Friday, September 06, 2019

So much vert available

By Tuesday morning, the guys were already nearing the first life base at the 80K mark of PTL in Morgex, Italy. I was surprised to see them there that early ... PTL usually moves forward much more slowly than two miles per hour. But the night had gone well. Beat was gracious enough to text me at 7 a.m. to say that even though they were earlier than expected, I didn't need to come out. I'd already used a "get out of crewing free" card because I'm always neck-deep in deadlines by Tuesday afternoon, and often have to work throughout the night in this time zone.

But the also-stated truth was that I didn't want to crew Beat at PTL. It's pointless. I spend 54 Euros to drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy. This drive usually takes at least 90 minutes one way because of heavy traffic, and I've waited in the tunnel line for three hours in the past. Then I wait in the rental car for them to arrive. It's usually raining. I wave to them at the doorway of the life base, where I am not allowed inside, even to chat as they eat their dinner. They go to sleep for a few hours, and I sit in the car some more, occasionally stepping outside to walk through the rain for 10-20 minutes until I find some semblance of a public toilet, which I usually don't, so I walk for 10 more minutes far enough into the woods to be inconspicuous. (Okay, I do know where the public toilet is in Morgex.) They wake up, I give Beat and kiss, then stand outside in the rain some more while they pack up inside. Then it's one more kiss and they leave. Being a crewperson at PTL feels like being some kind of parasite, a scourge of U.S. trail-running culture. The French race organization makes it abundantly clear that I am not welcome. But, Beat likes me to bring him sandwiches, so I vowed to meet him at the second life base in Fully, Switzerland. Just please don't make me come to Morgex.

So I had all of Tuesday morning to use for my own selfish means, which I chose to spend near the French village of Vallorcine, exploring a segment of the PTL course. By now I've made it clear how much I dislike PTL and how strongly I feel that their often-ridiculous route choices are not for me ... and yet I'm plagued with curiosity. This segment passed by Lac d'Emossen, an enormous dam just across the border in Switzlerland, which I've long wanted to visit. I'd be traveling the route opposite of PTL, and the first racers wouldn't reach it for a couple more days. The trail was all but abandoned on this slightly hazy but still beautiful morning.

All but abandoned except for one other person — a French woman, early- to mid-20s, wearing nice trail-running shoes, a tank top and short shorts, and carrying only a small shoulder sack that seemed to be entirely filled with one 1.5-liter bottle of water and her phone. She passed me early, but for the entire climb I'd end up shadowing her in a way that annoyed me — she was lighter and faster, bounding up the trail ahead, but then she'd stop every ten minutes to look at her phone until I'd almost caught back up. Perhaps she was navigating by phone — can't begrudge her that. But I just wanted her to get farther ahead, and resented this game of turtle-and-hare that we were playing. Her motions cast a shadow on my lumbering, steady hiking style — large backpack and baggy pants, hunched over the steep pitches, click-clacking poles to support my 40-year-old knees and failing ankles (Yup, I already have a complex about being 40.)

Our game became more interesting on the final approach to Col de la Terrasse, as the route veered directly up a scree slope that tipped toward 50 percent grades. The scree was loose, a terrible slip-n-slide of moon dust and sharp pebbles, but there was a zig-zagging trail of sorts that offered a little more traction. The young woman missed the trail and was battling the scree on all fours, raining down rocks as she scrambled. In my old-woman wisdom, I stuck close to the track displayed on my old-school GPS (I made my own track based on the Strava heat map, as I do not trust PTL's tracks to properly trace the route.) I had an easier time, but felt rattled by the loose and steep terrain. I really hoped the trail would "go" beyond the pass, as I strongly didn't want to downclimb this route that everyone in PTL would downclimb. The young woman and I reached the final headwall at the same time. She seemed frazzled. The headwall presented a maze of a rock scramble above cliffs. Yellow dots marked what was likely the only viable route. Here my GPS was less helpful, and the young woman proved more adept at finding the hidden dots. I followed her closely, now grateful for her presence. We reached the col together, both grinning widely. I felt like we'd gained an understanding

To my delight, the Swiss side of Col de la Terrasse wasn't steep or loose at all — just a gently sloping rock bench dotted with snowfields and tarns. The route was pleasant tundra travel, easy enough to afford looking up at the incredible views of Mont Buet and summits along the French-Swiss border. Since we were in Switzerland now, the route was marked with red dots.

I started downhill before the young woman, but she quickly appeared behind me, seemingly eager to follow. We'd exchanged a few words at the pass, enough to realize that neither of us spoke much of the other's language, so I didn't know her plans. Either I was better at following the Swiss markers, or a better downhiller — both of these reasons seem implausible — but she frequently lost ground on me. Feeling some obligation for our unspoken partnership, I occasionally stopped and waited, taking photos and looking at my phone. Soon we reached the beaten path above the upper lake, where she took off running at an enviable pace.

