Saturday, July 30, 2022

Around the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino) as seen from a glacier near the Swiss-Italian border

I’ve been meaning to post a few entries from our visit to the Alps this year. I didn’t do so last year, and I regret this now. My brain was so scrambled after my dad died that I remember little about the summer of 2021, even though we visited incredible places and I found many moments of peace. A sort of brain fog has settled into this summer as well, perhaps for different reasons, but I don’t want to let another mountain season slip away from memory. 

Walking off the jetlag above Valtournenche, Italy

We arrived in Geneva sometime in the late evening on July 13. We’d heard all of the horror stories about air travel this year and braced for the worst, but even so, the journey was challenging. A flight was canceled, another was delayed, a long layover in the stifling crowds of London-Heathrow and a plane delayed on the tarmac did not prevent the airline from losing our luggage, and then we had to leave the airport sans supplies for a three-hour drive to a remote mountain village in Italy in what was by then the middle of the night. Having barely slept in two days, I botched the navigation and misdirected Beat onto the Autostrade, which forced us to pay a 9 Euro toll to drive 12 miles in the wrong direction. At this point I essentially had a panic attack, gulping down bile to reign in my breathing.

The southern aspects of the Matterhorn, as viewed from the Italian side

Lately, I’ve wondered if I still possess the mental health for enjoyable international travel. I do love being here, but the disruption of routines, the general stress, insomnia, and limited personal space have fueled an extended anxiety episode that I'm still working to shake. Most mornings, I wake up to the question of how I’ll best cope with the day’s agenda, even if I’m excited about it. If I don’t form a mental road map, I tend to unravel quickly. I’m certainly not complaining, just explaining why I’m having a difficult time right now, even in a gorgeous and privileged setting. I think most people who cope with some level of anxiety disorder can relate. 

Beat and friends start the Cervino Matterhorn Ultra Race

First on the agenda was another of Beat’s Alpine mountain races. The Cervino Matterhorn Ultra Race circumnavigated the Matterhorn over 182 kilometers (113 miles) of technical trail with 13,000 meters (42,000 feet!!) of climbing. Just the usual for Beat at this point — actually a bit short compared to the 300-kilometer courses he’s raced in past years. It had to be short as our Belgian friend, Pieter, was getting married in a few short days — the reason we’re in Europe in July this year, rather than September. Daniel, our friend from Denver, also joined. Since our luggage disappeared, Beat was missing some of the required gear for the pre-race meeting, so we had to stop at an outdoor store in the village of Valtournenche. The proprietor was exceedingly helpful and friendly, even gifting me a water bottle and three pairs of underwear that he said his wife made him stock for just such occasions. We left the store remembering why we missed the Aosta Valley so much — the mountains are spectacular, the food consistently more delicious than anything I eat at home, and the locals just make you feel good about yourself and humanity in general. 

Euillaz — this is all part of a ski area in the winter. Peaceful and lonely in the summer.

Since thousands of bags were missing from the Geneva and Paris airports, and since we were three hours away from Geneva, I assumed we’d never see our luggage again. Amazingly it arrived the following evening via a courier — an unexpected stroke of luck. This allowed me to squeeze in a late evening hike above the apartment where we were staying — just a quiet side road between Valtournenche and Breuil-Cervinia. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many places in the Alps where you can walk out the front door and within an hour be in a spot like this. 

The glacier trail to Testa Grigia

The race started Friday, July 15, at the very Italian time of 10 a.m. I cheered the guys through the gate and then took off up the other side of the valley, climbing the final pass in their race, Teodulo. It’s a vertical mile of trudging up steep dirt and scree, and was exactly what I needed. Somewhere around 10,000 feet my brain finally switched from anxious to awestruck.

The glacier cat track carries you all the way down to the Swiss side

The Italian-Swiss border is flanked by an expansive network of glaciers that are rapidly shrinking. Until recently, temperatures above 3,000 meters usually stayed near or below freezing year-round, but that is no longer the case. The temperature was probably around 50 degrees at this altitude, but under direct sunlight with the reflective oven effect of the snow, it felt like a scorching day in the desert. 

