*Note - A shorter and less photo-filled version of this piece ran in the Glenwood Independent - but this one has a bit more detail
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the month of March, the Aspen Valley hosted two longer, endurance oriented ski mountaineering races - both challenging the participant with length, terrain as well as difficult weather conditions. In fact in the time it took me to get my act together and post this more distance events have hit the race calendar - the Grand Traverse last weekend and the Breckenridge Five Peaks set to take place this coming weekend. Colorado is really getting its game on as far as skimo racing is concerned - its great to see. I entered both races listed above with the ultimate goal of getting fit for my end of season goal the Patrol des Glaciers in Switzerland and to make up for all the pizza and avocados I have been eating.
February 25th, Sunlight Ski Resort held the 12 Hours of Sunlight. I did this event last year with Adam Frisch and we decided to do it again as training for the upcoming Power of Four and because we had a such great time last year. The course while only 1500 feet in elevation included all kinds of terrain, flats, steeps and a few turns through the woods. The turn around at the top was a bit higher that the year before, not too much extra ascent but just enough to be annoying around lap six or so. Snow coverage was not as good this year making the descent filled with rollers and the steep uphill sections, well, steeper.
Last year weather and sun were on our side - and this year true to the habits of the season the wind howled all day long. Ripping skins at the top turn around proved tricky and blowing snow was not only irritating but also blew fine baby powder snow onto the course making skinning more difficult. I was very happy to finish my last lap and thankful the ski patrol cleared the course of the fallen debris for the final descent in the dark. Although I could not drink it - I loved how all the volunteers crowded in the finish tent and presented me a beer when I crossed the line - thanks guys!
Adam and I had a solid race, starting out the day with faster splits but as the day progressed and our lead grew and we eased back into a more comfortable pace. We did 20 laps total and won the co-ed relay division. Adding it all up we did 15,000 feet of climbing each and about ten miles each. Congrats also to Billy Laird for winning the men’s solo division, and Kerry White for winning the female solo division. Full results of the day can be found here. Everyone who participated deserves kudos for dealing with the elements. While excellent training, its not the most varied event and it remains as always the great people racing and volunteers made the race event fun. Congrats and thanks to second place co-ed relay Ted and Christy Mahon who always make competing an enjoyable experience.
The 12 hours is a great confidence booster for the Power of Four which took place March 3rd. This beast of a race began in Snowmass and touches all four mountains finishing in Aspen’s Gondola Plaza. The course covered 25 miles and over 11,500 feet touching a max elevation of 12,300 feet. The majority of the race was held over 9000 feet.
Again, weather was not on our side. Cloud cover kept the temperature low and tempest winds aloft smacked windchills of -20F in our faces. Temperature at the start line in Snowmass was zero at 6:30am. I raced with good friend and insane athlete Sari Anderson. I was happy to let Sari set the pace as she is definitely stronger climber. We used an elastic to keep us together and communicated well. It was a great opportunity to push myself and go faster than I normally would alone and it kept us together as a team. She set a great pace on the ups and I chose the line on the descents, with the exception of getting too close to a small tree. I only wish my new Alien 1.0 carbon boots were ready for the race - oh well, next year.
At the base of Aspen Highlands, our second major climb of roughly 4300 feet (1300 meters) my hands were frozen from the last descent. The first few minutes of climbing was excruciating as I suffered through the thawing known as the “screaming barfies.” All water and food that was not shoved into our suits was frozen solid. The snow was cold creating a need for good and efficient skinning technique. Sari continued to set a great pace and we began to warm up, even sweat a bit.
I knew we were in trouble when the ski patrols skiing down starting shouting that “it is really blowing up there,” in reference to conditions on the Highlands Bowl Ridge which tops out at 12,300 (3800 meters). We stopped and put jackets on before entering the tempest - and it really was a tempest. Sustained 40mph winds with up to 60mph gusts. We had hoods up and buffs on our faces. Skins on we flew up the bowl almost getting blown over a few times. I hd frozen fingers at the top and was fumbling to pull my skins properly. The snow down Ozone (45 degrees) was awesome - but we had to stop a minute for Sari to scrape ice off my face. My buff had gotten wet and froze to my face leaving some frostbite - or as everyone called it the “Highlands Tattoo” on my right cheek.
The start of the last 3300 foot climb up Midnight Mine we met Sari’s husband Ian with her son Axel who was not sure he liked the look of mommy Sari in her skimo outfit. The last climb we really hit our stride and cruised up the backside of Aspen mountain in good time gaining time on the teams behind us. My water thawed as did the coke our friend Nick handed off to us at the top of Highlands.
Due to avalanche terrain the end of the course was lengthened adding extra distance finishing along Richmond Ridge. Ripping skins for a last descent we flew down Aspen (helps to be on home turf) and crossed the line in second place. The cold made it one of the more brutal events I have ever suffered through, but my teammate and friend Sari made it as fun as possible in such conditions. We stayed calm and even managed to laugh a bit. Congrats to all that finished in such tough conditions and to local boys Pete and John Gaston for taking the men’s title with two seconds to spare and Gemma and Stevie for being the speedy winning women. A big thanks to the Aspen Valley Ski Patrols and Aspen Expeditions for putting on a great event in challenging conditions. For a full list of results, click here. For Kevin Krill’s awesome photo gallery, click here.
The winter of 2011-2012 has been a major case of the “hurry up and waits” for the snow that never seemed to want to fall. Being blessed with extraordinary snowfall seasons the past few years you can’t expect to hit em’ all every year, but Ullr was certainly making us pay for past powder seasons while in contrast treating the Alps to a tremendous year (which they desperately needed). Last week I went up on Aspen and looked around and realized the snow had suddenly arrived and the skiing was in fact very, very good. The last few weeks four to five inches had fallen every few days - not enough to notice at once but it snuck up on us. Aspen was in pretty darn good shape with knee deep powder in places. Friggin’ finally.
The season steamrolls on regardless of epic snow coverage or not - Aspen is most always skiable thanks to talented snowmakers, cat drivers and our high elevation. I arrived in town in December and started working, training and of course having a bit of fun. I put my head down and one event after another flew by, Christmas week, The Ajax Cup, Winterskol, heli-skiing in Canada, Gay Ski Week, The Crested Butte ISMF North American Ski Mountaineering Championships, The X Games and most recently the inaugural Winter Teva Mountain Games in Vail. When I did stop long enough to look up and really see all the accumulated snow, I realized winter was here and we better hurry up and enjoy it since its almost half gone - and according to the Mayan calendar it could be the last one.
