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Valtournenche to Ollomont – 47.2 km (283.5 km total)

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

Section #6 - Valtournenche to Ollomont

Section #6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

“There are no impossible obstacles; there are just stronger and weaker wills.” – Jules Verne

There were only 100 km left. Two thirds of the course was done. Heading out of the life base, I felt generally good but knew it would not last long. I was becoming quite familiar with this routine. I would feel completely spent upon entering a life base, mostly due to the steep and rocky descents and the toll they took on my knee, and then I would feel somewhat refreshed afterwards, knowing that a painless, uphill grind awaited me. Bruce and I were able to run some of the trails leading out-of-town but I knew that the real tests would come once darkness fell again and once we began the next descent.

The profile for this segment intrigued me. I loved the idea of having one big ascent and then staying up above 2500 m (8000 ft) for the next ~18 km, bagging peak after peak. Also, this segment held at least six mountain passes, leaving only two passes after Ollomont.

The climb took us up towards a dammed lake and we briefly stopped at Rifugio Barmasse to refuel and to chat with Pieter (Belgium) and Beat (USA) who we had been following for about 100km. At this rifugio, we saw our first ‘controller’ who was spot-checking racers to ensure that all mandatory gear was being carried, specifically the rain gear and the “long sleeve microfleece”. As we chatted with the controller for few minutes, I found out that my long sleeve, heavy weight wool, IceBreaker hoody would not have been permitted, had he bothered to check my gear. For quite a few kilometres afterwards, Bruce and I discussed the merits of microfleece over wool and the inconsistency of rules between the pre-race gear check (where my wool top was permitted) and the mid-race check (where my wool top would have been deemed inadequate). I am just relieved that I didn’t have to deal with a four hour penalty for carrying the wrong type of top, regardless of the fact that I was actually more prepared for foul weather.

As we made our way up in the warm and sunny afternoon, I began to recall some of my hallucinations from the previous night. As I stepped from rock to rock, I remembered how I had been seeing silly cartoonish faces in each rock and, as we hiked along now, I could still make out faces. I took some photos of rock faces to prove to others that I wasn’t actually losing my mind.

Caesar eating an apple

Caesar eating an apple

Pacman!

Pacman!

Laughing old man

Crying baby face

Laughing man in a tall, tall hat

Laughing man with long eyelashes in a tall, tall hat

This one is a little bit spooky!

This one is a little bit spooky!

A cute little lichen caterpillar

A cute little lichen caterpillar

Large forehead monster with green lichen eyes

Large foreheaded monster (the friendly kind) with green lichen eyes

Once we reached the top of Fenetre de Tsan, we were faced with a double diamond scree descent of tight switchbacks. Here I put my massaged knee to the absolute test and, once again, it screamed with every step. But I was able to shuffle along and block out the pain to a certain degree.

Heading down the steep switchbacks of Fenetre de Tsan. Bruce is only one switchback ahead but a huge distance downhill.

Heading down the steep switchbacks of Fenetre de Tsan, Bruce is only one switchback ahead but a huge distance downhill. See what I mean about rocky steps!?

If you look closely, you can see the twenty or so tight switchbacks of the Fenetre de Tsan descent.

Looking back at the Fenetre de Tsan descent. If you enlarge the photo, you can see the twenty or so tight switchbacks and the traverse across the slope to our vantage point.

Night fell sometime after rifugio Cuney and, once again, my memory draws a blank. The only memory in this night is of the tiny Bivouac Clermont, where the three volunteers were cooking up some of the most tasty pasta I had ever had (although Angela would laugh at that comment since the pasta was ‘re-gifted’ from one runner to the next).

Evidence of the delicious, re-gifted and re-heated pasta in Bivouac Clermont

Evidence of the delicious, re-gifted and re-heated pasta in Bivouac Clermont, served by the kindest people you ever met. It was tiny inside!

In this section of high passes, there were very few places to rest or sleep. We pressed on, with the intent of grabbing a few hours sleep in Oyace-Close. But my brain protested mightily to this and I was, once again, awash in hallucinations and visions that kept me moving incredibly slowly.

This time, I was searching for somewhere to sleep. I could see that there were hundreds of tents set up right beside the trail and when I finally caught up to Bruce (or, more truthfully, he stopped and waited for me), I asked him why we couldn’t rest for a while in one of the tents. He patiently pointed out that there were no tents. Instead, I was looking at a boulder rockfall in a creek. Then I challenged him in a race to the next aid station and I felt like I was flying down the hill, giggling the whole way. The race probably only lasted a minute or two before I lost interest.

