Monday, September 16, 2013

In a dark little room

in a dark little room 
across the nation 
you found myself racing 
forgetting the strange and the hard 
and the soft kiss 
in the dark room

 — From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy

The violet-tinted daylight and first glimpse of a white tent canopy in the valley 2,000 feet below seemed to revive Giorgio and Ana, and we broke into a stiff shuffle down the first developed trail we'd used in eight hours. As my leg muscles struggled to open to this new motion, it occurred to me that eight hours ago was probably also the last time I tried to take in any calories, when I ate half a Snicker's Bar after the electric cattle fence jolted me from my own sleepy stupor. It's really strange, I thought, to be nearly 60 hours into this extremely difficult endeavor, eating close to nothing, sleeping very little, and moving constantly — and yet find the wherewithal to run even when common sense told me my body should be shutting down.

"Survival mode," I thought. It its own unique way, PTL was such a mentally taxing struggle that the physical difficulties of the race hardly registered. PTL was like trying to solve a complicated puzzle while heavily sedated and punch drunk, and the consequences of mistakes could lead to grave injury. In that heightened state of stress, it doesn't matter much that your feet hurt and your legs are stiff and your arms are bruised and you haven't had a thing to eat in eight hours. It really doesn't.

Despite this growing conviction that my physical complaints weren't important, I was still desperate for sleep. "Sleep will make all of the difference," I thought. But pessimism was seeping through the cracks. Although my course notes were now gone, we had a small piece of paper that I tore out of a pamphlet, which indicated the distance and altitude of the cols and few checkpoints, as well "slowest time" cutoffs. The limit at Plan de la Lai was 6 a.m. This wasn't one of the three official race cut-offs, but it did mean that when we arrived just before 8 a.m., the checkpoint was closed. The volunteers informed us that they would still prepare us (small) plates of pasta for the set price of 17 Euros, but we wouldn't be able to stay and sleep. The news upset me so much that I could only choke down a few bites of pasta. I was defiant, and told Ana and Giorgio that I wasn't leaving Plan de la Lai without rest. We noticed at least four or five teams snoozing on the cots in the second tent, and decided that as long as they were there, we could stay, too.

The tent was unheated and the cots had a single thin flannel blanket and no pillow. Cold wind pushed in from an open wall and whisked underneath the cots, making it feel like I was laying on a block of ice. My teeth chattered and my shoulders quaked, but I still managed to lapse into unconsciousness. After what felt like three minutes, I awoke to hammering sounds, and discovered that volunteers were removing empty cots and taking the canopy down around us. They did tell us the checkpoint was closed, but I was still stung by their passive aggressive maneuver to kick us all out. Personally, I would rather just participate in a completely unsupported race than what the PTL provides. The promise of limited support left me more unprepared to take care of myself than I should have been. I needed a sleeping bag. I needed a ground pad. I needed sleep.

Desperation churned in my stomach until I felt a pressing need to vomit. As I rushed to an outhouse that was at least half a kilometer away, I noticed a trail sign for Col du Bonhomme — a name I recognized as part of the UTMB course. "Oh UTMB," I thought as a hunched over a piece of plywood with a hole cut in the center. "Nice, flat, easy, friendly UTMB." Even though I had no idea if this was in fact the same Col du Bonhomme, it occurred to me that I could possibly follow the trail signs and then take the UTMB course back to Chamonix. No more PTL. No more suffering. No more fear.

Ana and Giorgio were packing up when I returned from the outhouse. "I quit," I said, throwing my half-filled backpack down to emphasize that I was serious. "I can't do this race on no sleep. It's too far. It's impossible."

Ana laughed at me. "You not quit," she said with way too much cheerfulness. "You come with us."

"You don't need me," I continued with unveiled desperation quivering in my voice. "We are a team of three and you only need two to finish. We're running too far behind the cut-offs. I'm too slow, Ana. I'm not strong enough for PTL."

Giorgio joined Ana in overbearing cheerfulness. "You can't leave, Jill. We are a team! We cannot quit! Never quit! We are Too Cute to Quit!"

His response made me laugh out loud, because we all hated our team name and I pretty much only thought about quitting, at least when I wasn't thinking about dying. But the fact that we'd had such a rough night that I had to do the lion's share of work to get through, and then got almost no sleep in Plan de la Lai, only stoked my anger at their enthusiasm. "No, you go!" I yelled, the meltdown bubbling up from my empty gut. "I stay here. You don't need me! You don't understand how upset I am! I can't do this race on no sleep!"

The other teams being kicked out of the checkpoint overheard and a few chimed in. "At least go as far as Morgex," one guy suggested. "If you don't make it in time, that is what it is. But if you quit, that's pretty definitive."

"If I fall off a mountain, that's pretty definitive, too," I growled.

"You come with us," Ana said. "If you quit, you will cry."

"I'm crying right now!" I blubbered, but I was beginning to realize that I wasn't going to extract myself from this situation unless I made an actual physical escape by sprinting away from Ana and Giorgio. Throwing a temper tantrum was only wasting all of our time. "You're a grown ass woman," I thought to myself. "You can run away if you want." But even in the fog of my emotional meltdown, I did realize how cowardly and childish that would be. "Fine," I said, angrily jamming my crap back into my backpack. "I'll go with you to the next checkpoint. But if we can't sleep, that's it. I mean it. That's it."

We marched down the trail and I continued bawling. I felt like a pathetic child but I didn't even try to stifle the tears; controlling my emotions just took too much energy at this point, and I no longer cared what Ana or Giorgio or anyone else thought. But thanks to the wild pendulum of endurance-addled emotions, the negative feelings quickly swung toward gratitude and relief. "I'm sorry I had a meltdown," I blubbered as I hugged Ana and laughed through continued gasps and sniffles. "I'm just so tired. I'm so tired. But thanks for pushing me out of there. I really do appreciate it. I'll try to keep it together from now on."

My promise didn't last long. Out of Plan de la Lai, the GPS track directed us into a maze of cattle paths along a steep and grassy sideslope. How such large animals make such narrow trails, I'll never understand, but discovered I had a lot of difficulty keeping my feet on the path. The night before, my vision started to become blurry and sometimes wobbly, which I assumed would improve during the day. But now, under broad daylight, my eyes still had difficulty focusing on any point without heavy concentration. And if I applied too much concentration to an object, my field of vision would begin to wobble until it seemed like the whole world was about to tip on its side. This led to disconcerting vertigo and dizziness, sometimes severe enough that I'd have to stop walking and lean on both of my trekking poles to regain my composure. While walking on the cattle paths, I let my vision go lazy long enough to accidentally plant my right foot well off the trail on the steep grassy slope, which caused me to roll my ankle violently and topple over.

"Are you hurt?" Ana asked.

"Fine," I grumbled as I rolled back onto the trail. "It's just, I can't see very well. My eyes are blurry." I held my hand in front of my face and moved it back and forth to illustrate my point in case Ana didn't quite understand. "I got dizzy and I fell down."

