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TDG Section 3 – Cogne to Donnas (46.6km)

It’s 4.13am and I’m leaving the Cogne life base. It’s Tuesday and the start of my third day in TDG, but I have to think for a while before I work it out. It’s now a 16+km climb to the Fenetre di Champorcher (2827m) so it should be steady and not too steep. About 3hrs of darkness before the sun comes up, maybe I can reach the top by then, that’d be nice. Looking at my planned timeline, I was meant to leave Cogne at 3am. I thought I was ahead of schedule .. where on earth did my buffer go?? Suddenly I’m not so relaxed after all. I can’t even contemplate another 4 days of plodding on, mountain after mountain, and I try to reign it all back in and concentrate on the task ahead. Must’ve been the kip I had at Sella, that wasn’t a planned stop but a much needed rest nonetheless. And I’ve been spending 20-40 minutes at every water stop, even more if it’s a life base .. that definitely wasn’t on my plans. I’ve basically frittered away a stack of time because I wasn’t able to focus on moving forward once I’d stopped for a break. Time to get serious. Someone along the trail said this was probably the easiest bit, a long gentle climb followed by 30+km downhill. We’ll see!

I’m pretty much alone in the dark, making progress slowly and hoping it’ll get light soon. It’s cold, and gets colder the higher I get. At least the cold numbs my feet so my blisters are quite as painful now. It’s been cold and dark at each life base stop so far and I haven’t had any inclination to take my shoes and socks off to change them. Big mistake, but it’s gone too far to redeem now.

This is the Gran Paradiso National Park and just as it’s getting light the trail goes onto a large road that leads into the main parkland. There’s frost on the ground and I’m starting to fall asleep again. My super caffeine chewing gums make an appearance again and I chew furiously but it doesn’t seem to dent my fatigue this time. I pass a little Japanese lady who’s flagging a little and after we stop to take pictures of a waterfall along the way (mine came out blurry, not even sure why I did it), we chat and walk for a short distance. I’ve given her a caffeine gum as well and I plough ahead, half expecting her to suddenly power past me in a caffeine fuelled boost.

Waterfall in Grand Paradiso NP, just before sunrise .. looked better in real life! 😉

The terrain is moor-like, and reminds me of the grassy tufts on Dartmoor, narrow trails worn in amongst the hardy shrubbery, all on a much gentler incline compared to the last couple of days. I pass a French lady who’s also having trouble staying awake, and share another of my caffeine gums and push forward. The frosty edge to the air won’t let me slow down too much, and although its light at last, the sun is far from warming me up yet as we’re on the shady side of the mountain.

Here comes the sun .. again!

Moderate hiker with a rucksack. Moderate hiker with a rucksack. Surely I’m at least moving like a moderate hiker with a rucksack. A very cold one at that. Passing a couple of cattle sheds, I come to Rifugio Sogno at last. It wasn’t my plan to stop, but the thought of some respite from the biting cold draws me in. Plus I can feel blisters on my heels and the balls of my feet from my wet shoes and socks are well and truly formed and causing me some serious pain. It’s the best reception at any stop by far, I’m looked after like gold-dust, made to sit down and tea is brought to me. I haven’t had any tea at the stops yet as I don’t drink much of the stuff, but the smiley volunteer presented me with what he claimed was ‘the best cup of tea ever’ .. it would’ve been rude not to. It was lemon tea! Hot, sweet, and not at all what I’d expected. I expressed my surprise to the weathered Italian sharing my table, and he immediately tried to get some lemon for my tea. Must work on my Italian!

Time to sort out my blisters. First aid kit out, shoes and socks off for the first time in over 30 hours. i’m punctured, drained and taped up and should get a move on. Last bit of a mountain to climb. Kazuko (little Japanese lady) and French lady have both come in by now for some warmth and refuelling. Right, off we go then! Big cheers from the volunteers for every exit, and shouts of encouragement. coming round the back of the rifugio, I see it. The climb ahead looks steep by tempered with long switchbacks that will make it even longer. But I can see the top, and that makes a huge difference. I can do that. Find a rhythm and get going. Sadly my feet are even more sore now having dealt with my blisters, but nothing I can do about that. Just keep going!

