Monday, September 18, 2017

The final Tor?

One day before the eighth edition of the Tor des Geants, it had become obvious that Beat wouldn't be able to run this year. While we visited his mom in Switzerland, Beat spent a week off his feet, and his shin was still swollen. A tendon squeaked when he flexed his foot; I held my fingers on his leg and could feel the crunching as it moved. Walking down a single flight of stairs caused him pain. It was the kind of tendonitis one might be able to grit through to finish out a day hike, but 200 miles in the Alps? It couldn't happen.

Beat still decided to start the race, although we both knew it was mostly ceremonial at this point. This was Beat's eighth start under the pink banner in the center square of Courmayeur. Since the Tor des Geants began in 2010, Beat had finished all of them, earning an increasingly rare status as a "Senatore" of the Tor. I would joke that Beat valued his Senatore status more than he valued his PhD. It wasn't true, of course, but there's a chance I valued Beat's Senatore status more than he did. As he raced the first Tor in 2010, our relationship was just beginning. I was glued to the online updates although I could scarcely understand them. For our first date, he brought me a few uniquely colored pieces of shale that he collected on a high pass and packed for more than a hundred miles. I first joined him in Italy in 2011, and found a special affection for Courmayeur, the people, and the mountains of the Aosta Valley. I attempted TDG myself in 2014. In hindsight I was in the best shape I likely could possibly be for such an endeavor. It went wonderfully until it didn't. About 200 kilometers in, I fell down a wet boulder and wrenched my knee, resulting in a torn lateral collateral ligament, a painful crawl over 14 kilometers of rocks and mud that took me almost ten hours, and a DNF with months of recovery. Although my confidence in my mountain-running abilities and fitness have only continued to decline since then, I still dream of racing the Tor once more.

But will I? I don't know. My fitness is still up and down and I now know without a doubt that I'll never be a graceful mountain runner. Even if stars aligned, my health normalized and training went well, there's still a lottery to contend with. As racers sprinted down the narrow street, I suspected that this may be our last Tor, at least for a while. Beat would know early whether his shin could support him for 200 difficult miles. Neither of us was optimistic.

I figured it would take Beat about four hours to reach the first aid station in La Thuile, so I made a quick run up to a ridge 3,500 feet above town and sat on the grass in the cold wind, enjoying a lunch of crushed cheese crackers and chocolate chip cookies that both made the trip from Colorado and had been rejected as trail snacks thus far. An older Italian gentleman hiked by and spoke several sentences to me, after which I made my standard head-shaking gesture and said, "Mi dispiace. Parlo solo English." He stood there for another minute until a woman caught up. They spoke for a few seconds, and then she turned to me and said, "He wants to wish you a bon appétit." I laughed. "Grazie. Thank you," I replied, and waved. It seemed a lot of effort for niceties, but then again I don't make nearly enough effort to improve my communication skills in Europe. I wander the streets despising my illiteracy and avoid speaking to others because of self-consciousness about my limited language and tendency to mispronounce everything. And yet I haven't done anything about it.

Beat did end up calling me from La Thuile, once as he wavered on leaving town with the amount of pain he was experiencing, and again after he had limped up the trail for an hour and decided it was not to be. He was disappointed of course but had an upbeat attitude about ending his streak at TDG. Again, I was probably more bummed out than him — in a mostly selfish way, because this meant no shadowing the race this year, or possibly again.

Beat decided to drive back to Switzerland to spend more time with his mom, while I stayed in Italy with no obligations besides my work deadlines. I'm one of those people who loves short stints of solo travel, because it means I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I had six more days in Courmayeur, and I was going to do all of the hiking. On Monday I traced an incredible 25-mile route across a ledgy, often exposed traverse while buffeted by a cold and strong crosswind. I walked up and down cols all the way to the French border at Col de la Seigne as thick fog moved in, followed by snow, sleet, and intensely bright rainbows. I took dozens of photos that turned out to not exist, because the memory card had ejected inside my camera, so nothing recorded. I was incredibly disappointed about this, so much so that emotionally I deemed the day a complete loss, as though it never happened. Then I pondered this strong attachment I have to photos and documenting my experiences, and the reasons why this persists and why it's ultimately meaningless. Another good lesson in letting go.

