Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Getting my steps in

On Tuesday morning I checked the race tracker and saw that Beat's team was just about to the top of a narrow pass called Fenêtre d'Arpette. After that, I remembered, was a long technical section requiring helmets and crampons — obviously featuring a whole lot of nope. But if you avoid the scary route and instead turn left toward the bucolic Swiss village of Champex Lac, you can make a nice loop following the super-easy UTMB course over a 2,500-foot bump called Bovine mountain. It was one of the few segments of UTMB I haven't seen, and Fenêtre d'Arpette looked spectacular. I thought the loop would take me eight hours, which is all I can afford on a Tuesday before 12 hours of working through the night on Alaska time.

It was already becoming hot when I left Trient around 9 a.m. — 27C according to the car thermometer. I'd only packed two liters of water, and was feeling severe drag in my legs as I trudged up a lovely trail along a turquoise glacier stream. This would be day four of steep hiking, logging at least a vertical mile of climbing every day. "I should do this every day I'm in Chamonix," I thought. "Vertical mile." The 5,280 feet of a mile sounded hard, so I rounded the number down to 5,000 feet. Like people who get their 10,000 steps in every day, I would strive for 5,000 vertical feet, every day for nine days. The challenge was on. 

Trient Glacier and its impressive moraine. Sunlight was glaring in the late morning, and I had to squint through my sunglasses. Even with washed-out light, the scenery was spectacular. 

The final 2,000 feet to the pass jut upward on on a talus and boulder slope with a faint trail that sometimes approached 50-percent grades. My legs finally began to perk up and I relished the grind. This is exactly my kind of thing ... steep, only mildly technical, not dangerous. I passed a few PTL teams who appeared surprisingly cheerful given the circumstances — after all, they'd been working hard, really hard, for more than 24 hours. The most bubbly were three Japanese women who I was thrilled to see. Mixed teams are becoming more common in PTL, but all-women teams are still exceedingly rare.

Looking down the other side of "the window of Arpette." It had taken me four hours to cover six miles, and I had to decide whether I could manage 12 more miles that included an equally difficult descent and another robust climb in the same amount of time. I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately I lost the route and burned up many minutes crab-walking and crawling through a large boulder field. I've learned that I have poor ankle stability ... yes, I realize that I can work on strengthening my ankles. But even then, I'll never be a graceful gazelle dancing through the boulder fields. No, I imagine that my skewed proprioception will always require three- and four- and five-point contact until I resemble a slug oozing over the rocks.

Looking toward Aiguille d'Arpette. This was the scary route PTL was supposed to take, somewhere up in those cliffs. I later learned that the whole field had been rerouted around the high glacier traverse, apparently because the PTL organization had a change of heart and decided it was genuinely too dangerous for 250-plus sleep-deprived participants with widely varying skill levels. I was shocked.

Predictably, I ran out of water while making my way down the valley. There were cows everywhere, and I felt uneasy about collecting water from a stream and putting chlorine tablets in it. "I'll be able to get water in Champex," I thought. But then the route skirted through the forest above town, and I didn't come across any fountains or even streams until I reached a small restaurant at the base of Bovine. There was an outdoor bar, where I pointed to a cold case with 1.5-liter bottles of water inside. "Can I buy one of those water bottles?" I asked. Although the bartender appeared to understand English, my request was foreign to her. She tried to serve me a tiny glass of sparkling water with no ice for 3.20 Swiss francs. I insisted that I needed "more water," pulled the bladder out of my pack, pointed to the sink and asked if I could buy tap water, and finally succeeded in purchasing a bottle of sparkling water for 8 Swiss francs. The whole exchange was so perturbing that I almost walked away, but was glad I didn't, as it was over 90 degrees and there were no streams at all most of the way up Bovine. I'm pretty much a fish when it comes to drinking water, and it flabbergasts me how Europeans get by with their 25 centiliters of lukewarm bottled water, here and there. This is always one thing I miss most about the U.S. — free and abundant water everywhere.

Anyway, I wrapped up that hike in closer to nine hours ... and 7,300 feet of climbing. I worked through the night until 6:30 a.m., and just after I'd finally succumbed to blissful sleep, I got a call from Daniel. Some family issues had come up that forced him to drop out of the race, while Beat and Pieter went on as a two-man team. He rescheduled his flight out of Geneva to the following morning. After a couple of hours of logistics-wrangling with him, I figured I had about four hours to spare before I needed to pick Daniel up in downtown Chamonix. Could I squeeze in 5,000 feet? Sure I could try!

I picked what I think of as the Skyline route between Flégère and Planpraz stations. I've hiked this route before in the other direction, and had largely forgotten how hard it is. After scrambling directly up a talus slope to avoid construction vehicles on the cat-track road to l'Index, experiencing a big scare from tumbling rocks thrown by a trail crew on a switchback above me near Glière Chapel, and climbing a whole lot more than I expected to Col de la Glière, my time buffer had unravelled completely.

Follow the yellow dots. Just a touch of exposure, but I'd already burned up my adrenaline ten minutes earlier, when I was startled by loud, falling rocks that sounded like they were directly above my skull. I was so frightened that I screamed from below at the trail crew, who just laughed and said "is okay! is okay!" Dudes, just because you can see me doesn't me I can see you or know what you're doing. It's not okay.

At Col Cornu, I could see the storm moving in over Mont Blanc. The hot, sunny weather was predicted to deteriorate into three days of rain, wind, and snow down to 2,000 meters or lower.

These sheep were exceedingly cute. As they approached, the lead one let out a polite "ba-a-a," so I stepped off the trail. They continued on the trail, and the last one also ba-a-a'ed as she passed. "Tell me you don't have a mean dog with you," I said. (I have been aggressively confronted by Alpine sheep dogs in the past.) But they were alone, just out for a Wednesday stroll through the rocks.

