Sunday, February 24, 2013


As many people did along the trail to Glacier Point, a couple women cross-country skiing asked about the sled and what we were doing. After explaining the ITI and our training as best I could, one of them asked the inevitable question.

Woman: "Why are you doing it?"

Me: "It's hard to explain. Why do people climb mountains?"

Woman (with a little chuckle): "Oh, you mean 'because it's there'?"

Me: "No, not really. I mean, the mountain will still be there whether anyone climbs it or not. You climb it to see if you can."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Alaska talk

I was so late completing my PTL race report that I haven't had time to write anything about Alaska and now I am about to hope on a plane for "places north" tomorrow morning. I will try to write a few more things if I get a chance before Sunday, but the vitals for the race can be found below. This is a race across the Alaskan wilderness. While there are checkpoints including some at lodges, they are few and remote. Updates will be sporadic at best.

Iditarod Trail Invitational

As always seems to be the case with these winter events, I feel woefully under-prepared. I'm not quite sure how prepared any first timer could be for an attempt to drag 40+ pounds of gear on a sled across 350 miles of frozen tundra. However, I haven't done any long events beyond a few 50K races in the past couple months. My time on the snow has been limited to one trip to Tahoe and a couple visits to Yosemite high country. I only really got my sled and other gear dialed in last weekend. Yet, as always, I must somehow convince myself that I can finish this thing because belief is as important a component of these events as any other preparation.

My basic thought is that preparation for this event really constitutes more than just the last few weeks or  even couple months of training. I expect to be drawing on experiences covering the span of years including my two long winter races (Susitna 100 and Arrowhead 135), the multi-day, multi-hundred mile events I have done in the Alps (PTL and TDG) and, of course, the 20-some-odd 100 mile runs I've done. I've gravitated more and more towards these sort of self-sufficient events. They seem to me to be less about training and quickness, more about preparation and the will to endure.

For me, the mantra is always strength over speed, toughness over talent, mental perseverance over physical endurance.

OK, this post has officially turned into a a self-pep-talk that was probably best left as an internal conversation. So, here are some photos of our last training trip to Yosemite where we slept on top of Sentinal Dome (8000ft). This was actually our second trip up there. Jill has some even better photos from our first trip on her blog.

Photos with captions

Obligatory "all-geared-up" shot to start the day 
The first 9 miles are along the Glacier Point road which is a groomed XC-ski and snowshoe path in winter
Amazing views abound

Things didn't look good during the final approach to the dome
It was completely sopped in
Then it started to break...
...and WOW!
Beat -- all smiles
It was relatively cold dipping into the teens as the day drew to a close
Morning brought a whole new scene
Looking across to Half Dome
Yosemite Falls just starting to thaw as the sun hits it
El Capitan and the central valley in the far distance
Heading off the dome
and into the woods.
See you in Alaska! (mountain man beard in full effect)

Failing into Success (end)

View outside Refugio Elisabetta (photo Harry W)
People will milling around the dormitory, but I was not one of them. I opened my bleary eyes and one of them explained in broken english that one party had tried to get over the pass earlier, but failed. They were trying to get a larger group together now that it was light to make another push. It was 6am. I was tired. While I knew we wouldn't be able to make it out with this group, I dragged myself from my bunk to go wake Harry. He looked about as bad as I felt. We did manage to get ourselves mostly together and make it to the crowded dining area for some breakfast.

Beat and Daniel were here too as well as a number of other teams all working hard to get up the gumption and head out into the cold. There were also a number of tourists here amazed and somewhat bewildered by the people who had showed up overnight. The proprietress was doing her best to accommodate, but was understandably a bit short of patience having not been prepared to host a bunch of racers. We did our best to settle up and make preparations to head over the pass, but we ended up about 1/2 hour behind the second group to head out.

The initial trail was fine, but finding the route all the way up and over Cold e la Seigne and back into France required many course corrections and staring at our GPSes. While this wasn't our original route, the col was one of our waypoints. At the top visibility was almost gone so a large group of us just followed each other down into the valley on the other side. We were all glad to not be heading up further from there as the original plan had dictated.

