Tor Des Geants Section 4 – Donnas to Gressoney (51.6 km)

From Donnas there’s some short sharp climbing to Perloz, then a big climb to Rifugio Coda (2224m) and up around 2000m altitude for a long stretch before a descent to Gressoney St Jean. It’s flat-ish and on road out of Donnas, and I’m on a mission to make up the time I wasted at the life base. I’m moving at a determined pace, and catch up with two Italians just as we get to Pont Saint-Martin about 2km away. Steve’s already there, having driven up to find that the town had set up an unofficial rest stop to greet the TDG runners. Paella, wine, beer and very happy volunteers all greet us, together with the devil himself.

Legend has it that the bishop made a deal with the devil to build the bridge in a single night so that people could cross over, and promised him the soul of the first living creature that passed over it. Turns out it was a dog, and the devil was pretty angry about that!

Photo credit: Steve Organ
Devil on my shoulder Photo credit: Steve Organ
Paella anyone? Photo credit: Steve Organ
The bridge the devil built

 From Pont Saint-Martin to Perloz was quite interesting. I had the two Italians for company most of the way and whilst I’ve forgotten their names, they were neighbours who’d decided to do this together. One of them was full of information on the history of the area we were going through, steeply winding cobbled paths that used to be the original town roads. We passed under wooden framework where grape vines grew, designed around stone structures to make the most of the heat from the day. I even got to try one of the grapes – sweet, tart and quite refreshing! The Italians are climbing strong and steady, and whilst I try to keep up I end up losing them and I’m on my own again not long after. It’s just over a 5km climb to Perloz, and when I finally get there there’s a chap with the biggest set of bells I’ve ever seen clanging away for all he’s worth. It’s a hilariously surreal moment and I’m wondering what the neighbours must be thinking! Amazing local dried beef, some sparkling water, and I’m off again.

The route takes us out of the town and along a steep rocky trail that doesn’t feel too harsh underfoot. Coupled with my shoe change to the Salomon XT6, dry socks and a change of clothing, I’m feeling halfway human and in good spirits. It’s funny how fast things can change.

The cold, dark and accumulated fatigue starts making itself felt again soon after leaving the bell-ringing clamour at Perloz. It’s about 7km uphill to the next time check at Etoile du Berger (Sassa), all of which is spent fighting to keep my eyes open. All I remember is tripping over my feet a lot, and desperately hoping the rest stop would appear soon. When I finally get there it’s 2am, all I can manage is to sit on a bench in front of the timing table, pull my buff over my eyes and ask the volunteers to wake me in 20 minutes. They tell me there are beds, but I really want to try to get to Coda before I sleep, another 5km climbing away. Plus I have time to make up and cut-offs to chase now.

My 20mins rest outside in the cold actually does me some good and I shake off the fatigue and plow on up the mountain. It’ll take me the better part of 2hrs to get to Coda and I don’t know what sort of terrain awaits. And so the nightmare begins.

It’s a mix of field, road and trail on the way up, and I pass a few sleep-deprived runners including Kazuko. She wants to chat but I’m doing everything I can to keep my rhythm (including regular breaths and muttering to myself – “moderate hiker with a rucksack”) so it’s difficult to answer back and soon I’ve left her behind. I feel bad about that, but the terrain isn’t too bad apart from being steep so she should have no problems in the dark.

And then the rocks appear. In the dark, it’s hard to make out the yellow markings that show the Alta Via trail, and the TDG flags are few and far between along here. I make some of it up as I go along, scanning the terrain for reflective markers, grateful that my Black Diamond Storm headlamp gives a decent beam. By now it’s cold and the wind is picking up, and the terrain starts to feel very tricky. It seems to be a massive rock field, slippery in parts where there’s a stream or run-off from the top. I’ve slipped several times now, and one bit has rope installed to navigate a sheer, smooth rockface. I slip again and manage to jump across to a flatter rock, but yank my left hamstring in the process. I have to sit for a bit to recover, this one didn’t feel too good. But it’s getting colder and windier so sitting isn’t very appealing after all and I get moving again. I’m getting worried for Kazuko too, hoping she’s closer behind me than I thought. If I’ve had trouble so far, there’s no doubt she’d struggle too. But then again, she had the magic Hokas.

I didn’t think I’d have a harder time than my first night at TDG, but this was much worse. I was walking like a drunk person, stumbling, weaving, could barely keep my eyes open and freezing to boot. I was feeling truly miserable, hoping against all odds I could make it to Coda by 3.50am. That was 17km in 7 hours, about right for what I’d been averaging so far.

Fat chance.