To myself, I was thinking, "In the wrong place a mistake like that would be really bad. Really, really bad."

And then we rounded a corner to see something I interpreted as really bad: the veritable wall of Breche de Parozan. It was a near-vertical scree slope that I now had to ascend while dizzy and sleep-deprived and calorie-depleted, with poor vision, intense bouts of vertigo, and the emotional stability of a two-year-old. Even Giorgio hung his head as we looked at the wall. Just then, my throat seemed to close up and I could no longer breathe. My vision narrowed to a tight tunnel as I knelt down and gasped for air, clutching at the grass as I tried to slow the hyperventilation. Had I completely lost it? What was happening? One of the first images that came to mind was a scene from "Iron Man 3," which Beat and I watched on the plane on our way to Europe. It was the scene where Robert Downey Jr. lapsed into an anxiety attack while questioning a 10-year-old kid. I'm not sure whether I was having a full-blown panic attack, but those few minutes were as debilitating as any feelings of anxiety I've experienced before. And yet the whole time I was gasping for air, I was actually thinking, "What would Iron Man do? What would Iron Man do?"

Well, of course, Iron Man would just summon his iron suit and fly over the damn mountain. That's what Iron Man would do. Still, the silly movie thoughts did help bring my head back to the surface, and I was able to catch my breath and stand again.

"Sorry," I again apologized to Ana. "I am having anxiety. Do you mind going in front for a while?"

The ascent to Breche de Parozan was not as bad as it looked from the distance, although the loose scree did make for difficult footing and unreliable handholds. As usual, I opted to stuff my poles in my backpack and crawl up the mountain like an awkward chimpanzee. There were at least a dozen PTL competitors who all left Plan de la Lai around the same time, and we were all bunched together on the face of the col. Rocks rained down from above, and more than once I thought, "This is a really dumb thing to do without a helmet." My calf muscles were quivering and even my quads felt like they were on the verge of failure, but slowing too much would often result in backward skids on the talus, which sent more rocks tumbling down toward the teams behind us. In the wake of my anxiety episode, Monster had returned, whispering disturbingly comforting thoughts in my head. "If a rock smashes your skull it will all be over. Finally over."

Just fifty feet from the col, the most intense cramp I've ever experienced clamped down on my left calf muscle. The cramp twisted with such force that I crumpled to my knees, skidding several inches down the talus in the process. I tried not to think about the precipitous spot I was in as I curled in on myself and clenched my teeth. The tension on my muscle was so tight that it felt like the fibers were about to snap simultaneously. "Let go, just let go," Monster whispered, which prompted me to reach through the tunnel of pain and grab onto a boulder. I probably wasn't in any real danger of tumbling, but I hadn't looked back in a while and didn't know just how steep this section actually was. Seeming long minutes passed, although it was probably just a few seconds, before the tension released and I was able to uncoil myself and finish scrambling to the col.

Although fear and trepidation had gripped my heart many times during the PTL, there was always this sense that my anxieties, like Monster, were conjured by my overtired mind and did not necessarily reflect reality. Trust in the seemingly grounded attitudes of my teammates, along with self awareness of my often overzealous imagination, helped me push through many anxiety-filled situations that would have certainly turned me around if I were alone. But I was beginning to experience what I felt were very real and dangerous physical issues — first my failing vision and subsequent vertigo, and now debilitating muscle cramping. What if a cramp grabbed my leg in the midst of an exposed scramble? What would I do about the vertigo once it got dark?

The visual wobbliness returned as I stumbled toward Ana and Giorgio and continued traversing the sharp edge of the col. My calf muscle was still spasming, so I reached into my pack to grab a couple of salt tablets — for the record, I'm not one who buys into the idea that salt is a cure-all for cramping and don't even use it in most circumstances. But I carried electrolyte tablets in the PTL just it case and at this point I was willing to try anything. I also realized that I hadn't eaten since I vomited in the morning, and told Ana and Giorgio that I needed to sit down for just a minute and stuff some candy down my throat because I was feeling very dizzy. Admittedly, these two actions helped a lot (I still think it was the sugar and sit-down rest that helped more than the salt) and I felt more lucid and strong as we started down the other side of the col.

My little piece of paper indicated that the next summit, Col de la Nova, was three kilometers from Breche de Parozan and somehow 100 meters higher. "Where the hell is it?" I thought to myself as we descended deeper into a steep bowl. Supposedly this col was now less than a mile away, and yet all I could see were towering cliffs surrounding us on three sides. The map seemed to show a route straight ahead, which couldn't be right if we had another big col to climb, and GPS as usual was of little help in tracing the route any farther than a few hundred meters away. "I don't know where we're going," I admitted to Giorgio. "I'm a little confused."

Giorgio consulted his own GPS and pointed at the cliffs directly to our right. Although he had been the most sure-footed on technical terrain so far, even his face betrayed some trepidation. "We go there now. Are you happy?"

I'm not sure if Giorgio was poking fun at how erratically I'd behaved all day, or if he was assuaging his own fears, but I thought about his question. Another insanely steep pass that involved at least one snow-field crossing. Was I happy? No, no I wasn't happy, but I could deal with this. I could deal with this. It was still just one foot in front of the other, one hand in front of the other, repeat. Maybe Monster was right and the struggle would never end. But that was okay. This was still life, and I was still alive. A tranquil warmth washed over my skin and filled my blood with renewed vigor. "I think the best line is to climb the snowfield and then cut over to the left," I replied as I returned to my navigational position at the front of the team. "Up the col," I said with a breathy sigh. "Up the col."

It probably goes without saying that Giorgio and Ana didn't follow me. Giorgio almost instantly cut left and Ana followed him as they climbed into an extremely steep boulder slope. I kept to my plan of climbing the snow field, which looked like the least-steep line and also provided some happy relief for my tired feet. It was still very steep, and if the snow wasn't soft I probably wouldn't have risked it. But Giorgio's and Ana's line looked treacherous, and my heart would skip a beat every time I heard rocks tumbling down. "Giorgio? Ana? You okay?"

Ana eventually worked her way back over to me as I left the snow and started scrambling over the rocks. The boulders were the size of basketballs or larger and all seemed to be loose. I felt like I was trying to climb a ramp covered in balls that had been wedged together, and pulling even one of them loose was going to send the whole mountain tumbling down. The slope was even steeper and the surface was much worse than Breche de Parozan; I'm not really sure why I wasn't more frightened, but I wasn't. It was almost as though a weakened adrenal system can only produce so much fear and stress in a day, and mine had emptied itself out. Giorgio still beat us to the top, with some blood smeared on his arm and a grin on his face.

"Look at all this," he said to me as he spread his arms out. "If you didn't come today, you would have never seen any of this." I could see his hands quivering around the grips of his trekking poles, and it made me smile. How was this guy keeping himself so upbeat and enthusiastic all the time? Was it his youth? Some kind of mania I didn't possess? Or maybe forcing a positive attitude was his coping mechanism, in the same way feigned indifference had been mine.

"I suppose you're right," I said with a shrug.

