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Valgrisenche to Cogne – 53.5 km (102.1 km total)

(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure)

Valgrisenche to Cogne

Section #2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne

“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.

I borrowed this picture from the Tor Des Geants coffee table book. If you look closely, you can see 3 or 4 runners on the switchbacks.

I borrowed this picture from the Tor Des Geants coffee table book (complete with page seam), since we did this descent in the dark. If you look closely, you can see 3 or 4 runners on the switchbacks.

But at night, everything is different. Instead of awesome views that send me staggering off trail, I was limited to the ten 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.

Bruce on his way up Col Loson. The runners behind him and below give some perspective to the steepness of those switchbacks.

Bruce on his way up Col Loson. The runners behind him and on the switchback below give some perspective to the steepness.

Col Loson - the high point of the race at 3299 m

Col Loson (3299 m)- the high point of the race. It took us 4 hours from Eaux Rousses to the col.

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.

Racks and racks of drop bags at Cogne Life Base

Racks and racks of drop bags at Cogne Life Base

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

Courmayeur to Valgrisenche – 48.6 km (48.6 km total)

This is the first of seven posts describing my experiences during the Tor Des Geants 332.3 km race through the high Alps of the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy in September 2014. My TdG journey really began with this March 2014 post – The Dreaded Wait List . Enjoy! And thanks for stopping by.

Start Line to Life Base #1

Section #1 – Courmayeur to Valgrisenche

“Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” – Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

At 9:15 am, Bruce and I left the hotel, decked out in our race wear and hydration backpacks, having left our non-race suitcases with the concierge. As we walked the three blocks to the start line in the morning sunlight, it felt as if we were in a parade. Already crowds lined the street, waving flags of all different countries. After a quick photo of the sweepers and another of a child with a Canadian flag, we headed into the runners’ corral, swiping our computer-chip bracelets as we entered.

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said 'good-bye! Have a great race!')

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said ‘good-bye! Have a great race!’)

The racers were packed together with an electric energy and a feeling of camaraderie but still the remaining time dragged out and my butterflies increased. There were photography drones, muffled music, cowbells, distant announcements and white noise chatter all around. With 10 seconds to go, we all counted down and the race began at exactly 10:00 am.

The mass of runners shuffled along, packed tightly together, through the now familiar streets of Courmayeur. The streets were thick with cheering crowds who moved along with us, taking short-cuts to the streets below, ringing cowbells and calling out the Italian words of encouragement that I would soon know so well. Bruce filmed us as we ran along and you can hear my giggles of delight as I took it all in. Finally it was starting. Finally I could see if I was ready. Finally.

When we crossed the river, still on city streets, and the road inclined up towards the trailhead, the  runners near us walked up this first paved hill. I sighed with relief. I had found my people – people who were not racing; people who were here to soak in the experience. As we reached the bottleneck at the trailhead, there wasn’t an aggressive mash of elbows and trekking poles that I expected but instead a gently assertive merge. Bruce and I stuck together and found our place in the long, long snake of 700 runners winding up through the pine forest towards our first pass, Col d’Arp. The climb was almost 10 km long and we all fell into step, following the shoes in front. There was no jostling for position and no one back here tried to run. The trail had supporters standing at every switchback, bearing cameras, bells and words of encouragement.

The trees began to thin out and soon the open pastures treated us to long-awaited views. The conga line of racers stretched up through the dry, browning grasses and I could finally get a sense of the number of racers involved. A helicopter passed over and circled above us before heading higher to film the real contenders.

Col d'Arp - The long snake of 700 runners winding its way to the summit.

Col d’Arp – The long snake of 700 runners winding its way to the summit.

The trail widened to a gravel road, narrowed again to single track and the summit came into view, crowded with dozens of supporters. As most runners near us did, we stopped for what I thought would be our only summit selfie together.

Col d'Arp Summit Selfie

Col d’Arp Summit Selfie with the crowds of supports, photographers and racers beyond.

