Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Failing into Success (part three of many)

Sometimes dawn comes before it's darkest


The question of sleep generally follows right after "do you stop?" when people first learn that you participate in 100-milers. For most races, the answer is "no". However, for an event like PTL sleep is not only essential, it is a key piece of the strategy for finishing. Not only do you need to figure out your own sleep requirements, you need to reconcile this with your teammate's needs. For some teams, taking longer breaks allows them to move more quickly between stops. For Harry and I, our experience at Tor des Géants taught us that sleep breaks would at best be around 2-3 hours supplemented by short trail naps as needed.

The first night's sleep was a mixed bag. Dozing off into oblivion certainly felt oh so sweet, but waking up to the reality of where we were and what we were doing was harsh. It was doubly so knowing that the feelings of tiredness and fatigue that were settling in would stay with us and only continue to deepen over the 120-plus miles still to go. I wandered around the checkpoint in a fog trying to get myself together and take in as much caffeine as I could. Our friends had apparently been sleeping here when we arrived because I found that Beat had left me a replacement bladder from his drop bag. This picked my spirits up a bit, but I still felt  in a half-daze as we hit the trail.

It didn't take more than a couple miles before a slow, but comfortable rhythm set in. The one good thing about moving under the cloud of exhaustion is that you are freed from certain logistics. The details of timing and effort are pretty much put out of mind as the pace is set by whatever level of energy your body is willing to meter out over the given terrain. Your only responsibility is to continue to keep it moving as long as it is able to do so.

Our spirits were generally up as we munched the sandwiches that we'd put in our drop bags from Chamonix. While we were less than 1/3 of the way done with the race, the (presumed) most difficult sections were behind us. We traveled the morning along a gradually climbing dirt road bathed in warm sunlight. It seemed easy going and the next checkpoint, at the quaint Hôtel du Crêt at the edge of the village of Bourg St-Pierre, arrived quickly. After enjoying a bit more of the hospitality of civilization we headed up for a significant climb over the 10,000ft Col de Lâne and into more remote territory.

The afternoon was warm and we took a food and nap break near a sort of farmhouse part way up the hill taking a short nap in the shade of some bushes alongside the trail. As we headed up towards the col, it was quite warm. We'd actually had near perfect weather thus far, but even the pre-race forecast showed that it was not to last. We didn't know exactly what was to come, but a text message from Martina about possible delays and re-routing for the UTMB were a hint. As I was struggling a bit with the heat I could see across the valley to the Mont Blanc massif. I thought to myself that we were lucky to be away from those mountains as I could see the dark clouds that engulfed them. I was blissfully ignorant of how quickly storms could move in The Alps. I was about to learn.


Le Petit Trot de Leon challenges participants to navigate some extremely rugged terrain taxing them both physically and mentally. Part of the motive for making it a team event is that you are expected to keep each other in check as focus and energy levels wane over the course of days. This works well so long as one person remembers to keep his head and helps his partner when he makes a mistake rather than follow in his ill-conceived footsteps.


As I was moving slow over this rocky ascent, Harry reached the top ahead of me. The wind was picking up as I caught up and it pass felt good, but the clouds were moving in. Harry had been waiting and wanted to get moving immediately so I stopped only to snap a few pictures before turning to look down the other side. 


Just like that, the storm was upon us. Being on a high pass in a thunderstorm is an extraordinarily bad idea so we scrambled to try to figure the route down. We were looking directly down a steep scree field with no obvious path in sight. The GPS indicated to the right, but it was difficult to read and there were trail markers of a different color which indicated as going to the peak. Just when we were about to stop and check the course description it started to rain. Had we taken the time to look, we would have immediately seen the big red letters reading: ATTENTION do not try to go down directly to Bâgnes (ice slopes) but follow the blue marks to the R. Instead we rushed to put on our jackets which is when we noticed a marker on the far side of the slope. Harry headed out onto the scree to get a better view and I followed a little ways behind.