Heading down from Col de la Seigne (photo Harry)
We headed down below snow level into a little farming village. Some people stopped at a refuge at the bottom to grab some food, but since our route had us climbing the other side, Harry and I decided to make haste and continue. His leg was not improving in condition and the sooner we could get out of the snow for good, the better.

Heading back up from La Ville des Gaciers (photo Harry)
We had the illusion of better weather on reaching the bottom and we felt like we were making good time as we travelled up a muddy farming road that had been decimated by cattle. There were a couple groups behind us, but we didn't take much notice as we focused on continuing to climb at a good pace. After a while, I realized that the parties were no longer behind us. Harry checked his GPS and realized we had completely missed the turn off about a 1/2 mile down the road. After a short argument about how to get back to the trail and some cursing we hustled down. With Harry's leg issues I was in front along with my frustration-induced bad decision making. I followed some tracks through the snow trying to shorten the way back to the path. All it really accomplished was slower travel and making matters worse for Harry's leg.

Back on track we were pretty much pulling up the rear of this group with a very steep climb over the Col des Fours. The sun had come up and was making the climb quite warm despite being knee deep in snow at times.

Heading up, I am actually quite warm (photo Harry)
Even with the sun at our backs, we could see that another storm system was moving in behind us. With our lost time on the road we were racing to beat it to the pass as being up at 9000ft in a storm was the last thing we needed. Luckily, this section was on our original route and we also had tracks from the team just in front of us. It was no surprise that making the pass took longer than expected. From there we still had to traverse over before we could descend. We were headed into near complete whiteout conditions.

Things getting ugly (photo Harry)
We did our best to keep panic at bay as we knew we were in the sort of situation were a bad choice could be quite dire. It wasn't until we could see the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, that we finally breathed a little bit easier. Of course, the descent was not going to be any piece of cake. My feet were cold and wet, but Harry's leg was going to be a much bigger issue as we headed down the slushy trail. To make things worse, there were a number of hikers coming up the trail to the refuge making the trail and coordination much worse.

Top of the descent (photo Harry)
It was extremely slow going on the way down. The path was slippery and every slip sent Harry into shouts of pain. I think for the first time, I began having some doubts about our ability to finish this thing. The only saving grace was that we were under the mistaken assumption that this would be the last difficult section of our journey.

When we finally made it out of the snow, we were quite happy, but it had taken it's toll. Harry was in quite a bit of pain and my foot was giving me a bit of trouble as well. After around 3000 feet of descent we arrived at a low point that looked like a public park with some scattered structures. One seemed to be a restaurant that wasn't open, but that didn't matter as we were quite low on funds. We stopped and filled our bladders at the public restrooms and had a bite to eat from what was left in our packs. We were quite low on fuel as well.

Another team caught up to us just as the trail tuned off the UTMB path. The three of them seemed to be in quite good spirits. I guess that's the advantage of getting some extra rest at the refuges. The went ahead as we began to climb to the next checkpoint. In this event of never ending challenges, the climb, while relatively short, was insanely steep. Scrambling up steep, wet boulders was not what the doctor ordered for either of us. There were multiple stops on this climb tending to pains and injuries. I found a way to manage my foot issue, but Harry's situation was clearly not going to let up.

I don't have much to say about Refuge Tré-la-Tête except that sometimes people live up to cultural stereotypes. The Swiss had taken all our money, the Italians were friendly and fed us well, the French--at least in this particular instance--were, well, less than friendly. After 160 miles and nearly 5 days, the last thing we were in the mood for was to feel unwelcome on the final stretch. We were told they couldn't spare any bread for sandwiches and when asked what we could get for our remaining 20 euros, we were served a plate of plain spaghetti with some butter and a tiny bit of cheese. Lovely. Needless to say we didn't stay here long.

Even if we could have afforded it, we would not have taken the option to sleep. Most teams, at this point, were probably going to get some rest and then finish the final stretch in the morning under good light and welcoming spectators. However, we had made some logistical errors with our planning and had a shuttle to Geneva scheduled for 4pm the next afternoon. Sleeping now meant we would be finishing with little time to spare. We would have to push on through this final night despite our near complete exhaustion and Harry's injury making any sort of good pace impossible.

