“There’s a special line for the crazy people over there!” A fellow American runner goaded us as we filed into the Centre Sportif in Chamonix to pick up our dossards and have our safety equipment checked and verified. And it was true, there was a special line for the runners doing PTL – we were waved by the throngs of people waiting to pick up their TDS bibs by volunteers seemingly trying to move us along and get us out of the way before our fragile mental state was exposed and we had a meltdown right in the middle of the gymnasium. We eventually wound around and got to the gear check, where they verified that we had the most essential safety equipment for the upcoming lap around the massif; helmet, crampons, climbing harness, and a via ferrata lanyard. We picked up our numbers (we were team number vingt-quatre, 24) and received a quick but thorough explanation of how our GPS tracker and sat-com devices worked. The guy flipped through the pre-entered message options – things like “We are off route” and “We are in bad weather” quickly progressed to “Partner needs immediate medical attention, they are not breathing” and “The tourniquet has been applied”.
It quickly became evident that this was not a normal trail race. This was the 2022 version of the Petite Trotte à Léon.
The afterglow of my UTMB experience in 2021 was so great that I quickly became obsessed with another even crazier lap around my favorite massif. This event is called La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), the words a French mash-up of a euphemism for a grandmotherly stroll and the name of a hardcore baker/mountaineer from Champex-Lac. It was a “secret menu” race during UTMB week, departing on the Monday before any other racers toed the line, and finishing at 4:30 PM on Sunday, an hour before the final awards ceremony. The route changed every year, and details weren’t released until a few weeks before the start – but you could expect a gnarly circumnavigation of Mont Blanc, sticking to high alpine routes and off-trail connections and utilizing via ferratas and glacial crossings. It wasn’t technically a race, but more of a pass/fail endeavor; each inseparable team of two or three people either finished or they didn’t. There wasn’t even a lottery to get in – instead you have to submit a “mountain resume” listing your life experience and success in the high country, as well as a lettre de motivation for why you would want to do this insane thing in the first place.
I started fishing around for potential teammates in the fall of 2021. My wife Maureen would usually be my first choice for epic adventures like this one, but she was obsessed with taking another shot at the Tor des Geants, another super gnarly 200+ mile race in the Italian Alps that she came kilometers from finishing last year. A couple other folks I talked to had other big 200 milers on their calendar already, and then I realized that a local runner and fellow teacher Sam that I enjoyed spending time with also had an unrealized lifelong dream of visiting Chamonix. While we hadn’t done much adventuring together, we both had solid resumes that seemed to compliment each other nicely – I had deep knowledge of the Alps (for an American) and solid off-trail navigation, and he had extensive mountain experience along with numerous orienteering style races like Euchre Bar Massacre and Desolate Peaks. We put together our application, deciding to go with a streamlined team of two, and submitted it to the judges.
I was more than a bit surprised when we got the email that our scrappy “East Bay Quadbangers” team had been invited to participate in the 2022 running of PTL. I was beyond excited, of course, but also incredibly nervous and scared. One issue was that my posterior tibial tendinitis that popped up in November of 2021 was healing, but at a frustratingly slow rate. I wasn’t running more than a few miles a week, and often when I did my ankle really hurt the next day. I consulted my PT, a sports medicine doctor, any friends that would listen to me, and my wife (until she finally told me to shut up about it) and eventually we decided to throw our names in the hat. While my ankle wasn’t feeling great then, I had months until the event. I was optimistic that if I could be patient enough with my rehab, I could steadily build my way up to this at the end of August.
All of this was happening at the same time that my coaching business was beginning to pick up a bit. I got my UESCA Ultrarunning Coach certification in January of this year, fulfilling a dream that I have held for a very long time. To me, coaching has always seen like the natural hybrid of running and teaching, the two things I spend the majority of my time in life doing. I approached the coaching gig full steam, and was able to pour myself into athletes and their programs while I wasn’t able to pour myself into long outings on the trail. I’ve having such a blast working with my athletes – each one is like a puzzle, coming to you with different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. My job is to connect the dots between the races they have signed up for while navigating them through the training road to their A goal. It’s fascinatingly similar to classroom teaching in so many ways – even though you’re doing basically the same thing with each runner, each individual case and program is so vastly different.
On top of the injury and starting the coaching business, we were also moving our family to France for a sabbatical year. We had dreamed of making this jump literally since the boys were born, and after returning after the summer of 2021, the pull of the mountains was just too great for us to stay in our Berkeley home another year. I admit that we underestimated the logistics of both moving a family to France and keeping a foot on the ground in the United States – but in the end we plowed through piles of French paperwork and bureaucracy and landed in our new home at the end of June, a small quaint village named Mont-Saxonnex, situated up on a hill beneath a limestone massif about halfway between Geneva and Chamonix.
