Trail des Aiguilles Rouges

So what is it about Chamonix races ? Everything has to be extreme and difficult – well, that’s how we like it here!

This weekend I volunteered to help out at the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges. This is a 54.4km trail race (mountain race, actually), which has 3674m of positive height gain and 3624m of descent with an official time limit of 13 hours (winners were expected to complete the course in around 7 hours).

The winner this year overall was Dawa Sherpa of Nepal (now living in Switzerland), who did not disappoint the organizers after finishing in 6′ 47″. He also was 2nd place in this year’s North Face Ultra Trail, held only one month earlier. Obviously he had a very good recovery. The 2nd place finisher was well known French runner Vincent Delebarre in 7′ 18″ (the two men finished in reverse order the prior year with Delebarre winning and Sherpa coming in 2nd).

Women trail runners were not quite as well represented in the race, with no very big name women enrolling and the top woman finishing a bit slower by percentage of the winner’s time than one generally finds women finishing in trail races these days. The winner of the woman’s category in 9:35 was Sylvie Negro (prior year’s winner of the female category), and she was 58th overall. Last year, only 39 women enrolled, and this year the number increased to 73 so that is a very good increase at least in overall participation. But a somewhat disappointing turnout of top women athletes compared to the men’s representation, in my opinion.

The majority of the field indeed was made up of French runners – probably owing to two factors. First the race is only marketed in French on their website, and secondly the race is only 2 years old. This year enrollment was down compared to last year, although in the end more people started this year’s race (less than 400 started last year due to very bad weather and snow on the course). A small handful of Swiss, Italians, Brits and Americans (most of the Brits and Americans being locals anyhow) made up the rest of the field.

This year, 573 runners started in Les Houches at 5am (the course is limited to 600 runners due to passing through the nature reserve so this was a good turn out at the start line). At the end of the day, 458 runners finished the course, with the last one coming in at nearly 8pm – a good 2 hours after the official course cut off time. Only 384 runners finished within the original cut off time of 13 hours.

In miles and feet that is 33.8 miles and 12,054 feet of height gain. So it’s a bit longer than a marathon but a lot tougher in terms of climbing – not to mention that this is done on rough mountain trails. It counts for 2 points towards earning the 3 points required to enter yourself in the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc trail race (166km 9400m uphill), or it alone will gain you an entry into the North Face Ultra Trail CCC race (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix), which is a 98km race with 5600m uphill. Both races are held the same weekend at the end of August each year starting in Courmayeur and Chamonix. Both races now require pre-qualification due to their popularity.

Continue reading


How to train for a 10km personal best … without bitterness

Apparently running an ultra marathon the week (OK one week and a day of we are to be exact) before your 10km race is a super way to end up doing a personal best …

OK that would not have been possible the first year I did my first ultra marathon … I remember that year it took me a couple of weeks to recover. But also then I did not know about active recovery (ie using biking to recover for example – I had been told to do a jog the day after the race, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that as I was in such pain etc.) and I also didn’t know about the cold/hot water thing, where after a race you basically ice your legs and hips in cold water, then hot then cold, then hot etc. finishing with hot, to basically flush toxins out of your muscles more quickly. I only learned that in the 2nd year. But … now that I do know about that and now that I can recover quicker and continue to make plans to do things immediately after the race (even though for example the first climb 3 days after had some painful moments!) it is definitely a much better way to get through the ugly first few days after your ultra where your legs are puffy with toxins and still have that odd ache from the accumulated fluids.

I signed up for a 10km race on Wed last week which ran yesterday in a town called Annecy an hour and a half from here. People in my running group thought I was a bit nuts to sign up for another race so soon after doing an ultra, but in the end it was really good for me and for the recovery and I think my continued training for the next race at end of October. I didn’t want my body to feel like after the CCC the exercise season was over, since I will have to go 72km again in about 7 weeks.

Rather than feeling tired and worn out as I feared during the race, I ended up with a personal best time in the 10km! Well, at least personal best since I took up running again about 4 years ago when a good time for me was about an hour. (I don’t remember all my past 10k times from when I was younger but I think I did not even sign up for more than 5k races when I lived in Chicago – though I am not 100% sure). Now I am very close to running 7.5 minute miles consistently again over these shorter distances (7.6 minute average for this race, but in fact at the 5km mark I had been running at a 7.4 pace … I slowed over the course unfortunately). This was the pace I remember I used to run 5km when I was in my 20s working as a sexy mean dominatrix …. 