Next on the agenda was a 2,000-meter descent (with a few more steep climbs) to some semblance of civilization below. When traveling through the heavily developed Alps, I hadn't expected to experience feelings of remoteness and solitude, but there were sections of the PTL that felt every bit as difficult to access and devoid of human presence as real wilderness. In 150 kilometers we had traveled through all of two villages and passed only a handful of refuges, most of them closed at the time. We'd had almost no non-PTL human contact, interacting only with race volunteers and other teams in the past three days. The organizers of PTL have carved out an interesting cross-section of modern France, one that provides glimpses into what a trip through the Alps might have been like hundreds of years ago, following faint foot paths through farm meadows and over rugged mountains.

My vision continued to wobble. Vertigo returned on the long descent, which forced me to move frustratingly slow. But Giorgio and Ana weren't moving any faster, even when they were in front of me — we were all extremely sleep deprived, and both Giorgio and Ana had become distant and quiet. I was probably the most lucid at the time, but my eyes wouldn't focus. As twilight descended I could no longer coordinate my vision with my footfalls, and felt tentative about every step. I started using my trekking poles as a guide, planting one where I thought my foot should go and then stepping in that direction. It helped me improve my sense of balance, but also meant I was no longer using the trekking poles as support. Not a win-win situation for stability.

At sunset we crossed a small stone dam with a 10-foot drop on one side and perhaps a 30-foot drop on the other. The dam was about three feet wide — not exactly narrow, but as soon as I stepped onto the span, the fingers of vertigo pulled me sideways and made me feel like I was tilting into the void. I froze. "I'm stuck," I whimpered to Giorgio, who was directly behind me. "I'm extremely dizzy. Can you help me, please?" He grabbed both of my shoulders, which gave me a feeling of being righted, and then continued to hold on and walk with me the rest of the way across the dam. The experience made me feel very grateful for my teammates, but it also shattered my confidence. I was struggling to cross a damn dam. How the hell was I going to keep traversing technical and exposed passes? It was dangerous. It was horrendously, stupidly dangerous, to do what I was trying to do in the physical state I was in. But maybe if I could sleep. Maybe everything would change if I could sleep.

"Next checkpoint," Ana said of the Parking Bonneval Les Baines, which our little sheet showed should be coming up in about four kilometers of descending. "We eat, one hour of sleep, and change socks. New feet." The only thing Ana had complained of so far in the PTL were blisters. She showed them to me at the previous stop, and they were quite bad — stretching across the balls of her feet as well as her heels, they were bright red and leaking puss, definitely infected.

"Maybe two hours of sleep," I offered. "I think we could move a lot faster if we sleep at least two hours. Maybe even three. We'll save time in the end." I looked again at the list. The checkpoint was supposed to start closing down at 7 p.m. I looked again at my watch. It was 8:12. I didn't have the heart to tell my teammates.

Friday, September 06, 2013

A hard way to come

and a hard way to come
into a cabin
into the weather 
into a path 
walking together 
a hard one 

 — From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy

Lurking in the shadows of fatigue is an unsettling presence, a force that feeds on fear and exhaustion. The weaker one feels, the stronger it grows. Endurance racers often refer to this force as "the Sleep Monster," a beast that gnaws at energy and resolve until the only choice left is to stop. I expected to meet the Sleep Monster in the PTL, but the force swooping around the rocks was more sinister than any I had encountered before. As though my now-encompassing fear and fatigue wasn't enough to satiate this monster, it sliced deeper, into the murky layers of my mind — the places where I bury the feelings I try hardest to avoid — the disenchantment and existential despair. It's the place I fear most because nothing matters here. I could sit down on the wet scree in the freezing rain and never move again; it wouldn't matter. There is no light and warmth at the end of this tunnel, the Monster whispered; the dark and cold is eternal, you must realize that. I tried to shake off the disturbing voice. "The refuge has to be close now," I said out loud to Giorgio and Ana, but mostly to myself.

"Soon we eat and sleep," Giorgio said jovially. "And then continue with this f****** race."

Ana, always the stoic one in our group, seemed more on edge. We had burned up a lot of time crawling over the muddy passes. Just that afternoon we were certain we'd reach this refuge for early dinner, but that hour had long since come and gone. It was near midnight, perhaps after. We'd been on a nearly continuous march since 10 p.m. the night before, and we'd only covered 60 kilometers. "37 miles. In 26 hours!" I thought with a touch of good-humored incredulity. Sometimes the best way to fight despair is to embrace the ridiculous.  But Ana had been doing some math in her head as well, and drew a less humorous conclusion. "There is no time to sleep," she announced matter-of-factly.

"We must sleep," Giorgio replied first, and I nodded vigorously. "Ana, we can't do this race on no sleep."

A few things about Ana before I continue with this post, because I can see I'm not adequately representing her. Ana is a warm and caring person, and fun-loving, too. She's Spanish, after all. Last year during UTMB, when she couldn't race because of a sprained ankle, she bounced from aid station to aid station carrying a beer she brought just for me, only just missing me each time. She also brought Spanish ham and chocolate wafer bars, because I told her how much I liked to eat candy while running. I'm ashamed to say I do not know Ana as a person very well, and did not learn much through the PTL only because we had to stay so focused on the absolute present during that race. And in that environment, Ana became a highly effective machine — steady and uncomplaining, with only one setting. Forward motion. So if I write about her as though she were robotic and unemotional, it's because in many ways, she was. We were all something slightly different than ourselves out there. But I was absolutely amazed with Ana's ability to press on without so much as a whimper, when both Giorgio and I succumbed to our humanity and broke down more than once. Ana was strong but she wasn't uncompassionate. When we appealed for rest, she stopped.
Even with Col de l'Oulettaz behind us, the difficulty of the climb hardly let up; we scaled wet rocks and wedged our way through chimneys with the actual line of the route still not entirely clear. In a way, my Monster protected me, because as long as it was present, I didn't  experience the same debilitating depths of fear. What did it matter if I fell off this mountain? At least then I'd be done.

Ana was still unconvinced we should stop when we reached Point Percee hut, a tiny climbers' refuge set on a ledge of limestone cliffs at 2,200 meters, explicitly built for "those who love the vertical." Rain was now falling as sleet and driven fiercely by the wind. The weather was as bad as it gets, it was after midnight, and the very next point on the route chart warned, "for those who do not have perfect mountain feet, it would be preferable to go down this particularly steep rock outcrop backward," and, "The descent requires the greatest attention and it is preferable to plan to do it in daylight." Despite the apathetic whispers of my Monster, I remained resolute that I did not want to die.

Just as I was stating my case to Ana, Beat's PTL partner, Dima, stumbled out of the refuge. In the past day I had only thought about Beat sporadically, either because I was worried about his safety, or because I was very angry with him for not making any attempt to stop me from starting the PTL. "He knows me and he knew better," I would think. "This is not me. This is mean, soul-crushing stuff. This is not why I do the things I do. This is not who I am." But as soon as I saw Dima, my humanity came flowing back and I was desperate to see Beat. When he emerged from the refuge, the first words out of his mouth were something along the lines of a very surprised, "You're here! You survived!"

