Jun 11, 2012

Patrol des Glaciers 2012

*Note - A  shorter and less photo-filled version of this piece ran in the Glenwood Independent - but this one has a bit more detail ;)

In front of the Zermatt Chapel

In front of the Zermatt Chapel

Preparing for the Patrol des Glaciers is a bit like a second job - or third. I have now stood at the starting line for this famous race three times. I finished my last blog in 2010 admitting I might want to do the Patrol again saying the third time is/could be a charm. This year for the 2012 Patrol des Glaciers “they” who say the third time is a charm might have been wrong.

I have blogged on this event twice before - each time a different race and a different story. The race is increasingly growing in popularity and I feel a bit more needs to be added to illustrate it’s history. Over 1000 applications were turned away this year. It’s always easy to blog when things go right - but not as much fun when they don’t go as planned. I find these posts the most fun to write - sometimes the best lessons are learned in the face of adversity and it’s silly to expect every race will always go perfectly no matter how zen you try to be.

Practicing with the rope

Every other year at the end of April in Zermatt, Switzerland, close to 4500 competitors descend upon this small but famous Matterhorn dominated ski town. The athletes arrive in preparation for the 53 kilometer, 4000 meter elevation (gain and descent 8000 meters in total), ski mountaineering race that follows the track of the famous Haute Route from Zermatt to Verbier, Switzerland, This year we had put together the second ever all-American female team comprised of Carbondale local Sari Anderson, Nina Silitch, a fellow American living in Chamonix with her family, and myself – a part time Aspen/Swiss resident. For Nina and I it would be our third time racing in the great competitive traverse of the Alps.

I live in two countries and travel between three. My husband is a UIGAM mountain guide and runs the heli lodge CMH Valemount, in BC Canada in the winter and guides in the Alps in the summer. To make things more confusing I live and work in Aspen during the winter months while commuting to Canada in order to see him and vice versa. It makes for a busy life full of amazing experiences - however I am never quite sure where anything is and have been know to break down while packing, unpacking and lugging things back and forth across the Pacific. Buying two of everything is an idea and I will consider that when I win the lottery.

I can sing a song about packing and unpacking - It is not easy for me to stay motivated to train moving around so much while working at the same time. I owe a huge thank you to Sari for constantly getting me out the door - at times at 5:00 am to train while making it fun at the same time - very inspiring considering her own hectic schedule with work and two cute kids. A big thanks also to Chip Chilson for the training advice and awesome motivational emails chock full of excellent emoticons.

Nina, Lyndsay and Sari

Nina, Lyndsay and Sari

The Patrol des Glaciers, (Patrol of the Glaciers in English) or PDG for short, is funded and staffed entirely by the Swiss Army. In addition to being one of the world’s greatest races, it is also an impressive military exercise showcasing Swiss organization and precision with over 3000 soldiers and five helicopters on course and a price tag of six million Swiss Francs. People from over twenty countries (even a team from Jamaica) had trained all year for the PDG and the Swiss Army did not want to disappoint.“You are all VIPS,” said the Kommandant Ivo Burgener at the pre-race briefing in the Zermatt Chapel on the day of the race. It’s easy to see what he means as you ski pass the many soldier stationed at the numerous checkpoints all the way to the finish. At times in the dark soldiers will be skinning alongside in the shadows just to make sure all is going well.

At the stroke of midnight Saturday morning, April, 28th, we left Zermatt on foot with skis on packs running up and up towards the peaks and did indeed make it to Verbier, just not quite the way we had originally intended.

Race briefing in the Zermatt Chapel

Race briefing in the Zermatt Chapel

We arrived in Zermatt Thursday April 26th, the day before the competition. Sari flew in specifically for the big event thanks to help from the local Max Marolt Scholarship and Ian, her very supportive husband. The atmosphere was slightly tense, the Wednesday heat of the race had been cancelled due to bad weather and high winds. The Foehn wind, know for its ability to raise temperatures in addition to causing migraines and sleep deprivation, had arrived bringing with it winds of over 100 kph. The start of our race on Friday was questionable. Many friends in the first heat had been turned back, some not even able to start as the race was cancelled after the 11:00pm start.

The PDG consists of two races, The original long race described above from Zermatt to Verbier, and a shorter course from the halfway point in Arolla, Switzerland, to Verbier, with about half the distance and elevation gain. Racers from Zermatt depart hourly between 9pm and 3am, and from Arolla between 3:30-6am depending on estimated race time. Add to that there are two heats of each event over a five day period so really it’s four races. All events require teams of three with the longer effort requiring racers to be roped together while skinning over glacial terrain and reaching a maximum elevation of 3600 meters at the Tete Blanche.

