Patrouille des Glaciers 2022
5 months ago I was lying in bed with a cast on a freshly broken hand. And 4 months ago spending a snowy Christmas watching the family on skis from the roller in Davos. My PdG training couldn’t have started worse. And yet I was about to get ready. Not with anywhere close to the “recommended” 60k elevation gain over the winter season (barely a quarter of that), but a good general endurance, and the confidence that I could reach that mythical finish line in Verbier.
2 weeks ago, as Daniel got a Covid infection, the doubts started creeping in again. Our team would make in to the start line, but not without last minute wonders. The weather being also one of those.
Glacier and lack of snow
I’ll pass over the lead up to the race though, there’s enough to say on the course itself: Start at 23h45 on Saturday evening, next to Zermatt’s train station, barely after the stop of the rain. The snow being far away up in the mountains, we run with an old pair of trainers through the village, and quickly leave the civilization to climb the valley on a jeep road. Daniel is setting the pace in front. And while I say “ok but not faster” when he asks for feedback, Nico goes for a more optimistic “you can overtake and catch the first team if you want”. Needless to say, we were soon in second position of our wave, running uphill, or fast walking when the slope turned steep, in a little muddy dark path. As a tiny downhill arrived, I notice something bump on my left calf, ask Nico if he saw something fall, but assume it’s a rock. Until 50 m later, when I can’t find our gps tracker. “STOP!” We come back, spend 30 s looking for it in the dark with headlamps with no success, and decide to continue our route without. Daniel is not super happy, and makes sure we pass again the ~10 teams who overtook us then. It’s still a long race, no need to worry.
The start in Zermatt.
As we reach 7 km, at Oberstafel, we are asked to get into our ski boots. Daniel announces to the official that we lost our tracker. And he makes a phone call while we are setting up our stuff. As we would be ready to go, the official receives a return call, where it is explained that they can still track us, and we likely did not lose it. I look carefully at my material again, and indeed found the tracker, who simply slipped from my left shoulder down to the hip. Saved! Let’s go…
The start of the glacier is full of rocks, and the fresh 2-3 cm of snow are barely enough to make them slippery but not to ski onto them. We even have to cross a 5 cm high water stream, which we do without much hesitation but hoping that our feet stay dry before we target 3700 m elevation and the coldest point of the course. We exchange sporadic words. But it’s mostly “just keep going”. The race will be long, so there’s no need to stress and sweat here, but we also want to keep progressing steadily to get there…
As we reach the real glacier, 2 to 4 tracks are prepared in the snow, with little posts indicating the way. The real skimo part starts. Not too technical yet. Daniel is still setting the pace, I and Nico simply following. Soon enough Schoenbiel arrives, and looks like a portal into the high mountains. A stream of headlamps ahead, the first stars pointing just above Tête Blanche. A few military helpers checking that our knots are correct. We will be on rope until Bertol. I put my camelbak, who was taped to my back but fell down, inside the backpack. It will quickly freeze and I won’t have anything to drink for the next 3 hours.
Technical skills start here, at least for me. Daniel is overtaking teams from the previous wave left and right, making kick turns in the slope, switching tracks as needed. I’m doing all that, while dealing with the rope getting stuck on a track indicator, below my or the neighboring teams’ skis, and trying to adjust the pace to keep the balance between tension in the rope in front and behind me. A few mistakes, and maybe slight non-ideal adjustments in my bindings, lead to my left ski turning to descent modes 4 or 5 times. Annoying. Every time it involves shouting to tell Daniel to stop, removing the ski, turning the binding, putting the boot back in, getting started again, and quite likely restarting the overtake maneuver. But we’re making steady progress.
