“Are your eyelashes getting frozen shut with snow?” I heard my partner Sam yell, his voice barely cutting through the gale force wind on the ridge. “YES!!!!” I replied, reaching up a frozen glove to wipe the gathered powder out of my eye socket before putting my head down and continuing to trudge forward, single step after single step. We were getting pummeled with a sideways blizzard high up on the Mont Joli ridgeline, traversing over to the Aiguille Croche. We were in whiteout conditions so we cheated to the left of the ridge, staying away from the 1000 meter exposed drop on the right hand side. Thankfully the wind was coming from the right side, strongly encouraging us to not get too close. My hands were completely numb and frozen despite having all of my glove layers on. I pumped my fingers trying to will some blood and feeling back into the tips, glancing down at the headlights of the Italian group below us that had somehow lost the ridge and was trying to climb their way back up. We kept moving forward, turning our headlights down lower to reduce the glare, silently hoping that this traverse would be over soon and we could descend into the freezing rain below.
This is PTL.
C’est Juste une Petite Trotte – A “Little Walk” Around Mont Blanc
The UTMB Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) is the “secret menu” item of UTMB week, intended for the hardcore crazies that are looking for even more of an adventure or journey than the normally scheduled events. It’s a 300+ kilometer jaunt around Mont Blanc, with a firm emphasis on autonomy – there are no aid stations, no marked trails, and very few cheering spectators to encourage you along the way. It’s a team event, run in groups of two or three coéquipiers, and you technically must stay within direct contact with each other throughout the entire lap. It takes two teammates to finish, so if you start with three people you can drop one if necessary on the loop. The route puts an emphasis on both off-trail connections and passages as well as aerial exposed sections, light rock climbing, via ferrata routes, and generally taking the path least traveled whenever possible.
I had heard of the PTL before as sort of a mythic endeavor in Chamonix, but it wasn’t until I lined up for the UTMB in 2021 that I got my first real spark of an idea to give it a try. There’s a big poster of all the races and their maps displayed in the Place Triangle de l’Amitié in Chamonix during race week – and on that map, there’s all of the normal races looping around or traversing across the Mont Blanc massif… and then there’s a giant loop, that just looks crazy and audacious, circling around them all – the PTL path. The first time I saw that big crazy loop on the map I immediately thought: Ooh, I want to do THAT.
I convinced my buddy Sam from Berkeley to come out and try it in 2022, after putting together our mountain running and climbing resumes and submitting our application. We had a brilliant go at the incredibly aesthetic loop last year, but on the Thursday morning we were out there Sam came down with Covid, probably caught on the airplane, and we went from moving smoothly through the mountains to getting evacuated out. Luckily everything ended okay, and he obviously recovered, but our first bid at a PTL loop only got us halfway around.
As we juggled the tough family decision of extending our sabbatical and trying to stay in the Alps for another year, I admit that PTL was one of the contributing factors. It certainly felt like Sam and I had the skills and team cohesion to complete a loop like this. What would have happened had he not gotten sick? Would we have been able to actually complete the back half of the course, staying ahead of cutoffs and keep moving ahead? After careful deliberation we decided to submit our application again, and sure enough we were accepted into the 2023 class of PTListes; teams looking for more than a simple journey during UTMB week. These were folks looking to go so deep into this massif that it would inevitably change their lives forever.
My year of training leading up to the 2023 PTL looked different than any year before, especially now not living in the Bay Area. We got a real winter season here in the Alps, and even with a poor snow year there was still too much snow to run. So I switched my shoes for skis and tried to gain strength and fitness by climbing up and down the hills and slopes. My running didn’t fully start up again until April, and I had a very strong block leading into the 57km Trail du Gypaète at the beginning of June. I felt strong out there at our local backyard race, but came away with some puzzling knee issues – tendinitis in first my right, then my left knee – something that I had never really dealt with before. My knees plus a respiratory cold kept me from finishing the Gran Trail Courmayeur 100k in July, which was meant to be my last big race effort before PTL, but I had to listen to my body and not push through a single event that could possibly derail a multiyear goal. I had to believe that decades worth of mountain training would be enough to get me ready for the big, big lap.
Late July and August saw me getting back in the groove a bit with a family backpack on the Alta Via 2 route in Italy (the southern section of the Tor des Géants course), and I was able to get out on the preliminary version of the PTL course that had been released to recon 4 or 5 big sections of the trail. Some of these (such as the Mont Joli ridge) would become invaluable when we were out there on race day, trying to navigate in terrible conditions, not having to worry about what was coming ahead.