Halfway up to Fenetre di Champorcher, a gentle 16km climb 🙂

Getting to the top seems suspiciously easy, and there’s a couple at the top who are cheers all the runners on. 30km downhill now? Count me in! I shed a couple of layers in anticipation of the heat, we’re on the sunny side of the mountain now! I’ve been telling myself I have to finish this because I never want to do it again, and today is starting to feel bearable and my spirits have lightened no end at the prospect of an ‘easy’ day. Don’t believe everything you hear.

I’m running now, and the trail widens and flattens with the same moor-like landscape I was used to in South West England. The weather’s getting better by the minute and I’m having a great time moving at a steady jog. Rifugio Miserin is not open and I run past it towards Rifugio Dondena, meeting a herd of cows and the farmer along the way. My feet are starting to feel really sore on the rocky gravel path, and I stop when confronted with a line of cows headed directly at me. Not quite sure what to do .. surely they’ll go around me? And then Kazuko comes trotting past me and all the cows, with a cheery ‘Hello! Jeri-chan!’ I’m suitably embarrassed at city slicker approach to cows, and I run to keep up with her. I notice she’s wearing Hokas and am envious of the apparent bounciness they seem to put in her stride. Hokas seem to be a popular choice of shoe in this race, and whilst I love my Salomon Sense Ultra, my feet are screaming for a bit more cushioning right now. We chat and run whilst I daydream about stealing her shoes, and we’re soon at Rifugio Dondena. No stop for me, I’m aware I need to make up some time, and I make sure my number is recorded before carrying on through.    

Back on my own again (Kazuko stopped at Dondena for a bit), the trail changes and the descent becomes more pronounced. Feet hurting more by the minute, and the trail becomes a rocky descent that makes me wince with every step. Can Salomon please make Hoka-style shoes??!! 6km to Chardonney on a torturously slow and painful downhill made me regret thinking this would be an easy day and I’m in a foul mood by the time I get into Chardonney at 12.15pm. Barry from HK is already there, and I get questioned by the China filmcrew again about how I’m doing. I’m back in ahead of schedule, I planning to be there at 2.20pm, but I also missed a scheduled 2hr sleep stop at Dondena. Will have to make that up somewhere, but for now I’m back on track.  
Photo credit: Steve Organ
These are NOT fun to run down!

I get going again reluctantly, but mindful not to stop too long as my feet hurt more with rest. Barry left before me and I see him ahead but I’m in no condition physically or mentally to catch up. I don’t even remember what the trail was like on this bit, I was in so much pain I’ve probably blocked it out. It was a really torturous 10km downhill hobble to Pontboset, and I was cursing every step and hatching a plan to steal the next pair of Hokas I saw bouncing past me down the trail. I finally get to Pontboset, and the little tented water-stop has two other people there. Barry and Stephane. Stephane was one half of the French couple I’d met the previous day, and he’d come tearing past me downhill at some point earlier. I didn’t recognise him without his partner then, but now I’d twigged. Coke and salami made me feel better, and I grit my teeth in anticipation of the next pain-filled 10km downhill to Donnas. Stephane comes with me while Barry opts to rest a little longer.

Just out of Pontboset, fairytale bridges galore.

It’s on road for a bit and I’m just going steady, grateful that at least I have a reasonably smooth surface to run on for now. Stephane is on my heels and I tell him to come past if he’d prefer. Instead he says he’s happy to follow my pace. A sudden sense of accountability makes me pick up the pace, and soon we’re both running at a pretty good clip. Despite my mangled feet, my poles are helping no end in vaulting over stuff. We’re back on the trail and it’s a little technical with more small climbs than I expected. Still, the conversation is great (food, mainly!) and I’m having a good time with Stephane for company, and pushing the pace the whole way. It feels so good to be moving fast, and I’m worried that this’ll be my grand effort before I have to DNF, but who cares! Best bit of the race so far! We pass quite a few runners and I also learn that Stephane’s partner had dropped out at Cogne. They were right on the cut off last night and today he’s made up something like 7 hours including our 10k together. Well done! 