"The mud, oh the mud!" I said through gulps of air. "The rocks were fine, whatever, but that muddy pass was really, really bad."

"He was really worried about you," Dima said.

"But now," I continued gulping. "We're behind, we're so far behind, and Ana doesn't want to sleep. She doesn't want to stop. She wants to leave right now and I'm so tired. I'm just so tired."

"You're not behind," Beat said with a confused look on his face. "You're right up with us,"

"We were supposed to leave here by 11:30," I said. "Slowest pace. Now it's what, twelve thirty? One? And if we sleep, even later? And then we have to venture out on the cliffs, in the ice, in the dark?" I felt my first tinges of an anxiety attack creeping forward.

Beat grasped my shoulder. "Stop and eat. You need to eat. Then sleep and go. They rerouted us around the dangerous pass. It's revision two on your GPS. It's longer but it should be easier and safer. It will be okay."

The anxiety quieted but I felt a new rush of anger at his allowing me to enter this horror march. Truthfully, Beat never openly encouraged me to enter PTL, but he didn't try to stop me, either. "It's the Alps," he'd say. "It will be so beautiful." Now, with Ana and Giorgio as my team, I felt trapped in this bad decision, without choices. Perhaps Beat felt the same way. I reached out for his shoulder, we exchanged a tiny kiss, and with that he and Dima stomped off into the freezing darkness.

The tiny Point Percee mountaineers' hut was crammed from door to corner with PTL teams. Bodies wedged in the tables with cafeteria trays and cans of Coke, and there was a second dark room where people were constantly streaming in and out. It was warm inside the refuge, but not terribly warm, and I suspected that bodies were about the only thing heating it. We took a small space on a table and ordered a meal we were told we could buy for 17 Euros, which turned out to be a mystery meat, some apple sauce, and some unpalatable kind of mushroom pasta. Usually when hungry I can eat almost anything, but my appetite was still subdued by stress and fear, and I struggled to choke down this not-tasty food. We asked about sleep and were told there was only one bed space left. We could take turns, the proprietor said. "We do not have time," Ana announced to us. 

A rush of desperation filled my head; we were headed out on an alternate route with no notes. There may not be anywhere to stop again for 25 kilometers or more, and at our pace that was half a day. It was too cold and wet to take a nap in the minimal emergency gear we carried. At best we could survive inside that stuff, not sleep. The refuge proprietor, perhaps seeing the panic in my and Giorgio's eyes, took some pity on us and announced there was a loft that was difficult to access, but there was space up there for the three of us to lie down. We slithered up a narrow, rickety ladder and wedged our ragged bodies under a sloping roof so low at the bottom that it touched my nose when I lied on my back. I'm normally a picky sleeper and believed I wouldn't find any respite here, but damn did it feel good to rest my weary legs. Within minutes, I was unconscious. 

I woke up in a sweat-soaked startle at what felt like two minutes later, but a glance at my watch told me 47 minutes had passed. I reached toward the spots next to me, which were both empty. Panic returned. Did they leave? Did Ana and Giorgio leave without me? As much as hated this race, I did not want to be left alone up here, high in the mountains, in this refuge that was as unwelcoming and uncomfortable as the icy air outside. I hurried to put on my socks and gather up my pack when I heard two voices downstairs arguing in Spanish. 

From what I gathered later, Ana hadn't slept at all and was becoming increasingly more agitated about burning time. She roused Giorgio and was in the midst of trying to convince him we needed to go while he angled for another hour of rest. That's when I woke up. We would go. I'd been told power naps rejuvenate the soul, but I felt like death warmed over. Before we left, I went to buy two liters of water from the refuge. The bottle cost two euros and I had only a twenty. The proprietor was so annoyed with my large bill that he gave me change in 50-cent coins, even though I could see plenty of five-euro bills in his tin. I thought about dropping the heavy mass of of metal right at his feet in disgust, but then again I didn't have a lot of cash and couldn't afford to throw away 18 euros. I hate to stereotype cultures, but I will say that I don't see myself planning a relaxing holiday in France anytime soon. 

The three of us were so sleepy we were stumbling. I even caught stoic Ana weaving in her steps. The GPS navigation had been a large source of stress, and I thought about asking Giorgio to take the lead for a while. But he didn't have the alternate route programmed into his Garmin, so again I charged ahead. As we stomped down a rough, switchbacking trail, I held my sleepy eyes to the screen and considered that my role as the main navigator was a big flaw in our team's race strategy. I'd been doing a good job of it; although there were many points of confusion, I had yet to lead the group off track. But I was also, as far as I could tell, the weakest member of the team. Giorgio is 26 years old and strong as a bull, and Ana is, well, Ana. She's much faster than me in traditional race settings. It was good to keep the pace down at my level, but the navigational duties added a layer of stress and physical hesitation that cut into my already slow pace. I'm certain I would have been able to move markedly faster with someone else at the helm.

"You're running very well this morning," Ana told me as we marched up a still-muddy field toward a new wall of mountains. The compliment filled me with confidence, and also alerted my conscious to how insecure I was about my physical abilities. "You came to this race under-experienced and under-trained," it told me. "What did you expect?" 

But physical weakness was not my Achilles heel in the PTL. Fear was. I was a confident and enthusiastic leader right until the first hints of dawn began to break, revealing a wall of white in front of us as we marched up the col. "Why is that surface so light?" I wondered out loud. "Is that snow? Is that a snow field?" 

"Is not snow," Ana replied, but she was wrong. The steep, V-shaped valley was filled with a basin of snow that in the pre-dawn hours was frozen as solid as ice. We had no crampons or ax. I had one plastic tent stake that I brought to possibly use as a self-arrest tool in case of a snow climb, but it was useless on the ice crust. Passage above the snowfields was unwise — the slope was incredibly steep and the boulders were loose and slicked in a coating of ice themselves. We would have no choice but to skitter up the snowfield in our running shoes and hope we did not slip. Anxiety rushed back in. Hyperventilation started. Breathe, Jill. Breathe. 

The Monster returned, its yellow-eyed grimace now twisted with joy. Because while Monster only nibbled on my exhaustion, it devoured my fear with glee. There is nothing, you are nothing, it cackled. Breathe, Jill, breathe. My legs trembled. Monster would have been happy to watch me stumble, watch my helpless body careen down the ice into the rocks and stop for good. I had to stay upright. I had to stay strong. 

The surface of the ice was coated in fine hoarfrost, which improved our traction substantially. Still, there were patches of glare ice that were difficult to distinguish from the snow in the low light, and I took my steps more deliberately than Ana and Giorgio. We arrived at the col just as the first hints of sunlight were emerging from the east. A layer of fog shrouded the valley, and the incredible skyline of Mont Blanc filled the horizon above the clouds. It will be difficult for me to describe this moment, and what it meant to me after crawling up the icy col so tired and so full of fear. Monster had a grip on my mind that I was certain couldn't break, a suspicion that maybe the darkness truly was eternal. And, just like that, streaks of sunlight stretched over these mountains and injected my heart with hope. Warm colors caressed the cliffs and sent a torrent of energy through my bloodstream. The depths of my despair swung just as dramatically toward heights of joy. You are not nothing. You are alive. This is not nothing. This is life.