Il Fait un Temps de Chien – Starting in a Storm
As race day rapidly approached toward the end of August, I headed out for the final test outings, wearing my full gear and kit and trying to get used to the 7-8 kg weight that we would be carrying on the course. This right here is a huge difference between PTL and the other large multiday races – you are expected to be fully autonomous at all times, with enough gear and food to survive an emergency situation in the high mountains on your own if necessary. You need a robust survival shelter, helmet, harness, and ferrata kit; food to get you between the big pushes that often lasted 10-12 hours; navigation devices with redundancy and backup batteries; and whatever clothes or layers the weather dictated around you. You couldn’t forget anything, because while we had a (generously sized!) drop-bag this year, we didn’t see it until Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, after departing Chamonix on Monday. I squeezed in a few hiking sessions with this full pack on, enjoying the comfort of our Six Moon Designs Flash 30 packs that had real supportive waistbands to help with the load. I was dying on the practice outings, not because of the weight, but because of the heat – the week before UTMB had brought the first real canicule (heat wave) of the summer to the French Alps, and the temperatures were scorching.
It was not to last, however, as all eyes were on the weather forecast and what was coming up. The many UTMB Facebook groups I was on were all up in arms about what to do about a rainy and cold UTMB – I’ve lived here long enough now to know that the forecast is good for 24 hours, decent for 48, and worthless for anything past that. All we were seeing now is that a massive disturbance was coming in, with a huge system of frigid arctic air, that was set to settle in the Chamonix Valley at 8:00 AM on Monday morning, exactly at the start of our race.
On August 28th we dutifully made our way up to Chamonix, suited up in our rain gear, and stood in the plaza by the church like all the other idiots, ehhh PTListes, around us. We put on our Decathlon heavy weight ponchos at the last minute, because it seemed like many other teams had them on, and ran through the streets full of cheering fans to climb up to the Balcon Nord trail under the Aiguille du Midi.
The climb went well, and we steadily worked our way up to the alpage on singletrack in the rain. At a bit over 2000 meters, it happened – the rain turned to snow, and we were now trudging through fresh powder with 300 of our closest PTListe friends. The planned route took us up to the major Balcon Nord trail, and then off-trail about 500 meters higher, where we would traverse across a talus field before meeting up with Lac Bleu just above the midway station of the massive téléphérique going to the top. The PTL organization had 12 “alternate weather routes” that could be activated at anytime if the danger was too great or conditions too rough for us to carry through on the original route. I had honestly assumed that we would start with the first two weather routes active, but no, we were plodding up to the off-trail section and would soon be traversing through a talus field of car-sized boulders with crampons on. As the race went on I began to look at the PTL comité more and more like the Gamemakers in the Hunger Games (perhaps because we had read this book weeks before on our family backpack) – they could alter and fluctuate the routes and conditions as needed using the weather routes, but this early in the event there were just too many tributes still left and the field had to be thinned out a bit. And so we put on our crampons and traversed across, both reveling in the majestic beauty of being up high in the snow on a day that we would never come up here on our own, and cursing the already difficult nature of this event, a mere 4 hours into the week.
We trudged down the steep descent and into Les Houches, the traditional PTL “warm-up” lap complete and our minds still firmly in gear. We needed food, so we bought a couple of Cokes, sandwiches, and chips to go from the market, knowing that the weather we saw this morning was just a preview of what was in store for us tonight. If the predicted forecast was correct, we would be ascending the Mont Joli ridge right when the brunt of the storm was hitting. We had good gear, we were confident of our navigation and skills, and now we just needed to keep things together and execute.
Our start to the 2022 version of the course worked out fairly cleanly in that the days actually felt like “days” – we could start pushing in the morning, arrive at a refuge or lifebase at sometime in the night, and ideally sleep a bit (1-2 hours) until the next morning. It’s a convenient way to approach things, but it also settles you into a bit of complacency that becomes very hard to exit when you do finally have to detour from that schedule. The 2023 race already felt different starting with sunset on the first night – we had to push 67 kilometers to the first possible sleep spot, which had an outbound cutoff of 9:00 AM on Tuesday. In a normal event 67 kilometers in 25 hours wouldn’t be too big of a deal, but 67 PTL kilometers, in a snowstorm, with weather so cold that you couldn’t even stop to eat or drink had a whole different vibe to it. We pushed across the Mont Joli ridgeline in a full white-out, only stopping to take our crampons off when we had finally descended off the steep exit trail, and kept pushing all through the night, not ever stopping once to even sit down or rest. It was too cold to stop, and we were too worried about cutoffs to let up on the gas pedal. We had already made one wrong turn which had cost us about 30 minutes in total, following a group down a descent that was entirely off course, so we were nervous that we had no time to make another mistake.