For a while, the path was nicely straightforward — clean singletrack, a road, an enormous dam (they don't often let you just walk across dams in the U.S. Such fun.) From here the PTL route continued into Switzerland, but I needed to make my way back to France, so I'd set a track that looked fine on the map.

It was not fine. Okay, it wasn't dire, but I struggled. The route tumbled down a gully strewn with all sizes of loose boulders. Along the way there were metal signs bolted to the walls lining the stream bed. These signs appeared often enough that I finally used Google Translate to figure out their message. The warning: Water levels could change at any time, even in good weather. Seek high ground if necessary. All around me were cliffs. High ground? I looked up at the dam, looming directly overhead. I fantasized about a sudden dam burst, the white wall of water blasting toward me, the end that would come so quickly. Meanwhile, all I could do was slowly pick my way down the boulders and scree, swearing loudly when I rolled my weak ankle yet again. I was amazed the joint had held it together after so many of these wrenching motions, and breathed a silent prayer to the universe that it would hold on a bit longer so I could escape the death gully. Grumble, grumble. But PTL didn't do this to me. I did this to myself.

Col de la Terrasse was another tough outing. I felt exhausted even before I launched into a work day that lasted until 6:30 a.m. All through the night, I watched Beat's tracker move slowly across a technical ridge in Italy, ominously marked in black on the map. So I was exhausted but grateful when he called at 8:30 Wednesday morning, reporting that all was okay. Unable to sleep anymore, I tried to get some more work done, but my mind was fuzzy. I often come on these trips with ambitions that turn out to be laughable, but I'd genuinely planned to take a "rest day" on Wednesday and chip away at a writing project. Ha. Easier, I eventually decided, to just go for a hike.

The sky was moody and threatening rain, and it was fairly late by the time I got out, after 3 p.m. So I picked a route that was close by and not too demanding — although it still had 4,000 feet of climbing. Mont Lachet above Les Houches.

I made my way up the marked course for UTMB, and reflected on my race in 2015. The memories came flooding back — the unbroken line of humans that stalled at every switchback here, the oppressive heat, sticky sweat on my back, feeling disconcertingly nauseated from the start. Gawd, I had a horrible race at UTMB. I never felt good, I had terrible chafing, I chased cutoffs the entire time, even before my breathing clamped down. Just forcing air into my lungs became more laborious than climbing; I had to stop to do so — Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Here, on the climb to Bellevue amid a lovely evening in 2019, found myself reliving it all — the dizziness, the desperation, the general malaise and hopelessness that comes with low blood oxygen, and also the crushing disappointment — both for losing the race, and a deeper lament about losing my health. August 2015 was the period when I realized that my breathing issues weren't a simple matter of recovery from pneumonia, but something more lasting. Lost health became my truth the moment the race marshal in La Fouly wordlessly and rather cruelly cut my bib in half, because I missed the cutoff. It's funny, or perhaps not so funny, how frequently I run through these past worst-of-times in my head while I'm visiting these mountains, years later, while I'm supposedly having a fun outing in a beautiful place. Why do I keep coming back here? There's a whole lot to unpack, in that question.

The answer partially lies in the undulation of depths and heights, and the ways one necessarily accompanies the other. I may be an awkward, stumbling human, but my heart remains unwilling to follow the comfortable path, to stick to even ground.

So on Thursday I was up again early in the morning, hoping to beat the growing influx of UTMB traffic on my way to Beat's second PTL life base in Switzerland. I didn't expect him to arrive until sometime that evening, which gave me plenty of time for another long day of vert. From the low-lying Rhone River Valley where the PTL crossed through Fully, the route ascended a dizzying 8,000 feet in a mere five miles, topping out on a prominent peak called Grand Chavalard. It was a compelling climb — you don't often see that kind of vertical relief in the U.S., even in Colorado. I'd watched several YouTube videos of the standard route and decided the climb was probably beyond my desire for this day. Doable, but a bit involved in terms of technical difficulty, and exposed in terms of weather. Thunderstorms were in the forecast that day, and there are no quick ways off of Chavalard once you're up there. Of course, the PTL racers would do it regardless of the weather — they even had a much more exposed, class 4+ traverse on the other side of the mountain. But I had choices. I chose to aim for the saddle, and skirt around Grand Chavalard across a cirque to reach the next refuge on route, Cabane Fenestral.

My chosen route still had 7,500 feet of climbing after some ups and downs, and I'd have to get all of that out of the way in the first seven miles before taking a long, 13-mile descent to make a loop of it. So a 20-mile day. The weeks' efforts made the math easy — 30-minute-mile averages became a clock I could almost set myself by. But there were enough easy miles during the descent that I figured I could finish in 8-9 hours. I set out at 10 a.m. and wanted to be back by 6 p.m., both because that was the earliest I calculated Beat would arrive, and because every single grocery store in Switzerland closes at 6:30. My sole purpose there, really, was to deliver sandwiches. Failing to procure the sandwiches would be the ultimate crewing failure.