We plodded through a couple of weeks of logistics – registering my visa, buying a car, enrolling the kids in schools and football clubs. Finally, near the end of July we escaped as a family to the mountains, taking off on a magical backpack through Le Parc national des Écrins, which would consist of the bulk of my real PTL training. We slogged long hours on ridiculously steep trails, carrying heavy packs, gazing in awe at the mountains and glaciers all around. Little did I know this was about as specific training for PTL as I could get.
Gear and Loathing: Day 1 – Chamonix to Les Contamines
(50 cumulative km, +4911m cumulative vert)
I sat on the steps in front of the church in Chamonix like I had done many times previously before walking out for an adventure in these mountains. In fact, almost exactly one year ago I was sitting on these steps waiting for the start of the 2021 UTMB. This time felt a whole lot more scary, however. Our packs were finally packed, about 8-9 kilograms of essential supplies to survive in the mountains, including food and water. Many teams had smaller more streamlined packs, and a few had even larger, backpacking style Osprey packs on their backs. We really had no idea what we were getting into, and I was shaking with anticipation. I was staring up at Mont Blanc, who was subtly flexing at us under crystal clear blue skies, with tears in my eyes, my heart full of self doubt and questions. My wife apparently noticed my nervous gaze up to 4800 meters and calmly said “Think about everything that mountain has taught you. You’re going to learn a lot out there”. I got my shit together as much as a I could and the gun went off, 105 teams of adventurers walking through the streets of downtown Cham, heading out for a week-long transcendental journey. The start was such a stark contrast to the aggressive pace and fury of UTMB – we were walking so slowly, in a single file line, that we could look deeply in the eyes of the spectators lined up on the other side of the fence as they cheered for us marching out of town. You could tell that some of them knew what we were about to get ourselves into, and others really had no idea.
The 300 kilometer course started by literally climbing up the Vertical Kilometer out of Chamonix, under the téléphérique that heads up to Planpraz and eventually Le Brévent. One of the most unique parts of this race is that it is entirely unmarked. We were given a GPS track that we were meant to follow, and we are required to have at least one dedicated GPS navigation system in addition to whatever phones or watches we are using for nav. For much of the first day we were on established trails and the navigation component was straightforward. I had been obsessively studying the route, and I knew that on the subsequent days we would head deeper and deeper off-trail. Some of our off-trail routes had Strava heatmaps that indicated peopleroutinely went in that direction, but many did not, indicating that we would be blazing new paths across terrain where not many people had been before. But that was all in the future – right now we were huffing up a steep 1000 meter climb with 300 of our closest friends, a conga line of crazies climbing out of Chamonix.
There was a bottleneck at the technical stuff on the top, and in retrospect we probably should have pushed a but more through the streets to get ahead of some people, but we literally had all week for this event. We chatted it up, me working on my trail French and randomly meeting people that I knew from Facebook and picking out the fellow Americans in the crew. There was a team from the Pacific Northwest, Nate and Stephen, that I had already connected with in Les Houches. They were strong mountain runners and on local SAR squads, and seemed very competent and steady on their feet. The Western States team also had a horse in the race, as Craig, Matt, and Joe were out there as the “Rusty Nails”, trying to get a feel for what the really hardcore euro adventure racing was about. Sam and I worked on our fast hiking – we would end up not running a single step in this race – working our way up and down through the “warm-up lap” and down to Les Houches.
My wife Maureen was there to meet us in Les Houches, both because it would be by far the easiest place to see us before we blasted off into the big mountains, and also I think to ensure that the wheels hadn’t already come completely off in the first 20 kilometers. I was admittedly untested coming out of my injury, besides the backpack, but everything was holding up okay so far. We grabbed some snacks at the Carrefour in Les Houches, filled up all of our extra water vessels, and began what would be our first serious climb.
We started hauling up to the Nid D’Aigle, a rocky pass high over Les Houches and the normally traveled Col de Voza. The weight in our packs was significant, and we quickly realized that carrying and obtaining enough food and water would be one of the things we would have to manage on this trip. There were no aid stations along the way – rather we were scheduled to pass through high mountain refuges, where we could get some food and snacks, if they were open when we were passing through. Additionally buying snacks and coffee as we passed through villages was fair game – the run in its entirety definitely had more of a fatass vibe to it than any of the other organized races of the week. Despite our weight, Sam and I were climbing well, and we pushed steadily up to the first mandatory helmet zone as we passed through some ladders and cables toward the Col des Rognes.
