Gran Trail Courmayeur (60 km, +4,000 m positive gain), 07/09/2016
pictures by Valentina Erba (V.E.) and me
thanks to Jodi R. Lester for the proofreading
Vedi la versione in italiano
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Mont Blanc is everywhere.
It almost seems wrong. A neat impression: Gaia, once finished assembling the Alps, a few years ago, realized she had forgotten about that handful of magnificent mountains she had kept aside for a grand finale; and then she had no more usable space. What should she do? Well, just pile them up here somehow, one upon the other. What’s the problem?
Seeing them from here, from the great balcony of Mount Favre on the other side of Val Veny, conceiving sizes and distances becomes unfeasible, you can only be perplexed and bewildered. Mt. Blanc is everywhere. I’ve been running all day long and it is always there in its unending shapes. With the gigantic blade of the Peuterey Ridge smugly thrust forward to hack a slice of sky; then with the immense seracs of Miage Glacier watching over me with a surly smile; now with the Innominata Ridge snaking down between the forked tongue of the glaciers, as though running away from the granite organ pipes of the Brouillard and Freney Pillars. And always, literally overall, with the prism at the top of the body like a square, impassive head.
Mont Blanc is there everywhere I turn, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.
The north spur of the Aiguille Noire is 500 meters tall, I know that. And yet it cannot be, because then how big is the rest, the mass enclosing it, if the spur appears to be reduced to nothing more than a spike on the monster’s spine?
These thoughts are churning in my head while I plod up toward the summit of Favre. Crisis came, and I’m in the middle of it. A little voice inside of me reproaches, “Hey you’re running with Valentina she’s slower you could go way more than this you shouldn’t be in crisis mode you should be hopping here and there like a young chamois.” I retort to the nagging little voice, Hey, forty-five kilometers, three thousand five hundred meters up and three thousand down, and about ten hours of egg-frying sunshine are still forty-five kilometers, three thousand five hundred meters up and three thousand down, and about ten hours of egg-frying sunshine. And then, It’s not as though Valentina is that slow—at this point, we’re about mid-rank. What do you know about it? You have it way too easy, always there in my head preaching. I’d like to see you try it and then we’ll talk.
I swallow a supplement I was storing for the summit.
My legs stopped working a little while ago. I had gone ahead a bit, merrily chatting with another runner along this climb—the penultimate stretch of the race, about 500 meters of gain—and I was feeling great, no problem. I halted to wait for my wife about mid-climb, and when she arrived and I restarted, my quadriceps had gone AWOL. Then my head began aching. Perhaps I’m paying for the five kilometers of fine, flat dirt road down from Elisabetta Hut to the watery world of Lake Combal, as I left behind the shark fins of the Pyramides Calcaires. Plains always wear me out. Now, I’m throwing one foot in front of the other by willpower alone, thinking about the necessary movements for each step.
And all the while, I look at the Freney Pillars, hanging there in the sky above the glacier on the other side of Val Veny, and I think about the tragic withdrawal of 1961: Bonatti, Mazeaud, and their party mates, after that dreadful storm on the Chandelle. The glacier taking them, one by one. Lightning, snow, cold, darkness, hunger. And all of a sudden, it seems so much easier to go on, despite my little crisis.
Here’s the summit. We stop for a few seconds, I eat a few dried figs and persimmons. I’d like to drink but my two canteens have been empty for a while—it’s more than thirty degrees (76°F) today, and we’re above 2,500 meters of altitude.
Valentina suggests covering my head with my bandanna, and like magic, I immediately feel better and I realize that my entire plight was, largely, just the implacable sun making me giddy. She also points out I’m half-burned. Hey, that’s true! As for my healthy habit, I forgot to put on sunscreen, which of course is in my backpack where it’s proving extremely useful. Well, better late than never: I lather myself generously.
And I’m going again. We start the lovely descent to Maison Vieille, where the fourth and final refreshment station of the route awaits us—drink!—and soon everything is working all right again. My strides grow longer and I tell Valentina that I’m going to wait for her at the station, I feel like letting my legs go for a while. Crisis over.
As for her, she has already archived her first crisis (she’s going to have another before the end) about twenty kilometers ago…
6:00 a.m., Courmayeur. Ready for our first experience in a race of this scope. Ready? We’ll see about that.
A quiet start. With a rose sunrise lapping like soft waves on the Dente del Gigante only, and with the black woods lifting the Jorasses up into the sky. And then down about five kilometers to Pre’ Saint Didier to take the gorge trail and grind out some positive gain right away.
