Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Trying to find these perfect places

Thursday's weather promised to be awful — steady rain progressing to heavy rain in the afternoon, temperatures in the 40s, and wind. I'd already racked up 26,000 feet of climbing in the four hikes since Sunday, plus 65 miles on my feet. It seemed prudent to take an easy day, but why would it matter? I only had a week in Italy, with no transportation to visit friends at TDG life bases, so covering as much ground as possible (and eating a pizza or two) were the only things I wanted to do. 

I consulted Wunderground, which is a Web-based weather service that my European friends told me not to trust over local sources. But Wunderground isn't afraid to be specific, and I like that. The hourly forecast showed light rain, heavy rain, and finally sleet every hour through 4 p.m. But after 4 p.m., sudden clearing. Full sunshine, as indicated by a bright yellow circle graphic. It seemed so unlikely, but maybe? If I slogged through rain for enough hours, I could be rewarded with sweeping views in a spectacular, far-away spot. 

I set out genuinely believing in the possibility. For my far-away spot I picked Grand Col Ferret, a 2,500-meter pass on the Swiss border. I'd hiked from Courmayuer to France on Monday, so rounding out the week with a trek to Switzerland seemed apt. I knew it would be at least 15 miles one way. Usually I average 30-minute miles on the steep and rocky routes of the Aosta Valley. But I planned to follow the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, the "easy" route, so I ambitiously guessed 20-minute miles, with some leeway for the occasional 1,800-foot rise in one mile. If I left at 11:30 a.m., I could be standing on the pass when the weather cleared! 

Cold rain pelted me in the face all the way up to Rifugio Bertone, where I stopped to cheer for a few Thursday Tor des Geants finishers who were making their way into Courmayeur. I took this one photo just before fog dropped into the valley. The rain picked up intensity. Having picked the TMB for its friendliness, I'd forgotten that this makes it the most trafficked route in the region, and there are a lot of cows as well. The mud was gruesome. Slimy, sticky, ankle-deep, and shoe-swallowing, the mud forced foot-skiing down the short descents (and some of the climbs, unintentionally.) To top it off, a herder was directing his cattle uphill, so there were cows and dung and puddles of piss everywhere. I passed a group of Japanese backpackers slipping down a hill where cows were climbing up. One backpacker fell on his butt, and this set off an impressive chorus of yelling and ranting from the whole group, possibly directed at the herder. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but you can bet I felt it.

By the time I passed Rifugio Bonatti, I was coated in cow-piss mud and soaked to the skin in both my rain pants and shell, shivering as the rain turned to thick sheets of sleet. The descent into Arnuva is one I'd rather not recall. Since I was already soaked and covered in mud, I did some of it on my butt. I dipped wet mittens into a creek just to clean them off, then slipped the clammy things back over numb fingers. In my pack I still had one pair of dry mittens, a dry hat and a down coat, which I frequently thought about with fierce longing. But it seemed purposeless to put them on when precipitation was still coming down hard.

I finally reached the tiny village of Arnuva, ready to head directly down the road through Val Ferret and forget any part of this hike ever occurred. And then the strangest, yet most expected thing happened. The sleet stopped. Seconds later, almost an instant, beams of sunlight cut through the fog. I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 p.m.

It was late in the day. I'd definitely get back after dark if I climbed another 2,500 feet to the pass. But the scenario couldn't have been better if I planned it, which I pretty much did. So I continued up the TMB trail, still slipping on mud, shedding layers as the sky cleared and the sun burned and steam wafted from my coat.

I'd been over this pass once before, during the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Col Grand Ferret was where I really shut down after a hundred kilometers of wheezy climbing and battling cutoffs. I'd take a few steps and lose my breath, as though I was climbing an 8,000-meter summit in the Himalaya. The number of breaks I need to take just to catch my breath as I slogged up pass resulted in finally timing out at kilometer 110 in La Fouly. At the time I was in the beginnings of uncontrolled asthma and hyperthyroidism that I didn't yet understand, but I knew that my body was broken somehow. And I remember well what it felt like to look up at these impossible slopes, wondering if I'd find the strength to reach the summit, or any summit, ever again.