I think a huge chunk of my improvement is due to my weight loss earlier in the season. I just found an interesting calculator on a running website that actually shows how many minutes you save over distance by dropping weight : . And this seems to show that if I do manage to get down to my target weight, I could cut 2 minutes further off my 10km time. Not a bad motivator … 2 minutes faster in this race would have moved me from up 7 places in my age group.

So I highly recommend running an ultramarathon of 98km with 5500m of uphill and downhill at altitude the week before your 10km race if you are going for a personal best. Doing that will make the 10km seem like a piece of piss, believe me.

Secondly you will be so used to running through the pain that when you do a faster pace and find yourself breathing hard, you can say to yourself, ‘I only need to hang on for another x minutes, I know I can do it’ with extreme confidence and you will get through it. Especially since it is merely a fraction of the time you needed to say this to yourself to get through the 98km race.

Thirdly your leg strength will not be the limiting issue in your 10km race. Yes I started the 10km still having a downhill quad sore in each leg, and one ankle wondering about downhills … but since the race was basically flat (they claimed it was a rolling course but I challenge them to tell me where the up and downhill was – after all the hills I did last week it was again, unnoticeable to me) these muscles were not an issue.

I did eat 2 Power gels before starting the race, knowing that likely my reserve of carbs was not built up yet and that my muscles might need the immediate fuel but in some ways I think it was simply a bit of paranoia on my part. Also I’d gotten up at 5:30am for breakfast (a good couple hours earlier than normal) so knew that would be wearing off after the drive in with friends. The start was at 9:15. The weather cooperated as well -cool and cloudy so no pounding sun to deal with. I thought I’d maybe feel the ankle but it did not bother me one iota. In fact, during the whole run my legs felt nothing but really strong which gave me a sense of security allowing me to push the whole breathing thing.

The only limiting factor I found that I had this short race was my own V02 max, and how fast would I be able to breathe in a rhythm rather than raggedly while making my legs turn over faster than I was used to. The altitude training had helped too … this race was 500m lower than my home town and 1500m lower than a lot of the race that I did last week. So I started out at a pace that seemed a bit fast but on the other hand, didn’t seem to put me into an anaerobic state where I would hit threshold. Another benefit of running for 22 hours is you get to know your running body pretty well in these kinds of ways. So I was able to find the exact ‘edge’ that I am at right now where I knew how much to push the breathing without getting into a bonk state. I started out with a 2 steps, breathe once pace and I think I finished the last 2km on a single step single breathe rhythm. 

Also, finding hotties to follow is another great inspiration. After about km 4 or 5, I found a very cute French chick running in front of me, with a great ass and basically followed her slim sexy bouncing bum the rest of the way since she was running slightly faster than I normally would have thought to run myself. I hoped to have a sprint left at the end to try to get even closer to her bum, but sadly only had a small one left (I suppose this is another good sign in that I was really running at the edge of what I could sustain over that distance) for the last 400m or so (which finished inside a real track and field stadium).

After I stopped at the end, I felt briefly like puking but that passed in about 10 seconds, and then my recovery was so fast it was not even funny. Another great benefit of training for ultras is your recovery time after less than an hour of running is a walk in the park, even when you push it. I was neither thirsty nor hungry after the 10km. I looked at the drinks stand at the 5km mark and thought it ridiculous and passed at least 2-3 people who’d been ahead of me running at a good pace who broke their whole pace to stop and choke down a cup of water. Another great benefit of having run a mountain ultra done in ‘semi autonomy’.

As we walked to lunch I did develop an appetite. However, it was more of an appetite for the cute men walking all over town wondering which ones of them were available for a shag or not …. I am seriously in sexual deficeit at the moment and need an outlet … ! The more I lose weight the more it seems that I to want to shag …

More post CCC blather …

Yes, still on a high from finishing better in the race than I’d hoped. Three days afterwards (I finished on Saturday AM so had Sunday/Monday to rest) I climbed the Cosmiques Arrete, and yesterday (1 week to the day after the start of the race) I climbed 2 peaks in the Aiguilles Rouges – the normal ridge route of the Index (Arete sud de l’Index) and the Mani Puliti route on the contreforte de la Gliere. Two very very easy (ridge climb in the 4+ range and face climb with 5b max) but 6-7 pitch routes in 1 day. I did them in my mountaineering boots – I just got some new Garamont Tower GTX boots that I adore. No problem climbing 5b in the boots – felt very secure and am sure I could climb probably up to 6a in these things.

