Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Mountains, mountains everywhere

After seven years, what more can I say about Chamonix? It’s the birthplace of mountaineering, an idyllic French village surrounded by stunning spires of rock and ice. The trail development is extensive, the adventure opportunities endless. Buildings are centuries old, paths are beaten, even the congestion isn’t new. Much about this place became a cliche decades before I discovered it. There’s a massive trail-running festival at the end of August. My relationship with this event is … to say the least … complicated. Every year since 2012 we’ve returned so Beat can participate in a race that I despise to the core of my being. Yet I trace the lines on the course map longingly, resent that either of us can’t look away, admire Beat for facing the monster. I was going to boycott this year, really ... stay home and languish through late summer in Colorado, just to prove my disapproval. But the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc cyclone sucked me back in, easily.

I suppose this concession isn't surprising. It's the French Alps ... I'd be crazy to pass up any opportunity to visit. And after six finishes in seven starts of the Petite Trotte à Léon, Beat had proven himself capable of making good decisions and surviving such an endeavor — 300 kilometers of brutal and often dangerous terrain, in all weather, all night and day, while the race organization effectively throws darts at you. Of course the PTL is not all terrible, or even mostly terrible. A lot has improved since my foolhardy and ill-fated attempt in 2013 — not the least of which is that there are 14 more hours to complete the course. This is everything — the difference between sleep deprivation so intense that one loses their ability to focus and eventually their mind, and enough rest to simply be mind-numbingly fatigued.  Of course, it's still 24,500 meters (80,000 feet) of gain and then descent on the steepest possible grades, across crumbling knife ridges littered with scree, boulder-choked moraines, grassy slopes so steep that crampons are recommended, glacial traverses late at night with only a bit of tape to distinguish the safe route from a minefield of crevasses, and chossy scrambles with heart-stopping exposure.

Anyone who makes the mistake of asking me about UTMB or PTL will get an earful about how sad I am that I'm such a terrible mountain runner, how much I resent that I haven't been able to make a full loop around Mont Blanc, and how my fermenting frustration and the compounding commercialization of the event has drained away any remaining desire, and I might never again try. It's been four years since I last attempted UTMB. Even a self-supported hike on the TMB route doesn't really appeal, compared to all of the other things one can do in the Alps. But Beat loves PTL, even though he promises "never again" each time. So every year at the end of August, I find myself back in the throng, jostling for shoulder space on the streets of Chamonix with all of the Euro-trailers in their Salomon tights and headbands.

Meanwhile, I compensate for feelings of inadequacy by trying to outdo myself with mountain efforts, racking up as much vert as I can in the day hikes that I squeeze in between contract deadlines and inevitable race support duties. It's gotten to the point where I need to ascend more than 50,000 feet in the seven to nine days we're in town, which isn't possible to do enjoyably unless the weather is perfect and my crewing obligations are minimal enough to allow for sleep and meals somewhere in there. This year, all of the stars aligned and I reached my arbitrary goal — in eight hikes with one actual rest day. 115.8 miles. 50,479 feet of chasing the sky. 45 hours of moving time.

The whole band was back together — Beat's original PTL partner and friend, Daniel, who lives in Denver, as well as Pieter, who returned from Belgium in hopes of avenging their DNF from last year. We arrived Friday evening and thus had all day Saturday to burn. Pieter wanted to climb to La Jonction, the intersection of two glaciers tumbling off of Mont Blanc. The highest point one can travel on land ends in a chaotic jumble of ice at 8,500 feet. Climbing there from the valley nets a clean vertical mile (5,285 feet of gain) all in one five-mile-long grunt. It's an incredible route, skirting the edges of a sharp ridge with magnificent glacier views almost the entire way. There's some slightly technical maneuvers toward the top, but nothing daunting, so it's all of the fun and none of the fear. If anyone asks about a "must do" outing in Chamonix, I recommend this trail. As fresh as we all were, it only took a little over two hours to climb to the ice. Much stoke was shared among Pieter and Beat, who had a whole lot more of this to come.