This is the point where I expected Bruce to head off down the valley and begin to run his own race. But as I tucked my poles away and settled into the rhythm of downhill running, I caught a glimpse of Bruce filming me from below and, as we neared the first refreshment station, he was still just ahead of me, holding out a jug of water for my bottles.

Farther down this descent, we came into La Thuile, the first town along the route, and the crowds were as thick and as enthusiastic as they had been at the starting line. It was difficult to get to the aid station food tables since the wall of Italian men was more than my 5’3″ frame could raze. But I managed to elbow my way through and get a glimpse of the food I would have to eat for the next week. Dried raisins, apricots and dates, fresh oranges, sausage, cheese, packaged fruit tarts and chocolate were the staples. Unfortunately there was nothing very salty to counter the sweetness of my dextrose drink mix and my endless quantities of sweet lunabars, gels and honey stinger waffles.

Aid station fare remained the same for the entire race - sausage, cheese, cookies, fresh bananas and oranges, dried fruit, chocolate.

Aid station fare remained mostly the same for the entire race – sausage, cheese, cookies, fresh bananas and oranges, dried fruit, chocolate. How I longed for salty potato chips!

We were keen to get away from the mob and head out to the next set of twin passes – Passo Alto and Col de la Crosatie. Since it was early afternoon on Sunday, the next climb was packed with hiking families. It seemed unbelievable to round a corner of a steep, rooty, rocky climb and find a five-year old cheering me on, offering to fill my water bottle from the nearby fountain. If a small child could do this climb, surely I could.

This little guy was filling his bottle at a nearby fountain and offering racers water as they passed. So cute!

Way up near the rifugio, this little guy was filling his bottle at a nearby fountain and offering racers water as they passed. So cute!

The climb up to Rifugio Deffeyes on the way to Passo Alto was truly stunning. The high pastures provided a rainbow of autumnal colours leading down to the brilliant blue of Lac du Ruitor below. Although the ever-moving parade of runners prevented me from pulling my camera out, I will not forget the golden sunburnt colours, framed by snow-capped peaks on that gorgeous view.

Passo Alto was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments for me where I first began to understand the reality of the terrain here in the high Alps. As we left the gorgeous grasslands near the rifugio, we began our true climb. Here the grasslands gave way to rock. Casting a glance upwards, I could see snippets of the snake of racers scrambling over grey rocky switchbacks. The steepness was such that I had to stop moving so I wouldn’t lose my balance as I craned my neck in the general direction of the pass. We just don’t have mountains like this at home. The steepness is unbelievable. The climbs go on forever and every footstep has to be considered. But all the effort seemed worth it since the views in every direction were beautiful. Looking north, the peak of Monte Bianco would occasionally show itself and looking east, the long glaciers of Gran Paradiso formed a snowy backdrop below a blue sky. This is what motivated me to come here – views like this.

As would become the pattern, the distant pass would suddenly be close and, next thing I knew, we were at the top. From our new vantage point, we looked straight across the valley and could see our next pass, Col de la Crosatie. But first we had to descend about 800 m (2500 ft) to the valley below and re-climb 800 m to that pass. Although those first few downhill switchbacks were too steep to run and the rocky footing was tricky, descending was a real treat. As the trail grade eased, it felt great to swoop back and forth, finally feeling like we were making real forward progress after hours of slow hiking. The trail was still packed with racers but the energy was high and chatter in a variety of languages could be heard throughout the descent.

Col de la Crosatie loomed large in my mind not only because I knew that the steep ascent would have ropes near the top but more importantly because a runner in TDG 2013 slipped to his death while descending the far side. After carefully negotiating the roped section of the ascent and taking our summit selfie in the waning sunlight of that first day, we came across the monument placed in the memory of Yang Yuan. Bruce and I both picked up rocks from the trailside and placed them on top of the monument, taking a moment to consider both the fragility of life and the extremes that we all push by pursuing these goals.

