They say the third time is a charm. This year, for the 2012 Patrol des Glaciers, "they" might have been wrong.
Every other year at the end of April in Zermatt, Switzerland, close to 4,500 competitors descend upon this small but famous, Matterhorn-dominated ski town. The athletes arrive in preparation for the 53-kilometer, 4,000-meter elevation (gain and descent), ski mountaineering race that follows the track of the famous Haute Route from Zermatt to Verbier, Switzerland.
This year, we had put together the second ever all-American female team, comprising Carbondale local Sari Anderson, Nina Silitch, a fellow American living in Chamonix with her family, and me, a part-time Aspen/Swiss resident. It would be Nina's and my third time racing in the great competitive traverse of the Alps.
The Patrol des Glaciers, Patrol of the Glaciers in English or PDG for short, is funded and staffed entirely by the Swiss Army. In addition to being one of the world's greatest races, it is also an impressive military exercise, showcasing Swiss organization and precision with more than 3,000 soldiers and five helicopters on course and a price tag of 6 million Swiss francs.
People from more than 20 countries (even a team from Jamaica) had trained all year for the PDG, and the Swiss Army did not want to disappoint.
"You are all VIPS," said Kommandant Ivo Burgener at the pre-race briefing in the Zermatt Chapel on the day of the race.
It's easy to see what he means as you ski past the many soldiers stationed at the numerous checkpoints all the way to the finish.
At the stroke of midnight Saturday morning, April 28, we left Zermatt on foot with skis on packs running up toward the peaks and did indeed make it to Verbier, just not the way we had originally intended.
We arrived in Zermatt Thursday, April 26, the day before the competition. Sari flew in specifically for the big event thanks to help from the local Max Marolt Scholarship and her supportive husband.
The atmosphere was slightly tense. The Wednesday heat of the race had been canceled because of bad weather and high winds. The Foehn wind, known for its ability to raise temperatures in addition to causing migraines and sleep deprivation, had arrived, bringing with it winds of greater than 100 kph. The start of our race on Friday was questionable.
The PDG consists of two races - the original long race described above from Zermatt to Verbier, and a shorter course from the halfway point in Arolla, Switzerland, to Verbier, with about half the distance and elevation gain.
Racers from Zermatt depart hourly between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., and from Arolla between 3:30 and 6 a.m., depending on estimated race time. Both events require teams of three, with the longer effort requiring racers to be roped together while skinning over glacial terrain and reaching a maximum elevation of 3,600 meters at the Tete Blanche.
Steeped in tradition, the PDG was originally realized in 1943 in attempts to boost morale and fitness among the Swiss Army soldiers. What started with 18 teams has now grown to 1,500 patrols, named after the original men and women that did and still do patrol the Alps. The PDG was stopped after the 1949 edition when a patrol was lost in a crevasse and killed. The legend around the mystical event never died, and the race had its renaissance in 1984 with safety becoming the utmost priority.
We unpacked in our hotel and donned all our race gear to practice skiing and skinning roped together for the first time. Sari was the strongest, and we decided she would carry the rope for the first two hours on course, where it was not necessary to be roped together.
We practiced slowly pulling it out of her pack and tying into the rope while skinning without stopping. Next, we practiced the downhill. We had attached an elastic to the rope, which allowed it to bunch up and become shorter than the 10 meters required between each racer, making it easier to avoid skiing over the rope while descending. Mission accomplished, we headed back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep.
Friday morning, we rose early and brought our gear to the gear check. Soldiers checked all mandatory equipment - skis, boots, poles, compasses, altimeters, helmets, goggles, harnesses, rope, axe, food, water, skins, extra clothing, backpacks, first aid kit, crampons, headlamps - all required to be brought through to the finish. To prevent later switching out for lighter gear in Arolla, our gear soldiers affixed shiny silver PDG 2012 stickers to our larger items and a marker on our rope. We were told we would receive a text at 8 p.m. if the race was canceled due to weather.
The top teams in this event endeavor to set new records and can have sometimes upwards of 70 people on course providing them with aid. The current men's record is 5 hours, 52 minutes and the women's 7:41 - incredibly fast, considering it takes the average person four days to cover this distance.
The PDG is one of the toughest races out there physically and mentally, as well as in terms of competition level. Our goal was to place in the top 10, besting our 2010 effort when the PDG had been part of the World Cup schedule. Nina, Mona Merrill and I had placed fourth in the international category, completing the PDG as the first American female team.