We marched down the other equally steep side of the col into the sunlight with renewed enthusiasm, legs light and flexible, hearts no longer crushed by hopelessness. "This is a mental battle," I reminded myself. "You are not too tired. You are not too weak." Ana and Giorgio were curious how far we'd come, but since we were off the main route, there was no way of knowing. Even on the route, my GPS measurements were wildly off estimates. Here, where we were supposed to be around 70 kilometers in, it had recorded 53 miles of distance on a unit that usually measures short. I suspected that the PTL course had been measured in the same unrealistic straight lines the GPS track drew, and the actual total distance was significantly longer than 293 kilometers. But no matter how I measured it, we were less than a quarter of the way through the course at this juncture — a difficult reality I couldn't think about, even in my heightened state of optimism.

When we crossed over Col de Portette, the second such named col on the route, I realized we were back on the main track and, unfathomably, only at kilometer 70.5. It was 8:30 a.m., there were twelve more kilometers to the first official checkpoint, and we had only until noon to make the cut-off. Twelve kilometers in three and a half hours probably sounds like an amble, but in this PTL surreality, the distance seemed as insurmountable as a four-minute mile. We were still inching down a stomach-clenching steep slope, taking care not to tumble in the chunky talus.

The remaining twelve kilometers weren't even predominantly downhill. We reached a bucolic valley and began a new climb to Col de Niard. After gaining the wide ridge, my notes indicated an astonishing three more named cols to ascend before we finally traversed over to the ski hut where the checkpoint was located. Still, the trails were smoother now — not nearly as treacherous as the earlier parts of the course. "You know," I said in a defeated sigh to finally voice what everyone was thinking. "We are going to have to run."

Giorgio, always the strongest, took off ahead as Ana and I lumbered after him. We'd been engaged in strenuous hiking for so long that my muscle memory had entered a state of decay. "What is this cruel torture?" my legs seemed to say of the crude running motion. The dirt trail was hard and each footfall felt like sharp, hot coals on the macerated soles of my feet. We had increased our pace to barely more than a jog and it felt as energy-draining as an Olympic sprint. I started to feel dizzy, and it occurred to me I had not eaten a thing in a very long while — perhaps since dinner at the refuge nearly nine hours before. I reached into the side pocket of my backpack and started stuffing Haribo Raspberries down my throat almost without chewing.

"You're running very well," Ana said to me.

"We can do it! Yes we can!" Giorgio called out jubilantly from a few paces ahead. "Like your American president. Yes we can!"

There were still several too-steep climbs, and off-trail crawls up bumpy cow-stomped pastures where running was impossible. But for the better part of ten kilometers, we kept up a solid shuffle that was enormously energy-draining and foot-torturing. But our efforts paid off. We arrived at the Plan de l'Aar at 11:21 a.m. feeling toasted. Or at least we thought the effort paid off. At the checkpoint, we found out that the PTL race officials had extended the cut-off by three hours to accommodate the many teams that were still making their way in. "Will the other cut-offs be extended as well?" I inquired. No, a race official told me. You still have to make the other cut-offs on time. Well, that helps. Thanks.

We received our first drop bag at Plan de l'Aar. As I fished through my backpack, I found a lot more food than I expected, given I only started with about 2,000 calories and ate one meal during that time. All in all, I'd gotten through the first 36 hours of the PTL on two 500-calorie bags of gummies, one granola bar, one 440-calorie Snickers bar, one bowl of noodles and broth, and the small pasta meal. "You have to start taking more in," I lectured myself, but given it was starting to seem as though we really had to travel 36 hours between resupplies, I wasn't sure I had much to spare. I grabbed a few more items from my drop bag and announced to Ana and Giorgio that I was going to take a nap. I figured they'd probably whittle a bit more time away and I could steal a few moments for a mid-day snooze. To my surprise, they were both angling for sleep as well. We set an alarm for one hour.

Annoyingly, perhaps because of all the running or because it was the middle of the day, I was too amped up and could not sleep. I got up three or four times to find more water because I felt desperately thirsty, and only drifted to a light snooze about 10 minutes before Giorgio's alarm went off.

Strangely, this power nap was actually refreshing, and the three of us were in a great mood as we started down a nice dirt track below Plan de l'Aar. For the first time, we chatted about things besides the PTL. Giorgio made a pop culture reference that I did not understand, and he said, "Of course you don't know, you are old." To which I could only laugh. Life was good.

The happy times continued through a friendly, rolling climb across a ski area, where Giorgio and Ana stopped at another refuge for a snack. I decided to forgo food for another 10-minute nap (I still couldn't convince myself I was low on energy because of calorie depletion. In my mind, it was all about sleep.) I woke up shivering in the cold wind, but refreshed.

We dropped into the village of Annuit too late to purchase more food, which Giorgio had been angling for. I got the sense that he and Ana hadn't packed enough snacks to make up for the surprising lack of resupply options, but when I offered him some of my peanut butter, he politely crinkled his nose. Ah, European food snobbery. I'd been out of water for a couple of hours, and demanded we stop at a local home's fountain that Giorgio and Ana were too suspicious to use. Another massive climb began anew. As darkness fell, my Monster returned to renew his soul-crushing prowl, this time convincing me that my hopelessness could only be cured by sleep. I stumbled and faltered. "Maybe just sit down for five minutes," I appealed to my team, but we could only sit down for one minute before all of us were wracked with shivers from the cold. At one point I brushed an electric cattle fence by accident. The sharp jolt of electricity that ripped through my arm was enormously painful. It felt as though someone had dropped a hot anvil on the left side of my body. But it sure woke me up — the most effective anti-fatigue aid I'd found yet. I wondered, if I came across another electric fence while sleepy, could I bring myself to grab it on purpose?

There was no trail up the slope, which was a maze of grassy ledges, rock outcroppings, and unclimbable cliffs. The GPS track was becoming incredibly difficult to follow. As I scanned the cliffs with my headlight, I surmised there couldn't be many safe ways up these walls, and I was determined to find the right one. Other teams were fanned out across the slope, and my own shivering teammates were not pleased with my cautious progression. "I'm not going to go blindly scrambling up some rocks that I might not be able to climb down," I snapped at them. "If you're sure that's the way, go ahead and yell back at me when you find something. For now I'm going to stick with the track." Giorgio and Ana veered to the left briefly but couldn't determine the route either, and returned. At least I was making consistent forward progress, compared to other teams we could see returning from the cliffs in both directions.