It's difficult to describe how amazing it felt to stand at Grand Col Ferret, looking out over the snow-dusted slopes and clouds streaming through the La Fouly valley, feeling strong. My heart pumped warm blood and my nerves tingled with exhilaration.

And the views! In 2015 the weather had been hot, but the mountains were shrouded in clouds. So I didn't even realize the spectacle surrounding this pass. There may have been a tear or two as I stood facing the Pré de Bar glacier with the cold wind streaming around me.

The day just got better. As evening light descended over Val Ferret, I slipped and slid down the mountain and started running when I hit the pavement. Both ankles were sore from the day's weird footing and my quads were unnaturally heavy, but it still felt wonderful to run. Miles disappeared behind me at a speed I could scarcely comprehend after weeks of 30-minute miles. Twilight turned the sky a rich violet, drenching Grand Jorasses and Monte Bianco in stunning silver light. Moonlight took over and the forest was an abstract maze of shapes and shadows. The faint roar of whitewater in Dora di Ferret was the only sound. I'd run out of trail snacks two hours earlier and my stomach churned, but there was genuinely no place I'd rather be.

On Friday, temperatures remained low enough that snow stuck around, along with the wind. The sky was a thin overcast film. Days earlier I'd decided if the weather was workable at all, I wanted to repeat the route I walked on Monday when my camera wasn't working. Although it was all decent trail, parts of it were very narrow and exposed, and there were landslides that required short stints of exposed scrambling. I felt nervous about the prospect of traversing those slopes under snow and icy conditions, especially if there was a gale like the one that knocked me around on Monday. Still, these opportunities don't come every day. I figured I could turn around if conditions were iffy.

Col d'Arp is just a little 4,000-foot climb first thing in the morning. I was feeling all of the week's efforts in small ways — tightness in my calves, sore shoulders, general leg fatigue — but in other ways the grind becomes easier after days of grinds. Above 2,500 meters, there were several inches of snow that had been blown around. So the ground was bare in spots, and there were shin-deep drifts in others. Although I don't enjoy skittering on rocks in microspikes, I strapped them on for good measure.

Glancing over the edge of one ledge I was traversing, I looked toward future ledges. This practice had been much more intimidating on Monday, when I had no idea what was around the next saddle. But experience hadn't made these views as agreeable as I'd hoped. That segment in the upper lefthand corner of the photo still looks like a narrow notch above sheer cliffs, which it is.

Before the narrow trail traverse are a few airy scrambles to skirt around a knife ridge. I found good purchase on the snow with the microspikes, but rocks were coated in verglass. I decided that I really didn't want to come back down this way, and hoped the loop worked out.

On Monday, when I hiked around a pass called Colle Berrio Blanc, I was hit with a moment of déjà vu that caused me to openly gasp. I pondered the origin of this disquieting but forgotten association as I made my way though yet more vaguely familiar territory. It took me a while to figure it out. Suspicions simmered, but it took digging up my Strava track from the 2013 Petite Trotte à Léon to be certain. Colle Berrio Blanc. This spot. This was the spot. The place where I finally cracked. My teammates and I came around this corner, and the GPS track led me to believe that the route would take us over that horrifying ridgeline to the peak called Berrio Blanc. Actually, what it did was drop down the talus slopes directly off the pass, which wasn't much better (remember those intimidating cliffs mentioned earlier. Yeah.) In the past 10 hours of incredibly difficult trekking, I'd eaten all of a granola bar and a packet of peanut butter, and that was after starting out the "day" (before midnight) quite hungry. I remember doubling over on this pass and vomiting. The vomiting didn't stop until hours later, when there was truly nothing left. But that was only the beginning of my unravelling.

