Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A strange form of life

a strange form of life 
kicking through windows 
rolling on yards 
heading in loved ones' 
triggering eyes 
a strange one 

— From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy

I often wonder about the power of choice. Can I choose to override my basic biological signals, hunger and pain, security and warmth? Can I choose to keep moving without stopping, to deny fatigue its ever-tightening grip? How much free agency do I have? How many unbendable rules am I bound to? I dream of an expansive world of choices that I can follow into the horizon, beyond the limits of every choice I have ever made. Now, all of my choices have come to this moment — hands swaddled in wet neoprene kayaking gloves, tights torn with streaks of blood near the hip, shoulders shaking as I cling to a rocky outcropping somewhere high in the French Alps, lost to my senses in the icy rain.

 It's only the second night of La Petite Trotte à Léon, just 24 hours in, and already my field of vision is wrapped in an undulating frame of vertigo. I hug the rocks tighter as I glance down at a stream of headlamps still making their way up the wall. It's a wall made out of wet grass and peanut butter mud, thick and oozing, that pulled our scrambling legs down the mountain faster than we could climb. Now, just fifty meters from what promised to be the top, we reach an actual wall of loose shale, slicked with frozen rain. There is no way up, no way up, and the GPS dot only dances around on the screen like a laughing clown. In my wildest dreams I would choose to go down, quit this race, end this nonsense. Only I know that descending this slope would be suicide. It's too steep and slick, and if we start sliding, we'd keep going. Such things have happened to people before, to hikers who are unable to self-arrest on muddy slopes. One reporter in Juneau described this as "falling to your death in a meadow."

Two headlamps clinging to the cliff side-by-side directly below remind me of the prowling eyes of a mountain lion. "Is this the route?" Ana calls up to me. "I don't know," I reply with little more than a whisper, and then I cough a louder response. "I just don't know. I really don't know."

Panic begins to gurgle from my gut, and I fight back with deep breaths. "You chose this," I remind myself. "You chose this." I glance into an abyss pierced with streaks of rain and scanning headlights, and wonder how many choices I have. One is falling to my death in a meadow. I'd happily settle for two.

La Petite Trotte à Léon. 185 miles with 80,000 feet of climbing in 136 hours or less. It doesn't sound that difficult, does it? Stay with me here. It sounds doable, at least. A great, grueling challenge, one that's sure to test physical limits and the power of choice —but ultimately doable, right? The simple idea that we as individuals had what it took to complete this challenge is what drew Ana, Giorgio and I together in our patchwork international PTL team. Ana and Giorgio had both previously completed the Tor des Geants, another race in the Italian Alps with a similar elevation and distance profile. I was a newbie to multiday Alpine racing, but I had a little more "mid-mountain" experience based on a relatively short stint of scrambling in Juneau and long-ago climbs in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. I was also the most experienced with GPS navigation, thanks to my bikepacking background, so I was designated navigator. In pre-race correspondence, the three of us all presented ourselves as easy-going, adaptable people. But no one was willing to step forward as a clear leader. And the fact remained that we were virtual strangers to each other, with a language barrier, in an endeavor where team dynamics and communication are key.

Still, enthusiasm and optimism were both high once we all met for the first time in Chamonix. I was probably the most subdued; Beat and I had just flown in from San Francisco and arrived in town 24 hours before. We struggled through the jet lag for minimal sleep on Sunday night, and then Monday brought its requisite chores and race duties, served with a thick dollop of doom. Starting off a long race sleep-deprived? Well, it's already six days. What's one more?

After experiencing the deafening hype of the UTMB race start last year, I expected the PTL start to be equally subdued. Still, there was a fair turnout for the ridiculously late (or early, depending on your perspective) 10 p.m. start under the big UTMB arch in downtown Chamonix. We ran through the dark city streets soaking up the energizing cheers of a half-mile-long crowd. Close to 90 teams, overwhelmingly from Europe but with a few stragglers from the United States, Japan, and even Brazil, quickly formed a conga line up the steep singletrack to Col de Brevent. The pace was friendly and the mood was jovial as we followed a string of headlamp lights into the starry sky. The first pass gained 4,500 feet in four miles on relatively smooth trail, which — although unbeknownst to us at the time — was easy coasting in the PTL. Life was good.

Throughout the night we traced our way along the incredible cliffs of a limestone plateau, dropping 2,500 feet into narrow valleys and climbing similar amounts onto cols whose names were already becoming inconsequential among the long list of summits yet to be reached. Through the darkness our team carried on small talk. Giorgio sang songs from his collection of favorite covers, including the Cyndi Lauper part in "We Are the World." I talked about the beautiful night and all the photographs I would take if only the sun were up. Ana, who was shy about communicating in English, stoically marched along with a comforting rhythm. We still had nearly everything to learn about each other. Despite this, few words about outside world — or our lives before the PTL — were ever uttered. It was a life we had to leave behind, simply because there was no space for our individual pasts in this overwhelming present.

