Being thrown into a situation where you’re going to be spending 24 hours a day over 5 or 6 days, where you’re potentially going to be under stress, hungry and sleep deprived, in the company of your best friends would be a very interesting challenge. Here I found myself in the situation where I was taking on that challenge with a bunch of people I’d never met before in my life! Actually, this has been the case on many occasions through my adventure racing career, and so far it has worked out very well every time. I think it’s the nature of adventure racers to be highly adaptable. It would probably be impossible to finish a race otherwise.
Thomas had given me the most powerful light in the Lupine collection to use through the race, along with a very high-capacity brick battery. When run on its lowest power setting it could last up to 87 hours. On its highest power setting I would only get 3 or so hours though. Thomas had tried to reprogram the lights so that its two standard settings were the extreme high and low-end settings, but in the end I think ended up setting it to highest power and middle power. Even at middle power the output from the thing was a real “midnight sun” blast of light. It was so good to cycle with I was nearly laughing at how effective it was.
Setting out with a new bunch of teammates I spent the first while trying to scope out their ability. They seemed reasonably competent on the bike anyway. Not a very fast team, but not slow either, thankfully. We found the first mountain bike control after a little hunting by following ski lifts, and then ski pistes up the hill to the road where the control was positioned, and then returning back down to the bottom of the ski lifts to carry on the route. The next control was back in Vallouise, so we had a long cycle back down the valley. This time the road was barred. However there were plenty of tracks on the other side of the river to take, once of which happened to be an officially marked long distance cycle track.
The route started with some nice singletrack riding, with a sharp drop to the left down to the river below. No room for mistakes there, and particularly interesting at night with a new team. They were able to follow along quite happily, with the occasional stop to regroup every now and again. We even managed to overtake one team on this section who were very nervous on the singletrack.
After Vallouise the next control was all the way back down above Argentiere where we had started 24 hours earlier. Again we were on a long distance cycle route. It started as very fast double track, nearly all descending. We flew down at high speed and caught another team who we chatted with for a while. The track then turned to very nice single track. As we approached Argentiere we broke out of the woodlands and a fantastic nighttime view of the valley opened up before us, along with a clear view of the big drops down to our left. The trail then started descending very steeply, and became a lot more technical. I was glad I had put new pads into my front brakes before the race started (unfortunately my back brakes were hardly working at all, which made things more “interesting” than they needed to be… mental note to change them too at the next opportunity!).
We all got safely through the technical sections. It was a pleasure to have such interesting riding in an adventure race that was fully testing my technical mountain biking abilities… and this was still the first short mountain bike stage! A road section along the valley floor took us out to the next transition where we would pack away out bikes into their boxes and start section C, a very big trekking section.
In transition the French lads decided they were going to get a few hours sleep. I didn’t need any, but then I had been sitting in a transition for hours and hours whilst they had been trekking around the mountains. Even so I still managed to sleep for the full 3 hours or so that they gave themselves. On getting up in the morning they broke out their Jetboil stove and heated up water for another round of dehydrated meals for themselves. I also had some very good dehydrated food in my gear boxes, but I reckoned I didn’t need any at this stage. It took quite a while to get out of transition, which frustrated me slightly. I was still a little too much in all-out racing mode for these lads 🙂 But I knew they had more done than me, so I helped them out to pack things away when I could, and we finally set out on the trek. It was early morning at this stage.
The trek started with a short walk down the valley before we crossed under the main road and rail arteries in the valley and headed up “the Devils track” into a deeply cut canyon in the high mountains on the other side of the valley. The trail quickly ran out, and we were more scrambling than walking to get up the canyon. We reached a marshal, where we had to put on our climbing harnesses and helmets to continue up the canyon. There were ropes fixed at the more technical part of the climb. We had to use our double lanyard system as a safety to get up these, and also haul ourselves up directly using the ropes occasionally. Nothing too difficult or taxing, but good fun in the morning shadows of a spectacular canyon.
We then hit a queue of teams. Up ahead we could see a huge boulder lodged in the canyon, and hanging from the back of the boulder were two ladders and accompanying safety ropes. A waterfall was cascading down next to these. There were people trying to ascend the ladders, and about 6 or 8 people waiting at the base, along with a full team waiting behind them. It was painful watching the team on the ladders trying to get up. It might sound like the simplest thing in the world to do, but even at the best of times it takes good technique to make it up the 10 or 15 meters on the ladders. They are very unstable and sway about a lot. If you try to use your arms to haul yourself up they will rapidly fatigue to the point of uselessness, and you’ll probably be unable to even hang on to the ladder. And that’s why there was a safety rope that we could attach our jumar to. Using the jumar meant that we wouldn’t fall down too far if we came off the ladder.
