"Alpine style means attempting to climb mountains on the most equitable footing possible, neither applying excessive technology to overcome deficits in skill or courage nor using permanently damaging tactics, and adhering to this ethos from beginning to end. It means being equal to the challenge imposed by the natural state of the mountain." Mark Twight
A short break in the weather provides enough time for the customary pre-race fanfare to take place and leaves the 2300+ starters of this year's UTMB with some promise of a decent night in the mountains. While I tend to shy away from crowds preferring smaller, intimate mountain races, the UltraTrail du Mont Blanc is truly a special event; a fantastic showcase of the sport, a great celebration of trail running, the mountains and a coming together of communities all around the Mt Blanc massif. The start feels much like an xc race...involuntary pushing and shoving as runners squeeze out of town lifted by cheering, screaming, cowbells, and horns. The atmosphere is electric and we blast on to the rolling dirt trail to Les Houches as if the finish line was already in sight. This isn't far from the truth as the first climb up to Col de Voza is accompanied by the return of the rain, contributing shortly thereafter to the race's demise. I settle into a comfortable pace, chit chatting with Scott, who is also content to not push too hard this early. I overhear a spectator exclaiming, "Here comes Scott Jurek and his pacer." Pacer? A bib and a singlet doesn't seem to be enough to make me look like I'm running the race. A few hundred feet further, a photographer is gesturing at me to get out of the way so as to get a good shot of him. Something wrong with my hair? Apparently! As the next group of people is shouting to me, "Bravo, Bravo, 1st female!" Once we leave the crowds behind, I eclipse myself into the bushes for my first pit-stop. My stomach has been feeling a little off since the start and I'm wondering whether those tortillas that accompanied me all the way from New Mexico, some 10 days ago, were the optimal choice of pre-race food. With two more short breaks before reaching St. Gervais and the rain still coming down strong, I resign myself to accepting these small discomforts and start to feel the excitement rise upon approaching the town. As I enter the streets, winding through the labyrinth of security barriers, I'm hit by a wall of sound. I feel like I'm in a fish tank with people banging on the glass. I unscrew my water bottle for a refill and notice it vibrating from the sheer intensity of the screaming crowds. I'm happy to leave this behind and hop back on the single track that seems to literally roll through people's back yards. The night has fallen and with it a drop in temperature, not uncomfortably cold but I do enjoy the thought of a cup of soup and my wool long sleeve awaiting me at the next aid station. I let my mind drift to a strong, comfortable place, seeing the obvious growing challenge of the continually degenerating natural state of the mountain, as an opportunity for a deeper experience rather than an obstacle to my enjoyment. The pursuit of pleasure had not been a priority in my preparation, having chosen instead to focus on developing total impartiality to whatever the mountain may bring. Ironically, I start to feel a sense of sadistic joy in being truly tested by the elements and a satisfaction in thinking that I can maintain this mindset through the forthcoming adversity. However, as I enter Les Contamines, I'm stopped abruptly in my tracks. The race has been cancelled, temporarily at least, while organizers assess conditions on the high passes. Runners stand around helplessly, in total disbelief, while rumors of mudslides, strong winds, torn down course markings, circulate through the crowd. The only thing I hadn't prepared for was not running at all.
“For me, the value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics. Together they form the whole basis of my concept of alpinism. Some people see no more in climbing mountains than an escape from the harsh realities of modern times. This is not only uninformed but unfair. I don’t deny that there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering, but this should never overshadow its real essence, which is not escape but victory over your own human frailty.” Walter Bonatti
When I first ran the Ultratrail du Mont Blanc in 2009, I felt that my attraction to the event was embodied quite well in the above words of Walter Bonatti. The aesthetic appeal of the route is undeniable. The history of the race is short but already well established and when combined with the history of the surrounding villages, valleys and peaks, it makes for an immensely rich cultural and historical experience. Circumnavigating the mountain on foot, in semi-autonomy, with little more than some water and few items of gear, adheres to fast, light and clean ethics. However, what stuck with me the most, was the idea of defying my "own human frailty." I had spent the year preparing not to conquer the mountain but rather develop some harmonious relationship with it, to feel comfortable and at ease in its presence while also being free to fully experience my own consciousness. A race seems to be the perfect setting for this. Other competitors push me to bring forth my best effort and the more structured environment of an organized event allows to tinker more fully with my limits, without the immediate concern of dying and not being found. Again though, my expectations are unrealistic. With the cancellation of the race, I selfishly felt robbed of my opportunity to experience the mountain as I had hoped. I didn't get the text the following day for the re-run but didn't really care at that point either. The build up, anticipation and single-minded focus for the whole event had been too great and I felt strangely drained physically and in some sort of emotional limbo.
It takes a few days to get out of my funk. I wake to lingering dreary weather but the mountain looks inviting this morning. I take the back streets out of Chamonix and get to the road crossing at the Mt. Blanc tunnel. During the race, the tunnel is a blessing, providing crew with the quickest, most direct access to Italy. Now, it strikes me as a total tragedy that they would blast a hole through such a beautiful mountain for the sake of convenient transportation. The single track climbs steadily, snaking under the lines of an old cable car, before quickly surfacing above treeline at the seemingly abandoned terminal. Worn boots, bits and pieces of climbing gear along with a torn backpack, broken glass and shattered wood are scattered across the floor. I don't stay long, opting to loop back to town via the Plan de L'Aiguille. What I don't realize is that to return this way will require the crossing of the Glaciers des Pelerins. I sit for a minute on the lip of the small chute that leads down on to the glacier contemplating my options. The Plan de L'Aiguille is in spitting distance across this field of scree and boulders and the descent doesn't seem that steep. It starts snowing a little and more weather is moving in, so I decide to go for it. Half way down I step on a refrigerator sized boulder than shifts a couple of feet under my weight. Suddenly, all the rocks around me look as if they're holding on by a string moments away from cascading down on to me. I scamper across the glacier feeling infinitely small, insignificant and frail. As I come across the other side, there is no victory over my own human frailty but rather a feeling of deep gratitude to have gone my way unharmed and a reminder that humility and respect are virtues imposed by the mountain. Above all though, I have gained perspective in seeing that each and every experience such as this one make up the richness of my daily practice and not just one final goal.