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.

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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.

Ready ? Set Go mental ? The North Face CCC leaves in one week

It’s amazing how nervous you can get before running ultramarathons … I suppose if 10km was your distance you’d get nervous before those as well. But when I enter 5km or 10km races, I don’t get nervous as I have no question that I will finish (assuming I am not injured at race start) … I know it will be slowly in comparison to the people who train for exactly 10km but I don’t doubt I will finish so I am not ‘super nervous’ to the point where I obsess and can’t sleep.

But with the ultras … there is always the question in the back of my mind if I ran far enough often enough and ‘will I finish’ for many reasons – 1. you don’t run the whole distance before the race as part of your training (unless you do many ultras a year and are pretty elite, which so far I only do about 2 ultras a year, so the first one is always the big question) and second, in a race that lasts more than 15 hours for me (OK more like 20 or more hours!!) there are so many factors and chances to get injured, throw up, you hit ‘walls’ not ‘the wall’ , mental motivation etc.. compared to the 50 minutes or so it takes me to run 10km on a road that you just don’t know what will happen.

The first CCC I did I twisted my ankle before Champex at around 35km. I ran on it anyhow, and finished OK as it ended up only being a bone bruise from my ankle hitting the rock as I went over … but it did hurt the whole way around … oh that and bashing my big toe on a rock on one foot at some point which thereafter seemed to attract me to hit it repeatedly on more rocks throughout the race, and running knowing blood was squishing around my big toenail with every step and yep, losing the nail after the race (I didn’t even want to take my shoe off after the race as I was scared of what I’d see). The second race it was a pulled muscle or ligament in the back of a knee that got me about 2/3 of the way. But I did finish both times. OK that part is the positive thing – I did still pull it out somehow. But it would be better to do it w/o injuries eh ?? For once ?? Oh and the stupid marathon I did in Turin 2 years ago … making a mistake and drinking their ‘sports drink’ and not knowing it contained more salt than sugar, leading to very heavy feeling legs and major cramps at the end …

This week, I find myself nervously trawling running shops for things which I know I cannot and will not buy in the 1 week before the race (too close to the race to test sufficiently if it will work or not) and reading blogs about preparing for ultra marathons (as if it would make any difference, since by now I must either be prepared or not … what I do this week will make little difference in endurance for next Friday!).  Mentally I need to prepare myself I think and start to get more positive …

Mainly I know I have to do a couple of things this week. Sleep and eat well. Sleep more. And do some gentle exercise. That’s about it.  I ran 10km today with a friend, a fast 10km on the flat (relatively flat anyhow, as flat as Chamonix gets … ). I plan to do some hiking on the weekend uphill but slowly and maybe another 10km run Monday. And I plan to go up high several days next week – Aiguille du Midi lift, summer pass, here I come.

My main longest runs this year were longer than past years, I’ve lost more weight this summer (fitting back into stuff I arrived to Chamonix with in 2001 is pretty nice though now most of it is out of fashion!), and I did more hiking uphill with heavier packs than last year. Those are all pluses.

But my training has been somewhat disorganized for a reason I’ve only told a few people about … and my training this year has been mainly solo, whereas in past years I’ve had training partners to help the motiviation. I’ve run a few times with the 2 clubs I belong to but mainly the French club meets at a time that is not convenient to me despite my best intentions, and the English ex-pat one met at a time this year that also was not so great, though I did manage to get to that one a few more times than the other one. And when I did, it was very nice to have the extra motivation. I really wish I could make the French one more often. Well I still have another race after this one, so I can still hope/try to get to their meets in September when work hopefully (???) will slow up a bit and I can switch my schedule occaisonally to working days rather than nights to make their evening times.