We were moving steadily and soon found ourselves high atop the Col de Tricot, where an impromptu sunset gathering was occurring as folks ate some snacks, Italians smoked a cigarette, and we all changed clothes for the night. Sunrise and sunsets would become vitally important out here on the trail over the next few days – first of all, they marked the passage of time, which would begin to dissolve more and more after the first full night of moving without sleep. Second, they provided an excuse to pause, contemplate, and reflect for a minute – when we all stopped to watch the sunrise or sunset, it was overwhelmingly clear that we were in the middle of a shared experience. Yes, we were all deep within our own journeys, in our own languages, and in our own heads – but we really were all out there for the same reasons, doing the same thing. Every single person out there had such deep love and respect for these mountains that it was palpable, and every time the sky light up in shades of orange and pink we were reminded of that simple fact.
I had last stood atop the Col de Tricot with Sage in my backpack in the summer of 2011, when Maureen and I completed the GR-5, hiking from Lac Léman to Nice in a single, five week push. During that trip we took the “easy” way down to the Chalets de Miage – this time out we would take a hard left and head up to the Refuge de Plan Glacier, along an old Roman trail. The going was easy at first and then increasingly became more and more vertical as the night grew darker and darker. Soon we were moving over solidly Class 3 terrain, with cables and metal footholds placed into the rock to assist with our passage. The terrain itself was not particularly challenging, but there were still a lot of people bunched together, and many of them were visibly getting spooked by the exposure and early technicality of the course. Sam and I kept our heads very much together, realizing that yes there were sections that we could not fall on, but also realizing that those sections were rudimentary enough to pass safely as long as we kept our wits about us. Our climbing background definitely came in handy here, as many times it felt much more comfortable to grab the good rock holds rather than the chains when moving up sections of the trail. We soon arrived at the Refuge de Plan Glacier, a tiny shack built into the side of the rock high above the valley and just below the Glacier du Miage. They unabashedly served delicious bowls of hot soup (“La Soupe est bonne?!?!?! OUI!!!!!”) and we stopped as long as it took to eat, but not too long that we got cold, before beginning our descent to Les Contamines.
We rolled into Les Contamines about 01:00, facing a 07:00 exit cutoff from the aid station at the local elementary school. Madame Dodo cut us a bit short with our time in a cot, so we only got about 40 minutes of rest, but we shoveled down two large plates of pasta, switched some gear around, charged our electronics, and headed out back on the trail about 03:00 for what would become “Day 2”.
Are We Still on Route? : Day 2 – Les Contamines to Hospice du Petit Saint Bernard
(91 cumulative km, +8536m cumulative vert)
We hit the gently sloping road out of Les Contamines around 03:00, feeling really good about ourselves and our progress. We had completed the first 50k, were about 4 hours ahead of cutoffs, had managed to be fairly efficient at the aid station, and were back on the TMB trail climbing toward the Col du Bonhomme. It was then when the entire field received a ping on our sat devices – the previously optional trip down to Casermetta at the Col de la Seigne was now obligatory. Strange, we all thought, but nothing we could do. Perhaps they wanted to inform us of incoming weather, or perhaps they just wanted to check on the field halfway between this long 40 km push to Petit Saint Bernard.
The going was easy in the first section of this push, and we walked near another international team with the American John on it for a while. The truth is that our cluster of Americans would stay pretty close together the entire time, leapfrogging each other and moving at about the same pace. The Western States boys were behind us by this point, having had a rough first day, struggling with cramps and dehydration. They were coming into Les Contamines as we were leaving, and we told them they had five days to right the ship again and that we would see them down the trail.
We took a sharp turn east off the TMB and headed up to make our crossing of the massif at the Col D’Enclave. The original route was to take us across the Tré-la-Tête glacier and over the Col du Tondu, but that plan was scrapped due to there being so much rock fall on the massif after yet another one of the hottest summers on record. Global warming is progressing at such a rate that we are noticing visible differences in the glaciers between our trips every other year. The entire spirit of alpinism is changing before our very eyes, as Mont Blanc is closed for summits yet again this August, being deemed too dangerous for climbers to summit. The glaciers are disappearing fast and it seems like it might be too late for us to actually do anything about it.
We quietly walked by les Lacs Jovet, stunning examples of high alpine lakes with backpacker tents peppering their borders, before beginning the massive ascent up to the Col d’Enclave. This started as a moderately steep “trail” weaving through softball size talus, and ended up as one of the steepest inclines in the mountains I had ever been on. We worked our way up a relatively clean granite ridge, but whenever we hit actual dirt on the trail it was loaded with hundreds of baseball size loose rocks, a minefield of projectiles waiting to be dislodged and hurled onto runners below. Sam and I opted to put our helmets on way before the mandatory helmet section, realizing the real potential in someone above us making a misstep and sending down debris. Most of the folks around us did the same thing, and thankfully we were in a skilled group of mountaineers, because we made it up the entire multi-hour climb without anyone dislodging a single piece. It took constant focus and concentration, and total consciousness of every single step to make it up this climb and keep the others safe. It was airy on both sides, but never fully exposed, and this would become a motif in the trip. There were often tough technical sections, and there was often extreme exposure, but thankfully we never saw the two paired together. That being said, it’s possible to slip at any point, and we made sure we were completely heads up anytime we were crossing something of grave exposure.