There was a brief descent and then gradual climb before we passed the Chalets de Truc, the last opportunity to stop and rest and where most of the smarter folks were taking their final rest. From there we descended and then began the final climb up over a very muddy trail. We were now on the section of trail over which the UTMB race had been re-routed. The trail was a mess. I think the only saving grace was that the mud was a bit sticky so it kept us from sliding back down the steep slopes. We continued up over the Col de Tricot and then towards Bellevue which was the top of the cable-car from Les Houches. We were exausted and it was cold. We stupidly tried to take a little nap here on the deck of the closed chalet. All it really accomplished was making us more cold as the fog began to move in. We needed to head down.

The trail heading down really defies any attempt at explanation. Even in the best of conditions it is an extremely steep descent dropping 2500 feet in 3 miles. However, this trail had been traversed by some 2000 runners in both the UTMB and TDS races during the middle of a major rainstorm. There is really no delicate way to put it except to say it looked like a giant had defecated down the side of the mountain.There were two deep channels down the sides of the trail and a big slippery hump in the middle. It was incredibly slow going and even then we slipped and slid. cursing our way down the mountain. Poor Harry had to me in so much pain, but just like my situation at the end of TDG, there was nothing that could be done about it excpet to continue moving along as best we could.

Just when the trail seemed to mellow a bit in terms of steepness, the overgrowth at the sides added another challenge. At one point Harry's trekking pole got stuck and then snapped. Then he snapped. I don't know how to describe the scene of Harry enraged, whacking his broken pole against the bushes over and over with all his might. I think all his pain and frustration must have come out in that instant. When he finally stopped and stood there out of breath, I came over and put my hand on his shoulder. We looked at each other and I think I said a few words, but it was all pretty meaningless. We didn't have any choice but to continue down, Harry leaning hard on his one remaining pole.

I'm sure this trail would have been amazingly beautiful under other situations. It passed under a glacier and wound in and out of the woods with the peak of Mont Blanc looking down upon it. However, we were happy to be off it and onto the road leading down into the valley. Arriving at Les Houches was a double-edged sword. We were essentially done, but still had more 6 miles to Chamonix. That was still likely to take us a couple more hours. We had nothing left. We were tired, we were hungry and we were getting quite cold.

As we stumbled along the path to the finish, it was almost impossible to stay awake. If I closed my eyes, I would drift off regardless of whether I was moving or standing still. At one point, we got this idea in hour head that could only sound like a good idea to people in hour dilapidated state. One of us would close his eyes while being led by the other. This would allow one of us to essentially "sleep on his feet" while still both making progress. Of course, this plan would only work if the leader could actual stay awake as well. In the end, it turned out to be no more effective than individually shuffling along constantly drifting in and out of half-slumber.

By sun-up we'd made it to the near-empty streets of Chamonix. The few people we passed had no idea what we'd been through or that we were even part of an organized event. One or two recognized our bibs and gave a cheer or encouragement, but we were so numb at this point we really couldn't offer any response. Turning the corner to the finish line the street was completely empty. In one last effort at levity Harry raised his hands and waved to the imaginary crowd. We both laughed as we crossed the finish line. There was literally nobody there. We sat down at the edge of stage and waited for someone to realize we'd finished.

Of course, someone eventually came along and then Martina showed up. We were happy to be finished, but had none of the elation of previous races. Mostly, we just wanted something to eat and then to sleep. They led us to a room where we were given our finisher's vests and much needed food.

Croissants and wine...breakfast of champions! (photo Harry)

I've given this race a lot of comparison to TDG as that is the only race of similar magnitude in terms of both length and difficulty. PTL was definitely the more difficult of the two both physically and mentally. I think that Harry and I both agreed that the event is just basically less "nice". Not only does TDG have much more support, but it also seems more friendly in terms of how it treats participants. Both are incredibly tough events, but where TDG seemed to invite you to take on its challenges while enjoying a grand tour of the area and the spirit of competition, PTL which claims no competition between participants, seemed to just beat you down with difficulty after difficulty.