A few weeks ago on February 10th I signed up for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge in Vail with nine other talented female athletes. Insert slight intimidation here - the purse was huge and the fast people follow the money. The Ultimate Mountain Challenge featured and array of uber talented athletes that were set to compete in the Nordic 10k on Friday, the Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race on Saturday and the Bud Light Uphill on Monday. Superstar athletes like national winter triathlon champion Brian Smith, world champion adventure racer Mike Kloser, professional cyclist and ski mountaineer Sari Anderson, elite runner Stevie Kremer, Nordic Olympian Rebecca Dussault, USA Trail Running team member Megan Kimmel and Morgan Smyth, the U.S. National Nordic Champion all toed the line over the race weekend.
The 10k was an experiment of sorts. I had the rare treat of having my husband around to cheer me on. A former member of the Swiss Nordic Development team he gave me some last minute pointers assuring me I could win - love truly can be blind, but his unwavering confidence was just what I needed. I am not a particularly talented Nordic skater due to lack of experience, but goal was just to finish not too far behind the other women in the UMC. I owe a big thanks to Chip Chilson for his detailed training tips and to Mike Uncapher at the Aspen Cross Country Center for giving me a great Nordic lesson lesson. His Mike-mantras circulated in my head as I raced - keep weight on balls of feet, tuck tailbone, pendulum (he told me to think of the huge clock Flavor Flav wore) among others.
I lined up in the tracks behind Jari Kirkland reminding myself it was my second time on skate skis this season and I just had to finish 10k without flailing. My husband wanted to know why I didn’t line up in the front. I told him in all seriousness it was because I would have been run over and lining up in front of athletes with outfits that said USA on them was probably poor form. In contrast my outfit did not match, un-matching outfits always go to the back. I was also told the course was flat. Lies. The back loop had huge hills and I saw spots as I skated - I think I hallucinated and saw a small child cruise by me on one hill. Later I was told it was Recbecca’s son and he was in fact very real. But I was pleased I remembered some of my form cues and think I had moments of brilliance among my exhausted efforts. I also managed to beat a few women and it’s not every day you line up with Olympic caliber athletes. At the finish I was inspired to maybe take a few more lessons after the burning in my lungs subsided. A huge congrats to Olympians Rebecca Dussault and Leif Zimmerman for taking the win, it was impressive to watch them skate - they made it look so easy.
The ski mountaineering event on Saturday was my strongest event and had three different course distances to suit all levels. The recreation, advanced and elite divisions all begin at the Lionshead Plaza. The race was part of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup and was to date the richest ski mountaineering race in America with the elite division vying for a $5000 cash purse. Chief of Course and COSMIC founder Pete Swensen was excited to have the chance to bring ski mountaineer racing to the games and to a new audience.
The elite course wound up the front of Vail, down the back bowls, up and across Blue Sky Basin, back down and finally up the outskirts of the huge China Bowl. After a descent down the front of Vail Mountain, competitors hoofed it up one last boot pack to take them to the top of Gold’s peak with the last short descent being routed through giant slalom gates. It was the longest effort I have done to date covering 20 miles and 8200 feet of vertical elevation gain. The skinning was low angle and the descents short, not my favorite style of course but it was stunningly beautiful under sunny skies. I found myself racing with Jari Kirkland. Normally races of this length are done in teams, so we fed off each other offering encouragement throughout the event. The flat terrain challenged us mentally and I was sore from the new muscles used at the Nordic event the day before. I was very happy I had upbeat tunes with me. Jari turned on the afterburners on the bootpack and got me by a minute at the finish. Sari Anderson took the win with Janelle Smiley close behind and Stevie Kremer finishing third for women. Myself, Jari, Rebecca Dussault and Jen Girsbach all finished within five minutes of each other rounding out the top seven. Marshall Thomson, Bryan Wickenhauser and Brian Smith placed top three for men in that order.
The Bud Light Vail Uphill put on my good pal Ellen Miller was a great success. Lining up again after a sustained day of effort all mostly above 10,000 feet seemed daunting. I have competed in multi-day events in Europe like the Pierra Menta and I don’t remember feeling quite as beat up after those stages. Altitude is tricky to master and it has no mercy. I chose to use skis for the uphill but many were in running shoes. My choice proved sound with the soft snow and I managed to overtake most of the runners that passed me in the first flats. The course was about 2.7 miles up around 2,200 feet starting an an elevation of 8100 feet finishing at 10,300. The last stretch crested into another flat and we all though next time pulling skins and skating might be faster. A big thanks to friend Gayle Hayles for meeting me at the finish - such a difference to have a smiling face across the line. Stevie Kremer blasted the competition in running shoes with spikes by two minutes with Janelle Smiley and Sari Anderson coming in behind. For the men Josiah Midaugh, Jason Delany and John Tribbia topped the podium.
Shortly after the race the results for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge were announced. Sari Anderson took the title followed by Janelle Smiley, Stevie Kremer, Rebecca Dussult, Jari Kirkland and myself. Brian Smith, Marshall Thomson, Mike Kloser, Greg Ruckman, Luke Nelson and Eric Sullivan took the top six spots for men. It should also be noted that Sari Anderson finished about 12 minutes behind the top male in the skimo race and in the overall UMC challenge.
Over the four days a variety of other snow-loving athletes showcased their talents snow biking, ice climbing, telemark skiing, ski mountaineer racing, snowshoeing, running, dog events and Nordic racing. Prizes for all events totaled $60,000 and attracted professional competitors from all over the country. In addition to athletic events the games also offered free concerts, parties and art events in the Vail Village. Friday night boasted a specially designed spectator friendly ice and rock wall structure designed for elite mixed climbers to test their speed and agility. Saturday night under the lights we watched “Free Heels and Wheels” presented by Chipotle. Professional telemarkers and snow bikers competed in a one of a kind “trick” session over bursts of flames. Snow bikers like Ian Anderson were able to take part in one of the first ever snow bike criterium. For results, photos and videos of all the events, click here. For Sari’s account of the weekend click here. For a great recap in the Denver Post click here.
Racing in Colorado has given me the chance to experience some completely different style skimo events - most of them lately seeming to be very long in duration. Due to work commitments and other travel options I chose not to head over to the Ski Mountaineering Worlds in Claut, Italy. Instead I accepted an invite from pal and newer ski mountaineer Adam Frisch to run a few laps at the 12 Hours of Sunlight near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The event used to be 24 hours, but was recently changed to twelve - which was fine with me.