Around us in the dark wood, silent except for the roar of the creek, the group—or better: the big, still close-knit snake—proceeds just as silently. I see the faces, come to pay homage to Mont Blanc from twenty-two countries: some checking the signals of their bodies; some asking themselves if they’ve trained enough, if they’re going to make it (and how); some meditating; some dealing with a restless night.
Personally, I was dealing with an awful stiffness in my legs and back, hardly connected with running matters: our small mistake about the race date aside—which, for unfathomable reasons, had been scribbled months ago on our calendar in big marker on the tenth rather than the ninth—there was a bad accident on the A4 motorway, unfortunately with several dead, and we got here very late; just in time to get our BIBs (thanks to the organizers who waited for us an extra half hour) and too late to realistically go looking for a campsite and pitching our tent. Five hours in the car, Schumacherian driving (and driving is not my forte) in the dark, and what was left of the night spent in the car (and no, the Korean gentlemen who designed our vehicle had not had this usage in mind): the result is that I got up feeling more or less like a crumpled tin can.
But then, after the first thousand meters up, we arrive among the cow herds grazing in the Vallone di Youlaz (discovering with dismay that it’s read “youlah,” without the French-ish accent); there is the first refreshment station, as we come out of the woods and we find ourselves before the wavy expanse of alpine meadows and, yes, Mont Blanc waiting for us. By now, my muscles have begun working properly, and vistas such as these make you forget any annoyance anyway. The going is just fine now; it’s after eight-thirty and it’s becoming clear that it’s going to be hot, but as for now the weather is very pleasant and the air is thick with scents. We’re above 2,000 meters. I’m beginning to have fun for real now.
Valentina goes on at a good pace, without talking much, and she looks focused. She’s starting to relax as well, and the more she climbs the more her visage shows bliss.
As we reach the ridge at Col Arp, the panorama completely opens up on Mont Blanc, and then it feels like we’re flying along this lofty central stretch toward Mont Fortin, at some 2,800 meters, the highest we’ll go today.
We climb, we go down a little, we cross several snowfields that have covered the areas of debris. The snow isn’t frozen, but not that soft: it takes a little caution—even though our micro-crampons never leave our backpacks.
Meanwhile, Mont Blanc has swallowed the entire right side of our world.
We go down a sharp, fantastic ridge, and then off along the mountainside, up and down again, and again along a fun, narrow trail. In the descents, I dive at my pace, because staying too close to another runner is just dangerous, and because it’s just too fun.
It’s the final stretch before the second station, full of snowfields, around kilometer 25, when I see that Valentina is suffering a little. She has suddenly slowed down, doesn’t speak; I ask how it’s going. “Don’t worry, it’s passing.” We proceed riding the ridge.
She says a foot hurts in the metatarsus area, and it doesn’t look like it wants to go away; it’s been bothering her for several kilometers by now. What about sticking it into the snow awhile and changing socks? She does that. We restart and we soon reach the station.
The descent begins, and it’s not steep: it takes us down along vast meadows; snow has heaped up in their hollows and we pass over it in great strides, with our eyes open wide on the bright blue of the small lakes looking out from below the white blankets, on the small icebergs floating inside of them.
Suddenly, Valentina takes off with an animal dash, overcoming a couple of lady competitors and hopping on a snowfield, color back in her face. I ask her if she’s crazy (it could happen). She says she’s reborn. I say she shouldn’t make dashes like that anyway or she’s going to re-die. She insults me a good lot for my pedantry and we merrily bicker for a while among amused, slightly incredulous gazes from the closer trail runners—by now, the group has lost any big-snake guise, and sometimes we go without seeing a single human being for tens of minutes, all the athletes scattered along the route ahead and behind us for kilometers.
Then, we proceed in silence, enjoying the view and colors and smells and air and other things that have no name but are present here, heading toward the Colle della Seigne pass, the France border, where the Val Veny ends.
Some day-to-day related mental systems shut off, typical perceptual schemes—and others are triggered; more ancient, deeper. The search for meaning stops; it has no importance now; time assumes a different quality and gets denser. Perceptions coming from inside and outside grow more intense, and they divorce themselves from their relative cognitions, letting themselves be absorbed well beyond the surface, without allowing anything to be filed and archived. They remain. Surrounding and enveloping.
We find the Colle della Seigne after passing phantasmagorical ice cornices adorning creeks. We plunge down the mountainside toward the valley.