As the darkness crept toward dawn, frost collected on the grass and coated rocks in an icy film. Any clear summer night in the Alps is likely to drop below freezing, especially above 2,000 meters. Ana and Giorgio seemed uncomfortable with the cold, and established these pre-dawn hours as a time when we must not stop moving. But difficulties were presenting themselves in the route-finding, and I often had to pause to determine the general direction of the route on a talus slope or grassy field. Rather than draw a flowing path along the map, the GPS track connected point-to-point dots with straight lines — meaning that although it was possible to determine which direction we needed to go, it wasn't always easy to tell how we were supposed to get there. The line itself shot toward rock outcroppings and plunged over precipices. Ana, who was not carrying a GPS, was quick to become impatient with me whenever I paused to scrutinize the track. Especially in the cold hours of the night, she often shouldered her way ahead, to which I could only shrug. "Where does she think she's going?"

Early hiccups in team morale were resolved once the sun came up, revealing a clear and colorful day in this most unbelievable place — the Alps! How did we even get here? The fact that we had traveled 19 miles over three big cols was already forgotten. The day was new. We descended to a refuge where Giorgio ordered tea and bread, and sat down to enjoy his breakfast. How innocent we were in those first few blissful hours, when we still believed we'd have time in the race to stop. I perused the course notes, which listed the "fastest" and "slowest" estimated times for each landmark. The slowest times were meant to indicate what pace was needed to stay ahead of three official cut-offs. My stomach dropped when I realized that we were already only 15 minutes in front of the designated slowest pace. How was that even possible? We were only 31 kilometers into the race; we were fresh and had moved well all through the night with few stops. There were still at least two dozen teams behind us, probably more. How could all of us be too slow? But there wasn't much time to reflect on that. We had to get moving.

It was difficult to boost Giorgio out of his comfy refuge chair. He mused about delicious meals and relaxing stops in the Tor des Geants, and teased "the girls who want only to walk" in the PTL. But Ana understood the importance of staying ahead of the slowest estimated times; somewhere in there were minutes we would have difficulty making up. I was heading into my third day without adequate sleep, and felt strongly that we'd have to find time to rest if we stood a chance in this race. "There's a checkpoint with soup in six kilometers," I urged Giorgio. "Common, we'll be there in two hours."

Just how slow can 6 kilometers go in the PTL? When most of it is descending? The following is a photo essay of the cold blast of reality we were about to receive as we crawled down Tré l'Epaule.

Teams line-up on the chains. It's like a Disneyland ride, but a lot less fun.

Ana: "Where is the route?" Me, in what was becoming my signature phrase: "I don't know. I really don't know."

We waited in this line for 35 minutes. It was a pretty straightforward rope rappel, but there was a tricky spot near the bottom where I misplaced my foot, slipped, and bashed my right elbow very hard. Ow, ow, ow. I spent about 20 seconds death-gripping the rope as my biceps began to fail while dangling over a ten-foot drop and panicking that I had broken my elbow.

My elbow proved to be flexible but did swell some, and the joint throbbed painfully as we continued down many full-body scrambles and rope descents.

It was a beautiful place, this rugged and fear-inducing descent.

Aw, seriously? Remind me to join a climbing gym if this asinine idea ever crawls back into my head.

By the time we reached Refuge de Veran, five hours had passed. Six kilometers in five hours. Five hours! By now even Giorgio was sold on the reality that this entire race was going to be a battle behind the cut-offs, and gulped down his tiny bowl of noodles and broth as I changed my socks and applied Beat's homemade "Hydro Lube" to my feet. I'll go on the record right now to say that this home-brewed anti-blister agent is about the most amazing substance on the planet. Even as the brutal kilometers dragged on and I lost all interest in everything including eating and taking care of basic needs, my feet remained clean and blister-free.

Photo by Dima Feinhaus
Happy feet aside, the terrifying descent was far from over once we left the refuge. The remaining 3,500 feet of elevation loss plunged down a thickly vegetated ravine that I would describe as "Juneau hiking, but steeper, and with ladders." A slick, muddy trail snaked through the forest above short but near-vertical cliffs. Any slipping off the trail would have led to 10- and even 15-foot falls. In many ways this part of the route was scarier than the rocks, because the mud made it even less manageable.

