Sep 29, 2009

Just How Long Does it Take for a Jewish American Princess to Train for a Metric Century?

I think back to summers on the lake in Minnesota, sitting on the back of the boat tanning with my friend Dara. Never in a million years back then did I ever think we would embark on such interesting athletic endeavors. She wrote in to tell me just how she got started on the bike. Brava Dara, for tackling the world of road cycling and finding a new love in the process! Sorry about the tiny photos -some didn’t make the conversion!

My husband came home with a gift – a Trek 5000 woman’s specific bike with clip in peddles. I told him that he was crazy and that he should return it. “What do I need a 10-speed bike for after all?” I thought to myself, I wasn’t even sure how many speeds it had. After a little coaxing we ventured out for our first ride – a stroll on the Mill Valley bike path to downtown Tiburon in Northern California. It was supposed to be a date. I kept thinking nice, but selfish gift and selfish date! As I approached a stop light I realized I couldn’t get out of clips. Cursing at my husband I did the slow motion plunge to the ground.“I hate you!” I remember yelling. “If you wanted to marry a jockey girl you shouldn’t have married me.”

WOW - the efficiency of clipless pedals is unbelievable and I would never go back. What seems so scary at first has become the norm after only 3-4 silly falls. The road rash was the start of my strength as a potential cyclist! WHAT???????? My addiction to the bike arrived in stages….

Dara’s training crew

New Vocabulary
Triple Crank: I had no idea what this meant and saying it made me feel like a dirty guy! But it just meant that I had many more gears to use when going up hill – the most important piece of mind for a newbie cyclist.

The Transition Continues - Intermediate Level

Scott and I started riding more and more. First it was the Camino Alto climb on the 24 mile Tiburon Loop. The mileage and climbing difficulty grew. We were doing Muir Beach loops before we knew it. Why, why, WHY would anyone want to do this? I would ask myself with each increasingly difficult climb. And strangely enough with every successful burly ride the addiction grew. Perhaps it would be better for me to have a lighter bike?

Dara and hubby Scott

The Transformation - New Bike

Shimano Ultegra components. Carbon Clip-peddles. YAY!!!!!! Our training intensified with Brockway Summit and Tahoe Donner Summit climbs, in Tahoe. Altitude training was the best idea for me as it really helped with my confidence and cardiovascular ability. Until…..I found out that I was pregnant. Yup. Unplanned, with the century two weeks away, I could have easily used it as an excuse to no do the ride. Dara of the past would have said; “such a bummer, but the best thing for my health”. The Dara of today insisted on completing the ride!!

The Marin Metric Century was sixty-five miles, had a few tough climbs and was a ton of fun. From eating at the rest stops, to riding with good friends, I never really questioned whether or not I would finish. Crossing the finish line was a great feeling; a strong sense of accomplishment, strength and endurance. I now understand. While I must be on hiatus from cycling on the road until after the baby is born, I daydream about getting on my Diva, again. For all of you that question whether or not you can do it – all I can say is that if Diva Dara can, so can you. Just do it!

Finally, to my amazing husband, thank you for the inspiration to try to something new, for encouraging me to stick with it, for being patient on our training rides and more importantly, thank you for the “ride”. I love you. Being on the open road with the people you love is priceless!

For more info on the Marin Century, please visit the Marin Cyclist website.

Sep 26, 2009

Back in the Triathlon Game

This summer I decided it was time to get back into one of my first fitness loves - the triathlon. It had been a few years but I  desperately missed the sport and on impulse signed up for a race in Switzerland. I trained in between climbing and work obligations, biking on my own up grinding cols and swimming with the Chamonix Papillions (butterflies), the local masters club. Little did I know a few things have changed while I had been away - gear had become paramount and triathlon had grew majorly in popularity.

Site of the Nyon Triathlon
Site of the Nyon Triathlon

I ventured over to stay with Swiss friend Cecile Pasche who was also racing the next day, but her race started at 8am and was a grueling mountain run, the Sierre-Zinal Marathon which I had done last year. No thanks! We had a nice dinner complete with some Carbo Cake for dessert and got ready for bed. It had not been the easiest day due to having to wait in hours of holiday traffic but it was about to get worse. Around ten o’clock due to a misunderstanding my temporary summer roommate decided she was going to move out. After a bit of a nasty exchange on her part I decided perhaps that was best and send a friend over to get the key. Frustrated by the whole thing and the over-reaction and unnecessary insults hurled my way, I was unable to sleep and laid awake all night kept company by Cecile’s cats.

Paul and Brooke Mead

After a few hours of restless shut-eye I headed to the start. Thankfully at registration I was able to meet up with some friends of Cecile’s so I had a crew. Racking up my bike I met a cool couple from California who had made the sport their new baby. Brooke and Paul mead had moved to Geneva recently for work purposes and were taking the Euro tri world by storm having done Rappersweil in Geneva, The Alp d’Huez Triathlon (brutal), and one in Lac d’Anncey. Excited to have more friends I knew on course, we walked to the swim start together.