And thus we found our rhythm for the next week of our life – push a 20-30 kilometer section of trail, bridging the gap between two refuges or lifebases – the only places on the course where we could get sustenance and an indoor bed. These 20-30km pushes would often take 8-12 hours of moving time. The first half of the week we were moving about 3 km per hour, and so a 24 km push would take 8 hours plus any amount we spent stopped or resting (often only 10-15 minutes each push). Once we arrived at the refuge we would immediately eat – often a small bowl of bland pasta and sauce, occasionally a wonderful steaming bowl of cheesy polenta (we see you Cabane du Vélan!!!). After the meal we’d crash out and sleep for 60-90 minutes, depending on our current schedule and timetable and how things were going. “Sleep” is a generous word – sometimes we did pass out, but I was often woken up in a full sweat by my body’s metabolism going into complete overdrive and raising my core temperature multiple degrees. To lay down, close the eyes, and elevate the legs was often enough rest to continue on the next push. We’d wake up, try to buy a couple of to-go sandwiches for the trail, drink a cup of coffee, and head out the door.
The wild part of the week is that the above process was completely independent from the time of day. On the first evening we had to disassociate ourselves from whatever time it was – at the first refuge, La Gittaz, we arrived at 6:00 AM and were out the door at 8:20 AM, a mere 40 minutes before cutoff. At the Cabane du Vélan, deep in Switzerland, we arrived at sunset at 9:00 PM, and were putting on crampons to descend off the glacial moraine at 11:15 PM. The only metric of time became the pushes, and whether we would need day or night gear to send each section. The rest merely dissolved as we began to surf through the high mountains, riding the space-time continuum as everything else melted around us.
Les Grand Ampoules – Deep in the Pain Cave with Blisters From Hell
As we descended into the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard on Wednesday I was first overcome with a sense of relief. Relief that it had finally stopped raining, relief that we weren’t freezing above the snowline, relief that we were at the first of three life bases on the route, and relief that I would get to see my wife and kids. Soon after that sense of relief washed over me I was struck with a sense of sensation in my feet. They had literally been soaking wet for the past 48 hours, and to make matters worse I had made the poor decision of putting on slightly thicker wool socks at our last sleep spot to try to keep them a bit warmer on the go. They felt sopping wet, and I had pleasant delusions of someone air-drying my toes with a giant version of the air gun they use to dry your teeth off in a dental office.
When I finally removed my shoes and socks at the hostel it was hard to tell how bad the damage was – they were pruny and swollen, but the blisters didn’t look too bad yet. Maureen flagged down an official looking UTMB woman that appeared to be caring for people’s feet and got me a spot on the waiting bench. She did a good job at fixing a large blister on my heel, seemingly draining it with a syringe then injecting a red liquid inside of the blister before taping it up, but in retrospect she unfortunately missed the looming blisters on both of my pinky toes, as well as the one forming between the balls of my feet and the toes on the bottom. This was the only time I would see an official looking foot care doc, or even a medical “professional” for that matter – pampering and caring for runners is not really part of the PTL mentality.
Over the next few days the blisters that she didn’t treat grew, and grew, and grew. We tried to pop, clean, and tape them when we could, but it was too late – the damage had already been done. I now know that all of the blisters I got were under already well established calluses – ones so big on my pinky that around Day 3 the totality of skin on the final half of my pinky toes just vaporized and disappeared. Sam did an excellent job taping them at every refuge, but soon enough we were just covering open wounds and ulcerations and trying to keep them clean, without Neosporin, which we forgot and no Europeans seemed to carry. (“Don’t worry, both of my parents were doctors, so I’m like kind of a doctor too” Sam told me at one point, truly displaying a level of precision that was impressive for being on two hours of sleep total). And thus about halfway through our go at PTL I was checking two things off the ultra-running bingo sheet; really bad blisters covering my entire two feet, and a very deep trip into the pain cave.
I’ve been lucky so far in my running career that I’ve basically never had issues with blisters, save a few ill-fitting pairs of shoes that clearly had a causal relation to the hot spots and were easily solvable due to a lenient return policy at REI. I’ve also never really been in acute pain while running, even my longer races and hundos. Sure, I’ve had tendinitis flare-ups, and probably run through tightness or dull pain when I shouldn’t have, but I had yet to experience this type of hot, sharp, stabbing, acute pain in my body while out on the trail.
As the week went on every step I took on flat or downward sloping ground caused excruciating pain in my feet. On Wednesday it was at a 4-5 out of 10. By Thursday it was a 5-6, and by Friday it was easily a 7-10 out of 10 with every step. Thankfully the climbing was still fine, so I enjoyed half of the course relatively pain free, but until I got my mind locked in I was absolutely dreading any time the track went down. And of course, this being PTL, we weren’t just going down 10% grades… we were hucking ourselves off passes full of scree, or side-hilling across impossibly steep cow fields hour after hour after hour, often on some 30% grades with terrible footing and terrain.
The 1200 meter descent from one of the high points on the course all the way down into Saint Rhémy-en-Bosses just about killed me (or killed my feet I guess). We were rolling with the Japanese team Viva Los Fun Hogs, and I was thankful that they spoke enough English that we could chat and they could take my mind of the searing heat and sharpness in my feet. We eventually rolled into the aid tent at Bosses, where after telling us that we couldn’t sleep there turned into 100 PTListes literally sleeping on the concrete floor under cafeteria style tables hoping that we didn’t get stepped on or kicked by our hungry companions.
