"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Run Every Street (RES) Project

I live in Kelmscott. It's a suburb of the City of Armadale. If I go abroad, I just say, "I'm from Perth."

Sunset over the Indian Ocean from my local Kelmscott trails - the long, narrow Champion (Wright) Lake reflecting

The reality is that Perth is actually only 20 square kilometres. It's basically the central business district - or the "downtown area" as a Canadian would call it. There's a population of about 22,000 there. Abutting Perth are several cities and towns. To get from 'downtown' to my home, I drive through at least two other "cities" before I reach mine. It's just one suburb after another, so you can't even tell.

My city covers 560 square kilometres. It's more than half forest, which makes me even more appreciative of it. There are about 91,000 people.


Australia is heading into autumn and winter. Ten days from now, before the end of April, I was to be flying to Europe for my annual migration. I was to do a 6 day race in Hungary in May, a mountain race in Switzerland in August, and the 100km World Championships in The Netherlands in September. I was to travel to Canada to see family and friends.

Most of us have a long list of what we "were" to do.

Now, it's time to make some other choices. It's time to get creative.

I have not spent a winter in Perth since 2009. If I'm going to be here - and encouraged (if not downright mandated) to stay local - well, I need an adventure.

My goal is to run every bituminised street in my city. I will still break it up with hilly trail runs. I haven't decided if I'll add the trail runs to my map or not. If I do, I will categorise them separately.

Looking NW from Armadale Settlers Common trails towards Perth, with most of Armadale streets in front

I have no idea how long this will take. Several months, I expect. That's fine. I've got a few seasons ahead to get to know my city!

I call it my "Run Every Street (RES) Project." It's also about RESiliency, being RESourceful, RESponsive, and making RESolutions!

You can follow my progress here.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Cape to Cape Track - Setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT)

It took a pandemic to get me to do the Cape to Cape Track FKT.

I guess that says just how daunting I expected this would be! Primarily, I'm rubbish at running on sand. It's not that I dislike it, I'm just very inefficient.

So gorgeous. What's to be afraid of?

Having spent most of four extremely hot and often humid months in Western Australia over summer, training for the Sri Chinmoy 24 Hour race to be held on 20 March, with Covid spreading throughout the country, I suddenly found myself with no endurance event.

On Tuesday afternoon my race was cancelled. Tuesday night I messaged a running mate to see if he still had a few days off work and could crew me. Wednesday was a flurry of preparation. Thursday at 1pm we were in a car headed south. Friday at 4.30am I was running. That escalated quickly.

The Cape to Cape Track is a 130km + ~2500m point-to-point track in WA's southwest, running between Cape Leeuwin lighthouse in the south and Cape Naturaliste lighthouse in the north. The spectacular Indian Ocean is visible off your left or right shoulder much of the time (depending on your direction of travel, of course). It takes an average of 6 days to hike it with a backpack.

When I moved to Perth in 2008, I eagerly bought several trail maps. The Cape to Cape maps were amongst them. As I settled in, I started to gather local "intel." In 2010, one of my running mates at the time (Mr Minnesota, I hope you're well and happy) posed the idea of an ultra running event on the track. A few locals to the Southwest region expressed that they thought it impossible to do it in under 24 hours. And that an event in an area so rugged and remote, and on a poorly signed track, would be a race director's nightmare. The "race" idea was squashed.

-Andrew Cohen, 2010, excerpt from CoolRunning Forum

In November 2011, I ran the 1000km Bibbulmun Track supported to set the female (and overall at that time) FKT. In 2012, I started musing about the Cape to Cape idea again and that's gone on for 8 long years. Much as I wanted to see the track in all its unique and intense beauty, every single time I thought about it, I recalled how slow I am on sand. How the white coral-like rock makes a normal stride impossible. And how hot the sun feels reflecting off white sand.

November 2012 I ran the 14km northern-most section, which was "easy"
But suddenly, the pause button was hit on "The World As We Know It." Most paths in my future were suddenly road blocked. No 24 hr race. No trip "home" to Switzerland. No trip "home" to family in Canada. No 6 day race in May. No ability to work doing face-to-face assessments of children. No face-to-face German classes. Yet there was one path, a 130km one, I could take, if I was willing!

All day Wednesday I studied the paper maps, combined with the recorded men's FKT posts and their Strava and Garmin files. I figured out where a car could meet me and jotted down some very rough estimated times. 

"Woohoo," I thought! I have Raidlight sand gaiters. I pulled them out and looked at my stock of shoes. I would need to glue velcro to the shoe to form a seal all around it. I had absolutely nothing appropriate for sand. Vehicles lower their tyre pressure on sand to lengthen their tread. They avoid knobbly tyres so they can have more surface contact. Runners should have similar on their feet. I had road shoes with mesh tops (i.e., sand-insertion holes) or my super-knobbly Inov-8 x-talon 212 trail shoes. They come free from sand-insertion holes, but are also free from plush cushioning. Running on rocks in those shoes = spikey-ball foot massage. I don't mind normally, but over 130km, it's a bit too much, to say the least! The shoes are like ballet slippers and bend in all directions. There was no way to afix the sand gaiters, as the tension pulled the shoe into a U shape, pulling my toes upward. Oh, well, when you've got one path forward, you wear whatever shoes you have, right?

Thursday morning I charged the Delorme inReach and my Led Lenser headlamp, put the course on two Garmin Forerunners, threw everything in some bags, and jumped in the car with an instant coffee. I wrote the basic crew plan out as Stephen drove.

Given Covid, we both kept up our hand sanitiser habits, despite knowing our proximity in the car over hours meant we could only hope neither of us had it and just try to avoid contamination with others.

Practicing "physical distancing" (I'm still a social/societal being, after all)
Stephen is no novice to adventure, being from rural Queensland, having lived all over the country, and being ex-military, but he was a crew novice. I was already asking him to take a few days out for this, do all the driving, get up before 4am and chase a stinky runner all day until midnight, then drive home the next morning. In the midst of it, try to avoid catching/spreading Covid at any petrol station or cafe. So I tried to minimise "demands" on the day. It cost time, but I am sure it kept the stress down for both of us. And with the high cognitive demand that Covid has placed on all our brains, that was the sensible way to have this adventure.

So at 4.30am, in a howling wind, I set off in the dark, with the eerie flashing of the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse behind me. I've had a lot of adventures over the years, but that first hour in the dark, with the lighthouse, the sound of a strong wind and crashing waves I couldn't see... it was oddly quite unnerving.

The wind was gone the moment I had bushes around me and that was the case for the rest of the day. Whilst at most crew points Stephen battled to try to light his stove or keep his crew sheet from blowing away, and he found himself rugged up in a jumper all evening, I was sweltering from early afternoon on. Even on the exposed beach sections, the wind was behind my back, so gave no relief. I doused my hat in the two creeks and at the one water tank I found and used it to soak my CEP shorts and calf guards down. 

Trail? Straight on. Go on, run!
I had done my maths in two ways to come up with a projected time. The best case scenario was 18 hours. So I threw 30 minutes in to the plan for my less-than-perfect arrangement and warm forecast. The A goal was 18.5 hours. B goal was sub 20 hours. C goal was to finish, uninjured, of course. 

After halfway (by distance), at Prevelly's Margaret River mouth crossing, it was 1.30pm and I was on track for 18.5 hours. But as soon as I left the protection of the gazebo and the sun hit me again on that sandbar, I knew I had to slow down. For the next several hours, I played head games with myself. Just do a sectional end-to-end. No need to do it all in a day. Just let it go. It's my adventure, after all. Look at that couple sitting in their camp chairs with their beers and their 4WD setup on the beach, wouldn't that be nicer? I'm doing this all wrong!