Measuring the rope at the gear check in

Steeped in tradition, the PDG was originally realized in 1943 in attempts to boost moral and fitness among the Swiss Army soldiers, an internal competition so to speak. What started with 18 teams has now grown to 1500 patrols, named after the original men and women that did and still do patrol the Alps. The PDG was stopped after the 1949 edition when a patrol was lost in a crevasse and killed. The legend around the mystical event never died and the race had its renaissance in 1984 with safety becoming the utmost priority.

Kommandant Ivo Burgerer, commander of the PDG

Kommandant Ivo Burgerer, commander of the PDG

We unpacked in our hotel and donned all our race gear to practice skiing and skinning roped together for the first time. As it was a dress rehearsal we put all our gear on, including our new suits provided by Texner - bright red with white edelweiss. We got more than a few looks while walking through Zermatt. Only the day before the PDG can you see trios of three wandering through town in spandex as though it’s normal.

Sari was the strongest and we decided she would carry the rope for the first two hours on course where it was not necessary to be roped together. We practiced slowly pulling it out of her pack and tying into the rope while skinning without stopping. It was not easy to tie in while moving and it took a few tries. Next we practiced the downhill, we had attached an elastic to the rope which allowed it to bunch up and become shorter than the ten meters required between each racer making it easier to avoid skiing over the rope while descending. Mission accomplished we headed back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep.

The start of the 2012 PDG

The start of the 2012 PDG

Friday morning we rose early and brought our gear to the gear check. Soldiers checked all mandatory equipment - skis, boots, poles, compasses, altimeters, helmets, goggles, harnesses, rope, axe, food, water skins, extra clothing, backpacks, first aid kit, crampons, headlamps - all required to be brought through to the finish. To prevent later switching out for lighter gear in Arolla our gear soldiers affixed shiny silver PDG 2012 stickers to our larger items and a marker on our rope. We were told we would receive a text at 8pm if the race was cancelled due to weather. It did not make for a calm pre-race atmosphere. However as we walked through town, it was very social. We met and chatted with many other teams, everyone asking the same question while looking up at the grey sky and the Matterhorn….”what do you think? will we start?”

The top teams in this event endeavoring to set new records and can have sometimes upwards of 70 people on course providing them with aid. The current men’s record is 5:52 and the women’s 7:41 - incredibly fast considering it takes the average person four days to cover this distance. The PDG is one of the toughest races out there physically, mentally as well as in terms of competition level. Our goal was to place top ten besting our 2010 effort when the PDG had been part of the World Cup schedule. Nina, Mona Merrill and myself and had placed 4th in the international category completing the PDG as the first American female team. The race was not a part of the World Cup this year - but instead the last of La Grand Course, a series of six of the longer, classic team races held over a two year period. La Grand Course was designed to celebrate the team aspect of ski mountaineering as the team races have been removed from the World Cup Series - which I think is a bit sad. The teams race is still celebrated during the World Championships every other year.

This year we had two support stations on course, a good friend at the halfway point in Arolla and a friend who was a soldier and a mountain guide a bit further on course. We were able to call him and get the inside scoop on some snow conditions. We made sure they had flags and lights as in 2010 we were unable to located our support team in the crowds. It can be chaotic coming out of the mountains down into crowds and artificial lights.

Checkpoint on course

Checkpoint on course

Eight o’clock came and went, no text, the race was on. We did our best to sleep before our midnight start but from our hotel could hear the start of each heat and the cheering as the teams ran through town. We got up at 10:30 pm to get dressed. The first hour of the course is done on foot and we wore running shoes for the start with our boots clipped into our bindings, strapped to our packs with food and water stuffed into out suits for easy access making us all appear fully pregnant. I had everything in there - even a water bottle in case my Camelbak froze.

We walked through one final checkpoint activating our GPS, a few last bathroom stops and then headed into the start corral. Relaxed and excited we waited out the countdown while chatting to friends who had come to see us off. At the stroke of midnight the gun sounded and we were off, an edelweiss and red clad spandex trio cruising down the Bahnhofstrasse (the main street of Zermatt) past the bars with happy spectators cheering our progress. Each time I start this race, I tell myself one day I am going to be the one in the bars while sending off the racers into the peaks.

Col du Bertol by day

Col du Bertol by day

Town was quickly left behind as we ran up the path up towards the Stafel and the first transition. Getting skis on quickly we started along the flats passing by the flank of the Matterhorn. (All of our shoes were gathered by the soldiers and unless we wanted to carry them with us would be sent to Africa as a donation). We could not really see the iconic peak, but could feel its massive shadow. It was here we got the first taste of the 100k winds that awaited us at the Tete Blanche as it funneled down the valley. The snow was wet and heavy down low and we had to dodge puddles of water.

