We’re in the thick of the Patrouilles des Glaciers this week. The first running of the race took place on Tuesday night and Wednesday, and the second running of the race is taking place tonight and tomorrow. Bramble Ski has a number of passionate ski-touring and ski mountaineering folk on its central team, and this year we had four people from the central team participating in the two events. Directors Duncan, Colin and Barry form members of two teams tackling the Zermatt to Verbier race, and pre-arrivals manager Maev tackled the Arolla to Verbier race for the first time on Wednesday. Today we hear from Barry who reports on their unfortunate experience racing through the night on Tuesday …
We limped into Arolla at 06:28:31 in the morning on Wednesday, just one-and-a-half minutes before the checkpoint cut-off. Our attempt at the 2018 Patrouilles des Glaciers appeared to be in tatters…
At 23:00 on Tuesday night we were hoarded like gladiators into the basement under the Zermatt rail station to have our final transceiver and gear check. Hot tea was available and we milled about with the other teams waiting for our 23:30 departure.
With Swiss punctuality, on the dot of 23:30, we were off over the start line to the rousing notes of Conquest of Paradise. Colin, Rob and I (Team Bramble) set off on our first attempt at the legendary Zermatt to Verbier ski mountaineering race, having successfully completed the shorter version two years ago. The click-clack of our ski boots set a rhythm as we ran through the centre of Zermatt, skis and gear on our backs. Hordes of revellers spilled out of the bars and clubs looking on and cheering in alcohol-fuelled enthusiasm. After a couple of minutes, the crowds died down, the village lights thinned, our skis clicked on and the long journey had started.
Before long we arrived into the first checkpoint of Schönbiel, 1,000m above Zermatt, a quarter of the climbing job under our belt. Here, all teams rope up as the terrain above crosses glaciated slopes. We had a quick feed, hydrated, and set off into the darkness above. We were feeling pretty good, feeling quietly confident given the events earlier in the day.
Roping up brings a mandatory formation for the team: there is the front man, middleman and the rear man and for most of the rest of the night there would never be more than five metres between each of us. If one person needed to stop, we all had to. If someone needed to pee, we may as well all pee. Now, the pace was all important, and the beauty of this special race surfaces … it is a team event, and the fate of each one of us was intrinsically linked to the other. Approaching 3,000m the air was beginning to thin and a steady, progressive, methodical march ensued.
How long have we been going now…Hours, but how many? Lights of a military camp up ahead … Wow, is that the top already? Looks like it. It could very well be. Passing under the spotlights … numbers checked … must be a short climb up this little slope to the top… I see no lights climbing after that… are we nearly at the top?
Four more long switch backs… slipping back… someone is trying to walk like a duck…sliding… keep the high ground… stop… crouching over… stomach cramps… deep breaths… keep moving… roped teams all over the mountain now… stop… wait for the team who has cut into our line… frustration… crouch over … my stomach… I hope last night’s nightmare doesn’t repeat on me now… looking back… How is Colin doing? How is Rob doing? We’re doing OK… onwards.
Sweating… pouring sweat… light breeze… chilly. Such respect for everyone around me… gosh the air is thin… I’m so over these false summits… no more looking for the top… keep the head down… one foot in front of the other… wait … stop… do we seriously have to bootpack to the top? Oh, that’s just a line of stars… my stomach… we’re doing OK… another camp under spotlights… that’s it… we’ve made it to the top… 3,650m… wow, the air is thin… feeling wet and cold… 2,000m of climbing done… half way there!
My stomach was really troubling me now, but we were making decent progress. I was struggling and, as it turned out, so was Colin, just how much he was struggling only became evident on the ski down. Usually one of the most graceful and strong skiers I have been privileged enough to buddy-up with, his every move on this particular descent was hesitant, tentative and cautious, bobbing up and down like a sea-sick ferryman he was drowning in a sea of nausea. Slowly, steadily we dropped from the heights of Tête Blanche, Colin’s nausea threatening to bring him to his knees and me realising that my stomach issues were minor in comparison.
It was slow, arduous work all the way into Arolla (including the short skin up to Col de Burtol). The darkness was lifting and there were moments of true bliss as the mountains around suddenly jumped out and presented themselves having been cloaked under a dark moonless, but starry sky.
… Eventually at almost 06:29 we arrived into Arolla. So here we were. We were lucky to have made it in on time, oblivious to the cut-off. But Colin and I were both questioning whether we could really go on. For the second time in 24 hours I was personally wondering whether this bucket list event would allude me for another two years. From 2am to 6am the night before I had been crouched over a bowl of porcelain with a violent gastro bug. Was this really going to be it? Were we really going to quit? We had been through so much. We couldn’t quit now.
After 20 – 30 minutes of what turned out to be fatal deliberation between Colin and myself, we finally committed to pushing on. The sun was now up and we just had to climb to meet it. I was certain that once we did meet it we could work out the dark thoughts from the early morning descent and we could turn this race around. We were the very last team to pull out of Arolla. Another 1,000m climb and we would have ¾ of the vertical effort checked off … we seemed to have renewed energy. “Come on boys! Let’s get to Verbier.”
Over an hour later, and as we approached the medical tent just before the bootpack up to Col de Reidmatten, the military stepped out onto the path… this was not good. As their mouths began moving the French sounds floated across to me and slowly fell into place…
‘Vous êtes trois minutes trop tard’. No! The cut-off was 8.15 and it was now 08:18. Our race was over.
The stories from the PDG are all unique and scattered with emotion. Tonight Duncan, Graham and Andrew will patrol the route from Zermatt to Verbier. They are very well trained and we all expect them to have an amazing race all things being equal. You can follow their progress via the PDG app.
Their team name is L’equipe Le Chable and their team number is 2385. #GoBramble!
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