The view across Ventina Ghiacciao

The Ventina and Furgg glaciers are used as a year-round ski area and are regularly groomed even on a hot day in July. Skiers and snowboarders use tow ropes to reach the upper slopes, but I saw other hikers and climbers walking the cat track, so I figured this wasn’t forbidden. I strapped on my microspikes and set off toward Switzerland, splashing and slipping through several inches of slush and flowing water over glare ice. Every so often a snowboarder would tear past in a roar of scraping ice, creating a wake through the runoff that made it appear as though they were surfing waves rather than snow. 

Another incredible view from the Furgggletscher

Walking across the glacier created a similar ripple of cognitive dissonance. It looked like a frozen mountain paradise but felt like a baked landscape of white rock and sand. My feet were soaked but not cold, and the high-altitude UV rays broke through my best defenses — industrial-strength sunscreen from New Zealand and a long-sleeve sun shirt with a hood. It’s jarring to watch a glacier actively melt, very quickly, in real time. The sound of cascading water over the ice was unnerving and cast a shade of melancholy over my awe. Rather than try to fight this emotion with disassociation — like I do with anxiety — I dug in deeper and sat with the sadness. It won’t be many more years before this glacier is gone. There’s a chance I will still be alive and well enough to climb this same pass and walk into a world of only rock and scree. That likelihood is already baked into our future, so as my friend Pieter advises, it’s better to appreciate the glaciers while they’re here rather than mourn their inevitable loss. 

Stone farmhouses above Breuil-Cervinia

Beat’s Alpine ultras always leave me feeling nervous, as there is an abundance of dangerous mountain terrain that he’s expected to traverse at all hours of the night and in all weather. Still, over the years Beat has proven himself capable of handling it, and CMUR was at least not as long or sadistically routed as PTL. Still, I endured another somewhat sleepless night wondering about him. First thing in the morning, I learned that Pieter would have to drop out of the race with a serious case of dehydration. He had blood in his urine and his physician sister advised him against continuing. What she told him is, “if you don’t want to spend your wedding day in the hospital, stop now.” Pieter continued to question this decision but I’m also of the opinion that heat injuries are not the place to test your limits. Cold is much less scary to me — unless you’re completely unprepared, subzero temperatures can be managed for a long time. Even frostbite usually doesn’t kill you. Heat is like — you start having cramps and 60 minutes later, you’re dead. 

Approaching Finestra di Cignana

Beat and Daniel planned to stay together as the European heat wave of mid-July 2022 continued to bake the region. Luckily Beat at least had heat training behind him, having run the Bighorn 100 in northern Wyoming in June as temperatures spiked into the high 90s. A lot of the European racers also had to drop with heat-related issues. I often wonder what my future might hold in regard to endurance racing, but I’m almost certain that my “summer racing” days are behind me. I just have too many physiological challenges stacked against me: Sun sensitivity (I break out in heat rashes over nothing), asthma, pollen allergies, and fairly extreme reactions to smoke and pollution. Despite asthma treatments and perhaps miraculously avoiding Covid so far (although I expect the virus to come for me eventually and probably soon), my airways feel a little more pinched each summer. I’m already imagining a future where I might have to hole up indoors for long blocks of the wildfire season, making use of my bike trainer and a HEPA filter to avoid going mad. Either way, strenuous racing during the summer months seems out of reach. 

The view from Col de Valcorniere

So yes, during summer my breathing and thus fitness often deteriorates regardless of training. On the bright side, this gives my ego a reason to let go of expectations and just wander to my heart’s content. I confirmed that Pieter could catch a shuttle back to our apartment — a pickup was something I really didn’t want to have to endure as the round-trip drive to Zinal would take at least six and a half hours — 50 or so miles on foot, and 120 by endlessly winding mountain roads. Having slithered out of any potential crew duties with this fact, I had another full day to wander in the mountains. I chose to aim for the first pass on the CMUR course, Col de Valcorniere. 

An ibex family on Col de Valcorniere

Col de Valcorniere was an enjoyable climb, another vertical mile along a rocky trail, talus fields, and a short section of protected scrambling at the end. I sat on the pass for a half hour, enjoying the antics of a momma ibex and her two rowdy kids. 

Nothing but choss as far as the eye can see

Somehow I generated a desire to venture down the other side of the pass, which was a chossy nightmare. Tight, meager switchbacks still cut a 40-50% grade, loose and slippery but too chunky to simply boot ski — not that I have the coordination to ski scree. Still, I continue to pick my way down 800 vertical feet before I turned to look back at the crumbling wall behind me. “This is all very dumb. It’s not like I’m in a race and have to force myself to do any of this.” I reversed course and quickly lost the “trail.” I had to resort to climbing directly up large blocks of talus, which is not unlike “hiking” in the high country of Colorado and was actually preferable to the nightmare “trail.” 