Held on February 13th with all action taking place between 8:00 am to 8:00pm the 12 hours drew people from as far as Jackson Hole (Congrats to JH resident Carey Smith for taking the men’s solo title with 19 laps, and time for a 20th). The day dawned Colorado bluebird, sunny and bright which would undoubtedly make the experience much more enjoyable. Adam toed the line first and we figured each lap would take us anywhere from 30-40 minutes including the transition and ski down at the turn around point. The course was entirely on-piste starting out fairly flat giving way to a rather steep finish before coming into transition and a fun, fast descent to the bottom. Adam set a great pace on his first lap that I echoed at 32 minutes a piece. Not a bad start and away we went back and forth for the next twelve hours.
I much prefer team races, but even though this was a team event I didn’t even get to see Adam, just a wave as he came into the tent and had his bib scanned. I took off as I heard the electronic beep while he yelled out encouragement. At one point he lost his bib and was issued a new one causing it to look like I was racing the whole event myself with a mystery bib out there running laps solo.
Adam and I surprised ourselves by leading the event by three or four minutes until around 5:00pm. We were fortunate enough to be racing against pals and endurance athletes Christy and Ted Mahon which made the day way more fun. We were two of only three co-ed teams but the Mahons themselves make it a great race anytime they roll up to the start. Ted who was deemed the “human metronome” due having all lap times within one minute of each other passed Adam with a few hours to go and the sweethearts claimed the co-ed duo title by three minutes. Ted gives another great account of the race here. I smell rematch for next year and huge kudos out to Adam, father of two for diving into this sport and giving it his all. It was a great event despite some feelings of Groundhog’s Day and I managed to keep all lap times consistent between 32-36 minutes, a great exercise in speed training and consistency. We each managed 10 laps in just under 6 hours each for a total of roughly 15,000 feet (4500 meters) of elevation gain and descent. After each lap we had about 20 real minutes of downtime in the lodge and thanks to Christy for bringing her Pilates foam roller, very helpful!
Less than a month later we all lined up for the first inaugural COSMIC Aspen Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race. This event was the talk of the town (also called the Fourskin) as teams would touch all four Aspen Valley mountains in a day covering 26 miles and some 10,000 feet of elevation gain. We started at 8100 feet of elevation and topped out at 12,300 feet at the top of the Highlands Bowl. I was racing in the female teams division with Jessica Phillips who literally returned from Worlds in Italy the night before. She was game to give it a go and we lined up amongst Aspen’s finest at 7:15 am in the Snowmass Treehouse area.
The course went up and up Green Cabin to the summit of Snowmass, across the Burn, down Hanging Valley Wall and back up to Elk Camp. We traversed the ridge towards Buttermilk past the Sugar Bowl with a bit of technical terrain before hitting West Buttermilk. Flying down Tiehack we hit our first aid station and figured we were about a third done. Ski celebrity Chris Davenport sat this one out due to an ailing partner and instead passed out water and inspiration before we hit the hard part of the course.
The next two ascents comprised of the bulk of our elevation gain. We skated, skied, and ran skis on packs to our next climb starting at the base village of Aspen Highlands. Highlands was packed with people and while the first climb up Thunderbowl was brutal, it was made much easier by all the cheers and support from skiers passing by and the tunes thumping from the freestyle comp taking place on the same run. Jessica and I started up Highlands in first place for female teams by just a few minutes. We could see the competition below us coming on strong so we fought to hold on to our short lead. Both accomplished skiers we hoped to gain time on the descent down the Highlands Bowl and the technical Congo Trail.
As we reached Loge Peak, Jessica complained of nausea and thew in the towel, not surprising after such a hectic travel schedule. She insisted I head on alone and confident she was in good hands with the Highlands Patrol I headed up the Bowl. I have never seen so many people hiking - all of whom were very respectful and stepped out of the way when I yelled “racer!” One woman even said to me, “I am so in awe of what you are doing.” Comments like that are as good as a sports gel, they give me an energy boost. Speaking of which I had consumed about a gel every 45 minutes and was coveting the PB and J I had made for the long road up midnight mine. Nothing like solid food after sugary gel for hours.
I hit the smallish summit of the bowl with about 40 other people cheering me on - it reminded me a bit of the Pierra Menta. Skis on, skins off I headed straight down Ozone but not before my buddy Nick had remembered my request and handed me a small coke. Jackpot - he was up there working for Aspen Expeditions marshaling the event and it seriously made my race.
The Bowl was in great condition and I managed its powdery steep 40-45 degree face without stopping (yes thigh burner) and navigated the Congo Trail without incident. Probably one of the most technical descents on little skis I have made to date, steep, narrow and lots of sharp turns. I alternated between short turns, power plow and alternating high speed side slipping. Fun to see my pal Thierry down low in the trees taking photos.
The final climb up Midnight Mine seriously took an eternity. I think I aged. Maybe a new gray hair. Very low angle and over snowmobile tracks it went up and up and up, and on and on and on. I happily ate my sandwich and finished my Coke. I could see a few teams up ahead so I caught up to the first and chatted for a bit. My pace a bit faster I saw another team in the distance. I focused on them working my way up. They were a bit harder to catch but when I did I recognized my pal Alan Peterson who was racing with Teague Holmes. They were entertaining themselves with stories and I was pleased to have caught up.
“Wait, are you racing alone?” said Alan. “Um yes, why?” I said thinking it was obvious as there was no one behind me. “Oh man, sorry, we thought you were a girl’s team so we have been trying to ditch you!” I laughed and we settled into stride together with Teague leading the way effortlessly kicking and gliding. I think Alan and I wanted to kill him just a little bit. In fact he actually finished the race switch (amazing athlete). We took turns telling stories and speaking with funny accents to make the time pass. Just when we could see the Sundeck I warned that it was miles away and in fact seemed to move farther away before we actually gained ground. It was during these last few minutes when I wondered why in the heck I had not taken up underwater basket weaving or some other more reasonable sport.