After Daniel left Wednesday morning, I drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to catch up with Beat in Morgex, Italy. Morgex is about the halfway point of the route, with dinner served in an old chapel, and sleep on wrestling mats (no blankets) in a gym. It had rained through the night, and they arrived here wet and cold. The sun came out ever-so-briefly while they were resting, only to have to skies open up with more rain just after they left.

Even still, they looked good, despite the sleep deprivation. The previous evening they were caught in a thunderstorm on a high ridge, with lightning and thunder booms following within three seconds. This was only the beginning of the epic weather for them.

It was after 4 p.m. by the time Beat and Pieter left Morgex, and skies did not look as friendly as they had earlier in the afternoon. I still decided to go for my 5,000 feet on the trail to Testa Licony, where there apparently is a vertical 2K race (meaning 2,000 meters of climbing.) I didn't know about this race beforehand, but began to see markers designating every 100 meters of gain (D+100, D+200, etc.) Hundred-meter markers are somewhat demoralizing, because it takes three times as long to climb 100 meters as it does 100 feet, and yet tired minds process the numbers in the same way. Soon, though, the signs surpassed four digits, and I rose above tree line to see that I really had gained some height.

On grassy slopes the trail became more faint, and at one point I merged onto a goat trail. By the time I realized my mistake, I looked at my GPS to see I'd already gained 300 feet since leaving the trail, and a paralleling switchback was 700 feet higher. The route itself veered way off to the left — for good reason, I later realized. Instead of backtracking I made the always-questionable choice to crawl directly up the slope, which of course became steeper as I climbed. Steep grassy slopes are slippery, and a fall could easily send a person careening downhill the way they would on snow. To top things off, it was sprinkling rain again, which made the grass even more greasy.

The slope tilted nearly vertical, and I found myself death-gripping clumps of grass and regretting every decision I'd ever made. I definitely didn't want to go down the way I'd came, but the higher terrain just continued to become worse. GPS showed only 200 or so feet remaining, and I started to see rocky outcroppings blocking my path. I continued gripping grass strands and side-stepping diagonally until I reached a rib of rocks that looked climbable. It was a narrow spine, and steeper than the slope. But there I found real handholds, which I appreciated. I was so, so ecstatic when I put my hands on the trail and hoisted myself onto solid ground. Never again. You'd think I was trying to mimic the PTL experience or something.

Behind me, a darker storm approached. A winter-like wind blasted down from the ridge. Its chill was distressing, and invigorating at the same time. I'd given myself an absolute turnaround time to get back to treeline and safer trail before sunset, but I was so buzzed after surviving the grass scramble that I continued marching upward long after the deadline passed. Still, I really didn't want to be caught up here on steep grassy slopes and faint trails when it was both dark and pouring rain.

So I settled for a saddle, about 150 meters below Testa Licony, with shrouded views into the Villair valley. I was feeling a bit woozy from not eating or drinking in several hours, and also from the 5,600 feet of climbing I had on my legs just today. But the highest priority was skedaddling downhill to the trees before dark came.

I made it just in time, strapped on my headlamp, took a several big sips of water, ate a Snickers Bar, and accelerated to a knee-thrusting jog. Hard rain needled through the tree canopy, causing me to slip and skid as I reminded myself to lean forward. The forested part of the trail was even steeper than the alpine zone, and now the trail was rippled with roots and carpeted in wet pine needles. I fell on my butt, jamming my pinky finger painfully, but quickly bounced up and ran faster.

I wasn't really in a hurry; it was already dark, and I knew I'd end up back in Chamonix to cook myself a dinner of pasta with red sauce and tuna sometime around midnight. I'd only slept about four hours in the past 60, after days of jet lag and insomnia before that, and the edges around my vision were beginning to blur. My adrenaline was spent, my legs were wobbly, and I had no business running down a muddy 30-percent grade. But I felt joyful. Positively joyful. Why? Perhaps because of all of that. The sharp edge of life is where we live most vividly, where joy and fear ebb and flow with increasingly intensity, and where memories retain their luminosity four, ten, possibly even 20 or 40 years later. More frequently than I care to admit, I think about PTL. I hated PTL. But it stuck with me.

I thought about Beat marching into this rain and wind toward another high pass, again feeling both nervous and envious. What would stop me from marching through the night? The image of my pale white fingers clinging to strands of grass on the near-vertical slope returned, and I shuddered with fear. I suppose I really did want to leave this mountain behind.

"Knees high, pick up your feet," I chanted. The lower-altitude forest grew thick and high, blocking out all light beyond a pale yellow circle thrown by the headlamp. Here the world was small, and yet just as slippery and difficult as it had ever been. Still, the smallness made it more manageable somehow, and there was a steady cadence to every uneven step. My mind settled into the rhythm and slipped into a fantasy where I wasn't afraid of the mountain anymore, and just flowed with it, as naturally as water. 


  1. Nice one! But for you I'd know nothing of mountains.

  2. Magnificent!
    I'm sensing the "old Jill" is well on her way back to normal.
    Oh, and "a slug oozing over the rocks?" Welcome to my world :).
    Adrenaline unspent is a horrible waste of drugs.
    Odd, I was on a similar "frequency" on today's post. It's reassuring to know I'm not crazy...that their are "others." :)

  3. I guess drinking water is neither abundant, nor free anywhere. But I'm with you as far as water consumption during outdoor activities- last weekend, when San Francisco recorded all time high 102F, I ran out of water 8 miles before next water stop climbing Butano Ridge and it stopped being fun very quickly.


Feedback is always appreciated!