We reached the top of the Col and crossed over to the eastern side of the massif, a view across to the large sloping Col de la Seigne and down to the southern corner of Les Chapieux. We were high on life and the mountains right then – feeling good that we had kept our heads together on the climb to the col, feeling good that the sun was rising and we could change into our daytime kits. I was feeling so good that I decided to text Maureen and update her on our progress. She replied with a simple “Ugh… I woke up to the news. Hope you are all okay.”
The news? What news? I literally checked the New York Times webite and saw a headline that said something like “Trump had 300,000 classified documents in Mar-a-Lago”. I even shared that with Sam – no, that’s not what she was talking about. I called her immediately, fearing something bad.
That’s when Maureen informed us that a Brazillian runner had fallen on the ascent up to Refuge de Plan Glacier early the previous morning and passed away. I immediately told Sam and we sat there in shock for quite a few moments. It didn’t help that we had just pushed up a heady and airy section to get to the col. It didn’t help that we could visualize exactly where the runner probably fell, the exposure so steep that it looked like a dark void to us with our headlights on even early in the night. It didn’t help that we suddenly felt very alone in the middle of some very big mountains.
Maureen told us that we would be given the option to continue the race or abandon at Casermetta, which was why they were now making us all take the detour along the way. Sam was a bit more frazzled than I was, and we continued walking slowly, discussing our options. We acknowledge the obvious – we both had a family at home, a wife and two kids, that we absolutely had to return to. We both loved being in the mountains more than anything, but not to the point where we were willing to be reckless and risk our life. We thought about what would be the proper thing to do in honor of the runner – is it offensive to continue in an event after a comrade has died on course? We had no immediate answers to these questions, so decided to keep walking along, meditating on these thoughts in the sanctity of the mountains, and that we would check in again before passing Casermetta.
My head was swirling and yet it was also occupied with making safe passage along the trail. We were in a difficult section and knew we had a series of stream crossings to negotiate, and time was of the essence. The longer we waited in the day to cross the glacial runoff, the deeper and faster the water would be moving. I looked up at Mont Blanc, soon to become Monte Bianco, and once again felt so humbled by her size and power, as I have many times before. We were so small out there in those mountains, a size and force insignificant to the cosmic gravity of that massif. We were out of control in so many ways out there, and that’s perhaps why we kept coming back. Perhaps we humans need a way to make ourselves feel humbled, to make ourselves feel so small. Perhaps it’s the same feeling for a mountaineer reaching toward a massif as a devotee reaching for a God – it’s so obvious that there’s so much more out there, things so much bigger than us. And there’s a feeling of safety and security there as well – I knew that despite my best efforts on that route, Mont Blanc had the final say in everything that happened. I could only bow and accept her fate.
In the end we were greeted on trail by the UTMB staff who informed us in person of the accident. They told us that the race would go on, but that of course if we wanted to abandon we could at Casermetta. The detour was not obligatory anymore if we didn’t need support or food. Sam and I took this information and had a team meeting. I was trying to think of what the deceased runner would want us to do. If I were to tragically die on course during one of these events, I would want the other participants to keep moving in the mountains as safely as they could, as long as they were still feeling happy and fulfilled. And that’s what we decided to do – reiterating to each other that if either one of us felt unsafe on any given passage at any single time, that was enough for a veto vote and we would turn around and retreat. We would not push our effort to the point of recklessness. It was a decision and relationship that felt much more like climbing or backcountry ski partners than a running race – and this is exactly the complexity that is PTL.
We stopped for our first proper lunch at midi that day, slices of salami wrapped in sweet waffles with an incredible view of the Col de la Seigne. It felt good to have a decision and it felt good to keep moving. We worked our way past the Col des Chavannes and blasted into what would be our first off-trail section, around Mont Ouille. This was one of those parts with no Stava heatmap, so I knew that this route was about to be spicy – some connection dreamed up by the route setter that “went”, but was going to take a bit of effort to make happen.