If the CCC race were the same or similar course as the past 2 years I’d feel confident in fact. But I feel totally unprepared because the race is 12km longer and 1000m higher than the past 2 years. It’s downright evil in fact. At the end before, when you reached Vallorcine (about 16km outside of Chamonix and first proper ‘town’ in France again) previously you pretty much figured you could crawl to Chamonix from there, and make it back in 1 piece. If you still had several hours before the time cut off, you knew you were OK and would basically make it come hell or high water. And last year that is pretty much what happened to me. I’d somehow (don’t even really know or remember how or where) managed to injure the back of my left knee between Champex and Trient. Likely it was when I slipped on a very wet slippery tree root on a high step climbing up the Bovine … I remember slipping pretty hard, and worried more about scraping up my hands (which actually were OK) but I think I must have hyper extended my knee backwards as I did so. It didn’t hurt until I stopped at Trient, and then stood up to go again and I noticed it basically was in agony … I went very slowly up the climb to Les Tseppes (falling back many many places) and could not run with my normal speed or even half normal speed down to Vallorcine. I pretty much hobbled down to Vallorcine in fact. But I got there.

However, my stomach was churning due to the pain I had been enduring I guess, and it was making me feel nauseous. I also felt a pain in my lower lumbars of my back and assumed it was sore muscles from the backpack. For the first time ever in my running career I ate cheese at a recovery stop. Cheese. Who’da thunk? Well it was Tomme de Vallorcine, my favorite and totally local homemade cheese too. I basically used to stare at cheese at the ravitaillements stands thinking ‘who the fuck would eat cheese while running – it’s too hard to digest ?’ and ‘Only in France … ‘ … but suddenly it appealed to me that day, and in fact it made my stomache feel much better so I had more at Argentiere a long half hour later (or was it an hour? No clue) and the stomache settled way down again.

The last 5km into Chamonix, around Lavancher, I gritted my teeth and thought – fuck I can continue hobbling and take another 45 minutes or I can run and get this fucker done with. So I ran it in … when I stopped I nearly started crying I hurt so much. Then I realized my back was bloody as I took off the pack. The backpack had rubbed my back raw (year before I had no such issue and wore the same stuff) … and my knee did swell up  – but actually that got better in 1 day after the race as it was purely some type of muscle or ligament stretched too far, not a joint issue luckily.

So I think back on my state at that point in the race last year, and I think about this year’s course change. And the fact that now, after Vallorcine instead of a mere 60m of uphill on the way back into Chamonix, I have instead to endure 800m of pointless climbing instead. Pointless in the way that if I was a hiker going back to Chamonix from Vallorcine, going via this route is the last thing I’d consider. Most of the rest of the race follows a logical route around the mountain but this one simply is bullshit done for the sake of making the race ‘harder’ as far as I can see. The organizers know that the VAST majority of people who enter the CCC are casual ultramarathoners doing it for ‘fun’ not profit. So I think this change of an evil ending really risks turning people off. Maybe that’s what they want as right now they have something like 4000 people extra trying to get into the race who cannot get in … eh – maybe I will see that next year the race is not for me anymore. I just wish I’d known this when I signed up for it, but the course changes were not announced until after you’d signed up.

Oh and for the extra 12km and 1000m of uphill they generously give us 2 whole extra hours to do this. Well I am told that even the fastest runners will take an additional 2.5 hours to do the extra bits they added to the course (the beginning is changed as well to be longer and higher). So basically now you must run faster per km of length and height gain to keep out of the ‘cut off’ points. I finished several hours ahead of the cut offs last year, but for this year now I risk being chopped … and I finished in the lower middle of the pack last year, and in the top 1/3 of women finishers the first year when I was not reduced to hobbling for a large chunk of the race.

The first 400m of the finishing climb is basically straight up on a path that is a hard uneven staircase of logs and stone steps – difficult even when you are fresh and I would say dangerous when you are not as if you lose balance and fall, it’s a loooong way down a cliffside in many sections. After that it climbs more gently on a long ridge but it still climbs until you get to 2140m and then you run DOWNHILL to the midstation of the Flegere ski lift. That part of the downhill is beautiful and nice under normal hiking conditions – though I think after 80km it won’t seem so quite so nice anymore.

Then you have a lovely brutally steep downhill to Chamonix after that on a gravel 4×4 track, which as I recall from the first year when we finished there (last year finish was on the opposite side of the valley) it really hurt the soles of my feet at that stage to be on the rocky hard pack road.

And then to add insult to injury, they send you on some fuck off stupid loops through town center streets with the sole purpose seemingly to show you off to the tourists before they let you cross the finish line, including sending you on track past the finish line so that it’s in your sight but still giving you 2 loops of streets to do before you can cross it (very unlike previous years). I think the end of the race is simply torture this year just thinking about it. And it misses Argentiere – one of the main towns of Chamonix – by doing this change, so fewer spectators to cheer you on, and by taking a high road up a ski lift there will be many many fewer will be along those final really hard kilometers to encourage runners (especially when I finish which is well after the first runners cross).

