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. 
Friday, September 06, 2019

So much vert available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guys arrived just after midnight in good spirits, but Pieter had injured his quad/adductor muscles in one leg, and was unsure about his ability to continue. That's about all the news I received in the 2.4 minutes I was able to talk to the guys before they were whisked inside the life base. But it was worth it. 
Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Mountains, mountains everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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