Sure enough, we soon found ourselves slogging over endless talus fields in the approach to a mountain of loose shale and talus. Sam and I had both completed Roper’s Sierra High Route, an off-trail through-hike of the Sierra mountains in California, which involved days and days of endless talus navigation and movement. This felt eerily similar, except these were some sort of talus moraines and had a rolling topography to them. You could slog your way to the top of a little hill, get a bearing, and then not be able to see where you were going as you descended into the next talus valley, only to pop up on the other side and hope you stuck your bearing reasonably well. To make matters worse we had two groups follow us into the field, because up until then we had been very on top of off-trail nav, and we felt a bit foolish as we led them around in circles trying to get through the mess. Later on down the trail we compared notes with other teams and there was no good way through that section, which made us feel a bit better about ourselves.
After breaking through the approach talus we ascended a ridge of, guess what, talus, to gain the Col next to Mont Ouille. At one point we had to cross a small glacial cirque, that likely two months ago would require crampons or skis to get across, but was rapidly melting and was mainly dirty glacier with fairly solid rocks on top. We put our helmets on and stayed high on good rock, moving quickly with someone on the lookout above for rockfall. Our heart rate dropped a bit on the other side and we gathered ourselves on the col for the descent to Petit Saint Bernard.
We spent a lot of time on this trip brainstorming how to describe what we were doing to others. The UTMB organization officially calls PTL an “endurance pedestrian event”, and that is certainly accurate because we didn’t run a single step, but it seems like it’s leaving out some very important details. It sounds like you could conduct an endurance pedestrian event at your local track, or even at the mall if you really had to. We were very far from the mall.
We floated the idea of “Extreme adventure orienteering” because so much of our days and nights were focused on navigation and routefinding. The fact that the course was unmarked is what makes this event PTL – if it were marked, it would be entirely different. Not easy still, but entirely different. On top of that, there were numerous orienteering teams in the race – many of them not possessing the fitness of the ultrarunners alongside them, but having their navigation, gear, and systems so dialed that they were moving very smoothly through the terrain. The routefinding was always very high stakes too, because a single wrong turn could lose you hours, which translated directly into lost sleep.
I think the most accurate description we came up with was “Free-solo off-trail fastpacking”. This did feel very much like an off-trail fastpack, where we were pushing huge days and trying to cover lots of ground by moving steadily. And yet there were moments along the way that required utmost, laserlike focus – places where you simply could not fall or could not slip, no matter how tired you were. For people that have not been in a “no fall” situation before it sounds like a very foreign concept – and yet, our brains do have a gear that makes us capable of this, at least in short bursts. Someone like Alex Honnold has perfected his brain’s gear to allow him to do this for an incredibly long and impressive time. The challenge with something like PTL is that you have to engage this gear after you have been out in the mountains a long time and on very little sleep (we were still working on that 40 minutes of sleep at this point from Night 1).
The descent into Petit Saint Bernard was long but not harrowing, Sam thankfully taking the lead on most of the navigation and working our way down through a series of never-ending grassy benches and knolls (after we got off the crappy loose scree up top). The kicker at the end was that we had 5 or 6 kilometers to the hospice after we hit the valley floor, through cow fields literally full of dung, and up a final steep climb to the tarmac of a road. But we made it, 90 kilometers through the adventure so far, ready for some hot food and good sleep.
It Will Flatten Out Eventually: Day 3 – Petit Saint Bernard to Morgex (124 cumulative km, + 10599m cumulative vert)
We had lofty dreams for the aid stop at the Hospice du Petit Saint Bernard, and I’m sorry to say that they were mostly unfilled. We spent a meal ticket on a pathetically small bowl of rice and chicken, and were denied any more food when we asked for it, settling on another basket of stale bread that we could dip in our cup of broth. We were awoken after 90 minutes of sleep in the dortoir, only to see our American brother Stephen sheepishly coming in to replace me in my cot. Thankfully we moved upstairs to the dining room and slept for another 90 minutes, Sam somehow eventually upgrading from the floor to a cot, while I curled up in the fetal position on an amazingly comfortable padded bench.
This was my first attempt at a multiday race, and I was learning an incredible amount along the way (my wife would of course say that these were all Mont Blanc’s teachings, to which I would not disagree). Sleep management is one of the key skills to crack in these weeklong events, and from what I can tell there’s not really a way to learn or practice it until you’re doing it. We felt remarkably fresh after these two 90 minute chunks of sleep – the question was how long could we keep this up for, and what would the rest of the week hold. It was also becoming clear that sleeping in the dormitories was not necessarily the best approach, as there was often a time-limit on how long you could sleep, and both times thus far we were woken up well before the supposed limit. Folks that could sleep outside of the dorms, whether in other rooms at the aid stations, or on the trails, seemed to have an advantage both in quality of sleep and flexibility in timing.