I look at my watch and realise we will arrive in Donnas WAY before my estimated time, and think about messaging Steve to let him know. And then I promptly forget. So when we get into Donnas and I’m fantasising about getting an ice-cream (since steak, confit du canard and Burger King are out of the question) as we run through the town, I suddenly remember I need to tell Steve I’m ahead of schedule. Aaargh! 
But wait. There he is. Literally walking towards us just before we reach the Donnas sports hall life base. How on earth did he work that out??!! Turns out Steve has put his brilliant geek powers to creating a spreadsheet that predicts my arrival times with uncanny precision, even if I change my speed. I couldn’t even comprehend it, but was delighted to see him.
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Signing in at Donnas. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Facebook smile! Photo credit: Steve Organ

Super hyped from the run endorphins, it’s 4.15pm and I’d targeted 9pm. Back in the black! I faff around for ages, scoffing a mountain of food, getting my feet patched up by the medic (who shakes his head and say ‘Why you do this??’), and taking a SHOWER. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have time to take a shower at all during this race so I’d just chucked a massive pack of wet wipes in my drop bag instead. Lucky I’d put a towel in too, and after a hot shower I felt like I could conquer the world. With some sleep first, though. Reading texts of encouragement from The Beast and a few other friends is a boost too, but I save that for the life bases as It’s too distracting to keep checking my phone while I’m trying to make progress.

First shower after 3 days.. AWESOME! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Best pit crew ever! 🙂

I’m ignoring my own rule not to sleep at the life bases (too noisy) and try to find a bed upstairs. No luck. Everyone is in the midst of their kip and there’s no 2hr limit here like at the refuges. I have to wait nearly 30 mins before I get a bed, and Steve has strict instructions to wake me in 2 hours. I toss and turn for ages and finally doze off only to find Steve is trying to wake me. I’ve slept about 30 minutes. This is not good. Still, I’m up, out, and off to get ready. Steve’s stocked me up with M&Ms, Snickers and Mars bars which I’ve been craving, I have another plate of tuna potato salad and change my shoes and socks. The Salomon XT6 have so much more support compared to my ultras that they almost feel like Hokas. Almost. Somehow I’ve managed to waste A LOT of time at Donnas, and I leave the life base at 9pm, nearly 5 hours after getting there. It felt like a much needed respite, but I could’ve been more efficient about it, I’m gutted about the lack of sleep, and now it’s dark outside again. Steve gently reminds me that time is getting on, and I’m out the door, with the aim of getting to Rifugio Coda – 18kms and a short sharp climb away. feeling fine, feet much better for the rest and fresh shoes and socks, but I’m not even halfway. How on earth did I let myself waste so much time at Donnas when I have cutoffs to make?! The pressure is ever so slightly back on again.

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TDG part 2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne (53.53km)

Section 2 towards Cogne Base Vita ..

Three mountains before the next Base Vita
Leaving Valgrisenche, it’s just gone 3am and I have an 8km climb to get to the refuge I’m planning to sleep at. It’s about 800m altitude gain, so about 100m D+ per km .. that works out to what .. 8 times Bukit Timah Hill? I estimated it’ll take just under 4 hrs to do that, so I should be tucked in by 7.30am all being well. Excellent. The climb is cold and dark, and not very much fun at all. There’s no one near me at all, and I’m guessing most have slept and gone one or are still at the first life base. I’m guessing I’m quite far back in the pack now with everything that happened yesterday. Not that I’m particularly bothered .. survival mode kicked race mode out of the water pretty early on, and all I can think of now is a warm place and a bit of sleep.

My wet feet in my wet shoes and wet socks are freezing. Wish I’d changed my socks now.

The warm lights of Chalet l’Epée are a very welcome sight, I’m so ready to sleep now! I’d taken just over 3 hrs to get there, and I stumble into the small refuge to ask for a bed. Then I’m told that there are no beds and the next closest place I can sleep is Eaux Rosses .. which happens to be 13KM AND 2 MOUNTAINS AWAY. This really is a WTF moment. That’s nearly enough to make me give up there and then.