So now, I’m trying to figure out how in this next week to UNPSYCHE myself out of this crap state of mind and get myself into the mood that I feel I will be able to do this last section … maybe if I didn’t live here it’d be easier because I would not KNOW all this by having already done this section in training … Crap.

Main hard runs I’ve done so far …

2 back to back long runs on a weekend at the end of July sleeping in Champex, doing 30km one day and 42km the next basically following the race course, but skipping the first 12km.

26km running the start of the course on a very hot day (whee).

5 days hiking at over 2000m altitude with a heavy pack, hiking the high cols very fast (up to 2900m) with some 8 hour hiking days last week (2 weeks before race day). One cool thing I was proud of (I guess?) is that I made it first to the refuge each day of anyone doing the same tour I was doing (or in some cases of anyone doing any tour on the way to that hut), and managed to stay ahead of the other strong hiker in 1 family – a 19 year old kid who I basically ‘raced’ up most of the cols speed hiking. Other cool thing – absolutely no knee issues or muscle soreness after doing the hikes each day. I know this was not the same for the other hikers who were slower, as they mentioned it at dinner each night. Also I had some cool conversations with a German mountaineer who’s been climbing in the alps since the 1970s … they don’t make ’em like that anymore. Very interesting guy and made me want to do more ‘real’ climbs of mountains … future ‘to do’ list stuff.

Bunches of speed workouts on shorter mountain courses of around 1 hour or 2 hours really pushing myself on the uphills and downhills to go faster. I know it seems odd to call a 1 or 2 hour run a ‘speed workout’ but maybe ‘tempo run’ is a better term. I also did some workouts that were truly shorter speed workouts where I did uphill sprints for 30-45 seconds up steep sections, jogged it back and repeat until exhaustion. But not ‘every week’ as you are meant to do …

Several mountain half-marathons and climbs running … including Cross du Mont Blanc at 26km.

So – probably not enough for this 98km 5600m D+ (uphill) race to be honest. I didn’t do a lot of regular really long runs … or so it seems to me. I also cross trained on a bike, especially in the 2 weeks after the back to back long runs when my muscles were pretty fatigued.

Guess I will find out next week for sure whether or not it was enough. Will blog the good bad and ugly about what a disorganized training routine does for ultramarathons. I also have (maybe?) enough time to correct some of this undertraining before the next ultra I signed up for which is the Course des Templiers in the south of France on October 26th (about 2 months to the day after the CCC).

Well the CCC will in any case be some type of training for it, and then it will be a matter of managing recovery  + continuing to run distance (at the right point in time) up to the weeks before the next one. I plan to bike the week after the CCC to get rid of sore muscles (this worked after my weekend of long solo mountain runs) and then assuming I am not injured too much (knock wood) to try to do a 10km race in Annecy the week after as a sort of recovery race (not trying to go for any personal record or anything).

I think in 72km it has something like 4 ‘refreshment’ stops one being only water, and 3 ‘complete’ with food and I believe it has less natural water (ie here I know some places I can refill outside the normal stands so I don’t need to carry as much with me, but I think there I will have to work out a different strategy for carrying enough water between points). It’s got 3100m of D+ which I think is less per km than the CCC but I’ve also heard it’s more of a ‘fast’ runners race … so I suppose a good reason to maybe run another part of the Tour du Mont Blanc in September, maybe trying out some of the sections that I don’t normally run on the CCC like the ones between Les Houches and Italy, and do another solo mountain marathon or even maybe another weekend double marathon for my birthday at the end of September (assuming there is a refuge still open on that side of the track and no snow at altitude which can be possible in September!). Guess it depends on how I feel after the CCC as well and how fatigued my muscles end up.

In between these 2 races, there is a marathon and half marathon in Geneva on the 28th of September one of which might serve as a useful training race for the Templiers … hmmm. Could try some type of long mountain run the weekend of September 20th,  and tone down a bit with a 1/2 marathon road race the 28th … or is that tapering too much by the 28th. Wish I knew … will have to look for advice and also see how I feel after the CCC. Back to that race … did I mention I was nervous about it and dreading it ?? Yeah, I think I did.