The final push took us behind the Sundeck where we could see the people eating inside both the main and private restaurants. Little kids pressed their faces to the glass waving while chewing their fries and we smiled and waved back sensing the end was near. Ripping skins we descended the Ruthies side of the mountain down car sized moguls on Silver Queen, into Lazy 8 Gully finishing at Lift 1A. I finished in 7:42 roughly an hour and a half behind the winners Brian Smith and Bryan Wickenhauser who crossed the line in 6:15. Had I my trusty partner with me we possibly would have taken the female title, but it takes two to tango and Jessica had actually suffered major dehydration and needed an IV bag or two to get her back on track - kudos to her for giving it a go after a rough few days travel. Jari Kirkland and Eva Hagan took the female title in 7:58. Despite losing my pal I had a great event and owe my finish to the last fun hour with Alan and Teague.
The first power of four was a sell-out with 75 teams lining up at the start. Roughly 50% were not able to finish due to missing the 2:00pm time cut at the Congo trail or from equipment issues. At the finish we learned that in fact the race was closer to 27 miles and 12,600 feet of climbing. From all accounts COSMIC organizer Pete Swenson, The Aspen Ski Company and Aspen Expeditions (thanks guys) were very happy with how it all played out and we can look forward to the second annual Power of Four next year. Rumor has it the event could even be World Championship material one of these years. For complete stats on this event click here. One of the greatest things about the Power of Four is that its high profile location hitting all mountains on a busy Saturday really opened up many an eye about the great sport of ski mountaineering - we are getting there!
So start looking for that partner, and maybe bring some music for that last climb for 2012. For another great write up, check out Ted Mahon’s account about finishing the race on a broken ski on his blog Stuck in the Rockies. Congrats to all who attempted this amazing event and for photos click here. For full results click here.
Whoa, Nellie. So BB has had a slightly adventuresome last few months including many plane rides and multiple time zone changes. End of October I returned to the US from Chamonix to the great state of Minnesota to put the finishing touches on my wedding. The big event took place November 20th, 2010 in Naples Florida. It truly was an amazing weekend with great weather and friends galore and it was fun to put on a pretty dress. I finally sat down and updated the blog as well as fine-tuned the home and about sections- bout friggin time - check em out, some changes coming soon.
Shortly after the wedding in early December my husband and CMH Valemount heli-ski manager and UIGAM guide extraordinaire Danny Stoffel headed up to start the heli-ski season in British Columbia, Canada. We stayed there for a few weeks on a powdery honeymoon (we have been lucky enough to heli over one million vertical feet together) with one brief trip down to Breckenridge, Colorado to officially pass my PSIA level one ski instructors exam and race the first COSMIC ski mountaineering race of the U.S. calendar on December 11th.
The CS Irwin race just outside Crested Butte, Colorado was unique in U.S. standards as it was entirely off piste - in fact we had to snowmobile or snowcat it over an hour to the start. It dumped the evening before the race and thanks to the dedicated staff of the cat-ski lodge we were assured a safe event and epic skiing. We climbed roughly 5100 feet (1600 meters) with three descents in the white fluffy stuff. For more info and photos on this first annual event, click here. It was my first race in the United States I realized very quickly that racing regularly above 10,000 feet (3000 meters) and often times touching 12,000 feet (3659 meters) I was going to either need some new lungs or an altitude adjustment. “Welcome to racing at 10,000 feet,” event organizer Bryan Wickenhauser said as I fell across the line in 4th place. Man oh man was he right. These US racers have got some LUNGS. And as Pete Swenson told me about racing high, “Just get used to feeling bad.” Good times.
After a nice Christmas at home in Minnesota with my family, I changed gears yet again and packed up to spend my winter in Aspen, Colorado. After a great New Year’s welcome I started my new life teaching skiing part time for the Aspen Ski Company and working with For the Forest, a non profit organization dedicated to educating the public on the Mountain Pine Beetle and its impact on forest health and climate change and working on my personal travel concierge company.
Aspen is chaotic over the holidays and after a few more days adjusting, Sari Anderson, Jari Kirkland, Brian and myself hopped in Sari’s truck and drove seven hours North through nowhere ending finally in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a double dose of racing. Saturday, January 8th was the U.S. National Championships and Sunday boasted the race in Grand Targhee. For a great video of the event click above. The weather was frigid, with driving snow that assured all frozen cheeks as we climbed up the ladder out of Corbets Couloir. Saturday’s race boasted around 8000 feet (2400 meters) of climbing and descent and at Targhee a little less, 5000 feet (1600 meters). The skiing for both events was awesome with more than few back country powder turns. For results click here, for more coverage on Outside Magazine click here. For awesome photos thanks to Forest Dramis and Matt Gocke click here.
The weekend of racing at high elevation proved to be a challenge for me, at times I felt like I was breathing through a straw and was very sore. Each day I finished in 6th place happy to have crossed the line but not feeling as though I had a high gear and battling constant fatigue with some slight chest pain. I chalked it up to altitude and exertion. The level of competition in the U.S. is growing and the women’s field is comprised of some impressive pro endurance athletes who like to race as well as have a good time. After a week of rest and recovery we would all meet again at the Sunlight Heathen Challenge, the third and final qualifier for the Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Claut, Italy the end of February.http://www.vimeo.com/19020705
At sunlight we were rewarded with a beautiful day for racing and I was really enjoying getting to know the small crew that comprises U.S. Ski Mountaineering. The course was a little more technical - as technical as we can be here in the states due to insurance costs and terrain. Off the line of the race, I realized something was very wrong, no pushing through this pain. I was constantly dizzy, light headed, chest pain, high heart rate and finally on the advice of a friend I stopped the race about an hour in. Frustrated and worried I vowed to see a doctor when I returned home. While disappointed not to race it was much more fun to skin around and be at the finish to cheer on the men and women. For results on the great Sunlight Heathen Challenge, click here.
People often wonder why we are so behind Europe in regards to this sport. The COSMIC series and others are born out of the passion of a few dedicated individuals like Mona Merrill and Pete Swenson who sacrifice their time and personal investment among other things to produce these events. In the U.S. we do not have the infrastructure that is so readily available in the Alps and we suffer from a severe a lack of funding. Its often difficult, expensive, and time consuming to get the proper gear since we are such a small market. Often excited participants wait weeks for their gear and have to search for accessories. The crew that drive from race to race each weekend in hopes to grow this sport are to be commended, while we may not have the great courses and technical terrain the Alps provide, U.S. Ski Mountaineering has definite heart (and lungs) and judging from the number of people I see touring each day it is growing - it will eventually get there.
