Monday, September 04, 2017

PTL, again

Well, I managed to distract myself sufficiently for a week-plus in Chamonix to avoid writing a blog post. I have so many photos I want to archive, so I suppose I'll start. We returned to the European Capital of Extreme Sports for Beat's sixth and what he promised would be his last Petite Trotte à Léon.

The PTL is a lot of things, but I think it's best described as "290 kilometers of nonsense." It's a high-mountain loop around Mont Blanc on a route that changes every year, following paths that are always steep, routinely rough, and not infrequently nonexistent. The route includes a rather boggling 27 kilometers of vertical gain (so 87,000 feet in 180 miles), but I'm of the opinion the numbers don't mean much. Climbing can be relaxingly easy on a steep dirt path gaining 1,500 feet per mile (which I enjoyed many times during the week.) In PTL, technical features, exposure and route-finding dominate the challenge, and often necessitate a pace amounting to less than two kilometers an hour. So 152 hours to finish this race is actually not a lot of time (and the cutoff was 136 hours in 2013 when I attempted it and timed out, which I emphasize because damn it, those 16 extra hours really would have helped.)

In short, PTL is treacherous and often dangerous terrain combined with sleep deprivation and relentless forward motion regardless of weather or conditions. It's utter nonsense, but some people thrive on nonsense. I can certainly relate.

For years after 2013 I begged Beat not to return to PTL, but by 2016 my defenses had worn down, and by this year I felt the hint, just the tiniest little hint, of FOMO. It's misplaced. Beat's proven himself capable while I continue to fall on my face and roll my ankle on relatively buffed out Colorado trails (which of course are still rocky and steep.) It's difficult to discern why I prioritize my wanderings in places where I so frequently falter. I'm like that kid at the piano recital, the one who's been practicing for years and still stabs at the keys while out-of-sync staccato notes echo through the room. "Shame, she just doesn't have an ear for music," people say about that kid. I'm that kid, with mountain running. I think about this often and wish I'd stuck with piano.

Anyway, Beat was preparing for another PTL and I was both jealous and relieved that it wasn't me. My plan as usual was to loosely follow the race, offer the minimal support where allowed, work occasionally, maybe see a friend or two during the always hugely well-attended UTMB week, and fill the rest of the time with overwhelmingly beautiful hiking. Eating and sleeping, bah ... there's always time for that later.

For our first full day in Chamonix, Beat and one of his PTL partners, Pieter, insisted on joining me for a climb to the junction of two glaciers, Bossons and Taconnaz. We rented a small chalet that was literally underneath the top of a ski jump platform, and the trailhead began 0.10 miles from the front door. It shoots immediately upward and gains 6,000 feet in five miles, which is not a small feat less than two days before a race like PTL. Clearly I am not the only one suffering from ridiculous FOMO. But it is almost impossible to pass up these views:

Looking toward Aiguille du Midi over Bossons glacier.

The Taconnaz glacier. At the tip you can see the remnants of a massive calving event that we witnessed. It sounded like a loud thunder clap, and recently arriving from Colorado, I immediately looked up at the sky. Far below the fluffy clouds, a building-sized chunk of ice peeled off the tongue of the glacier and tumbled down the rocks like an avalanche.

"You're not scrambling underneath these glaciers during PTL this year, are you?" I asked Beat.

"I don't think so," he answered, sounding uncertain.

On Sunday I made a quick trip from the chalet to Brevent, another place where you can knock out a cool vertical mile in five horizontal ones, and if you don't feel like walking down, you just buy a ticket for the cable car.

Views of Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers from the opposite side of the valley. La Jonction is the top of the round ridge in the center. Brevent stands at a similar altitude in the Aiguilles Rouges (Red Mountains.)

I still can't travel anywhere in these vast mountains without looking into a distance and reliving moments from my 2013 PTL experience. I've written about the experience in this blog, but only in fairly superficial detail. The intensity of it still haunts me, in mostly not good ways. Still, there were intensely good moments too — walking under those cliffs when they were bathed in silver moonlight, gazing up at sheer walls and wondering what possible path could lead beyond them. As it turned out, there usually was no possible path — only steep couloirs choked with boulders, and sheer astonishment that a race organization as professional as UTMB would admit participants with no provable mountain experience and send them up an indiscernible mess of rubble that was clearly going to end in a death tumble. Well.