Don't get me wrong. La Petite Trotte à Léon was an incredibly rewarding experience. However, we were so completely spent in every way that even the emotion of relief at having it over seemed too much to muster.

But, we had done it!

Done, done, done, done, done....

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Failing into Success (part six of seven)

Sleeping upon mats along the floor of a gymnasium in the middle of the afternoon made for a short nap. However, both Harry and I were ready to get going after only a couple hours rest. We got the low down on the course changes then went to the dining area to grab down some coffee before heading out. This would be another small bit of familiar territory from our TDG experience heading through Pré Saint Didier then to the edge of Courmayeur before heading up and around the base of Mont Blanc proper.

The new route would be easy enough to follow as the changes simply had us going along the standard UTMB trails. Basically, the passes off of which they had routed the shorter race--deeming them too dangerous due to the snow--were the one's over which we were to travel. The higher passes of our original route, were completely inaccessible. Aside from the weather, the other concern was that Harry and I were both feeling the miles we'd already travelled. I had a fairly minor issue with my foot, but Harry was nursing a much more disconcerting issue with his shin. From what he described it was almost exactly the same issue I dealt with at the end of TDG.  We were heading into terrain and conditions that would be tough even at full strength. Doing so with an injury of unknown severity hinted at tempting fate.

Initially things seemed to be going fine. It an was easy path all the way to Courmayeur. We felt relatively rested and in good spirits. Since the original trail was supposed to go up from Saint Didier we needed a short bit of assistance finding the trail out of town. After that we were up and onto the muddy, steep climb. The weather wasn't horrible to begin with, but it seemed to get worse the higher we climbed. By the time we arrived at the top of the climb, it was dumping snow. Luckily, we had also arrived at a Refugio.

Maison Vieille was empty except for us, but the proprietor and his adolescent son welcomed us with hot soup and cup after cup of coffee. They were so inviting and friendly that we were extremely tempted to just stay here for the night and hope for better weather in the morning. The refused to let us pay for anything explaining that with the cancellation of UTMB, they had plenty. They offered us beds, but we wanted to make more progress before we slept. Besides, with all the coffee we'd just downed, it would have been fruitless. Most parties had passed through here and while the official route was to go further up and over the pass, he explained that most people had opted for an alternate route utilizing the road to Rifugio Elisabetta. He definitely recommended this given the storm that was continuing.

We weighed the option in our mind for quite a time before finally deciding on the road. Harry's leg was not in great shape and taking on another pass in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm seemed less than wise. We headed down the path to the road. It seemed to be going in the opposite direction a bit and then it descended quite steeply. The mud was terrible and I ended up taking a pretty solid fall and slide down the trail. Suddenly it didn't seem all that much safer than the original route. Eventually we made it to more level trail and then onto the road. We passed through a little village and then it was a long, slow, gradual grade going up.

We walked in silence for quite some time. I think we were both exhausted. It was Friday night and we had less than 2 days. It continued to rain and then snow as we climbed higher. The road ended and we continued on a wide trail that narrowed and then continued straight on alongside a lake. It was very dark and when the path continued along a levee with water on both sides of us it became very eerie. I kept having the feeling that the path was just going stop and we'd be standing there in the middle of the lake. We could see the light of the refugio, but it seemed far above us and not getting any closer. 

The final climb up to the refugio was a pain, but we were both happy to be there though we said nothing. By the time we arrived, it was around 3am and the place was silent. We got out of our wet clothes and then wandered around a bit figuring we'd just find some place to sleep. Eventually someone found us and showed us to two empty beds in a dormitory filled with racers. As I crawled into my bunk the Italian guy next to me looked over and gave me a thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Failing into Success (part five and still alive)

Refugio Champillon in the daylight (photo from refugio website)

A couple of cappuccinos after our brief nap and we felt even better than when we'd arrived at the refugio. We headed up the short trail to the pass following the Tour de la Vallée d'Aoste. It was the middle of the night, but we were in fine moods sharing recollections of this same trail a year ago during the Tor de Geants race. We had to remind ourselves not to get too caught up in our reminiscing on the way down as we wouldn't be following the same path, but cutting off to the left and heading down towards a different town.