From here, the original route involved the climb to the Col Pyramides, but there’s too much snow for that: we’re going to pass the limestone pyramids downhill, directly reaching Elisabetta Hut, the third refreshment station, and then down to the Vallone della Lex Blanche. Looking at the other shore of the valley, we see the runners behind us weaving their way down the grassy wall, tiny dots of color crawling down the mountain. Hey, we were there!
Even past the station, water isn’t lacking thanks to many streams—luckily, because now it’s full afternoon and it’s really hot. Here we can refresh a little, re-fill our canteens.
And the heat will come back seriously again, ravaging, on the bare hump of Monte Favre, where suddenly, in typical trail-trance (not so different from being drunk, in a good way), I have an epiphany. Here’s what’s disturbing me in what I was looking at:
Mont Blanc is Pizzo Badile! (Note: a famous granite mountain in the Central Alps, hundreds of kilometers east)
Or rather, I know it’s not. But I also know there’s no such thing as coincidence. What obscure message can be hiding behind all this? I feel that, should I get it, the language of the world would suddenly be clear to me; I have in front of me a Rosetta Stone kilometers high…
Then I let out a formidable burp and restart running.
And then the crisis hit, but I already told this part of the story and so here we are at the end of the flashback. It seems impossible that three days from now (hey, flash-forward just after the end of the flashback!) Valentina and I will be pushed back by a Patagonian wind, with heavy snowfall starting at about 2,500 meters of altitude, during our ascent attempt at Petit Mont Blanc.
At the Maison Vieille hut I wait for Valentina, exchanging impressions with a small group of athletes who are by now acquaintances, as we’ve been continually overcoming each other since this morning, sharing lengths of the route or a cup of tea at the stations. We’re travel-mates, and we laugh while drinking something (and I indulge in a small slice of Fontina, which is never absent from the stations here, cut directly, with huge knives, off huge cheeses). When she arrives, it occurs to me that I’d like to change my socks: my shoes and socks are completely drenched since I dipped my feet into one of the many ponds surrounding the road in Val Veny. No, I’m not going to say how it happened. But now they’re macerating. I tell her to go, that I’ll catch up later. I take off my shoes, quickly check my toes, which seem to be okay, change socks, and it feels like I have new feet. The shoes are wet still, but you can’t have everything.
I start again and set a resolute pace, which allows me to catch up with my wife along the hunches of ski slopes separating us from the last obstacle of the route: the threatening rocky lump of Mont Chetif.
On paper: about six kilometers to the end, featuring about a 300 meter rise and then a steep descent about a thousand meters of negative gain. So, let’s say we’re there, right? I tell Valentina that, according to my infallible calculations, we’re going to be in Courmayeur in an hour or a little more.
Turns out I had underestimated Mont Chetif [suspense music].
I certainly didn’t expect the climb to be a sort of via ferrata (an equipped route with fixed ropes and metal chains) with passages along nearly vertical outcrops.
And we’re not the only ones not expecting that: along this stretch we’ll find several halted competitors, their expressions lost and dazed. One is sitting on a rock, his head in his hands. I touch his shoulder and I ask if everything is all right. He doesn’t answer, just sways. Valentina addresses him as well, a little more professionally decisive. He (a French guy, judging from the writings on his gear) lifts his eyes and looks like he’s seeing weird beings—aliens, easily. He smiles a devastated smile, doesn’t speak and probably doesn’t understand Italian, but makes the international gesture for “I have to vomit but it’s all right, don’t worry! It’s passing, now, you go ahead.” Another, a Viking-like North European, is so beat that he bangs his head into a rocky spike. And then we get lost on the trail among the creeping pines. And climbing off route to get back on the right track. How many of the lot of runners who retired today (we started with almost two hundred, are going to arrive with a hundred and forty) have surrendered right here, so close to the finish line?
Me, actually, now I’m feeling great and I’m having a ball on this stretch, scrambling and clambering here and there. Anyway, I realize that not everyone here has my same confidence with verticality (many trail runners are, like us, mountaineers or skialpers, but just as many come to this sport from marathon running); and when you find yourself with forty-five kilometers and almost 4,000 meters in your legs, and perhaps not “strolling” like I’m doing today, well, there may be some little problems—along these rock slabs offering a pretty meaningful view on the town of Courmayeur, a thousand meters of abyss below us. Yes, there may be.
And the downhill isn’t going to be any less of a problem: the first part is a very steep gully, full of debris. Then, a little wood trail with an unending dust cloud of whirling, extremely thin sand lifting around us. Yes, trails are covered in sand, here. It’s one of the great mysteries of Aosta Valley, and it isn’t wise to investigate the causes further.