By the time I got to the plateau at about 2200m, I’d already thought up half a dozen reasons to DNF, starting with hypothermia, being eaten by marmots and ending with being head-butted off the mountain by a chamois. My blistered feet were agonisingly painful with each step and I’d resorted to concentrating my headlamp just in front of my feet, repeating ‘just one more step, just keep moving forward’. I thought the refuge wouldn’t be too far away once I’d reached the plateau, but I was learning that nothing is going to be ever that simple in this event! There was no shelter at the top, and I was mercilessly buffeted by a freezing wind and praying I wouldn’t get blown off the edge. WHERE THE **** IS THAT DAMN REFUGE?? It got to a point where I was begging for this to be over. Lightning was flashing dramatically in the night sky and I’m resigned to my fate. I’m dragging my left leg now, certain I’ve torn the hamstring, every step feels like my feet are on fire, and I’m ready to DNF at Coda. At the rate I was going there’d be no chance of making the next cut off at Largo Vagno anyway. I just wanted to get out of this wind and cold, get some sleep and put an end to my misery. 3.50am had come and gone, and I still couldn’t see the Rifugio lights.

And then there they were.

The word ‘refuge’ has never held so much significance before. I nearly cried when I saw it, and there was a man standing out on the porch ringing a bell to greet me. When I finally stumbled up to him, he led me inside and I’m surrounded by weather-beaten old men with volunteer t-shirts on. One (twinkly eyes and a kind smile) of the makes me his priority, and I get 2 cups of lemon tea with 4 sugars, my poles are gently prised out of my hands and put under the table out of the way. He makes sure I don’t want anything else, but stays close, checking on all the other runners in the room. It’s quite crowded, but all I can remember is staring into thin air and wondering how on earth I’m going to continue. I need to sleep. I send The Beast a message, I can see he’s worried about where I am. Hopefully he’ll relay that to Steve – I have no energy to worry about communications now.

Traversing along the ridge that went on forever to Coda, not fun on a cold, wet and windy night! Photo credit: Jill Homer
Rifugio Coda in the day. Photo credit: Climbandtrek.it
Inside Coda. Photo credit: Moses Lovstad
Next stop Largo Vagno. Photo credit: F Ceragioli

I ask for a bed and am shown into the next room, and given a dorm with four empty bunk beds. Twinkly Eyes just about tucks me in – I’m wearing everything I have on except my shoes – and whispers that he’ll wake me up at 7am. I got to Coda at 5am – way off target.

I peel my buff off my eyes to check on the time .. it’s 7.20am! Twinkly Eyes didn’t wake me and sunlight is streaming through the window now. I’m panicking, worrying about looming cut-off times and what my hamstring and feet are going to feel like. Shoes on, bleary-eyed, walking back into the main room and I’m greeted by Twinkly Eyes who says something in Italian that sounds like “Ah, you’re awake!” .. and did he just WINK at me??? Letting me sleep an extra 20 minutes was not what i’d wanted!

Poles retrieved, 3 pairs of gloves back on and all my layers done up, no more tea, thanks – I’m out the door amidst cheers from the smiley old men that run Rifugio Coda. Twinkly Eyes gave me a big hug before I left and shouted “A Courmayeur!”. Guess that means he thought I’d make it … or he was just trying to make me feel better. It’s 7.45am. I’d targeted Largo Vagno, the next stop 6.5km away for 6.20am, no way that was happening then! Even if I added 2h for the sleep break I’d brought forward, it was still way off.

But as I start off on the trail again, I realise my feet and hamstring don’t hurt. I pick up my pace and soon I’m hurtling down the mountain in hopes of making up some time. What on earth was in that tea?? Obviously Twinkly Eyes and Co were actually elves who’d worked their magic so that I could continue. He DID wink at me after all!

The cutoff at Largo Vagno is 12pm. I have 4hrs to cover 6.5km, doable but not knowing what the terrain ahead is like is a big handicap. There’s a climb and another small descent before LV, and I get there at 9.30am. I made good time. not exactly flying, but I’ll take it. Hamstring and feet still feeling ok, with the pain starting to creep back in. Should’ve had another cup of magic tea from Twinkly Eyes before I left Coda!

I don’t even notice the lake. Barry from HK is at the time check desk and gets ushered into the main building when he asks for tea. I stay outside for a few more minutes, drink some coke and head off again.