The on-trail climb up to Rifugio Deffeyes was uneventful, and the kilometers went quickly as we teamed up with the PNW duo Nate and Stephen after giving them some well-mannered grief for kicking us out of our beds. They were stocked with cheese and butter sandwiches they had bought at the Hospice to make up for the underwhelming dinner, and we had fun rolling along under the beautiful night stars with them, falling into the safe ultrarunner talk of previous and future races we were dreaming and scheming about. I was excited to get to Deffeyes, as it is one of Maureen’s favorite rifugios, and I was still hopeful that we could score a good meal for breakfast. Sure enough, we walked into the mountain hut and were taken care of in fine Italian style, trading our meal ticket for a proper four course meal at 6:30 in the morning. A huge bowl of hot vegetable soup, steaming cheesy polenta, slices of fried ham, and a hot apple tart with two cups of coffee did us right. We even bought souvenir t-shirts on the way out the door, embracing their motto that “Today is a good day” and heading out with Nate and Stephen on our next off-trail section across Italy.
Our first objective was to climb to to Mont Colmet, where we would connect it with the northern summit and then traverse across a very cool looking lake basin to more peaks and ridges on the other side. We were all relieved to find that the ridgeline up Colmet was nice clean granite, a welcome break from the endless talus and loose rock of yesterdays off-trail adventures. We were reminded of a Sierra ridge again, with a gently sloping eastern side that you could walk up, and harrowing exposure on the western side that you didn’t need to get close to unless you wanted to take a peek. We made good time up the climb and paused at the summit for a bit to grab our bearings for our next objectives. The descent went relatively smoothly, as we remained teamed up with Nate and Stephen and had four people on nav, which proved much more efficient than the normal two. This part of the route really did feel like the High Route – the “macro nav” part was easy, as we were well above treeline, in the daylight, and could literally see the lake and then the next col that we were headed to. The “micro nav” was a bit more challenging, as it often is in these scenarios. We saw the lake, and the challenge became how do we get there – how do we string together these systems of ledges and gullies to safely allow us to descend to our objective?
It was lunchtime when we got to the Lago di Pietra Rossa, and we paused for a proper meal of salami for the second day in the row, followed by an icy cold swim that refreshed and rejuvenated us immediately. A French team that swam next to us would later tell me that they enjoyed it, but the water was too hot for their liking. It was one of the coldest lakes I have ever swam in. We pushed up to the Becca Pouegnenta and hung out with a couple of Italian teams for a minute, where we had a 360 degree view of the mountains and all the big Italian peaks (Les Géants). They pointed out Monte Rosa, Le Cervin, Le Grand Combin, Grand Paradisio, and then one of them got in my face only to spin me around back toward the massif, saying “and what’s that one?!?!” Somehow thinking quickly on my feet I blurted out “Monte Bianco!!” to which the whole group cheered, and we descended down the ridge. Sam later said had I replied with the French nomenclature of “Mont Blanc” I likely would have gotten hit in my jaw.
The descent to Morgex was long and felt endless, but we replenished at an ice cold spring along the way and were excited to see Maureen and the boys for our first real crew stop of the trip. We hustled down, by now having perfected our fast downhill hiking (no running!) and rolled in about 17:00, setting ourselves a take-off time of 21:00, about four hours ahead of the final cutoff from the lifebase.
Night Three Magic: “Day 4” – Morgex to Rifugio Frassati (150 cumulative km, +13450m cumulative vert)
Our first lifebase stop at Morgex overall went pretty well, but was again a learning experience being the first time we had ever experienced something like that. Both Sam and I were blindsided by the abrupt and sudden transition from being solo in the mountains to being in a large, crowded park with lots of people and an infinite variety of food options in front of us. I became anxious as I watched my backpack get unpacked, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to merge its contents with my 60 L drop bag, refill food, and get back on the trail. It all suddenly seemed so complicated, and Sam had meanwhile stepped on a pine needle while walking barefoot in the park, and was contemplating a DNF and the fact that he might never walk again. The irony was not lost on us that we had just negotiated some of the sketchiest mountain terrain out there, and he might be taken down by a conifer in a city park. Thankfully, our own TOR multiday queen Maureen was there to save the day. She kept us cool, got me napping in the shade, got Sam’s foot soaking in a cooler, and later extracted the pine needle so that we could get on our way. We filled up with lots of good food and headed out into our first “night shift”, departing the life base just a few minutes before 21:00, still more than four hours ahead of the cutoff, Maureen promising that we were walking straight into “Night 3 Magic” and stuffing our pockets full of butter and bacon crepes. Jah bless a good crew (and an even better wife).