Rain started to fall in force just as we hit the village of Magland. It was fine at 500 meters and the warmth of that low altitude, but the wind picked up and the chill clamped down as we climbed into the Aravis mountains. This was another one of those ascents where we were climbing directly toward a vertical rock wall. I thought, "there's no way we're going to continue climbing into that. No way." But, sure enough, at the base of the cliffs, the trail faded into an extremely narrow ledge strung with frayed and sometimes broken cables. The ledge itself was off-camber and muddy; each footstep pushed several extra inches toward the precipice. Every 50 meters or so, we'd scramble up a wet rock outcropping and join a higher ledge with more sketchy cables. I remember Beat telling me once that "the French don't really care what happens to you in their mountains." I was trying to decide whether scrambling was more dangerous with the cable or without.

As we climbed another high meadow into the piercing rain, I was feeling demoralized. It wasn't that any of the obstacles so far were overly difficult or unworkable. It just seemed that all of them put together made for a impossibly slow race, with more kilometers to cover than time to do so, and I did not want to feel the constant pressure to rush through such difficult and often dangerous terrain. Near a shepherd's chalet, we encountered a team who had turned around. They informed us that it was unlikely any of us in this part of the pack could stay ahead of the cut-offs, and they'd had some equipment failures that cemented the deal. Ana was incredulous. "There's only eight kilometers until we reach the refuge where we can get some sleep," I told Giorgio and Ana. "Two, maybe three hours of rest will do us a world of good."

On the other side of a small pass, the trail disappeared and the relatively solid dirt was replaced by a thick, cow-stopped mud with the consistency of peanut butter and the traction of motor oil. We dug our heels into clumps of grass and struggled to stay upright, falling numerous times on our butts. As the slope steepened, falls netted a few inches of sliding, and then a few inches more, until I was staring into the vertical ravine below the grassy slope and wondering just how far we could slide. Twilight faded to darkness. We took each of our steps deliberately, inching down a slope that from the sky would have looked easy. The GPS track was difficult to follow, and even after Giorgio joined in with his GPS unit, confusion reigned. I did not want to drop too close to the ravine, but GPS signaled only one way: down.

Finally at the bottom, we took a breather beneath tall trees. These descents were stressful and had taken a lot out of us. "It's just four more kilometers to the refuge," I panted.

"We eat. We sleep. Start with a new day," Giorgio agreed.

It was there the GPS track veered inexplicably to the left toward a thick clump of alder branches along a veritable waterfall of a creek. There was certainly no trail through the brush. As we hacked our way around the vicinity of the track, at least five other teams caught up to us. Suddenly there were more than a dozen of us bunched together, headlights streaming through the rain, searching into nothingness. "Is that the route?" Ana called up to me.

"I don't know. I really don't know."

Somehow I found a mushy animal trail, but it was close to right point for the GPS track, so I beckoned the group. Ana and Giorgio had fallen behind a few other people. A team I didn't know was right on my ass, impatiently edging toward me as I clawed up the trail. When it became impossible to gain purchase with my feet, I wedged my poles into my backpack and wrapped my hands around clumps of grass to use as leverage while I pulled my body through the mud. When one of those clumps of grass broke, I slipped backward into the man behind me. I could feel my butt hit one of his shoulders as he grunted loudly and slid back a few inches himself. I grabbed a new clump of grass and glanced at the stream of headlights behind me. To my terror, they appeared to be directly below, as though we were climbing a vertical wall. If I fell and the dude behind me lost his balance, what kind of domino effect would that create? I imagined a landslide of bodies careening through the mud to the rocks far below. "Please don't follow so close," I whimpered. "I am looking for the way, I am going as fast as I can. Please, if you want to go ahead, say so and go. But don't follow so close." He grunted again. I don't think he understood.

The peanut butter mud oozed downward. My feet lost traction with every passing millisecond whether I moved or not; there was nothing I could do but scale this mud wall as quickly as possible. My quads screamed as I launched into a fast scramble, digging my neoprene-clad fingers deep into the sludge and pushing forward with every ounce of strength I could give. It was a red-line effort, not the kind of energy one wants to expend during a six-day race. But I felt I had no choice.

My quads were exhausted to the point of failure; every leg muscle was quivering and my glutes were twitching, but I reached a perch on more solid rock. By this point I'd gotten a fair distance ahead of the teams behind me, and Giorgio and Ana had caught back up. But there was no clear way through the rock; it was more vertical than ever, and slicked with an icy film now that the temperature had dropped near freezing. Giorgio and Ana, also fed up with this col, branched off from my line to look for "the route." According to my GPS, the top was fewer than 50 meters away. I swallowed all of my terror and exhaustion and let it wash over me in a eerie sort of calm. This was survival mode, now.