I was cracked, both physically and mentally. I wanted more sleep, I wanted a bed, and I wanted for my feet to stop hurting. The ubiquitous Eric Moreland came over to check in on us and see how we were doing, and I told him straight up, in French – I’m bad, Eric. My feet are killing me and I’ve got the biggest blisters in the world. To his credit, Eric looked right at me and responded in French, with just the right mix of compassion and sarcasm, something that roughly translated to “Awwww, you Americans… always coming to PTL and bringing all the new tricks!! Blisters! You’ve got blisters at PTL!?!?! What are you ever going to do?!!?” and he laughed and walked away, not even giving me a chance to plea to him and let him hear my reasoning for why I couldn’t walk any further on these feet. And sure enough, I looked around the tent to see that everyone was hurting so bad – everyone was patching up their feet to some degree, and everyone looked like all they wanted at that moment was a solid 8 hours in a Marriott king sized bed.
This is PTL.
And so Sam and I saddled up and headed out into the night, knowing we had a huge push of climbing up and over the Col de Saint Rhémy and eventually down to the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard and finally into Switzerland, our third country on the trek. I had to get my head together on these blisters, and I had to do it fast. I figured that I wasn’t causing any permanent damage – it wasn’t like I was pushing through tendinitis, or a joint or ligament injury. It was really just my feet and brain trying their hardest to tell me to stop walking 23 hours a day, please. And that’s what I needed to turn off. I remembered the “mindful birthing” classes that Maureen and I went to when she was expecting Sage, back in 2009, and I remembered that referring to “pain” in childbirth was a no-no as far as they were concerned. You couldn’t call it pain, but you could call it sensation. Sensation was definitely a better word for what I was experiencing in my feet at the moment.
And that’s when the switch flipped – I no longer let my brain tell me that pain was radiating from my feet and toes, but rather I tried to stay mindful and present with the extremely increased sensation that was coming out of the lower extremities of my body. And I wouldn’t let my mind tell me that I was walking through the mountains in intense pain, but rather I accepted the fact that I was traveling through these huge ranges, cols, and peaks at a heightened level of sensation. I was in fact enlightened, and this intense sensation was a gift. I was not just traipsing through this course on auto-pilot – no, I was fully present and engaged, and these mountains were freaking raw and oppressively powerful. I had transcended the greatest physical pain I had ever felt in my life (self-inflicted, of course), and I was in awe of my mind’s ability to do it.
As the weeks have passed and my blisters have healed enough where I can comfortably walk and even run a bit, I keep asking myself if this was my “Why?” of PTL. Is this why we head out on brutally hard, near impossible multiday routes? Is it to push our physical body to the limits, and then go through those limits, knowing that we only have our mind to save us from ourselves at that point? Because surely I was not the first human to walk so far that my feet hurt so much that I had to turn every second into a living meditation to make it through. In fact, our species has been doing this forever. Some would say we evolved with this exact point in mind (okay maybe not doing something as dumb as PTL, but you get my drift). Perhaps our brains have become super-developed purely for the ability to override their own pain receptors and keep on pushing. In a sick way, I both never want to experience pain that intense and acute again in my life, and I also kind of want it to happen again.
#FamillePTL – The Camaraderie of the Petite Trotte
Mountains and mountains never meet, but people and people always meet.A Chinese saying told to me by our friend Jay, from the Chinese Team Altra in the 2023 PTL.
Coming back for a second year of PTL felt different from the very beginning. We walked into the centre sportif in Chamonix this year feeling very similar to last – nervous, slightly scared, and just a little bit confident. But the difference was who we saw immediately upon walking into the room – we knew half the people that were checking us in!! They were previous PTListes and folks we shared time with on the trails in 2022 – Delphine, Manu, Frédéric, and of course Eric Moreland, one of the head PTL organizers, and the man responsible for our extraction from Frassati when Sam was sick with Covid last year. Instead of walking past everyone and straight to check-in like we did before, we were caught up in a barrage of hugs, bisous, and catching up in rapid-fire French. Even after completing just half the course last year, we were family and it was like walking into a family reunion.
I admit that I wasn’t necessarily expecting this reception, but I welcomed it with open arms. It didn’t stop at the check-in either – as we lined up at the start line the crowd was full of more familiar faces than unknown teams. Many of the same teams were there again, some in slightly different configurations, but all lining up to take a shot at one more crazy big loop throughout the massif. It brought a feeling of comfort and safety as we headed out into the looming storm – these were good people, and we could trust them. We had pushed, struggled, and relied on each other last year, and we would do it again. The team from Guatemala, the Belgians Les Écureuils, Terry and Not the Italians, as well as many teams I had contacted and even met over the Facebook group before the race. We even got one final bisou from Eric, literally at the start line, as we headed out into the streets of Cham.