If these blog posts make it seem like I spent much of my time in Chamonix and Courmayeur reconciling past failures in the Alps — well, that was the case. TDG and UTMB are one thing, but PTL is very much another. I've been grasping to find closure from this experience for four years. I acknowledge that it was an optional, recreational activity and the decisions were mine alone. But the trauma was real, and it lingers. It haunts me in dreams. It haunts me when I'm curled up in a sleeping bag along the Poorman River deep in Interior Alaska, feeling subzero air slowly warm around my body, and remembering the times I've truly feared for my life.

What's the shortest way to tell my PTL story? Well, in 2013, I was still fairly new to "running." I had a lot of hubris but no mountain experience. I thought I had mountain experience from youthful excursions in Utah, and difficult off-trail hikes in Juneau and Montana. But no. I knew nothing. Beat raced PTL in 2012 and his pictures were beautiful. The race sounded just like TDG with a bit more spiciness, and I was enthralled. I found a team with two people I barely knew, a Spanish woman and an Italian man, and signed up.

We were not a good team. They're great people, but we didn't mesh at all in this scenario. Our common language was English and they weren't fluent, so communication issues dogged us from the start. I was the sole navigator and it turned out to be a huge responsibility, tracing a rough GPS track over miles of incomprehensible off-trail terrain. Sometimes the track would connect two far-away points straight up a wall, and I had to route-find around it, managing Class 3 and sometimes Class 4 scrambling with almost no experience in route-finding. Ana frequently refused to trust my directions, even when I showed her the GPS, so we had team mutinies that cost us time we did not have. We were pressed against cut-offs from the very start. We never had time to spare, so we didn't sleep. Every kilometer took us much longer than any of us anticipated possible, so we were always low on supplies, food and water. I got water by scraping slush off the tops of snow fields, dirt, bugs and all. I went hungry, until my urine smelled like ammonia from muscle breakdown. The stress of navigation, tricky scrambling, and sleep-deprivation strained my eyes to the point I couldn't focus on anything. I had to wear reading glasses for six months afterward. We trekked through surprisingly remote areas, staying well above treeline for 12 hours at a time. When we finally arrived at the few support stations offered by PTL, they'd kick us out immediately because we were out of time, or they were out of food because earlier teams had cleaned them out. When we left for the 6,000-foot climb crossing from France into Italy, we'd eaten just a few crumbs of bread and finger-scraped jam from empty jars. We had almost no food left in our backpacks. In four days, we'd only laid down for 90 minutes total. For me, only a small fraction of that had been sleep.

Okay, I guess I can't tell a short story about PTL, but I had to set up the background to why I was so far gone at Colle Berrio Blanc. After the vomiting started, my body seemed to shut down in spurts. I couldn't even stand or lean on my trekking poles during these episodes. I had to sit or I'd become so dizzy that I'd lose my balance ... and we were not traversing places where I could afford to lose my balance. I begged my teammates to go on without me, so they could try to make the next cut-off that we were sure to miss if I continued in this manner. They didn't argue ... as I said, they're good people, but we were not a good team. Then I was alone, shivering for no discernible reason as I picked my down down the tundra.  I knew it was over, but it was still far from over.

The memories become more blurry. I was deeply bonked, confused. At one point I looked down at my GPS, and I was no longer on the pre-designated PTL track. I was lost. "I'm lost!" A primal scream pierced through me, and I panicked. My legs started tearing through the woods, a full sprint through spiky brush, and there was nothing my brain could do to stop them. I remember actually speaking, out loud, to myself: "Please stop running. Please, please stop. Please just stop." I don't know how long it took to regain control. For a time I was sleep-walking through grass, and then I dropped onto a paved road, and then I was sprinting full speed through dark road tunnels with no shoulder and seemingly no end. Running through the tunnels was probably my worst decision of all, but I was so addled that the risk hardly registered. Eventually the sun had set and I was sitting on a bus bench in Pré-Saint-Didier, my shoulders limp and shoes tossed angrily into the street. For long minutes or perhaps hours I stared blankly into nothing. My mind, my body, everything was absolutely done. Who knows how long I would have sat there? All night, at least, if PTL volunteers didn't set out in a van, looking for me.