Sporting my new ZG tri outfit - yes I am as nervous as I look

Brooke was a great swimmer and I had thought maybe I would try to follow her - this idea ended when the gun went off and I watched her take off like a jet boat wake in tow. We had lined up and I put myself near the front. A decent swimmer - I could usually get out ahead. Main problem was the waves and wind were a bit challenging and it was my first open water swim in over a year. I forgot about the chaos and made a mess of the start just really hoping to survive all the arms, legs and water I swallowed. The swim times had looked doable online, but later I learned there was a good three minute run uphill to the timer and the transition. Sweet.

The swim history, I fumbled with my wetsuit and hopped on my old bike, instantly regretting having no aerobars with the gale force winds. The Swiss mean business with their gear. I had never seen such pretty and shiny equipment, not even racing in Boulder. Most had disc wheels and time trial helmets (I am guessing inspired by the Tour hitting Verbier) and I felt out of place. The run was simply miserable, off road for part of it through a corn field I limped along at least with the knowledge I had new friends at the finish. Brooke and Paul were there, miles ahead with a kind word and a congratulations on getting back on course. Dude, I had forgotten just how burly triathlons were.

Lac Passy with the Mont Blanc
Lac Passy with the Mont Blanc

Fast forward to a month later. I signed up for the Passy Triathlon near Chamonix. I focused on training a bit more for the swim and the run, I did an open water swim and an uphill race in hopes of getting in better shape. It might have been a bit TOO much. As my friend always tells me, you are only as good as your rest.

Waking up race day I was on the fence whether to complete, I felt tired and its hard to motivate when racing alone. Thankfully tri starts for Olympic distance in Europe seem to start around one o’clock - not so awesome for running in the heat however, but I did convince a friend to come to the start. Heading down to the lake I pulled it together. It was a pretty race and a great atmosphere and who says you can’t just go and have fun??? I grabbed my wetsuit and walked towards the start…until I noticed no one else had a wet suit. Pretending like I wasn’t a moron I tucked mine back in my bag, the water temperature was high - if its over 72 degrees no wetsuits allowed. I managed to screw up the swim start again, but it was an improvement. Next time I will just sprint for as long as I can rather than get caught in that chaos again, no offense but starting with the men really sucks. Note to self, the drive to survive probably ups the heart rate more than the actual energy required to sprint.

People crowding to see the start chaos

Bike and run were nothing stellar, but at least this time I felt like I was going forward. The bike course was two laps through the village of Passy climbing 640 meters. The run was a flat trail run twice around the lake then end of the first lap marked by receiving a blue lanyard necklace from young volunteers. I finished feeling okay and happy with a solid performance after a mentally and physically huge past three weeks. Managing a 6th place finish and dropping over twenty minutes, I was happy to have been reunited with my first love. They even gave out roses to the women at the finish line! Now I just need some shiny new gear….

Sep 22, 2009

The Great Meyer Safari

Sundowners on the Delta

About a year ago my family traveled to South Africa to go on an incredible safari. Wow does time fly - I have been meaning to write about this forever but as it was right before the birth of Bravabella and I got a wee bit sidetracked, so in honor of the one year anniversary, here we go!

The trip was a retirement celebration in honor of my stepmother, Karen, who left Toro after thirty-three years. She and my sister Kelly had diligently planned the excursion for the past fourteen months. We had specific camps in mind that we wanted to view which booked up over a year in advance. I can’t sit still for more than a minute and while excited for this experience, I was wondering how I was going to stay active for the next few weeks. Can’t really go jogging on safari, unless you want to be the bait. Turned out it was not going to be a problem.

Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain

First stop was Capetown, South Africa. We stayed at the Cape Grace Hotel on the waterfront. As luck would have it, I had a personal tour guide. I had babysat for a lovely South African family in Chamonix who just happened to live in Capetown. Bruce, the father, an avid climber promised to take me climbing up Table Mountain.

Table Mountain sits behind Capetown framing the city. It is a huge flat top sandstone peak rising 1086 meters above sea level. The mountain offers numerous traditional climbing opportunities and walking paths (350 or so to the summit) but not all are not for the faint-hearted and certain paths are very technical. A cable car build in 1929 takes most people to the summit offering stunning views Often a layer of dense mist referred to as “the tablecloth” forms on the top of the plateau as a result of the moisture-rich South-Easterly wind that blows against the mountain.

Table Mountain

We set out about 9 am at a brisk pace up walking path. Soon the “path” turned more into a scramble as we neared the bottom of the climbing area. We took a water break Bruce reminded me to sit in the shade, beware the blister bush and re-apply sunscreen. I enjoyed the view of the city and loved the calla lilies growing wild in between the rocks.