There were the teams we knew previously, of course, and then there were the teams we met out on trail. Think about the shared experience and camaraderie of a normal length 50k or 100k race, and now amplify that across an entire week of off-trail navigating adventure. Fellow PTListes are immediately family – it’s a feeling that I imagine is similar to one of heading into combat or battle with brethren and sistren, which is admittedly a feeling that I will never exactly have. You must trust these people, and they must trust you. You will be with each other in both the highs and the lows (and trust me, the highs are very high and the lows are very low). You will share food, share water, share navigation duties, share equipment. The fact that it’s not a race, and you are actually encouraged to help each other out on course and along the way, only strengthens this entire sentiment. You will share this life changing experience together, and these comrades will forever be woven into your thoughts, memories, and souls.
PTL still maintains its charm, even while the UTMB/Ironman juggernaut grows bigger and bigger each year, and it’s because of the people involved. The comité is still relatively small and grassroots – the course-setters for each country intimately know the trails involved, and not only do they plan and scout the route ahead of time, but they are out there on the ground, talking to you in the life-bases and giving you beta and encouragement as you move around the loop. Beppe and Eric were literally everywhere on course, magically moving around and inspiring fluidity within the runners as well. The volunteers are second-to-none, many having completed a PTL in previous years and thus are some of the few people out there that know exactly what you are going through. Delphine knows when to serve up extra helpings of bolognaise (the last refuge is an excellent time to do it!), Manu and Frédéric were somehow everywhere on-course snapping photos and selfies, and the French speaking volunteers were even patient enough to communicate with me in French on six hours of sleep the entire week (which oddly enough somehow makes me speak better I think!).
We shared a lot of time on trail with the Japanese team Viva Los Fun Hogs. I never did figure out the origin story of their team name (I think it comes from a Patagonia article? But I have no idea why it’s in Spanish), but this team was made of quality guys for sure. Collectively they didn’t speak a ton of English, and we certainly didn’t speak any Japanese, but we got by well enough to spend hours communicating with them, cycling through hundreds of questions on the trail; what was Berkeley like? What kind of mountains did you train on in Japan? Where is that La Grave sticker on your helmet from? They were wizards at off-trail navigation, somehow possessing a sixth sense of route-finding that allowed them to discover secret passages just using a line on their watch, and Sam and I genuinely enjoyed our time with them, especially when the going got tough. They were always positive around us, and sometimes that’s the most valuable thing you can find out on trail.
I would soon find out that one of their runners, Yukihuro, was heading over to the Aosta Valley the following week for the rare PTL / TOR back-to-back. I was of course heading over there to crew my wife, and so followed Yukihuro with a special admiration and respect. Every time we saw each other on course we would yell “P-T-L!” and get together for a selfie. I helped him at a few aid stations and he gave me some special Matcha Green Tea from Japan (which happened to be one of my wife’s favorite drinks). We were family now, and he was my brother. Neither of us could contain our delight and excitement when he finally marched back into Courmayeur on Saturday morning, completing his second incomprehensible loop in as many weeks. We embraced and cried together on the street in front of the church, posing for a picture in front of his crew and family. I was as happy for his accomplishment as he was.
En Totale Autonomie – A Self-Supported Mountain Adventure
“Total autonomy” is one of the main principles of the Petite Trotte à Léon, and really sets it apart from other long multiday races of similar magnitude and scale. It all starts with the gear. You can’t just head out on PTL with a running vest and light kit. The mandatory equipment list is massive, and is really just a start for what you should be taking with you out into those mountains. You’re heading across remote areas, high altitude cols and peaks, and you literally need to be prepared for anything, emergency or weather-wise. In 2022 we whined and moaned about carrying 1cm crampons for the entire duration we were out there because it was a hot year and we didn’t even use them on the one small glacier crossing that we walked across. And then after this year, where we put on and removed our crampons 20 times in the first 24 hours, I realized that they really are an essential part of a high mountain expedition kit. You can never predict the weather, and 2023 proved that you can get snow at any time of the year. Without our crampons some of the crossings and descents would have been downright dangerous (not to mention they work wonders in slippery mud and grass as well).
Our bags weighed between 7-8kg with water and food, and we shoved everything in an amply sized Six Moon Designs 30L fastpack that had an actual waistbelt to take some of the load. We had a few “extra” things that we deemed necessary, mainly a micro-puffy down jacket and ultra lightweight down pants. These are truly only needed in an emergency if we had to stop, but in 2022 when Sam was trying to get out of the mountains with Covid we donned all of our layers for a few key nighttime trail naps that eventually got him to safety. It’s not a matter of being warm enough just while you are moving, you also have to be warm enough if all the sudden you are forced to stop moving.
