undeterred. I would drag my Susitna sled if I thought that was at all possible. 

In memory, the coldest I've ever been — the deepest I've descended into hypothermia — happened about three years ago in Juneau, during a climb up Mount Jumbo in an October storm. I planned to hike hard so I packed fairly light, although I still had quite a bit of gear — Gortex jacket, rain pants, gloves, hat. I ascended soaked to the bone, hit snowline, and kept ascending, feeling slightly chilled but not really thinking about what that meant for the descent. On the ridge I was blasted with wind until my jacket froze, stupidly decided to still tag the peak, and was fully shivering by the time I started down. My traction in the wet snow was so bad, and a fall so potentially treacherous, that I moved painfully slow on the descent. My body stopped making heat, and I reached a point where I couldn't feel my feet, face, or my arms, at all. My teeth stopped chattering and my heart started murmuring in the way that it does when survival instinct tells me that something is really wrong. I made it down, but the experience shook me up so much that I didn't even really talk about it at the time. That was the weather. The weather we're supposed to see this weekend. For a hundred some freaking miles. 

I'd be lying if I put my game face on and pretended to be optimistic. I'm not. That's not to say I'm not excited. I'm going to show up at the start, as prepared as possible, ready and anxious for a grand adventure. Beat has been out there since Monday night. I've only received a few short text updates, so I'm not sure exactly how he's dealing with these conditions. But he's still pushing through it, and if he can, I can. Hopefully fast enough to stay in the race. But I'm not willing to take any big chances. So there it is. Tomorrow I'll post another update with links to where you can follow UTMB online, and hopefully a slightly more positive outlook. 

Gondola to Le Brevent
That's not to say I haven't been loving my time in Chamonix. The weather for the first two days was fantastic and I took advantage of it by visiting popular spots around town, and that includes cafes and restaurants. But of course what everyone comes her for are the mountains. Martina and I set out for a walk on Tuesday, and I predictably got carried away and climbed 5,500 feet to to the base of the cliffs of Aiguilles Rouges. But it was okay, because just a mile away was a gondola that carried me all the way down to the valley. It's not considered breaking your taper if you don't run downhill. On Wednesday Martina, her friend Sandra, and I purchased a gondola pass and visited La Brevet on one side of the valley and Aiguille du Midi on the other, then took the train to Mer de Glace. The train broke down so we ended up having to run 2,500 feet down the trail to town. I guess that's what I get for cheating. But the places those gondolas reach are breathtaking. Simply unbelievable. I was all kinds of happy on Wednesday, despite the ominous clouds looming on the horizon. I'm hoping for the same in UTMB.

I'm still working through my process of accepting what UTMB means to me. I don't have near the time I need to even start writing it out (before the soul-crushing reality of the race unravels all of it), but did think of (another) Florence and the Machine song whose lyrics approach my own thoughts. I know, it's annoying when bloggers post lyrics of songs verbatim. But it's part of my process, which I need right now to calm the roiling panic that threatens to bubble to the surface. So here are photographs of some of the places I visited on Wednesday, and "Shake It Out" by Florence and the Machine.

View toward Rochers des Fiz
Regrets collect like old friends.
Here to relive your darkest moments.
I can see no way, I can see no way,
And all of the ghouls come out to play.

Massif des Aiguilles Rouges
And every demon wants his pound of flesh,
But I like to keep some things to myself.
I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

The Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc as seen from Le Brevent
And I've been a fool and I've been blind.
I can never leave the past behind.
I can see no way, I can see no way.

Dent du Geant (Tooth of the Giant)
I'm always dragging that horse around,
And our love is pastured such a mournful sound.
Tonight I'm going to bury that horse in the ground.
So I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Glacier des Bossons
Shake it out, shake it out ...
And it's hard to dance with the devil on your back,
So shake him off.

The Aiguille du Midi station, built into a pinnacle at 12,000 feet before the invention of helicopters
I am done with my graceless heart,
So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart.
Cause I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Climbers ascend the final ridge to Aiguille du Midi
And given half a chance, would I take any of it back?
It's a fine romance but it's left me so undone.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Glacier du Geant
And I'm damned if I do, and I'm damned if I don't,
So here's to drinks in the dark at the end of my road.
And I'm ready to suffer, and I'm ready to hope.
It's a shot in the dark right at my throat,

Aig le Verte
Cause looking for heaven, found the devil in me.
Looking for heaven, found the devil in me.
Well what the hell, I'm gonna let it happen to me.


  1. My favorite motto is, "Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst." I think you're smart to pack slightly heavier when conditions are like that. Luck favors the prepared. Have fun and enjoy the adventure!

  2. While walking around Chamonix find the outdoor waffle food cart. Get one with Dulce de leche. You won't regret it. They are the most amazing non-spongy waffles I have ever had and a great treat pre-race.

  3. if i had to bet on someone, it would be you.
    go girl and be safe ...

  4. Those lyrics are perfect! Rock it, Jill!! Enjoy the journey!

  5. Jill we are behind you all the way. I love reading your posts every week. Your endurance and courage astound me. Go explore those mountains, have fun and be safe. I'll look forward to reading more about it when you're through. Try to enjoy the beauty if you can. Chamonix is one of my favorite places in the world. I look forward to seeing your photos.

  6. I saw that giant mountain and immediately laughed out loud and said to the computer, "Jill, are you crazy?" Face that fear like you always do. I'm rooting for you - oh, the photos you'll take and then I'll get to see! Sending good vibes your way!

  7. You can do this Jill! Packing heavy is hard, but smart. We are rooting for you!


  8. Beautiful photography. And I thought I was a badass for snowboarding over the alps from France to Switzerland and back. So inspirational - you can do it!

  9. Jill, great to see you finished. Well done. It was a tough night out there.

    Sad that you (and 2,299 others including me) didn't get the trip we all hoped for. 3 years I have done these races, and I've yet to once run the advertised course.

    But if flexibility is a key skill of the ultra runner, this is a good place to learn.

    I hope you decide to return some day.


  10. Amazing photos. I love hearing your thoughts. Most amazing life you are living. Enjoy!

  11. Man that first photo is outstandingly beautiful, I have to get up there someday soon.


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