But on I went, eyes to the ground, looking for the easiest place to put my next footfall. One footfall after another. Every step was one step forward. 

A southern heath monitor lizard (small dinosaur) and I came face to face around a bend in the trail. Fortunately, we agreed he wouldn't run up my leg. Good on 'im. I saw many bright green rock parrots. And two baby dugites - one at dusk I got to move by thumping the ground with my foot a few times and one I noticed as I jumped over him in the dark. A rabbit, three golden orb-weaving spiders (spread over the trail as they do), and one tiny neon green one. During the day I passed amazing limestone cliffs, one of which bore a metal gate covering a cave entrance (entry by permit). 

This track answered every one of my prayers for change. That adage "Be careful what you wish for" was proven true again and again for me as the evening wore on. Sick of gnarly boulders? The track dropped me onto a soft sand beach. Sick of soft sand? Great, here's a boulder scramble uphill in the dark with no markers. Yup. Sick of that? Wishing for a change? Awesome, time for that white pokey coral rock. Oh, wait, is that the last three kilometres and it's bitumenised?! I'll take it! Yee-yaw! Wait... it's ALL uphill?! 

One of the steeplechase sections with gorgeous little hoodoo-like formations to leap, climb, and stumble over

And then 200m from the finish, a trail sign "The Cape to Cape Track." A boot marker on it pointed left. My gpx file told me to go straight on. It was 11.57pm. My time had blown out to nearly 19.5 hours and I was determined to finish before midnight. I cried out, "I don't know where to go!" I took a left. As I ran, I thought, "No, it was a boot marker, not a Cape marker. It must be for another trail. They put the marker on the sign simply because the sign was there." I ran back, rounded the bend, saw Stephen's headlights and heard his laconic voice, "This is it, b." And then I ran through his toilet paper finish line. How perfect. 19hr 27min 22sec.



So, ladies, how could you make it faster? Choose a cool day. Alternate running packs, having a "full" one ready to pick up at crew points. Wear the right shoes for the job. Know the route or have pacers who do and can direct you.

Fuel: About 26 scoops of Perpetuem (~3100 cal), 2 Hammer chocolate gels (180 cal), 2 Nudies (180 cal), 1 apple (90 cal), 1 gluten-free jam sandwich (~220 cal). Roughly 200 cal/hr.

Supplements: Fully Charged every 4 hours or so, Anti-Fatigue Caps, No Doz caffeine pills

Water: ~14 litres (~700ml/hr on average, though it was more like 500ml/hr in the morning and got to a high near 900ml/hr in the heat). Plus 1 small kombucha and 1 instant short black coffee.

Recovery: Lots of whole foods with colour, including some berries. Water. Loads of sleep. Omega 3-6-9. CEP Full Tights (so far, for 3 nights straight, as they reduce the ache in my legs so I can sleep.)

Logistical challenges on the track as of March 2020: Massive volunteer effort was put into re-signing the track over the past year and more markers were put in place. However, the glue has failed and perhaps as many as 1/10th of the reflective markers have fallen off. That's definitely no good in the dark. Even by day the short pale wooden posts blend in and are hard to see at times. Many junctions remain unmarked. There are often no markers within the villages (Prevelly, Gracetown, Yallingup). Scramble sections were often not marked, nor were beach exits. Without a gpx course to follow, one simply could not know where to go at times. I spent 10 minutes "lost" in a few places - one of which was simply when a truck at Gracetown parked right in front of the trail marker and trail, but left a very visible alternate track (which was simply the surfers' route to the beach). It would be totally unnerving without a gpx file to hike or run a beach that could be kilometres long, not knowing which track up was the right one.

Southern terminus, the evening before

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Running From America: The Chilkoot Trail

I fell in love with the Yukon Territory's winter beauty in February 2017, racing the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 mile event, where I pulled a pulk for 5 straight days (with less than 8 hours' sleep). In February 2018, I went back to thru-hike that same Yukon Quest route from Whitehorse, Canada to the Alaskan border solo and in my own time.

Enroute to Alaska, one follows the route of those who came during the Klondike gold rush of 1896-1899. Those seeking adventure and fortune came north a few ways, but by far the most popular was by ship to Skagway, Alaska. Just a few miles out of Skagway, they set up camp at Dyea (pronounced Dy-ee), at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass. After negotiating this pass, 53km later, they arrived at Bennett Lake, British Columbia. There, they cut down every tree to build boats and headed downstream, joining the Yukon River, headed for the Bonanza and Dawson City area. It was very tough going. The Canadian mounties saw starvation looming, with tens of thousands of ill-prepared people arriving, so instituted a "one ton of food" requirement. This had gold rushers going up and down the pass numerous times to haul 900kg of food - I can't imagine this!

The Chilkoot Trail is a well-maintained and well-used multi-day point-to-point trail, jointly managed by the US National Park Service and Parks Canada. Most people take 3 to 5 days to hike the trail. A few ultrarunners do it in a day. After my "run", I met a woman who had hiked it in a day - 12 hours was her time. Considering 10 to 12 hours seems to be the norm for "runners," it highlights the technical nature of the trail - fast hiking and slow running merge!
Although it looks like it should be much faster the other way, I doubt it is, given the terrain between Sheep Camp and Stone Crib.

For me, running the Chilkoot would be like putting the "Preface" on my Yukon winter book of experiences. Of course, I worked out-of-sync to most prospectors! I ran in the autumn (September 8, 2019) and pulled a pulk over frozen rivers and lakes to Dawson City in the winter. Most prospectors aimed to come over the pass in the winter and have their boat built for spring breakup on the river, so they could paddle downstream, arriving in time to prospect before the ground was frozen by winter conditions again.

That 6km to the summit packs a punch.
Preparing to do the trail is an endurance event in itself. The Chilkoot is a long point-to-point run, coordinated between two countries, in areas where the "bush telegraph" is almost your only means of communication.

Runners and hikers most often go west to east, the same direction as prospectors. This means a net uphill. I got ~2010m up and ~1350m down by going west to east. There's little to be gained in speed going the other way, I expect, as the boulder section around "The Scales" and the international border take a significant amount of time and wouldn't be any faster down climbing than scrambling up (unless you were racing, perhaps). And by "border," I don't mean there is anyone there checking passports. You have to call in to Canada Border Services Agency when you get to civilisation after your adventure.

Everyone needs a permit to day run on the Canadian side. At the time I did it, permits were only required in summer and early autumn. Check with Parks Canada, as you need to have the permit attached to your pack. It was less than $10 CAD. If you run only on the US side for the day (e.g., out and back from Dyea), you don't need a permit from the Americans. We arrived in Whitehorse on the weekend (Whitehorse Parks Canada office closed), so were able to get our permit from the US Parks Service Chilkoot Trail Center in Skagway on Saturday - they even charged in Canadian dollars, as it's a service for the Canadian side of the trail. Nice teamwork!

Going point-to-point requires getting to the start and getting out at the finish. The start - Dyea - is really a ghost town. There's a basic US Parks campground nearby. The only other accommodation nearby is a private operator with some cabins for rent. Dyea is about a 20 minute drive out of Skagway.

I didn't know a local available to get us from Whitehorse to Dyea, so we took the one-and-only bus (which I think only runs in summer, linked to the White Pass tourist train) at 8am Saturday morning from Whitehorse to Skagway. Crossing borders on the bus means a stop with passports handy.

Skagway - a touristy place, given cruise ships can dock. Here we have a backpacker and a fastpacker, obviously :)
We spent a few hours wandering Skagway, purchasing our permits at the Trail Center and getting food for the evening ahead. Given that everything we took with us on the bus had to be carried back whilst running, I chose to get a $7 outfit at an "op shop" (second hand/charity store) in the days prior, which I left at the rental cabin on the morning of the run. Our full luggage was left with a hotel in Whitehorse.