I had to get something to replace the Asolo light summer hiking boots which I completely wore out on the Tour des Combins a few weeks ago – they are a few years old and hands down were the most comfortable pair of hiking boots I’d ever had but I wore off the heels and the Gore tex leaks like a sieve – absolutely water attractors now, not at all water proof anymore. I may still try to get those re-soled to hike when it’s dry out as they are great for comfort but not climbing. I decided to get a hybrid boot and replace two boots at once. My previous mountaineering boots never fit me properly – they were purchased years ago because they were on sale and I had at least 2 inches in front of my toes making them absolutely impossible to use for climbing, but they were 100% crampon compatible. The new ones take a balin at the back, but a strap at the front. Luckily Black Diamond makes Sabretooth crampons for the hybrid boots so the combo of the Garamont boot and the Sabretooth crampon should make them pretty much ‘do everything’ boots for all I care to do around Chamonix; likely they’ll even go for Mt Blanc as long as I have gaiters and it’s not too far below zero when I do it.

For next year it looks like for the first time you will need qualifying points to even enter the CCC race again … the previous 3 years you did not need to qualify to enter that race, only the UTMB. I guess the high drop out rate this year (plus number of people who wanted to do the race but could not) convinced the organizers to set up a new system of pre-qualification for all the races. I qualify to do whatever I like – CCC or UTMB since I did the CCC for the past 2 years and always have finished, and on top of that for extra measure my Course des Templiers (assuming I finish it) will put me up to the points required in just 2008 alone (to do the big UTMB). I don’t think I want to do the UTMB however … I just don’t think I have the time commitment to put into training for a race of that length. I know I can do 98km and 5600m + on 2 days a week of running (and do OK) but I do know that I cannot do 166km on that kind of training regime. Considering that I like rock climbing and hiking equally to running, I can’t imagine giving those up to simply train only to run. But I am glad they are putting in a points system for both races. I have to wonder how some people trained. There are guys posting to the forum on the UTMB site saying they trained 5 days a week, with a 6 hour endurance run each week and DNF’d due to the heat. I find that ‘encroyable’ and basically do not believe it.

When you train for a long race like that, just ‘running’ is simply not enough. As someone pointed out if you run 21km 5 times a week and think it is preparing you for a long endurance race, all you will end up being is a good 21km runner. You MUST train up to at least 1/2 the distance that your race will be, at least one time, at most 1 month before the event, then taper. By this I mean, if you are doing a 98km race you must run at least 50km in one day about a month before the race, even if it is very slowly and takes much longer than you expect your race pace to be. You simply must run that type of distance. If you do not, your body will not be prepared for the ‘time on feet’ required to complete the race. Some of the best things to do in this regard are things such as long mountain days – for example 10 hour days on the feet scrambling/climbing or hiking — this type of endurance to ‘keep going physically even when hungry/tired etc.’ on your feet is really important when doing endurance racing. Writers more expert than I estimate you can about double your distance each long endurance run if you allow sufficient recovery times between the longest runs. The time in between might be 2-3 weeks btw. This is OK for this type of running! Overtraining by running uselessly for 5 days a week at shorter distances gets you nothing but trained for shorter distances. If your race is going to take more than daylight to complete you must also train to run at night. So many runners seem to not do this and then be surprised. I ended up replacing my lighting system after trying to run 21km in my mountaineering headlamp when I realized that to run faster, I needed a wider beam so I could see where to place my feet much sooner at night. Your pace at night will slow to a crawl if you do not pay attention to this type of detail.