Sam was a bit shaken by the stop, and we certainly didn’t get as much rest or sleep as we were anticipating. We also grokked that our trip was about to make a serious shift – up until now, we had been thinking about the segments in terms of “days”, with Day 1 starting at 08:00 from Chamonix, Day 2 starting at 03:00 from Les Contamines, and Day 3 starting at 02:00 from Petit Saint Bernard. We had just left Morgex still on Day 3, at 21:00. We could not count in days anymore – rather, our system had to come down to race hours and pushes. We needed to push and cover distance, eat, sleep, and repeat, all the way until we completed the loop and made it back to Chamonix.
The climb up and out of Morgex was steep as we headed up yet another Vertical Kilometer out of town. There was some kind of rock and roll band down in the valley, almost sounding Pearl Jam-esque, and the singer’s baritone crooning and drummer relenteless beating on the skins kept us pumping up the climb. We paused for our first true trail nap before tacking the trip up to Colle Battaglione Aosta, setting a timer for 20 minutes, putting on our down pants and puffies, and curling up in a flat section next to the trail. This was surprisingly refreshing and we awoke ready to tackle the big climb ahead.
We were on a well traveled cross country route up to the col, but the reality was that at night it looked like a hard to follow path of slight weakness within never-ending rocks and glacial moraines. I was thankful for the bright light of my Fenix headlight, because there were occasional cairns, and I turned off the analytical part of my brain and tried to enter a flowstate that would carry us up the mountain. I found one cairn, only to turn my light up and search for the next, connecting the dots in a climb that would take us up to almost 3000 meters in the middle of a gorgeous and clear night. We saw radio tower lights on the top of a very high peak nearby, and for a long time thought that they were headlights as we stared in disbelief that we would actually be climbing that high. Thankfully the colle was our high point, and after a hug of congratulations Sam led us off the back side, snaking his way down a good trail next to some very large exposure, that we could only discern because of the blackness of the void. We later heard that many teams freaked out at this section, and I’m thankful that Sam confidently led us down.
“Swapping leads” is an approach used in rock climbing that requires climbers tackling a tough, extended route to alternate leads of each pitch the entire way up. Sometimes there is thought put into who is climbing what pitch, but more often one climber starts, and the other one leads next, until they both get to the summit. It’s easy to ask questions like “What if I get a pitch that’s a lot harder than the other guy?” until you realize that the individual pitches are not actually what matter in an endurance push like this. What matters is that you know when it is your turn to be focused and on the ball – whatever comes before you, if it’s your lead, it’s your job to get the team through. Yeah, the next section might be easy, or it might be really really tough – but it doesn’t matter, because you’re not at the next section yet. The only thing you can do is to stay present and send your section, knowing you’ll get a bit of a respite when you swap. Sam and I settled into a nice groove on Night 3 of “swapping leads” along the sections, and I think if I ever attempt to tackle a multiday excursion like this again that needs to be a tool in the toolbox for sure.
Sam was tired after getting us off the col, and we decided to curl up for another trail nap, this time trying to sleep until sunrise, when we would arise and push on to Rifugio Frassati. We got a decent amount of sleep but it gets cold very quickly once you stop. I woke up after about an hour and couldn’t sleep anymore, my body shivering despite having most of my clothes on. We got up and continued pushing, over the Col Entre Deux Sauts and finally to the legendary Col de Malatra, the last pass on the epic Tor des Geants route and the final barrier between us and the glory of Rifugio Frassati.
I was feeling tired but strong as we hiked up the pass, and it felt glorious just to be on a trail again, able to walk and not think about navigation for once. At one point I turned back to say something to Sam, and he was nowhere in sight. I was shocked, because up until this point we had been hiking at the same pace for more than 72 hours, and I had just dropped him in less than a kilometer of climbing. I waited as he stumbled up the climb, and he wasn’t looking good at all, saying that he was falling asleep on his feet and feeling very week. We decided to push to the col and I set him in the sun against a rock for a 5 minute “micro nap”, hoping that would revive him enough to get to the refuge so that we could get him into a bed. He was moving very slow, and we finally got to Frassati and went straight to sleep, where he appeared feverish and miserable, putting on way too many clothes for the situation and passing out immediately.
I woke him up after three hours, desperately hoping that he would be feeling better, but unfortunately he was doing even worse. We went down to get a meal but he could barely eat, instead collapsing on the bench and falling asleep. I knew right then that if we were to abide by our oath we made to each other on Day 2, that our adventure had come to an end. Even if he miraculously revived himself, I couldn’t be confident that this wouldn’t happen again, and we were heading into more off-trail travel leaving the refuge. We would both need to have our wits entirely about us.