Monday night was cold and snow line dropped down to 2,000 meters. The wind persisted and although temperatures warmed enough to melt most of the snow, the air was piercingly icy above tree line. When I packed for this trip I thought I was bringing too much warm clothing. But I tended to wear it all, often pulling rain pants over thick wind tights — which is actually more layers than I wear in Alaska if temperatures are above zero. It wasn't nearly that cold, but mountain air somehow just feels colder.

I had a fair amount of work to do, so I made a "quick" run to Testa di Liconi, by which I mean I climbed 6,000 feet in five and a half miles and spent nearly six hours making the round trip. The route to this 2,900-meter sub-peak is relentlessly steep and I loved every calf-straining step. The persistent climbs are the only reason I would thrive in the Tor des Geants, and the descents are the main reason I'd falter. As years pass I've grown to highly doubt that I'll ever improve my descending. There's an innate factor that I lack, and only begin to develop when I'm so tired that my brain stops sending the neurotic signals that skew my proprioception. My descending skills actually tend to improve during the brain-dead moments of an ultra, as I discovered during the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. But I can't rely on this. The brain will always eventually turn back on, and then I suddenly awaken to find myself teetering over a precipice, frozen in fear.

Even during easy-going day hikes, I have moments like this. I'll glance down at the edge of a narrow switchback and realize it's effectively carved into a near-vertical grassy slope, and all it would take is one slip on a snow-covered rock to spin into a death somersault all the way down to Val Sapin. Then I feel dizzy and vaguely nauseated and kneel down to cling to clumps of grass for a second or two before I realize that, "actually I'm fine." Why do I keep subjecting myself to terrain that I'm so clearly disinclined to manage with any kind of grace or style? Honestly, I remain baffled. It can't just be the views.

On top of Testa Licony is a sturdy shelter called Bivouac Luigi Pascal. It's a beautiful viewpoint but fully exposed to the weather. The brisk breeze that followed me up the slope was blowing at full gale on top. There were already several hikers inside the bivouac when I arrived, and my fear of having to mispronounce "Mi dispiace. Parlo solo English" kept me from joining them. It is an incredible shelter, though — solar panels and a rainwater system give it electricity and partial plumbing. There are beds, a kitchen, even an indoor bathroom. But this peak can be fiercely cold and windy, and it would still be a rough place to spend a night, in my opinion.

Because I had to work all night on Tuesday, I slept in on Wednesday and set out in the late morning under overcast skies and light rain.

Standing on Tête de la Tronche, looking toward what had originally been my objective for the day, Colle Battaglione d'Aosta. See, I'm working on overcoming my mountain uneasiness by pushing my limits in small degrees. Colle Battaglione features steep, loose terrain in a no-fall zone, with some difficult route-finding. But Beat walked it in PTL and described it to me in enough detail that I thought I could manage the navigation. However, by Wednesday I already felt fatigued, and the iffy weather was the tipping point that made me chicken out. Maybe next time. If there is a next time.

So I settled on Col Malatrà, which is the last big pass in the Tor des Geants, but still somewhat far away from Courmayeur (I took a loop route over several passes, so my trip was 22 miles with 8,500 feet of climbing.)

With a stunning approach and hidden views, Col Malatrà is probably my favorite place in the Aosta Valley — a friendly little notch allowing passage through a toothy knife ridge.

I arrived just as the eventual fourth-pace TDG finisher, Carlos Sá, made his way through the notch.

He was limping quite noticeably and staggered in a somewhat nerve-wracking zig-zag as he made his way down the trail. It was interesting to watch a top TDG finisher — clearly a talented mountain runner to make it this far this fast — stumble around as though he'd never walked down a rocky slope in his life. Clearly he was hurting and exhausted, but still ... it gives me hope, somehow.

Looking through the notch to the other side of the pass.

Mix of sun, snow and clouds. This would become a theme for the whole week.

