Saturday, September 15, 2018

Chamonix, after

After "only" 115 kilometers with 10,000 meters of climbing in the PTL, both Beat and Pieter decided they could use a little rest and relaxation in our quaint little village chalet. I was grateful that we didn't need to leave the Chamonix Valley right away. Beat still planned to start the Swiss Peaks 360 on Sept. 2, which meant not much rest for him, but three more days of hiking for me. Yay! 

Pieter and Beat lounged around the chalet and Beat enjoyed the company of the neighborhood cat. We never figured out the name/sex of this cat or who he/she belonged to, but the cat showed up at the window at regular intervals in the morning and evening, almost on schedule. He/she seemed completely uninterested in the kitty treats we purchased, but loved to bask in attention.  

Rain persisted through Wednesday night, and Thursday brought a low cloud ceiling and light drizzling rain. It seemed a dull day for hiking, but no opportunity should be wasted. Beat and Pieter recommended I follow this year's PTL course to the Albert Premier hut. The high mountain refuge is part of the famous Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, but PTL shirked the popular trail in favor of an obscure track along a sharp ridge that gains most of the necessary 5,000 feet of altitude in less than three miles. Pieter called it "efficient."

The trail proved even sketchier than I anticipated — although I really should know PTL better by now. Mist wafted through the fog as I clung to wet rocks and thin branches, skooching along ledges slicked by greasy mud. There were spots where slipping could have been catastrophic, and whether or not my feet would stick to the muddy ground was always in question. Usually I am frightened when footing is bad and exposure is high, but on this morning my mood skewed more insolent. "You really should know PTL better by now."

As I cleared treeline and found better traction on a rocky spine, the fog began to thin. Soon I rose into something I definitely wasn't expecting — another bluebird day. Hazy views of a gray moraine sharpened to jagged blue ice on Glacier du Tour, crowned by pretty peaks like Grand Fourche.

Okay, Beat was right. This was an awesome route.

I suffer from extreme shyness when I'm traveling internationally, to the point where I will go out of my way to avoid public spaces where I might have to talk to someone. It's unfortunate, I know. Not only does it mean I don't meet new and potentially interesting people, but it also means most of my meals are a variation of bread, cheese, tuna, raw vegetables, and fruit that I purchased one time at a grocery store. I walked past the Albert Premier refuge and marveled at this huge modern building (140 beds, built in 1959) built atop a rugged ledge beside the lip of a glacier, thousands of feet above the nearest road, with any amenity one could hope for in a hotel-restaurant ... and kept walking. I rounded a saddle and continued along the moraine beneath Aiguille du Tour, where I enjoyed my apples and cheese as a cold wind carried the billowing fog closer. Brief lulls amplified an expansive silence. This was no place for a human, this desolate land of rock and ice. There may not be much wilderness in Europe, but you don't have to walk far beyond the fingers of civilization to feel infinitesimal.

At 9,000 feet, it was too cold to sit for long. Amid my revelry in solitude and the raw indifference of nature, I noticed a long string of people making their way across the Tour glacier. There must have been at least 20 in the group, moving in an evenly spaced single-file row over a steep section of ice. I speculated that they were a group of novices learning glacier travel by following a guide — and what spectacular trust this would take on such intimidating terrain. My main mental barrier to learning new things is that I don't trust anyone to make good choices, least of all myself.

For the return, I opted to follow the main trail. Even still, I didn't see that many hikers. Just this group on the ridge, then three more groups heading up with big backpacks, helmets, axes and ropes. Later I learned that the cable car, which was running when I left for my hike, had shut down. I know this because I stopped and asked about purchasing a ride down the hill (so lazy, I know, but I was proud of myself for approaching someone and talking to them.) The guy seemed extremely apologetic — not the usual attitude I see in France. I guessed he'd already told a number of disappointed tourists that they were going to have to human-power themselves down the mountain.

The weather was beginning to clear at lower altitudes, and I still had extra time on my schedule thanks to a lightning-fast descent on real trail, so I opted to make a side trip across the Swiss border via Col de Balme and the Croix de Fer. Grassy exposure! It was a bit of excitement, and then it was time to walk my own butt down the mountain.

By Friday morning, the rain had settled in at all altitudes, just in time for the start of UTMB (every year!) I lounged around with Beat and Pieter, but by late morning decided it would be best to get some steps in. Why? I don't even know. I tend to become a bit manic here in the Alps, and even drizzly, gray days are not to be wasted. PTL had passed right through Les Tines, so I followed the GPS track blindly up the nearest mountain. The route worked its way from a steep trail to a faint path along rocky outcroppings with waterfalls, until I was clinging to ladders and precarious cables strung along a narrow ledge slicked with mud. Oh, PTL, I really should know you better by now.