Technical section of Table Mountain

At the base of our climb, Bruce started racking all his gear using primarily aliens and friends (names for trad gear). An excellent traditional climber (meaning he places his own protection, no bolts on Table Mountain) he would be leading the way. Using two different color ropes, Bruce would insert a piece of gear and clip the corresponding rope that would then cause the least friction or drag. Often he would yell down, “I need slack on blue, or pull up on yellow.” It was difficult to see him with all the overhanging ledges and at one point I was belaying almost laying on my back under a ledge. I watched him crawl through the narrow path on his stomach to lead the next section. He turned back to me and said, “now this is a very technical moved called the Digby Crawl.”

The climb was five pitches called Atlantic and rated 6a. It was one of my first full traditional climbing experiences - I loved it. I followed along and was called “the cleaner” and was in charge of disengaging all the protection he had placed. I struggled with one piece that had snuck farther in the crack he had placed it, or it had “walked” in climber lingo. At the top I took a few fast photos and we rappelled three times to get to the bottom and began the walk back down to the car. We took a quick tour of the area and then back to see his kids Brian and Anna who were amazed that Lyndsay from France was really in South Africa!

Bruce leading the way

We stayed in Cape Town for two more days One day we ventured out to wine country, and the other we took a gut-wrenching tour of the shanty towns and an orphanage started by a courageous woman named Rosie. A woman had abandoned her baby on Rosie’s doorstep, before she knew it others followed and soon she started her own orphanage. Even Sir Elton John has met Rosie and donated three small houses for the children.

Dehlia was our daily guide and she was fantastic, explaining to the history of the area and inviting us to learn more. Thanks to this lady we were able to get a true feeling of South Africa, and could ask any question - no matter how dumb. Perhaps the most interesting event in Cape Town was the story on the front page of the paper one morning - a statement from the heath officials of South Africa finally admitting that yes, the HIV virus did in fact cause AIDS.

The rest of the trip passed by in a blur of animals and amazing new food experiences. We ventured to Lion Sands Game Reserve in Kruger National Park where we saw the big five up close and personal in two days. With our awesome Tracker Levi (who sits out front in the chair on the hood of the jeep and could tell the difference between a rock and a hippo head half a mile away) and our guide Andre (who holds the record for successfully hunting the largest some sort of antelope in South Africa). Often times we would approach animals only to have them turn their backs to us prompting Andre’s favorite quote, “Asses of Africa.” We also learned immediately that the jeeps were truly off road vehicles while tracking animals. If a tree was in the way he would ask, “Can we push it Levi?” and Levi would nod and over the tree we went - had to be the best driver I have ever seen.

We enjoyed sundowners each night on the plains and one night drive followed a female leopard as she avoided some hyenas that were annoying her. Andre explained that while National Geographic was an incredible publication, it distorted peoples expectations regarding viewing wildlife - they expect to see the things they see in the magazines, forgetting that photographers spend years following animals to get the perfect footage.

Rest time involved playing in the little pools outside our accommodations while watching the elephants across the river. Each night after trying a new kind of meat or vegetable we were escorted to our rooms by our friendly night watchman who would call out to his “friends” as we passed by. He could identify all the nyala and impala even in the beam of his flashlight. The impala were called the “MacDonalds” of the bush as they had an M on their backsides. ” There are millions of ‘em” Andre would exclaim, “Take one home with you!”

Sad to leave the luxury of Lion Sands, we headed to the Okavanga Delta in Botswana to the next camp, Vumbura Plains. Bostwana offered a different kind of game viewing from our previous camp. Lion Sands had allowed us to see animals close up that had been on the reserves for years, the guides new them by name and by stripe or by hole in the ear. The camps in Botswana were located on huge concessions provided by the government, it was the perfect place to see large numbers of animals interacting together, and a larger area to explore.

Vumbura Plains

Vumbura Plains did disappoint, we saw lions roaming at night and the mourning of a dead mother elephant. I will never forget watching for over two hours as a one year old baby was gently comforted by her elder siblings while gently encouraging her to move away from the mother before predators set in. The baby unconvinced the mom was gone, continued to try to nurse and nudge mom with her trunk urging her to wake up. When all else failed, she just laid her trunk over her mothers stomach. Surrounding the four was the entire herd, eating just out of sight in the bushes giving them the time they needed to move on. People say elephants have emotions just as people do - after watching the experience I am a believer.