It must have taken at least half an hour for one of the lads on the ladder to make it up. He went nowhere at all for 20 minutes or so. As all this was happening the queue behind us began to grow with more teams arriving. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the teams ahead started making progress and clearing the ladders. The Danish team immediately in front of us had learned from watching the mistakes of the others. We also helped them by holding the ropes and ladders tight for them as they climbed.
Finally our turn arrived. Anthony was first up, and he really showed how it was done, getting all the way to the top without any fuss or incident. I set off not long afterwards on a parallel ladder. As I expected it was a lot harder than it looked. I kept focused on taking it one step at a time, and keeping the jumar as high as possible. I made it most of the way to the top before having to stop to rest and reset myself. The next few steps proved to be very tricky. I was getting fatigued, but still threw all my energy into making it up, step by step. Just near the top my jumar got jammed into the metal ropes of the ladder, which caused me a little panic as this compromised my safety in the system. The marshal on top of the boulder clipped me in with an additional safety line, and I was able to get the jumar freed. Anthony gave me a lot of help to make it out the top. That had been short, but physically and mentally draining.
The other two, Frank and Phillipe, made it up in a reasonable amount of time as well. Overall we had probably been the fastest team through the challenge. There was a control just beyond the boulder which the lads punched, and which marked the end of the canyoning.
As I was unranked I wasn’t at all bothered about punching controls or getting passports signed. These are the procedures that teams need to complete to show they have followed the course. Even though they had started as a non-competitive team of 3, the lads were completing the course as if they were a fully ranked team. Their female teammate had got injured with just two weeks to go before the race, and it was impossible for them to find a replacement with such a short period of time to go before the start. Even so, they still wanted to compete in the race. The organisers had agreed to facilitate them as best they could.
It was a very long climb up to the next control. We climbed directly up out of the canyon, planning to eventually pick up a track that was marked as crossing our path on the maps. For the second trek in a row I was using my new Leki walking poles. Up until this race I had never raced with poles, but after my experience in the UTMB I was giving them a go. I was rapidly acquiring the zeal of the converted! They were a huge help in the long alpine climbs and were a definite aid in keeping a steady climbing pace going and spreading the effort over more muscle groups. I had been worried about a slight twinge I had in my right knee before the race, and I reckon the poles were helping to keep that at bay.
The sun was up and generating plenty of heat at this point. However we were climbing in woods, so the lack of direct sunlight meant I was able to plough on without shedding layers. We eventually picked up the track after a very moderate amount of bushwhacking, and steadily made the climb up to the manned control point. There were still one or two teams around us, At the control point I finally took the opportunity to shed layers and switched to what would be my standard sunny day configuration of shorts with just the bare race top for my upper body. As a result my backpack was full of clothes (as well the climbing helmet and sleeping bag). I simply wore the climbing harness in position the whole way, as this was the easiest way to carry it around.
I was really enjoying the trekking. It was the most enjoyable I had done in years. The weather was fantastic, particularly after the awful summer we had had in Ireland. The higher we climber the more pleasant it became, and the view kept getting better and more spectacular. Yet more climbing, as well as a traverse across alpine meadows, and passing a few very high lakes in huge panoramic high glacial valley took us towards a short sharp climb up to the next control at about 2500m, which we reached around midday. We all took the last climb at our own pace and arrived to the top in dribs and drabs. As Frank crested the ridge to reunite with the rest of us I was expecting us to set off straight away. But the more relaxed pace of the lads again caught me by surprise. They broke out the jetboil and cooked themselves up a lunch of another round of dehydrated food. Simultaneously they layed out the tents to dry out in the sun. It was going to take me a little time to adjust to their more relaxed approach to the race.
After about half an hour or so, and having had a few other teams pass through, we set off again. It was a quick drop across a scree slope, and then another sharp haul up to the next col. Frank was looking like he was feeling the effort from the last climb so he set off first. He still had to work hard as we all made it to the next col just ahead of him. From there a very technical traverse of a scree slope followed, where we merged in with several other teams picking their way across. This took us to a very wide alpine meadow which climbed steadily up to another ridge line, which would be the highpoint of this trek. We overtook a few teams on the way up. An interesting thing about the lad’s relaxed approach was that they could generate a lot of steady walking speed between stops, so the overall effect was actually reasonably competitive!
