Monday, September 16, 2019

Wrestling the restlessness

Our last few days in Chamonix were relatively quiet. On Friday morning I was only beginning to rouse after yet another 5 a.m. bedtime when Pieter turned up at our shared apartment. His leg had not improved overnight, and he was barely able to limp around the small living area. Beat and Daniel continued up the 8,000-foot ascent of Chavalard while he caught a ride from Fully. His injury would later be diagnosed as a significant tear in one of his quadriceps — a bummer as his current prognosis calls for at least eight weeks recovery, and he can't even ride a bicycle or swim with a muscle tear. The fall that caused his injury happened during a long and rugged traverse before Fully, so he had no opportunities to stop sooner, but it's good he dropped out when he did. 

Pieter was hurting, disappointed, and badly in need of a good sleep, so I left the apartment and headed toward the traditional TMB trail to climb up the back side of Brevent. My legs felt particularly heavy with the week's efforts, having already surpassed 40,000 feet of climbing in seven days. The long, hard-braking descents on steep and loose terrain are what really wear me down. Dark clouds were building overhead as I crouched my way down a rubbly access road toward Chamonix. This was concerning, because it had been so hot all week that I wasn't carrying much in the way of rain gear. A glance at my watch revealed that I probably wouldn't make it to town in time to meet friends to watch the start of UTMB, so I bought a cheater ticket and took the gondola down from Planpraz.

It was the right decision. I was ordering an espresso at a little bar near the cable car station when the sky opened up and rained down fury for most of 45 minutes just before the 6 p.m. start of the race. Thunder roared and lightning flashed as rain fell in solid sheets, chasing everyone sitting underneath umbrellas on bar's terrace into the tiny building. I crammed my way into a corner and sipped my coffee while looking out the window and feeling smug that it wasn't me out there getting drenched like the 2,500 runners lined up in Chamonix's central square. Eventually I made my way over to Moussoux to meet my friends, where we watched UTMB runners pass by on the road out of town. It took nearly 15 minutes for the entire field to go by, less than a mile from the start. The guy in yellow, leading the pack, is eventual winner Pau Capell.

My friends and I had a great night of libations at a jazz bar and dinner at a restaurant favored by locals — which they are, as British expats living in Les Houches who are currently in the process of gaining French citizenship. Enviable. I caught the night bus and staggered home in the darkness, only to take a comical but admittedly painful headlong fall over a planter right in front of the apartment. I ended up on my face, but my shins bared the brunt of the impact. Humiliating, but no one was around to witness it, so I laid on the ground and laughed at myself before limping inside. Less than two minutes later, the sky opened up again. Despite my pitiful klutziness, I managed to again feel smug for beating all of the downpours on this day.

On Saturday, Pieter and I did a little dot-stalking to catch up with Beat and Daniel at Lac d'Emosson. I wanted to capture some photos of them on the trail, so I consulted Pieter's GPS, only to find the route headed directly into a pitch-dark tunnel with seemingly no end. While donning a headlamp and trying to work up the courage to press into the darkness, Beat and Daniel emerged from tunnel. Without even slowing down, they marched directly to a nearby bar for a large serving of ice cream.

Beat and Daniel looked strong, and at that point were only about eight hours from the finish line in Chamonix. We waved goodbye and watched them walk across the dam. Pieter and I continued to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. We had lunch at a Canadian burger place, where I encouraged him to try the poutine (I don't even like poutine, but find it funny that there's this unique North American food that I can introduce to European friends in France.) Pieter's mom flew in from Belgium for the sole purpose of driving Pieter home in his car, since his leg was too painful to even drive. Moms are great like that. She spent fewer than 15 hours in Chamonix, but at least was able to enjoy a fondue at her favorite local restaurant. This was the only properly Alpine restaurant I managed to visit during three weeks in Europe. I don't particularly love provincial French and Swiss cuisine — it seems like much of it involves a herculean effort to cram down four pounds of cheese and then feel horrible for the next 36 hours. Even the "salad" I ordered at this quaint establishment had about three leaves of lettuce, and the rest was salami, eggs and cheese. But it was delicious.

