Podiums and Pierra Menta Preparation

All forms of mountain racing have the bonus of opening your eyes to different parts of the hills you might never have come have come across. I had always thought of the lower end of the Maurienne valley as industrial and to be avoided. True perhaps, but nestling in the hills on the south side of St Jean is a gorgeous hamlet called St Colomban, which is where we headed for the race called Sybelle Villarinche. It has a few old ski lifts but not enough to attract more than locals, and some stunning hills. The recent dump of snow prevented the full course being run but we still had over 2000m of ascents and one of the descents was a full-on race down 800m vertical of closed piste- fantastic!

[caption id="attachment_4904" align="alignnone" width="450"] 3rd V1 at the race called Sybelle Villarinche[/caption]

Next up, the following weekend, was “la Grande Trace” which is in the @rse end of nowhere. It is vaguely near Ceuse and is in the Devoluy Alps (drove past some impressively big cliffs on the way in to the area!). I trained especially hard for this one- I spent the week playing with my kids in the New Forest/catching up with parents in London. This proved to be the ideal preparation and Ben and I had our best race of the winter.

[caption id="attachment_4905" align="alignnone" width="450"] Plenty of chasing skimo racers at la Grande Trace[/caption]

More than anything it was a stunning ski tour, cut short due to immense snowfall (again!) but still 2600m of vertical. The highlight was cramponning up through a huge rock arch onto the plateau de Bure. We started in temperatures of -15C and headed up onto the windy plateau, but mercifully the sun was out. Pictures do lie- it was Baltic! All was forgotten as we descended sublime snowy bowls in hero powder. Waahaay! The post-race food was super scrummy and there was a cool band too.

[caption id="attachment_4906" align="alignnone" width="450"] Funky post-race tunes- check out the singer in ski boots[/caption]

 

Not quite sure who first said it but “The harder I try the luckier I get” seemed to ring true recently. After 10 years of skimo racing, clapping the guys and girls on the podiums, it was gratifying to be on the receiving end of the clapping for a change! The smile was soon wiped off my face when the race organiser thrust a microphone into my hand and asked for a few comments on our thoughts on the race. Good test of my French!

[caption id="attachment_4907" align="alignnone" width="450"] Top step of the podium at la Grande Trace[/caption]

2 weeks guiding followed, in the Stubai (awesome huts) and Albula (very remote and quiet) before heading back to Cham to get ready for the big Daddy of the skimo calendar www.pierramenta.com This is undoubtedly both my best 4 days of the year and the most iconic of all the skimo races. Fortunately as an International entrant it is much easier to get into (many great French racers fail to get in), and this will be my 6th and Bens 4th Pierra Menta. It is far more competitive than World Cup or World Championship races as, with 200 teams picked largely on merit, the standard is second to none. Strict cut offs are applied each day, both absolute and as a percentage of the winners time, so the number of competitors reduce daily. We have been lucky enough not to have been eliminated in previous events but it isn’t a given. Tough competition for this one- 60th out of 200 is our best so far!

It is a stage race- ie the clock stops each day and restarts the following morning- and they always aim for 10,000m of vertical in 4 days. I have no doubt conditions will be amazing as the snow keeps on coming and the Beaufortain, where it is held, is one of the first ranges of mountains that the prevailing Westerlies hit, so has an enviable snow record.

So the last few days we have trying to be smart and meticulous about getting all the little things right. We popped down to get our Plums adjusted at the factory near Cluses (they are bindings, in case you wondered..). Never mind adjustment- a complete overhaul was done replacing virtually every component (or was it a complete new set of bindings?). Amazing aftersales service- 100€ for pretty much a new €400 set of bindings (this will never be a cheap sport..)

 

[caption id="attachment_4908" align="alignnone" width="450"] Marc from Plum tweaking/fettling/mending/replacing my race bindings[/caption]

Like triathlon it isn’t just the activities themselves but the transitions too where races are sometimes won and lost. So the smart thing is to practise and practise till it is second nature, because if it isn’t, when your pulse is 160 you will cock it up! So todays session was skins off, skins on, skins off, crampons on, crampons off, skis on pack, skis off, repeat, repeat, repeat….. Exciting stuff! But it certainly pays dividends- if nothing else however quick you may ski/however quick you are at skinning you won’t look like a total punter in the transitions.

 

Podium at the Pierra Menta- no chance! Prize- possibly. 5 years ago I won a spot prize- 8 kilos of Beaufort (that’s a lot of very rich cheese!) as they make it in the valley there. So much I had to give most of it away as I was above my weight allowance on the plane. It is such a memorable week- elite racing, beautiful scenery, rustic hotel with 3 delicious full fat Savoyard meals per day, massage every afternoon, repeat formula Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun. A proper holiday!

Oh and by the way if you want to find out what skimo is all about and you are in the Alps at Easter come and watch, or better still, enter the British Ski Mountaineering Championships. It is on Easter Sunday itself. Details here http://www.team-montagne.com/belle-etoile.php In summary it is a technical but not terrifying course of 1900m skinning with odd ridge sections involving crampons and via ferrata kit. It’s getting popular with the RAB team- me, Leanne, Ursula Moore, Ali Swinton and now Calum Muskett have all signed up for the race- Calum only put skis on for the first time last week. What’s your excuse?