Bitter Tragedy on Dolent

A father and three of his children in a Dutch family died on Mont Dolent  (July 24 2008), which is not on Mont Blanc, as mis-reported by many websites. It is a peak which is part of the Alps, but is several  mountains away from Mont Blanc itself. The summit of Mont Dolent is the point at which Italy, Switzerland and France meet and in this case was being climbed from campsites in the Val Ferret, on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, which is a large grouping of mountains about 100km long.

The tragedy is I think well-reported on the below websites, as they give an analysis and discussion of the accident, rather than just concentrating on the horror factor that the mother, Ada de Jong, watched as they all died. All four family members were from Almere, in Northern Holland and include the father, Pieter Hendrik Germs (55), his son, Mark Pieter Germs (20), and two daughters-Else Germs (23) and Karin Germs (16).

One cited factor in the accident is something I noticed while hiking, running trails and shooting photos the massif recently – a strange pink glow has appeared in snow patches on both sides of the massif, on top of the glaciers and on many of the peaks. It’s highlighted when the weather is cloudy and when it has not snowed for some time, and makes the snow look very strange. I was not sure what the pink color was from – pollution, or some odd atmospheric effect. But reportedly it is North African sand, which has blown in on the foehn winds … This happens sometimes in ski season (but it generally snows more often so doesn’t have enough time to collect heavily enough to turn the massif pink) and when it does happen, every skier hates it as the snow heats up faster, melting faster turning powder days into slush days instead.

In climbing season it turns out this combination causes the snow to become wetter and in fact to become perfect snow-ball temperature. (The sand takes up heat, distributing it into the snow pack ) and often this causes snow to ball up under crampons, rendering them useless unless you have the habit of knocking it off your feet every few steps with your ice axe … potentially snow balled up under one of the climbers feet causing them to slip, or perhaps it was even in the act of doing this snow removal that one of the team fell – it is only speculation.

The group was on the normal route, which the week before had seen another serious but non-deadly accident when a French rope team also slipped on the descent in the same place. In this case, all four of the party were on the same rope, which has generally been seen as the only thing one could criticise in this case (the family was experienced in the mountains and was part of a larger group of 30 or so Dutch mountaineers, and had been camping and climbing for a couple of weeks). Unfortunately when one slipped it led to a domino effect, pulling all down. In general the suggestions have been to have rope teams of two (this has been my experience in climbing) or to go unroped … though quite a few people cited cases where in a rope team of two, someone else they climbed with had been saved by that fact and for this reason I still think that roping up in general in a two person team is safer (at least statistically).

Only one member of the party (the father it seems) had been able to try to stop the fall using an ice axe, but unsuccessfully because the snow was too weak to hold the weight of the whole team. The mother who had retreated from the climb, watched on absolutely powerless and this of course is something no one wants to even imagine – seeing your whole family die before your eyes, knowing that if you had not turned back, you too could be dead or of course you would always wonder if things would have turned out differently. I can’t imagine the torment. Climbing mountains is dangerous and is sometimes tragic … but rarely is it so completely tragic as in this case.

http://climbing.about.com/b/2008/07/26/dutch-family-killed-in-the-alps.htm has a good report, as does this NL newspaper, which has been translated below. Source of following story is in Dutch here.

The snow was already too weak to stop the fall

COURMAYEUR – Leader Delfino Viglione of the Italian recovery team and his men have carefully reconstructed the accident of the Germs family.  “We could not see exactly in what order the victims have walked, because at the foot of the mountain their bodies and the ropes were completely intertwined with each other. In order to quickly recover their bodies, we were forced to cut loose the ropes. But we assume that while descending the boy walked up front, followed by his two sisters and the father as leader of the group behind (above) them.”

“Probably the boy slipped and the girl behind him did not respond quickly enough. When she too went down on the ground, the other sister followed and the father as well could no longer hold. He did try though: we found traces of his ice axe in the spot where the fall began. But by that time, by noon, the snow had already become too weak to provide for some grip.”

