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. 


  1. That's a great shame for Beat and Pieter, I hope it's a quick recovery. But the bigger picture is they failed doing something they'd be doing anyway in some shape or form. I remember what you wrote about the ITI, most were there because their friends were there and it's what they all did, and they loved to do it. In one sense the winner's names wasn't really a question, just a sub-plot.

    1. Pieter is still being treated for his hip pain, so it's good they stopped when they did. I'm sure they're disappointed, but PTL is so incredibly hard ... it's impressive both have finished as many as they have. I do still look at it from afar with bemusement that this is our "thing," but it does have a weird sense of normalcy these days.

  2. I'm sure Beat and Pieter were disappointed not to finish, but just attempting something like that is a huge accomplishment in my book. Seven years of it, just wow.

    Your pictures as always are stunning along with how far you push yourself. Always an inspiration. I so enjoy your writing style.

    1. Thanks Bonnie. I'm far behind on all of my normal habits but look forward to catching up with yours and other adventures in blog-land.

  3. "Old". ha ha ha! Otherwise, I enjoyed all the stunning pictures.

    1. That was meant to be a joke with the comment about being a month older, but I get it ... the 70-somethings will chide the 50-somethings and so on until none of us are old, but some of us are dead. I am definitely a more of a creature of routine than I was in my 20s. It won't be long before I depend on my afternoon nap and herbal tea before bedtime to prevent flatlining.

  4. “A six- or seven-hour hike, that's just tiring. But a ten- or twelve-hour hike? Transcendent.“
    Love that, so very very true! 😄😎
    It’s been too long since I’ve been in the Alps, thanks for bringing me there with your blog.

  5. Great photos and post! Now that you are "old," take if from someone who really is: The hardest thing is the continual downward adjustment...from all day mountain adventures with 15 to 20 thousand feet of gain/loss to, well, something less, and less, and less (sigh). It's important to remember that you will still have occasional long outings, and a few may even approach PBs, but recovery can take a week, with lots of naps :).
    Hang tough. Keep the stopwatch. Keep tallying the stats. It will keep you inspired, as well as a few of your readers.

  6. Thank you for the “longer” post! These pictures are stunning and once again with your writing you have taken me along with you. I am still amazed at the progress you have made since your Continental Divide race/illness and your diagnosis. Even though you have challenges you’re still one of the strongest people I know. You just keep moving forward and upward. Inspiring.

  7. Hoping Pieter is recovering and that his hip injury does not continue to haunt him.

  8. Thanks for the longer post! Those pictures are unbelievably stunning, even for someone who's used to being in the Rockies. I'm glad you got some bluebird days in there.

  9. 300 kilometers of nonsense, brilliant:)


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