A private shuttle driver took us from Skagway to the cabins at Dyea. We were fortunate that the owners agreed to have us for one night, as their policy is a two-night stay. It was autumn, so they were less choosy. We found out by fluke conversation with a hiker who'd just finished her multi-day, that the shuttle driver might have extra spare bear spray she would lend us for free. That saved us a ton of money! We couldn't fly with our bear spray from Calgary to Whitehorse and we couldn't legally carry bear spray cross-border on the international bus to Skagway. We were able to use the "friend of a friend" type thing to get the shuttle driver's two cans of bear spray back to her after we finished.

Getting "out" at the end of the trail at Bennett Lake, BC, also posed a logistical challenge. Bennett Lake has a nice little town called Carcross on its shores. The problem is that Bennett Lake is huge and Carcross is at the other end of that lake. When you come off the trail, you are probably at least 40km from Carcross. Your options are (1) hire a float plane with a pre-arranged pick up time, (2) hire a boat (same thing) or (3) arrive in time to get the White Pass tourist train back to Carcross. There is no village in Bennett Lake - just the tourist train station, a backcountry campground, and one private home.

The train only runs in summer and I believe at time of writing, the train leaves Bennett Lake for Carcross at 3pm. Thus, runners aiming for this train tend to start from Dyea at 4am! When we left Dyea at 7am, the owner said we were the latest leaving runners she'd ever seen. But we'd hired the float plane for a 6pm pickup (the latest time they would agree to).

Very happy to see our float plane arrive - 1.5 hours late, but it arrived!
In my online searches, I came across mention of runners or hikers going out via "Log Cabin." This option misses the end of the trail. At the last campsite, Bare Loon Lake near Lindeman Lake, there is a right fork that takes you to the railway line. From there, people follow the railway track out to the Log Cabin, a day use area along the highway. A pre-arranged vehicle can pick you up there. Don't count on having any cellular signal. A satellite phone/Delorme inReach is awesome in these remote places.

If you take the Log Cabin exit, not only do you miss the purity of going all the way to the end of the trail, you trespass illegally on railway right-of-way. The signs are clear that they don't want pedestrians on the railway and they have the right to charge you with an offence. Just saying.

Going east from Alaska, there's a time change, so our 7am start was really 8am. We had 10 hours for a day that takes most runners 10-12 hours. And we got held up at check-out, so our start was closer to 7.10am (8.10). Tick tick tick.

The campgrounds come regularly and provide neat little ways to "compartmentalise" the journey. There are great setups at most camps - basic sites, firewood, maybe a shared-use walled tent or log cabin with pot belly stove (I didn't note if there was a cabin at every site). We were at Canyon City (second campsite, 12k) in 2hr08.

The terrain from the start to Sheep Camp (fourth campsite) had little variation on the theme of rainforest running in autumn - gorgeous colours, and technical terrain with slippery tree roots and rocks. Water was plentiful. So was bear scat. At our briefing with the ranger the day before, we were basically told about a bear hanging around every campsite. One camp had a "habituated bear." Not a good thing. But the scat on the trail every few kilometres told us that the bears were not just at the camps!

We caught up with three multi-day hikers having a break. The fellow enthusiastically offered me some beef jerky. I politely declined. When Rolf arrived just behind me, he was offered the same. Very kind to share one's trail food, but besides the vegan thing, I really wasn't keen on the idea of smelling that good to a bear for the next 7 hours!


I had some rough splits to work off of, but didn't know how "bad" (slow) the Golden Staircase/Scales area would be. It took ages. And the boulders were solid, not those loose things that move underfoot. But it was just slow terrain. I had drawn up a 9hr15min plan, although I expected we'd need the full 10 hours.

We were at Sheep Camp, the fourth one (20km), in 3.5 hours. Just where I hoped for time. But we took about 20 minutes there, changing out layers of clothes and repacking everything.

At the summit (~26km) with 5hr47min on the clock, we were 45 minutes behind my hopeful estimate. That meant we had no more cushion left. It had taken 2 hours to travel 6km. Granted, Rolf had been having shoe and foot issues - he had expected cold, wet terrain, so wore his European mountain-glacier shoes. They were a half size big to accommodate big socks. The shoes were sloppy and awkward in the technical terrain and his feet were moving inside, making him prone to blistering. Plus, his feet were sweltering hot and soaked in the big socks. We had a wonderful 18C calm autumn day! Wonderful, except when you wear black Goretex light mountaineering shoe-boots.

With no time to sit and enjoy a "summit sandwich" at the high point, we cheered our arrival into Canada and carried on, eating on the go. I had expected the Canadian side to become more runnable. I had read much about the American side being a wet rainforest and the Canadian side being a "lunar landscape." Certainly, the landscape changed, the valley was more open and vast, but the terrain was still markedly undulating, with many tree roots, rocks, and wet areas. Tired legs make for less agile movements in such terrain.

I had the only water filter between us, so stopping for water took twice as long. A mini-Sawyer weighs less than 150 grams. I have to admit, I'm over carrying the one-and-only filter for everyone in my group and spending all my "break" time filtering water for people. The mini-Sawyer is so small, light, and inexpensive that there's really no good reason for everyone not to carry their own now. Heck, I'd even carry the filter for others if they would only just gather their own water. This trip sealed it. Rant over.

The terrain on the Canadian side really was gorgeous in a different way to the forested US side and despite the pressures of time, we made sure to enjoy it. I broached the subject of our average pace and the looming deadline for the float plane. I suggested that we might have to consider the difficult decision of taking the fork out to the railway line and the highway, in order to hitchhike back to Whitehorse. We had continued to travel slower than projected for the Canadian side. We needed to start running an 8min/k average and we were lucky to do anything sub 11min/k.

The "Golden Staircase" - part of "The Scales" section near the summit. Goes on forever. That is a false summit. Very fun in the dry.
We knew there was plenty of daylight for a plane to fly well after 6pm, but we did not know whether they would wait at all. Rolf was very keen to take a chance on it. I silently contemplated the implications as we ran on. Likely at Bennett Lake, as there had been at other campsites, there would be a walled structure of some sort with a pot belly stove. (Though not guaranteed!) If necessary, we could keep a fire going and stay warm, if not fed, for the night, and see if a float plane would show up in the morning. Doubtful they would just take a chance to show up in the morning, doubling their costs. But there was the tourist train at some point the following day.

A major change in landscape on the Canadian side.
Then I remembered my Delorme inReach - my way to contact the outside world! I fired it up and pulled their email address from my phone. I sent a message indicating we would be late, but hoped for a 6.20pm arrival. We were hoofing it, knowing we were on a much bigger adventure now, but we stayed in good spirits. It makes all the difference to an adventure to have everyone in the team rational and clear-thinking, whilst maintaining some sense of humour.

Totally runnable. Bahaha. Well, totally gorgeous, anyway!
With 2km to go, it was 6.20pm. I was listening intently for the sound of a plane. Then we hit sand! How cruel! Carcross is known for its sand dunes, but I didn't know the sandy ground extended so far. It was brutal. Rolf was out of water and I was giving him sips of my last bit. I couldn't afford to stop to filter any more. We had stayed close together for bear (and general) safety, but with 1km to go, I bolted ahead. I couldn't bear the thought of hearing a plane fire up and see it fly away!

