Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the "trail" of the PTL

Oh, PTL. I intended to post more regular updates about Beat’s progress in the race, but this week in Chamonix has gotten away from me in a big way. My phone’s sim card died and there’s nothing I can do about it because the phone is AT&T-locked (I hate phones. Up until a month ago I was a proud smart-phone holdout; I had a dumb phone that I rarely used and carried with me only sporadically, and I already miss it, so much.) So our communication is worse than it would be if pay phones were still a thing. But I digress from this retro-grouching. Beat and Daniel are still alive. In a race like PTL, that’s pretty much all that matters.

 Here’s a slightly longer summary: We flew SFO-Zurich-Geneva on Saturday/Sunday, and took a shuttle to Chamonix, arriving too late for dinner, probably sometime around 10 p.m. local time. I never weather jet lag well, and stayed awake another full night while Beat dosed himself with enough Ambien to wake up with a hangover. Bank, grocery store, packing, pre-race briefing, terrible pre-race pasta, and then the race started at 5:30 p.m. Monday — which was so blissfully early! (It started at 10 p.m. last year.) As the PTL teams zig-zagged up the first mountain, it started to rain. Then it rained a lot.

I figured I'd put in a good "training" week here in the Alps — by which I mean fortifying the mental weaponry and testing how well the legs work rather than accomplishing any real physical conditioning. So on Tuesday I boosted myself out in the deluge and climbed through tedious fog until there were no more trees, only the blurred outline of rocks, a river gushing down the trail, and fierce blasts of wind. Gusts were well above 40 mph. Any time I turned straight into the wind, I was forced to gasp through a fire hose of rain. I felt like I was drowning; I really couldn't breathe. This is what I imagine waterboarding must be like. And the whole time I felt vaguely nauseated because I knew Beat was out on steep and exposed terrain in this weather. I have this conviction that PTL is so dangerous, but then I took a big tumble while attempting to run downhill —  slipped on a wet boulder and managed a full somersault and a highly painful jarring (though luckily no dislocation) of my right shoulder. This is why I'm so cautious-to-a-fault and frightened on exposed terrain. People who make a lot of mistakes do not belong in no-fail zones. 

 So I worried about Beat, but his tracker kept creeping forward, so at least I knew he was moving. My Alaska-time-zone deadlines kept me up all night on Tuesday. As in, I actually didn't sleep at all. I was going into day four of the vacation with single-digit hours of sleep. This made for the perfect opportunity for Tor des Geants training — a long hike on extended sleep deprivation. I opted to explore the first segment of this year's PTL course, 20 miles between Chamonix and Le Buet.

 I was quite sleepy, but at least the weather had cleared and it was a beautiful day.

 Because I was traveling on unknown terrain given the stamp of approval by the PTL organization, I carried a headlamp and another spare light just in case I needed to turn around late in the one-way trip. My hard tumble the day before left me bruised and rattled, and I wasn't about to go scrambling up any class-four couloirs or cliff faces "protected" with bolted bits of twine.

The climb up to Col Brevent gets 4,500 feet of vertical out of the way fast. One final glance at the Chamonix Valley before descending into the beautiful and remote-feeling Reserve Naturelle de Passy.

 I really loved my hike through here. Big country, imposing mountains, steep trails, a satisfying burn in my leg muscles.

 And another huge climb up to Col de Salenton, elevation 2,526 meters.

New views from the top of the col. I was 9,000 feet of vertical into the day and very full of stoke at this point.

 Then came time to drop off the face of the Earth. It was the kind of descent that's a constant horizon line — you think you're on top of a cliff the whole time, and there can't possibly be a way down, but as you pick out another cairn from the rubble and peek over the edge, you can discern the only doable line down walls of stacked boulders. Ah, this is the PTL I know and (don't) love. At least this was just "classic" PTL — not "terrifying" PTL — so I didn't have to turn around and hike 15 miles back.

 And at least there were cute baby ibex to keep me company. I imagine that in a past life I was an evil mountain goat, I did something bad, and was doomed to come back in my next life as a clumsy human with a fierce love for mountains and decidedly below-average talents when it comes to traveling this terrain. But it was a wonderful day. I noticed on the way down that I had none of the leg fatigue that I usually have on my day hikes in the Alps, despite a 13-mile, 6,000-foot effort the previous day and the 20-mile, 9,000 feet over much more difficult terrain on this day. It seems the Freedom Challenge has left me with great leg endurance; if I can keep my feet happy (and more importantly, keep the earth below them) during the Tor des Geants, maybe I'll be okay.

On Thursday, I took the bus into Italy to catch Beat and Daniel in Morgex. Despite weather and other hardships, they're making good time on the course and feeling relatively good. They've had some tough nights — 100 kph winds and rain on a high ridge on the first night, and a class-four scramble with an exposed ridge traverse on Col d'Annibal. The usual. The navigation is also tricky this year, with lots of off-trail travel, lost-in-translation route descriptions, and a GPS track that mainly just connects distant points with straight lines.

This is what you get when you ask tired people to smile. See that mat on the left? That's where they were permitted to sleep for a few hours in Morgex. No blankets, no pillows. Just a hard mat in a loud gymnasium. Yup, that's the PTL I know and (don't) love. 

 I had a bus to catch but I was able to accompany them for four miles out of Morgex. It was an enjoyable segment — essentially a friendly road walk, and it was nice to spend stress-free time with the guys. They had a good sleep and two meals in Morgex, so they were feeling pretty good.

Bidding them goodbye at the rifugio Arpy. This next segment of PTL has more than 6,000 meters of climbing in 60 kilometers. Even Daniel, who lives in Colorado and has climbed a large number of mountains in that state, was trying to wrap his head around what it meant to climb 20,000 feet in just 36 miles. I really don't like to think about it ... because there's almost no way to parse those numbers without throwing in some "terrifying PTL." So I'll likely wake up a bunch tonight in cold sweats and a need to refresh Beat's tracking page. Oh, PTL. 

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your account and the stunning mountain scenery photographed so well by you. Have been following Beat & Daniel's progress on the link you posted on FB.


Feedback is always appreciated!