Wednesday, August 31, 2016

PTL days six and seven

After Mont Cormet, I tracked down Beat and Pieter at a grocery store on the outskirts of Courmayeur. The scene was very "Tour Divide" — they were sprawled out on the hot concrete in front of the store and devouring a spread of chips, ice cream bars, and various cold drinks, including large cans of beer. I asked Beat if beer was such a good idea in this heat, just before embarking on the climb up Mont Chetif — a via ferrata route with chains and cables assisting class-four terrain. Beat just shrugged. Pieter said he was culture-shocked by all of the people in Courmayeur. I pointed out that it was 6 p.m., and at that very moment 2,700 runners were pouring out of Chamonix for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I'd intended to hike out the river trail and watch runners and friends pass, but I wasn't disappointed that I'd gotten hung up in Italy instead.

Les Contamines was the last place to stalk Beat, and I headed out there sometime on Saturday. It was all becoming a blur, even for me. I caught up to them and another team coming down from Col d'Enclave. We only got about three sentences in, as Beat was trying to keep up with the group, but I surmised that Friday night went well for them. "We survived the descent!" Beat proclaimed, as though this was a surprise. He didn't clarify which descent he was referring to, and there were a large number of them between here and Morgex.

I climbed up to Lac Jovet and contemplated a swim, but chickened out. 

Instead I descended back to the TMB route to climb Col Bonhomme. This climb was my favorite part of UTMB, marching up the rocky trail well after midnight, with the full moon casting eerie shadows as a string of lights ascended thousands of feet into a starry sky. I wanted to see these mountains in daylight, even though I suspected the scenery wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Shortly after I returned to Les Contamines, dark clouds sank into the valley and unloaded a week's worth of missed thunderstorms. After six days of sunny skies and hot temperatures, rain and hail slammed into the streets with impressive violence. It had seemed like Beat had finally reached the homestretch, but of course there's no such thing in the PTL. They still had two more passes to ascend, including one over 9,000 feet with steep talus and boulder scrambling that was no doubt being pounded with hail and ice.

I went to bed fretting about their prospects on this pass, but the PTL organization ultimately re-routed them and all following teams to a lower trail. As it turned out conditions were extremely dangerous, with several inches of hail freezing hard to the rocks. I suppose the organization isn't completely sadistic, although Beat was disappointed that they were denied a "full" PTL experience by one measly (horrific) pass. They ran under the arch in Chamonix just after 7 a.m. Sunday, the 12th team across the finish line out of 115 starters and 48 finishers, covering ~190 miles of horizontal distance with 87,000 feet of climbing in 142 hours and 8 minutes.

Pieter and Beat limped back to the apartment to crash, and I gave them some peace and quiet by embarking on my final hike for the week — the steep climb to Col Brevent. It's a scenic little stroll that gains 5,500 feet in five miles, and my plan was to hike uphill only and take the cable car down. I admit that a little of this was a desire to pad my week's numbers to 35,000 feet of climbing in 75 miles — so, about 40 percent of a heavily cherry-picked PTL.

I also was going to test my breathing by pushing the pace, and hoped to reach the top in two hours. But about a mile into the climb I wandered off my planned trail onto the vertical kilometer route that includes a half mile of cables and ladders. There seems to be a perfect grade for gaining elevation fast, and after that the tipping point of steepness causes slower ascents in shorter distances. Oh well. This wrong turn deflated my resolve to push hard.

It also didn't help that it was the Sunday of UTMB week, and the trails were crowded. Fast ascents don't happen when you have to wait in lines. I shared much of the vertical kilometer climb with two British guys who were going to the first cable car at Planpraz, and were super impressed that I planned to ascend all the way to Brevent. "It's only 600 more meters," I told the guys.

"You're American. Do you know what a meter is?" one guy joked.

Nearing the top. I was already thinking I should bite the bullet and run down, but this 2.5-hour ascent was far too slow, and I would be late for lunch, and I had these 16 Euros for the cable car burning a hole in my pocket.

Goodbye to another UTMB week — Beat's fifth completion of PTL since he first ventured into this madness in 2012. Every single time I saw him during this year's race, he swore "never again." But I never believe him, and he's already talking about next year. We go to Europe to see his family, so this is a bit like finding activities to do near your parents' home at Christmas. But I'm still angling for a different summer adventure. Maybe a backpacking trip in Alaska's Brooks Range, although I'm much more terrified of crossing rivers than I am of grizzly bears. But it will be good for me to face these fears.


  1. Really enjoyed all the pics! Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Holy smokes...I'm exhausted just READING about your and Beats/Pieters exploits! And as always, your photos are off the charts awesome! Totally agree w/ Paul...thanks for taking us along for the ride! Glad Beat and Pieter are safe and sound, seems like PTL is rife with opportunity for getting seriously hurt (such as Ewe with his nasty shin wound...THAT was a lot of blood on the floor!) Be safe during the rest of your vacation!

  3. I'd like to visit that area someday...the mountains look so dramatic! I think you are in very good shape to do all that climbing in relatively short mileage, you really are making the PTL look enjoyable. It really looks like an advertisement for the race, despite your distaste for the course. Looks like fun!

    1. When people I know express interest in PTL, I tell them I think it's fine as long as your expectations and skill level match the course. I had an inadequate amount of both, which is why I had such a bad experience in 2013. However, even for folks who have a lot of experience and enjoy class-four terrain, I caution them to genuinely consider how they'd feel about tackling this kind of terrain after three days of almost sleep, inadequate nutrition, and 100 miles on their legs. *That* is what makes PTL so difficult — the combination of a lot of difficult terrain in a very limited amount of time. 150 hours may seem like a lot for 190 miles, but it's really not.

  4. Great read, thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Wonderful write-up as always, and oh! the photos. Glad the guys made it back safe.

  6. Beautiful pictures and wonderful write up. I'd love to read about a backpacking trip in the Brooks Range!


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