As I got to Bennett Lake, the trail divided. Left down to the campground. Right down to the train station. Both ways had lakeside access. Which side would the plane be on? I couldn't choose one trail without Rolf knowing where I'd gone. I tried glimpsing between the trees to the shoreline both ways. Nothing visible. Rolf arrived and we split up. I went left down to shore, he went right and down. A few minutes later, we met up again at the junction. Nothing. We saw a family going into the one and only house there - and signs indicating private property. I'd had no reply to my satellite message. I sent another.

Glaciers everywhere. We were at 900m, so they might have been at 1400m. Seems crazy, but it's latitude, I guess.
"We're here, but can't see a plane. Did we miss you?" Nothing. We walked down towards the shore at the train station. I was recalling the small cabin I'd seen 1 or 2km back, which appeared to be privately owned, but open for anyone to use when the owners weren't there. Would that be tonight's lodging?


A few minutes later, a woman with a satellite phone approached. She was a Parks Canada ranger. She had brought her boat up from Lindeman Lake to visit the family, who had remarked that they had just seen a couple with "very small backpacks." She was able to call the aviation company. They informed her that they'd been delayed by several other clients over the day and wouldn't arrive for us until about 7.30pm.

Whew! Time for high-fives and hugs. We snacked in relaxed luxury by the river as I filtered a bit of water and contemplated the incredible day we'd had.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Matterhorn Ultraks 2019: A Monumental Waste of Time?

In 2018, I completed the Matterhorn Ultras Sky race. I ran the time I predicted I was capable of and landed myself on the podium, as well. It was a gorgeous route with loads of vert but still runnable trails. I was 49 years old.

Matterhorn Ultraks Sky race 2018. 6 hours and 50 minutes of hard (yet fun) running netted me 9th overall.
Most of the time, I don't run the same race again. There are simply too many races and my body's ability to stay injury-free would be compromised by over-racing.

However, I was enticed by the Ultraks' magical course...and the little ego-voice in my head that whispered sweet nothings.... that I would very likely be a contender for 1st in the W50 class in 2019.

Training was a joy, spending the season in Europe, with lots of time at altitude. The Sierre-Zinal "training" race had gone really well. But two days before Ultraks, I got nauseous after dinner. A simple dinner of red capsicum, hummus, tinned beans, and rocket in the hotel room. It was a low level nausea, but it stuck around the next day. I didn't want to eat. I got weaker. My resting heart rate went from below 40 (my usual) to 60. I'd lost 20 points of my working range. I had some mystery virus, it seemed.

Friday morning, the day before the race, I did my usual 20 minute shakeout run with 3 minute sprint and started "carb loading." My version of that is basically (1) eat simple carbs all day and (2) don't get hungry. Keep the glycogen stores topped up. I had so much food, but just didn't want to eat. The nausea ranked 2/10 if I didn't eat but 4/10 or 5/10 if I did. The writing was on the wall for my race.


Even on via ferrata routes this year I never suffered the nausea of a queasy stomach.
Saturday morning, I got up and had to rest periodically as I dressed. It seemed hopeless, but here I was in Zermatt, so I at least had to try. I hoped perhaps to make it to the high point of the course at over 3000m (Gornergrat) for the amazing glacier views.

I started out all right, running with last year's course on my watch, so I could see my time comparisons. I started to slow at 4km and one girl passed. I played leapfrog with another girl who was weaker on the climbs but faster on the descents. I came into the first aid station (8km Sunnegga) nearly 3 minutes behind last year's time. I found out a little later via Rolf on Whatsapp that I was 5th woman and 1st in age group at that point.

The next 90 minutes or so up to Gornergrat is all climb at altitude. I felt weaker and weaker. Everyone started to pass me. There was no shred of fun to be had. I had no "easy" pace to shift into. It was all a massive effort, even power walking.

A small view from Gornergrat, with views of Monte Rosa and an astounding number of glaciers.

At 11.5km, I pulled off the single track, walked 10 metres away, and sat on a boulder. It was a relief to sit. I sent Rolf a message that I was done and put nearly the same message on Facebook. I watched a hundred or so runners power walking past and then tried to pick my way downhill around them. Tricky. I finally found a junction where I could run a different trail back down to Sunnegga to tell them I was "retiring." But I couldn't even run. I had no interest in my fuel, even though I was so hungry. At Sunnegga, I even took the funicular down to town - unheard of for me! I couldn't even run downhill!

Back at the hotel, I curled up on the bed and snoozed lightly for a bit. I spent the rest of that day and the next trying to convince myself to eat. Whenever successful, I would get wicked gas and belching for a few hours. I wasn't good company! My most successful food item was plain potato chips (crisps). Normally that much fat would nauseate me - but it was actually the least nauseating!

All day Saturday the words that kept coming to mind were, "Well, THAT was a monumental waste of time!" That voice, of course, was the little ego. It was sulking. All that money spent on hotels and accommodation at altitude and saunas. The little ego even looked up results to see where she would have placed, had she run the 7 hour race she expected. 3rd. And 1st in age group. Oh, dear little ego, how much suffering you create for yourself!

Altitude night on the Brienzer Rothorn with views to Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and Co. Waste of time?!?


So, what did I do with all my leftover Hammer Perpetuem, with all that altitude training, and legs that had only done 25% of the course? I went to Oberaarhorn on Monday, a 3631m peak in the Bernese alps, to do my first independent alpine tour with crampons and ice axe, roped up with my partner on a crevassed glacier all day. Luckily, my nausea was staying at 2/10 by then and I had become a fat burning machine.

Oberaarhorn, with the route below from the lake, up the glacier.
I followed up Monday's summit with another trip to the Bernese alps Friday for Balmhorn, 3698m. More glacier, a grat, and crevasses.

A monumental waste of time? No, little ego. You just received an important lesson. A gift from the universe.

Spending resources - time and money - on becoming healthy, strong, and fit is NEVER a waste of time. It opens doors for exploration. I've explored a 6 day fast-packing route through Valais, become an alpinist, and spent three separate days mountaineering at 3700m+.

Enroute to Balmhorm, with the bare gipfel (summit) behind and right of the glaciated vorgipfel (fore-summit) 

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sierre-Zinal: La Course Des Cinq 4000

Over the last few years, I've enjoyed the challenge of shorter rather than longer races.

On the plus side, the race is over sooner, which means less toll on the body and quicker recovery. I've enjoyed the exploration in terms of training a bit more "sharply" and having to race near "red line" for effort, careful not to go over! I've also gotten to explore some new areas where these shorter races are held. On the down side, I guess, if there is one, it's that I can't be as competitive, given my age. But when I run my "regret-o-meter" for life, it tells me to "write my own story." I'd say I'm just me, doing "me", but I think it's more that I'm inventing me as I go through life!

In the high country above Sierre

The Sierre-Zinal is a 31km point-to-point race from the town of Sierre at the bottom of the Val d'Anniviers in the French-speaking canton of Valais (Wallis in German) to Zinal, at the "top" of the valley (for cars, at least). The start elevation is 570m and the finish line is at 1680m. But you go up much more than that! The race has 2200m up and 1100m down. Most people describe it as a race in three parts. First, there's the big climb to Ponchette (~7.5km + 1370m). There's pretty much a VK in there (Vertical Km, which is a race that covers D+1000m in less than 5k). From there to Hotel Weisshorn (20km) and Nava (the highest point at 2425m/24km), there's still climbing, but there are more undulations. It's considered "fast and flat" ... in a relative way! From Nava, at 24km, the course starts to drop nicely towards Zinal. Then you realise Zinal is right below you and you still need to lose another 400m. It's a near vertical descent at that point.

The fastest men run just under 2h30 and women just under 3hr. I calculated sub 4hr for myself, with a slight possibility of 3h50. I do my calculations based on my running and racing history, considering elevation and altitude. I used some uphill 9km-12km mountain races and the 49km Matterhorn Ultraks race last year as guiding templates. Looking at the last 10 years of W50 results, it appeared that I could be contender for the age group win. But it just depends on who shows up, so all I could focus on was my own splits and effort level.