The instructions carry the following warning which turned out to be one massive understatement:

   Path goes down steeply, and it is not easy to follow at the start. 

What it should have said is something more along the lines of the following:

   Path is nearly impossible to find at first and when you do finally discover it, it will immediately disappear shortly after you begin following it. Just follow your GPS along the side of the hill, grabbing onto whatever small thin line of dirt may expose itself. The track will send you straight down the side of a steep slope on slippery, overgrown grass. Just when you swear you are about to slide down the mountain, it will cut off to the left giving you only slightly more purchase as you traverse along a steeply cambered path.

Eventually, the path saw its way to becoming a more or less real trail. It headed into the woods and then wound down a steep, switch-backing descent that I believe is standard fare for all trails in Valle d'Aoste. This one headed down into the Etroubles. It is supposed to be quite the beautiful little village, but we arrived in the early hours of the morning. Sneaking our way through town trying to find our way on back streets felt a bit like a couple of cat burglars  The GPS tracks through towns were often not so accurate and the descriptions not always so helpful. Of course, our state of minds were probably the least help of all.

We did manage to find our way arriving at the wide dirt road on the edge of town heading into the woods. There was a little shop that appeared to be a coffee shop or bakery nearby, but unfortunately didn't open for another hour. We contemplated waiting around, but opted to head on stopping on a bench a little ways in to enjoy breakfast from our packs. As the road headed up and the sunrise followed, a new wave of sleepiness settled on me.

My tiredness continued to grow and I was having difficulty staying awake. The ground was a bit damp and devoid of even a descent sized rock to sit on offering little opportunity for even the briefest nap. Then we came upon what appeared to be some sort of small shrine with a cement structure next to it. It was some sort of pumping station with a loud motor churning within. It contained a few steps leading down a narrow hallway. Harry and I looked at each other and sort of snickered at the idea of sleeping in a cement bunker next to a loud motor. We walked a little further then stopped and asked on another "ya wanna?"

Settled in next to the deafening drone of the motor we didn't even bother to put in earplugs, but fell asleep right there leaning against the cold cement. It was probably the best 1/2 hour of sleep we had on trail the entire race.

Invigorated from our strange little nap, we headed up towards Col Vertosan at good pace. The clouds had moved back in and it was beginning to rain. As we reached the near-9000ft pass, the scattered rain was turning to flakes of snow. We tried to make haste, but the trail leading down here was almost non-existent. Had we foresight, we would have just given up trying to follow any path or even the GPS track and just gone straight down, cross-country to the obvious trail at the bottom. Instead we wasted significant time, but managed to get down before the storm as we looked back to see the pass engulfed in clouds.

We followed a path through a rather bucolic little valley before heading up the other side. After the climb the path became rather easy, but not so easy to follow to the Col du Bard. It's seemed quite extended and the Col didn't seem to be much of a col at all. I think by this point we were starting to be a bit anxious about getting close to Morgex, the second supported checkpoint on our route.

Our impatience would be tried further as we headed down and into the first of many small villages dotting the hillside above the city. We could see the population center below, but getting there was another thing. The instructions here clearly told us to keep an attentive eye on the GPS track. It quickly became clear why. There was a winding paved road down to the valley, but we were led from trail to path to road to trail again, crisscrossing the road as we went. With time we were lead to follow a paved road into Morgex and then to a gymnasium with a sign welcoming the PTL racers.

We were welcomed and checked in by race officials. At 204 kilometers into the race, things felt like they were looking up and we might actually be able to visualize the finish less than 80 kilometers to go.  However, it was here that we learned of the major storms that had and were continuing to batter the higher passes. The UTMB race had been shortened and re-routed. We were to be re-routed as well.

We didn't fret too much about it as our drop bags were here along with a free meal and a free place to sleep.  We could worry about the change in course later. We'd been through plenty challenges. What more could this race throw at us?

Little did we know.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Failing into Success (part four of more)

Switzerland. A country that, to many, immediately evokes images of The Alps. They do love their mountains. It also often evokes images of money. They certainly do also love their money. I know this because during this event they took most of ours!