At another point, I found myself stopped and staring at a severed giraffe head. I desperately wanted to pick it up, drag it along to show Bruce but I knew that he would be unimpressed with the severed head because it would surely have caused me to move slower than usual. In hindsight, I’m quite sure it was a big branch that had been used to poke at a campfire and I am quite glad that I didn’t bother bringing it. (After the race was over, 2nd place finisher Nick Hollon made a video about runner hallucinations in which I recount my experiences in a wild-eyed, still sleep-deprived frenzy.)

I desperately wanted to sleep but the river valley we were descending had a constant cold breeze, forcing us to continue along. We finally we crossed over a bridge and began the final climb to Oyace-Close, but I just could not stay awake and I was moving in a series of staggering zigzags. At one point, Bruce said, “we can stop and rest here” and he indicated a mossy patch at the side of the trail. In an instant, I flopped down and fell asleep, still with my trekking pole straps on my wrists and my headlamp illuminated. Ten minutes later, I woke up because I was cold and because I had rocks poking into my chest but that brief pause was enough to get me into Oyace-Close. Bruce didn’t sleep at all on the mossy patch but instead stood guard and kept an eye on the clock.

Evidence of why I was moving so slowly!

Evidence of why I was moving so slowly!

Oyace-Close was perhaps the worst aid station of the entire course. The volunteers were all gossiping in one corner of a large, echoey hall and the food tables were empty of most foods. But worst of all, the sleeping area was in same room, bright with florescent lights glaring. There were only ten cots in total and most were occupied. I took the one empty cot and Bruce tried to sleep on the wire springs of a cot with no mattress. For two hours, I was dead to the world and, when Bruce woke me, I was writhing with the same whole-body pain that I had experienced at Saint-Jacques. We managed to find a helpful volunteer who brought us a huge portion of parmesan polenta to share, which was absolutely delicious. We headed back out onto the trail just as the sky was beginning to lighten.

As we headed up towards Col Brison, we were rewarded with our first views of Monte Bianco, a clear indication that the end of this adventure was drawing near.

Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond this pass but it isnt

Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond this pass (but it isn’t)

There is a pass up there somewhere. Col Champillion

There is a pass up there somewhere (Col Brison) and Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond (but it isn’t).

Almost into Ollomont, I lay on the picnic bench as a silly gesture but fell asleep quite quickly, using one of my water bottles as a pillow.

Almost into Ollomont, I lay on this picnic bench as a silly gesture but fell asleep quite quickly, using one of my water bottles as a pillow.

There is always time to have a visit with chickens. Sadly, we had a language barrier between us.

There is always time to have a visit with chickens. Sadly, we had a language barrier between us.

We rolled into Ollomont at 10:45 am. I arranged to have a doctor work on my knee and, while waiting my turn, we both had a hot meal. We sat in a warm sunbeam, letting our feet dry out and getting rid of the morning chills. The doctor listened to my complaints about my knee and the treatments I had had at other life bases. Thinking that I would be given the same deep massage, I was shocked when he used his full body weight to quickly crush my knee into my chest. I guess this was an ‘active release’ method that I have heard about. It made me see stars and feel nauseous. Then he proceeded to tape my knee with that fancy muscle tape. With my new knee, we headed out of Ollomont and onto the final section at 12:48 pm on Friday.

After a brutal active release t

After a brutal ‘active release’ treatment, I was taped up and sent on my merry way.

Section 6  – 47.2 km in 22h 25m

Cummulative Total – 283.5 km in 120h 43m (+ 2h 4m in Ollomont LB)

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 26h 28m

Total sleep = 13h 30m

The saga continues here – Section #7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur

Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche – 36.0 km (236.3 km total)

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

Section #5 - Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

Section #5 – Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James

When Bruce and I left the Gressoney life base at 19:27, we had less than an hour of daylight left. Somehow we had established an unfortunate pattern of sleeping and spending daylight hours in life bases and always being on the move at night. We hadn’t gone over a pass in daylight since Col Loson in section #2. Out of the 12 passes we had ascended so far, only five had been in daylight and now we were on our way up to Col Pinter which would be our eighth night pass. This pattern could only be blamed on simple bad luck in timing. The endless hours in the dark were taking their toll on me.

I had never run all through a night before this race. I had never had the lack of visual stimuli that night running brings and, since I am very motivated by views and sights, I lost all motivation to move quickly or to see what the next vista had to offer. I was always moving forward but far more slowly now. Bruce was often so far ahead that I could not see his light and he would wait (and wait) for me to catch up.