Eventually I found the crest of Col de la Gitte, 5,000 feet of elevation above Annuit. As I rifled through a side pocket for my gummy snacks, I realized that my course notes were missing. I'd actually avoided putting them in that pocket for that reason, but kept them there through the last few kilometers for easy access because the route was so difficult to determine. And now they were gone. They could be anywhere. Anxiety returned. Hyperventilation crept up. Giorgio asked me what was wrong. "I ... lost ... them," I panted. "I ... can't ... believe it. I lost the course notes."

Giorgio did not seem to think this was a big deal. I'm not sure he realized how much I was leaning on them to make decisions about directions as well as time estimates. I viewed their loss as a major setback, and I felt terrible. Well, there was nothing we could do about that now except press forward, now blindly following that little green line on the GPS screen. That's when navigation really got hard.

It was obvious from Col de la Gitte that the slope plunged into a very narrow canyon and climbed just as steeply out the other side. At eye level we could see the headlights of teams on the other side of the canyon, and I knew from recollections of the notes that we had at least 3,000 feet of altitude to lose and then regain before the next col. Along the ridge ran a faint jeep trail, but the track indicated we go straight down. Other teams were already fanning out on the grassy slope that seemed to plunge off the edge of the Earth.

"We go that way," Ana said as she pointed to the jeep road.

"No, that's not the way," I replied.

She was incredulous and persisted. "That is the way," she said. "That is the track."

"It's a track but it's not the way," I insisted. "I don't even know where that trail goes. Do you know where it goes?"

She huffed with unveiled frustration and moved in front of me to follow one of the teams making their way down the slope. The brief team mutiny had begun. "Ana, I don't know where they're going either," I called out. "Ana, please, it's too steep. There are cliffs everywhere. We have to take the right way. We have to follow the GPS."

She pointed to the headlights on the other side of the canyon — headlights that were a 3,000-foot descent and subsequent climb away. "There are people over there," she said. "We go that way."

I couldn't understand what she meant. Did she really think those were lights to follow? They were five hours ahead of us, at least. "Ana, we'd have to sprout wings to follow those people," I said. "Can't you see there's a huge canyon in the way?"

I experienced my own internal mutiny and turned away. "Do what you want. I am going to follow the track," I said. Giorgio followed me, but Ana continued behind the other team.

"They'll all be back," I said to Giorgio. "This is where the track goes."

Sure enough, the GPS track led us into a narrow grassy drainage that was all but hidden from view in the darkness of night. Following a drainage was a reassuring sign, even though this direction was unnervingly steep and slicked with wet grass and rocks. At least it wasn't a full cliff to climb down. "Down here," I screamed up at Ana, and Giorgio and I sat down to wait for her. For some reason she still refused to believe this was the way. Five minutes passed and Giorgio started shivering uncontrollably. When Ana finally relented after the other team abandoned their diversion, she couldn't find a way down to us. The drainage had near-vertical rock walls on both sides, and the only way in was from the very top. "Back there and then down," I screamed, pointing my headlamp at the place where we entered the drainage. "Back there and down." But she seemed determined to take a direct route toward us when none existed, and continued to skim the dangerous cliffs. I was becoming incredibly frustrated with the situation. I was the navigator, that made me the leader, and I had no power to control my team. We were losing a lot of time to this misunderstanding.

Ana seemed upset with me as I continued to direct the team down the grassy drainage. It was very slick and there were enough waterfall-like dropoffs to convince me that it was unwise to diverge more than 80 feet from the straight-line track, which often meant making confusingly frequent switchbacking turns. I also paused often to scan the drainage for the smoothest route. Ana was still quick to push ahead and follow the other team, who were continuously turning around because they chose a bad line and ran into cliffs. I felt unnervingly close to blowing up and losing my temper on Ana, but I refrained. I just don't think Ana understood how difficult the navigation really was here, and we were all exhausted and cranky. But I was ready to sit down and give up myself. I'd genuinely had it with, as Giorgio frequently put it, this f****** race.

At the bottom of the canyon, we reconnected with a dirt road where Giorgio launched his own mutiny. He sat down on the dirt and refused to stand up. "I must sleep," he said. "I am too tired, I must sleep."

At that point the temperature was well below freezing. There was thick frost on the grass and ice layers across the creeks. It was about the worst possible time to try to crawl into my parachute-like bothy bag and attempt to snooze. Otherwise, I would have fully condoned it. "We can't sleep now," I snapped. "It's too cold. It's below zero. The bag can't keep us warm. And there's not even enough room for all of us to lay down. It's for emergencies, not sleep."

"I must sleep," Giorgio persisted. "One hour. One hour would be amazing."

I was at the edge of my patience. I was the weak one on the team, the inexperienced one, and I was starting to feel like the designated babysitter. "I felt just like you do now, six hours ago, when we were sitting by the cattle fence," I snapped. "I got through it. So can you." I surprised myself at just how short-tempered and uncompassionate I was being. Monster had a tighter grip on me than I even knew.

Giorgio staggered to his feet but continued to drag behind us, sitting down at intervals and announcing that he must sleep now. We would stop briefly but continue on until he followed suit. On this side of the canyon, the slope again steepened dramatically and the route ventured cross-country through the talus. We were lucky to join up with an Italian team who engaged Giorgio in conversation, and as dawn crept over the horizon, he emerged from his funk. Ana's impatience also seemed worn down and she was more calm, allowing me and the Italian team time to work through the latest puzzle of narrow passages and cliffs.

We reached the crest of the Roc du Vent right at sunrise, and again the new light and color drained away a seemingly uncrossable ocean of frustration and despair. My teammates had their moments, but so did I, and all and all we were a good match. We were behind the cut-offs, and we always would be, but we could continue to press forward until someone made us stop. Think of all of the beautiful moments we'd miss out on if we quit? All the adventures we'd had? All the challenges we'd overcome? But Giorgio was right. We had to sleep. And I was going to demand it.
Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A strange form of life

a strange form of life 
kicking through windows 
rolling on yards 
heading in loved ones' 
triggering eyes 
a strange one 

— From "Strange Form of Life" by Bonnie Prince Billy

I often wonder about the power of choice. Can I choose to override my basic biological signals, hunger and pain, security and warmth? Can I choose to keep moving without stopping, to deny fatigue its ever-tightening grip? How much free agency do I have? How many unbendable rules am I bound to? I dream of an expansive world of choices that I can follow into the horizon, beyond the limits of every choice I have ever made. Now, all of my choices have come to this moment — hands swaddled in wet neoprene kayaking gloves, tights torn with streaks of blood near the hip, shoulders shaking as I cling to a rocky outcropping somewhere high in the French Alps, lost to my senses in the icy rain.

 It's only the second night of La Petite Trotte à Léon, just 24 hours in, and already my field of vision is wrapped in an undulating frame of vertigo. I hug the rocks tighter as I glance down at a stream of headlamps still making their way up the wall. It's a wall made out of wet grass and peanut butter mud, thick and oozing, that pulled our scrambling legs down the mountain faster than we could climb. Now, just fifty meters from what promised to be the top, we reach an actual wall of loose shale, slicked with frozen rain. There is no way up, no way up, and the GPS dot only dances around on the screen like a laughing clown. In my wildest dreams I would choose to go down, quit this race, end this nonsense. Only I know that descending this slope would be suicide. It's too steep and slick, and if we start sliding, we'd keep going. Such things have happened to people before, to hikers who are unable to self-arrest on muddy slopes. One reporter in Juneau described this as "falling to your death in a meadow."