Last on the animal itinerary was the camp we planned our vacation around, Camp Mombo. Located on Chiefs Island, it was rated the number one camp in Africa, for good reason. Hundreds of animals were visible as we flew over to land. Cisco was out guide and demanded to know why only two days in Mombo? “It is not enough,” he said and began educating us on the proper names for the grouping of each animals, a business of mongoose, parliment of owls, pod of hippos, tower of giraffes, a bloat of hippos, a leap of leopards, a cackle of hyenas…. and so on. Sitting out at dinner we viewed the Mombo combo on the flood plains, zebra, elephants, and impala, or maybe that was the super combo, I can’t remember. One night a heard of over one hundred cape buffalo walked under camp. Too many highlights to name them all, but one was definitely listening to a large male lion roar for his hunting mate (you could feel it in your gut) and the other was tracking Legedema’s cubs. (the famed leopard). Mombo was the highlight of the trip, and where else can you run on the treadmill while watching a live version of Animal Planet or National Geographic unfold in front of you. A group of grateful homos sapiens, we left Botswana in awe of what we had seen.

Legedema’s cub

The trip concluded with a visit to the famed Victoria Falls, even though it was not in high season the mist off the pounding water was incredible rising 100 feet into the air and known as the ” white smoke”. I was able to walk/jog along some of the paths and came a little too close to a alligator sunning himself and startled a giraffe. I remember thinking to myself what will it be like when I am home in France and seeing a giraffe is not commonplace? I took a million photos - no room for them all but if you want to see more of Africa click here.

Brava Kelly and Karen for planning such a great trip.

The Mombo combo at sunset

Sep 11, 2009

Climbing Manaslu


The morning cool air and the weakening sun act as subtle reminders that fall is fast approaching. For a lucky few in the climbing world this means its time to turn thoughts East to the Himalaya (meaning great abode of snow) and begin preparation for the fall big mountain season in Nepal and Tibet. While it is not Everest season, expeditions focus on other peaks such as Ama Dablam, Choy Oyu, and more recently, Manaslu, an 8000 meter peak gaining in popularity. As numbers and demand grow in the world of expedition climbing, guides and companies alike are branching out and taking on new challenges in the Great Himalaya Range.

A year ago, Mara Larson, base camp operator for Jagged Globe accompanied an expedition to one of the lesser known 8000 meter peaks (there are 14 in all) Manaslu. Located in a valley between Everest and Annapurna, Manaslu is the eight highest peak in the world standing at 8165 meters tall. The name meaning “Mountain of the Spirit” is in the Gorkha district in the Mansiri Himal in the Nepalese Himalaya. Before this year it had not seen many large commercial expeditions due to its remote locale and unpredictable weather patterns. Many clients will climb an eight-thousander before attempting Mount Everest, and for most climbers this peak is the more established Cho Oyu, located in Tibet. However, with the Tibetan side being closed last year to climbing by the Chinese, five large commercial expeditions chose to attempt Mansalu instead.

Mara Larson

The peak looms large above the village of Samagaon and is sacred to its inhabitants. The expedition first traveled to Katmandu, and then by air to Pokhara where they waited in sheets of rain for the monsoon to clear. On the first somewhat clear day, they boarded a helicopter and flew up valley in search of the village Samdo. As they approached the valley, the pilots were having difficulty locating the village and the weather started to close in making immediate landing necessary.

Helpful villagers

The chopper landed in the middle of a field in a small village below their desired location of Lho. It was not long before the entire village descended upon the scene surprised by the massive green bird landing on their land. Mara spoke a small amount of Nepalese and happened upon a young villager who spoke a small amount of English. She was able to communicate their apologies for the unexpected landing, determine their actual coordinates and then ask if they could employ the villagers to help carry all their supplies three hours up to their actual destination! Negative lemon turned into lemonade and villagers were well paid for their efforts.

The female villagers carefully showed the guests how to exit the field without destroying crops while the men carefully divided and hoisted the loads and the team was off. Thanks to Mara and her linguistic skills they had built one of the first friendly relations between locals and climbers in this valley, one that certainly will see more expeditions in the future.

Puja Ceremony

From Samagoan, it was only a 3-4 hour hike to Base Camp, where the expedidtion would spend most of its time. The first order of business was a Puja, or a blessing of the expedition and celebration of the peak during which flags were hung and climbers had their equipment blessed for in hopes of a safe and successful climb. The lama chanted for a marathon six hours while burning juniper and subsequently performed the same all around base camp, visiting each one of the camps personally.

This expedition would be unique in the sense that there were no guidebooks and no permanent fixed lines on the mountain. “This was more my vision of a mysterious Himalayan peak,” Mara explained. As a result the various teams worked together and studied the fifteen or so photos of the peak they had to work with. In addition, the locals had their own stake in how the climbing culture developed here, and sent up villagers to pow-wow with the expedition leaders. They convened meetings to manage transportation of equipment and trash, bridging locals and foreigners both aiming to preserve the space.