After some testing in Aspen I was diagnosed with temporary reactive airway syndrome. Apparently the cold I had over Christmas didn’t heal, instead, aggravated by the cold, high, dry air it caused my airways to swell and created an asthma like situation for the past month. If you can’t breathe, you can’t do much - more importantly you can’t get CO2 and clear metabolic waste out causing soreness, headache and extreme fatigue, I have incredible new respect for people that live and compete with chronic asthma. In fact 10-15% of Olympic athletes compete with this ailment. After some medicated inhalers and two weeks rest (with lots of steam rooms and yoga I began competing again careful to adjust my training in regards to the high elevations. I was told it takes roughly three months to become 70% acclimatized. Training up here adds a whole new challenge to the sport but I am confident it will make me a stronger more aware athlete. Thanks to Michael Tobin and the folks at Aspen Performance Center I am gonna get it all dialed here shortly. As one friend told me the best part of feeling bad for awhile? Pretty soon you are gonna feel good.
The US is sending some talented new athletes over to the Ski Mountaineering World Championships this year in Claut, Italy and while I am happy to have the opportunity to go again for the third time, instead I will head back to Chamonix in March to ski some big lines I have my eye on and do some of the classic end of season ski mountaineering races. I feel lucky to have experienced racing on both sides of the pond, each atmosphere presents its rewards and challenges. In the Alps we have incredible technical terrain, long descents, tons of support, great culture, fans and guides who set fantastic kick turns. Here in the US we learn to race high, deal with the cold, recover well, deal with skin issues and ski some sweet powder. All of this combined can only someday produce top racers ready to tango with the best. Ready to get involved? Click here.
Best of luck to Jessica Phillips, Janelle Smiley, Jari Kirkland, Nina Silitch, Pete Swenson, Bryan Wickenhauer, Max Taam, Chris Kroger, Scott Simmons, Travis Scheefer and Luke Nelson - and to anyone I have not listed, Brava (bravo) and Andiamo!
Xterra, ever heard of it? Not the car by Nissan but instead an organization that excels in putting on rugged off-road race events. Xterra is code word for gnarly race=crazy fun and as their web page says. “uncover one rock, root and mud puddle at at time.” And even better, while you are playing in the dirt, part of race proceeds go to benefit appointed charities.
A few months ago on September 10-11th (a bit off the back with the update) I finished the first ever Swiss Xterra Classic Distance (there is also a shorter sprint distance available) which also did double duty as the European Xterra Championships. The rad race took place just outside of Geneva on Lac Leman in the quaint village of Pralognan. The field was stacked with pros, nine women and eleven men hoping to capture some of the hefty prize purse - including Olivier Marceau who has competed in triathlon in the Olympics for Switzerland. The age groupers (like me) were also out in force and together we were a crew of roughly three hundred competitors ready to get dirty.
I missed the exit to Pralognan and rolled up a bit late and ran to check in. A nice referee put my bib on my bike while the mean one next to him said I would normally not get special treatment. Okay buddy, it was a bib and zip ties, I could have handled it, I think your pal was just trying to be nice. I thanked them both and found my number in the transition area. I had lots of room for a change and the women around me immediately smiled and started talking to me as I unpacked my bag. For most this was their first Xterra. I had done one previously in Buffalo Creek in Colorado. Set in the middle of no where most competitors car camped the night before.
Coming back to triathlon is always a huge eye opener and the Xterra is no exception. Extremely well organized with great sponsors, pro athletes and prize money these events generate a huge following around the globe. Xterra not only organizes off road triathlons, but numerous other events as well and have created their own presence known as the “Xterra Planet.”
People seemed a bit more relaxed roaming around transition and perhaps it was due to the “gnarly” and rough and tumble aspect of the race. For example, instead of heats all 300 of us started the swim together with the pros out front.
The start was not without its issues - while we were lined up waiting for race director “Kahuna Dave” Nicholas to give the welcome speech I experienced my first ever triathlon false start. The front line mistook a sharp noise for the gun and took off. The second line kinda looked at each other and I could see we were all thinking the same thing - ummm what gives? should we go? should we wait??? I sat tight while the kayaks caught up with the lead swimmers and herded them back to the line.
Order once again restored we waited while race officials gave us a proper send off - and en fin, the gun sounded. I dove out front behind the pros and pegged it hoping to get away from the madness. It was not to be, 300 people in a narrow lane was akin to swimming bumper cars. Keeping my eye on the bright caps of the female pros I held on swimming over under and across people. The course consisted of two laps around four buoys keeping all markers on the left. Round the last buoy I exited the water to hear my name called and was fired up - I had broken 23 minutes marking the 8th female to enter transition. I was sure the mass chaos including the large man that submerged me as he pawed over me would be a slight set back. I guess the fight or flight syndrome was in full effect. I definitely fought and there is no not thinking of survival in a mass water tri start.
Out of transition onto the mountain bike for two laps of about 17k. The course crossed private land (video above was made to allow racers to check out the course) and heralded numerous water crossings some of which required sliding down rocks into knee deep water with the bike in tow. In contrast to my other races the route was flat and often times like riding over a washboard, not so comfortable! The trail crossed cornfields, vineyards and more than once racers waded waist deep in streams with the bike up high. The water was hard to navigate on sore legs and other walls and obstacles required getting on and off the bike numerous times which also became tiresome. It was a totally different kind of mountain bike racing than I had done previously that summer and I found the course almost more difficult due to the flat terrain. At one point I was almost wishing for the long climbing grinds of the Grand Raid.
After a mediocre transition on my part it was time to run. I chose to put socks on since my feet got beat up on the last tri when I ran with none which is a time waster and I lost a place. The course ran us through uneven fields, forest trails and past one smelly pig pen. Two laps of just over three miles ended with an awesome hurdle over chest high hay bales. A perfect way to end the race.
After we all settled down and cleaned up, Xterra treated us to a Hawaiian BBQ on the shores of Lac Leman while the awards were presented. Finishing second place in my age group and inspired by a tough field of pros I decided I was most definitely a convert to the world of Planet Xterra. A special thanks to Swiss Xterra Organizer Pierre Alan Frossard for putting on an amazing event, we will see you next year. Bravo to all the finishers and congrats to the winners. Ready for your own adventure? Xterra has a whole whack of races out there check here for one near you! Below are the top finishers and a fun video of the event (in Spanish) but great camera work!