I look like I felt. No room at the inn.
I’m offered a cup of tea instead, which I politely decline. I sit down in a quiet corner and notice that there are runners sleeping on benches and chairs regardless. But I want some quality sleep! Instead I lean against a pillar, take my still-wet shoes and socks off in hopes that they’ll dry a little (feet still freezing), and pull my buff over my eyes.  I open my eyes 30 minutes later to find the place is a little more packed with runners coming in and I take more time to pull myself together, have some Haribo Dragibus (I ditched Perpetuem after Valgrisenche, it was becoming too thick in the cold), wrap up warm and head out again.  

And suddenly it’s a different world outside.

The sunrise has just begun and I don’t need my headlamp anymore. It’s still freezing, but the climb to Col Fenetre (2854m) feels infinitely better in daylight, and it lifts my spirits no end. I can see the sunrise teasing the tops of the mountain ranges in front of me, warming the horizon and I’m energised with the increasing light. Time to bag another peak!

Sunrise #1, from Col Fenetre.
Col Fenetre descent
The descent is much warmer and a runner I pass along the way points to the other side of the valley. I don’t understand what he says and can’t see what he’s pointing at, and then I do. One pair of ibex horns poking out from behind a rock, then another, and another. Another 100m down the trail and I see the whole herd grazing, a truly magnificent sight!

Spot the ibex
See any horns?
The whole herd is there!

I’m running down the descent now but it seems to go on forever. Have to watch where I step as its all rocky and uneven, but it’s 3kms downhill and I’m trying to make the most of it. The last bit is steep switchbacks and I’m suddenly onto a sunny road and and headed into Rhemes Notre Dame.
Sunshiny morning!
9.30am – been going for nearly 24 hours now! There’s a little pitstop at Rhemes where I refuelled, and got ready to tackle the next climb. At this point, I can’t remember if I saw Steve or not .. probably not, just remember being delighted to be running in the sunshine again!
Off out of Rhemes towards Col Entrelor (3002m). You’re either going up or down in this race!
By this point I’ve already cocked up trying to do split laps on the TD6 I’m wearing, and because of my stops my average time looks like I’ve been moving backwards .. and I managed to lose an hour on the timer somewhere along the way. I think it’s because my fingers were so clumsy in my 3 pairs of gloves (yes, 3!) that I accidentally pressed buttons I shouldn’t have. Ah well. they really should make a Garmin that doesn’t have a limited battery life .. or at least one that’ll last a week on record! my original plan was a 12.10pm ETA at Rhemes, so I still have a decent buffer on my own plan, yay!
Top of the Col (Entrelor) with Lawrence from Melbourne
The climb up was steady, not great fun but my mantra was fast becoming “moderate hiker with a rucksack” .. the general speed I’d estimated my times on from the Alta Via routes. I make some new friends along the way (all of whom pass me!) including Lawrence from Australia, who’s climbing strong and steady. Everyone’s in their own world of pain / pleasure / mental games and I’m absolutely delighted to reach the top after about 5.5km. My photos are somewhat limited as I’d tied my camera to my pack in case I dropped it down the cliff, which also meant I couldn’t ask anyone to take a pic of my since the bungee cord was only as long as my arm.
The other side of Entrelor .. follow the little yellow flags!

 There’s what looks like a yellow henbox on the other side of the peak, it’s been helicoptered there a few days ago, housing a control point volunteer and some supplies. Quick top up and I’m off downhill. I like it when gravity works in my favour! I have Lawrence for company most of the way down, which was really very nice for a change, someone who speaks English as a first language! He was meant to be doing TDG with his wife (it was her idea), but she’d lucked out on the lottery so he’d gone solo instead.

That’s part of where we descended .. again!
Panoramic view on the way down to Eaux Rousses and a bit of flat at last!

There’s pleasant conversation all the way down and it’s 3.44pm we finally get to the control point at Eaux Rousses (1654m), 9.5km later, and the coke, water and salami I have there are very welcome. My planned arrival was 6.35pm, so more bonus points there! The heat is quite sapping. In the tent eating and regrouping, and I’m doing the same. It’s hard to think about moving fast, we’ve only just got down a peak and the next one is the highest in the course. Col Loson at 3299m, a 10.7km climb. No rest for the wicked. Some people in the tent are talking about getting up to the top and halfway down before it gets too dark, apparently there’s a pretty sketchy bit just after the top that shouldn’t be done in the dark, ideally. Not again!

