The town of Donnas Pont St. Martin sits at the threshold of the Aosta Valley, the gateway to the Alps from the flatlands to the south. Its low elevation (1,080 feet) puts it in a different climate zone than most of the other villages of the Tor des Geants. Donnas reminded me of the hills above San Jose in California, with small broad-leaf trees and vineyards lining the streets. It was also nearly 30 degrees C when I went to meet Beat at noon Tuesday.
He seemed relatively limber and alert given he had been out all night and just descended more than 8,000 feet from the mountains. He took an hour-long nap and worked on taping his feet while I went to look for hazelnut gelato. In my experience, feet usually feel a lot worse than they look, and I have to say that his feet look pretty bad. The skin on his heel is almost entirely gone on his bad foot, and he has a large heel blister on his good foot. He's begun taping every one of his toes, but the abrasions that bother him the most are just above the ball of his big toe joint. He claims the pain is manageable, but tends to welcome any other challenge that will distract him from his feet — the tougher the better. The only time he really has trouble, he told me, is during flat, easy sections of road. Luckily, these sections are few and far between in the Tor des Geants.
I've been choosing my daily hikes on the fly, and the timing on this day put me in a good position to climb the first pass beyond Donnas, starting about eight kilometers beyond the checkpoint. Non-racing companions are discouraged in the TDG, so I try not to shadow Beat too closely but I still love seeing him on the course. So I drove around to the town of Perloz and began the long, hot ascent from 2,000 feet to 7,500 feet altitude. Just another pass in the Tor des Geants.
It was very cool to travel this far down the Aosta Valley and see a new face of the Alps. Just as the climate reminded me of California, the mountains also had a decidedly Sierras-like look and feel.
Because the trail was at a lower elevation, most of the climbing was below timberline on steep, grassy slopes populated by hemlock trees and cattle. But the emphasis is on steep. In the first mile out of Perloz, I gained more than 1,700 feet of altitude — a pattern that showed no sign of slowing. The afternoon sun beat down. I was pouring sweat, regularly blinded by it, and huffing just as loudly as the racers who had 160 kilometers on their legs.
The trail topped out on a col and continued up the ridge. To the southeast, I could see the open plain at the end of the Alps. Somewhere out there is the city of Torino, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics. I was a little disappointed that it was too hazy to see much definition, but it was cool to look into what appeared to be a vast void.
I turned around just beyond Rifugio Coda, having taken two and a half hours to climb just over five miles. There was a technical boulder field for a half mile before the pass, and I'm sure there will be many more to come. I had to pick my way across this boulder field at a pace of about 1.5 miles per hour. Although there are no more big climbs on this section of the TDG, friends who have raced it have told me this is the toughest section, because of the rocks.
Just as I hoped, I caught Beat on the way back down. He still looked so cheery, maybe because there was enough heat and steepness to take his mind off his feet. In a way, I get it. You have to alter your mindset in order to adapt. Suffering, for the most part, is optional.
Perloz to Rifugio Coda, round trip: 10.4 miles
Total climbing: 5,954
Total time: 4:37