The full autonomy really starts once you’ve got your kit flushed out and you head out on course. PTL is not a marked race, and much of it is not on a formal or established trail. We receive a “draft” version of the GPX trace a few months before the race, but the actual final route that we are meant to follow isn’t released until 10 days before the event (or in the case of this year, 7!). It’s only then that you know exactly where are you going and how you’re going to get around the loop. It’s every team’s responsibility to study the maps and study the course – if you go into this event without doing your homework, you’ll definitely pay the price at some point around the lap.
Navigation devices become your best friend out on course, and it’s required to have redundancy along the way. We used Gaia on our phones as our primary nav device and carried a Garmin Etrex as our backup. In general Gaia worked pretty well, although this year there were days where it was definitely glitchy, having a low enough GPS accuracy and precision that it wasn’t always helpful. Many teams this year headed out with just the route on their watches, using that for quick navigation checks, and resorting to a more robust device if they felt off-track or lost.
The macro-navigation this year was reasonably straightforward, as there seemed to be less purely off-trail sections than we encountered in 2022, but there were many spots where the micro-navigation, or just finding the route through, was exceedingly difficult. On the third night we dropped into the Ruitor Lake basin only to see the headlights of many teams circling the shore of the lake, like goldfish swimming in a fishbowl. We soon realized that the path took us up and out of the lake basin through a band of cliffs just next to a gushing waterfall. Sam and I headed over toward the waterfall, blasted our high power headlights to look for a way up, and luckily saw a cairn about 50 meters up in the cliffs. We scrambled our way up to the cairn and repeated – light on turbo beam, finding the next cairn, scrambling up through the cliff bands to get there. After about an hour of repeating this process we crested out on top of the waterfall, teams in tow that had finally escaped the dead-end.
The other huge difference in autonomy between PTL and something like TOR is the aid stations and basic support along the way (or lack thereof). PTL definitely has a “see you all in a week, have a great trip!” vibe to it once you leave Chamonix, and that can be hard to wrap your head around if you think about it as an organized race environment. This year it really sunk in that you need to think of it as an independent and autonomous mountain expedition with some basic scaffolding of support along the way. We started with 1400g of food in each bag, trying to get between 400-600g of calories per 100g. We ate all of our food before arriving at each lifebase to restock from our dropbag.
We learned last year that we had to be more creative with picking up food along the way and had to buy snacks basically whenever we could. The mountain refuges become the main stops for rest and refueling, which is why it feels more like a mountain expedition than a “race”. We did better this year of ordering more food à la carte, not just eating what was included with the race “meal” (each runner receives four tickets that they can spend on a meal at refuges along the way, but fortunately if you run out of tickets you can still pay cash). On the second half of the course we pre-ordered sandwiches and coffee for after our naps, so we could roll in, eat a meal, get an hour of sleep, wake up, drink a coffee, eat half a sandwich, and then eat the rest down the trail when we got hungry.
The lack of aid stations and rarely seeing your drop bag means that if you don’t have what you need out there on the PTL course, you don’t have what you need. We somehow managed to lose four(!) soft drinking flasks along the way. I left two at the first refuge, sitting on a rock, and we must have dropped or left two others at some point along the loop. This is obviously not enough to make you stop PTL, and at the same time you need to problem solve. We did have some redundancy in a 1L BeFree flask that we were using for purification, and I ended up taking both of our half liter Coca-Cola plastic bottles that we bought in Les Houches for my water vessels for the rest of the week. They worked splendidly, actually, and by the end I preferred them over the jiggly soft flasks that I started with.
In its essence, PTL is a challenge between the team, the course, the cutoffs, and the mountains. It is a challenge of systems and system management – can your team keep all of the systems going for the duration of the week, without letting one fail at a critical point? In other long trail races, and even multidays with crew and support, you often have a third party helping you manage these systems along the way, even if you only see them a handful of times through your journey. In PTL it’s up to you and your team to manage everything, all of the time. You’ve got to manage your route and your navigation – a wrong turn can be costly and cause you to miss a cutoff even when you’ve been moving well. You’ve got to manage your gear and equipment, knowing when to use what and actually making the decision to switch when necessary. You’ve got to manage your own physical body and condition – I almost committed a serious fault by letting my blisters get out of control, but was luckily able to push through and continue on. You’ve got to manage your food – it’s often not enough to eat only at the refuges, so you better have some calories that you can consume along the way, and ration them well enough that they last until you see your drop bag. You’ve got to manage your sleep, and find the line when a short nap would actually accelerate your progress, even if you have to stop for a bit. Sam and I “slept” between 10-12 hours the entirety of the week, while using 3 minute micro-naps to get us through particularly tricky sections of fatigue or hallucinations when we couldn’t actually stop for a full nap. You’ve got to manage both your intra-team dynamics as well as your relationships with other teams. Many a team’s PTL trip has come to an end because of infighting or incompatibility after days on the trail. You’ve got to manage the cutoffs – I have never chased a cutoff in a race other than PTL, but it puts a unique stress on the race that is always in the back of your mind. Most teams in PTL are always somewhat in danger of being caught by a cutoff, because a single mistake in any one of these above mentioned systems can take many hours to repair and recover from.