Steve’s there when I come out of the tent, surprise! He gives me a pep talk, tries to make sense of my ramblings, and sends me on my way.

Going up to Loson

The climb sucks big time. It’s really hot now and I stop to take stuff off, only to have to put them on again later. I pass a French couple who stop to rest and relay the warning about trying to get past Loson before dark. Wang Da Qing, the Technica China chap from last night’s adventure passes me early on, relaying the news that the man from the accident didn’t survive. I’m reeling a little from this .. I think I’d convinced myself he would be ok. Feeling rather dazed and I don’t really know what to think. Just keep moving forward! Actually I can’t remember is this was before Entrelor or Loson, but I do remember him trying to teach me some climbing techniques .. not useful when I didn’t have the legs for it!

Runners are dotted all along the climb and it goes on FOREVER. I’m reminded of UTMB again, I really do suck at climbing. It’s getting to a point where I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get to the top, I’ve resorted to just looking at my feet and 6m ahead, so I don’t have to see how much farther I have to go. Suddenly I take another step and it’s not going UP anymore. Ican’tbelieveI’mfinallyatthetop! The added bonus is that it’s still light, and I’m descending cautiously as the guys weren’t kidding! There’s some sketchy bits with narrow widths, sheer drops and ropes on the cliffside. Steady on.

It’s dark again and I’m so tired I can’t see straight. The descent to the Rifugio Vittoria Sella is.4.35km, but takes forever on steep bits with stone gulleys to guide the water coming down from the top. Best tripping chances I’ve had all day! All 723 of them.

By the time I stumble into Sella, it’s freezing again and the warm lights of the refuge are very comforting. I’m desperate for a bed, but see Wang Da Qing and Lawrence in the refuge as I come in. The former is suffering from stomach upset so I offer some Dhamotil, and Lawrence is getting ready to head out again. Hot broth is amazing and the volunteers show me an empty bed and promise to come back to wake me in 2hrs. It felt like 2 minutes, but at least it was warm and comfortable. Its really hard to get going again, but it’s either get out into the cold or not at all. 8km downhill, here we go.

I’m alone all the way down, and it’s just before 3am when I get to the bottom of where I thought Cogne was. No such luck! I’m in Valtontey and it’s another 30 mins before I get to Cogne, with a very gratefully received Steve meeting me at a carpark halfway along. Once in the life base at Cogne, I’m quizzed by the China filmcrew waiting for the Technica team. Wang Da Qing hasn’t turned up yet – didn’t he leave Sella before I did? I answer as best I can, slightly annoyed with the camera in my face and my broken Chinese. I just want to eat and get fresh batteries for my headlamp.

Decent hot food, nearly an hour at Cogne goes by before I’m ushered out by Steve. 17km to the top of the next mountain, sore feet but too cold to take anything off for an inspection, didn’t even manage to brush my teeth! 🙁

Made it past 100km at last! 🙂
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Tor Des Geants Part 1 – Courmayeur to Valgrisenche (48.6km)

Life base bags 
Registration at the Sports Center
Here we go!

I figure I’ll have to write this in parts as it’s such a long event, so I’ve opted to tell my stories from one Life Base to the next. Each Base Vita is about 50km apart, and provides food and shelter as well as beds to sleep and medical attention if needed. There’s a lovely yellow Grivel duffel bag of all your kit that you can check in before the start, and that will be waiting for you at each life base to provide personal supplies. Mine was filled with mainly food, some clothes, batteries, medical kit and a spare pair of shoes. My plan was to go at a very steady pace, rest 20 minutes at each life base and sleep a total of 9 hours at selected refuges along the way. I’d been told the life bases were far too noisy to sleep at. Not quite the physical prep I hoped for given my work schedule this year, but I certainly felt better prepared mentally, especially after one last visualisation session with coach Matt Coops the day before. Ready or not, it’s happening anyway!

Just before it starts pouring at the start!