I’m starting to flag and finding it hard to keep a consistent pace now. The pain in my hamstring and feet is starting to creep back into my consciousness at an alarming rate, and the runner I can see ahead in the flouro orange top is starting to get smaller and smaller. Climbing 4km to Col du Marmontana (2350m) is an exercise in endurance and pain management. The trail is increasingly uncomfortable, not steep, but technical, rocky and narrow in the most annoying places, making it hard for me to find a rhythm. The 1km descent to Lago Chiaro was down boulder fields and technical scree. The sun was out in full force now, and I could see the lake ahead, next to it was a small perspex aid station with a few runners sat down outside and a herd of cows on the other side of the lake. It looked idyllic if it weren’t for the fact that I’d been going for 3 days with less than 4 hrs sleep. When I finally got there I collapsed in a chair with a cup of coke, glad to take the weight off my feet. The utilitarian aid station had a large hunk of roast beef being sliced,  which tasted heavenly to me there and then! It did feel a bit strange devouring medium rare roast beef with the cows mere metres away clanging their bells. I had some meat in some kind of jelly that came out of a tin .. not the most appetising of descriptions, but the salty taste and texture were just what I needed. I have to drag myself away from this aid station, but I’d rather die trying to make the cut-offs than do nothing about it. On your feet, off you go.

Lago Chiaro aid station in TDG 2010. Lake is to the right, out of frame. Photo credit: Chrrrris

The climb to Crenna Dou Leui (2340m) is more of the same misery. Translated as “cleft of the wolf” this was the backdrop for some dramatic images I’d seen of TDG previously. When I realised I’d arrived, I made the effort to get my camera out and snap some pics, but the reality was I would’ve been quite happy to call it a day there and then. By now I’m convinced my hamstring is busted, my feet feel like raw meat, and I’m really worried I won’t make the cut-offs with how much I’ve slowed down again. I have been trying to remember to take in the views and take some pics as well .. and at some level I do feel very blessed with be surround by such beautiful mountains all the time, but I’ll appreciate them later when I’m done. For now, my brain can’t handle much more than relentless forward progress.

One false step … it’s a steep drop off the side of the trail! 
“Cleft of the Wolf”

And this is what I see on the other side of the cleft.
My heart sinks when I get to the cleft and look over the edge. It’s a steep descent that looks to go on forever over more scree and boulder fields. I really don’t want to do this anymore.
But I have to. No one is going to come get me if I stop. I’d have to go back the way I came, or go forward. There’s nothing life threatening and everyone else is suffering too. Suck it up, Fatburd. I’m limping over the boulders and I don’t remember much about this bit apart from it being very painful, sunny, and a man stretched out on a rock sleeping with his pack under his head. Looked like a great place to stop for a picnic, but if I did, I’d never start again. I have to finish. I never want to come back to do this again. Up to Col Della Vecchia (2184m) and down again towards Niel. ‘Moderate hiker with a rucksack’ is long gone by now. All I can manage is ‘one step at a time, just keep moving forward’.

Amazing views. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ

I’ve been going forever, passed by a few runners, all of whom look pretty wasted, but moving steady nonetheless. Rounding a corner, there’s another perspex aid hut. I stop just so my feet can have a rest, fill up with water and coke, and then a whole group of runners appear. Barry and Shu Wen (from China Technica) also arrive, greetings, commiserations, status checks. We’re all struggling in our own way, but the general consensus is there’s no other way but forward. I head off first and the boys follow soon after with a Technica support crew who was waiting at the rest stop.

50m on and my whole day changes for the better. It’s Steve! He’s hiked backwards from Niel to get some fresh air and see if he can find me. My spirits are lifted no end at seeing a familiar face, and whilst he gives me my stats and worries about my cut-offs, I tell him about Twinkly Eyes, the elves and the magic tea. And the roast beef, the evil rocks and the fact that my leg is about to fall off because my hamstring won’t hold it together anymore. I don’t think he really believes me, but pretends to anyway. 🙂

Found me at last! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ

It takes longer than expected to get to Niel, and we stop along the way to try taping my hamstring with the bandage in my mandatory gear. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything apart from cutting off circulation (I did re-adjust it), and by the time we get to Niel, it’s no better and things are not looking good for my finish. it’s 5.05pm and the next life base 13.5km away at Gressoney has a time barrier of 1am. I’m 5 hours behind schedule now.

Photo credit: Steve Organ
Fake Facebook smile at Niel. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Up towards Col Lasoney. Photo credit: Steve Organ

I’m out of Niel in record time, eating a Snickers bar and crisps on the climb out to save time. The climb up is torturously slow, my hamstring feels worse by the minute and I get passed by a dozen people before I’m even halfway up. I’m wondering if I’ll get to the top in daylight, 3.5 km feels like a marathon. I’m trying to keep pace with the last guy who passes me, he says he thinks we’re the last but hasn’t seen the sweeper yet. Last?? This is really not looking good at all.

