Friday, September 08, 2017

Winter is coming

On Friday I woke up to steady rain and a cloud ceiling so low that it enveloped the ski lift chalet. "It's a good day to sleep another six hours," I thought. Although I hadn't planned on meeting Beat at the final PTL life base in Petit St. Bernard, I worried that he wouldn't have enough dry clothing for the weather, which was forecast to feature this and worse for three days. Also, they'd been so happy about the sandwiches I made yesterday that it seemed crucial to bring more. So I packed up every piece of warm clothing in the house and headed through the tunnel once more. 

Courmayeur markets itself as the "sunny side" of Mont Blanc. As someone who only visits in September, I've been a skeptic, but incredibly I emerged from the 11-kilometer tunnel to blazingly bright skies and temperatures that were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than Chamonix. In all of my visits to this region, I've never been to Petit St. Bernard, which sits on the French-Italian border. Driving up from Courmayeur brought back a little PTL PTSD, as I wound through all of the dark, narrow, and long tunnels that I sprinted through when I was lost and severely addled during 2013's PTL. It's a long story. I haven't been back up here since, but it continues to be an unsettling reminder of my capacity for bad decisions.

 Col du Petit St. Bernard is an incredible place, though, worth climbing through the bad memories. Topping out at 2,200 meters, the pass features a six-story stone hospice, or hostel, looming directly over the road. According to Internet sources, this hospice was founded in 1049 (!) and was built on top of ruins from Roman temple to Jupiter. The hospice became famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations. (And I always believed the caricature of a St. Bernard with a little barrel of brandy strapped to its neck was a Swiss thing.) The original building was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt only recently.

Beat and Pieter were fairly close according to the tracker, and based on a difficult-to-decipher map on my phone, I wandered up a route where I'd believed they'd come in. Of course I was completely wrong. But it was a happy mistake, taking me back over the border into sunny Italy, while thick clouds billowed along the ridge in France.

I climbed to a point at 2,700 meters that was directly on the border. At first I wondered if I could loop back to the hostel, but the French side was a mean place of cliffs and talus and no direct line that I could discern. So I turned around.

Ah well. Things are just better in Italy, you know?

Although I was a bit late getting back, I did catch up with Beat and Pieter. I wanted to post this photo because its a typical scene in the race — fumbling with first aid supplies in the drop bag room. It smells terribly of wet shoes because it's right next to the room with the shoe dryer, and the contents of bags have been disgorged everywhere until it's almost certain you'll leave something important behind. Good fun, you know?

The guys told me they wanted to sleep for three hours, which gave me exactly enough time to buy them sandwiches at the bar up the road and climb another mountain, if I hurried. Lancebranlette is just shy of 3,000 meters high, also standing right on the border. It's an intimidatingly sheer cliff when viewed from the Italian side, but the French side offers a friendly grassy slope that only demands you climb 2,500 feet in two miles. Easy peasy. I decided to hike before visiting the bar, which closed at 6 p.m., so I only had two hours to do it. Since descending is the slow part for me, I had to make it to the top in an hour or less. Could I do it? I could try!

My main obstacle was this little ibex, who galloped toward me as I trudged up the trail. She stood facing me near a switchback with a steep drop-off at the curve, and I wondered if this might be one of those cases of territorial maneuvering, like that mountain goat in Washington who bucked a man off a cliff. I admit to slowing my already sedate pace to "sneak" past her.

Well, I suppose she looked friendly enough.

On the summit ridge, the brisk breeze accelerated to become a shocking wind. The temperature at the hostel was 5C — likely close to freezing here, and the wind was gusting 25-30mph. I wasn't quite prepared for the intense windchill, and scrambled to pull on a fleece buff and mittens.

The summit of Lancebranlette. It took me 1:04 to reach the top. If I was less prone to vertigo, I could have taken a photo looking down these cliffs and hundreds of feet of sheer drop-off. This was as close to the edge as I could manage before my hands began to tremble and I felt light-headed.

A little lower on the ridge, I managed to peak around a ledge for a view of Mont Blanc.

Looking down at Ancien Hospice du Petit Saint-Bernard. Incredible location. 

As Beat and Pieter prepared to leave, I tried to sell them as much warm clothing as I could. Beat rejected the puffy jacket but did take the fleece buff that I wore on Lancebranlette. "At least put on some tights," I complained. "It feels like Alaska out there, no exaggeration. There's this frigid wind, and it's getting stronger. It's really, really, cold." This suggestion was rejected as well. I suppose you find your rhythms and stick with what worked before, but damn. I'd been sitting outside for 40 minutes and was wearing three layers of coats and two hats.

With that, Beat and Pieter headed off into the sunset, facing another long and cold night on high, crumbling ridges.

Saturday morning in Chamonix was just as rainy as Friday, and quite a bit colder. I decided to get my steps in by climbing Mont Joly and cheering for Beat and Pieter at the top. It was a bland, gray march through fog and drizzling rain. The briefest sucker hole opened shortly after I reached the ridge. This bolstered my mood. I was certain the storm was clearing, as the forecast had predicted would happen sometime Saturday afternoon.