Autonomy is not a rule on the PTL course, it’s more of a mindset or a state of mind. On the third day we crested le Passage de Louie Blanche, a pleasant col that would drop us into the Refuge du Ruitor valley, one of the most scenic spots on the course. We got to the top of the col and were overjoyed that the sun was peeking out for the first time of the week, and that we could actually take our gloves off to get our camera out to take a picture. As I stretched out my right arm to take a famous Mat selfie, one of the French teams that we had been hiking with eagerly looked over and asked if they could take a shot of us. I replied no, it’s fine, and he laughed, saying “Ahhh, vous êtes en totale autonomie!”
It’s Not Over Til It’s Over – The Final Push
The final lifebase at Orsières was good for our souls. We saw my wife and kids, housed a burger and a bunch of food, got an hour or so of good sleep, and felt energized to finish up the final 50km and complete the loop back to Chamonix. Spirits were high among the other runners as we could all feel that we were getting closer and closer to our goal. I could sense that we were getting to the “PTL Victory Lap” mentality that other finishers had described.
The Gamemakers were far from done with us, however, as we were sent out of Orsières on a little used path that literally went straight up the mountain to the ski station of a La Breya, high above Champex-Lac. Strangely enough we intersected with the UTMB route for a few steps, and someone claimed they saw Mathieu Blanchard running down the trail, although I have no reason to believe this was not just a wishful hallucination, as I think we were intersecting the runners a bit farther back in the pack than where the French phenom should have been. But honestly, at that point, as we climbed a 2 kilometer stretch that averaged more than a 40% grade, Mathieu could have come up to me and asked what time it was, and I probably would have answered him and just kept on hiking up.
The second to last col on the course was the infamous Fenêtre d’Arpette, a staple alternative route on the TMB backpacking loop, and one of our favorite local climbs during our summers spent in nearby Trient. Of course the PTL course took us way down into the valley before approaching the final climb, and we trudged up toward the tiny notch far off on the ridgeline in the distance, motivated by both red Swiss Peak flags denoting the route for that other crazy long-distance multiday, as well as a train of solidly moving Italians that seemed fixated on getting this thing finished up. I was hurting here, struggling in my mind to figure out where the fortitude and energy to go 30 more kilometers was going to come from, while knowing that we were literally so close to the finish line at the very same time. We made it to the top of the col and my blisters were on fire during the technical descent. I needed a micro-nap to get my head back together, and I knew the perfect spot – a small berger’s hut and platform about halfway down to Trient, positioned with a wonderful view of the glacier and torrent below. If I was going to find the mental edge that I needed to finish this loop, that would have to be the spot.
My alarm went off after 3 minutes and I rolled over and sprung to action. Sam and I had a quick meeting of the minds – we could send this thing, but we had to get moving a bit faster than we had been going. The final weather route was activated, which (thankfully) allowed us to skip the beautiful ridgeline descent off of Les Grandes Autanes and instead take the direct traverse and contour high above Trient, connecting directly with the Col de Balme, our final refuge and col.
I lead the final climb out of the hanging glacial valley that has given me and my wife so many wonderful training miles, motivated both to keep things moving fast enough that we could finish, and to stay just slightly ahead of the massive Italian group charging behind us. Les Écureuils caught us to up at one point and provided a welcome dose of positivity, as I had been working on my French pronunciation of their team name (one of the hardest words for me to properly say in French) all week, and I had a final chance to give it a go. I had no idea if it was getting better or worse, but we all laughed about it (it turns out it’s very hard to pronounce ‘squirrel’ in English as well) and kept making progress on the final climb of the course.
The traverse was familiar to me from previous summers but turned out to be extremely challenging while sleep-deprived and zombie-walking through Night 6. I tried to focus on the technical trail ahead, stopping to fill up my bottles at the familiar spring in the side of the mountain, but my vision kept drifting down to the valley floor on my right and the kaleidoscope of circus lights moving and spinning around. There were lights everywhere – on the tiny road below, coming down from the pass on the right, and climbing up into the mountains on the left. At one instance I thought it was a giant robotic machine, assembled to move the earth and rocks below, and Sam rightfully told me to focus on the trail and keep moving forward, even while my brain strained to figure out what this spectacle really was. It finally clicked – we were seeing Trient in the second night of UTMB, and the headlights coming through were passing through the Col de la Forclaz, descending to the aid station at the pink church, and then heading back toward Chamonix on the Catogne climb, just as I had done two years previously in 2021. We pushed on and finally made it to the refuge, where Delphine and Manu greeted us with a heaping bowl of delicious pasta bolognaise and a comfortable-enough piece of real-estate under a table on the hard floor to sleep for our final real nap. As we woke up and headed out into the clear and cold night sky, it was starting to sink in – we had plenty of time to meander down the valley and back into Cham, and even with my feet at a constant 10/10 on the pain scale, we were going to complete this loop.