I worked my way up the rock outcropping until it became clear that this thing was not climbable. Giorgio and Ana had fallen behind me again and I yelled at them that we had to go right, that there had to be another drainage across this small rib that did not end in a cliff. The other teams seemed to be working their way in that direction, although without significant descending there was no easy way over there for us. I slid down the chute while death-gripping clumps of grass until I reached the base of the rib. Giorgio had tried to go up and over the rib, where he ran into another cliff. The only way across where I stood was to jump across a smooth sheet of rock that looked like a waterslide. Landing anywhere on the rock would likely send me careening down the drainage. Jumping was the last thing I wanted to do, but my choices were unclimbable cliffs, or more sketchy descending. Or jump.

"Be brave, be strong," I chanted. "Be brave, be strong. Oh, screw brave and strong. This is the absolute stupidest thing I've ever done." I launched my body into the air and landed in the mud just inches from the ledge, sliding downhill as I grasped for grass clumps. With a heavy dose of adrenaline I shot up the drainage, skidding across loose shale and grabbing blindly at boulders, and joined Giorgio where he'd found a way around the cliff. We guided Ana through Giorgio's route, and hobbled up to Col de l'Oulettaz, broken in every way but the one that mattered.

But it was the one that mattered. We weren't broken yet. We were just in the middle of a bad dream, an incredibly bad dream, and we were a seemingly insurmountable number of miles from anywhere else.


  1. Whoa. That looks like my worst (but prettiest) nightmare.

  2. This sounds absolutely terrifying. You absolutely make it come alive...the Stephen King of race reports. :)

    And inquiring minds want to know about the homemade hydro cream.

  3. Sounds awful to me, but such beautiful scenery. I also want to know about the cream. Maybe Beat could sell it.

  4. Very true about the French not giving a s...t what happens to you out there. Once went off piste skiing and scraped ice from a sign buried in snow and it said "Danger du mort" and the cliff was like two feet behind it...
    Seems like lots of this terrain was via ferrata routes? My sister has been taking courses in Austria and Italy and showed me how it works last year in Lago di Garda and it felt like a safe way to move around steep rock without ropes.

  5. I'll have to ask Beat more specifics about his lube. He modeled it after a commercial product called Hydropel that is no longer on the market. It includes dimethicone and petroleum jelly and some other powders that he brews up with beakers in the kitchen. He probably could market it if it weren't for FDA regulations.

    I don't think most of the routes used in PTL qualify as Via Ferrata. The places where ropes were fixed in place were mainly as a (sort of) safety aid for regular hikers. These sections were all climbable or traversable without the ropes — class 3 mostly, with a few sections of dangerous exposure that I think would qualify as class 4. I think via Ferrata is when chains, cables, steps, and other fixtures are placed to allow for passage along cliffs that would otherwise be Class 5 climbs, impossible to do without gear and actual climbing technique.

  6. What an incredible adventure! I can't imagine it, but it's amazing to read your story. I absolutely enjoy your blog and I'm so impressed by your tenacious attitude in the face of challenges!

  7. +1 on the hydrolube recipe! i have 2 more stashed tubes of hydropel remaining and i'm getting nervous! :)

  8. There's no secret about the recipe. I can post instructions sometime. Basically I bought some dimethicone from (I got both DM6 and DM350 which are different viscosities. Current experiments are with DM6 which is more liquidy) as well as a thickener (again I got a few, started out with lipidthix because it sounded good though it might not be optional, gotta experiment more). You need a thickener else your mixture will be too liquid. Create a mix of 30% dimethicone, 6-12% lipidthix (depends on how thick you want it), some tea tree oil and top up with petroleum jelly, heat to ~180F in a water bath, mix well (best with a little stirrer), put in tubes (empty tubes/suitable syringe cheaply available at lotioncrafter as well). All in all should be a lot cheaper per tube than hydropel. An australian buddy sent me a batch of Guerney goo, which is a similar product, but I don't think you can get it here.
    Long-term stability doesn't seem as good as hydropel, my first batch looked a little weird but it didn't affect its effectivity at all in iceland. I didn't want to get the less natural thickener that Hydropel uses though that may be better.
    All in all it seems pretty easy to make something that works pretty well without too much trying!

  9. I love that Will Oldham song. Don't run across many "jocks" or endurance junkies or well, you know what I mean, with that sort of musical awareness or palette.
    The PTL sounds like something I might like to do, using "like" in a fairly flexible manner here. Anyway, I'm enjoying the narrative. Thanks.


Feedback is always appreciated!