Crossing the ridgeline revealed another stunning view of the valleys ahead of us, surrounded by high peaks. There were a few lakes nearby, nestling nicely in the high alpine meadows. This really was one of the most scenic races I’ve ever done… and we’re only on the 2nd day! After a change of mind about route choice we set off, finally descending after a long mornings climbing. There were still other teams around and we had a few chats as we were heading down. After a good hour or two of descent we navigated accurately to the next control, and continued the descent on to another control at the end of a long abandoned irrigation canal on the side of a mountain.
A quick fast bust of a descent took us to the valley floor, from where we had to start climbing again… ouch! A nice riverside trail took us up another valley for a while before turning to climb sharply up a zig-zag trail which popped us out onto a manned control on a road junction. (I learned that switchback wasn’t understood in French, but zig-zag was!). The combination of Scottish and French marshals kept us happily chatting here for a few minutes before we continued to climb up to the next control by a high alpine lake.
En-route the lads sat down for a quick rest and yet again caught me by surprise when one of them pulled out a can of red bull from his backpack, which was shared amongst all of us. About two minutes later there was a tremendous chorus of red bull belches 🙂
By the time we reached the control at the lake light was starting to fade and the temperature was dropping noticeably. We put a few layers back on again. The route to the next control point was interesting. Unlike the last few controls there was no obvious track. Added to that, one of the more obvious remaining routes was out of bounds. I wanted to take advantage of the remaining light to get a visual sighting of the route options over the trickiest areas. We walked at a rapid, traversing across the open slopes. In the distance we could see the large mountain that we had to get to th other side of. After a little time we could make out a team in the distance traversing across what appeared to be a huge steep scree slope that loomed above the out of bounds area beneath the mountain.
As we got closer to the mountain I could see another team attempt to go straight up and over. The ground again looked extremely loose and scree filled. Judging by the very slow speed that the last person on the team was making their way up I’d guess it was a s dodgy on the ground as it looked from my viewpoint. I’d say a trail of adrenalin was left behind on the hill!
We quickly got to the edge of the huge scree slope, with light fading fast. I pushed out across the tracks across it, with Anthony and Phillipe following closely behind. We had to wait a bit for Frank to catch up, so a few hundred meters in we stopped and got our headtorches out. Even though the light was fading fast none of us switched them on. I was glad to see that the lads had good night vision too. There was enough light that we were able to make away across the steep scree and around the side of the mountain. This eventually brought us to rockier ground, and finally to the end of our traverse, having rounded the hill. At this stage it was definitely nighttime, with just a lovely blue glow silhouetting the mountains on the horizon. That was the tricky section out of the way.
A final surge straight up a valley to a col took us to the next checkpoint. Frank was tiring a little and had slowed down a bit. The rest of us did most of the climb without our headtorches. I occasionally turned on my big Lupine torch to see what was ahead, which seemed to light up half the valley every time 🙂
A long descent to a steeply embanked river followed. We had to find a track on the other side of the river, so we manoeuvred around to lose the minimum amount of height in the process. We hit the track nice and high and made very fast progress on the flat track that brought us almost to the next control. A little confusion about exactly which minor peak the next control was on caused a little to-and-fro-ing, but after about few minutes I found the control. From there it was an extremely steep descent of the side of the mountain. This eventually led to farmland, and then trails down to a town on the valley floor. The town was guarded by a huge fort on the hill above it, and even in the night it looked spectacular.
By now it was nearly 2a.m., so the ton was deserted as we made our way through it to the next manned checkpoint at the riverbank at the bottom of the hill. From here we had to don our climbing gear again to do a via ferrata section. However a big discussion took place in French between my teammates and the transition staff. The lads had decided they were going to enjoy the race, and so were not going to do the via ferrata at night. I thought this was lunacy, as there were cut-offs on the watersports sections ahead which we would be in danger of missing if we delayed too long. They were having none of that though! So we left the control point and went over to a flat green area nearby, whipped out the tents and sleeping bags, and settled down for a sleep which was going to take us through to daylight.
I was still adapting to the more relaxed style of racing that the lads were using. But on the upside I reckoned this was going to be a nice comfortable race, and with all the sleep and food we were getting everyone was in pretty good form all the time, and we were moving well whenever we actually were up and moving! So day drew to a close after an epic and memorably enjoyable hike, with the promise of lots of excitement to come in the next section. What I hadn’t realised as I went to sleep was that even with all this the lads were still one step ahead of me with their relaxed racing style!