I had two routes on my GPS — the loop I made for myself, and the PTL track. I started on the PTL route, which promisingly followed a nice trail until the trail dead-ended, buried under a landslide of sand and rocks. So of course, the PTL continued up the landslide. Because it's PTL. I picked my way up the loose boulders for about a hundred meters before I thought better of this nonsense. Seriously, PTL, WTF? Instead I backtracked, lost nearly 400 feet of altitude, and continued on the standard route, which was so much better.

It was still steep, though, and terribly hot — temperatures had already climbed to 30C when I left town at 10 a.m. I'd put tape on my back to protect the raw chafe spots, so my pack went to work on my hips, which were now also bleeding. Sweat poured off my neck and dripped onto the dirt. Three liters of water wouldn't last long at this rate, and this seemingly vertical slope was bone dry. I could only hope I'd find stream water to filter above the saddle. My route soon intersected back with PTL's, and we all needed to gain the first 5,000 feet in 3.5 miles. This seemed needlessly punishing. But I was enjoying myself. I'd chosen this, after all.

The cirque surrounding Lac Superier de Fully did prove to be a magnificent spot and worthy of the climb. My camera lens had fogged up amid the sweaty humidity surrounding my body, so the images from this day are smudged and blurry — not unlike the way I viewed the landscape through my slightly dehydrated fatigue.

I climbed to Col Fenestral amid rumbling thunder and threatening skies. This is the weather I would have encountered on top of Grand Chavalard, had I chosen that route. I was grateful I'd played it safe, but also felt some regret.

The descent was more enjoyable than expected. For several kilometers I traversed along a bench that seemed to float above near-vertical grass slopes and rocky couloirs plummeting 5,500 feet into the valley. The highway corridor looked close enough to make a jump for it, but I was mentally steeled for three hours of burning quads, sore feet, and all of the exhaustion that comes from fighting gravity the way I fight gravity. I retreated to a meditative state, down and down and down until the heat turned back on high and I was strangely lost in a wine farm, meandering through a maze of grape vines. GPS was not being helpful, and it was already past 6. Argh! Finally I employed my phone, thrashed my way to the nearest side street, and learned I was 3.2 kilometers from the store at 6:11 p.m. Could I even travel two miles in 19 minutes? That was something like running, not exactly fast, but did I even remember how to run?

Sandwiches were my sole purpose in Fully, so I at least had to try. I cinched up my big backpack and began to pound the pavement. The motion was thrilling. Blood rushed back to my deadened quads, electric shock went through my calves, my heart pounded, the phone called out confusing directions, I dodged children on bicycles and large construction trucks blocking the entire bike path, and then I was in the street amid busy rush hour traffic, crossing between stopped cars and leaping construction barriers as though they were track hurdles. What a strange way to break the solitude of this daylong hike in the mountains. What fun!

I hit Migros at exactly 6:27 p.m. and rushed inside, grabbing the last four sandwiches in the cold case, ten different drinks, chips, and some peaches for myself, still effectively running as I rushed down each aisle. Feeling deeply satisfied with all of my treasures crammed into my pack, it was difficult to slow down as I made my way back to the life base. There I realized I probably had at least five hours to kill before Beat arrived. Hurry up and wait. I made my way to a restaurant that proved a poor choice — the servers were sort of mean, didn't get my order right even when I tried my best to communicate in French, ignored me for most of an hour, and I ended up walking out having only received my drink and a salad, for which I paid close to 20 Swiss francs. Ah well. I gratefully retreated to the car, where I could read my Kindle in peace until the team arrived. Later I did put myself through 20 more minutes of wandering while looking for a public toilet, which I never found, then one more hard climb back into the woods on the same route I followed that morning, so I could pee on the PTL trail, for good measure.

The guys arrived just after midnight in good spirits, but Pieter had injured his quad/adductor muscles in one leg, and was unsure about his ability to continue. That's about all the news I received in the 2.4 minutes I was able to talk to the guys before they were whisked inside the life base. But it was worth it. 


  1. As a reader, I am glad Beat does PTL and you don't because you go to such fascinating and challenging places and tell great stories. It's a nice "tradition" for me to read about your late summer European travels.
    Now about those Euro waiters, they've definitely flipped the experience on its head to the point where you feel like you are inconveniencing them to get a simple meal, don't they?

  2. I first read this 2 nights ago camped on the shore of Lake Superior in the UP of Michigan at 1:30am and laughed out loud in my tent at your "pissed" PTL trail marking :). Lol! What a adventure!! Your turtle-hare episode reminded me of a Alexa quote

    Forward is forward.  Slow is steady, and steady is fast.

    Alexandra Houchin

    Had to smile at the self reflected framing of age (I do it more than I care to admit) but looking at my age group peers, I see I'm outside the normal group and am doing better than most that I know who are younger than me. That makes the bite of time less ominous :).

    Jeff C

  3. the young woman? You are really embracing your forties, aren't you? LOL


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