Beat and Daniel strode up to the finish line of PTL at 10:45 p.m. They put in a hard effort from Emosson, even running most of the final descent at 10-minute-mile pace ... although, in proper PTL style, they were walking casually and side-by-side when they crossed under the arch.  This was Beat's earliest finish yet — still Saturday night. On social media I reported that it was Beat's fastest PTL, but I forgot that the race used to start 14 hours later, so his fastest was still his first, in 2012. It was his seventh "cowbell," which is what PTL finishers receive — seven finishes in eight starts. He was already complaining that his year's PTL was "too easy" because there wasn't as much off-trail terrain as usual, and the weather was warm and dry. He swears this is his last PTL, but I don't believe that for a second.

By Sunday everyone was sleeping, so I stole away for one last hike. Again I made my way from downtown Chamonix up a trail I'd never climbed before, only to discover it was a relentlessly steep and rubbly access road toward Col Cornu. This route was perfect for me, though — as hundreds of UTMB runners were making the final descent to Chamonix on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and spectators were everywhere, there was no one on this mean and ugly climb. I hiked hard, relishing the burn in hamstrings and calves. My fatigue was deep by this point, but the huge daily dose of endorphins becomes increasingly addicting. I was hungry for a fix.

I traversed over to Col de la Gliere and enjoyed a snack and views, but on the descent I made the decision to do one more 2,000-foot ascent to Brevent to push my nine-day climbing total over 50,000 feet. These stats are arbitrary, and I'd already cheated by cutting out part of a descent, which is the hardest part anyway. But the numbers are fun to chase. While I aggressively pursued vert all week long, Pieter and Daniel both teased me about running PTL again. To this I responded with an irritated side-eye glance, and usually launched into another anecdote about why I so aggressively dislike PTL.

Each year I become more attuned to my inner relationship with mountains, these raw and astonishing spaces that I love and fear with almost equal intensity. Every time I return to the mountains, I encounter fears — of unpredictable obstacles, of rapidly changing weather, of the frequent mistakes that I make, and the potential consequences that increase exponentially with exposure and remoteness. Every time I'm faced with tricky maneuvers or insecure footing, I need to gulp down little spurts of panic that I can't prevent, that I can only try to absorb before they consume me. But this emotional roller-coaster takes its toll, even more so than the physical strain. I used to believe that facing my fears would vanquish them, but I no longer believe this. And I used to believe that more experience would inspire confidence, but I now understand better the way scars leave me weaker than before, especially emotional scars. By the end of a week like this, as amazing and relatively benign as it was, I'm strung out. Wasted. Legs may be a little heavy, but my mind is fully cooked.

As years pass, and I don't seem to "get over" my experiences at the 2013 PTL, I've become more willing to accept the trauma I carry, that has likely become a permanent part of me. It may have been an optional, recreational activity, and I recognize my privilege in saying this, but PTL was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. It left a wound in my psyche, and I reopen the scar, just a little, every time I return to these mountains. There is a lot I love — there is so much more to love — that these returns are worth it. But I've come to accept that I'll never be a happy-go-lucky mountain runner. Not only am I an incurable klutz who is just terrible at descending, but there's a darkness I need to face to reach the heights, every time.

This is the experience life, of course. Light cutting through the darkness, beauty across the entire spectrum of color, shades of gray rather than absolute black and white. I have no desire to live out my life on a predictable, even plane, which is why I return to the mountains, every chance I get. 


  1. "We have a calling: a need to be close to Nature, where she may cleanse our souls and wash away the stresses of yesterday. It is emotional recompense for the cost of living."

    Fennel Hudson

    Seems a full and well lived life is littered with scars and a continual growth of acceptance...

    Jeff C

  2. The things that scare me are way smaller than the ones that scare you, but I was just talking to a friend yesterday about my mix between frustration that the fear isn't going away/I'm not getting better at facing them and in fact seem to be getting more scared and then the acceptance that it's ok to not terrify myself for "fun".

    Also, if it makes you feel better about your klutziness, I tripped over my bike TWICE yesterday. The bike I'd just laid down.

  3. Nope. I was charged by a bear and lived, and you'd think that would cure me of my fear, but still afraid of bears.


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