The cold starts to set in now and as usual the top looks deceptively attainable, only to find there’s a long way round. Which is the TDG route, naturally. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the cut-off at Gressoney is probably gone, but I’ll just keep going till I get there. Or till my leg falls off. Whichever comes first. Finally over the top, its a 10km descent to Gressoney. Headlamp out, game face on, and I try to pick up some speed. Have to keep reminding myself that the pain is the same regardless of my speed. Just keep going! I’m playing catch up with a small group of Spaniards who are rather rude and noisy (I have no patience left), and the last Italian chap who passed me going up Col Lasoney.

It’s back to rolling field and moor-like terrain, narrow trails amongst trippy tufts of prickly shrubbery. We pass a farm where I get chased by a goat (couldn’t run so I threatened to poke it with my poles), greeted by the farmer’s wife and dodge numerous cow pats. And then Ober Loo appears. I didn’t realise there’d be a stop before Gressoney, and I’m gratefully refilling my soft flasks and scoffing salami. There’s hunks of cheese that look so tempting, but I’m doing my best to keep my stomach settled, so I abstain reluctantly. Off into the night again, more people seem to have caught up with us and I can’t shake the noisy Spaniards. We’re running down along a river, the trail is rocky with wide steps, making it awkward to judge my stride. My hamstring is killing me, and my feet are fighting to push my pain threshold beyond it’s limit. Right now I’d kill for Hokas.

Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.

I realise I’m able to block out the pain and move a little quicker on the descents,maybe I won’t miss the cut-off after all!

And there he is again. Steve magically appears on the trail (meaning I must be close or he’s been hiking for ages) and gives me a much needed boost. Not far to Gressoney, much more bearable with a friend by your side. A French runner had her friend with her since Ober Loo (yes, I was envious!) and the Spaniards were noisy, but they’d had each other for company. Support crew and pacers have taken on a whole new importance in my books since Steve started helping me! We get into Gressoney at 10.16pm. 3 hours to the cut-off. Not a great buffer, but it’ll do. It also dawns on me that I’ve made it to the 200km mark, further than I’ve ever gone before. And at 84 hrs, much longer too.

Sports Hall at Gressoney in the day. Photo credit: Steve Organ
That’s what I can look forward to next! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Found the mystery jelly meat!
Photo credit: Steve Organ

I have a quick shower, a stack of food, try to find a medic to help tape my feet, and realise that my left knee is twice the size of the right one. Not good.

Getting my feet fixed. Photo credit: Steve Organ

With Steve’s help to refill, refuel, and replace batteries, food, dry buffs and other bits of clothing from my drop bag, I try to make this a quick stop. It takes ages to get my feet sorted, and there’s no physio, doctor or podiatrist at this life base so I make do with a massage from the therapist for my hamstring. He shakes his head at my knees, but has undoubtedly seen worse over the course of the day so says nothing. the life base looks like a war zone, friends and family anxiously waiting for the runners, others already in limping around or sat with somewhat haunted looks on their faces. 

There are notices taped to each table with a weather warning – it’ll be very cold tonight so wrap up warm. I put on everything I have, the volunteers check that I’ve read the weather warning, and bleep me out. It’s 11.54pm, I’ve spent nearly 2 hours at the life base and closer to the cut-off than I’ve ever been. The plan is to get to Rifugio Alpenzu 7km away and get some sleep. One step at a time, there’s still over 130km to go.
Out of Gressoney. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Alta Via trail markings. Photo credit: Steve Organ

0 Comment

  1. Keep your report coming! I have been reading it and it is riveting!

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry at your misery. lol. Inspiring

    Rgds
    shine

  2. Lady J… I HATE YOU.. I HATE YOU for making me want to run more and more… everytime I see you post your long runs.. it makes my heart drop a little cause you are always in such thrilling places and long runs, always so worried about you in a runners way of course. I am back running now, I will see you back in the Trails. I hope to train with you guys soon. If I can ever catch up.

  3. Shine, you have to laugh .. it's self-inflicted misery! See you on a trail sometime soon! 😉

  4. Isaac, great to hear you're back running, lots of new routes and races to try! Looking forward to seeing you come running with us soon! 🙂

  5. Hey there! Sanja Burns turned me on to your blog…I am hoping to get into TDG next year!!!! EEEK! I was hoping to connect with you in hopes of mooching lots of tips should I actually get in!

  6. Hi Lori, nice to meet any friend of Sanja's :). Find me on FB (Jeri Chua) and I'd be happy to share any TDG info. All the best and let me know when you get in!

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