Friday, September 22, 2017

So long, Courmayeur

I recently learned that the Indonesian man rescued from Col Chavannes last week has died. Given the severity of his condition, the news did not come as a surprise. Still, I searched the Web every day for updates, hoping for a better outcome. Through these searches, I learned a little about his life. He recently earned his master's degree in chemical research from the University of Leicester in the U.K. He had a daughter. At one time he kept a blog with the title "give up on shelter." He was a self-proclaimed "jobless traveler" who wrote research papers on thermal degradation. He was 25 years old. Just another tragedy. I'm still torn up about it, ruminating on the clues he left behind, reconstructing scenarios in my imagination, acknowledging that in a slightly different set of circumstances, the person falling down switchbacks and freezing to near-death could have easily been me. Just another tragedy. Like Puerto Rico and Mexico City, there are degrees of separation, large enough to look away. If we ruminated on all of the world's tragedies all of the time, we would be clinically insane. But we do what we can. I e-mailed the Islamic Society at his university to inquire about donating to his funeral fund. 

But I didn't want to end my Alps posts on such a downer. There were so many great moments, and some of the best came at the very end, hours before we had to rush back to Geneva and a 6 a.m. flight. Beat returned to Courmayeur for our final day in Europe. Despite his still-swollen and squeaky shin, he'd been talking all week about climbing Mont Chetif. In turn, I had been dreading the prospect all week. Mont Chetif is regarded an easy "ferrata" route, but it still features stunningly exposed sections that are protected with a few cables and bars (and some of the cables are broken!) Its difficulty rating is "EE," which is defined as "a marked path over treacherous ground ... with open stretches that call for sure footing and no dizziness." 

Sure footing and no dizziness. Two qualities I do not possess. But I've been up Mont Chetif before, in 2016, as part of an ongoing campaign to overcome my mountain fearfulness. Still, with each passing year I only gain more reasons to distrust myself, not fewer, and in many ways experience makes me more fearful, not less. After spending much of Friday steeped in uncertainty followed by the horror of Col Chavannes, I was in no mood for pushing my limits. And that was before I woke up on Saturday morning with a rigid Achilles tendon. 

Before Saturday, my Achilles gave no indication that it was about to blow up. Still, I suppose these things happen when you've got the thing stretched to maximum capacity for most of a week ... 45,000 feet of climbing and 123 miles in just seven days ... when you haven't really trained for 40 hours of straining on your toes (unless you count that equally big climbing week in Chamonix two weeks earlier, and then running up the Thousand St├Ągli (actually closer to 1,150 stairs) every chance you got in Switzerland, driving your PR from 12 minutes down to 11 minutes and being quite proud of that.)

In a way I was sort of tickled at the prospect of a real overuse injury. Do you know how long it's been? For years now I've either been wracked with breathing problems that slowed me down enough to avoid straining anything ... or I've just hit the deck and torn something. Achilles tendonitis? That's something real athletes get! Then again, you do kind of need your Achilles for many activities. Climbing Mont Chetif is near the top of that list.

In addition to being a route that requires sure footing and no dizziness, Mont Chetif gains 4,200 feet in 2.5 miles ... and not in a nice, even way, but in a sort of staircase comprised of flat traverses above sheer ledges, followed by pitches so steep that calves will cry ... and I really mean cry. As I hobbled with Beat down Courmayeur's main street to have one last amazing espresso at Caffe Della Posta, I was highly tempted to chicken out. But I'd been playing in mountains all week while Beat dutifully worked and visited family and nursed his injury, so I felt I should rally for this one small hike with him.

There was a nice one-mile warm-up from Caffe Della Posta to the trailhead, and my Achilles started to flex enough that hobbling was no longer required. But as soon as we started up the first pitch, the tendon complained loudly. Then we did an airy section with cables and bars, and I was so frightened that I didn't think about pain. Then came the rebar "staircase" where my calf muscle on the same leg (right) suddenly cramped so bad that I yelped, which of course caused Beat to whip around because I was screaming in a section where falling would have been costly. Then my calf was pulsing, actually pulsing, like a phone set to vibrate mode. The Achilles gave up complaining during the extended calf cramp episode until we stopped for a snack break, and then I was back to hobbling before yet another airy cable section. I was a genuine mess, accompanied by whimpering. And yet I was in a great mood — the sun was out, it was somehow warm even as flurries of snow drifted from clusters of dark clouds, the mountains were singularly stunning, and I was alive. It is incredible, how we manage to survive each day to see another. Although I may come across as an occasional risk-taker, I never take life for granted.

At the summit, Beat enjoyed one last Rivella (a Swiss soda made from milk whey, which I — a hopeless soda enthusiast — think is awful. I also think most nationalities agree with me, because Rivella is only sold in Switzerland.) It was a wonderful moment, just the wind and snow flurries and the statue of Mary, holding her vigil over Courmayeur.

Beat's shin bothered him during the long descent (there's a wrap-around trail that features a horrendously steep chunder gully, but no cables), while I loped happy-go-lucky because my Achilles and calves didn't have to do anything ... and for once I was actually able to keep up with Beat on a descent. We had gelato with friends who finished or nearly finished TDG (Roger did 310 of 330 kilometers before he timed out.) And then it was time to head through the tunnel one last time. No matter how many times we come to Courmayeur or how long we spend in the region, I'm always sad to leave.

It's good timing for my Achilles, though. I'm back to weight training and bicycles and haven't felt any pain since Monday. I may even attempt a jog this weekend, although I ran so little while I was in Europe that I expect a return to actual running will hurt in new and exciting ways.

And, of course, autumn in Colorado is always nice. Unless it's 92 degrees like it was on Wednesday. Snow on Monday? I can't wait! 


  1. Rain and mild in Lovely Ouray, snowing on the peaks but not sticking. It's just too warm...

  2. Many mountain sports shops in the Alps will rent you a basic Ferrata gear (harness and helmet) which is really nice to have for confidence. No training required, super easy to use.

    1. There are a few real ferrata routes in the region, the routes rated "EEA," that lead up to bivouacs along the glaciers below Mont Blanc. Beat has been talking about renting or bringing equipment and trying one of these. I probably would cope better on a dizzyingly exposed but protected route than I do on these trails where the footing isn't always secure, but there's less exposure.

  3. I have again, so enjoyed your return to Europe this year, especially to read that your health issues have not prevented you from making the most of your time there.
    Sensational reading.

  4. So many years I've been coming back to your blog and you're still going strong! Sorry to hear about your fellow climber. Thanks for continuing to share and inspire.


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