 It wasn’t the most ominous start for the 4th edition of Tor Des Geants. After a glorious fortnight of sunshine and dry weather, it rained all night on Saturday, and on race morning it hadn’t quite let up. I’m up early, feeling rested and very excited, slightly dampened by the wet outside, but I have all the gear I need so we’re set to go. It’s meant to be a 10am start and the drizzle becomes proper rain by 9.30am, and we’re all (706 starters) waiting in the start pen itching to get a move on. The opening ceremony drags a little, announcing all previous winners and the elite runners who will be at the sharp end of the field, and it’s Bruno Brunod who gets the biggest cheer from the crowd.

Courmayeur to Valgrisenche with all it’s ups and downs

 We’re flagged off (at last!) by 10.30am, running through the Courmayeur (1224m) towards the first climb up Col Arp (2571m). I see Steve Organ near the start, a familiar face at last, and then I’m caught up in the tightly packed chaos that characterises almost every race start. My poles are out from the beginning although I’m not using them yet, and I see a lot of runners have the long Nordic poles too.

A third the way up Col Arp, we’ve come a long way!

It’s a reasonably gradual 8km climb to the top, taking me over 2.5 hours, given congestion before the field spread out a bit. On the way up, I met Steve and Janet, organisers of the HK100 ultra. Both had done TDS and UTMB the week before, kudos! Also had some time with Jin Cao (who lives in Norway, did UTMB last week and is looking very strong!). I also meet some of the Technica team from China, who have a film crew following them as well. The rain came and went, necessitating a couple of stops along the way to shed and then put on some layers again as the temperature changed. It took me an hour to cover the 9km down the other side to La Thuile (1458m) and it’s certainly wasn’t warm .. or dry! I’m using the new Salomon Advanced Skin Hydro 12L set with two 500ml soft flasks instead of my usual 1.5L bladder, and refilling is a constant requirement. Nutrition is Perpetuem with Endurolytes and Anti-Fatigue Caps for now, although I made my Perp a little too thick and trying to suck it out of the soft flask is quite an effort.

Arp, Arp and awaaaay!

Up towards Refugio Deffeyes (2500m) and it’s getting much colder. There’s a bit of hail as I gain altitude and when I finally reach the refuge at 6.30pm, I take about 30 minutes to get more clothes on (my fingers aren’t working anymore despite 2 pairs of gloves) even though I only planned to stop at the life bases. It’s here that I first meet Sho, a Japanese race photographer who knows some ultra runners from Singapore, small world! I get going again to Col Haut Pas (Passo Alto, 2857m), which is another 2.8km of climbing. Just keep moving forward!

Still some way to go to Col Haut Pas!

It’s raining a little more now and just under 4km descent to Promoud (and another 10 minute pit stop to refuel and get my headlamp out) before heading up to Col Crosatie (2829m). By this time it’s dark, raining heavily, and the wind isn’t helping with how cold I’m getting. I’m alternating between ‘keep going’ and ‘what on earth have I let myself in for’ …

The climb up to Crosatie was pretty unpleasant. Given the weather, the terrain was mainly slippery rock, narrow and steep. It was UTMB all over again when I just kept getting passed by runners who were much stronger on the uphills, and I just had to keep my head down and keep ploughing forward. Just before the top the wind was pretty strong and all I could think of was praying I didn’t get frostbite in my fingers and toes (wet feet and waterproof gloves that weren’t really waterproof) and desperate to reach the top. All I could think of was stopping for 10 minutes in a warm hut for a hot drink, that’d be my reward for finishing this bloody climb. In consolation, no one else seemed to enjoying this bit either! Finally getting to the top, I see a small clear plastic hut with some equipment inside .. definitely not meant for stopping so I just swallow it and move on. I’m quite happy running downhill in almost any terrain or condition so this is a chance to warm up a little and get some speed on. I’m wearing my Salomon Sense Ultras, no issues so far, and at least there’s less wind on this side.