I started out the season running slowly for 21km uphill twice as my long runs. Then I did a 26km uphill race. A few weeks later I did 42km, and a couple of weeks later I did a weekend where I ran 2 back to back marathons in the mountains ON THE COURSE at altitude. I ran at altitude as often as I could as well. I didn’t train often, but when I trained I trained well and with purpose.  When I walked or hiked, I hiked hills and concentrated on climbing technique and climbing quickly as possible while walking … pushing myself into a hard-breathing sweat even on ‘casual hikes’. I then did a multi-day mountain tour with a heavy backpack on at altitude, speed hiking all the cols which were close to 3000m (a good 700m higher than the altitude of the race itself). I carried things like books and camera gear in my pack, knowing that building up the leg muscles this way with 7-9 hour mountain days would be good for the endurance a few weeks later. Red blood cells take about 2 weeks to get created after you go to altitude … after I did that tour I went back up high several times in the week before the race. It worked, apparently. Recently I went up the Aiguille du Midi (3800m) to do a climb at over 3400m and I didn’t even get short of breath …

I also take iron now. I used to not take supplements of iron because my blood tested in the ‘normal’ range for iron in the blood and because iron pills blocked me up — but my reserves (ferritin) level was that of an infant consistently and I read a lot of information about slow metabolism that suggested that this was a link in that slow down of the metabolic process. So now I take either Floradix (French iron/mineral/vitamin liquid plant-based supplement) or an iron-enriched spirulina capsule (neither of which constipate like ‘typical’ iron tablets do … and additionally are much more bio-available) and have been doing this for about a year now – it’s made a huge difference to my energy levels at altitude. Also I discovered I have to take magnesium while living here … if I do not, I get brain fog which mimics depression and it also causes weight gain because I tended to eat to try to compensate for the lack of clarity/tired feeling I got. I also cut out wheat completely from my diet. No pasta nights for me before races.

And I have lost since my heaviest weight before last November, a total of 8kg (nearly 18lbs, or 1 stone 4lbs) – I am now 65kg. I did this by a combination of not eating so much food at a serving, cutting out sugar and honey completely (including replacing sugar for tea/coffee with fructose), eating nearly no carbohydrates that were refined or even whole (ie no rice, pasta, bread of any type during most serious stages and only eating whole grains before long endurance runs) and reducing the amount of fruit in my diet at the points where I really wanted to lose weight. I tried for some time to lose weight (3 years?) and nearly gave up … I exercised a lot but it would not come off until this past November when I tried the South Beach concept, with the idea that potentially I had either thyroid or some type of pre-diabetic condition.

It was only when I really cut out carbohydrates and sugars entirely for 3 weeks (at a time while my husband was thankfully gone so I could have in the house only what I was allowing myself to eat and avoid temptation) that the weight started to come off. I believe I have what is referred to as ‘syndrome X’ or ‘pre-diabetic’ condition where the body simply loses the ability to properly process carbohydrates in the adrenal system and simply stores them as fat nearly immediately due to over-consumption of refined starches and sugars in our diet that over time damages and overloads the adrenal system. It was very difficult to do for the first few weeks, but once the addiction to sugar and starch had been cut, it became easy enough to keep up with the regime. I also increased protein of both vegetable and fish sources, but still will not eat anything but line caught tuna or wild salmon … farmed salmon makes me want to vomit it is so fatty. I try to snack on protein – nuts, soy yougurt or soy protien bars(supposedly too fatty to allow weight loss) rather than chips, bread, toast, fruit etc.. or fresh fruit, not dried if protein is not around.

I felt this weight loss weakened me in early season most definitely (I placed very low in the uphill 1/2 marathon in June after losing a bunch of weight) but I decided to keep losing the weight until end of July, and then to eat normally in August (I allowed back into the diet brown rice before long runs, or potatoes or sweet potatoes but NOT white rice, and I will never allow back wheat). I stopped drinking beer anywhere (hard to do at the micro-brewery but it worked) and only would drink red wine or clear alcohol such as eau de vies or vodka. Now my body seems to have figured out how to burn fat better, and I do not need as many carbs to run. I am OK having a meal with a large portion of brown rice before a big race, and a few slices of whole rye flatbread (the kind that tastes terrible unless toasted because it is flat as a board and very heavy).