The race has a very quirky start. It's literally at the edge of a highway overpass - the bottom of the valley. They have a "touristes" category that starts in 5 waves, from 4:45am through 5:25am, in the dark. The "elites" depart in 3 waves between 10am and 10:10am. I was in the 10am wave. The night before the race my heart rate stayed below 40. I was super calm, because I told myself it was just a training run for Matterhorn Ultraks and given that the event is a Golden Trail Series race and World Mountain Running race, the depth of the field would have me a little fish in a big sea. Really, that's a thought to ponder, as getting all egocentric about any race really just limits my own experience and enjoyment in life.

Starting under the highway

A bus picked me up from my accommodation in Grimentz village, halfway up the valley, at 8.30am. How civilised. I enjoyed a relaxing bus ride down, down, down. Which served to make me less relaxed as it reminded me how much climbing was ahead! The start has a forested, rural feeling, being outside of town, which I enjoyed. And it was easy to find a "little girls' bush", too, and avoid the smelly portaloos and the queues in the sun. It was heating up quickly in the valley. I was surprised by the number of people doing warm up runs - especially in that heat. Nervous energy for some, I think. 

I handed over my finish line drop bag, in which I had stashed shower supplies, clothes, Hammer vegan recovery powder, a 50CHF note, and my Android phone. I had wrapped the phone in everything. The volunteer took my bag and threw it backwards into a giant metal skip bin type thing, not unlike a centre footballer passing the ball back to the quarterback. I cringed.

The "flat and fast" section.
10 minutes before the start, runners in the first block left their shady spots in the trees and started filing in. I dumped the 400ml of water remaining in my plastic PET bottle over my head and down my shirt, front and back, stifling the desire to shriek with the cold feeling. It was hot. I self-seeded about halfway through the block. There was a fair bit of jostling around me. Again, nervous energy.

Once underway, we were straight into climbing, but the road was wide at first, allowing people to start passing and spreading out. I get frustrated at people who pass me at times like this, when I later have to pass them back on the technical steep single track. But at the same time, I understand that they are presumably playing to their strengths - if they know they are fast on flatter terrain and suffer badly on the steep, they should capitalise on the flatter parts.

After the steep climbing, it took some minutes for my hips and calves to stretch and relax out so I could find something resembling a normal running gait. It eventually came.
It was delicate work, getting the muscles to play along with the changing course demands and it paid off!

This is a race where the "touristes" wear hydration packs, but only a few "elites" do. With 7 aid stations, there was water for me every 25-45 minutes. I was sure to take the time to drink two full cups at each aid station and also sponge myself down. I fuelled with Hammer Nutrition gels (had 3 of the 4 I took) and nothing from the aid stations but water. Except for that accidental swig of sugary "Iso" drink!

I had one quick near-cramp in a calf during the speedy descent and was really afraid the calves, especially my left, were going to cramp when I stopped so suddenly at the finish line. I had no idea of my position in the W50 category, but I was over the moon about my time - 3hr53. A medal with a bit of rock from the Weisshorn (one of the 5 4000m peaks at the head of the valley) was placed around my neck.

The race organisers have obviously seen too many runners screaming with calf cramps, so they aimed to beat it with their fleet of people doing calf massages just after the finish line! My left calf looked like it had a worm in it the way it pulsed. After that, the priorities were water, shade, more water, and slow walking to ease the calves back into complacency. I found my drop bag and dug out my phone. Best day ever. Phone was fine. I took it off aeroplane mode and set out to check online results.

I was surprised by my own reaction. Given the depth of the field and the short nature of the race, I thought I might expect to see my name below the top 3. I got a little teary for a moment as I saw my position - I did it! First in age group.

A full massage was available after a shower, but I ran out of time, as I had to get to presentations. The race ran tip-top from everything I could see in regards to drop bags, course marking, aid stations, and safety (I even saw a helicopter rescue), but there was no information available to indicate that they honoured anyone at presentations other than top 5 or 10 "scratch" runners. I had to ask two people at the "information" kiosk before they could confirm that I would be put on stage for the category win.

The entire presentation was in French and only French. It taxed my skills, but I heard "Femme deux" (Femme-II category) announced. I walked through an aisle of children waving Valais flags up to the stage. I've never heard "Benson Bernadette" said with such flair before! (They announced surname then first name for all, which tends to be the Euro way in writing, but not usually in speaking.)

My strongest memories of Sierre-Zinal include the steep descent into the finish, the way that man announced me at presentations, and being smashed in the face repeatedly as I ran the gauntlet of small children with paper flags!


Monday, August 5, 2019

Via Valais: A Suggested Haute Route for Trail Runners

Over the winter, I came across a mention of the Via Valais in my Swiss trail magazine, Die Alpen. It's a suggested 9 day "high route" for trail runners, akin to what skiers and hikers have. I was intrigued.

I've been running hiking "haute routes" in fastpacking style for years in the European alps. Presumably, this chosen route would be designed to be more running friendly in terms of grade than a "haute route" for hikers. As they wrote on their website, it would "traverse" in and out of valleys rather that go straight up and down.

Well, as I discovered, in the Valais region of French-speaking Switzerland, even a "traverse" often has a pretty steep grade! When you want to get from col or summit to the valley and up the other side, there's going to have to be elevation. "Runnable" is a very relative term! Let's dive in....
The faint green shows the route. Going west to east, you essentially valley hop.
The route goes from a cable car station above Verbier to Zermatt over 9 stages. I decided to have my adventure end at the village of Randa - the end of Stage 7. I ran the trails from Randa into Zermatt last year. They are stellar - some of the best - with some of the best views. I didn't feel the need to do it again so soon. And Zermatt is a busy place. Seven days was enough for me.

Arcteryx 14ltr -added cords for more storage
Then I considered how to compress two stages into one to give myself one very long day out in the middle somewhere. I'm not too good at sitting around huts and I like to challenge myself. I chose to combine Stages 3 and 4. By the end of Stage (Day) 1, however, I was a bit concerned about my idea!

It's always best to book your spot at a cabane (hut/refuge) in advance, which I'd done. Most only take cash. I had gpx courses loaded on my Garmin 920XT.

Day 1 (Stage 1): Les Ruinettes (~2200m) to Cabane D'Essertze (~2200m), advertised as 29km +/-1120m. I had a leisurely start and was at the top of the cable car at 10am with a good, stable forecast for a week. That's critical for this high alpine stuff and hard to find in summer! But going early in the season would require more gear and would pose more risks with lingering angled snow fields to cross. And some via ferrata (with ladders) might not be put in yet for the summer season if there's still a risk of avalanche onto it.

Given at least 7kg on my back, I figured the day would take me 6 - 7 hours with a nice lunch stop along the way. It was, indeed, 7 hours, but there was only a frantic inhaling of a torte myrtille (blueberry tart) and Schorle (sparkling apple juice) mid-afternoon. That took a matter of a few minutes. I was also "off trail" for a good 30 minutes of the day. I needed to learn that "wanderwegs" (sentiers/trails) often change each year, especially in glaciated areas. Winter snow and spring run off, with accompanying landslides, can dramatically alter a landscape, causing trails to be rerouted through an area. I reached the first of such places about 3 hours into my day and spent over 20 minutes having left the marked red-and-white trail, following my gpx, which was trying to have me cross a very fast flowing glacial run-off. After a few attempts at starting across, and then trying numerous other places to ford the dangerous water, I finally turned back to try following the red-and-white markers. Sure enough, they went all the way around the outside of this area and then reconnected with the gpx route on the other side. First lesson learned. I was much better prepared later in the day when I came to a landslide. My gpx said go straight on, but I noted the red-and-white blazes on the rocks had me turning left. I started following the gpx - with my radar on alert this time - only to realise there had been a huge landslide and the trail was rerouted this year to pass below it.