Somewhere along the cliffs, my GPS batteries died. After I replaced them, the GPS took a full hour to find satellite signal again. Since I no longer knew where the PTL route went, and didn't really care, I veered onto a faint cat track. Hard rain pelted my coat as I crawled up a grassy slope so steep that at times I was literally on my knuckles and knees. Weirdly, I was really enjoying myself. There's something so eerie about a ski area in the summer, shrouded by fog, with lift chairs creaking in the wind. Chamonix, after the apocalypse. I cued up a Modest Mouse album — The Moon and  Antarctica — and indulged in exquisite melancholy.

So long to this cold, cold part of the world.
So long to this bone-bleached part of the world.

After my GPS came back online, I chose to descend something that looked like a road on the map, but was merely a cat track that plummeted off the mountain with frequent 50-percent grades and gravel so loose and muddy that I had to walk backward and dig in with my knuckles to prevent butt-sliding (which would have ripped apart my pants and most of the skin on my backside.) Ugh. I should have stuck with the PTL cable luge, although there was likely at least one easier way off this mountain. Well, at least I was back in time to meet up with British friends who now live in Les Houches. We gathered at their favorite pub to watch 2,500 UTMB runners pass, eight kilometers into the race. I was enjoying my drink and too lazy to join the fray, so this is the best photo I got — Jim Walmsley blasting through the streets about ten seconds in front of the pack. Most people who read my blog probably followed UTMB to some degree, so you know what happened. Most of the top runners — and all of the U.S. favorites — gradually imploded in both predictable and odd ways, until the guy who was disqualified from Hardrock won. (Blah blah blah.) It was an exciting race to be sure, but I admit to caring less about UTMB as years go by. I was avidly into this race when we first came to Chamonix six years ago, but now I have doubts I'll ever go back myself. No, my failure to complete a loop around Mont Blanc will likely outlive me. And that's okay.

Okay, maybe I still care a little about UTMB. On Saturday afternoon I set out toward Flégère with some hope of spectating the leaders as they blasted down their final descent. I missed seeing Xavier but did manage to catch two through four. This guy is Norwegian runner Hallvard Schjølberg, who went on to finish fourth. Go underdogs!

After passing the aid station, I continued into thickening fog toward L'Index, for no other reason than a desire to rack up some vert and close out a big week. For the Sunday to Saturday seven-day stretch, I ended up with 36,383 feet in 70.6 miles, which on paper closely shadows but in reality doesn't even compare to Beat's 34,500 feet in 71.5 miles of much more difficult terrain that he did in about 50 hours of PTL. In writing these blogs two weeks later, one issue I forgot to mention was the shin I bashed on my birthday, which continued to bother me throughout the week. I wrote it off as a deep bruise until Saturday, when it occurred to me that I might have actually fractured the bone in a minor / stress-fracture sort of way. This possibility gnawed at me throughout the night — how could I have been so stubborn to keep hiking on it? And even worse, what if I can no longer hike the rest of the time we're in Europe? Since Swiss Peaks 360 started the following day, I opted not to confess my fears to Beat. But I did decided that if my shin continued to hurt in this way in Switzerland, I'd take it easy, for real this time. 
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Before the end of an era

Hello blog! I'm back. I didn't mean to drift away for three weeks. It's just that you're no longer an entrenched habit. You're a sort of a sidebar, an extraneous detail to be ignored when I can no longer focus. I've been traveling and busy with the typical traveling busyness, but that's not really an explanation for the way my thoughts fragmented until it took all of my remaining mental energy to piece together a few sentences for Beat's race updates on Facebook. 

It's been more than a little weird, to be honest — this bout of "brain fog." Perhaps I'm too much a creature of routine, dependent on my own odd but consistent patterns to function. Perhaps this is because I'm old (see previous birthday post, and now I'm nearly a month older.) Perhaps it's a reoccurring symptom of my mostly controlled but certainly not cured autoimmune disease. Perhaps it's classic fatigue, although hiking has been my only (temporary) cure for feeling generally confused, anxious, and "out of sorts." Maybe there are no reasons, and it doesn't matter. I've returned to my blog to do what I always do here, which is sort through all of my fragments and save the shinier pieces.