1. Olivier Marceau [FR-SUI], 2:19′33”
2. Luxem Yeray [BE], 2:21′43”
3. Dietz Ronny [DE], 2:22′32”
1. Marion Lorblanchet [FR] 2:40′53”
2. Renata Bucher [SUI] 2:42′53”
3. Emma Ruth Smith [ANG] 2:50′07”
I decided to try a few different things this summer. I stayed away from the long trail runs to give my tired knees a break (after repeatedly listening to my brother’s overuse warnings) and focused on cycling and triathlon.
Not having had a mountain bike in three years, I was unsure weather I wanted to invest again - until a pregnant pal offered me her BMC for the summer. Problem solved. I decided to get back on and see if I could still hang. I figured out fast I REALLY missed mountain biking. I also sorted out fairly quickly mountain biking over here in the Alps was a little bit different, bigger down hills, lots of roots and some steep terrain. I am sporting some new scars these days.
After a few rides I ambitiously decided to sign up for the Cristalp Grand Raid - one of the Swiss Race Classics held in the Valais canton. The race could be likened to the Leadville 100 in the states but far lower in actual elevation with more climbing and some serious descents. Four choices are available to the Grand Raid enthusiast as illustrated below.
The mac-daddy is 137km with over 5000 meters of elevation gain and descent traveling from Verbier to Grimentz. A bit smaller but no less daunting is the stretch from Nendaz to the finish with 100 kilometers and just shy of 4000 meters of elevation gain. Next, the shortest option, 40 kilometers and 1840 meters of elevation gain and last, the race I chose - leaving from Heremence to Grimentz, 70 kilometers and roughly 3000 meters of elevation gain/descent. Thanks to a good friend, I was able to pre-ride most of the course, with the exception of the final climb, hike-a-bike, and last descent.
My heat started at 6am. Up at five I finished my carbo cake and arrived at the start in style again thanks to my Swiss pals. I was shooting for around six hours which I was assured would be good for my first attempt especially since the last part was still unknown to me. My bike was aluminum, a little heavier than all the carbon frames that surrounded me but I liked my chances on my sturdy steed. I was ready to roll and was happy to see first light illuminate the clear sky.
The gun sounded and up and up we went, jockying for position. There is nothing like a triathlon swim start or a mountain bike start to get the blood flowing. We climbed for an hour and change before hitting the first technical traverse. Frustrated by the people who stopped and walked, I tried to run ahead but realized it was a lost cause (ankle deep in mud some places) and just stopped to walk behind the masses. I am told this is why some people take the longer start from Nendaz or Verbier - no traffic jams, either that or I need to book it up that first climb next time round.
After the traverse I was determined to make up time and descended quickly - too quickly - and while looking ahead at a female racer I was prepared to pass, I washed out on some loose rock around a sharp corner. Before I could get up two people fell over me, bikes, arms, legs, it was a mess. We all got up quickly to get out of the way before our hogpile grew. I was grabbed by the race official who walked up to escort me to the aid station 100 meters down. “People fall on the corner every year, so we always have a first aid station here,” he told me while he threw some iodine on my wounds. He was not kidding, as I sat there 4 more people fell. I was a bit shaky and bleeding so they bandaged me up, fed me some water and sugar and gave me the clear to go.
The adrenaline was wearing off and I started to feel quite tired - and not sure if I could finish the race. I had spent close to twenty minutes with my pals at the aid station and it was hard to get motivated and back in race mentality. I finished the descent into Evolene enjoying the ride through the main street waving at the little kids, grabbed some food and then started up the second climb.
I slowly got into a rhythm but it was a mental battle, my body hurt, my leg was bleeding and I was constantly asking myself if I wanted to finish - not helpful. After an hour and a half of up my friend Valerie (who has done this race 8 times, 3 times all the way from Verbier) joined me for the last thirty minutes until the hike a bike section. She gave me some gels, more water, and quietly convinced me to finish the race while we rode. I silenced all the questions and just focused on pedaling. I made up some ground.
Once we reached the next aid station it was time to carry the bike up and over the Pas de Lona - the steep, non ride-able section of the course. Spectators cheered, handed me cokes and helped push/carry the bike up the steep, rocky slope - I love how strangers give a helping hand, it means so much when you are dog tired. No short portage, I finished the section in just about 43 minutes.
Once at the top the views were outstanding and I reminded myself that there was one last final steep and heart-breaking climb after a short downhill before I finally ticked off the 3000 meters of climbing. The last descent seemed to take forever and I really don’t think I have ever ridden something that sustained, 45 minutes of technical terrain with a few patches of fire road. My arms felt like jelly, my hands cramping from the brakes and I just focused on staying alert. Mountain biking is hard, there is really no recovery time. On the ups, you suffer - and on the downs you concentrate and suffer. I was ready to be done and thankfully a few minutes later I crossed the line. Again through the finish I was ushered into the medical tent to have a clean bandage applied. What is the old adage? If there is no blood, it was not a mountain bike ride!
After the race we lined up in an assembly line of sorts to clean the bikes - it was awesome. A small little bike village had been set up with chain cleaner, soap, and bike stands with hoses. The Swiss like their bikes clean! I gave mine a good clean before biking the thirty minutes back down to the valley floor to catch my ride back to my car.
Will I do it again? I think so, and this time with much more time on course and the training to go out fast to be able to ride the single track. To date I think it was the hardest race I have done - of course until the next one that is…
Chamonix is a mecca for all things deemed “extreme.” Dozens of sports can be tried here all with the impressive and stunningly beautiful backdrop of the peaks of the Mont Blanc Massive. Some sports are more user friendly than others.
The swimming pool and master swim club is no different. It took four years to rebuild the outdoor pool at the Richard Bozon Sports Center in Chamonix (and its still 5 meters short, only 45 meters long) but its incredible setting more than makes up for the lost distance. Nestled in the heart of town, swimmers can look up and sight off the Midi or the summit of Mont Blanc itself.
Master’s swim in Chamonix is part of the Chamonix Club des Sports which boasts 28 different sporting sections. The Club Natation de Chamonix is run by the trainer Jean-Christophe Guer or J.C. as we call him. The club was started in 1972 with 35 members and now boasts close to 170. Practices vary, but are held five times a week twice on Mondays and Thursdays and Tuesdays at noon. During the winter season you can even get up at 6am and swim with the high school kids.
The work outs are pretty demanding and focus equally on all strokes, not just freestyle. J.C’s motto is that you must train all strokes to be strong at one and it also prevents repetitive injuries. Even though I can’t swim the backstroke outside in a straight line to save my life, it stretches out my shoulders after a hard freestyle workout. Not to mention how burly training fly is in a longer pool.