On Col de la Crosatie there are fixed ropes and steep drop-offs. I was glad to do this one in the daylight.

On the climb up to Col de la Crosatie, there are fixed ropes, sketchy footing and steep drop-offs. I was glad to do this one in the daylight.

The last rays of sun on day one at the summit of Col de la Crosatie.

The last rays of sun on day one at the summit of Col de la Crosatie.

Yang Yuan's Memorial on Col de la Crosatie - I believe that these are his words. Each side of the memorial had a translation.

Yang Yuan’s Memorial on the farside of Col de la Crosatie – I believe that these are his own words. Each side of the memorial had a translation – Chinese, Italian, English, French.

The long descent into Planaval allowed for pensive running bliss as I mulled over Yang Yuan’s untimely death. As we left the rocky steepness, a more gradual descent took us along a meandering stream and through grassy pastures while an almost full moon rose in the pale blue sky of late afternoon. It was a beautiful place to die.

Alpenglow, rising moon, blue skies, gentle descent. All is well in the world.

Alpenglow, rising moon, blue skies, gentle descent. All is well in the world.

From the quaint town of Planaval and its aid station, we headed up the valley on gentle back roads towards the first life base in Valgrisenche. Daylight was fading and, by the time we left Planaval, we needed our headlamps. The crowds of spectators had dissipated but individuals and pairs still cheered heartily whenever we passed.

Descending into the valley below Col de la Cosatie, we could see the town of Planaval in the foreground and Valgrisenche (first life base) farther up the valley.

Descending into the valley below Col de la Crosatie, we could see the town of Planaval in the foreground and Valgrisenche (first life base) farther up the valley.

We entered the Valgrisenche life base at 9:40 pm and found it packed to the gills with volunteers and racers. I felt confused by the bright lights, noise, crowds and confusing Italian directions I was hearing. It took a while before I had the wits to ask for instructions in French or English. Food this way? Beds that way? Drop bags over there? But, as with most things, the answers revealed themselves eventually and the essentials were always available.

Bruce and I found a partially empty table in the cafeteria area and went to fill our plates with hot pasta, cans of tuna and chunks of parmesan cheese. There was even an automated espresso machine that doled out a decent brew. As we ate, Bruce revealed that he wanted to stick with me for the duration of the race. His Shingles illness this spring had resulted in minimal training and he knew that he wouldn’t be breaking any personal records this year. Besides, we were having fun together, sharing the experience of the TDG. And so it was decided – we would run together for as long as possible.

In my drop bag, I had a long list of all the things I needed to do, to replenish and to consider while in a life base with my own gear. I read through it all, thankful for my forethought and planning. An hour later, as we prepared to head out into the night, I suddenly felt hurried, as if I was running a race. 

Here I am contemplating my long to-do list in the Valgrisenche life base. This list was like a lifeline for me as fatigue took over my brain.

Here I am contemplating my long to-do list in the Valgrisenche life base. This list was like a lifeline for me later in the event as fatigue took over my brain.

Despite my best intentions to be thorough, I made a few key errors here. Although I did wash my feet and change my socks, I ignored pre-blister hotspots on the balls of my feet. I also rushed to change into capri tights, leaving my favourite running shorts back in the women’s washroom, never to be seen again. Perhaps it was the new knowledge that I was now racing with Bruce, perhaps it was the congestion and high energy in the life base or perhaps it was the sudden onslaught of familiar faces (Jackie, Nicki, Deb, Suzy) in that station, but I got caught up in the race, hurried through my list and would regret it for days afterwards. At 10:38 pm, we donned our headlamps and headed out into the first night.

Section 1 – 48.6 km in 12h 38m (including 58m in Valgrisenche LB)

Total Life Base Time = 58m

Total Sleep = 0 hours

The saga continues here: Section #2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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