Setting up base camp

The expedition was scheduled to last six weeks during which the establishment of higher camps and acclimatization trips moving supplies up and down the peak would occur. Jagged Globe established a base camp, camp one, a high camp two, and high camp, or camp three. The weather did not cooperate and on one trip to camp two, they brought food and climbing supplies to stash for their return in a few days time. Just as they got the last members into camp the news came in it was immediately time to turn around and come down due to a weather system moving in. “People were so exhausted they’d collapsed in their tents,” Mara recalled, “but we had to fill ‘em with some water and get packed up all over again.”

Because Manaslu was not a well-established mountain like Cho Oyu, camps locations were not completely fixed and heavy snowfall made the work slow going. The weather system dumped heavy snow burying the camp two under ten feet of snow - everything was lost. A six-week expedition would have to be extended, and the majority of the clients had to leave due to life commitments or illness. From the original fifteen, Mara, one guide, and only a few clients remained. The expedition re-evaluated their supplies and surmised they had the minimal amount to continue.

Forging on, they headed slowly back up and on reaching high camp, Mara recalls freezing the night away with two sleeping bags between her and Pema Sherpa and Minga Sherpa. The other they’d given to a lost and confused Austrian climber who stumbled in asking for help late in the day as the light began to fade. They all enjoyed some hot tea, got him warm, arranged for his descent and then turned to readying themselves for the summit morning. “Pema and Minga Sherpa and I have worked together for the better part of a decade on Everest and Ama Dablam, digging snow, managing radios, getting our clients safely up and down peaks - so it was nice to be able to be able to brew these guys a few cups of tea up high and share a bit of the digging and tent-building” she recalls.

The final morning dawned and their approach to the summit had hardly a wisp of wind. Mara quietly viewed all the Tibetan giant peaks from on top of the world and posed for a few pictures with Mingma. After those precious moments it was time for a quick descent down and off the mountain to the grassy base at Samagoan a few days later. This time, the helicopters found the landing spot!

Mara travels to the Himalaya each fall and spring season. Her expeditions originated as research trips for her studies in high altitude and its effects on the body. Over the past decade she has come to think of the Himalaya as home. Brava Mara!

Sep 08, 2009

Uphills and the Ultra

Lyndsay, Mara, and Nina + Fanclub!

Running, running and more mountain running. If there is a mountain trail that goes straight up in the Alps, chances are there is a race that covers it’s distance. A few weeks ago Mara Larson, Nina Silitch, Lizzy Hawker and I teamed up to run the Matterhornlauf, a 12.5 kilometer run up to the area called Schwarszee (or black lake) at the foot of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. Rumor has it the lake at the top has bad juju - no one swims in the lake due to a “strudel.” I also thought at first perhaps this was a joke, how indeed could people fear a lake with a giant dessert, but in fact strudel is the German word for vortex and local legend has it that sheep and other animals have disappeared in this lake. What a tasty way to go…


Lake aside, the 7th annual Matterhornlauf course finished with a stunning view of the Matterhorn and normally boasted about a 900 meter (2950 feet) climb starting from the center of town at 1650m up to the finish at 2552m. This year the course was slightly longer with a tad more elevation due to the normal trail being washed away and a small downhill and uphill added to the route. We had in fact two names for our team, first the Bravabella’s (great name) created by Nina, and then Cervino (Italian name for the Matterhorn) named by Lizzy in honor of my recent engagement four days before on the summit of the Matterhorn. I was touched by both sentiments, which would come in handy later during the race.

Spectators waiting at the finish

We met early in the morning for a little warm up run, not that we needed to get too warm. The race started at 9:30 and it was going to be another in a long stretch of hot days. Bibs pinned and last minute bathroom stops made we lined up allowing the elite runners to go first. Lizzy, a talented North Face runner got her game face on and toed the line. We saw many friends from the ski mountaineering world and I took a few deep breaths staring up at the finish. The gun sounded and off we went down the main street, hanging a left at the church and running up the other side of the valley. Up and up the race went and about halfway I was thinking to myself that I was not having all that much fun - surely that marker that we just reached 6k was wrong, I had to be much closer to the finish. I kept in mind that I was racing for a great team and to run with my head. Further encouragement from a fellow friend and runner on course gave me the confidence to keep on shuffling. Running uphill is hard - you need to train for it…lots.

Happy to be done!
Happy to be done high-five

The last few kilometers of the course was beautiful as the lake and Matterhorn came into view. Close to the finish I high-fived Anders, Nina’s youngest son and trotted across the line. I hacked up a lung and had some tea while I sought out Mara, Lizzy and Nina. We sat and socialized with an incredible backdrop feeling lucky that we had the ability not only to compete in a race such as this but the ability to do it!

