Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Great memories

It's been a while (again) since my last post but this time no excuses about lack of time etc etc. This time I didn't know what to write. With everything that's happened in the world these last couple of months, I wanted to write something meaningful but couldn't put my thoughts into words - or at least into any words that were appropriate for this blog! "Fuck" seems to have been a fairly recurrent word in my thoughts.....
But maybe this isn't the platform for meaningful thoughts on world affairs....and anyway my views are probably not that interesting to anyone but me. I am a trekking guide and that's what I know best (apart from climbing of course).
Its 10 years since I had an unforgettable experience, one which has shaped many other experiences since then, and so I figured I would share this. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is a non-stop trail race taking the Tour of Mont Blanc trek route. Back when it began in 2003 this was a new challenge in the Alps, modeled largely on the already well-established 100 mile trail races in the USA.
13 years on and there are many (too many?) similar races in the Alps with new ones being set up every year, each one longer and harder, and all over subscribed. You can do clinics to learn how to do these races; there are masses of products designed to help you succeed; and every summer the alpine trails see as many runners as walkers covering the miles.
But back in 2006 train running was still not main stream in the Alps and signing up for this very long race was considered a pretty daft thing to do. That first race went well for me, but I felt there was some unfinished business so against the advice of all my friends I signed up again in 2008. I wrote articles for magazines about both my races. Here is my account of the second race, written in 2008.
Leaving Courmayeur in 2008, high spirits at this stage.

