Sunday, August 31, 2014

Still too dumb to quit

Well, team "Too Dumb to Quit" put their intelligence in question once again by completing yet another insanely routed loop around Mont Blanc. Daniel and Beat arrived in Chamonix at about noon on Sunday, after five and a half days of off-piste adventures of the sort that render distance and even elevation statistics meaningless. Numbers don't convey the degree of difficulty in La Petite Trotte a Leon, which is why a select few love it so much ... and the people who love them, not so much.

I sure am proud of these guys, but mostly I'm just glad they're done. It's probably obvious that I don't hold much love for PTL. The course creators go out of their way to make every kilometer as difficult as possible. Steep talus, icy boulder fields, snow slopes, knife ridges, glacier moraines, frequent 35-percent-plus grades, via ferrata, exposed scrambling — basically, any terrain that doesn't fall into the "Class 5 rock climbing" range of technicality is fair game in PTL. And that's fine — it's meant to be an adventure. But combining difficult and dangerous terrain with tight cut-offs, extreme distances, and the necessary speed required to finish, create a risky environment where mistakes can cost more than just a DNF. Even small mistakes compound quickly. I feel more comfortable with Beat trekking a thousand miles across Alaska in the winter than I do about his safety in PTL.

It's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. My own experiences with this race definitely cast a long shadow over my view. But Beat loves it, so I make an effort to be supportive. And he and Daniel did really well this year. They banked a lot of time early, which worked in their favor later when Daniel grappled with a knee injury that slowed him down considerably on the descents, and Beat fought stomach issues that stripped away his energy for the climbs. To say they were shattered at the finish would be an understatement, and I still haven't heard about Beat's wilder adventures out there — but he's snoring away, so I can tell he's satisfied.

 I admit I did a lot of fretting this week, but managed to keep myself busy with both work and heavy play. While most of the PTL passages are rugged and technical, there are always four or five that organizers make a point to note as particularly difficult. One of these was Arête des Autannes, on the border of France and Switzerland. The PTL teams were actually routed around the ridge due to heavy wind and rain on the first day, so no one went over this particular pass. But I was curious, and armed with the freedom to turn around if I didn't feel comfortable, I headed back to Le Buet to check out the next 15 or so kilometers of the PTL course.

The weather was a volatile again on Friday — high winds above tree line, and intermittent thunderstorms. I reached Col de Balme, which is part of the UTMB route, and decided to take the same sneak around the mountain that the PTL teams took, rather than climb what looked like a vertical wall into ominous dark clouds. However, as I picked my way around the rocky, side-sloping route, I was filled with stoke once again and decided to try Arête des Autannes from the backside.

Chunky talus, my favorite! Actually, the truth is I enjoy off-trail exploring and would probably find most of the PTL course to be fun in the same small doses I tried this year. Still, as I approached the arête, the weather closed in again and my own self-imposed cutoff had come and gone. In order to ensure I made the last train out of Le Buet, I set an absolute turn-around time of 4 p.m.. If I could gain the ridge and descend the original PTL course, the return trip would likely be a lot faster. But low clouds were ripping along the ridge in a way that warned me winds were fierce back in France. It was raining again, and from a stance less than 500 horizontal meters (and about 150 vertical) from the top, I just couldn't find a line through the cliffs that I felt comfortable climbing. There was one steep scree couloir that looked doable, but it was well off "course" — meaning the straight line drawn by the GPS track. I had no idea how sharp or exposed the ridge would be if I needed to make my way along it, and also uncertain whether a climb deemed technical by the PTL organization would even be possible for me to descend. If I checked it out and had to turn back, that would mean likely missing the train. So I turned around, feeling defeated. Ah, PTL. Foiled again.

Rain continued to fall as I contoured back around the mountain. The route cut a thin notch into a steep side-slope, which often involved scrambling up and over small rock formations that rippled down the mountain like veins. While rising to my feet at the top of one climb, my right foot slipped out and I slid a couple of meters down the smooth, wet surface of the rock into a cluster of bushes. As I thrashed to untangle myself, I had this sense that there was nothing holding me to the mountain besides brush; the angle of the slope was steep enough that there wasn't much in the way of ground below the brush. Eek, eek, eek. It was my second major clumsy incident this week, and a scary one at that, even though I was moving about as slowly and carefully as I'm capable. (Which is to say, super over-cautious. Maybe that's the problem.) I sustained a swollen bruise on the outside of my left knee that causes sharp pain when I run (which I learned an hour later, while racing toward the train.) Strangely, walking didn't hurt at all.