So we'll take it back to Aug. 26, a couple of days after Beat and I arrived in Europe for yet another round of ridiculous 200-mile mountain races — this year, the Petite Trotte à Léon and the Swiss Peaks 360. I speculate about the effects of being thrown off my routine, but have to admit after seven years, late-summer trips to the Alps are now part of the routine. Whether racing or simply crewing, these events are beautiful, overwhelming and exhausting ... and perhaps we're both too comfortable with the effects? For this reason, I tried my hardest to talk Beat out of racing this year. Although I'll never complain about an opportunity to visit this place, I thought a different sort of adventure could do us both some good. But his habits are the toughest to break. So we returned to Chamonix for the last week of August, although he vowed that this year would be the last for such racing (for at least a while.) And I vowed that if he was insincere (which I suspect), I will say home with new-to-me Rocky Mountains next summer.

But I do love being in the Alps. With only a few work obligations and fairly minimal support duties for PTL, I'd at least have a lot of time to hike. As Beat and Pieter arranged and rearranged their race gear on Sunday, I set out from our small rental chalet in Les Tines toward Mer de Glace. Similar to most bodies of ice in the world, this glacier has shrunk substantially in just the six years I've known it. The visual change was disheartening enough that I didn't feel like descending hundreds of feet along a staircase that marks the glacier's dramatic retreat in mere decades, so I continued uphill toward a viewpoint at Le Signal Forbes.

A cog railway deposits hundreds of tourists not far from these rocky paths, and it often becomes a humorous scene of folks in open-toed sandals and jeans clinging precipitously to edges. As usual, I had a deadline and wanted to cover as much ground as I could manage before it was time to head down, so at first I felt annoyed that I had to shoulder my way around all of these people. But as I watched them waver and grapple for handholds, I felt a kind of rapport. I never really belonged on the ultra trail among the fit athletes in streamlined Salomon gear, dancing over boulders as though they were tiny cobbles on a street. No, I belong with the lumbering hoards, battling our best instincts to reach a beautiful place.

The calm before the race, looking toward Mont Blanc from Les Tines at sunset. It looked like we would see beautiful weather for a few days at least.

Team "Too Dumb to Quit," Beat and Pieter, standing at the starting line of the 2018 Petite Trotte à Léon in downtown Chamonix. Beat had finished six PTLs in six years, with his Belgian friend Pieter as a partner since 2015. Each year, PTL follows a varying series of trails around Mont Blanc for 180 or so miles with up to 90,000 feet of climbing. It's not the distance or climbing that makes it a difficult endeavor, but the technical terrain — everything from chossy gullies to endless boulder moraines to unnervingly steep grassy slopes to exposed scrambling along ridges. PTL can be succinctly described as "300 kilometers of nonsense." The difficulty is compounded by fatigue, unavoidable weather changes and sleep deprivation, and the potential danger of PTL has led to my open opposition of Beat's participation since I attempted this nonsense (and realized what it really requires) in 2013. Of course, this is a battle I lose every year. So Monday morning began Beat's seventh attempt. Even he seemed less than enthused.

After the race started, I walked up the street to the start of one of my favorite climbs out of Chamonix, the "Vertical Kilometer." This tightly-switchbacking singletrack up a ski slope gains a thousand meters in about three kilometers — 3,000 feet in 1.75 miles — for a cool average grade of 35 percent. By the final hundred meters, you're clinging to cables along a narrow spine, but you're so blasted you don't even notice the exposure. My goal, as usual, was hike fast without blowing all of my fuses. I have yet to break an hour, but enjoy the challenge of trying and then mildly berating myself when my watch says 1:06. For the last 20 minutes I closely shadowed a woman who was clearly a runner (my own identity here in the Alps is more subtle, wearing baggy hiking pants and huge backpack.) I never caught her, and I think she was pleased she held me off. "That was the worst thing I've ever done," she gasped in a British accent as we crested the final pitch, which was a staircase to the cable car.

"Steep one, isn't it?" I replied. She did a little summit dance there on the platform of Planpraz, and I pumped my fist in response. But I didn't stop walking, because I'd already formulated an ambitious plan for the day amid the endorphins, and I had ground to cover.

I continued another 2,000 feet up to Brevent, then turned right to follow the broad ridge for a relaxing and scenic stroll on a most spectacular day.

Toward lunch time, I arrived at what may be my favorite place yet near Chamonix, the Aiguillette des Houches. With 360 degrees of incredible vistas and nice grassy spots to have a picnic, I settled in to check my phone for Beat's position and munch on ... let's see, what made it into my backpack today? An apple, one of those small containers of Nutella that traveled here from the World Market in Boulder, a Snickers Bar from Pieter's work (Mars Belgium.) Actually I didn't have a lot of food on me, but I was still jet-lagged so my appetite was skewed and I wasn't that hungry anyway.