UTMB 2008
A week or so before the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc I heard a quote on the tv. I wasn't really listening but I think it was someone's quote on how to successfully read a book. It seems to me though that it perfectly sums up an Ultra race: "you start at the beginning, you keep going to the end and then you stop". This became my mantra as I laboured my way round the Tour du Mont Blanc trail taken by the Mont Blanc Ultra race the last weekend in August 2008.
166 kms, 9400 metres of uphill and the same back down. This is one long race and it should never been undertaken lightly. For those of you still working in feet 9400m = 30,832 ft!!
I had already done the UTMB fairly successfully in 2006 when it was "only" 158kms and 8400m of up and down. I'd had a blast and at the time I thought that was it, and that I would not be doing this race again. That remained my opinion until a year later when I was guiding the Tour of Mont Blanc the week leading up to the race. The banners were everywhere, people kept asking me if I was running it again, and then to cap it all I saw the runners'  lights high up in the mountains as I drove off to my next trek in Austria. I knew then: either don't be here for the race or do it again.
Of course the former idea was perfectly possible: I could always programme a trek elsewhere and so be totally oblivious to what's going on here. But that little worm of an idea had got inside of me and it grew - by late autumn I knew I would be applying for a place for the UTMB for 2008.
Why do it again? My reasons were not too complicated once I had examined them.  I wanted to repeat the wonderful exciting adventure that a trail of this magnitude offers and this one is on my doorstep. To go elsewhere and embark on a 160kms race would mean being alone, and I didn't really think I could ask my husband Jon to come and wait 40 hours for me whilst I ran around - with a very good chance that I would not succeed. Here I have all my friends around who will come out in the dead of night and support me. Also this is my playground and I know the trail. My other major reason for having another go was that I wanted to come into Chamonix at the end of the race smiling - a victorious finish in the style of a true ultra race, where you have overcome obstacles and return triumphant and proud. It was a dream - one that could easily have turned to disappointment, as people pointed out to me. I had in fact in 2006 declared quite vehemently to some friends that I never wanted to do this race again.
2006 second night, torrential rain, with Hubby as moral support
Signing up was a marathon in itself. The sign-up was one evening in early January. At 9pm the website opened and 15 minutes later the UTMB 2008 was full. My computer balked and I couldn't get on-line - luckily a friend in nearby Switzerland came to the rescue and we did the whole thing with me quoting details over the phone to him. We were both shaking with excitement (or in my case fear) afterwards. 
Then came the long months of training. Because I work in the mountains my training is never textbook - I have to run when and where I can  and sometimes it's just an hour early morning before going out with clients. There were many, many occasions when I was up at 5am pounding the streets in winter (and the verglas can be quite exciting round here, not to mention the snow) and then as the summer came I was rewarded with dawn runs on high trails, getting back to huts as everyone got up and we then headed out for a day's trekking.
There is always the fear though - that you will get sick, that you'll get injured, that you just won't get to the start-line in good shape. And of course there were plenty of scares: worn out legs at the end of the winter season, severe diarrhoea in Morocco in May, a dislocated rib two weeks before race day….the chances of watching this dream go up in smoke seemed to be many and I rode a real rollercoaster of highs and lows in the weeks preceding the race. 
But finally there I was, 29 August 6.30pm in Chamonix and ready to go!! The organisers really know how to put on a performance and we were treated to many repetitions of Vangellis Conquest of the Paradise at the start-line - each time louder until the ground under my feet was vibrating. The forecast was good and the sun was beginning to set on Mont Blanc as we finally took off at a snail's pace down the main street in Chamonix.
 My overwhelming emotion was gratitude - that I had made it to the start in good health and that I had a place for this race. I was determined this would be my last time on this race, but for this reason I was going to savour the experience the whole way. There are lots of people who did not get places, and also folk who had to drop out due to injury. There are also many people who do not have able bodies for this sort of challenge. It was going to hurt but I considered myself awfully lucky to be able to participate.
 My friends and Jon were there in the crowd, bearing a banner to cheer me on. The music was still ringing in my ears as we left the outskirts of town and headed down to Les Houches. There were 2300 runners so plenty of jostling going on.
The evening turned out to be really humid - to my surprise my clothes were soaking by the time we reached the first pass at the Col de Voza. Behind us the Mont Blanc massif was bathed in soft pink alpenglow. Headlights went on and we turned down the very steep and not terribly pleasant descent to St Gervais. This was a new bit for me and I was glad I hadn't bothered checking it out - one time down that slip-slidy slope was definitely enough, dodging runner's elbows and sticks. The ambience at St Gervais was as good as anywhere on the race - music, dancing - a real celebration which gave us courage to carry on into the dark night.
The runners themselves quietened down notably as we continued up to Les Contamines. I guess we were all now realising just what we'd got ourselves into. The last time I did this race I was somewhat alarmed at around this stage of the race to realise that in 24 hours I would still be doing the exact same thing! This time I let that thought slip by and consoled myself with the fact that in 40 hours I would be done, whatever the outcome. It is quite sobering though to think of all the things you do in 40 hours - including going to bed twice - and for all that time most of us were running / walking / staggering along, keeping Mont Blanc on our left, to get back to Chamonix - and all for a T shirt!!!
We began to climb higher and the air was cooler, but the temperature during the first night were really perfect - I was able to remain in shorts and just add an extra shirt. The night was stunningly beautiful, the stars out in all their glory. Looking back from time to time as we climbed up to the Col de Bonhomme and then the Col de la Croix de Bonhomme I was so excited to see an endless line of lights weaving along behind me. Don't get the wrong idea though - there were at least as many lights in front of me, I just couldn't see them the same way!
On the descent to Les Chapieux I had a real scare when something "went" in my ankle - an old climbing injury that had flared up earlier during the week. I honestly thought I might be in trouble. As far as I am concerned quitting is not an option - but I am not superhuman and if I had really got an injury I might have had no control over the outcome. I limped into Les Chapieux, worried but determined.