Monday morning was the start of the 2017 edition of PTL. This year Beat started with his original teammate and Colorado friend, Daniel, and Pieter, a Belgian who he met at Tor des Geants in 2014, and has raced PTL with every year since.

Daniel grew up climbing Colorado 14'ers and is a gazelle in boulder fields, and Pieter has mountaineering experience and youthful enthusiasm, so they were a good team. Beat was an experienced trail runner but more or less a mountain novice when he started PTL in 2012. Now he's such an entrenched veteran that the mountain guides who design the PTL greet him with hugs and cheers. He tells me that he, too, used to be bothered by exposed terrain, but now he's tired and doesn't care much anymore.

After the racers jogged briefly through the streets of Chamonix and launched directly up a ski lift slope that's dubbed "the vertical kilometer," I headed out to the base of a mountain they expected to hit later in the day, Mont Buet.

Mont Buet is a 3,096-meter peak (10,100 feet) in the Red Mountains. While researching a route from the valley, I learned it's commonly referred to as "Mont Blanc for the Ladies" ... clearly by chauvinistic French men. I was a bit happy to see this characterization, though. That means Mont Buet is easy, right? I mean, it's 6,000 feet of climbing in six miles, but easy, right?

It was pretty easy — just one long boulder field to negotiate midway through the route. I was scrambling through the boulders when rain began to pelt my face, which made me grumpy. Usually I don't mind rain, but I do when there is unknown and potentially difficult (i.e. slippery) terrain ahead. It turned out to be no big deal, but spiked my stress levels enough to keep me on edge for the rest of the day.

On the way to the summit, I leap-frogged with a nice Italian couple who were fast but made frequent stops, while I trundled along at my steady turtle pace. Occasionally a hole in the clouds would let through sunlight, and the man would point and say, "look, it is sunny!"

"Na, that's just a sucker hole," I'd reply.

"What is sucker hole?"

"Oh, it's, well, a small opening in clouds that tricks you into believing it will stop raining."

"But it will still rain," the man replied knowingly.

Despite the rain and the long approach, there were still eight or nine people on the summit. Except for me and one other, they were not ladies, and Mont Buet was decidedly more gray and gravelly than Mont Blanc. But it was still a beautiful place to be. One guy offered to take my photo. I like that he didn't zoom in at all, so I'm just a drab little person in a big mountain backdrop.

I thought I might see the first PTL teams on my way down, but I didn't having a working GPS track for this section, and didn't have a clue where they'd come from. It could be from anywhere. Literally anywhere. PTL could require a tightrope walk across a ravine, and I wouldn't be surprised.

I made a short detour to climb above Col de Salenton because I was sure they'd walk through here, but nope. They came in from behind this mountain, somehow. So I saw no one. I trundled the long, long descent to the village of Buet and still didn't encounter any PTL teams. In the village, I lingered for a while at the Skiroc chalet, where PTL participants would be served their one daily meal that I later learned was a soup of half-cooked onions in broth. It had been more than nine hours and this was barely mile 26. Nine hours is an almost unfathomable time for the fastest team in a marathon, but PTL is not a normal race. Really, it's a sadomasochistic ritual with fleeting moments of euphoria and drawn-out hours of fear and pain. Still, I suppose I can understand why Beat claims he's not going to return every year, and goes back anyway.


  1. Gadzooks....I find it hard to believe ANYBODY would do it more than once. Blows my mind that anybody CAN do it...sure does weed out all but the best. FANTASTIC pics Jill, glad you were able to go do YOUR thing! Stay safe!

  2. Stunning scenery and great pictures, I especially like the glaciers. How long will they be there I wonder?

  3. Amazing places and great view. It's good when people have the opportunity to travel into such an amazing places. It's my dream one day to travel there I just will simply click the following webpage and receive some help with studies and set off. There are so many places I would like to visit.

  4. Bad Ass!
    Their is an addictive side to such compulsions. I can relate to mountain running competitions. I dabbled, then got hooked, for a long time. I'd swear never to do some of them again, then end up going back just like you and Beat.
    What I can't relate to, having only dreamed of doing one, is the Ultras and Ultra Ultras. I will settle for vicarious enjoyment of such absurdities with, like you, now, a sense of both relief and jealously.
    Love your adventures and writing. Keep it up...
    Box Canyon Mark

  5. It's a giant mountain sinkhole. Once you get to love love it, you can't stop loving it.


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