Lyndsay fourth place AG finish

The awards began at the “prize-giving rock” and Mara and I managed to place top five in our age groups. Both of us took home a nice wooden cutting board piled with wurst and dried meats. We thought this was a great compliment to the cheese we received at the Zermatt Marathon a month before. Rather over-ambitiously we decided to run down to Furi, the midstation of the cable car to try to work out the kinks and forgot it was actually quite far. Regardless it was a nice run/walk that passed quaint restaurants and finished down in town with Molino’s  stracciatella ice cream as the final destination. Team Bravabella/Cervino had done well, but we missed the fine print stating that to be an actual team you all had to be from the same nation - three Americans and one Brit was not going to work. No matter as the team aspect kept us motivated to finish during the tough moments.

Lizzy and Mara, second and third place respectively
Lizzy (blue) and Mara, (pink) first and third place respectively

Lizzy finished first in her age group and second female overall.  She was happy with her efforts, it has been and up and down season for her. She had a good race but dialed it back a bit in preparation for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc which was scheduled to take place the last weekend of August.

Fast forward one week to over five thousand runners descending on the Chamonix valley with lightweight packs, a wide variety of sports gels and modernized spandex and brightly colored tape. Both Nina and I had run the half version of this event, The CCC (Courmayer, Champex, and Chamonix) and we were excited to watch the great event and not participate!

Course of the UTMB and the CCC

This year the Ultra weekend was comprised of the following four races:

UTMB® : 166 km and 9 400 m of + altitude change - 46 h maxi
start Friday, August 28 at 18:30 in the center of  Chamonix Mont-Blanc
CCC® : 98 km and 5 600 m of + altitude change - 26 h maxi
start Friday, August 28 at 10:00 AM in the center de Courmayeur (Italie)

and new this year,

TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) : 105km et 6700m of + altitude change
start Saturday, August 29 at 5:00 AM in the center of Chamonix Mont-Blanc
La Petite Trotte à Léon : + 245 km, 21000 m of + altitude change
start Tuesday, August 25th at 22:00 in the center of Chamonix Mont-Blanc.

I had a few friends racing different events and ended up spending the night chasing them from rest area to aid station. The weather went from extremely warm to quite chilly adding to the stress of the runners but the sky was clear. A huge shout out to all the volunteers who stayed on course for almost two days - and in some places longer. It was hard not to get emotional watching these people finish their respective events. Fathers carrying daughters, kissing wives, husbands supporting wives and friends driving from station to station with horns and loud music clapping and yelling, “Bravo,” and “Courage!” I watched one racer pick a flower, hand it to his mother while kissing her on the cheek saying “Bonne Anniversaire! (Happy Birthday). He had been out for four days racing La Petite Trotte a Leon and only about 6 hours from the finish. Not many could be so chivalrous after runnung 230k!

Lizzy Hawker
Lizzy Hawker
Kristen Moehl. Photo courtesy of Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line

For the first time an American woman and Patagonia runner, Kristen Moehl exploded onto the international stage and won the UTMB in 24:56. Lizzy Hawker came in second at 26:04 about forty-five minutes off her last year’s winning time powering through painful blisters. Other notable finishes in the UTMB include American men Scott Jurek and Joe Grant finished 17th and 18th in 26:07, Topher Gaylord arrived 22nd in 26:47 and wife Kim Gaylord finished third in the new challenging course the TDS in 18:11 A good year for the Americans! Who is next? We make a great support crew over here…

Sep 03, 2009

The Only Horn that Matters…

The Horu, or “the peak,” in Swiss German is the simple term for the mountain that towers above the small village of Zermatt. Its image is reproduced hundreds of times around the world and once seen is truly unforgettable. The Matterhorn stands proudly alone at 4478 meters (14,691 feet) tall, its East face exposed to town with the shadowed and steep North face (one of the great six in the Alps) beckons climbers of all abilities.

Hornli ridge and the East Face

There is no easy way up the Matterhorn. It is a technical climb and extremely popular due to its beauty and reputation. I date a Swiss mountain guide and therefore was repeatedly asked by many, “have you climbed the Matterhorn yet?” Each time I would say no, telling myself we had the time to wait for conditions to be perfect  - and that most certainly it was not going anywhere. I would mention it to Danny and he would sigh exasperated and say “We will get to it, they are not going to pack it up and put it away!” But the longer I stared at it, the more time I spent in Switzerland, the greater my desire grew to climb the darn thing.

The route

Last week I got a text message from Danny asking did I want to climb the Matterhorn on Monday? The answer was a surprised and resounding yes, but it was mid-August, prime season on the peak. I had heard horror stories about 200 people a day summiting the last week and that chaos did not appeal, not after all the build up. I wanted the day to be a special one. After some waffling we took our chances and headed up anyway. The weather was great, the mountain in amazing condition, so we figured two out of three was not bad. If it was busy - so what - we were fit and would try to get out front.