It wasn’t quite in the bag yet, of course, and our final challenge of the remaining 17 kilometers heading into Chamonix was the simple act of staying awake. We busted out all of the remaining tricks in our book – calling friends and family in the States just to chat and stay alert, exhausting any remaining questions we had for each other after a week out in the mountains (“So seriously, what is your favorite ice cream flavor again?”) and catching a few 3 minute micro-naps when the going just got too tough. I marveled at the multitude of row boats that people had stashed among the forest trees, and almost tried to strike up a conversation with the family constructing a log cabin deep in the woods, but knew that the whimsical hallucinations would stop once I finally got some well-deserved solid sleep.
The finish was honestly everything we had hoped for, and everything I had been visualizing for years. Walking back to the church after completing a PTL is an entirely different vibe than coming back in after the UTMB loop. You’ve been on such a journey with your teammates, and every single équipe is broken in some way at this point. But the fact is that you persevered, kept your systems running well enough, and somehow made it back to where you started – something only about half the teams can say in the end. A few motivated teams run the final hundreds of meters, even if they’ve hardly ran a step during the entire lap, but most simply walk through the streets, soaking it all in. The crowd is cheering for you (“P-T-L! P-T-L!”), and somehow the mountain community assembled knows that you’ve been on a life-changing journey, even if they don’t quite understand it in its entirely. There are enough fans that have gone deep in their own ways in this massif to recognize the dazed look in your eyes as well. Spectators that have completed a Petite Trotte of their own look knowingly in your eyes – they truly get it – often wearing their finisher vest to celebrate their own rite of passage that they completed years ago. And at the finish line, there’s of course my wife, kids, and friends, but there’s also Eric, welcoming every single team across the finish line. The same man that somehow willed me out of my pity party in Bosses, the same man that drove the van to evacuate us out of the backcountry in 2022, was there to welcome us across the line this year with a giant bear hug and bisou in 2023.
This is PTL.
In Conclusion – Finding Patience and Humility
“Prima volevo conquistare le montagne. Adesso mi lascio conquistare da loro.”
“Before I wanted to conquer the mountains. Now I let myself be conquered by them.”– Tiziano Terzani
I sit here now, back in the tiny village of Mont-Saxonnex, gazing at the mountains all around me, wondering when the seasons will start changing, when the peaks will start being covered with snow, and when I will be able to start waxing my skis again. My wife has been sleeping for a couple of days, recovering from her successful completion of the TOR des Géants, a goal three years in the making for her. We both managed to complete our huge, audacious loops this year, but there is obviously so much more to the story than simply closing a circle on foot.
In many ways we moved to the Alps to dedicate ourselves to these races and the mountains and community that surround them. People talk about immersion when moving to a foreign country, and one of our goals was to immerse ourselves into the mountains to see what would become of it. I have learned so much over the past year from these people and peaks around me, but the biggest single lesson I have learned is one of patience and humility.
The fact is, even for seasoned veterans and people that know better, it’s hard to show up to the start line for one of these events without even the tiniest smidgen of hubris. You’ve got to be a little over-confident to even make it to the start. If you really didn’t think you could conquer and succeed, then you’d likely just stay home.
And yet at some point during a big mountain multiday it happens – you realize, wait – there’s no way that I can conquer these mountains. They’re just too big, too tall, too steep, too severe. Too powerful, too unforgiving, too old, too wise. And the only thing left to do is to surrender. To listen to their pace, their rhythm, their vibrations. To hear what they are saying. To move with the mountains instead of through them.
PTL is unique for this exact reason – in shorter races and endeavors you can often get away with moving at your own pace, at slightly out-smarting or out-maneuvering the mountains and getting away with it for a bit. Not in PTL. From the moment we left Chamonix, in a wicked August storm that would barrage us with snow for the first two nights, it was clear that we were not in any position of power here. It took humility to put on our crampons two hours into the week – humility under a mountain so huge that we couldn’t even see her, yet so powerful that we could all feel her undeniable strength and force. There was nothing we could do but allow ourselves to be conquered by Mont Blanc that week, and that is a gift that will never be taken away from us.
This is PTL.
Mat is currently recovering from PTL in the French Alps and dreaming of mellow 10km loops that will bring him home for lunch and a nap in a soft bed. He loves helping athletes achieve their own goals out on the trail, from humble and petite to huge and audacious, and is an experienced and personable coach. Head on over to Flowstate Running to learn more about his approach.
Life Design, Moving to France, PTL and TOR on the Midpacker Podcast with Troy Meadows