A savvy trail runner in these parts needs to appreciate this aspect of running with gpx files - maintain situational awareness, understand the lay of the land and why routes might need to vary after a hard winter/spring. My 30k day was in fact 33k. My average pace was thus 12.50min/k (I don't stop my watch when I pee, eat, etc - this helps me appreciate the reality of timing for future runs.)

A "trail" on Stage 1, headed for Col de Louvie at 2921m. Boulder fields are also very slow, but there's a reward coming!
Much of Stage 1's "claim to fame" is supposed to be running on "bisse" trails - "old irrigation ditches that tend to be silky smooth for running" according to the website. A half truth. Every bisse trail I can recall was super narrow, with small trippy rocks, and also sometimes 'grooved' out in a trench. They were annoyingly slow for running. I passed a couple of Alaskan/Seattle American trail runners on a snow descent section and met them later at the hut. They said they had been "crushed" by the stage.

Reward for reaching a col - stunning new views and snow descent! Below is where I tried to cross the raging torrent.
The hut at day's end was run privately by a mixed French-Canadian/Swiss-French family. They were incredibly welcoming, organised, relaxed but efficient, and really sought to give me vegan options for dinner, breakfast, and my take-away "pique-nique" the next morning. Their prices were the best, as well. They have a road up to their place, which means they aren't paying a helicopter to deliver supplies and remove waste. And their water was potable - a bonus in not having to get out the water filter. They even discounted my picnic because I didn't take the usual meat and cheese! I made almond butter and jam sandwiches (I brought 3 sachets of almond butter for this purpose.)

Cabane D'Essertze
Day 2 (Stage 2): Cabane D'Essertze (~2200m) to Cabane Aiguille Rouge (~2800m), advertised as ~30km + 1800m - 1200m. Putting on my shoes outside the hut at 8am, I chatted briefly to two German (or Swiss-German?) girls who had also run the first stage the day before. They decided the days seemed far too much for them and were going to start adjusting them to suit, starting by breaking Stage 2 in half. I never saw them again.

This stage was much more runnable than Stage 1, however, and I was done in 6.5 hours. A 12:12min/k average. But there was still no lingering lunch stop. I clocked 31.5k + 1545m - 1000m. A key feature of this day was the Pas de Chevres (Pass of the Goats). It involved a set of 4 connected ladders, which you reach via a scramble over a moraine with some giant boulders. Awesome slightly scary fun.

Enroute to becoming a goat.
An unfortunate aspect of cols/passes/saddles is that everyone has the same idea - stop at the top for summit sandwiches :) This is an unfortunate thing for me, as an introvert. This section was also shared with a Cicerone guide book "haute route" for hikers. I thought I'd landed in England at the top and heard the word "bollocks" far too many times in a minute - and there were no goats involved ;) I decided I'd enjoy my summit sandwich without having to hear people discussing whether they could get mobile reception or not, so I headed downhill.

Cabane Aiguille Rouge is also privately owned (i.e., not a Swiss Alpine Club/SAC hut). I've met gruff and grumbly hut wardens before, but he was one of the best. It was not a nice atmosphere inside for any of the guests. There was an air of silence inside, uncommon in most huts. I was on the trail by 7.40am the next day, after one of the worst breakfasts possible at a hut. Not a place to hang out. The American trail runners had come in two hours after me. I write that not to boast, but to try to make it very clear that this route is TOUGH. They were also jetlagged, which wasn't helping them.

Stale white bread, usually restricted to the highest alpine huts. Jam, butter, instant coffee, 1 tea, and 1 choco-sugar drink.
Day 3 (Stage 3 and 4 combined, minus a few km): Cabane Aiguille Rouge (~2800m) to Cabane Becs de Bosson (~3000m) 25km + 2220m - 2050m and Cabane Becs de Bosson to Cabane De Moiry (~2825m) 17km + 870m - 1025m.

I had decided on a long day, combining these two stages. However, given the average pace seemed to be over 12min/k, I realised this long day could very well be 10 hours. Thus, by looking at the maps, I noted that I could get to within 2km of the Becs de Bosson hut, but skip it. I went through the same terrain, but stayed just below the hut, cutting off roughly 2km from each stage, so 4km in total. I was really happy with my choice.
Leaving Aiguille Rouge starts with a bit of great moraine before the steep drop around the bend to the right.
The day started with a super long, steep descent from Aiguille Rouge. I couldn't afford to smash my shins up by letting loose. This wasn't a one day outing. My legs were feeling the vert of two days and jostling down the gnarly track with the big pack on my back didn't help my pace any! It was over 11min/k. We were in the middle of a heat wave. I was starting each day in a short sleeve t-shirt, even from 2900m! Arriving at the valley floor in the lovely historical little village of Evolene had me racing around filling my arms with fruit and cold beverages. It was apricot season. I'm sure I smelled and looked like a wild animal.

From the low point of 1371m, I had to climb back out towards the Pas de Lona at 2787m, under the Cabane Becs de Bosson. It was during this climb towards the Becs de Bosson that I made a right at a fork in order to skip the hut. I felt an initial sense of unease at not having a gpx track on my watch anymore, but that was quickly followed by a feeling of total relaxation and freedom. Suddenly, I didn't have a "route" that I "had" to follow anymore. I could pick and choose where, when, and how to go. Total freedom! Not following anyone else's rules - woohoo! I immediately realised how odd it was that I had felt a subconscious pressure to do the exact "correct" route given by the Via Valais team online. But, really, who cares? Why? I've always made up my routes in the past for fastpacking and loved them. I've been able to be flexible to change as I went along. I had unwittingly made a rule in my head that said if I didn't follow their route, I was somehow "slack" or "wrong." Whose adventure was this, anyway? :)

Lac de Lona from near the pass. Headed into the valley ahead where Lac de Moiry is.
Arriving at Pas de Lona, I gave a nod to the cabane above to my left and joined the gpx track for Stage 4. The landscape changed on the high plateau and the colours were fantastic. I enjoyed a long runnable descent past Lac de Lona, then a short climb to a col next to Sex de Marinda (sex means rock), and another long descent to Lac de Moiry (a dam). After a flat run alongside the lake, I had the last climb along a moraine, then a bit of via ferrata and some slightly precarious sloped snow crossings to get to Cabane de Moiry. In 8.5 hours I covered ~41km +/- 2540m. Average pace 12.31. There's a theme here.

A pleasant run along Lac de Moiry, headed for the cabane, which is above left of that "black hole" in the glacier ahead.
I had my first chance for a shower (most huts don't have the option), so paid the 5CHF for 5 minutes. I got out and my feet still stunk. Shower fail. Despite being right beside a huge glacier at 2825m, it was so hot! My evening attire (i.e., my only set of clean clothes) was long johns and it was too hot for those, so I had to put my CEP running shorts back on for the evening. No trail runners sighted, but climbers were here to do the surrounding peaks.

Each stage has a suggested "bonus peak." I hadn't done any thus far and was keen on Pigne de la Le (3396m), the peak behind the cabane. It was listed on Via Valais' website as "easy ridge scrambling." The two climbers I met at the hut during dinner talked me out of it. I know the ease of routes changes depending on time of year and conditions and everyone has a different risk/comfort level, but based on what they said, it sounded like Type 3 fun. Especially being alone.