The Hornli Hut

We arrived in Zermatt around three o’clock and headed to the cable car which brought us to Schwarzsee. From here we began the hike to the Hornli Hut, visible in the distance it looked like it was perched on a small outcropping of rock. We met a group of four descending the trail as we began. Danny knew one of the guides and they exchanged information in Swiss German. Among them was a tall, blonde female guide. She gave me a big smile, a real one that came from her eyes. I asked her how the climb went. “Amazing!” she said and I was comforted by my own American accent. She gave off good energy which calmed my nerves - the mountain looks a lot steeper close up. I wished they were coming up, not down.

Traveling on a bit we met up with Ivan, another friend and fellow guide we had spent time with on Denali. The three of us fell into step and conversation arriving at the hut in a little over an hour.  The deck was full of climbers worshiping the sun and I noticed white sunglasses seemed to be the trend. Hm. Mine were brown. Sweating profusely I checked in and was shown to my bunk. The hut was full and the guardian estimated about 125 people would be heading up in the morning, not too bad, we had lucked out.

Guide’s Aperatif

At 6:30 was the guide’s aperitif, where all guides met to have a drink and discuss the upcoming climb and other guide-type issues. We were re-acquainted with some of the guides we were on Denali with, and Danny saw some old friends he had not seen since his back to back days of guiding the Matterhorn. Many guides stay up at the hut marking on the whiteboard days they are available. The hut keeper then speaks with the local guide’s office, the Zermatt Alpincenter and clients are paired with available guides and sent up to the hut. Only after dinner at 8:00 pm do the guides stand in a line and wait for their name called to see who they will be taking up the peak. Language can be an issue, and this time a friend had to use the numbers on his cell phone to explain to his Japanese client what time they would get up and what time they would be leaving the hut.

Line up at the door…

If you come to climb the Matterhorn through the Zermatt Alpincenter, the first step is a test climb in which they rate your ability and speed and determine if you have the stamina and experience needed to climb the Matterhorn. A group of Japanese had not passed this first test, but were being sent up anyway. To them just the chance to stand somewhere on the peak meant everything.

Climbing the lower Mosley Slab

Before dinner we had a bit of wine and good conversation around the guide’s table, or the Bergfuehrer’s Stammtisch. Dinner was served soon after, pasta and meat with pudding as dessert. One last drop of wine and LOTS of water I headed up to try to fall asleep by way of one last look at the next day’s goal. I went outside to take a look at the wall of the East face in the light of the setting sun. Far above I could see headlamps all long the Hornli Ridge. Certain people spend days on the mountain trying to get to the summit.

Taking a break at the lower Red Tower

We woke a little before four and I dressed quickly, but not half as fast as some of these guides. In less than a minute they were dressed and out the door, I swear some of them sleep with all their clothes on - like modern day cowboys (at least they took their boots off). Speed is crucial in the morning, there are only twenty minutes before the lights go on to when the door opens. I put everything on, harness and all and quickly ate my breakfast. Down in the main part of the hut everyone was eating and it was a bit chaotic with packs and boots placed strategically everywhere to facilitate a fast exit.

Climbing the fixed ropes

At 4:08am and Danny and I joined the line at the door. The Swiss are fond of their mountain and take great care and respect in observing tradition. They feel over years of climbing the peak day after day they have created the most organized method for masses of people to climb safely. The local record for climbing the Matterhorn stands at around eight hundred, the guy must have rubber knees! The oldest guide to summit the peak was 90 years old, Ulrich Inderbinen.

It is asked that you do not get up before 4am and don’t leave the hut before 4:20am. Over trial and error it was determined that this time schedule allowed everyone to get something to eat in the morning and limit time climbing in the dark. The generator is not tuned on till four, (guides actually keep the light switch on so when the generator is activated the lights come on serving as an alarm clock and one less thing to do in the morning) but some mornings people leave as early as three.

We stood in line waiting for the official thumbs up to leave. As everyone gathered, the local guides who knew the route backwards and forwards lined up first at the door. People have their own techniques, some like to go first and get out front of everyone and be up and down before the crowds hit the fixed ropes, and some like to have that extra cup of coffee and position themselves in the back for a more stress free experience. The start is a unique adventure and there is really no other mountain that demands such planning.

On the roof, summit not long now…

Precisely 4:20 and with a nod from Urs, one of the senior guides, we were out the door in a line of headlamps to the first fixed rope that gets you onto the mountain. It was pretty vertical and I grabbed on swinging myself up quickly happy to be ahead of the bottleneck below. Heart rate up we continued to climb and passed through the first and second couloirs. A few times we heard local guides call out to climbers that were off route and were kicking down small stones that could possibly hit climbers below - a dangerous combo in the dark. I was very happy to have my helmet on. A meter to the right or to the left of the main route can make for a very different climb and no one knows the route better than the local guides, their short-roping technique is poetry in motion.