When I first joined the club I had to relearn all swimming terms in French. IM (international medley) for example is quatre-nage and the butterfly is called le papillon. For the first few practices I never managed to get the workout right and just followed Vanessa, the speedy girl in front of me or just kinda did my own thing pretending I knew the drill. The sprints at the end of practice were also interesting as their call to start was a little different. Instead of on your marks, get set, go - it was get set, go! Or sometimes there were three commands so inevitably I left too early or too late much to everyone’s amusement.
My fellow French swimmers tolerated me with a smile and gave me lessons while holding up certain items repeating the name in French. Kickboard = La planche. Lane = couloir. I can now understand most of the terminology and apologize in the right language when I run into someone because I am too busy staring at the view. But thanks to that same view I never miss a practice - even when its raining and we can see the snow on the Mont Blanc.
Interested? Master swim programs are very popular and most certainly there is one near you, check with your local pool or community center.
Last week I drove support for a crew of folks running around the Tour du Mont Blanc with Sierra Mountain Guides. Having put long trail runs on the back burner in exchange for triathlons and mountain bike racing, I grabbed my mountain bike and followed them around via and biked while they ran. The fun part about driving a nine passenger van was my bike fit in easily and it was a cinch to change clothes.
After depositing everyone where they wanted to be in Champex, Switzerland after the day;s run, I drove back up to La Fouly at the end of the Val Ferret in Switzerland with the intention of biking one of the many cols on the TMB, The Grand Col Ferret (elevation 2537 meters). I anticipated it was about ten kilometers up and maybe 1000 meters of elevation gain - give or take a few meters.
The first part of the ride was on asphalt through the town of Ferret and eventually gave way to a dirt road and then split - one continued on up towards the left and the other down into a parking lot that then rose up the opposite valley to the right. I did not see this other road at first and followed a German rider for about half hour or so until the road ended at an area I believe was called Plan de la Chaux. Aha. I looked across the valley and could see the correct trail leading up to the col. Had I continued that route I would have walked my bike a very long ways up to the Col Fourchon.
Instead I rode down losing all my elevation and started again up the correct route. A nice dirt road, but rather steep at the start with a few switchbacks. It was Swiss Day and many families were out walking the hills and eating at the small restaurants or alpages that dotted the valley. I rode along for another thirty minutes and came to the Alpage La Peule I had seen from across the valley. Getting off the bike to walk through the wood chips (and it would be weird to ride past all the tables) I noticed it was comprised of a nice main hut and a few yurts that could sleep in total 32 people.
After the hut the trail became a single track and rose rather steeply for the first three switchbacks or so requiring some hike-a-biking to the confusion of the bell clad cows that stared as I went by. The last hour or so the trail flattened a bit with some steep technical lung busting sections that I could see from a distance. I tried to plan my vertical attack on these sections while resting on the flats in between. Mainly the trail traversed gaining elevation until the notch of the col was visible which - at certain points to me - seemed to be getting father and farther away. One section had a slight bit of exposure for a few hundred meters or so - nothing to bad but a fall would have required rescue perhaps by helicopter.
I caught some Italian riders with full packs who had ridden the full Tour du Mont Blanc. I rode with them for a bit enjoying being in a group as well as their cheers when I would successfully navigate a technically difficult uphill section. These sections seemed like mini sprints made worse with the growing elevation. In any case, biking with Italians is fun and motivating!
We made it to the summit and encountered some riders coming over from the opposite direction - the Italian Val Ferret. We stood for a group photo and as the only female biker and an American at that, I got a lot of commentary and questions. A few minutes later as the wind picked up I bid farewell to my new friends and rode back down the way we had come. The track was perfect for the descent - the technical difficulties disappeared with the help of gravity and it was one of the most enjoyable single tracks I have ever ridden. The trail was still a bit wet from the previous nights rain making it solid and even the steep sections were easily ridden all the way back down to the hut.
All and all the trip with the short detour took about two and a half to three hours and was one of the best experiences on a bike I have had to date. If walking or running isn’t your thing, the TMB on a bike is great option. I found a great site with planning information here courtesy of Alps Mountain Bike.
The Massive du Mont Blanc may as well have a big red target painted on its many faces. People come from all over drawn to the ragged peaks and vast network of trails around the roof of Europe. The Massive can be explored on foot, skis, bike and para-glider just to name a few. Living at its base I have skied parts of it, run around it and just about a week ago rode my bike around the 330 kilometer road route that circumnavigates the great giant.
“Did you do it in a day?” is a question you hear a lot around here, did you climb the Mont Blanc in a day, did you do the course in a day, did you…insert “athletic feat” here. More and more race organizers and people on their own are tackling larger and more impressive physical goals in shorter and shorter periods. The Tour du Mont Blanc Cyclo was a new event this year produced by the same organizers that bring us Le Marmotte, and dared riders to ride around the Mont Blanc in 18:30 hours or less at a minimal speed of 18 kilometers an hour. Do-able you say? Sure, but don’t forget the over 8000 meters of climbing and seven cols included in the route.
I heard about the race the beginning of June from a friend and talented cyclist who also races ski mountaineering. Unsure if I could actually do the event I was attracted to its simplicity - around the massive in the mystical day. The ride was tagged for “elite riders” and that I am definitely not, but I am an endurance bunny so I focusing on training in the little time I had.
Returning to Minnesota for a month was not the best way to kick off the training regime, but my father has a nice Trek from the Discovery era and I rode many flat miles on it exploring the lakes, prairies and farmlands of Minnesota. I also had to use his shoes which were a tad too big. I rode places near my home I had never been and was stunned by the landscape and actually was able to study lots of corn. Being the good Minnesotan I am I love corn and was surprised at how high the stalks already were. Farmers have an old saying, “knee high by the Forth of July,” well it was almost chest high. Bumper corn crop everyone and I am going to miss it.
I did manage a weekend in Aspen and through the generosity of two friends, Wendy Wogan Williams and Elliot Larson, I had the use of a road bike and a mountain bike. ZG’s own Tom Hayles took me on a ride down valley to suffer in the heat for 80 miles, “Be good training” he said. He had no idea how right he was.
I returned to Chamonix on July 8th. The next day I met Valerie for a recon ride. We rope up to Champex and then followed it up with the monster, the Grand St. Bernard. The heat was intense and the 95k ride gave me the first indication that maybe I could finish this thing. People said I would finish no problem but in all honesty, I didn’t know if I could do it. I was short probably 1000k training on the bike and for the first time in awhile was excited to put my body and my head to the test. I think it also cured my jet lag.