Instead, the clouds moved back in, bringing more intense winter wind and horizontal snow flurries. I was climbing with the wind at my back and didn't even realize how bad it was, but rime clung to grass and rocks, and ice crystals formed on mittens that were wet from scrambling. Rime ice forms when vapor from fog freezes to surfaces; I remember reading somewhere that it has to be at least as cold as -5C for this to happen. I wouldn't doubt that the temperature was a number of degrees below freezing, before windchill. I was quite wet from the sweaty climb and rain, so the down coat that I brought for the purpose of waiting did little to block the chill. It only took two minutes to feel frozen to the core. By the time I decided it was madness to wait for Beat up here, I felt desperately cold.

The Italian PTL team who took my summit photo were flabbergasted that a hiker had come up here of her own free will.

"She says okay for us because we are in the race, we must," the man translated his partner's objections. "For you, ahhh, stupid."

Of course the descent was directly into the wind, with wet mittens and shoes. Within minutes my hands and feet were deeply chilled blocks of meat. To top it off, the fog had become so thick that everything more than five feet away was an opaque sheet of gray. I found it difficult to stick to the ridge. I kept dropping much too far to the left — better than the right, which was a sheer cliff. The wind and fog made everything seem dangerously intense, so when I was even a little bit "lost," I had to fight the urge to panic. Both hands and feet were entirely numb. I probably should have put the down coat back on, but it seemed better to keep it dry in case I rolled my ankle and needed to crawl downhill.

As I crab-walked on my ice-block appendages down the final scrambly section to a ski lift, I was passed by two teenagers wearing shorts, cotton hoodies, and skate shoes. I hadn't seen them on the way up and couldn't discern where they came from, but they were making impressive haste downhill.

After a few thousand feet of descent, the epic nature of the ridge was almost forgotten. It was only mildly drizzling again, my mittens and hat were off, my coat unzipped, and I was creeping down 30-percent grades on my heels while eating crackers from a little box. In the evening I finally got together with friends for dinner and a semi-fancy French restaurant (I had the Tartiflette. Not as good as Mormon funeral potatoes, honestly.) It was good timing to head over to the finish and watch mid-pack UTMB runners sprint under the arch amid the occasional lumbering PTL team. Beat and Pieter finished just before 1 a.m. Sunday, after a reroute took them around the final high pass (for which I was extremely grateful, given its technical nature and the icy conditions.) They were the 20th team out of 61 finishers and 100-something starters. Of course, because of the reroute, there was a shake-up of rankings near the end. That's one of the reasons PTL doesn't rank finishers. It's not a race. It's a "little trot."

Beat almost sounded annoyed when he heard there was more than a 50-percent finisher rate this year. "PTL is getting too easy," he said.

I'm proud of Beat for surviving this thing yet again, although I can sense it really may be time to move on. On Sunday I wanted to get in one last good climb in Chamonix before we left, possibly for a long while. Time was limited so I returned to La Jonction, the glacier viewpoint that we climbed nine days earlier.

This day had the best weather of the week — clear skies and cool temperatures, in the high 40s when I left in the late morning. It was incredible to see these dramatic mountains dusted with new snow.

The time limit compelled me to stop at the saddle, about 300 meters below the overlook. Conditions above did not look great, though, with wet snow and ice for the mild scrambling in this section. I debated whether I would have gone for it if I had the time, I decided that I probably would have.

In trying to climb at least 5,000 feet every day, this was the only day I failed — with 4,900 feet. My nine days in Chamonix were no PTL, but I did log 98 miles with 50,503 feet of climbing — a decent effort requiring four to nine hours of hiking each day. It's funny, because as soon as I finally started to sleep through the night, I didn't feel tired at all. There was perhaps some drag to my legs, but for the most part I improved each day. For example, on this final day I snagged the Strava women's course record for "Chemin du Glacier Climb." Hey, it's a stout segment, 2,386 feet in 2.5 miles. I felt good.

In the back of my mind I'm already in training again, for the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational. My hope is to walk the 350 miles to McGrath one more time, to re-up my ever-aging experience levels and ponder whether I have what it takes for what I consider the ultimate challenge (and isn't there always another ultimate challenge?) — walking the Southern Route to Nome. Of course I could change my mind about all of it and return to the bike or move on completely. But I relish the idea of the thousand-mile sled-drag. There is something deeply primal and satisfying about travel on foot — entirely dependent on your body for every inch of forward motion, naturally ponderous, and a fantastic vehicle for reflection.

The fact I'm thinking about it at all, however, is a sign that I really do feel renewed confidence. People I haven't seen in a year tell me I "look" better than I did last year, which of course always spurs the silent reaction "what the hell does that mean? I looked like crap last year?" But I feel better. I'm excited. This time, I hope to make it stick.

After all, winter is coming. 


  1. Great post, especially the ending! How you feel is reflected in your writing without you even saying anything

  2. Thanks for sharing yet another gorgeous experience! Stunning


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