Thursday, February 21, 2013

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....

1 comment:

Olga King said...

I love your faces at the end. Even though it is not even remotely related, when the Hardrock was finally over, I couldn't muster much happiness either. Or any emotions, indeed. But - it leaves a serious special place in a heart.