So I suppose the only short way to tell it is that once, back in 2013, I attempted a long mountain traverse that I had absolutely no business attempting, and it was so scary and difficult and stressful that I lost my mind. The losing my mind part is what sticks with me — the understanding that there's a capacity in me to make such poor decisions, to relinquish so much control. I vowed to never go back to PTL. But the truth is I go back there all the time, when I'm frightened or angry. And here, on this high traverse above Val Veny, I went back there for real — unintentionally at first, and then on Friday, a little more intentionally. At times the wind was still and the air was intensely quiet. I knew there was no one around for miles. I stopped frequently to look around: There's the pass where we crossed between two glaciers and slid down 200 feet of ice at dawn. There's the boulder field with the amazing view of Mont Blanc. There's the cliffy traverse with the cables — the place where Beat spent hours huddled in a couloir waiting for daylight so he could find the way.

When I came to the spot where I planned to drop into Val Veny — Mont Fortin — all of these unsettling PTL memories still dominated my thoughts. Mont Fortin holds the ruins of a military fortress from Roman times. The face of the mountain was cast in shadow and covered in a lot more snow than I expected to see. It's a scrambling route with yellow dots to mark the best way through steep rubble and cliffs, but there was too much snow to find any of the markings. Exposed rocks were clearly coated in ice. I've climbed down Mont Fortin before and remember it being a little tricky when dry, so there was no way I was going to attempt it in these conditions. 

My backup plan was to continue down into the valley and up to Col Chavannes, which I hadn't travelled before, but knew it to be part of the Alta Via 2 trekking route, so it would have a trail. On Monday I traversed a boulder field to go all the way to Col de la Seigne, but this detour was already likely to add two hours to my day, and I hoped to be back in Courmayeur before Beat returned from Switzerland (or at least before dark.)

The drop off of Col Chavannes appeared just as steep as Mont Fortin. In fact, it looked like a headwall, almost vertical for the first 50 meters. There was a trail notched into the face, but it had collected at least a foot of windblown snow, pressed against the rock face until it formed a thin cornice blocking the only route down. Because of snow cover, the trail was difficult to discern from the cliff. "This is worse than Mont Fortin," I whimpered, but now I was basically committed. I could go back the way I came, but that would take hours more. Some of the terrain I had climbed wouldn't be much better than this going down.

The wind blew fiercely over the narrow saddle. I put my trekking poles away because they were more harm than good. Carefully I established a mittened grip on an icy handhold and punched a leg into the snow. It sank up to my knees, and the microspikes caught purchase on solid ground. I placed another foot, which hit a small rock, causing me to skitter and quickly throw down another hand to catch my balance. If I slipped sideways, I was going to fall, and then bounce a few times before my body stopped somewhere far below. It was so scary. Scarier than PTL, I thought. "Why do I keep doing this to myself? Why do I keep doing this to myself?"

But after three steps I felt committed, so I continued. Every step took considerable time, minutes even, as I secured my precarious handholds as well as I could, and slowly placed each foot so there weren't any sudden surprises underneath all that snow. The wind blew hard and the temperature was below freezing, judging by the powder quality of the snow. I'd put on my down coat at the pass, and was glad I had. Still, I was frightened and cold. My shoulders quaked. I took a deep breath, and took another step.

After a half hour of horror I'd gotten through the worst of it, but wasn't out of danger quite yet. I pulled out my trekking poles to improve my balance on the still-steep, but less exposed ribbon of talus. As I made my way down tight switchbacks, I came across a plastic baggie full of medicine bottles. I picked it up and considered packing it out. Then again, this was probably important to someone. Better to leave it here in case they came back to look for it later. But who'd been up here? I hadn't seen a soul all day, or any tracks to indicate someone had crossed this pass since the storm.