My view for the evening, with the "black hole" in the glacier now below me.
Day 4 (Stage 5): Cabane de Moiry (~2825m) to Zinal (~1600m). Advertised as 24km + 1064m - 2215m. Breakfast at this cabane was offered between 5.30am and 7.30am. No one's sleeping in there. After leaving the cabane, I traversed and climbed up to Col de Sorebois (2850m). Sweat was dripping off me and it wasn't even 10am. At the pass, the next valley appeared below - Val d'Anniviers, with Zinal as the destination. There's a handy-dandy cable car right there, ready to take people down. And the cabane even offered a free pass for the cable car with every stay! (A special promotion being done by the Val d'Anniviers communities this year.) But I was in no hurry to get to Zinal and couldn't bear the thought of missing my promised "incredible views of Zinalrothorn, Weisshorn, and Dent Blanche." I was committed to doing the long traverse into town instead. I did enjoy an espresso at the cable car station first.

And a long traverse it was! It went up before it went down, there were lots of narrow bits, and when it did finally go down, my right shin let me know it was getting tired of all these shenanigans. The waterfall was the highlight and welcome in the heat. I spent some time setting up a selfie photo and didn't mind all the water spray at all. The last section of downhill was another super steep bit, with water in the area, causing vegetation to thrive. Much of the trail was overgrown and it was hard to see my footing. Nettles are a real pain for me, as I react really badly, so that added to my challenge in that section. I felt like I was trying to run in an overgrown ditch.

Highlight of traverse: crossing a waterfall - the rope was prudent, given the water flowing over the rocks under foot.
Surprisingly, my Garmin actually agreed with the distance advertised. I got 24km, but with slight variations in vert (+890m - 1980m), and I was out there 5.25 hours, which included for the first time a proper 15 minute sit-down picnic at Sorebois. Average pace was therefore 13min/k. There's so much terrain in this route that I sure wouldn't want to be on in the rain or in a whiteout (as when you are in a cloud with near zero visibility). There are tons of narrow sections along ridges, which would get slick from mud in the wet. The rocks would also become treacherous at these times. Boulder fields are nasty in rain - I've been there before! In some plateaus and boulder fields, markings (blazes on rocks) would be impossible to see in low visibility (as in a storm). Route finding would be near impossible at such times (been there before, too!)

In case you don't believe the sign warning of land/rockslides, mother nature brings the point home more clearly.
I stayed in a great room in Zinal with a shower (no toilet). I literally walked into my room, took off my shoes and pack, and stepped into the shower with all my running gear on. It was too hot for the long johns again, but damp clean running shorts on a hot day were welcome. I ate a smashed avocado and kidney beans over a bag of rocket (arugula), with my little turmeric stash as anti-inflammatory enhancing flavouring.

Day 5 (Stage 6): Zinal (~1600m) to Turtmann hut (~2520m). Advertised as 19km + 1687m - 841m. More up than down, to balance out the day before. I got an 8.30am start and was in a t-shirt as usual. Not once in the six days did I wear my lightweight Montane rain jacket, though I did use my Arcteryx synthetic midweight jacket a few evenings. Not to say my rain jacket wasn't handy - wrapped around the makeshift webbing on my pack, I would fill the sleeves with my daily picnic, as I had no more room to stash a sandwich, fruit, and carrots.

The bonus summit for stage 6 is L'Omen Roso, at 3031m, accessed from the Col de la Forcletta. Heading up to the col, I passed two single trail runners - a first. This section out of Zinal is the end of the Sierre-Zinal 31km mountain race held each August. Neither trail runner had a pack or other visible gear with them.

Thunderstorms were now forecast as a possibility for the next two afternoons. Once I got to the col and could assess the weather in 360 degree view, I decided to do the quick bonus summit. I scrambled to 3042m. In the distance, I could see a lower prominence, but the distance I'd travelled and the altitude told me this should be the peak. At least it was the highest point :) Later, I discovered that L'Omen Roso is indeed slightly lower than the prominence I stopped at. How odd!

From L'Omen Roso (actually P.2042), I see the Schollijoch (tomorrow's pass). Below that, Turtmann hut.
I descended into the Turtmann valley. Crossing the pass was the unofficial border between French and Swiss-German speaking regions. Valais was now called Wallis. A valley was now a tal (Turtmanntal) rather than a val (like Val d'Anniviers). They call this 'border' the Rostigraben - Rosti is a Swiss-German potato pancake made from grated potatoes. Graben is a burrow or ditch.

I finished the day with 20.5k + 1705m - 930m. So almost bang-on for distance and vert, given I did the bonus peak. Average pace was 15.29min/k - slower for the scramble summit and taking a bit more time in the day generally, knowing it was short.

Another dam. Turtmann hut sits above and behind, centre photo, as a black dot on the ledge. Glacier behind it.
Arriving at the hut, I reminded the hut warden that I was vegan (it was in my reservation, but if they forget, it gets stressful at dinner time when they're trying to feed a heap of people at once). This year I have found a stunning difference at the huts - they all seem to be suddenly catering for vegans, at least in a basic way. In prior years, it's been a real struggle. Requesting simply "rice or potatoes" often made hut guardians upset; I think it was because they pride themselves on good meals. They want to provide something lovely - it would embarrass them to serve a plate of plain potatoes. I was shocked by the Turtmann guardian's reply. "In my heart, I am vegan, too. But being here.... You are the second one today."

I then went through my usual routine. Most hikers, I notice, collapse onto the nearest bench outside on arrival, cold beer in hand. Me? I prefer to do my chores, then relax. So, first, I have my Hammer protein recovery powder and my "Race Cap Supreme" which seems to keep my restless legs at bay. Then I like to wash, whilst I'm still as warm as possible. Standing half naked at a sink rubbing freezing cold mountain water on my skin is a mixed emotion experience. It's also a really slow process compared to a shower. Once the washing is done and I'm in my "hut clothes," I go about filtering my water for the next day, unloading any rubbish, shifting things as need be to have the pack more ready for morning. Filtering water can save 10-15CHF per day. And it saves several sea turtles, I reckon, by reducing my plastic bottle consumption. I get my "hutten schlafsack" out - a silk sleeping bag liner - and lay it on my chosen (or assigned) bed in the dorm. One must sleep in a liner for hygiene reasons. The pillows and duvets provided at the huts are only washed once a season, I believe. Once the chores are done, I go order lots of hot and/or cold drinks and enjoy the views outside. At Turtmann hut, I wanted it all - I ordered a schwarztee (black tea), a Schorle, and a bottle of sparkling water to dilute the Schorle even more. So much for the turtles :(

Just below Turtmann hut. Another insanely gorgeous place to spend a night.
A weak thunderstorm came through about 4.30pm. Thunderstorms were forecast as a threat all day for the following day, which was slightly stressful, given I was going to do the biggest pass and the biggest via ferrata onto a glacier the next day. I reminded myself that I'd just have to roll with the conditions and be willing to turn back and run out Turtmann valley instead of via the glacier towards Zermatt, if that was required.

I was initially worried at dinner when others got cream soup and I got parsley bouillon. Then others got green salad with cream and fatty pork slices and I got the greens with vinegar. Not many calories for me.... But the main made up for it - all the couscous I could eat, along with a huge bowl of mixed veg in a thick tomato base. For the first time, I went to bed not hungry.

Day 6 (Stage 7): Turtmann hut (~2520m) to Randa (~1500m), 18k + 1376m - 2453m. Another massive downhill day. The bonus peak is Ussers Barrhorn, typically just called Barrhorn. It stands at 3610m and is considered the highest "hikeable" peak in Switzerland. I did it last year, running from Turtmann valley past the hut to the summit, then back in a day.