Summit thumb’s up

After the first hour the race mentality subsided and we set into a nice rhythm, Danny climbing on ahead, wrapping the rope around one of the big rings and pulling me up after. French guide behind me was a little close for comfort an if he touched my feet one more time I was going to give him a piece of my mind, but listening to he and his client huff and puff in my ear I knew they would not last long. We reached the Solvay hut as the sun rose and paused to take a few photos. The view was stunning and I waited a few seconds to take it in, not likely I would see it from this vantage point again anytime soon. A few more pitches and we put crampons on for the fixed ropes leading to the roof. I took a look over and peered down at the impressive North Face, it boasted some serious vert! There would be no room for sloppy footwork here. Looking up the huge ropes put into place made it easier to scramble up the last pitches of the climb. I could feel the altitude and was happy for all the practice I had climbing in crampons. A thunderstorm had rolled through over night and there was a light new dusting of snow and thin ice to make things a little more exciting.

Freshly engaged with St. Benedict, patron saint of all mountain guides

The last 200 meters, or the roof as it’s called, mellows out a bit and stairs are cut into the snow. Step by step we finally reached the summit at 7:30 in the morning - the second team of the day. Many congratulations and photos followed with traditional summit kisses and hugs. The Italian summit was visible in the distance, marked by an iron cross. The cross marks the highest point in Italy, but the Swiss summit is higher. Just below the Swiss summit is a statue of the patron saint of mountain guides, St. Benedict. He stands and quietly watches over all the guides and their climbers. St. Benedict even had pin on his head for lightening. We paused there for more photos.

Solvay Hut

I had had just about enough of all the pictures and was itching to get down all the fixed ropes before they got extremely crowded when Danny started to tell me how special the day was and how happy he was we had had a chance to share it together. The rest rendered me speechless as he reached into his pack and produced a ring. It was one high to be on the summit of the Matterhorn, a completely different one to get engaged up there! I happily said yes and reached for the shiny ring. Danny knew better and held it just out of my reach allowing me to look quickly and then placing it safely in his pack before I could drop it. It would not be conducive to wear while descending the ropes and down-climbing and most likely my finger was too swollen to wear it anyway. That and if dropped would land somewhere in Zermatt - no bueno.

More climbers tackling the fixed ropes

We began the descent and he reminded me to focus, my mind had started to wander and good foot work is paramount. Luckily at each fixed rope there seemed to be a break in traffic and I slid down quickly, wrapping the rope twice around the big rings to ensure Danny a safe descent. This is where it gets tricky - if you place your rope over another team’s to ensure your guide safe passage and the climbing team need to take their rope off to continue their climb you may have to tell them to wait. Local guides are smart enough to put their rope below thus ensuring everyone a safe experience. Descending the ropes took 10-15 seconds tops and with the light traffic we were passed this upper section in no time while enjoying chatting to people and hearing, “congratulations,” on the way down. As I was waiting for Danny to climb down one section, I felt a hand from below use my calf as a hand hold. Wow, I thought to myself, this mountain really can get crazy! Turns out it was just Big Urs saying hello in his own way. Urs was a respected Zermatt guide and somewhat of a local legend. We laughed and I realized not only the mountain but the people on it and our shared summit goal that add to the incredible experience.

Stepping into place to begin the descent

Near the bottom we picked a nice outcropping of rock and took a small breakfast break while admiring the view over town. Grabbing the last rope I noticed my hands were raw and it was not as easy to hold on. The down-climb was long and a bit brutal and some places I had used my hands to ensure I didn’t lose my balance. My skiers knees were complaining a bit.

Once safe at the bottom I was able to actually try on my new ring. In true Swiss fashion it was perfect and I wore it the rest of the way back to the hut. We sat down at one of the picnic tables, the deck was already crowded from hikers. The clock read  twenty minutes to ten, perhaps the most exhilarating five and a half hours of my life. I chatted to an elegant older woman in her seventies. She and her husband had hiked up to the hut for the day. “Its a long way down isn’t it?” she said with a smile. I nodded back returning her grin wondering how long ago this bravabella had climbed the magical peak. After a celebratory beer and more good conversation we walked back down to the cable car.

Placing my rock in appreciation of a safe climb

On the hike down it is customary to search out a white quartz rock and place it by a cross mounted on a rock to give thanks for safe passage up and down the Matterhorn. I picked one about baseball size with a little pink tint and added to the collection. Many people say climbing the famous peak changed their lives, and my experience definitely changed mine! I can only hope there are many more peaks to come in the future, but will always be in love with this one.

BB note - a few weeks later I met Margaret Wheeler, female UIAGM guide and president of the AMGA. We hit it off while watching the cow fights in Argentiere (French version of a rodeo) and there was something familiar about her fun energy. We chatted a bit about climbing and both discovered we had just summited the Matterhorn for the first time. Turns out in fact she was the smiling blonde that gave me the good juju to head on up the mountain. Brava Margaret - and thanks!

Many thanks to Black Diamond who is now a proud sponsor of BB!

Back at the hut, resting tired feet and sporting some new gear