Instead I just sat and enjoyed the views — looking north toward the nature reserve and the Ayères cliffs.

And west toward the village of Servoz. To the south of course was Mont Blanc, with Brevent already an impressive distance to the east. Starting down, I eyed the spot directly across the valley in front of me, a narrow ridge between the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers called "La Jonction." From my perch, it looked so close — almost as though I could reach out and pull myself across. Of course, actually reaching this spot meant descending all of the 5,000 feet I'd climbed and then regaining it on the other side of the valley. It was a ridiculous notion, but I was operating on fear of scarcity — how many bluebird days would I see here, when I had a whole afternoon more or less free?

Of course, it takes a long damn time to descend a vertical mile, and I became disoriented on a maze trails I still remembered from 2012's UTMB, then had to regain a bunch of altitude to correct my position. By the time I returned to Les Bossons, I'd consumed all of my aforementioned lunch items, as well as half of a Payday bar I'd unearthed from the bottom of my pack. I already had to filter water from a small spring, and collected more from a fountain in town. I was exhausted. The car was less than a mile away. Still, the glaciers loomed overhead, calling to me. Happy memories of my birthday adventure, which was a week earlier, lured me farther. A six- or seven-hour hike, that's just tiring. But a ten- or twelve-hour hike? Transcendent.

Up, up, up. Actually, it takes a long damn time to climb 5,000 more feet. The half of a Payday bar did not last long, but I resolved not to eat the other half until I turned around, so I'd have enough glucose to not pass out on my way down the mountain. Still, I was quite bonked, but in that dazed, fluffy way that feels more ethereal than painful. Hoards of people passed on their way down the mountain, and then there was no one. It was blissfully quiet, with traffic from the valley humming like a far-away song — one that promised pizza.

The light began to deepen and I finally looked at my watch. 7 p.m. When was sunset? Just two hours until it would be quite dark. Of all of the items in my large pack, a nice headlamp was not one of them. All I had was my emergency light that throws a dim beam — not great for the kind of steep, loose, and rooty descending that this trail contains. Hiking after dark with poor visibility when I was already a bit dizzy seemed a bad idea, so reluctantly I started down from the saddle about 600 feet below La Jonction. I still ended up with 11,000 feet of climbing in 23 miles. And I finally had an excuse to gobble the rest of my Payday bar, which made me feel like I could fly ... for about 20 minutes. 5,000 feet is a long damn way to trudge downhill with low blood sugar.

On Tuesday morning I went grocery shopping in Argentiere and ended up hiking from there toward a prominent point called Bec de Lachat. A wide, smooth trail became tightly switchbacking singletrack, which quickly faded to a brushy game trail that shot straight up the mountain on a 45 percent grade.

The "top" revealed a long ridge that kept climbing, but it was the kind of grassy choss that I do not love, and would soon become narrow enough to tip my exposure comfort scale. So I called Bec de Lachat good, although it seemed a "short" hike at just seven miles round trip with 4,000 feet of climbing.

Nice views toward the Glacier d'Argentiere

And Glacier du Tour

Looking toward Mont Buet and that huge dam that I think is in Switzerland.

Amid the crush of Alaska time zone deadlines, I was up all night on Tuesday, but still wandered out the door reasonably early Wednesday to trudge up to Flégère. This was prompted by a sense of urgency, as there were two portents of doom on the horizon. First was the weather forecast, which promised an end to the string of bluebird days, bringing cold and rain. Second, Beat's recent voice mail informed me that Pieter had taken a bad step on a loose descent and had sharp pain in his hip that wasn't improving. They'd gone through the night in an effort to gut it out, and by morning had taken on an extremely difficult via ferrata route to a high alpine rifugio in Val Veny, Italy. They were going to attempt it, but Beat wasn't optimistic they'd continue beyond there. PTL is a team event, and with a single partner, both must continue in order for either to stay in the race. If Pieter had to drop, Beat would as well.

Clouds moved in with astonishing quickness. When I left the chalet at 9:30 a.m., skies were still crystal blue, and by 11 a.m., stinging rain pelted my face. Beat's call came in with the rain. Team Too Dumb to Quit had finally smartened up. After seven years, it seemed like the end of an era. Selfishly I was not too disappointed, because even though it meant cutting my wet hike short and driving through the tunnel into Italy, Beat's safe return from PTL meant a lot less fretting for me. I was glad I binged on mountains in the first four days, because I figured this visit to Chamonix would probably be cut short as well.