Below the hairpin, in a similar spot to the medicine bottles, was a pair of track shorts. Odd. Then a Kit Kat bar and scattered bus tickets and receipts. Below that, a tub of hair gel and a spoon. On a fourth switchback, I found a pair of jeans. They'd been wet and now they were frozen stiff, backward and curved up as though someone had crawled out of them here. Really, really odd. The trail made a long traverse and then switchbacked again a hundred meters lower. From this lower vantage point, I looked up and saw a backpack. In a straight line it was at least a hundred meters off the trail. I felt compelled to scramble closer. It was overturned on a steep, boulder-strewn slope where no one would ever take a break. It would make sense, if someone fell on those switchbacks, that they'd bounce a few times over lower switchbacks and come to rest somewhere near here. I half expected to find an unconscious person or a body. But the backpack was abandoned, along with all of its contents.

I continued into Val Veny feeling deeply unsettled. If there had been an incident, at least the person was already rescued. But were they okay? Maybe it was just scattered gear from a fed-up backpacker, possibly caught in the storm when it was really bad yesterday. Maybe they jettisoned stuff to get out fast.

Back in town, reunited with Beat and finally sitting down to the pizza I'd been craving all week, I scrolled through my phone for answers. The search led to news reports of a 25-year-old hiker from Indonesia who'd been plucked off Col Chavannes the previous day. He had severe hypothermia, a body temperature of 24 degrees Celsius (75F!) His temperature had been brought back up to 34C at a hospital, but he remained in a controlled coma. The extent of damage or survivability was unknown.

The news reports said he had a heart attack. The scattered belongings told a somewhat different story, and there were earlier reports that spoke of a fall. It appears to me he either fell down the switchbacks, or stumbled in distress for a short time, spilling things from his backpack before stopping off the trail. He possibly crawled back up the slope and removed his clothing as hypothermia advanced. It's a sad and distressing scenario.

His name is Syahrie Anggara. I look for updates every day, hoping to find news about his recovery. The image of his stuff strewn along the talus is pressed into my memory, the frozen jeans most of all. There is something unsettling about the abandoned belongings of a person — the debris we leave behind.

The things we leave behind aren't unlike the memories that stay with us, holding a meaning that only we understand. I went to this place to seek closure from ghosts, and found the ghosts of a man who'd been through something truly terrible. All we can do is is continue forward, hauling our ever-expanding cache of hopes and fears.


  1. This blended accounting of your recent, as well as former, "flirtations" with mountain ecstasy/disaster, along with the puzzling, heart wrenching saga (cautionary tale?) of the young Indonesian hiker, demonstrates the extremely fine line that exists between between sharing an epic day of conquering "solo" travails over dinner pizza, and being the subject of a sad, sad news item. "There but for the Grace of God goes any driven outdoor enthusiast."
    You do seem to go prepared—which is reassuring to someone who enjoys reading of your adventures and wants them to continue—but I wouldn't want to be in the "shoes" of your parents.
    Live Free and Solo on, for those are the best of times. Just keep the Delorme "Spot" in your pack and fully charged.
    Your photos are as exquisite as your storytelling...

  2. What an unsettling way to end the gorgeous week! If you hear more about him, please let us know. Glad you're safe, and thanks as always for sharing the beauty around you.

  3. Amazing photos. You mean they have cow-piss mud in Europe too?

  4. Epic story. I remember reading about your original ordeal a few years ago.

  5. This reminds me of a very different scenario. There we were, two privileged white females, backpacking from Campo, California on the PCT, on a vacation no less, and seeing the remnants of someone's tragedy--jeans, cowboy boots, an empty jug of water. Someone who probably didn't make it across the desert. Very sobering that the country we traversed with all of our expensive gear was someone's flight for a better life, regardless of how you feel about illegal immigration. I felt a little silly as we hiked along after that.

  6. re: PTL

    From your description here, it sounds like by far the biggest problem was incompatibility with your partners. Had you been with people who could share route-finding and be mutually supportive, you still might have timed-out, but I bet it would have been a mostly positive experience.

    And they may be "good people," but I can't imagine how it was a good choice to leave you alone in the condition you were in for a "chance" to meet a cutoff time. Do you think you would have been able to convince more compatible partners to leave you?

    I wonder if you'd done better by yourself, without the pressure and stress of trying to make group decisions? You seem to do exceptionally well in other tough situations.



Feedback is always appreciated!