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Patrouille des Glaciers: success, disappointment and nature has the last word Part 1

We descended successfully from the the battering the storm had given us, took in fuel at Arolla and once again set out to tackle the next chunk of the course. Then just as we were setting off up the slope we heard an unusual announcement…

Zermatt main street

Zermatt main street before the event

We’d arrived in Zermatt mid afternoon the previous day and had headed straight for the equipment control. Zermatt was buzzing! The streets were packed, and it took a while to navigate through the masses to get to the Triftbachhalle for the check. We’d expected to have to wait a long time to go through the check, but although there was quite a queue, the military did a great job of keeping things moving.

At the control desk the soldiers checked our identity cards, all the main items needed for the event and then put labels on each piece of equipment (so that we couldn’t then go and change it for lighter kit that didn’t meet the requirements for the race).

Triftbachhalle equipment control

Yves and Jimmy line up for the equipment control

These labels would be checked again 45 minutes before the start, and once again after the finish, so it was very important to make sure they stayed on! They checked the length of our rope (30m), then put identifying ties on each end (in the past some super weight conscious people have gone through the control, then replaced the rope for one with no core so though it looks the same on the outside, it’s around 60% lighter, and wouldn’t be any use in case of an emergency on the glacier. Nutters!) Anyway, no possibility of cheating this way any more due to the ties on the rope.

The tagged rope

The tagged rope

Rope check

Time to check the rope

Once through the check we made our way to the hotel allocated to us and set about divvying up the collective kit we needed to carry with us. I took the rope, Jimmy took my spare skins and my first aid kit, and Yves took the emergency repair kit, altimeter and compass. Then it was a matter of deciding how many layers to wear and what extra clothing to take for up top. Down in Zermatt it was very warm but we knew that up top the Foehn wind was raging, which would make things decidedly colder. We decided to wait for the final weather forecast before making a decision, and then headed off to the church for the orientation.

Zermatt Church Briefing

Zermatt Church Briefing

A military band was playing as we entered the church, which was already packed with over 600 people. You could only get in if you had the correct colour wristband (given to us at the control), and thankfully we managed to get some seats together a little way from the back. It was really during this ceremony that the enormity of what we were about to embark on set in. The buzz and the music created a powerful atmosphere, and then the range of speakers added gravity and a whiff of concern. It was a formal affair with speakers thanking various high ranking people for attending, and at one point I started to wonder if we’d ever get to start the race being as there were so many people to thank! Most speakers spoke in French and German, and some included English as well, an impressive feat. An army chief made it very clear that we were under their jurisdiction during the race and therefore had to abide by their rules and values, one of which is rigour. “Without rigour there can be no security.” The president of Zermatt commune encouraged us to enjoy the peace and serenity of the atmosphere in the church….. before facing the storm up high, which brought a chuckle from all.

Colonel Ivo Burgener, Commandant of the race, took us through the forecast, things to watch out for on the route, plus all the time limits at the various check points, all of which added to the enormity of what we were taking on. The priest of the church then gave his blessing and an Alpenhorn group played the Swiss National Anthem, bringing more than a tear or two to most in the room. It was an emotional moment as all knew what lay ahead: 53 km through some of the toughest Alpine terrain to be found.

Race kit

Race kit

Back to the hotel, supper and then just enough time to make the final preparations and get changed. I opted for one thin thermal layer under the race suit, plus a thin Primaloft top and Goretex PacLite shell to keep me warm up top. It’s a fine balance making sure you won’t be too hot in the lower parts of the course, but also not too cold in the upper parts, and with temps varying from +15° C or so in Zermatt, to – 15° C on Tête Blanche (which is actually quite ‘mild’ for this peak, due to the warm Foehn wind). This turned out to be just right, though I was surprised to find I took around 1 litre more water than I needed (which means 1 kg more weight than necessary, quite a bit on a bit climb at race speed).

Time to get to the start

Time to get to the start

People were milling around the hotel entrance making their final preparations, and we then headed down en masse to drop our bags off: these would be taken to the finish at Verbier in military trucks. Then on to the final check where soldiers made sure we had the correct shovels, avalanche probes and rope (again!), and that our avalanche beacons were working. A final cup of herbal tea, then on to the start line.

Al, Yves and Jimmy on the start line, PDG 2012

Al, Yves and Jimmy on the start line, PDG 2012

A crowd had amassed on either side of the barriers along the road and the sense of expectation, hope and fear was palpable in the lead up to to start. And then we were off!

Click here to read part 2

 

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