I was standing among some of the larger rocks when Harry descended onto some of the looser footing just below the pass. I think he realized what was about to happen before I did as he was on his back sliding down with rock, scree and mud following before I even knew what was going on. I stood helplessly watching him accelerate towards the larger rocks at the bottom before coming to a rest.

"Harry! You OK? You OK? YOU OK!?!"

It seemed a long time before he responded that he was fine and then stood up to show he was unscathed. It was at this point that I noticed the rocks upon which I was standing. I looked down and could see water rushing beneath them like a stream. I knew I could not stay put. As I started to move some of the rocks began to slide. It was at this point that I could have used someone to keep me in check rather than adding to my own failure to keep my partner in check. As the tenuous nature of my predicament set in, I probably should have headed back up to solid ground and looked up the proper route. Instead I rationalized that since Harry had survived a slide down the slope, it was safe enough for me to follow. The logic that one man's luck did not imply an argument for generalized serendipity was never allowed to enter my mind.

I headed to where Harry's slide had begun and tried to see if a controlled descent was possible, but since any small bit of stable ground had followed him down, I found myself immediately on my back in a rush of water, mud and stone. It seemed like I was going at break-neck speeds before I slowed to a stop in a mess of muck, my tights torn, my once water-proof mittens filled inside with wet mud. I was shaken, but didn't have time to sit still as the rain was picking up. I stopped only to pull on my rain pants before we pushed on both soaked and near-shivering. I tried to push out of my mind how unbelievably stupid and potentially disastrous our bad decision making had been.

The path from here involved following our GPS and hard-to-find trail markers across a moraine. Another team who had taken the correct--albeit also somewhat precarious cabled-descent--down from the pass caught up and we followed. It seemed a long, rather meandering route that went by an empty cabin where Harry and I were tempted to take refuge. We stood in the doorway for a bit and I changed my gloves letting the other team go on ahead before deciding to try and push for the next pass before sunset.

We were wet and cold and it was getting dark. We needed to cross to the other side of Col des Avouillons which led down to the Corbassière glacier around which we would have to travel before climbing back up to the check point at Cabane de Panossière. Somehow, we managed to make the pass just as the sun went down. The descent didn't look terrible, but we would be taking it in the dark. The distance to the cabane was less than 4 miles according to the charts, but we were tired and we could feel the glacier creating its own little freezing micro-climate in this valley.

The short, steep descent went without incident, but after that it seemed a long time before we reached the bottom of the glacier and looking up at the beacon where our destination lay seemed very far off indeed. As we began the slow and confusing climb up, that theme with which I began this post again became a relevant factor. Harry and I have somewhat differing patterns in terms of our sleepiness. I tend to do fairly well at night, but am want to nap sometime around or shortly after dawn regardless of the night's rest. However, the wee hours of dark, are not always kind to Harry.

To make things worse, we'd taken a slightly longer route up than was prescribed. Harry was moving at a pace that I'd only observed in him a few times before. I took to going ahead then shining my light back and urging him towards me, but he was moving in the full-on zombie mode that I personally knew too well. I wanted to do something, but I knew there was nothing I could do but keep shuffling along together as we inched towards our destination.

Eventually, we arrived at the cabin and sat down inside the entry room filled with wet coats, shoes and packs. Both of us moving slowly, exhausted and, perhaps, a little shell-shocked over the events that had transpired that day. In some ways it felt like it had passed in a flash. In others it seemed as though we'd traveled on epic journey and been transformed into battle-worn veterans from the cheery hikers who'd set out that morning.

Melodrama aside, we were sitting in a warm Swiss cabane in the Alps where hot food and warm beds await. It could have been worse.

1 comment:

Jill Homer said...

Damn. (insert scared face emoticon here.)

The closest experience I've had to being absolutely strung out and frightened at the same time was ITI 2008, and I remember that intense flight response that made me willing to make any decision, good or bad, just to get myself out of the scary situation. Enough so that I probably would have waded through waist-deep overflow without reinforcing my gear just to keep moving. Now I'm trying to imagine how this mindset could play out in the mountains. I can certainly see why it's wise to have a partner who will hopefully say "wait a minute, that's a really bad idea."