Fireweed over Lago di Cignana

I descended into Valtournenche on the Alta Via 1 — part of the Tor des Geants course I hadn’t yet seen — and started the long climb up to Euillaz as 5 p.m. sunlight baked the pavement. A store marquee said it was 32C, which is nearly 90 degrees, almost unheard of for an Alps village above 5,000 feet. For a mile my route followed a steeply graded road with heavy traffic — where are all of these people even going? Beat called during this time and I spent much of it trying to hear him over the roar of sports cars piloted by aggressive Italian drivers while sweat streamed down my phone onto my hand. 

Waterfall below Lago di Balanselmo

Then the route finally veered onto a trail and it was typical Aosta Valley ridiculous — severely eroded, cow-stomped dirt cutting straight up the hill at a 30% grade. When it rains these trails are pure mudslides so I’m glad it wasn’t that. I was nearing 8,000 feet of ascent for this hike and my legs were tired, but I particularly loved this part. It was so hot and such a slog that I only had the energy to focus on the present. Late afternoon light saturated the grassy slopes, which were simultaneously soft and angled. Silence resumed. All of the travel anxiety finally faded. I felt content. 

Looking toward the Matterhorn, flanked by clouds

By the time I descended to our apartment after 20 miles, it was nearly 9 p.m. Pieter had finally made it back himself so we cooked up pasta and chatted about our adventures. I checked Beat’s progress in the race and determined there was no chance of an early-morning finish, and finally — finally — settled in for a decent night of sleep.

Just another ho-hum view of the Matterhorn ridge from Mont de l'Eura

The following morning, Pieter was feeling better so we headed into town to await Beat and Daniel's arrival. Pieter planned to take the cable car to Testa Grigia and then run the final 10K downhill with the guys. I can't keep up with Beat in the mountains on my best days (and he's pretty much never at his worst) so I opted to hike toward the Matterhorn on the standard approach one might take to climb the mountain from the Italian side. You start on a class-one jeep road, begin the class-two talus-hopping at Mont de l'Eura, and it just gets harder from there. I stopped just shy of the section with class three and four scrambling around 10,000 feet, mostly because I ran out of time. It was a fun morning, still hot, and my legs were too dead to do much running on the way down. 

Beat and Daniel finish the Cervino

The guys finished their race in 53:01:42, and were 61st and 62nd place out of about 180 starters. I don't know how many people dropped out, but I believe there were fewer than 100 finishers. That's a large attrition rate for a ~hundred-mile race in the Alps. Most people who attempt these courses are highly experienced with Alpine racing — it's the Americans who tend to become overwhelmed. But the Europeans aren't used to two full days of 30C heat at altitude, and that's probably what did most of them in. 

Matterhorn views at sunset

At the finish line, we dragged Beat and Daniel to a nearby bar to sit in a sliver of shade. The guys didn't seem enthused about anything but a cold shower and a nap, but they perked up with cold beers and ice cream. The bar gave me a rare entire glass full of ice cubes with my 0.2 liters of lemon soda, so I was in American heaven (the lack of ice and abundance of lukewarm drinks in Europe never fail to baffle me, even as the Europeans give me similar side-eyes when I stuff my hydration bladder into tiny freezers with the intention of creating three liters of solid ice.)

The guys went home and crashed while Pieter and I waited until 9 p.m. to rouse them for pizza. In the meantime, I grabbed a final evening stroll along Torrente Marmore. Life is often simplest when I'm walking, and for this I'm grateful.


  1. Absolutely stunning vistas! I would love to go visit sometime. But I agree that international travel has increased stress these days. Your trip sounds anxiety provoking even for those of us without anxiety. Thanks for blogging about your trip, I love hearing about your adventures.

  2. Always great to read a post from you and drool over your exquisite photos. I've been following you for years (since you lived in Alaska) and your writing always gives me something to ponder. Thanks for keeping the blog going.

  3. Always good to see and read. Rich Runser

  4. Are you seeing the women racers from Homer? In the Anchorage Daily News>

  5. Glad you gave an account of your trip to the Alps/Europe this year. Enjoyed the read and your photos of the mountain vistas.


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