This place is called Gieu Damon. Pretty much everything that's remotely a place has a name on the map, whether it's a village or a single farmhouse or a ruin. More often than not it's a ruin, which can be disappointing if you've spent miles hoping for a rifugio with water and polenta. (Note: I generally do not go inside refuges because the prospect of speaking terrifies me so.)

Although I was disappointed in myself about chickening out on the tougher destination, I was glad I made the time to trek to Malatrà. Alpine tundra was soft underfoot and the sky was a dynamic explosion of sunlit clouds, stoking more dreams about Tor — continuing along such a path all day, every day, for as long as it took. It had been a number of weeks since I wheezed up anything, and perhaps I could work harder on my descending, strengthen my ankle so I don't roll it so much, shore up more bravery to practice the hard stuff so this semi-hard stuff is ingrained. Maybe someday I will rectify all of my Alpine failures. Maybe this doesn't have to be the last Tor des Geants. 


  1. Exactly. Never say "never."
    I so enjoy reading your posts. Thanks for sharing a piece of your soul every now and then; it strikes a "cord."
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Great stuff and amazing pictures. This is for sure on my bucket list.

  3. Replies
    1. Not too icy for biking. On Wednesday I even saw bike tracks in the mud on the trail to Col Malatra, but all week long I didn't see anybody on bikes. Although I suspect a few people love riding all that steep and technical terrain, mountain biking is not overly popular in that region. It's not for me; my hiking pack is heavy enough without having to hoist a 30-pound bike up and down the cols.

  4. Enjoyed the photos from your zesty hikes. I'm considering either PTL or TDS next year. We will see.

    1. PTL is entirely different from TDS. Word of caution: while you surely have the technical skills, choosing a teammate is very difficult. You need to be able to trust that person, they need to have compatible sleep cycles. The PTL is the only race where I am always worried about cutoffs as well ... If you haven't done a 200 mile distance event, I'd recommend trying a more "normal" one first (strongly, strongly recommend TDG) to see how the prolonged sleep deprivation works for you - I did. I've seen quite capable people just lose it out there, and these are trails with real exposure and substantially more technical difficulty than anything you'd find in Hardrock for example.

  5. Jill , Ive followed your blog for years and really enjoy the photos you take. Wonder if you would share what the current camera you are using and how you find it works in those cold damp conditions you encountered over the past few weeks in Europe.

    1. Thank you! Since mid-2013 I've been using the same model of camera, Sony RX100, for nearly all of my photos. I'm not particularly careful with this camera, but I have ruined three — the first because the lens would become stuck. The second — a mashup of my old camera and one of Beat's camera bodies that he put together and worked wonderfully for two years — eventually starting shutting off unexpectedly and wouldn't turn on (I still have this camera as a backup.) The third — also one of Beat's old cameras — I used for just a few months before I dropped it in a rock crevasse on Lone Peak in August.

      Now I'm on Sony Rx100 number four, new as of a month ago. I take better care of this one by slinging the lanyard around my wrist when taking photos, and storing it in a ziplock bag when I'm not using it. The zippy is crucial in drizzly conditions like I saw in the Alps, but also important in cold conditions when the condensation in my clothing collects inside the camera. I suspect this is why camera #2 died, because I also am not always careful about this.

      My point is, this camera will take a lot of abuse and continue working, but likely at the expense of longevity. I love it though, so I keep going back. The newer models have some new features, but for the most part it hasn't changed much in four years. It gets a little cheaper each time. :)

    2. The original model RX100 is IMO one of the absolute best bang-for-buck cameras out there. It's almost as good as the newer ones at less than half the price! The lens is a little slower (but has bigger range) and it's the smallest of the RX100 models to boot. It has a 1inch sensor, to really get better photos you'd have to step up to a APS-C (or at least micro 3/4) sensor, and those come with bigger lenses just due to physics.
      For the PTL I've used a waterproof olympus but the pictures are just really not as nice. Even worse, the lens doesn't have a cover and once its wet (and you're wet) it's impossible to clean it, so you take blurry photos right there. You end up needing a zippy after all ... I will stop using it and go back to the RX100.

  6. I really like reading your posts. Great and amazing pictures. Thanks for sharing.


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