I still need to lose another 3kg I reckon to be at my most fit weight, so I hope to lose this in September, and again go into a maintenance regime for October before the Templiers. I am really happy with the way my body looks again, which is a great side outcome. I am being flirted with by guys in their 20s and 30s, I get eyes following me now when I walk around in bars and it feels good. I love the look of my leg muscles now … I have not had thighs this muscular and with lack of fat since I was in my early 20s (or maybe teens??) – my legs are hard all over, not squishy. It feels great. It feels sexy. I am able to wear the clothes I arrived in Chamonix with in Y2K … which is a wonderful feeling after having fallen into a depression for a couple of years with the whole failure of the health of my husband and subsequent collapse of our relationship …

This year – one of the happiest summers for me so far in Chamonix since maybe 2003, the last time I had decent climbing partners in town. I have done more sports than in ages it seems, and feel confident again about my own abilities. Doing so many things on my own such as running solo back to back entirely self-sufficient marathons in the mountains really gives you a sense of who you are again, and a sense of confidence that only comes when you really earn it from real work, not puffed up ego or hope. I do think it would be great to have a lover again rather than just friends to do things with in the mountains. Orgasms are another great way to lose weight 😉  Unfortunately I will never think of Louise Attaque in the same way again … got to get over that a bit.

North Face CCC done done done! And not even bitterly

OK I only have time for a short but satisfying quicky post before I am off to climb something up the MIdi tomorrow with a friend …

Did the North Face Courmayeur Champex Chamonix race Friday/Saturday, and did it in style to my surprise. Felt great through the majority of the race, and finished an hour and a half faster than I thought I’d go … nothing like underestimating your own abilities to make yourself ecstatic for several days after 🙂

It was 98km and supposedly 5600m of uphill, though my watch counted 5500m of uphill. . . anyhow, what’s a hundred meters one way or the other over 98km ?

Close to 50% of the pack dropped out of the race. The weather was sunny and dry and hot – after having been cool and fall-like for the previous few weeks, it warmed up again with a vengance especially for the race. I never had muscle cramps before but started to get the sensation that my calves could sieze up at any moment while running in the heat of the day so I did not push it too greatly but on the other hand I did not relax either – kept a steady somewhat pushed but not mental pace. A few glasses of fizzy magnesium filled mineral water (yes, in the Alps we get mineral water, choice of fizzy or flat at our rest stops, thank you!) sorted me out and then when night arrived, I picked up the pace. At the big stop at Champex at 55km my legs were not feeling at all tired and I felt strong, so kept it up. I got tired about 1/2 way up the last climb and the last descent was more of a ‘death jog’ but apparently I still managed to pass people and gain some places back on the way down.

I finished in the top 10% of the women who started the race and top 30% of all racers. Note that close to half the pack dropped out. 2033 people started the race, and only 1241 finished in the alloted time limits. I was only annoyed that the mayor of Chamonix did beat me by 1 hour … so I need to try to do it even faster next year to beat his time 😉 . I do think it’s realistic for me to cut 1/2 to 1 hour off my time still if I find motivation to work harder next year or find a good training partner (I trained completely alone this year except for perhaps 4-5 sessions with one or another of the 2 clubs I belong to). I really didn’t train in an organized fashion for the race (though the training I did was quality and of the right type and timing at least; I think I didn’t train enough) and if I did that I’d place in about the top 20 women which would really jazz me.

I had friends who also placed very well (way above me) and am quite happy that everyone I personally knew that entered either of the 2 races did finish and finished well. I think people who got caught out were either top athletes who pushed it too hard in the heat or got unlucky, or the inverse – people who did not manage the heat well, didn’t eat the right foods, manage liquids or train for enough speed (considering the time barriers were shortened this year, walking the course was not really an option anymore!).

I did suffer some nausea at the end of the race – too many caffeine Power Gels I think. The EA Fit protein bars I took sat really well however, so I will use those again and I think I will limit the gels to non-caffeine ones until after night fall next time. I would love to get hold of some Cliff Shots but they are simply not available here in Europe yet and my supply ran out while ski touring this past winter … !!! We even enquired with the company if WE could distribute them … but no.

I consumed 5 Power Gel caffeine (last one was minging), several crystallized ginger cubes (great for nausea!!!), 3 EA Fit protein bars, 2.5 liters of Green Magma-ized water (over time), alternated w/plain water in my pouch at each filling station. Those were the things which I carried for myself. And at the stops I consumed Coke (I never drink it outside of races!!!), fizzy mineral water high in magnesium/calcium, tea with sugar, cheese (yeah very wierd but I have found that cheese while racing actually helps my stomach stay calm and keeps energy constant since there is damn little other vegetarian protein available), saltine type crackers, orange slices, banana slices and Maxim sports drink. I also carried about 2 handfuls of nuts/dried fruit/ and 4 spelt cookies but never felt like eating those.