Then, just as I neared the edge of Switzerland, the weather really closed in. High winds, rain, near-zero visibility. I had to put on both a synthetic puffy and a shell to stay warm. UTMB had just started and I was feeling sorry for those suckers, but as it turned out this was a localized thunderstorm and short-lived. Still, through only fault of my own, I was subjecting myself to experiences I set out to avoid this week by not racing PTL.

Friday's excursion turned out longer than I planned — another 20-mile day with 7,000 feet of climbing — so I was going to take it easy on Saturday: Relax on a longer train and bus commute to Les Contamines, eat a crepe, maybe take a mellow hike or even a gondola up to the life base at Col du Joly to see if I could catch Beat before it was time to take the train home. But, perhaps predictably, mountain stoke hit as soon as I stepped off the bus, and I was soon making my way backward on the PTL course up the steep face of Mont Joly.

The weather was much better but still not ideal — the cloud ceiling was around 6,000 feet and above that there was not much to see. I encountered a handful of the leading PTL teams and chatted for a few minutes with the Finnish team. I met one of them before the race and he struck me as stern then, but up here he had this loopy, playful demeanor. Amusing.

Then the clouds started to clear — oh wow, there are some views up here!

And this is a pretty sweet ridge.

The summit of Mont Joly, with the sign situated right next to some solar panels so selfie-taking hikers can capture the full splendor of the Alps in the background.

Although I had another turn-around deadline — as missing the bus in Les Contamines would effectively make a 25-kilometer hike on the UTMB trail my only means of getting home — I couldn't resist the temptation of a ridge walk toward Col du Joly.

Clouds continued to move through and views remained intermittent, but when they did open up, the scenery was incredible. The ridge became narrower and sharper until there were only cliffs on one side and steep, grassy talus on the other. It was often breathtakingly exposed — at one point I encountered some tape strung along the trail, and when I stepped around it I noticed a small notch of a couloir that went quite literally straight down — one misplaced step would be like stepping into a manhole that dropped two thousand feet to the bowl below. This notch cut right into the worn surface of the spine that formed the trail. Good thing someone strung up that tape. Several dozen sleepy PTL participants walked this way.

Again, fun during the day with plenty of energy. I wouldn't necessarily want to be here in the dark, which is when Beat and Daniel traversed the ridge of Mont Joly a few hours later. But he said they had a fantastic experience, with the ethereal hues of moonlight reflecting from the cliffs, and village lights twinkling 5,000 feet below. It sounded magical, and I do understand what Beat sees in this endeavor. Even I question what I actually think is going to be so different about Tor des Geants. I won't know until I try it, but I'm quite excited for my chance. Despite a couple of crashes, this week of "training" couldn't have turned out better. Although my five days in the Alps pale in comparison to PTL, it was still 75 miles with 31,700 feet of climbing. And beyond cuts, bruises, and a bashed knee, I experienced few negative physical effects. My legs weren't even sore. The feet complained as feet often do. And I made silly missteps, but this week definitely helped me find my "mountain legs" again. I'm glad I had this opportunity. It would have been far more nerve-wracking to go into an endeavor like TDG cold.

Now for a week of rest, work, and visiting Beat's mom in Switzerland. He claims that three cowbells (the "prize" for finishing PTL) are enough and he promised not to return. Even though I actually do want a rematch with UTMB (the 2012 race was rerouted due to blizzard conditions and the course I ran was very different from the "real" UTMB), I'd be just as happy to let that go if it meant no more PTL for Beat. I'm not sure I believe him, but I intend to remind him of this promise. 


  1. Anonymous3:30 PM

    What kind of camera do you use?

    1. Sony RX100. Fantastic camera. The original is in practicality every bit as good as II and III and can be had for a somewhat better price. We each have one!
      The one thing that needs to be said it is NOT weather resistant, so one has to be careful. Two friends broke theirs by getting them wet. However, the picture quality is fantastic, and it's pleasant to use. There's still no better combo of compactness and IQ at this point as far as I know. The similarly specced (in terms of sensor) Nikon J series for example has a much larger lens that sticks out, which matters if you want to quickly pocket it.

    2. Btw I also have to say that despite having the exact same camera Jill's pictures are always much better than mine. Even when we're at the same spot taking pictures. So there's that ...

    3. Anonymous4:21 PM

      Thank you!