We quickly gained elevation and worked well together as a team. Sari’s binding was not cooperating and pre-releasing unexpectedly. She would patiently step back in and charge on. Seriously annoying, she handled it like a professional. I might have chucked my skis into the nearest crevasse. As we reached the Schoenbiel Hut checkpoint it became impossible to hear each other due to the wind. Soldiers on course yelled it was time to put on our jackets and to be wary of the wind and temperatures. A mountain guide made a quick adjustment to Sari’s binding and off we went into the tempest.

Gear check

PDG Stickers

The wind increased in intensity forcing us to stop and to brace against the stronger gusts. It was a warmer wind so it was not as cold as we feared with the exception of the last few hundred meters. But as a consequence of the heat my clear glasses had fogged. I took them off and in return got an eye-drying blast of wind that left me with blurred vision for the remainder of the race.

Cresting the summit we pulled skins and began the relatively short ski down to the final climb up to the Col de Bertol. We descended quickly, organizing the rope while navigating the spin drifts and following the route marked by bamboo poles with glow sticks attached. After the last short climb, soldiers assisted us as we untied the rope and stuffed it back into Sari’s pack. I had begun to feel nauseous. I must have looked the part as one of the soldiers turned to Sari and said, “It’s ok, it’s finished now. You are done in Arolla.” “What? Are you kidding me?” Sari sputtered back verbalizing all our thoughts as we stared at him in disbelief. “There was an avalanche at the Pas du Chat (further on course) you are finished. The race is done, but shhhh no one knows” he replied.

Ready to roll

Ready to roll - Nina, Sari and Lyndsay

We looked at one another not sure if we really believed him. Maybe his English was just not very good? Eager to get out of the wind we began the 2000 meter ski back down to Arolla. The snow was great, but it was hard to avoid the rocks in the dark in spite of our head lamps and we could see the sparks flying off each other’s skis. We crossed the line into the checkpoint and were stopped by a line of soldiers. The race was over. We put on our extra layers and watched as hundreds of lights descended down the second major climb. Competitors had been turned back and told to return to Arolla. No one would be making it to Verbier on skis. In the history of the PDG the race had only been previously cancelled twice due to weather, once in 1986 and again in 2002.

Masses of disappointed racers crammed into the main tent in Arolla and we were told to wait for buses to Verbier. No racer was allowed to leave until the army confirmed no one was missing in the avalanche. The situation became a bit like a refugee camp with racers pressing to get on buses. Luckily we squeezed onto one of the first buses and began the two hour twisty and car-sick inducing bus ride to Verbier with racers falling asleep on each others shoulders.

Crossing the finish on foot after a long bus ride

The bus stopped just short of the finish line and at roughly 8am we walked across it together, a little dazed from the night’s events. We were pleased to learn we had gotten 7th out of 26 of the toughest women’s teams out there. They had classified us according to our finish in Arolla. The top women’s team had made it to Arolla in 3:30 and in spite of the conditions were on course for a record breaking pace.

Later on I had a chance to chat with our friend who was working on course with the army and as a guide who explained the army dropped us of just before the finish line on purpose - so we could mentally finish and hopefully move on from the weird we-started-but-didn’t-finish-its eight in the morning- what the heck just happened-kinda feeling.

Back in Chamonix, I continued to feel ill and both Sari and I proceeded to endure an nasty stomach bug we must have picked up in Zermatt. Apparently we were not the only ones as the top Italian team and others also experienced the same stomach issues. We slept the rest of the afternoon and evening missing the major wind storm that hit Chamonix over night. Winds upwards of 180kph took down hundreds of big beautiful pines and 250kph winds did damage to the Aiguilles du Midi cable car and the Montenvers mountain train. We managed a run the next day and were able to see the carnage first-hand.

Preparing the Tete Blanche Checkpoint

Tete Blache course preparation

Will we try again in 2014? It’s a long ways away but certainly we all had a sense of leaving something unfinished, a bit of post-race-we didn’t get to finish- let down. In spite of the shortened course and crazy weather, in a way we experienced the PDG at its best, requiring us to be a team through demanding elements and unexpected issues making all the hard work and sacrifice worth it for that feeling of comradierie that comes with being on the rope together.

It was the anti-climactic end to a pretty good season, although not as long as I would have liked. I just didn’t get to compete as much as I wanted - life just gets in the way sometimes. But as I have learned there is always another race, and always another mountain to climb alway and or another goal to set, which is the fun part anyways. A big thanks to Sari for making the trip over, all our sponsors La Sportiva, Ski Trab, Polartech, Camp, Ajax Tavern and again to Texner for the great suits.