In the big race, the UTMB, the drop out rate was 53%, but on the other hand the winner – Spainiard Killian Jornet – set a course record. He is already well known in the ski mountaineering world as the winner of the Pierra Menta, arguably the hardest ski mountaineering race. Dawa Sherpa, first winner of the first UTMB came in 2nd place. Unfortunately a lot of the really top runners dropped out this year – Marco Olmo, last year’s winner dropped out at Vallorcine, Scott Jurek dropped out just before Bovine due to an inflamed knee, Nikki Kimball (woman’s winner last year who absolutely rocked) also dropped out, as did Vincent Delabarre and race organizer Michel Poletti and many many other top athletes (and many normal runners as well of course … )

Next Ultra trail race I am training for … Course des Templiers October 26th …

Shoes – Salomon XT Wings (awesome – no complaints – well designed shoes)

Gaiters – Quechua (thank god someone makes these or I’d spend so much time taking off shoes and dumping out stones!!!) – they worked OK but I forgot to loosen them as my legs swelled at the end of the run and have sore outer calves to thank for it.

Tights – totally need to be replaced. I run in very non-technical crappy Reebok 3/4 tights that do not dry fast and are a bit heavy. On the books for next week is a new purchase of better running tights for racing.

Shirt – used the Salomon shirt I got in another earlier trail race – a sleevless loose very light mesh as I knew it was going to be hot.

Long shirt – used at night Helly Hanson ski underwear! Stayed warm when wet, worked like it should.

Wind/Rain breaker – Quechua trail running (orange) – cheap and perfect. Love this article from Quechua.

Sac used – 17 liter Quechua. Definitely being replaced!!! For the 3rd year I used this I have scabs on my back from being rubbed raw. First year I taped 2 spots I thought were worst and got sores outside of that area, then 2nd year didn’t tape at all (forgot about issue) and got bloody. For some reason I forgot about the problem entirely over the next year and forgot to replace the bag (mind you I train with the bag all the time on trails … it’s just that the problem really only seems to happen at over 42km and I don’t do training runs much longer than that so rather forget). This time I knew there would be a problem but I thought taping ‘properly’ this time would solve it. Now I just have a very large square line of scabs around where the tape edges were. It works great for training on shorter trail runs and doesn’t cause problems then (under 42km) but for longer stuff I need a bag that sits higher off my big butt so that my lumbars do not get rubbed raw when my ass moves it as I run, shoving the bag back and forth across my back. The default of this bag is that it is very low-sitting which feels quite comfortable stuffed full of gear, but when you start to run faster or run for longer times it really hits at an area where you (as a girl at least) are going to have some swinging action.

 Found a very high-sitting Salomon trail running bag today that seems to have all the stuff I want, and is kind of like a vest in front so you don’t lose the quick access to gels (this is why I did like the Quechua bag for the 2 ‘wing pockets’ on the front of the hip belt that easily held gels.  So I will try it out while I train for Templiers and see how it is … off to the factory near Annecy next week to get this and the tights that I want at a niiiice discount thanks to some well-placed friends. One potential default I can see in the Salomon one is rubbing the arms as I swing them on the vest thingy … hopefully October with long sleeves it won’t matter ? Will see.

Bitter Seracs

Eight climbers died on Mont Blanc du Tacul between Saturday night and Sunday morning. 7 others were injured. A large serac fell, which set off a gigantic avalanche. The avalanche was 50m in depth at the break point, and 200m long. I was woken up from sleep by rescue helicopters flying in and out of the area. I live just below the mountain in Les Bossons (a village/neighborhood which is part of Chamonix). The trail along the glacier runoff stream that comes down from Tacul and Mt Blanc is where I walk my dogs each morning. I assumed that they were searching for maybe someone who had gotten lost on a descent the day before and fallen into a crevasse at la Jonction, which has become a very dangerous area on the glacier and part of some people’s descent if they miss the last telecabine down and have to walk all the way back to town. Unfortunately it was much worse than that.