The guys had registration and race prep all day Sunday, so I took advantage of the free afternoon to hike the Grand Balcon Nord, an alpine traverse high over the valley. This day was the best of the week, in that the air was brilliantly clear, there wasn't a breath of wind, and temperatures were so mild as to be undetectable. Perhaps 60-65 degrees. I felt like I was experiencing some kind of virtual reality — a mountain walking simulator. Even my legs didn't need to do much work — my knee is finally gaining strength and stability, and my breathing has been a non-issue, as my fitness cycle always seems to hit a high point in late August. The best of times. Glad I could take advantage.

I traversed the balcony and climbed to a high point overlooking Mer de Glace. The glacier has lost more than fifty vertical feet of ice since I first visited in 2012, and it's always a humbling sight — to witness something so vast changing so quickly. I hoped to descend to the ice caves to view the latest demarcation line, but the stairs below the gondola were utterly mobbed. It was like waiting in line at Disneyland. So I retreated back to quiet places — a boulder-strewn ridge hundreds of feet above the moraine, picking my way through the rocks and stealing glances at the crumbling gray ghost of what once was.

The 2019 Petite Trotte à Léon started at 8 a.m. Monday. 117 teams from around the world set out from downtown Chamonix under yet more perfect weather. Beat's team has long been "Too Dumb to Quit," but last year they had to leave the course because Pieter injured his hip, and thus quit. This year they were officially registered as "Just Too Dumb," marching across the tracking page under Swiss, Belgian and U.S. flags. Beat, as he often does, claimed debilitating dread before the race and refused to smile for the photo.

This year, there were also at least two all-American teams. That's actually a rare thing in PTL, so I looked forward to tracking them. In one team was Gavin Woody, a strong runner from Washington who alongside David Johnston won the foot division of the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 the year I was also out there on foot, 2018. After 110 kilometers Gavin would quit the PTL, citing reasons I find deeply relatable:

"Now, I’ve done a lot of things that most people probably wouldn’t consider fun, but PTL pushed me over the edge from 'this is exhilarating and I’m so thankful to be in these beautiful mountains' to 'this is really scary and I want to get out of here.' .... There were so many opportunities where, one misstep on the sand or scree would have caused an uncontrollable slide for hundreds of feet. I knew there would be dangerous parts but I actually had no idea what we were getting into."

I carried my own hiking pack and poles to the start so I could hit the trail as soon as the guys took off. I waited for 15 minutes at an intersection I thought they would pass (they didn't) then turned the opposite direction to climb the famous "Vertical K" route, a tightly zig-zagging trail underneath the Planpraz gondola that gains a kilometer in less than five (3,300 feet in 2.6 miles.) Pieter questioned why I would want to slog this loose and ugly trail out of the valley when there are so many nicer ones, but I like the VK because it's efficient, and out in the open so there are views the whole way (at least, when you're not seeing spots because you're aiming to push your Vertical K under an hour this time, which you won't achieve because you're going to push too hard from the start and then dizzily falter on the technical chains-and-steps part of the climb.)

The Vertical K was just a small part of the day I had planned, which was a relative epic of 25-some miles with 12,000 feet of climbing. I wanted to log at least one big day this week, both as early ITI training — to reacquaint myself with difficult walking all day long — as well as a chance to explore new-to-me territory. With the Vertical K wrapped up, I ascended another 2,000 feet to Brevent and then began a long descent into the beautiful and reasonably remote Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges.

I love being back here. It feels like something closer to wilderness, silence broken only by the sound of cascading water echoing from distant walls. The weather on this day was much hotter, already climbing into the mid-80s in town. It was cooler than that above treeline, but the sun felt strong, and my body was beginning to demand more for the miles. I hauled three liters of water up the Vertical K and went through it more quickly than expected, so I made my way to a small stream and scooped water into my filter bottle, sipping it suspiciously. It's funny, because Beat drinks straight out of the streams here, but I tend to trust the wild water in Europe less than the western U.S. There are just so many cows and sheep everywhere. And I'm weird about water.