I tried to problem solve in my sleep deprived state, talking to the refuge staff and UTMB volunteers in French, as no one at the place spoke English. After a lot of back and forth, and phone support from Maureen at base camp in Mont-Sax, we got a hold of a UTMB doctor who talked to Sam and realized that yes, he needed to be extracted. Once they considered it a medical situation the UTMB crew moved very quickly, with Hervé carrying Sam’s pack and gingerly walking him down to the nearest dirt road (“He treated me like a son,” Sam would later recount) and Eric driving up a UTMB van all the way from Chamonix to extract us and pick us up. As soon as we got back to Cham, Maureen gave us covid tests, and Sam’s lit up immediately – he had likely caught the ‘rona on the flights over, and the incubation period had finally come to a head on the climb up to Col Malatra. And just like that, at exactly the halfway point, still a few hours ahead of cutoffs and feeling okay on movement and time, our Petite Trotte was over.
Descent from the Heavens: The Aftermath
I’m sitting in semi-isolation from my family, back at our home for the next year in Mont-Saxonnex, trying not to get them sick, especially before my wife’s second attempt at the Tor des Géants. It’s an impossibly hard thing to come out of a trip like that from the mountains and not be able to hug them, not be able to share a bed, not be able to enjoy a meal at the table with the ones I love. And yet I am thankful that I at least have a heads up I got a wicked dose of exposure out there – I am resting, taking herbs, drinking tons of fluids and juice. Fingers crossed that I can somehow ride this one out, although I’m definitely not out of the woods yet.
I chided my wife after her trip around the Aosta Valley last year, that once she got home TOR was the only thing that she could talk about. And here I am, perseverating on the four days out in the mountains. It’s all I can think about – the route, the nav, the beautiful peaks and ridges, the sunrises and sunsets, the people we met along the way. Mont Blanc embraced us all for a period out there, literally stretching us to our breaking limits, to see what was inside of our hearts and souls as we traveled around the glory of her terrain. I’ve traveled through mountains all around the world, and the first 150 km of that course was one of the most inspired and varied routes I have ever experienced. I am full of deep regrets that we didn’t get to attempt the second half, because we were moving so well and so smoothly, but I also realize that there is literally nothing we could have done to illicit a different outcome. I’m beyond thankful that we were able to exit the mountains safely – that Sam got sick so close to a refuge, and not really in the middle of nowhere – and that our travel up until that point had been so smooth.
The question of the hour is of course; Is trail racing getting too dangerous? UTMB has experienced a fatality now each of the past two years. My first answer to that question is that PTL is not trail racing – it’s not even close. It’s like a different sport. The skills required to complete a loop like this out there are so diverse, and yet so purely represent mountain skills. You need some fitness and endurance found from mountain running, sure, but I think this is actually the least important part of the recipe. You need streamlined gear and systems that allow you to problem solve and take care of business without losing large amounts of time. You need climbing and scrambling experience, and you absolutely need to be comfortable with large amounts of exposure at any given time along the route. This is not the TOR des Géants or Bigfoot – this is more of a mountaineering race than anything else. Most importantly you need a team, that is comfortable with all of the above things, and that communicates with each other clearly and honestly. That was one of the strengths between me and Sam; despite not having done a big push like this before, we communicated openly and honestly out on course. I never doubted that he was being honest with me, and that’s worth a lot when moving through the mountains. This is not the race to add on your bucket list because you are looking for the next big challenge. Rather, you should have some knowledge and experience in these mountains and sit down and take a long thought about whether you are up for the task.
The other question is, of course, would I ever do this again? I think of course the answer is yes. Especially now because I know what kind of training would benefit me the most. I would want to fill in the holes in my skills and resume – take some glacial travel classes, practice more on via ferrata until my muscle memory was dialed and refined. Work on streamlining my gear and systems to get my pack a bit lighter, while also hopefully having a comfortable trail sleep and bivy setup. Keep training with these mountains for another year and be open to all that they would teach me.
I’ve got a year in these mountains first, and I’ve got to stay present be open to what comes my way. This trip has left me inspired to do even more exploring, to find corners of the range I haven’t been, to head out with my kids and show them the big and massive glaciers that are still out there before they totally disappear. Show them the view from the top of the peaks. Show them Mont Blanc radiating love, light, and respect, like a beacon shining constantly through an ocean of darkness.
The tricky part is, now I love this massif even more than I did before my Petite Trotte. And that too is the complexity of PTL.
Mat is currently living in the French Alps preparing for a couple of gnarly local races and one really, really big one at the end of August this year. He loves helping Americans get ready for their big efforts in the Alps by making them eat more salami and crackers than is probably healthy for anyone. Head on over to Flowstate Running to learn more about his coaching and philosophy.