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.

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