Stockji is the next checkpoint. Ski on the back, a steep couloir to climb (usually the route goes around, but there was no path without crevasses this year). The military helper guides us to the far left staircase in the snow, still empty, and off we go. Step after step, looking once down to the valley with the halo of Zermatt already far away, and lots of tiny headlamps along the glacier. Mostly concentrated ahead though, both poles in one hand and the rope in the other. As we put the skis back at 3000 m, we are advised to “cloth up now, the wind will pick up as you reach the summit”. We put on a wind stopper. There is still 600 m to climb. Not nothing. Especially at this altitude. The pace drops a little. I don’t have much time to evaluate where the summit would be, since the kick turn densify, and with it my needs to have the rope under control. Too bad the elastic along it were not allowed this year.
Suddenly the slope weakens, and as I look up a halo appears just behind a pass. Tête Blanche clearly visible in front of a starry sky on the left. A tent with sanitary. Medical people analyzing our faces to decide whether we’re good to go or should do a warm-up break. We remove the skins. Close the shoes properly to ski (another error here, should have prepared it properly at Oberstafel, and not have to remove gloves here by -25 C). Daniel helps Nico close his backpack and jacket, since his hands are frozen. Not sure we even said anything, but in a concerted look we just started skiing. Waiting here is freezing for no good reason. Everybody around is shivering cold but somehow prefers to stop for bouillon rather than moving on.
The start of the descent is just a straight line, at very little slope. Straight ahead. Easy peazy. A good meter or two of rope in the hands in front of me as safety. As the path turns slightly right, the end of the descent is already in sight. Teams in front of us make plenty of turns. Daniel takes the right decision to go almost straight, braking in V-shape, much easier for us behind. Nico get the rope in between the legs. But as he shouts quickly, and I relay that to Daniel while releasing the slack, nothing ensues. We entangle our rope with a pole of a competitor, but once again deal with it quickly and release ourselves. Time to go up briefly again. Hands still half-frozen, but functioning well enough to put the skins on. Jacket below the windstopper, and beard, turned white from the frosted sweat. Bertol is splendid in the night. We don’t have much time to admire though. Time to descend some more. Much more difficult conditions here. A narrow start, frozen, gliding sideways, followed by an open track with lots of bumps, stones, and frozen patches. A little minesweeper game, with blue flags indicating the right path, red ones dangerous places, and yellow ones checkpoints to reach. In the darkest night one can imagine. With a small headlamp illuminating the few meters in front of you. At 25-30 km/h. Of course at some point we all went through a stone. One was way bigger than expected though. My skis get stuck on it, I roll face down to the snow patch behind, before salto-ing and ending my path face down the slope, feet upwards, on my back, and with a single pole in hand. I quickly realize that nothing happened, that my skis are still here, and that Daniel went also down but standing up already. I shout to Nico following us that he should get my pole if possible, stand up, remove the snow from myself, and get ready to go. Single big fall of the day, and I’m just ready to continue.
As the snow is lacking, we have to remove the skis once for 200 m, and then follow a single track down, which avoids many (but by far not all) of the rocks. We reach the final point of the descent around the glacier tunnel, and from there on walk down a good 3 km to Arolla. Nico realizes he broke a ski, and has 1 cm gap between one metal edge and the ski itself. We will see in Arolla what we can do.
Mixing with the small PdG
We reach the checkpoint a little before 6 am. While Nico enquires for a replacement ski (which will be refused, it would have had to come from one private helper), I get the opportunity to down 0.5 l of coke. Half frozen, but who am I to complain, mine is completely frozen?
The part on the ski slopes of Arolla is steep, we knew that from our training. But it was icy on top of it. So we zig-zag our way up, Daniel in front, me on the elastic behind but not really using it. Nico first on the elastic but soon enough ahead on his own. He’ll take some blurry pictures. Remove his underpants. Enjoy the track. We follow slightly slower. Daniel is less fast but still steady. The headlamps not needed any longer. Lots of team from the small PdG around us.