Two headlamps clinging to the cliff side-by-side directly below remind me of the prowling eyes of a mountain lion. "Is this the route?" Ana calls up to me. "I don't know," I reply with little more than a whisper, and then I cough a louder response. "I just don't know. I really don't know."

Panic begins to gurgle from my gut, and I fight back with deep breaths. "You chose this," I remind myself. "You chose this." I glance into an abyss pierced with streaks of rain and scanning headlights, and wonder how many choices I have. One is falling to my death in a meadow. I'd happily settle for two.

La Petite Trotte à Léon. 185 miles with 80,000 feet of climbing in 136 hours or less. It doesn't sound that difficult, does it? Stay with me here. It sounds doable, at least. A great, grueling challenge, one that's sure to test physical limits and the power of choice —but ultimately doable, right? The simple idea that we as individuals had what it took to complete this challenge is what drew Ana, Giorgio and I together in our patchwork international PTL team. Ana and Giorgio had both previously completed the Tor des Geants, another race in the Italian Alps with a similar elevation and distance profile. I was a newbie to multiday Alpine racing, but I had a little more "mid-mountain" experience based on a relatively short stint of scrambling in Juneau and long-ago climbs in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. I was also the most experienced with GPS navigation, thanks to my bikepacking background, so I was designated navigator. In pre-race correspondence, the three of us all presented ourselves as easy-going, adaptable people. But no one was willing to step forward as a clear leader. And the fact remained that we were virtual strangers to each other, with a language barrier, in an endeavor where team dynamics and communication are key.

Still, enthusiasm and optimism were both high once we all met for the first time in Chamonix. I was probably the most subdued; Beat and I had just flown in from San Francisco and arrived in town 24 hours before. We struggled through the jet lag for minimal sleep on Sunday night, and then Monday brought its requisite chores and race duties, served with a thick dollop of doom. Starting off a long race sleep-deprived? Well, it's already six days. What's one more?

After experiencing the deafening hype of the UTMB race start last year, I expected the PTL start to be equally subdued. Still, there was a fair turnout for the ridiculously late (or early, depending on your perspective) 10 p.m. start under the big UTMB arch in downtown Chamonix. We ran through the dark city streets soaking up the energizing cheers of a half-mile-long crowd. Close to 90 teams, overwhelmingly from Europe but with a few stragglers from the United States, Japan, and even Brazil, quickly formed a conga line up the steep singletrack to Col de Brevent. The pace was friendly and the mood was jovial as we followed a string of headlamp lights into the starry sky. The first pass gained 4,500 feet in four miles on relatively smooth trail, which — although unbeknownst to us at the time — was easy coasting in the PTL. Life was good.

Throughout the night we traced our way along the incredible cliffs of a limestone plateau, dropping 2,500 feet into narrow valleys and climbing similar amounts onto cols whose names were already becoming inconsequential among the long list of summits yet to be reached. Through the darkness our team carried on small talk. Giorgio sang songs from his collection of favorite covers, including the Cyndi Lauper part in "We Are the World." I talked about the beautiful night and all the photographs I would take if only the sun were up. Ana, who was shy about communicating in English, stoically marched along with a comforting rhythm. We still had nearly everything to learn about each other. Despite this, few words about outside world — or our lives before the PTL — were ever uttered. It was a life we had to leave behind, simply because there was no space for our individual pasts in this overwhelming present.

As the darkness crept toward dawn, frost collected on the grass and coated rocks in an icy film. Any clear summer night in the Alps is likely to drop below freezing, especially above 2,000 meters. Ana and Giorgio seemed uncomfortable with the cold, and established these pre-dawn hours as a time when we must not stop moving. But difficulties were presenting themselves in the route-finding, and I often had to pause to determine the general direction of the route on a talus slope or grassy field. Rather than draw a flowing path along the map, the GPS track connected point-to-point dots with straight lines — meaning that although it was possible to determine which direction we needed to go, it wasn't always easy to tell how we were supposed to get there. The line itself shot toward rock outcroppings and plunged over precipices. Ana, who was not carrying a GPS, was quick to become impatient with me whenever I paused to scrutinize the track. Especially in the cold hours of the night, she often shouldered her way ahead, to which I could only shrug. "Where does she think she's going?"

Early hiccups in team morale were resolved once the sun came up, revealing a clear and colorful day in this most unbelievable place — the Alps! How did we even get here? The fact that we had traveled 19 miles over three big cols was already forgotten. The day was new. We descended to a refuge where Giorgio ordered tea and bread, and sat down to enjoy his breakfast. How innocent we were in those first few blissful hours, when we still believed we'd have time in the race to stop. I perused the course notes, which listed the "fastest" and "slowest" estimated times for each landmark. The slowest times were meant to indicate what pace was needed to stay ahead of three official cut-offs. My stomach dropped when I realized that we were already only 15 minutes in front of the designated slowest pace. How was that even possible? We were only 31 kilometers into the race; we were fresh and had moved well all through the night with few stops. There were still at least two dozen teams behind us, probably more. How could all of us be too slow? But there wasn't much time to reflect on that. We had to get moving.

It was difficult to boost Giorgio out of his comfy refuge chair. He mused about delicious meals and relaxing stops in the Tor des Geants, and teased "the girls who want only to walk" in the PTL. But Ana understood the importance of staying ahead of the slowest estimated times; somewhere in there were minutes we would have difficulty making up. I was heading into my third day without adequate sleep, and felt strongly that we'd have to find time to rest if we stood a chance in this race. "There's a checkpoint with soup in six kilometers," I urged Giorgio. "Common, we'll be there in two hours."

Just how slow can 6 kilometers go in the PTL? When most of it is descending? The following is a photo essay of the cold blast of reality we were about to receive as we crawled down Tré l'Epaule.

Teams line-up on the chains. It's like a Disneyland ride, but a lot less fun.

Ana: "Where is the route?" Me, in what was becoming my signature phrase: "I don't know. I really don't know."

We waited in this line for 35 minutes. It was a pretty straightforward rope rappel, but there was a tricky spot near the bottom where I misplaced my foot, slipped, and bashed my right elbow very hard. Ow, ow, ow. I spent about 20 seconds death-gripping the rope as my biceps began to fail while dangling over a ten-foot drop and panicking that I had broken my elbow.

My elbow proved to be flexible but did swell some, and the joint throbbed painfully as we continued down many full-body scrambles and rope descents.

It was a beautiful place, this rugged and fear-inducing descent.

Aw, seriously? Remind me to join a climbing gym if this asinine idea ever crawls back into my head.

