Saturday, September 26, 2015

And then everything was beautiful

It was as though the mountains were laughing at all the runners still milling around Courmayeur, collecting soggy drop bags and awaiting truncated race results as blue skies blazed overhead. That the sun came out just a few hours after the Tor des Geants was cancelled, and effectively stayed out all weekend, caused some grumbling around town. Beat emphasized that organizers did the best they could with the information they had. The first night's snowstorm had already created significant hazards for more than 800 runners. Around 450 people were still in the race on day four, and asking hundreds of runners to navigate high-alpine terrain in pea-soup fog, where even experienced volunteers became lost, could ignite a large-scale emergency. It's one thing to go for a mountain adventure on your own, but as part of a race, you have to abide by a safety standard that works for a large group. This is the case even among the hardest of the hard-core races. But for some runners who had slogged through rain and snow for four days only to reach an unexpected cancellation, the sudden onset of beautiful weather stung a little.

I had every intention of taking advantage of our last two days in Europe, and planned a couple of hikes. Even though he was just a day removed from the Tor des Geants, Beat didn't hesitate to join. Although his feet were a mess, he claimed he felt great. His knee pain had mostly diminished, and Beat was annoyingly speedy. I couldn't keep up with him. I swear he just gets stronger as he goes. The only time I stand a chance of matching his pace is when he's "well rested."

Look how happy Beat is! I have witnessed this guy slip perfectly into his element in two places. The first is Alaska. The second is here.

Miles, our new friend from Canmore, joined us for a trek up the TMB trail to Rifugio Maison Vieille. A light rain storm had blown in for a couple of hours in the morning, but cleared out again as we sipped espresso and lemon soda at this cozy hut in the hills above Courmayeur.

We continued hiking beyond the rifugio because, views. Beat and Miles stopped frequently to reference the GPS and point out intriguing scrambling problems on the other side of the valley. It's funny to observe mountains like Mont Blanc, where you know every single minute problem has been solved and climbed hundreds or thousands of times. But somehow, when you're a hiker on the TMB trail on a quiet Friday in early fall, you can almost pretend that you're discovering this place for the first time.

Miles making his way up to Arete du Mont Favre. Although the weather was dry, a brisk wind had arrived with the unmistakable taste of autumn. The last time I visited this mountain, during UTMB, temperatures were in the upper 90s and I saw at least one runner being treated by an emergency medic for what appeared to be heat exhaustion. I prefer the cold wind, and won't miss summer when it's gone (it doesn't really go away in California.)

We enjoyed lunch on the ridge — chocolate and crackers from Beat's TDG stash — along with nice views of scree-coated Miage Glacier, the longest glacier in Italy. I congratulated Beat and Miles on a stout post-TDG outing, as the hike turned out to be 13 miles with 4,600 feet of climbing. They just shrugged, because that isn't all that much in the scheme of things.

The following day I couldn't shake these guys, who were still up for more adventure. I wanted to climb something high, but Beat had his own ideas about traversing along Val Ferret. I felt I'd already made that trek enough times this year (once on the low route during UTMB, twice on the high route over Testa Bernarda earlier in the week), so I veered off early and continued climbing to Col Malatra.

Col Malatra is the final pass in the Tor des Geants, which runners ascend from the other side before dropping 11 miles into Courmayeur. For that reason, I think a fair number of TDG runners chose Col Malatra as a nice Saturday-morning pilgrimage where they could bring closure to their races. That, or this trail is incredibly popular for a high-altitude grind on a cold day in September. There were a lot of people on the trail. I should have been used to that, as I'd been hiking the race course all week, but I found myself becoming impatient with the crowds. I wanted to bound up the hill and see if I could hit that elusive redline once again, but settled for a scenic march.

Col de Malatra is just a tiny notch in steep cliffs.

The altitude is 2,925 meters (9,600 feet), which was disappointing, as I mistakenly thought Col Malatra was one of the 3,000-meter passes.

But the views! Sweeping panoramas more than make up for lowly height.

I felt great. Although it was no Tor des Geants, I had a decent week of foot travel myself — 69 miles with 29,000 feet of climbing — and couldn't detect the slightest hint of soreness in my legs. My IT band would only nag at me on the steepest descents, and even that pain had diminished quite a bit. My lungs had really taken a turn for the better since the weather cleared. I hadn't even realized how obstructed my airways felt before they "opened up" on Thursday evening. It's a little difficult to describe. Could it be allergies? The wet weather? Psychological? I don't know. But it felt as though I went for this one hard run, and in doing so blasted my respiratory system clear. Whatever the reason, I was pretty stoked on life up on Col Malatra.

In an effort to avoid the crowds I took an off-trail route down the valley, ascending and descending a couple of minor ridges in the process.

Looking back up the valley toward Col Malatra.

I regained the main trail but broke off again to ascend a minor col and drop into the Arminaz valley. Although I'd shaken off my early-week malaise, there was a sadness to this descent — a realization that this was it, the last day in Italy. Beat and I had a long stay in Europe this year — nearly a month between France, Switzerland, and Italy — and I was undoubtedly homesick. I couldn't wait to see traffic lights again, and ice in drinks, free water at restaurants, grocery stores that aren't closed all afternoon, English on the signs, and Diet Pepsi! (they made Diet Pepsi aspartame-free? Ew. Maybe now I can finally kick the habit. Maybe.) But leaving the Aosta Valley is always bittersweet. A sad happy. I would love to live in the Aosta Valley if I could learn Italian. And if I could accept cutting back dramatically on my cycling, because both road and mountain biking would be terrifying here.

But it's back to California and hopeful training for the coming winter. That's pretty okay, too. 


  1. Damn that good weather!!! Hoping we get to feel the full distance without bonus sleepovers in 2016. Great words n pictures Jill :)

  2. Astounding scenery. Is there anywhere in the continental USA which even comes close?

    Glad your body is coming around.

    1. In my opinion, the mountain ranges in the Lower 48 don't quite reach the sheer grand spectacle of the Mont Blanc region of the Alps — 13,000 feet of vertical relief, tumbling glaciers, sharp aretes, etc. — but U.S. mountains are more wild and untrammeled. The Wind Rivers in Wyoming, the High Sierra, the Uintas in Utah, the northern Rockies in Glacier National Park, and the San Juans in Colorado are all spectacular mountain ranges with similar craggy, forbidding beauty.

    2. You need to convince Beat to go to the Andes. Peru is a great start, Argentina and Chile too. The altitude and extension of those mountains is overwhelming, also they are very wild. I always feel like the Rockies lack grandiosity compared to the Andes.

  3. Great post, Jill. It was so good to see you before the race. Hope we can cross path again sooner rather than later! Love your shots of Malatra. I'll be damned if I don't run over that Col next year...

  4. You're right, everything is beautiful! The views look majestic. Do the trails really look terrifying for biking? Because it seems like a good ride, based on the pictures!

  5. The views are really awesome and majestic.. I hope I can as brave as you to hike such a huge mountain. It is really worth! Thanks for sharing the great experience and beautiful photos with us


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