I could have started with “some you lose” but this week my cup is half full. Here’s why:
The Patrouille Des Glaciers april 2012 will definitely not go down in history as the most successful event ever but I have been grinning from ear to ear despite the race being cancelled due to storms and avalanche danger.
The PDG is mythical. To the Swiss it is more than just a ski race, it’s a journey; an obsession; a dream; deeply rooted in history. If you mention it to a Swiss person they will instantly know its heritage and will be deeply impressed if you have completed it. If you mention it to a Brit they will probably think PDG stands for a medical test George Clooney would demand on ER.
It began as a test of endurance for the Swiss Military in 1943, to be completed in teams of 3. Teams, or patrols, travel over the mountains by ski from Zermatt to Verbier through the night, covering a distance of 53km with 4000m of cumulative ascent. Patrols are allowed up to 19 hours to reach Verbier and the women’s record is held by a Swiss civilian squad at 7 hrs 41 min. The reason it has reached such mythical status today is partly because it is actually quite achievable for the ordinary fit skier if they are prepared to commit to a few months of training. (I should probably add here that the ordinary Swiss skier is not the same as the ordinary British skier!) The problem is that it only happens every 2 years, and thousands of people want to do it, but only 2 thousand people make the lucky draw. The chances of all 3 team members making it to the start line with good conditions, fitness, training, psyche, acclimatisation, and without colds, flu, injuries, gear breakages or arguments is quite a challenge. The race has become so enormous that the starts are staggered with some on Wednesday night and some on Friday night.
Susi, Fabienne and I had been preparing for a year. They had made an attempt together in 2010 with another Swiss girl but had a series of minor disasters which cost them the race. Between them they had managed a staggering 160,000 vertical metres of ascent on skis this season and their fitness was incredible. They were completely focussed on the PDG and every spare minute was spent training on snow. I, on the other hand, had moved to Merseyside (that well known ski resort) and couldn’t use my arm following a nasty shoulder injury, so my painfully inadequate preparation mainly consisted of hundreds of squats, running on the beach and doing 1 minute laps up and down the Manchester indoor ski slope with one pole. As if that wasn’t enough of a joke Easyjet lost my bags on the way to Switzerland for the race and I was faced with the ridiculous scenario of 3 nights acclimatising on the Klein Matterhorn at 4000m in a pair of pink pumps and a very fetching polka dot blouse, rather than the lush new wardrobe of down and fleece sent by Rab. Luckily after much fretting and borrowing my race kit arrived in a taxi.
We listened in horror on Wednesday at the pre race briefing as the weather forecast was announced: 110km/h wind, minus 30 degrees C and complete white-out conditions on the Tete Blanche summit at 12,000ft (the second checkpoint). It didn’t take the brains of an archbishop to deduce that the conditions were going to be somewhere between horrific and impossible. We watched in disbelief as the first batch of racers were cheered out of Zermatt at 9 pm, amazed and nervous that it was allowed to go ahead. We crossed the start line at 10pm and soon found our rhythm. It was easy to lose team members in the dark and the rushing crowd but we stuck together like a synchronised train, never stopping, just hovering at race pace and aware that our best chance was to keep pushing each other onwards into the discomfort zone, ready to do whatever was necessary for each other. We only reached Schonbiel; the first checkpoint nestled in the shadow of the Matterhorn. We had been running and gliding for 2 hours, before being confronted by a tidal wave of head torches returning to Zermatt through the blizzard as the racers were turned back by officials. Hundreds of 9 pm starters poured down through the darkness. The flag-marked ski tracks over the mountains, so carefully prepared by hundreds of Swiss Military, rapidly became buried in fresh wind-blown snow and two marshalls were sent ahead of the 1000 racers to try and find and re- mark the route over the 3700m high Tete Blanche. Unfortunately they went missing in the maelstrom so the Swiss Army concluded that sending 1000 sweaty racers in thin lycra suits behind them was probably going to end badly. That was the end of the race for Leanne, Fabienne and Susanne.
All was not lost, however, and another 1000 racers were due to take part in the repeat race on the Friday. There was promise of a better forecast with winds easing to 80km/h, clear skies and 20 degrees warmer as a Foehn arrived (a hot weather system from Africa). Friends Catrin, Di and Ali had been training in the Alps for weeks in preparation. They were itching to get started and fortunately their race to Verbier was more successful than mine or I think there would have been 3 very wobbly lower lips! The race went ahead and I met them in Arolla at 3am to fill their bottles and hand out bananas. (Luckily they didn’t feel like having any of the chocolate or I might have had some explaining to do!) Sadly their race was halted just after this due to concerns over the soaring temperatures and avalanche risk, but most people were just glad to have had half a race. As a spectator it was hard to avoid a chokey feeling of pride and admiration as their twinkling, bobbing head torch lights flowed down from the hostile high mountains in the pitch dark.
So. Why was I grinning from ear to ear? Because the journey I made to reach this point was worth every minute. It has been a year of pain, but I was lucky and now I have my life back. Just 6 months ago I was under the surgeon’s knife having my badly damaged shoulder reconstructed. I truly thought I would never sleep or be free of pain again, let alone work, drive, climb or ski. Everyone should probably go through something like that at one time or another in life. The result is I now have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for every single thing I have, and for the kind people who stayed beside me and cheered me up. We are the lucky ones. We can really do whatever we set our minds to because we have strong healthy bodies. I am humbled at the thought of the millions of people on earth who are in constant pain with no hope of cure. So making the journey to the start line of the PDG with a team of friends, one strong arm and a pair of strong legs was the sweetest feeling in the world.
Thanks to Rab for our team jackets, which will make a come- back in 2014![gallery link="file"]