Eventually I refilled my hydration bladder at a refuge. Now that my pack was full of liquid security, I gulped down several handfuls of peanut butter pretzels from home and felt invincible. I love being up here. The only catch is that there are no easy routes off these high benches. It's a steep gorge that plummets from 7,000 feet to 2,000 feet in almost no distance. I planned to traverse around the mountain toward the town of Servoz.

My route wrapped around Lac de Pormanez, a lovely spot that reminded me of Island Lake in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Then I spent some time a little lost — the map showed a trail, but it wasn't easy to trace, and I mostly made my way around a contour line above a shallow cliff. Every so often I'd come to a boulder scramble with a fixed cable bolted into the rock, and think "well, I must still be on route." When I finally found the trail it was dropping straight off the mountain, just down and down and down, into the traffic noise and heat of the valley. My torso was sticky with sweat, my pants were soaked through, my back was already bleeding where I neglected to lube around the bra line, and my legs threatened to buckle under the relentless tug of gravity. Long descents are hard, but that's the price one must pay for the heights.

To return to Chamonix, I planned to climb back to the heights, over Aiguillette des Houches. The altitude rises from 2,500 feet to 7,400 feet, so it's just another ho-hum vertical mile. This third long climb was reasonably easy, at least compared to the descent. The "trail" was an old jeep road that cut directly up the fall line on a 25-30-percent grade. Mindless stuff, which is my brain's most direct route to mindfulness — steady motion at the upper limit of my fitness, with the fatigue of a long day casting a pleasant shadow over my brain, no mental space for anything beyond the most immediate moments. Each step simply leads to the next, and I find peace here.

The road faded to a rocky trail, the grade became even more relentlessly steep, and in no time I was back on the skyline, looking toward Brevent. I'd passed by there just a few hours earlier, but it seemed so long ago, in that slow but substantial way in which time passes when you're walking all day. The light was growing long. There was no one around.

I sat for a few minutes to tighten my shoelaces and enjoy the view from Aiguillette des Houches — all of the "this is exhilarating and I'm so grateful to be in these beautiful mountains" and none of the "this is really scary and I want to get out of here." I'm grateful for these opportunities to make my own way here. I actually don't think I'll ever participate in one of these races again, as disappointed as I remain in my attempts ... although I'd make space for the Tor des Geants in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose. I lack confidence, though. Watch me make my way down the third big descent of the day, and you'd understand why.

I crossed the broad ridge as evening light began to fade. I'd hoped to make it down before dark, but it didn't seem like that was going to happen.

I passed by groups camped in enviable spots beside Refuge de Bellachat and dropped into an imposing couloir. Supposedly there was a trail all the way to valley, but I couldn't fathom where it would continue without plummeting off some cliff. Just follow the faint zig-zags, and hope for the best.

An unobstructed view toward Mont Blanc drenched in crimson light was my reward for this tricky descent. My knee was finally beginning to feel a bit tender, and the chafing on my back felt like a hot iron underneath my backpack. I rolled my weak left ankle for at least the fifth time that day. There had been a couple of bad rolls earlier, enough to cause me to fall onto the ground, but amazingly I hadn't incurred a sprain. So all in all, the day had gone well. I made my way through the busy streets of Chamonix to a pizza spot on the edge of town, and treated myself to a veggie pie with a liter of San Pellegrino all to myself. 


  1. It's difficult to wrap my brain around the "numbers." Really, it would take an Excel spreadsheet with charts and graphs for me to adequately grasp the "vert" in your days of "play" in those gorgeous mountains, while Beat ascends greater heights over perilous, airy routes...stringing days and nights together, back to back, in all kinds of weather. Super Human comes to mind. Oh, and put some meat on that'll need the aminos :).

  2. Fantastic. My buddy and I were out there following Rory Bosio in the UTMB. My only quarrel with your wonderful piece ... San Pelligrino ... France is the only place where a liter of good wine is cheaper than water so why not Bordeaux?


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