a strange form of life
kicking through windows
rolling on yards
heading in loved ones'
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.
|Photo by Dima Feinhaus|
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.