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.
On Thursday I planned to drive into Italy to catch up with Beat and Pieter in Étroubles. I almost got an early start, but my friend Roger had a few hours to spare amid his own whirlwind UTMB preparations, and invited me to "the best bakery ever." I ordered a ham sandwich at 8 a.m. and struggled to speak in full sentences. I'd slept poorly again — jet lag, perhaps — and couldn't get my head together. Roger chastised me for not ordering bakery food and added an Italian blueberry tart to the order. I was grateful for the treat, but didn't tell him that these blueberry tarts remind me of some of my more nauseating moments in races like UTMB and the Tor des Geants. I still ate the tart and the rest of my ham sandwich five hours later, while sitting in the hot sun minutes before hiking another 5,000 feet up a mountain. Suffice to say I still don't have a great association with Italian blueberry tarts.
I enjoyed seeing Roger, but didn't arrive in Étroubles until 20 minutes after Beat and Pieter left. Driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel isn't cheap, and I was bummed about the missed opportunity. I figured I could catch them in Morgex later that night, until I learned the checkpoint was 40 kilometers away — which, converted to PTL miles, means 20+ hours. I did have a chance to catch up with my other friends in the PTL — Uwe from Germany, Chris from Switzerland, and Dima the Russian Bostonian — as they inhaled a massive lunch in the thin shade. Temperatures were again north of 30 degrees, which I'm told is in the 80s Fahrenheit but somehow feels like 100 in these mountains. My own breakfast-leftover-lunch wasn't sitting well, and I searched for excuses to retreat back to Chamonix. But I did pay 50 Euros to drive through that tunnel, so ...
I didn't take any photos of the lower part of the route, but much of it was a near-direct line up a steep grassy slope that was slippery when dry. No doubt it would have been an ordeal in wet conditions — the kind where you wish you had an ice ax and crampons for your summer hike. I know from experience that this kind of terrain is typical for the PTL. This is Europe, these mountains are riddled with well-traveled trails, and somehow the race organizers manage to connect the most obscure lines possible. Beat jokes that they take 60-year-old maps and base the route solely on those.
The upper part of the route joined the Tor des Geants trail, returning to stress-free travel where I could daydream about running the TDG again someday. My track record with European mountain races is awful, and that may haunt me forever if I don't finish one of them eventually. For all of its flaws, I'd actually love to run UTMB again, but qualifying and getting through the lottery pose a significant roadblock. The Tor des Geants is considerably more difficult, but it might be the race that best suits a better-trained me. When I attempted it in 2014, I was actually having a decent run up until I slipped, twisted my left knee, and sustained a partial LCL tear. That 200-mile journey still calls to me, but I have a lot more respect for the distance, and vowed that I wouldn't come back until I can figure out my breathing issues and put in a solid four months of real mountain training — which I can do now that I live in Colorado. Someday.
Speaking of breathing issues, I've had absolutely none since I arrived in Europe. I was able to engage some good, hard efforts climbing these mountains, even up at 8,000 and 9,000 feet — not all that high, but definitely within my problem zone at home. Either the medications I recently started taking are kicking in ... or I'm specifically allergic to Colorado. I did experience other allergy symptoms on the Italian side of Mont Blanc — sneezing and watery eyes — but grass seems to be more prominent there. My efforts also felt tougher when symptoms kicked in. I was thrilled to connect some of these dots, because I feel like I'm closer to figuring this out.
I climbed to Col Champillon, sat on a boulder in the slightly-less-hot-sun at 9,000 feet, and watched PTL teams pass by.
PTL teams making their way down from Col Champillon.
Looking back toward Étroubles.
I hiked back the long way on the Tor des Geants route, because I could. Screw butt-sliding down rock-strewn grassy slopes, when I can enjoy fireweed blooms and enough solid footing to look up at the scenery occasionally. I did encounter two PTL teams who took a wrong turn and descended more than a thousand feet before they realized it. They did not look happy.
I finally caught up with Beat and Pieter on Friday morning in Morgex. It did indeed take them 20 hours to travel the 40 kilometers from Étroubles, and they moved continuously during that long, difficult night. The route included a long traverse of a jagged ridge with a lot of exposure, where the supposed safe route was not obvious in the dark. Beat had a GPS track telling him one thing and sporadic PTL-placed markings telling him another, and it all looked precarious at best. They picked their way along the death ridge and then had to traverse more 50-degree grassy slopes with hardly a goat trail to place their feet. Beat edged the side of his Hokas in the loose dirt and hoped for the best. It sounded like a long, long night.
