Sunday, November 11, 2012

Failing into Success (part two of a few)

A big climb lay ahead, but before arriving at its start there was a seemingly short section described in the official guidebook as follows:
Go to the end of the car‐park and take the path called "Voie Francigena" (old route running from Rome to the abbey at Canterbury) which leads to Bovernier and which follows the river Dranse
I think, in my mind, I had some sort of well-laid, ancient "Roman Road" running alongside a river side. What we had instead was a forest trail that seemed to be under construction, running through the hills above the river. It went up, and then went down. Then it went up, up and then down and then up, up, get the point. It all seemed very pointless. I mean, there was the river down below us going about its business in a relatively direct manner and here we were wandering all over the hillside. This seemed the most ridiculous manner to "follow" it. The trail wasn't terribly difficult, just enough so to be annoying. In a way it reminded me of the trail at the beginning of the horrific "Section 4" at TDG that took 3 miles of crazy climbing up and down to end up about a mile or so from where we'd started. Unfortunately, the parallels with that section of that race would not end here. We were headed into a very long night.

Eventually the trail ended along some grape vines which led to the bridge across the river. We found the water spigot that Harry had so thoughtfully added as a waypoint to your GPX track then went about trying to find our way to the start of the trail. This was our first lesson in realizing that even with a GPS and detailed track, it was still possible to get lost. What it did do was to make sure we could eventually find our way back. When Harry and I first discussed this section we had talked about napping before this big climb. It had just gone dark and there was a really nice shelter at the trailhead that would have been an ideal spot. Indeed, we found Beat and Daniel just getting up from a nap. Why we didn't take their place before heading up I really can't say now. We hadn't slept yet, we were certainly tired and we had more than 6000 feet of climbing before us. The only thing I can think is that perhaps the lure of the first checkpoint on the other side was just too much to resist.

Unfortunately, what lay between us and that checkpoint was Le Catogna. It isn't a very pretty mountain. It's not especially dramatic and it doesn't seem to be connected to any other range if peaks. It's basically just this giant mass of dirt and granite plopped in the middle of the valley. Any reasonable person would surely just go around it to get to the other side. Anybody familiar with the path we were about to take would question whether anything on the other side was worth the trip. By the time we finished it, Harry would re-dedicate this mass as "Bitch Mountain". I'm not sure if that's meat as an adjective describing the mound or a verb explaining what we did while traversing it.

Le Catogne
Our approximate path over (right to left) after the steep ascent through the forest
The beginning of the path didn't seem so bad. It was a steep, but well marked path leading up through the woods. It didn't take us long to get sleepy and Beat and Daniel passed by then disappeared ahead as we took a 15 minute sit/snooze break. After the initial direct climb, the path began to meander. Every time I thought we'd be heading up to break through the trees, we would head back down a bit or meander in one direction or the other. I had the distinct impression that we weren't actually going anywhere. There were a couple false paths and a few places where we had to climb over downed trees or push through thick brush, but in general it just seemed endless. No doubt having been awake for 2 days straight coupled with the deep woods masked any sense of where we were or the direction we were heading.

Eventually, though, we did come out into the clear. We stood in what appeared to be a large grassy field. We knew that we had to traverse over to the "Col de Guides", but it really seemed like we were on one side of the mountain and the discernible ridge where we were headed was on the complete other side. It seemed this way because it was basically true. This traverse basically consisted of following any one of a dozen paths cambered along the hillside not much wider than my feet. These paths would occasionally end and we would have to find another or sometimes just stare at he GPS track zoomed in to the 30ft range and just follow it regardless of trail. I had (false) hopes that the traverse would go directly to the ridge and then just head down. Unfortunately, as we approached it we could see headlights going up the ridge far above, but could not tell where they went over. It didn't become any clearer the closer we went.

When we arrived at the rocky section along the ridge it was clear why. There wasn't really any trail to speak of. There were markers on the rocks above and there was the GPS track. There was lots of scrambling, bushwhacking and cursing as we headed up into the seemingly endless pile of boulders above us. Had we looked at our guidebooks we would have seen the following description: Attention, steep sections! You need to understand that this is the Alps and everything is steep. To give an idea of what this warning might indicate, nowhere did this caution appear in the 3.6 mile, 5000ft climb up Le Buet. It did not appear on the cabled descent from that summit either. But, for Le Catogne it was reiterated about the upcoming descent for which it would be a drastic understatement. For now, however, we climbed. We could see two lights moving up above us. As we picked and scratched our way up this beast, one of them pointed back toward us and from it came Beat's voice. "How do you like Le Catogne?" The response I gave, is really not suitable for print.

Of course, we did reach the "col" for what its worth. It didn't seem much of a pass, just the point at which the path decided to head over. We took a break before heading down. I'm not even sure I can do justice to the descent from the Col des Guides. We'd climbed up on mostly large boulders. The route down was mostly over gardens of rocks. Sharp rocks. I remember thinking that many of the descents were we had used chains or cables to assist us seemed far, far less dangerous than this mess. Sure, there was no sheer cliff from which to fall, but tumbling into a bed of large pointy rocks was no less perilous. Once we survived the rocky section, it went from insane to simply absurd. There was a trail. However, it appeared to have been constructed by rolling giant boulders down the steepest part of the mountain. I literally had to jump down on parts of it and use tree branches to support me on others. Harry was even less happy than me about this wreck of a trail. To keep our growing fowl moods from amplifying one another, I went ahead.

Despite the incredible steepness, I started to just go with it. Hopping, scrambling, almost tumbling my way down. That was a mistake. When I got far enough ahead to need to wait for Harry, he caught up only to let me know we had missed a turn. We both looked at our GPSes and while it appeared the direction we were headed would bring us more directly to town, it clearly wasn't the way we were supposed to go. Before either of us could get too much into the cursing that the situation rightly deserved, I immediately headed up. It was literally a climb to get back up the trail which made it seem even longer than it was. We were less than 1/2 mile off, but it was extra distance and difficulty that neither of us needed after all we had been through this night. (To give a sense of this descent, a look at my GPS track from the section reveals that we'd dropped over 2,200 feet in a about 1.1 miles.)

The only saving grace was that the proper trail, while significantly less direct, did become less technical. In fact, the final section of it was basically a dirt road. When that ended at a paved road we found ourselves at the edge of town. The town was silent and sound asleep. I believe it was approaching 5am by this point. Catogne had taken us all night. After wandering about the streets staring at our GPSes we eventually found came upon the big white tents of the checkpoint. After sorting through a few items in our drop bags and choking down a plate of the worst pasta I've ever tasted in my life, we were shown to our cots to enjoy a glorious couple hours of much needed sleep.


Jill Homer said...

Great recaps. I had to laugh about the pointless ascent of Bitch Mountain and my own memories of that horrible UTMB-sponsored pasta.

Unknown said...

Ugh, that brought back memories with a vengeance!
I had totally forgotten about that pasta from hell.

Chris said...

Well, I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one to think that Catogne was nothing but a cruel detour. My knees were shot in Martigny and they were really gone by the time I reached Champex. Looking forward to reading about the part I missed. Chris