By the time we reached Refuge de Veran, five hours had passed. Six kilometers in five hours. Five hours! By now even Giorgio was sold on the reality that this entire race was going to be a battle behind the cut-offs, and gulped down his tiny bowl of noodles and broth as I changed my socks and applied Beat's homemade "Hydro Lube" to my feet. I'll go on the record right now to say that this home-brewed anti-blister agent is about the most amazing substance on the planet. Even as the brutal kilometers dragged on and I lost all interest in everything including eating and taking care of basic needs, my feet remained clean and blister-free.

Photo by Dima Feinhaus
Happy feet aside, the terrifying descent was far from over once we left the refuge. The remaining 3,500 feet of elevation loss plunged down a thickly vegetated ravine that I would describe as "Juneau hiking, but steeper, and with ladders." A slick, muddy trail snaked through the forest above short but near-vertical cliffs. Any slipping off the trail would have led to 10- and even 15-foot falls. In many ways this part of the route was scarier than the rocks, because the mud made it even less manageable.

Rain started to fall in force just as we hit the village of Magland. It was fine at 500 meters and the warmth of that low altitude, but the wind picked up and the chill clamped down as we climbed into the Aravis mountains. This was another one of those ascents where we were climbing directly toward a vertical rock wall. I thought, "there's no way we're going to continue climbing into that. No way." But, sure enough, at the base of the cliffs, the trail faded into an extremely narrow ledge strung with frayed and sometimes broken cables. The ledge itself was off-camber and muddy; each footstep pushed several extra inches toward the precipice. Every 50 meters or so, we'd scramble up a wet rock outcropping and join a higher ledge with more sketchy cables. I remember Beat telling me once that "the French don't really care what happens to you in their mountains." I was trying to decide whether scrambling was more dangerous with the cable or without.

As we climbed another high meadow into the piercing rain, I was feeling demoralized. It wasn't that any of the obstacles so far were overly difficult or unworkable. It just seemed that all of them put together made for a impossibly slow race, with more kilometers to cover than time to do so, and I did not want to feel the constant pressure to rush through such difficult and often dangerous terrain. Near a shepherd's chalet, we encountered a team who had turned around. They informed us that it was unlikely any of us in this part of the pack could stay ahead of the cut-offs, and they'd had some equipment failures that cemented the deal. Ana was incredulous. "There's only eight kilometers until we reach the refuge where we can get some sleep," I told Giorgio and Ana. "Two, maybe three hours of rest will do us a world of good."

On the other side of a small pass, the trail disappeared and the relatively solid dirt was replaced by a thick, cow-stopped mud with the consistency of peanut butter and the traction of motor oil. We dug our heels into clumps of grass and struggled to stay upright, falling numerous times on our butts. As the slope steepened, falls netted a few inches of sliding, and then a few inches more, until I was staring into the vertical ravine below the grassy slope and wondering just how far we could slide. Twilight faded to darkness. We took each of our steps deliberately, inching down a slope that from the sky would have looked easy. The GPS track was difficult to follow, and even after Giorgio joined in with his GPS unit, confusion reigned. I did not want to drop too close to the ravine, but GPS signaled only one way: down.

Finally at the bottom, we took a breather beneath tall trees. These descents were stressful and had taken a lot out of us. "It's just four more kilometers to the refuge," I panted.

"We eat. We sleep. Start with a new day," Giorgio agreed.

It was there the GPS track veered inexplicably to the left toward a thick clump of alder branches along a veritable waterfall of a creek. There was certainly no trail through the brush. As we hacked our way around the vicinity of the track, at least five other teams caught up to us. Suddenly there were more than a dozen of us bunched together, headlights streaming through the rain, searching into nothingness. "Is that the route?" Ana called up to me.

"I don't know. I really don't know."

Somehow I found a mushy animal trail, but it was close to right point for the GPS track, so I beckoned the group. Ana and Giorgio had fallen behind a few other people. A team I didn't know was right on my ass, impatiently edging toward me as I clawed up the trail. When it became impossible to gain purchase with my feet, I wedged my poles into my backpack and wrapped my hands around clumps of grass to use as leverage while I pulled my body through the mud. When one of those clumps of grass broke, I slipped backward into the man behind me. I could feel my butt hit one of his shoulders as he grunted loudly and slid back a few inches himself. I grabbed a new clump of grass and glanced at the stream of headlights behind me. To my terror, they appeared to be directly below, as though we were climbing a vertical wall. If I fell and the dude behind me lost his balance, what kind of domino effect would that create? I imagined a landslide of bodies careening through the mud to the rocks far below. "Please don't follow so close," I whimpered. "I am looking for the way, I am going as fast as I can. Please, if you want to go ahead, say so and go. But don't follow so close." He grunted again. I don't think he understood.

The peanut butter mud oozed downward. My feet lost traction with every passing millisecond whether I moved or not; there was nothing I could do but scale this mud wall as quickly as possible. My quads screamed as I launched into a fast scramble, digging my neoprene-clad fingers deep into the sludge and pushing forward with every ounce of strength I could give. It was a red-line effort, not the kind of energy one wants to expend during a six-day race. But I felt I had no choice.

My quads were exhausted to the point of failure; every leg muscle was quivering and my glutes were twitching, but I reached a perch on more solid rock. By this point I'd gotten a fair distance ahead of the teams behind me, and Giorgio and Ana had caught back up. But there was no clear way through the rock; it was more vertical than ever, and slicked with an icy film now that the temperature had dropped near freezing. Giorgio and Ana, also fed up with this col, branched off from my line to look for "the route." According to my GPS, the top was fewer than 50 meters away. I swallowed all of my terror and exhaustion and let it wash over me in a eerie sort of calm. This was survival mode, now.

I worked my way up the rock outcropping until it became clear that this thing was not climbable. Giorgio and Ana had fallen behind me again and I yelled at them that we had to go right, that there had to be another drainage across this small rib that did not end in a cliff. The other teams seemed to be working their way in that direction, although without significant descending there was no easy way over there for us. I slid down the chute while death-gripping clumps of grass until I reached the base of the rib. Giorgio had tried to go up and over the rib, where he ran into another cliff. The only way across where I stood was to jump across a smooth sheet of rock that looked like a waterslide. Landing anywhere on the rock would likely send me careening down the drainage. Jumping was the last thing I wanted to do, but my choices were unclimbable cliffs, or more sketchy descending. Or jump.

"Be brave, be strong," I chanted. "Be brave, be strong. Oh, screw brave and strong. This is the absolute stupidest thing I've ever done." I launched my body into the air and landed in the mud just inches from the ledge, sliding downhill as I grasped for grass clumps. With a heavy dose of adrenaline I shot up the drainage, skidding across loose shale and grabbing blindly at boulders, and joined Giorgio where he'd found a way around the cliff. We guided Ana through Giorgio's route, and hobbled up to Col de l'Oulettaz, broken in every way but the one that mattered.

But it was the one that mattered. We weren't broken yet. We were just in the middle of a bad dream, an incredibly bad dream, and we were a seemingly insurmountable number of miles from anywhere else.