Witnesses said there was no sound, no screaming. But one mountain guide shouted for people to run, and this saved some lives, as they were able to escape to the edge of the slide and have ‘only’ broken legs, vertebrae etc.. Some said they ‘swam’ in the snow to stay on top of the avalanche and survive. However, anyone who was directly under the ice itself when it fell would have died nearly instantly as this was a chunk more than the size of a 4 story building.

This happened at around 3:20am, which is the time that many parties were crossing the face of Tacul to get up the ‘Les Trois Mont Blancs’ route, which is a climbing route to Mont Blanc via Mont Blanc du Tacul, the Mont Maudit and then Mont Blanc, taking in 3 of the highest summits in Europe. The route is popular but dangerous mainly on the Tacul face, since a large part of the ascent is under a serac. It’s become worse in recent years, especially since the heat wave of 2003 and the cravasses have become larger, and serac fall more frequent. It’s considered the more technical route up the mountain compared to the Gouter route. The face of Tacul also avalanches frequently in bad weather, but the weather was good on this day. Parties always wake up at 1 or 2am to start the routes. The snow is normally frozen and firm – easier to walk on at this time of night – and normally there is less chance of avalanche or serac fall due to the warming up of the snow which happens in the afternoon – however the risk is not entirely absent as this accident so unfortunately proves.

An alternate climbing route via the Gouter hut also has significant danger, mainly from what is known as the Gouter couloir, where rockfall is sudden and has killed several climbers by knocking them off the steep face in similar random ‘unlucky’ fashion. Many people think Mont Blanc is a simple walk up, a slog, an ‘easy climb’. It is physically easy as long as you are not unlucky. However, with the thousands of people who summit each year, there are always at least a handful, often more, who die on the route. It is a mountain. It has inherent dangers.

The weather was fine and clear on the day of the accident, but the preceding week had been full of wind and snow up high, with August 15th also having a blizzard. Days had been warm, nights cold, alternating. The fact is that that the depth of the avalanche at the breakpoint was 50m, which is absolutely enormous – the avalanche was not climber triggered, but in fact was triggered by the large serac fall. This means it would have been basically next to impossible to predict this particular occurence. The serac which broke off was simply enormous, causing a 50m deep break in the snow pack — it is not yet possible to predict when a serac will fall. Seracs are parts of glaciers, and glaciers move, grow and recede constantly in change with the seasons. However they are most instable in summer when the freeze/thaw cycle is at it’s most extreme.

This is unfortunately an example of one of the inherent dangers of mountain climbing, which all climbers need to be aware of when they start out. Similar to each time you get into a car to drive somewhere – you never know what else is out there on the road heading your way and sometimes some people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This one can be chalked up to ‘bad luck’.

Disappeared and presumed dead are a guide from Tyrol in Austria and 4 German clients and a team of 3 Swiss climbers. The names have not been released as far as I have seen. Rescue workers and avalanche dogs were only able to recover some items of clothing and rucksacks.

I had just been discussing climbing Mont Blanc in September with 3 friends on the night of this accident and we were debating between the 2 main routes up. I made the stupid comment that ‘seracs rarely would go at night’ about the Trois Mont Blancs route, and mentioned that often conditions can stabilize later in the Fall if you get a bout of high pressure weather for a couple of weeks (which does in fact often happen). Very ironic that this ‘rare’ occurence happened a few hours later after I went to bed. It’s a route I’d prefer to do of the 2 main routes. Another idea we’ve had is to go up from Chamonix without the lift, and climb it the ‘old fashioned way’ in 2 days without using the lifts. I guess I’ll have to see how stable the weather stays in September and October.

All day long, helicopters continued to head up the hill. Search for the victims had been suspended due to fear of further instability and avalanche and the fact that after a certain moment in time, it is simply a body search. Apparently they know the location of several bodies because some climbers were wearing avalanche beacons but they are deeply buried in a crevasse and a recovery will not be attempted. However, as it turned out many climbers who summited that day were unaware of what had happened, and tried to descend by the same route. At Tacul they came to a sudden giant 50m drop where previously had been a slope. The helicopters were being sent up to take parties off the summit of Tacul safely.

The PGHM in Chamonix is awesome and world reknowned as one of the best mountain rescue services anywhere – but what a stressful and difficult job in situations like this where really they can do nothing to help the victims, as they truly had no chance.