Valgrisenche to Cogne – 53.5 km (102.1 km total)
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” – Edward Abbey
With headlights on, we began the climb out of Valgrisenche and onto the most intimidating section of the entire route. The two highest passes are in this section, tipping the charts at 3002 m (9850 ft) and 3299 m (10 823 ft) with a 5000 ft drop down to the valley between them. I was glad that these two monsters were early in the event since I would complete them within the first 24 hours and be able to put them out of my mind.
But before I could concern myself with those giants, I had to climb up 1300 m (4000 ft) to get over Col Fenetre – a mere 2850 m (9350 ft) pass with an equally significant descent. Cole Fenentre is a marvelous sight in the daylight, with many unbelievably tight switchbacks through the scree on both the front and the back of the pass.
But at night, everything is different. Instead of awesome views that send me staggering off trail, I was limited to the five foot radius of my headlamp and the rock surface that it illuminated.
Even though almost 12 hours had passed, we were still part of a long snake of runners, although more spaced out now. Numerous headlamps shining all along a steep climb made the route easier to anticipate than in broad daylight. I could look ahead on the trail to see fifty or more lights making their way up, up, up.
But night has obstacles. Everything is more difficult at night – from finding a nutrition bar to changing headlamp batteries, from maintaining a respectable speed to staying interested in moving forward. The night lasted forever and progress slowed considerably. And, worst of all, there are no photos to show for it. Both Col Fenetre and Col Entrelor were achieved at night and I have very little memory of either one.
I do remember flying down from Col Fenetre when an Italian racer, hot on my heels, hollered out to me, “Look up!”. I slowed and turned my headlamp towards the sky, seeing the almost full moon and thousands of pinpoint stars – a stunning sight. But he said “No! Look up the mountain!”. This time I turned to look up at the string of headlamp lights that were descending from the col – a truly beautiful display of poetry in motion.
Col Entrelor was a truly long and difficult climb. Each step up was so much steeper than the last and the rocks demanded full attention for every footfall. Through the rocky ascent, we could occasionally get a glimpse of a distant red flashing light – like a traffic light. It was so far away at first, never seeming to get closer, and I assumed that it marked the top. It seemed like hours had passed by when we rounded a cliff edge and saw it blinking beside us but the trail continued on past it. Soon we saw another distant red light, not flashing this time. As we wound our way up through the darkness, I tried not to hope that this light indicated the summit for fear of losing my mind. A long while later, we approached that light, signalling that we had arrived at the col.
Dawn arrived at 6:20 am and it was finally light enough to turn off our lights. The descent down from Entrelor had been slow with giant steps down through the rocks. It was during this descent that I realized that those slight hot-spots I felt before Valgrisenche were now blisters – one on each ball of my foot. I would change my shoes at the next life base but first I had to climb up 5000 ft and descend the highest pass of the route. We trekked on and I tried to keep my complaints quiet.
Somewhere on the trek up to Col Loson, I became overwhelmed by the challenge that I had taken on. These mountains were too steep. The rocky trail was narrow, treacherous, dangerous and ugly. The descents hurt. I wasn’t able to sit back and enjoy the incredible views because each footstep required full attention. I began to think that the ‘race’ was a silly endeavour. What reasonable person would organize this? What reasonable person would tough it out and toil through it? What was I doing here, since I am the epitome of a reasonable person? These negative, black thoughts were taking over my mind.
The descent from Col Loson was terribly difficult. My feet were on fire with pain and often I would step on a rock at such an angle that one of the blisters would extend into fresh new territory of my sole. But even without foot issues, the trail surface would be challenging. There were many places where the rocky outcrops that made up the trail surface had risen up perpendicular to the ground, from glaciation I suppose. So the trail was made up of sharp, upturned rock layers with narrow gaps between. Each step, we had to balance on these upturned edges, since the gaps were too narrow for even my tiny feet. Running was out of the question.
By the time we had descended down the scree slope rocks, through the grasslands (still rocky!) and into the pine forests (huge rocky steps with water bars), I was in tears. I was exhausted, in pain and worried that these blisters would mark the end of my race. Every step, it felt as if my soles were sloughing off my feet. Plus, the reality of these unrelenting mountains was hitting me hard. This was no scenic tour. This was all business, all the time.
Cogne life base couldn’t come soon enough. We arrived there at 2:30 pm with a plan to eat and get our first sleep on course. The first thing I did was head to the medical area in hopes of having some blister care but I was told that, this year, foot care was not available! I joined Bruce for a big plate of pasta and, while eating (the worst kind of multi-tasking!), I dealt with my foot issues. The ball of each foot had a big dollar-sized blister that had burst. I carefully washed them and let them air dry, elevated, while we slept.
Upstairs in the sleeping area, there were about 75 cots packed closely together and the room temperature was about 30° C. Most racers were asleep despite the noise of people changing clothes, texting, searching through their bags and moving about the room. There were even photographers taking close-ups of sleepers! We found two side-by-side cots and set the alarm for 3 hours. With earplugs in, I was out instantly.
Upon waking, we found a sunny courtyard where we reloaded our packs and I doctored my blistered feet as best as I could with 2nd Skin and tape. Thankfully the air-drying and elevation had reduced the swelling. Switching to my La Sportiva Ultra Raptors, my feet felt a lot better right away.
One thing that struck me at Cogne was how quickly Bruce was able to ready himself in a life base for the next segment. While I dealt with my feet, refilled my water and considered my to-do list for the food I’d need, he would be ready, waiting patiently for me to get organized. Experience goes a long, long way!
We left Cogne at 6:45 pm, having spent just over 4 hours at the life base.
Section 2 – 53.5 km in 15h 30m
Cummulative Total – 102.1 km in 28h 30m (+4h 17m in Cogne LB)
Total Life Base Time = 5h 15
Total sleep = 3h
The saga continues here: Section #3 – Cogne to Donnas