The way onward is along a road and this proved to be comfortable. The long climb up to the Col de la Seigne and Italy was also no problem either and I ran down to the next big aid station cautiously optimistic.
From here onwards there were to be no cups provided at aid stations so as to reduce litter and also so as to use less "stuff". We had been given a huge cup to attach to our rucksacks but luckily an American guardian angel had managed to find a really cool folding cup for me which fitted into my shorts pocket perfectly. I was surprised to find quite a lot of other runners had this cup too - obviously this was the business.
The sun was rising, just kissing the summit of Mont Blanc, as I set off up towards the Col Chécrouit. This is such a beautiful viewpoint, and I was reminded of the last time I was here with a group hiking the TMB when we had thick fog and couldn't see a thing! I imagined all the people who would be setting out from high huts in the glaciated mountains, to ascend Mont Blanc and other peaks.
Col Chécrouit provided a great spectacle, with belly dancers to encourage us on our way. Unexpected encounters with friends gave me a bigger buzz, and sent me flying down to Courmayeur.
I felt great!!! My friends plied me with food ….everything was on course and I rolled off through town on a high. This high in fact lasted all the way past Rifugio Bertone and on to Rifguio Bonatti, my second home in the winter, where I had time to say "hi" the guardians before they shooed me out. I trotted along and soon got down to Arnuva. I was going well, really happy and eating well too.
However the next climb up was really odd - I met an acquaintance who was really negative and announced we should both drop out!! I told him in no uncertain terms to keep going!  Many people seemed to succumb to the heat on this ascent to the Grand Col Ferret. There seemed to be very few runners, no spectators and I began to wonder what on earth was going on. In fact I think the heat made many runners ill and I am told that in the space of 3 hours during the afternoon 800 runners dropped out. I called my friends who were at La Fouly and they reassured me that I was doing fine time-wise and that everything was okay. I was not considering dropping out or anything like that, there just seemed to be an aura of negativity on this section.
I got myself together again at the col and headed off into Switzerland, my only concern being where I would find a water fill-up spot. This soon materialised at a farm on the way down, then we were directed onto a longer version of the usual TMB into the village of La Fouly. My mate Jane met me a km before the aid station and trotted along at my side, her handbag swinging. Jane is my Official Manager and has had to put up with endless emails detailing the latest little pain / injury / worry - she must have wondered at times if she'd backed the wrong horse!
The start of the rain on 2006 race
The evening brought cooler conditions again and soon I was embarked on the ascent to Champex. Here I enjoyed an "awesome hour of power", steaming past people on the long forest climb, and I blasted into the aid station feeling amazingly strong.
Of course I should have known it wouldn't last. With every high comes a low and it certainly did as I was slowly but surely overcome with nausea on the next climb up to Bovine. I just felt weird really, not able to go at my usual strong speed on the climb. I was careful and slowed down but every step felt wrong and it was here that I got the blisters that were to test my pain tolerance for the rest of the race.  I began to also feel very sleepy and by the time I met Jon and various other friends at the Col de la Forclaz I was struggling to stay awake.
Trient provided some fun - there seemed to be an away trip for the Vallorcine men, which involved huge amounts of drinking. For me the treat was soup and potatoes and clean socks. I knew there were just two major climbs and descents left and, as everyone kept telling me, I had loads of time (the cut off time is 46hrs) but I did not want to stop and sleep. Les Tseppes went by okay and friends were manning the aid station at La Catogne. I asked for a coffee to try to wake me up and it did the trick for about 5 mins then I was dozy again. In the periphery of my headlamp I would see people collapsed by the trail, who had just fallen asleep. I did not want this to be me and I tried everything to stay awake including singing - luckily there weren't many other people around but I did encounter a woman being sick - now I know my singing is bad but….Anyway my efforts to wake up didn't work and by the time I wobbled into Vallorcine (my home village) I knew I'd have to lie down as I felt it was too dangerous to go on.
All the beds for runners were taken - it's amazing, I didn't realise there were a sleeping rooms at the aid stations - this one looked like one of those hospital camps you see in old war films for injured soldiers. So I got into our van and laid down. I was sure I would just fall asleep and had given Jon strict instructions to wake me after 30 minutes. But 20 mins later I had not slept and the nausea had gone. Reassured that I was not going to keel over and fall to certain death from the trail, I felt ready to go.
Friends were cheering me on at the Col des Montets and from there I made a steady pace up the next climb which was new this year to the race. There were some very disorientated people on the trail, some staggering, some just sitting. One asked me where was the Grand Col Ferret which we'd passed hours ago in Switzerland.
There were no supporters as there is no easy access - the only spectators were ibex grazing by the path. It was dawn again and the sky went red - rain was forecast for later in the day. Now it was just a question of keeping going. I was fine except for the blisters, but on the climb these did not present too much of a problem. However, from La Flégère to Chamonix there is a very long and rocky descent which is not  pleasant when you're fresh let alone after nearly 40 hours of racing with open wounds on both feet. Jane and Charles made a brief appearance, taking the cable car up to La Flegère and were able to brandish their final banner - "Head up H you're nearly there" - well yes, apart from this darned descent. I tried to block out the cable car as it swung them back down to Chamonix in a matter of minutes.
I gritted my teeth - a lot, for a very long time. People came past me - lots of them. I feebly muttered about my blisters and just kept going. It was truly a horrible descent and I dug very very deep to keep going. But I would never quit - even though this brought tears to my eyes. I knew Jon was waiting at the bottom where we came into town and I kept thinking it must be round the next bend. I lost loads of time here but there was nothing to be done - each step was agony. Near the end I felt one blister enlarge right up my ankle…..
Then I was on tarmac - not far now. Jon ran down the road with me - and yes I could run now it was level - there were barriers channelling us to the finish - it no longer hurt - I knew exactly what to do, I'd been through it enough times in my dreams - keep running, poles in one hand, other hand raised in victory and SMILE……………………………for me I was the only one in my race and I had made it for the second and last time!!!!!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