Eating and drinking would be the most critical so I planned on stopping at all aid stations. The 95 degree heat forecast would make it a necessity regardless. I had mostly solid food as after that amount of time gels and gu would make me sick. Instead I carried small bits of cut up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wafer cookies, bars and some power bar cola gel things which ruled.
Back to the start in Les Saisies. We rolled up to the line at 5am - not much of a line really - about 150 men and four women bunched together in the dark with lights on our bikes. The race was in actuality a tour and there would be no classifications but I was impressed with the looks of the people around me. Strong legs and some seriously nice machines. Thanks to Phil Martin I was on an awesome Cervelo with more mountain- friendly gearing than my Madone.
The first descent was gnarly - fast and not easy to see down the rough roads from the top of Les Saisies down towards Megeve. I stayed with a pack and tried to be ready to absorb unexpected unseen bumps. I swore more than once thinking I was going to go down. Once on the route towards Megeve and La Fayet. I stuck with a large pack and drafted for the next hour or so.
We arrived in Fayet and then headed up towards Passy, down through Servoz back up the small road leading towards Vaudagne. I had never ridden that road before. I noticed it was steep. We cruised through Les Houches and up the back road towards Chamonix right around 7:15am. I rode up valley passed my own house thinking more than a few times maybe I should just stop. Up the Col du Montets and then the Forclaz, we descended into Martingy at around 9:20am, well ahead of the 11:00 am cut off time. I stopped and ate well before the short but brutal climb up to Champex. Salami was the winner here, the salt tasted awesome as did the pound cake. For the third time in my European race career someone at an aid station asked me, “It’s not too hard for you?” I looked around at all the men sitting and eating and wondered why she was asking me? I smiled, thanked her for the food and got back on the bike.
From this point on I was mostly alone, passing the same men over and over again and vice versa. The climb seemed endless but I was happy I had just ridden it the week before so I knew the route. After a short descent into Orsieres, I started up the Grand St. Bernard in some serious heat. The road was full of cars and construction. Before getting to the top we had to ride about five kilometers in a tunnel that went down to one lane at parts. It required a lot of focus and I was happy to reach the last 6-7 kilometers that lead to the top of the col.
Happy sort of - the last bit is really pretty steep and I kept passing men who had stopped, who then would start again and pass me, and then I would see them stopped on the next bend. No way, I was not getting off the bike since I didn’t know if I would get back on. Reaching the crest of the col I passed the monastery on top and rode down past a lake I had never seen before. Again stopping quickly at the aid station to get water and some more cake. I had a severe lower back ache and I started to notice my lack of training. Time to recover on the downhill.
Not so much…the descent was endless and difficult. My shoulders actually began to ache from the breaking. The construction was brutal and I had to slam on the brakes a few times to avoid hitting cars. The road was uneven and my hands started to cramp. After about twenty minutes the road buffed out and I was able to descent and relax a bit until I hit the flats of the Aosta Valley.
I turned and started up the 30k to the base of the Petit St. Bernard and it felt like someone turned on the hair dryer…on high. A strong, hot headwind greeted me the entire way. Once at the aid station I dunked my head under the spring and sat down in the shade for a few minutes. My fellow bikers were looking a little rough and a few chose not to continue.
On I went through Pres. St. Didier up the Petit St. Bernard - which there is nothing petite about. Twenty kilometers and a few false summits I was glad I had ridden it last year to watch the Tour. Strangely no camper vans or flags waited this year, but one random race photographer snapped away as I passed. It sure looked a whole lot different without the Tour mayhem.
Having never been over the backside of the pass I was surprised again to pass a lake before descending another endless road, this one flatter than the rest. About halfway down I noticed I had left my water bottles with the nice man who offered to fill them for me. As it was still a million degrees it was going to be an issue. Secretly I hoped they figured it out and would send a rider down behind me, but who was I kidding, where would they carry them???
Once in Bourg St. Maurice I spied a pizzaria and ran inside to buy 2 bottles of water. The race required that you carry fifty Euros in emergency money, lights and a bright yellow vest. The Euros came in handy and I threw the Evian in my cages - they almost fit and my tired fingers struggled with the screw caps, but it was better than nothing.
The course referred to the Cormet du Roselend as a “mysterious” col. I knew nothing about it and the start was rather uneventful, a small road with a million switchbacks that rose pretty quickly up in elevation through evergreen forest. Fortunately each kilometer (19 of them) was marked with a white marker so I could count on my way up. However, I got confused a few times and there were uphill markers, and then the kilometers marked for the descent as well. This was kinda confusing, was the summit not the summit? So anyway I would count down the klicks, 6…..6.5…..7… and so on. I had met a fellow American, Ben, at the hotel (who was the third man to cross the line with a time of 12:58) who had texted me his phone number in case I wanted to be picked up. At first I might have been slightly insulted, but the last two cols it was a comfort to know someone somewhere would come get me.
The Roselind is stunningly beautiful and was my favorite of the ride. After the steep climb out of the forest the climb flattens out, I was relieved - for about a minute until the wind hit. More headwind. I could see a rider on up ahead so I kept pedaling away assured I was not out here alone. I sang along out loud to my Ipod Shuffle. Eternity passed while hurricane force winds blew. I made it to the summit. One more pass to go.
The descent was just as amazing as the climb, down a few switchbacks past a beautiful lake and down again steeply into a forest. I had to brake quickly for a confused fox. It was starting to get dark and bugs were also becoming an obstacle. Ouch.
Finally I reached the base of the final climb up Les Saisies. Night was just falling and if I was not so ready to be done and off my bike it was almost magical. All the chalets were lit up and the temperature had not yet cooled. The moon was rising and I could see the night star. All of this beauty was spoiled by the fact that the climb was friggin’ STEEP. Passing cars would linger behind me for a few minutes giving me a bit of light. I had caught a few riders and we all rolled into Les Saisies together.
They had a pretty nice buffet laid out and I recovered my lost water bottles in the lost and found. It took a few minutes before I could manage to eat and I watched as the last people finished. Of the 150 men who started just under 100 finished, and of the 4 women, 3 made it across the finish line. I was the third and sincerely mean it when I say I was just happy to have finished and competed the lap in…a day.
Brava to Valerie for sharing this adventure with me and for ripping up the course in an incredible 15:35.