Our friend Uwe took a fall on that ridge and sustained a deep laceration near his shin. It was still bleeding hours later, and he looked quite pale. Still, he was determined to go on — this was his fourth PTL attempt, and he had yet to finish a course. This year he finally had a strong team and had already come a long way — 220 kilometers over four nearly sleepless days. One of the PTL participants at the checkpoint was a French doctor who offered to look at the wound, and used an emergency kit to stitch it up. It wasn't just a cut, it was a gaping wound, and the grabbing and stretching of remaining skin to sew it together looked incredibly painful. The stitch job didn't hold and the wound continued to bleed. It's gory, but worth documenting. This is the battle-zone spirt of PTL — a runner was moderately injured, the only person who came to his aid was another competitor, and no one was attempting to talk this sleep-deprived, effort-addled runner into making the wise decision to stop. I was a strong advocate of stopping, but only added quiet arguments. Gratefully, sanity prevailed and Uwe took up my offer to drive him to a bus station in Courmayeur while his teammates continued. I really empathize with him. Failures do haunt you, no matter how much you already accomplished, and how necessary they are.
From Courmayeur, I trudged up Mont Cormet — just a little 5,000-foot climb and descent to connect two neighboring towns all the way down in that valley. A thermometer in town registered 33 degrees — 91F — and the grass was pumping out sneeze fumes as little flies buzzed about and I ascended 3,000 feet in two miles, with the last half mile up a 40-percent grade. I'm told the Courmayeur side of the climb is completely tame compared to the Morgex side, which apparently traces one of those 60-year-old, now-nonexistent trails through steep brush. Beat and Pieter were still moving well and seemed surprisingly chipper. I guess there must be some reason Beat keeps coming back to PTL in particular. And I keep tracking them, trying to figure out what that reason is.
With no mountain races of my own this year, I thought I'd have all this time to work on finishing details on my book and post blog updates, but I should have known better. By deciding to play "spectator" to Beat's self-supported race, I had all the same time constraints as a crew-person with none of the actual support. Between occasional work, keeping track of Beat's location, plotting my own trail route to intersect him, driving, and hiking, I rarely made time to sleep and eat actual meals — all of the local grocery stores close before 7 p.m., and who has time to sit at slow-service restaurants? I was raised with American fast food and 24-hour convenience stores, so I had no idea how to function on a less ambitious schedule. Most evenings I'd stumble back from a hike around sunset and scrounge for whatever snacks I had left over in the car. Crackers, tuna, and oranges again? Well, at least there were oranges. I'm glad I bought that two-kilogram bag of fruit on Monday.
If I didn't find my way to some fine French cuisine, at least I gobbled down a healthy portion of French countryside. On Tuesday I had to keep a time-zone adjusted work schedule that effectively ran from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. Wednesday morning. But that gave me a whole morning to catch Beat and Pieter near Col de Balme, along the France-Switzerland border.
The PTL course followed the Tour du Mont Blanc "highway" — as Beat calls it — for a short distance, but true to form left the trail and shot straight up a knife ridge that marks the actual France-Switzerland border, toward Arete des Autannes. This was solid class-three scrambling with occasional sheer drop-offs, but easy compared to a lot of the terrain Beat traverses in this horror of a race. (I'll try to keep my disdain for PTL to a minimum, since the event went well for Beat, and he's proven himself capable of managing everything the organizers have thrown at him in the past five years so far. Few people seem to believe me that PTL is so terrible anyway, since I agree that much of it is fun in smaller doses, and because my complaints are always accompanied by scenic photos.)
I came within fifty meters of the high point on the ridge, but arrived at an exposed spot with few handholds that I wasn't confident I could reverse. Oh well; this little pre-work walk was already up to 4,300 feet of climbing. Down I went.
PTL teams making their way up the easier part of the arete.
I caught up with Beat near the bottom of the valley. He was feeling generally good although tired, of course. They'd had a rough night descending from Mont Buet, another sharp ridge with several miles of class three and class four terrain. It was just before noon and already temperatures had shot into the mid-80s. It would remain hot and bluebird all week, until the last night. This made for a particularly tough week for the competitors, as it's harder to keep calories coming in and stay hydrated in such heat. After a day or two, this catches up with everyone. I maintain that multi-day endurance events are easier to manage in cold weather than hot, as long as you don't have to travel scary ridges in ice, snow, and rain.
On Tuesday night I simulated the PTL experience by grabbing only about 90 minutes of sleep. By the time I finished work it was another beautiful and hot day — too hot to go back to sleep. Beat was out of day-hiking range for most of Wednesday, so I hiked from our place in Chamonix to a trail that ascends a small ridge between the glaciers Bossons and Taconnaz, ending at the point where the two glaciers meet. "La Jonction" is an incredible walk with close-up views of the ice on both sides, but it's another grunt of an effort with 6,000 feet of climbing, and again temperatures were close to 90. Pictures don't really do this hike justice, but I'm posting them anyway.
Typical trail views. And this was a very nice trail! So enjoyable after stumbling along PTL routes.
After a scramble up a broad ridge, the land effectively ends at 8,500 feet on a knob called La Jonction. Here one can only continue higher if they're willing to venture out on a chaotic jumble of ice. But it's an incredible spot to sit and eat crackers and tuna for lunch.
Looking toward Mont Blanc, still 8,000 feet higher. The first men to climb Mont Blanc spent their first night bivvied in this spot, back in 1786. It's incredible to imagine what this must have been like in a time before mountaineering techniques and gear, traveling unroped and without ice axes or crampons, on virgin terrain with no knowledge of what lie ahead.
