Sunday, September 11, 2016

TDG 7, day one

 After we left Chamonix, Beat and I spent eleven days in Switzerland visiting his family. From an outdoors perspective it was mostly uneventful. I spent a lot of time working on the finishing details for my next book (photo book still set to be released Oct. 1. Kindle version will be out Nov. 1.) Beat brought home a cold from PTL that I ended up catching, and we're both fighting it still. I tried and mostly failed to get my running legs back with jogs on pleasant forest roads. Beat I and embarked on several jaunts up the "1,000er-Stägli" (which is actually more like 1,111 steps up a hillside near Olten, gaining 850 feet of elevation ... or about 78 stories.)

The goal is to climb the 1,000er-Stägli in twelve minutes or less. This is what you feel like after climbing the 1,000er-Stägli in twelve minutes or less. Then of course you run down the trail to try it again.

On Saturday we arrived in Courmayeur for Beat's seventh running of the Tor des Geants. This is my sixth time attending it with him as occasional support crew (well, technically in 2014 I also ran 200 kilometers of my own partial Tor des Geants.) It's a lot of Tors, really. It actually surprises me a little that Beat still wants to come here and do this, even though these mountains are beautiful and Courmayeur is pretty much the best mountain town in the world. He holds an increasingly rare "Senatori" status — a person who has finished every running of the Tor des Geants. There are now twelve Senatoris left.

The TDG started at 10 a.m. Sunday under sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s. Pretty much ideal. There's rain in the forecast, but as of now, no significant threat of snow, which is what started the runaway problems that derailed last year's race.

Beat already agreed I didn't need to meet him at the first life base, so I took advantage of a free day to climb the via ferrata (cable assisted climbing) route up the mountain in this photo. Mont Chetif.

It starts out with chain traverses along steep slabs — really, they're steeper than the photo makes them look. This is the easy part of the climb. After this, things started to go badly, and I didn't take many more pictures.

The main issue arose when I went off route, by accident, up a steep gully. The gully was covered in slippery, stinging grass on a 60-percent grade. As I scrambled up the gully I was thinking, "I'm glad I don't have to come down this." I grabbed a tree trunk for leverage and hoisted myself up to a rock scramble, which I'd call class four only because there would be no way to arrest a fall if you slipped off the rocks and landed on the grass. Of course, at the top of the rocks, there was a cliff. No way over or around. Oh, dread. I pulled out my GPS track to confirm that I was indeed off course, but only by about 30 meters. The right way was at the top of the gully, and only way to connect with it was to go all the way back to the bottom.

Dread, dread, dread. I don't tap my adrenaline all that often, but this was a maximum dose with my heart beating at least 190, hands shaking noticeably, and breathing swift and shallow. I down-climbed the rocks as carefully as possible, grabbed the tree to get back to the grassy slope, then tried to crab-walk down the grass. Unfortunately there was just no traction and I started butt-sliding, unintentionally, for several meters that I was convinced were the beginning of the end for me. But then I grabbed a handful of grass that actually held, arresting my slow but terrifying slide. My tights were ripped, my hip was bruised, my hand was cut, my heart was pounding out of my chest, and I was quite upset. But after calming down, I decided that continuing uphill was still better than down-climbing the cables. I resolved to pay more attention.

The rest of the Mont Chetif climb was still really hard, and I was maxed out at a 45-minute-mile, but I was happy to be alive and determined to make it to the top so I could take the easy way down.

Statue on top of the 7,600-foot summit. I could see this statue from the lower part of the mountain, and thought it was a person standing on the edge, looking right at me. "Why is that person still standing there?" I thought several times. I forgot about it after the scary butt slide, so the summit statue remained a surprise.

View of Val Ferret from the top of Mont Chetif.

Descending a steep couloir on the other side.

Once I'd connected with the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, I decided to follow it to the summit of Mont Favre. It seems like it should be a quick add-on, but it turned my little via feratta scramble outing into a 19-mile hike with 6,000 feet of climbing. Ah, still worth it.

Descending via Val Veny, because I'd never been through this valley before. Soon it was starting to get dark ... how did that happen?

As of 11 p.m. Sunday, Beat is moving very well in the TDG. He reached the first life base at 10 p.m., which I believe is nearly three hours faster than last year. I start making the support rounds tomorrow. 


  1. Climbing via ferrata at Lago di Garda without proper equipment earned me stark disapproval from my sister (a seasoned rock climber), although it was doable. Your picture shows chains (hand holds) not the typical via ferrata cables which are smooth to allow the harness carabiner slide along. I'm sure there's plenty of those! Courmayeur and the whole Aosta Valley is on top of my list of places to go mountain biking. Skiing at Alagna / Gressoney / Champoluc is world class, too.

    1. I'm not sure I'm all that interested in a "real" ferrata ... the routes where harnesses and carabiners are necessary ... as I operate quite poorly in high-adrenaline situations. Chetif is easy and not all the exposed if you stay on route, but the established route isn't always obvious. My mistake and reaction took a lot out of me. I basically needed another 15 miles of hiking/jogging just to simmer down.

      Yeah ... I'm pretty much the opposite of an adrenaline junkie. I *hate* adrenaline. But I went to Chetif in the first place to confront my fears in hopes that someday I'll become a better mountain traveler. I guess it's complicated.

      Today I hiked a trail that would be decent mountain biking, although still very hard ... gaining/losing 4,000 feet in five miles, with a lot of hairpin turns. Still, my sense of the Aosta Valley is that most trails are either impossible on bikes, or for advanced riders only. It's rare to see people on bikes here, even though most if not all trails are legal. But there probably are some fun routes here that I'm not aware of.

    2. I was surprised this is billed as Via Ferrata (it is on the signs) - the europeans usually rate even exposed scary scrambly trails as "E" (hiker) or "EE" (skilled hiker). I would rather describe it as hiking trail with safety chains which are widely found here. Really this is very easy stuff - if conditions are dry. The exposure though is high consequence. The older ferratas do also not generally conform to new standards, and you'll find chained or cabled sections where the chains/cables are outright in dangerous disrepair - so it's hard to tell what the original intention was. On the PTL course we had two proper (but short) ferrata sections, with thick steel cables and having to hang your ass over 1000ft of nothing - there a harness would definitely have been appropriate...
      Anyways, we did this during the PTL so I knew the actual difficulty which is why I recommended it to Jill. I also have her very ample warning about the part where she went wrong - I did the same, fortunately Pieter noticed it before I got anywhere.

  2. Look what happens when you're left to your own devices in Courmayeur! ;-)

  3. I love your posts! Thanks!


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