Sunday, October 30, 2011

Darkest before dawn

Top of the relatively easy Col Lazoney (only 2700ft climbing) on a nice warm day.

We came into Gressoney feeling good, maybe even too good. The term "loopy" comes to mind. We'd made it through the dreaded "section 4" and managed a little sleep in Niel before completing a short climb in the heat of the day. This was followed by a long gradual downhill where we got in a bit of running and I even took time to soak my legs in a creek. Conversation died down as we strolled along the road happily approaching the 200K mark, our trekking poles scratching along the pavement. Harry started tapping his in time. Tap....tap....tap, tap, tap. I joined in watching Harry fall into a march, bobbing his head. The silliness continued to grow, culminating with Harry planting his poles at his sides and kicking up his heels as if performing a jig. We both burst into laughter and I regretting not whipping out my camera to video it as there is no way our other friends would be able to properly envision the scene.

Baby lamb during our relaxing descent
The goal was to shoot for 2 hours sleep. Harry wanted to clean up, but I headed straight for the cots after eating. Within 40 minutes I was wide awake. I tried futilely for another 15 minutes, but it was useless. Harry was sleeping soundly and I didn't want to wake him. However, I knew laying around for an hour was not going to do me any good. I tried to explain that I could go on ahead and we would most certainly meet up later, but Harry would have none of it. He'd do with only an hour. We headed out just before sunset feeling mostly OK.

Just as we we were leaving town there was an intersection along the path with no course markings. In retrospect, it was probably quite obvious which was the correct way, but we hadn't quite fully gathered our diminishing wits so were overcautious. We stopped to check the map and our GPS programs. As we stood there, we noticed a couple of blonde women walking towards us from the opposite direction, one wearing a race number. It was all a bit confusing in our stunted state so we didn't recognize that it was Anne from Alaska along with Jill. I'm sure Jill thought we were completely out of it. When she told us of the steep section ahead, we tried to explain that we weren't too worried if it was "only steep" (i.e. not "steep and covered in boulders" or "steep and lined muddy" or...). I think the poorly executed humor was lost.

The course took us through some town that seemed deserted before starting the climb. Of course, the climbing was steep as promised, but nothing too extraordinary for the course. At Alpenzu we enjoyed cappuccinos before heading over Col Pinter in the dark. The climb was unremarkable, but the descent was another of those that began steep and then seemed to stretch for ever before reaching the next checkpoint. We were tired and planned another nap once we reached Refugio Crest. Of course, this made the section seem even longer. It didn't help that upon arriving, the check-in and sleeping quarters were separated by a bit of distance. At any rate, we had a decent little sleep followed by more cappuccino.

Looking tired at the top of Pinter

"What goes up, must come down." However, at TDG it always seems to go up again first. The short section (up and) down into Saint Jacques was tedious. We didn't stay long, but it was clear the race was taking its toll on many as we saw people being taped up and patched up here. The sun was about to rise and we'd another climb in front of us. Travelling along a stream in a protected valley at dawn, the temperature plummeted. Layer upon layer went on as I bundled up for the first time since the initial rain storm on day 1. 

Wasn't I just too warm yesterday?
Gran Tournalin was one of the most magnificent refugios. Large and accommodating, they offered a bit more than the standard race fare. After eating Harry and I both leaned back in our booth and dozed off for a few minutes on the wooden benches. It was just enough to feel refreshed and ready to brave the cold again. Like night and day, the minute we exited the shade of the peak, the layers were stripped off on the climb up Col di Nana.

Wasn't I just too cold a few minutes ago?
A brief descent...
another col...
and we were headed into Valtournenche...
...the second to last "Life Station."

For some reason, my memory of this place is a bit hazy. I don't think we slept as we headed up the next climb again during the hottest part of the day. It wasn't difficult, though I lagged a bit behind Harry here. In fact, he somehow managed to walk right past the first checkpoint causing much confusion and unnecessary stress when he informed the volunteers at the next stop.

After the initial climb, this section remained up high with short climbs over minor passes. Initially I'd been very concerned about the extended time above 8000ft, but we were quite acclimated by this point. I was also worried about a repeat of section 4, but it turned out to be quite nice here with plenty of easy trail. We managed most of it before sunset allowing us to enjoy the amazing vistas.

Part of Monte Rosa, I believe
Matterhorn from the Italian side
It was a bit warm.
Harry and the high, alpine cows
Sunset is coming.
We began the long drop into Close in the dark. Not only did it begin with one of the steepest descents on course, but the trail consisted of soft, loose gravel that slid beneath our feet at every step. We proceeded more by sliding than anything and remaining upright became a challenge. Indeed, I failed to do so on at least one occasion. I did't feel anything significant at the time, but I believe this is where the tightness in the front part of my lower leg was exacerbated into something much more. The steepness and loose dirt eventually subsided. It was replaced instead by a sudden lack of ribbons over a wet, marshy field. We'd been warned of the cows propensity to eat ribbons and had actually witnessed some of it on the high sections. I guess they had been through this field before heading up.

After wandering about for a while, Harry and I each pulled out our phones that contained the program Beat had written for just such an occasion. It found our location on the GPS, overlayed it on a map of the course and indicated where we were with respect to the proper path. Brilliant! In fact, we'd probably of gotten back on route even quicker, but we were joined by a couple of Hungarian racers. Explaining the situation to them took as much time as finding the next marker.

We entered Close on a short climb as the trail dropped below the level of town before reaching it. We were tired and a bit grumpy. We should have slept there. We only saw two beds in the checkpoint and, for some reason, I got it in my head to be closer to the top of the next pass before sleeping. Despite the fact that the volunteers weren't sure of the facilities at the next stop and despite the fact that we passed a big tent that seemed to have more cots in it and despite Harry's question as to whether we might be making a mistake, I pushed on. We walked like zombies up the steep climb through the woods. Stumbling and falling asleep on our feet. We didn't talk much, but I could feel Harry's frustration growing along with my own guilt. 

Bruson L'Arp was little more than a small camp around a fire. There was a single tent setup for sleeping and it was pretty full. The bottom of the tent seemed to be lined with some sort of corrugated tin. Wrapped in nothing but our jackets we tossed and turned for an hour. The worst "sleep" of the entire race was no way to end an already difficult night. Upon waking one of the Hungarians, a young lady I'd seen since day one, was sitting in the chair in the tent. I hadn't witnessed her taking a single picture on the course, but for some reason the sight of Harry and I in that horrible state moved her to record the moment. In broken English she uttered, "You guys can sleep anywhere."

At the top of the climb, I made my own record of my condition at the time. It wasn't pretty.

However, it was morning, we were moving and headed into Ollomont: the final of the major "life station" checkpoints and a name I'd set in my mind. After that, it was "only" 50K to the finish. For the first time in days the end actually seemed conceivable, but the challenges were far from over. With one last look at the sun rising over the valley, we crossed the pass and headed down.


Danni said...


Sarah Lavender Smith said...

Hi Mountain Man Steve,
I just found your blog through a comment on Scott Dunlap's blog and am trying to get in touch with you for a Trail Runner story I'm reporting. Would you mind contacting me by email or phone? or 510.928.4545

Chris said...

Hi Steve,
your report brings back fond memories. You guys came through the same places at about the same times as I did, and it looks like you felt about the same too!