After sliding down hundreds of meters along the icy slope, the four people fell into a several dozen meters deep abyss with a rocky ground (base). It’s there where they had fatal skull fractures.

“Also because all four of them had left their helmets in their rucksacks. I do not want to say that it would have made a difference, but it’s not impossible that one or more would have survived the fall with a helmet on,” notes Viglione.

The sight at the foot of the slope was terrible, he says, but he and his men had little time to think about that.  “The operation was particularly difficult because it took place in very dangerous terrain, at the foot of an ice slope from where new pieces of ice and rock could fall down any moment. We therefore needed ropes to lift two of the victims into the helicopter. After that the weather slightly improved and we were able to float (fly) one meter above the ground, and recover the bodies directly. Then we had to look after the mother and complete all sorts of bureaucratic formalities.”

Suggestions to limit access to mountains such as Mount Dolent, the Italian military leader thinks are nonsensical.  “It’s for a fact that the mountain will claim victims. On our side of Mont Blanc, in the Valle d’Aosta, about 15 to 20 per year, and on the French side, at Chamonix, even 50 to a 100. But you have to consider that millions of people climb up the mountain, and greatly enjoy it, also because of the tension (adventure). We cannot put an end to that. We can point out the dangers to people, we can make sure they are well-informed and direct them to mountainguides, but ultimately it remains everyone’s individual responsibility.”

Ten kilometres away, on the Grandes Jorasses campsite at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif, where the Dutch Germs family camped for two weeks, there is an atmosphere of defeat. The family was part of a group of more than thirty Dutch mountaineers, who are now sitting at their campsite and gazing in front of them.

Also owner Nadir Ducret is badly shaken.  “Our camping exists for 42 years already, but we have never experienced anything like this. Four members of one family: the mountain has never before been so greedy.”

Ducret and his mother and sister have come to know the Germs family well.  “Especially the father, because he spoke French. He was a nice, cheerful man, always in for a chat in the morning. I myself have three children too, but much younger, and the relationship of these parents with their son and daughters served as an example to me. And now this disaster. Yesterday afternoon everyone here was still cheerful and happy, and now everything has suddenly turned sad and ugly.”

mountain running and french music

I did a 2 day run last weekend as my ‘long run’ to train for the CCC – sleeping in an auberge in Champex d’en Haut at night. There were at least 15 other runners doing about the same, all getting ready for the CCC. There were groups of Italians and French, and me the solo American chick. I ran most of the race course, but skipped out a couple sections because I started later than I wanted to on Saturday.

I started at Arnouva at the end of Val Ferret, and headed up the Grande Col Ferret right away, which is followed by a long downhill and another smaller climb to Champex for a total of about 1120m of uphill. The last 2 years I did the race, since I run that downhill so fast (it’s my favorite trail downhill evah so far … grade is perfect, trail is relatively even and the views are astounding), I’ve gotten odd inner leg cramps when I started running on the flat again (which cleared up quickly but made me slow my pace) after running it and figured I should practice the longer downhill this year to avoid that. I followed the Tour du Mont Blanc to Champex d’en Haut (about 30km), and stayed at the Auberge Bon Abri which was really nice and made very decent vegetarian food. I ran that part in 5 hours 48 mins, including a stop at La Peule to buy and consume a Rivella to celebrate my arrival in la Suisse. Even though I thought I pretty much dicked around at La Peule, I managed to run this bit of the course 1 1/2 hours faster than my past 2 years when I was racing (granted it’s preceded at that stage by 17km of running but I still think/hope that 17km of tiredness would not make me 1.5 hours slower).

I arrived a lot earlier than I expected, so I took advantage and showered (yeah, hot water & ice cold water … I always ice down my legs and hips now after a long run) did a nice yoga/stretch session on the grass near two Herens cows grazing with bells clanging and laid out in the sun lounger chair until dinner time. I was in a 6 person room, but it was not full. Another bonus (especially as it’s high summer season).

Definitely could have gone for either of my two mountain climber roommates (who’d just done the Tour du Monte Rosa and climbed about 15 4000m peaks in 9 days and were telling me the benefits of high altitude training) at Bon Abri – one of the few times I’ve been at in a shared room that I a. found the people in the room attractive and b. was not kept up by the others in the room either snoring or farting. Score for me. Continue reading