In this segment, my mind began to wander and play tricks on me. The headlamp over my running cap brim gave the endless sensation of being directly under an overpass and I found myself occasionally looking straight up to see where the overpass would end. I began to see things in my periphery, like Frenchmen trying to hand me flowers but, when I looked over, I would see only wild grasses swaying at the trailside.

As I walked along in the dark, I started to pay attention to the wet shoe prints on the rocks and the way that the tread marks would look a bit like letters and numbers. I remember seeing the number 5 and noting that it was unusual to see such a clear symbol created by shoes and mud. But then I saw a 7. And then another 5. Was that a 3? I thought that I should be writing these numbers down because they could have some significance – like the number of kilometres left or perhaps winning lottery numbers.

I also began to see pictures in the wet shoe prints and I was convinced that these were hieroglyphics which, if I could just figure out the code, would reveal an interesting story or perhaps some tidbit of history. For hours it seemed, I attempted to read these hieroglyphics and eventually I discovered the history of how the Alps were created:

Long, long ago, Italians wanted to create their own beautiful gardens beside their homes but everywhere that they tried to dig, they found only rocks. As the townsfolk got more and more frustrated with the over abundance of rocks, they took their issue to the councils. The town councils listened to the people’s complaints and decided that every Italian should bring their rocks down to the town square. So people everywhere brought carts and wagons filled with rocks to the town square. Soon enough, the Alps were formed from these great mounds which is where we were hiking today.

My hallucinations were vivid and made perfect sense to me in the middle of our fourth night. But, deep in my mind, I knew that I was being ridiculous and that it was all a result of sleep deprivation.

At one point, I caught up to Bruce who had waited patiently (and endlessly) for me to descend an easy, wide, gravel road. I decided to tell him what I had discovered, knowing that he would get a kick out of my silliness. After hearing the collection of my tales, he pulled out the video camera and asked me to repeat my discoveries while he recorded my voice. In a dream-like, fairy voice, I recounted everything about the lottery numbers, the hieroglyphics and the history of the Alps. I also pointed out all the faces I could see in the rocks and I told the stories that went with each face. Realizing the extent of my sleep deprivation, he determined that I needed to sleep – pronto! Saint-Jacques was the next rifugio and, when we arrived at 2:45 am, we asked for a bed. Within seconds of lying down on the upper bunk, I was out cold for two hours.

Upon waking, my initial sensation was complete pain from head to toe, as if my whole body were cramping up and my skin was burning. It soon passed but would return every time I woke from a sleep from here on. One of the medical volunteers noticed my difficulty coming down the stairs with my now seized-up knee and asked about my knee pain. He offered me a pain-killer which I had never heard of but which I accepted without a second thought. Until that point, it hadn’t even occured to me to take pain medication for my knee and now I was taking something unknown from a complete stranger. What would my mother say!?

After that much-needed rest, we began the climb to Col di Nana. Although I have heard that this is a beautiful section of the course, I have no memory of it at all. Here are some pictures taken in this section:

In the famous non-aid station, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

In the famous non-aid station on the way to Pinter, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

Leaving Rifugio Gran Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse to the pass and many runners making their way in the first sunbeams of the day.

Leaving Rifugio Grand Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse upwards to the pass and many runners making their way along in the first sunbeams of the day.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

We are Just about at the summit of Col di Nana. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on his left side.

We are just about at the summit of Col des Fontaines. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on the left.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), slightly shrouded in high cloud,  was visible from this pass.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), on the far right slightly shrouded in high cloud, was visible from this area.

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don't remember at all!)

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don’t remember at all!)

When we arrived at the Valtournenche life base at 10 am, I headed to the medical/massage area right away and eventually got to see a doctor. Again using a deep tissue massage technique, this physio was able to pinpoint the source of my knee pain and recover some range of motion. While waiting for me and my treatment, Bruce indulged in a leg massage which seemed to work out a lot of his aches.

I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of painful deep massage.

During my deep massage treatment in Valtournenche LB, I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of pain.

Having eaten, replenished our gear and had a bit of down time, we headed out just after noon on Thursday.

Section 5  – 36.0 km in 14h 47m

Cummulative Total – 236.3 km in 96h 14m (+ 2h 4m in Valtournenche LB)

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 21h 09m

Total sleep = 10h 15m

The saga continues here: Section #6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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