25 years and counting!

I've not been a very regular blogger lately...well by lately I mean for the last year or so really. I could give all the usual excuses but why all know I've been busy and the blog just slipped off the To Do list.

But I'm back - I love writing, and I'm much more motivated now to tell you all my news on the blog regularly. And there's a lot to tell.

2016 has been a Big Year for Trekking in the Alps and Provence as it's 25 years since I got my French Accompagnateur diploma and was able to set up my business here in France. Before that I had a Blue Peter Badge

but then I got a really pretty badge...

and it opened the door to the rest of my career..... since then I have worked alone, building my business, seeing where it takes me.

At the start there was no real plan...I had come from being a Teacher of Outdoor Education in the UK, working in outdoor centres with kids and adults, teaching all that is outdoor...hiking, climbing, caving, even skiing on that one day a year when there was snow on the local golf course! But that was all in the context of education. Here in France it was a different deal...I was going to organise people's holidays!

And so I have done for a quarter of a century. And for 95% of the time that has been a total blast, a wonderful journey for me, learning how to help people to enjoy their time in the mountains, to push them just enough so that they achieve but also to be sympathetic during those hard and painful climbs (or descents).

I'm sure I haven't got it right all the time nor for every person...the rare "incident" reminds me of that! But the fact is a good 80% (maybe more, I haven't actually calculated) of my clients return...year after year and we become firm friends....that's really the BEST part of my job. Because I do everything myself I build up a strong relationship with my clients and even though people are bound to do other things, they all fully understand that (barring any serious misdemeanor) they have signed up for life and even if they have to take 20 years off to have kids and stuff, they can still come back after that.

One of these people, Flora, this year described my client list as the Trekking in the Alps Community and she is spot on. People meet on my trips they make friends and they decide to come back together. This year I have taken it a step further and asked all my regular snowshoe clients where they'd like to go next winter...I decided not to draw up a programme until they told me. To my great surprise and pleasure my winter trips are already 99% full, before the programme even hits the website!!

I know I've already mentioned it...but 25 years (yes 25!!!) is a very long time. I never ever thought I would get this far with my own business. I don't work for anyone else (no-one has asked me!!) but in those dark moments when I wonder if I will get enough people on trips my loyal friends have encouraged me not to sell out, to hold firm and stick with the ethos of Trekking in the Alps and Provence...a small one person business providing personal service, listening to clients and trying to get it right for each person that laces up her / his boots to hike with me.

So where do I go from here? During my trips this year my head has been full of nostalgia...each trip has brought memories flooding back, such as the first time I did the Tour of Mont Blanc (backwards with 13 adolescent French kids but that's another story), the Tour of Monte Rosa when we never saw the Monte Rosa, the tiny 2 person group comprised of an  anarchist and a South African Peanut farmer with me in the middle trying to keep the peace, the Chamonix Zermatt trek where two people met and fell in love (and later married)....the list is long and maybe I will tell some of these tales at some point on this blog.

People have been asking me for as long as I can remember, "How long are you going to continue doing this"....the question used to come as a surprise and I would wonder if they were thinking I was looking a bit knackered. But in this anniversary year it's an obvious question. And I have no idea!!

I do know it won't be another 25 years.....well, never say never, maybe I will be able to offer Softies Treks from one chairlift to another! But I know I'm not done yet. Over the years my trips have evolved and the last 5 years have seen a major change in location since we moved from the Alps to Provence. But the southern Alps are not far away and there is still a wealth of nearby mountain ranges that have not featured on my programme, as well as the regular trips that go each year.

So is it Trekking in the Alps More of the same? Or as suggested by my lovely friend and regular client Bel, Trekking in the Alps Onwards and Upwards? Or as I rather like to imagine, Trekking in the Alps The Twilight Years?

Whatever happens, this year has seen some fabulous trips and I am not about to give up my office just yet. So watch this space!!!