As we reach Riedmatten basis checkpoint, we get the first direct sunlight. In the couloir, the first team overtakes us. They have professional support at the changing point. We’re taking our time to do things right. The descent is so steep that fixed ropes are installed. One can basically only slow down their slide by gripping onto them. As we reach the bottom I find Nico but not Daniel. We’re almost unsure if he went somehow ahead through another path. But no, I can see him mid-couloir. He just almost lost his ski, and some official came to help him. At the bottom, I need a little break to re-fix my boots. We’re at Pas du Chat. Almost certain to reach the finish line. A lot slower than anticipated due to the conditions, but still confident. Even if we have to remove the skis twice in the descent, and lose a lot of time walking instead of skiing downhill.
Struggles to the finish
Along the Lac des Dix, the track is prepared, but at a side slope that I find really annoying. Some teams manage to skate that. I find it near impossible. My skis seem to glide also far less than those of Dani and Nico. And mentally I just struggle to keep up. I can drink again, with melted camelbak, and try to at least catch up on nutrition a little. It seems to never end though. Second and last official aid station in La Barme. Chocolate, oranges, coke, bouillon. Let’s go. I’m struggling to see how I’ll make it up, but I guess it step by step. Being (or at least thinking to be) the weakest here, I accept the offer of Nico to get pulled on the elastic rope. Daniel fixes himself behind me, but I’m not sure how much he gets pulled vs doing the effort but following without thinking. I get tracked up by Nico who does a 30 min effort like I couldn’t imagine. The least I can do then is push mentally the couloir de la Rosablanche.
The thing is, which I didn’t realize, while I’m on the way to getting better, Daniel is entering his crisis moment. He asks to sit down where we remove the skis. Not feeling well. We start soon on one of the two stair tracks. At this time of the day, it’s a long wait. Left step, right step, little break. Left step, right step, little break. Someone is hurting mid-way up, there are probably 50 people in between, but what do you want to do? Overtaking is impossible here, unless you’re a pro team and the helpers make a free side for you… There’s a little rest station at the middle point that most people avoid. Daniel sits down briefly, and gets Schweppes from a spectator. The military staff refuses to offer their Rivella. It’s private and not an official aid station. Daniel’s not looking good. But at this point you’re also not dictating the pace. Just get in the line and walk.
As we reach finally the top, Nico gets his skis ready at the end of the changing zone before coming back to us. Daniel is sitting again. Head in the hands. Looking a little pale. He says his heart is beating hard. He’s tired. I ask if I should request coke from someone. He first refuses, says he’s feeling dizzy and not empty. I see a spectator give coke to their team before they leave. I ask and receive one of their extra bottle. Daniel accepts this time. We get a sip each with Nico and shove the rest 400 ml to him. My rational thinking is then, we need to get him to a better place, either by skiing down where the lower altitude and increased oxygen will make him feel better, or if he really can’t any more by asking a medical staff for help. No panic, there are at least one helicopter continuously picking up people, so we’re at a good place to get support. But also no reason to stay here.
Daniel chooses to continue. I can see in his eyes that it is more of a mental drive than a feeling better from the 5 min rest. But it’s ok. He’s anyways skiing down better than me. And we barely have 150 m of elevation left. A last bite of the teeth.
From the col de la Chaux we soon reach the ski slopes of Verbier. Schuss to la Chaux itself, where a military person tells us that the “slope is ending here”. Upon my and the neighboring team’s surprises, he also adds that we will be able to put the skis on again, but while it was only 3 times for the Wednesday race, it may be 6 or more times today… Indeed we had a lot of on and off bits, with more stones than snow. Careful skiing to avoid injuries here. And crossing Verbier to the finish line with a lot of people around. We made it!
Finish in Verbier.
For those who asked: the PdG is emotionally comparable to a first Ironman, not really knowing what to expect, but conscious that you’re tackling a challenge. Not everything is smooth on first try, and you have to deal with ups and downs along the way. It’s probably trickier on the nutritional level, especially if you don’t have support people along the way. It is similarly challenging on the energy / heart rate side of things, with sleep perturbed the next day from being too excited still. It is much less demanding on the muscle compared to the physical toll of the marathon pounding steps. It is an experience worth living!