This is still a common spot for winter ascents of Mont Blanc — there's even an enticing refuge building constructed on top of that black arete. I'm told that summer ascents are more rare, as global warming as reduced these glaciers to the point that they are becoming increasingly more technical and difficult, and volatile seracs pose a menacing risk.
Views into the Chamonix Valley. Despite sleep deprivation this was my best day of the week, probably because I spent the least amount of time fretting about Beat in the PTL. In the evening I had dinner with some British fat-bike enthusiasts who now live in the Chamonix valley. We were four Brits and an American eating in France at a Canadian-themed bar, which I thought was humorous, even though I resisted the urge to order poutine. We enjoyed a fun evening of discussing Brexit and Trump, the difficult and beautiful bike trails in Chamonix, and biking in Alaska. Meanwhile Beat was out on some steep and rocky mountain in Switzerland, making his way into Italy.
On Monday morning, Beat lined up in downtown Chamonix for his fifth Petite Trotte à Léon. I'm still in disbelief that he's volunteered for five of these, in spite of my best efforts to talk him out of it for the past three. Friends know I am no fan of the PTL, mainly because I believe the safety margins are not acceptable. It's 180 miles with 87,000 feet of climbing, but numbers do little to describe how difficult this race can be. Much of the course is highly technical terrain from a runner's perspective — rooty off-camber singletrack, steep scree, miles of chaotic boulders, slippery grass slopes, loose dirt, exposed ridges, and class-four scrambling. Runners travel at all hours of the night in all weather, self-navigating, with limited support, and the time cut-offs prompt extreme sleep deprivation. I raced 200 kilometers of a PTL course in 2013, and still consider it one of my more traumatic life experiences. Any physical malady I've sustained has nothing on the mental devastation of four days with almost no sleep, constant stress, anxiety, and the fatigue of working at one's cardiovascular limit for 23 hours a day. Before I timed out, I had a psychotic break and lost control off my actions for several minutes, made extremely poor decisions like running through dark road tunnels with no shoulder, and for the next five months I had to wear reading glasses because my vision went blurry. There's a longer story of course, but the result is that I now *hate* PTL, and Beat kinda sorta likes it, or at least can't quit it, so there's an interesting dynamic when we return each year.
Beat and his Belgian teammate, Pieter, at the start in Chamonix. Now that Beat has finished this four times, I trust him to make good decisions, so there's less fretting these days. He and Pieter raced together in 2015 and work well together. The race organization also moved up the start time, and between that and finish time adjustments, they have 15.5 more hours than we were given in 2013. I'm hoping that removes some of that cut-off stress in a race where the finishing rate has been less than 30 percent, and 80 percent of the finishers reach Chamonix within four hours of the final cut-off. This year's course is also harder than any other year, so it may be a wash.
I didn't grab a good spot to watch the start. I still thought this photo was interesting, with the phone screens as the only thing in focus.
In 2014, I tried to make peace with my PTL demons by hiking pieces of the course while Beat raced. This proved to be an enjoyable activity — as it turns out, the PTL course in small doses is beautiful and lots of fun, even if travel remains very slow (yup, even being rested doesn't improve my moving average of 2 mph.) On Monday I linked the first few miles of the 2015 PTL route with a segment from this year so I could hike backward on the course and watch teams pass. The initial climb ascended tight switchbacks beneath a tram, gaining 2,600 feet in 1.6 miles. Then there was a chossy scramble with cables, which didn't surprise me at all, as there's usually a fair amount of that in PTL. It was a fun ascent, but not something I'd like to do after several days of one-hour sleeps with 150 miles on my legs.
Traverse from Planpraz to the ridge. As far as I know this trail was not part of any recent PTL route, which makes sense because it's too enjoyable.
Cute little chamois.
Lac Noir d'en Haut.
This guy wanted to pose.
Working my way down from Col de la Gliere on the cables.
Shortly after that, I encountered the leading PTL team — two Swiss guys. The first guy became excited about the Tecnica buff I was wearing and began chattering in French about the Tor des Geants. It's so embarrassing that I don't speak another language. Yet I haven't taken initiative to learn one.
From there the PTL course veered straight down Combe Lachenal on this talus slope that was steeper than the photograph portrays.
I decided I didn't want to do that, so I took the long way around on a nice trail.
These guys seemed pretty sick of the scree as well. This was the third PTL team.
They got up again quickly, though.
Down in the forest I crossed paths with Beat and Pieter, looking pretty good after making their way around the glacier moraines of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley. After my 13-mile hike with 5,600 feet of climbing, I could almost understand again this strange pull PTL seems to have on a select few crazies who try it more than once. But tonight I received this text message from Beat, referring to the talus slope I skipped and the traverse around Lac Cornu:
"Brutal 40K. The scree sucked and the descent was a mess too. Food and beer and we'll push on. 37th team at the moment. Too fast."