Tired and hungry, we didn't think too much of the 130 euros La Cabane Panossière charged for two plates of pasta and the use of two beds for 3 hours. The next morning we were a more conservative paying just a few more euros for a bit of hot water to mix our own coffee. It wasn't a long sleep, but it was deep and the coffee never felt so good as it went to work. We'd need it to help warm us up as well since we'd be heading out into the dark pre-dawn and our clothes hadn't much opportunity for drying. This being a very "properly" run Swiss refuge, there was no drying them inside by the hearth.

The best way to stay warm is to keep moving so we headed out quickly along with another group. I think we were all anxious to get over the pass and out of this glacier-chilled valley no matter how beautiful it would probably look at sunrise. We had some difficulty finding the route, but eventually we marched our way up and over and onto the ridges above Lac de Mauvoisin as the sun came up. The rain stopped and things were looking up as we descended amongst the rocks.

The valley with Lac de Mauvoisin (photo Harry Walther)
Heading out along the hills above the valley, a tiredness crept over me. I think I mentioned before how Harry and I have different sleeping patterns. For me, the time right around dawn is the toughest. I began having trouble keeping up and found myself becoming annoyed that Harry hadn't noticed I was fading. I was getting cranky. I sat down on a rock, lay back and let myself drift off for 5-10 minutes or so. It was just enough.

I eventually caught back up with Harry who thought I had been on a bio-break. We continued up and down the hills, just going and gazing about and wondering. When and where were we to cross the river? The next checkpoint was on the other side. The rain returned and our path wound back on itself and headed down. It seemed the trail-makers had overshot the direction to the bridge. On the other side we welcomed by the next bit of PTL misery. A trail heading directly up the side of the hill with mud streaming down as the rain continued to increase.

We arrived at Cabane de Chanrion soaked once again, tired and hungry. I dispensed with what Swiss Francs I had for some food and we laid on the benches and took naps. We couldn't stay here too long as we were set to pass up over the Fenêtre de Durand and into Italy. There was really no point trying to stay dry anyways as the weather called for showers off and on all day. We descended back down to the river, over the bridge and then headed up again.

The climb to just over 9000ft was relatively gradual by Alpine standards and quite uneventful. At the top there was a plaque marking the spot and explaining something about this border between Switzerland and Italy. I took a picture, but it would be the last one I would take as my camera is likely still sitting some place along the trail leading down. There were a couple groups who'd caught up to us and we all made good time running down into Italy. It was somewhere along this somewhat exuberant descent where I lost my camera and all the photos I'd taken.

Near the bottom, Harry and I stopped off trail to have a bite of lunch. Ahead of us was some pretty easy terrain above the town of Ollomont, a place remembered fondly as the last major checkpoint before the final 50K of TDG the year before. In fact, the next refugio on our current path was the one place shared between the two races. I was looking forward to a little familiarity. However, here in PTL we were just barely past half way done.

We traveled for some time along a wide dirt road where farmers were herding their cattle. My recollection of this section is a bit sparse. I know we were both getting a bit loopy. I remember there were nonsensical conversations, some frustrations, a bit more rain and just a lot of tired walking. It is often this "less difficult" sections that where the mind starts to fade or break down lacking the physical challenge to keep oneself focused.

Eventually we came to the familiar trail heading up from the road. I recalled taking this in the heat of the day during TDG, now it was right around dusk. It was steep, but relatively short. Somehow I still managed to get off track even while staring at my GPS which sent me into a small fit. Night was setting in and I was tired and hungry. Arriving at Refugio Champillon lifted my mood a little and then it did a full 360 once we entered the main cabin.

The place was packed, bustling with activity and energy. It felt like the entire race was here and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. We found Beat and Daniel sitting at a table near the stove finishing off a meal after a little rest. They highly recommended the risotto with sausage and raved about the eggs. After Switzerland we were a little worried about our funds, but were excited to learn how cheap the meals were here. After finishing off two plates we ordered a third to share. We also bought sandwiches for just 5 euros each to put in our packs. The staff here was so wonderful and welcoming, I cannot say enough.

It was loud. Everyone was friendly. We were stuffed with food. We were in Italy. Life was good.

We went to sleep, happy.