This time I'm to go to the col (joch in German), called Schollijoch. From there, I descend a series of vertical and horizontal ladders and scramble with the help of iron rungs and ropes and cable down to Scholli glacier. No crevasses. I've been carrying my kahtoola microspikes for this day. There have been many snow fields to cross over the past 5 days, but by kick-stepping and having big 8mm lugs on my Inov-8 x-talon 212 shoes, plus poles, I felt safe to traverse each one without the kahtoolas. The first bit of glacier near the rock wall is quite steep from images I've seen. The Via Valais team don't mention that, but especially being alone and in such a "crux" section of the route (so awkward to go back and find another way out of this area, without it being over 20km), I was comforted having the kahtoolas.

Another moraine climb towards Schollijoch, blissfully alone except for a marmot.
On the trail to the summit of the "joch", I was surprised to be alone. I knew two Dutch men had started around 6am, worried for the weather, perhaps. They were going out and back. I started at 8am. At the col/joch, I looked left up to Barrhorn and could see a few outlines of people. To the right was Schollihorn. Last year I'd seen people scramble the first part of this. I was intrigued and there were no storms imminent. I headed up.

It was quite an easy summit, with just a little scrambling and then a big, broad plateau.

On the lip of Schollihorn, 3500m. Brunegghorn left and Bishorn right, behind me.

Back at the joch, I got out my coveted Hammer gels, which I had been saving for 'emergencies.' I figured a good hit of chocolaty carbs was just what I needed to brave this descent. Last year when I'd glimpsed the edge of this "trail", I'd only been able to hold my camera in front of me. I couldn't even look down. But after the past 5 days of gnarly, exposed terrain, I was almost unfazed. I definitely took my time, but the descent was fine. It was indeed steep stepping onto the glacier and the snow was still glazed over from melt and refreezing overnight. I was very glad for the spikes. Even more so at the far end of the glacier where it becomes thin ice hidden under loose rock. That's like trying to walk on marbles on a marble floor. I don't envy anyone without spikes in that bit.

The start of the via ferrata at Schollijoch down to the Scholli glacier. I saw this last year and it scared me!
At the end of the glacier, I stopped for first lunch. The sky still looked good. But then I realised I was still at 3150m! There was a lot of descending in slow terrain still to be done. Fortunately, the grey clouds swirled around, but never developed into anything sinister, as I had a long way down with a lot of exposure.

See the blue ladder way up there?
Overall, I took loads of time, given it was my last day and I could mostly keep an eye on what the clouds were doing around me. But it's definitely a long slow descent with lots of traversing, so I'd caution everyone to watch the clouds in all directions vigilantly.

I stopped in the shade on the never-ending descent, once I finally got out of the exposed high alpine and just enjoyed my environment - the quiet and solitude. I had luckily found out that the suggested gpx route to Randa (part of the long traverse) was closed due to concerns for landslides coming from a melting glacier above the trail, so I had to descend more directly down into another village. Once at the bottom, I aimed for the only shop - a Denner Express - and bought a giant punnet of raspberries and an icy pole as the Aussies call it (a popsicle-type thing). It was at least 30 degrees. There was no way I was going to run the exposed river valley down to Randa. I wasn't carrying on any further. I sat in the shade and waited for Rolf to come a few hours later, once he was done his own adventure. 6 hours, 18.5km + 1085m - 2260m.

Take home messages: This is a tough but gorgeous route. The glaciers and moraines are incredible. I would not call it a "sweet single track" route - for that, I'd go to the Dolomites or another region. It demands good weather, a head for heights, alpine experience, and a willingness to turn back in the wrong conditions. A few sections could be re-worked, I think, to make a more runnable route. But if you come to terms with what it is and just go with the flow, accepting all the long traverses that undulate or actually go up before going down, you'll be at peace. If you have the Swiss online mapping system on your phone, you can more readily come up with alternates to your route to make it more enjoyable if the days get too long.

Gear: The Via Valais website offers some good photos and list of their favourite and suggested gear. Mine included:
Pack looked small and felt huge!
  • Arcteryx 14 litre pack with extra rigged bungies for storing my rain jacket (which then stored my picnic for each day). Several small carabiner-type clips for attaching things to bungies/pack
  • Montane very light rain/wind jacket with a pair of light Icebreaker gloves in the pocket (gloves never worn - highly unusual heat wave!)
  • CEP arm warmers (worn one morning for 5 minutes, but used extensively - my pack would rub my back when the water ran low, so I was able to use the arm warmers to create cushioning)
  • Montane prism gloves (warmer weight in case of cold, inclement weather - not used)
  • Raidlight super thin rain pants (not used, but glad I had them)
  • Arcteryx Atom LT hoody (midweight synthetic - the best ever - used in Arctic, dries fast)
  • Leki poles
  • 10,000mAh battery pack, USB-C cable for phone, AC adapter for USB, Garmin charging cable
  • Petzl e-lyte (teeny torch for getting to toilet at night without blinding everyone
  • Sea to Summit eye mask, ear plugs, mini toothbrush and paste, sunscreen, chapstick
  • Quick dry towel, small soap, nail file, 2 elastic hair ties
  • Cash (budget 100CHF/day to ensure plenty), passport, bank/credit card, SAC membership card
  • Delorme Inreach satellite tracker/SOS device
  • Sea to Summit silk sleeping bag liner (stuffed in bottom of pack - not in a stuff sack of its own)
  • Fixomul for preventative taping of toes, folding scissors, folding knife, Compeeds (just in case)
  • single sachets of 2Toms Sport Shield anti-chafe
  • Mini-Sawyer water filter in a thin Sea to Summit bag
  • First aid kit (gauze, pads, tape, antihistamine, painkillers, antiseptic solution)
  • Android phone with Fatmap app, MeteoSwiss app, Swiss Wanderweg map app
  • Hammer Nutrition protein recovery powder and Race Caps, cinnamon and chia seeds, turmeric
  • A small paper novel (my token luxury!), a pencil, a few sheets of paper route notes
  • a real paper Swiss 1:50,000 map of the 2nd half of the route
  • kahtoola microspikes in a Petzl crampon bag to prevent punctures
  • A few Ziplocs, reused many times over for snacks/sandwiches each day
  • Collapsible Perth Trail Series silicone cup (turned out it was only used for my protein mix)
  • Daily snacks (often a sandwich, peanuts, various bars, dried mango, chocolate covered coffee beans)
  • Evening hut wear (kept in a compressible Sea to Summit bag with my dry towel and jacket):
    • A clean Odlo sports bra, thin running/tech t-shirt, Montane primino 'boy short' undies, and long johns, clean Injinji socks
  • Daily wear (same for 6 days):
    • CEP 2-in-1 shorts
    • CEP calf guards
    • Injinji socks and Dirty Girl gaiters
    • Inov-8 x-talon 212s
    • Odlo sports bra
    • Montane primino shirt (these shirts don't smell - awesome choice for multi-day)
    • Montane primino 'boy short' undies
    • Garmin Forerunner 920XT with all stages loaded as courses
    • Julbo Aerolite "Zebra light" sunglasses (best I've ever owned and won't go back now)
    • tubie (buff-like product mainly for nose-blowing)
    • thin headband (worn around my neck a lot to reduce sun, but handy to put over the cap on windy ridges)
    • white "Udo's Oil" cap

Last day shady stop. Carrying the flip flops I paid 15CHF for.
Purchased in Zinal:

  • shoe powder to try to de-stink my runners (left the rest in hotel)
  • flip flops so I could walk around town without having to wear my running shoes. I then strapped them to the outside of my pack for the last two days and didn't have to wear the hut "crocs" at Turtmann hut.
Happy traveller on a moraine. Ready to go again!