Valentina chokes on sand (which she’ll keep blowing out of her nose for days); she’d had a serious crisis during the ascent. Confidence with verticality she has in spades, and she climbs much better than me, but she was also much more worn out and simply felt her knees were not holding. And the sensation that you can’t trust your legs, while watching Courmayeur a thousand meters of abyss below you, is quite terrible. In that moment, you’d like your legs to be as firm as they come. Psychologically, it’s been really tough for her to reach the summit—and by now she’s running with her head as much as with her legs. It caused her a lot of strain to go those last few meters, which allowed her to pass the erratics and the tufts of vegetation hiding the sun—the sun finally beginning to drop toward the mass of Mont Blanc. And she continued to endure the first stretch of downhill, so steep and technical, facing it with extreme caution, just like the small group she came down with; and now, in the trees and in the dust cloud, her legs—it shows—are stiff, like pieces of wood, and I can almost feel how much they hurt. That’s not to say mine aren’t quite heavy as well; and my feet keep repeating, more and more insistently, that as soon as I stop we’re going to have a talk.
But by now we practically did it (and when you say this, it’s usually time for a sprain!), and the panorama here is boring enough to allow distraction: images flow through my head of our first trail in Pila two years ago. It seemed like a dreadful challenge, those twenty kilometers with one thousand two hundred of positive gain (which turned out to be twenty-three with one thousand seven hundred!); how many doubts and fears before registering, before starting, and then the joy of finishing the race, the respect toward those who finished the longer route—thirty-six kilometers that to us was thirty-six kilometers!—and the desire to run others so strong that, as soon as we got back home, we were already registering for the Gran Paradiso trail, only a week later, where she would get injured almost at the finish line…My mind rewinds a few months more, the first time I ran a 1,000 meter climb, after going out for an aimless short session, and then simply adding more and more, little by little, because I was having fun. And then, going down the Dorsale Orobica, I looked at that tremendous sunset turning the lakes into blinding slabs, painting the Alps and plains and Appenines in alien colors, and I remember thinking—fascinated by the just-discovered world of trail running, that strange discipline putting together our lifelong passion for mountains and wilderness with the fun and pleasure of running—about what it would be like running on the mountains four, five hours, covering tens of kilometers while climbing and descending thousands of meters. It seemed to me like a huge thing, unreachable perhaps. But now I’m here, sixty kilometers minus a few, 4,000 meters up and down done, and I think about what it would be like to run hundreds of kilometers and many-thousand meters of gain, day and night. And, despite my unconditional admiration for the protagonists of the great ultras, and those are certainly huge things, it doesn’t seem unreachable.
The descent, like all descents, ends.
And suddenly we’re in Courmayeur—it’s 5:45 p.m. and we’ve been running eleven hours and forty-five minutes—along the first 500 meters of pavement that we ran on this morning—this morning! It was today. It seems incredible. So much time has passed. Time shouldn’t be measured in hours and minutes, but in depth and intensity.
Well, yes, that would be slightly inconvenient for trains.
The final hundreds of meters. The impact of the hard terrain against my feet hurts like hell, my legs are crumpled and I have a hard time moving them right. And yet, I feel a strange warmth with each step, making me laugh. I look at Valentina: she’s feeling the same.
And then the children giving you high-fives from along the home stretch or refreshing you by sprinkling you with a water hose, and friendly faces, and…and then I’m too protective of certain emotions to tell them. (And I’m not sure I would be able to anyway.)
And then my feet soaking in the fountain, and handshakes and laughter, and beer, and the lunch festival and award ceremony the next day, all together, the first and last ones.
With all due respect to trains, time requires subtle and complex measures, and its density is quite variable: how much life can you stuff into a clot of time that takes up half a day?
More than a month has passed as I’m writing this. Yesterday I tore off what little remained of my right big toenail, which had just finished growing back after the last time. I have some doubts the left will make it. It looks rather ashen.
Yesterday Valentina cried. Ever since the race, beyond joy and satisfaction—not only a finisher, but mid-ranking in general and the fourteenth woman at the finish line—there has been a shadow about her, each time we talked about the matter. I thought it was just nostalgia for a lovely experience, for a beautiful voyage together. It was something deeper. I recognized a gaze while she tried to talk about it without finding the words. “It’s as though you left a part of yourself back there, right?” I say. And she bursts into tears. Then she laughs. And cries. It took a month to process the emotion, now suddenly it’s all clear to her. It’s like a romance that is over, she says, a beautiful romance. What we experienced, Mont Blanc, everything.
Well, I’m not the jealous type. And I certainly cannot be jealous of Mont Blanc.
Objectively, I’d be no match.