Eight o'clock came and went, no text, the race was on. We did our best to sleep before our midnight start, but from our hotel could hear the start of each heat and the cheering as the teams ran through town. We got up at 10:30 p.m. to get dressed. The first hour of the course is done on foot, and we wore running shoes for the start, with our boots clipped into our bindings, strapped to our packs with food and water stuffed into out suits for easy access - and making us all appear rather pregnant.
We walked through one final checkpoint, activating our GPS, and headed into the start corral. Relaxed and excited, we waited out the countdown. At the stroke of midnight, the gun sounded and we were off, an edelweiss and red spandex-clad trio cruising down the Bahnhofstrasse (the main street of Zermatt) past the bars with happy spectators cheering our progress.
Town was quickly left behind as we ran up the path up towards the Stafel and the first transition. Getting skis on quickly, we started along the flats passing by the flank of the Matterhorn. We could not really see the iconic peak but could feel its massive shadow. It was here we got the first taste of the 100 kph winds that awaited us at the Tete Blanche as it funneled down the valley.
We quickly gained elevation and worked well together as a team. Sari's binding was not cooperating and pre-releasing unexpectedly. She would patiently step back in and charge on.
As we reached the Schoenbiel Hut checkpoint, it became impossible to hear each other because of the wind. Soldiers on course yelled it was time to put on our jackets and to be wary of the wind and temperatures. A mountain guide made a quick adjustment to Sari's binding, and off we went into the tempest.
The wind increased in intensity, forcing us to stop and to brace against the stronger gusts. It was a warmer wind, so it was not as cold as we feared, with the exception of the last few hundred meters. But, as a consequence of the heat, my clear glasses had fogged. I took them off and in return got an eye-drying blast of wind that left me with blurred vision for the remainder of the race.
Cresting the summit, we pulled skins and began the relatively short ski down to the final climb up to the Col de Bertol. We descended quickly, organizing the rope while navigating the spin drifts and following the route marked by bamboo poles with glow sticks attached.
After the last short climb, soldiers assisted us as we untied the rope and stuffed it back into Sari's pack. I had begun to feel nauseous. I must have looked the part as one of the soldiers turned to Sari and said, "It's OK, it's finished now. You are done in Arolla."
"What? Are you kidding me?" Sari sputtered back, verbalizing all our thoughts as we stared at him in disbelief.
"There was an avalanche at the Pas du Chat [farther on course]. You are finished. The race is done, but shhhh, no one knows," he replied.
We looked at one another, not sure if we really believed him. Eager to get out of the wind, we began the 2,000-meter ski down to Arolla.
The snow was great, but it was hard to avoid the rocks in the dark in spite of our head lamps, and we could see the sparks flying off each other's skis. We crossed the line into the checkpoint and were stopped by a line of soldiers. The race was over.
We put on our extra layers and watched as hundreds of lights descended the second major climb. Competitors had been turned back and told to return to Arolla. No one would be making it to Verbier on skis. In the history of the PDG, the race had only been canceled twice due to weather, once in 1986 and again in 2002.
Masses of disappointed racers crammed into the main tent and we were told to wait for buses to Verbier. No racer was allowed to leave until the army confirmed no one was missing in the avalanche. Luckily, we squeezed onto one of the first buses and began the two-hour, twisty, car sickness-inducing bus ride to Verbier, with racers falling asleep on each other's shoulders.
The bus stopped just short of the finish line and, at roughly 8 a.m., we walked across it together, a little dazed from the night's events. We were pleased to learn we had gotten seventh out of 26 of the toughest women's teams out there. They had classified us according to our finish in Arolla. The top women's team had made it to Arolla in 3:30 and, in spite of the conditions, were on course for a record-breaking pace.
Back in Chamonix, I continued to feel ill, and both Sari and I proceeded to endure a nasty stomach bug we must have picked up in Zermatt. We slept the rest of the afternoon and evening, missing the major wind storm that hit Chamonix overnight. Winds upwards of 180 kph took down hundreds of big beautiful pines and 250 kph winds did damage to the Aiguilles du Midi cable car and the Montenvers mountain train. We managed a run the next day and were able to see the carnage firsthand.
Will we try again in 2014? It's a long ways away, but we all certainly had a sense of leaving something unfinished. In spite of the shortened course and crazy weather, in a way we experienced the PDG at its best, requiring us to be a team through demanding elements and unexpected issues.
A big thanks to Sari for making the trip over, all our sponsors (La Sportiva, Ski Trab, Polartech and Texner) and Chip Chilson for all my training advice.
To be continued?