The plastic hut just over the top of Col Crosatie .. not very inviting! Photo credit: Luca Benedet

I have to slow down a little as it’s slippery and visibility isn’t great, and I’m about 150m from the top when it happens. I catch up to a guy ahead, and I’m just thinking about passing him when he takes a left and disappears down the cliff. Suddenly it’s all systems go, I’m shouting for him, for help, and go to check if he’s ok. Looking over the side, all I see is a steep, wet grassy slope, a pair of poles and a hat. There’s a thousand things going through my mind right now, I’m shouting for help as I go retrieve the poles – he might need them if he’s hurt! – can’t reach the hat as it’s too close to the edge! – help!help!help! – what the hell is ‘help’ in Italian??

I’m running down the mountain now, trying to see if I can spot where he fell. I hear someone shouting, someone’s found him! I yell back that I’m coming. I nearly crash into a group of 5 runners making their way down slowly, they’re holding shoulders in a train, maybe because it’s slippery with poor visibility. The last person in the train is one of the China Technica guys and I’m pulling him along for help. Somehow we manage to grab an Italian runner too, so it’s 3 of us making our way off the trail across to where the man has fallen.

He’s lying perpendicular to the slope, and I work out he’s fallen about 150m from where he slipped. He’s conscious, moaning, with gashes on his head and a stream of blood down the rock beneath him. We’ve covered him with some emergency blankets and the first guy there has put something under his head as well. I’m calling the SOS number as I seem to be the only one with a signal on my phone. I don’t notice the first guy leaving, and the other Italian says he’s a doctor, and we shouldn’t move him. Yeah, ok. I pass the phone to him to make the call, as I figure it’ll be better to be reported in Italian than to confuse matters more with another language.

So we wait. The Technica chap is freezing so he leaves, then the Italian doctor does the same. I don’t blame them, and I’m grateful that I was mostly warm and dry with all my kit on. I think it’s been half an hour since it all happened. Still a thousand things in my head – What if I have to stay here all night? Will he be ok? What can I do? Is this the end of my race? Is anybody coming?? This is crazy. I’m there in some of the worst possible conditions trying to talk to this poor man so he doesn’t lose consciousness and keep him as warm as possible. WHERE ARE THEY??

It’s nearly an hour since the incident, I now know that his name is Yang Yuan, he’s from China, with no kids or wife. He came here alone and his whole body hurts. My mandarin needs some serious brushing up.  I decide I need help and start blowing my whistle and waving my headlamp and poles. We’re off the trail so we can’t be seen easily, and since I’d lost a lot of places in that last climb, I guessed the people coming over the top now would be in a poor position to notice me, not to mention stop and help. My efforts at blowing my whistle in SOS morse code are falling on deaf ears due to the wind direction (I used a Fox 40 whistle, pretty sure the standard Salomon ones would not have helped!), but my lights and pole waving seem to have attracted some attention at last.

Two runners come over and whilst one leaves soon after in search of help and a better mobile phone signal (my fingers so cold I can’t even take my phone out of my pocket now), the other stays to help. Andrea’s company was very welcome, and we managed to communicate with a mix of French and Italian. I think he put another survival blanket on Yang Yuan, so we covered him from head to toe and tried to keep the blankets from flying off in the wind.

FINALLY someone comes .. it feels like we’ve been waiting forever, and I’m running out of things to say to Yang Yuan. He barks into a radio and goes off again .. come back!! Then an age later he’s back with a friend, a tent and a bivvy bag. Suddenly things are moving. We get Yang Yuan into the insulated bivvy bag, he’s still lucid and able to move his neck so that gives me some hope for his recovery. Then I’m holding onto the tent, pitched about 30m away where it’s flatter and less unstable, and the three men carry Yang Yuan to the tent. Once he’s in, we’re told we can go. The last thing I hear is one of the men telling him that he’s lucky he’s been found and don’t go to sleep.

Markers and route estimations along the way.

Andrea and I make our way downhill to Planaval (1517m) meeting a doctor and two sets of mountain rescuers hiking up. I’m praying Yang Yuan will be ok, and grateful for Andrea’s company, but we don’t say much about what’s just happened. I warm up along the way, grateful for a hot drink at Planaval, where there’s a time checkpoint. The next stop is the Valgrisenche life base, nearly 7km away, but it’s flat-ish, and Andrea and I stick together till then. It’s a surprisingly quick section, and we reach Valgrisenche just after 2am, 16 hours from when we first started in Courmayeur, and I’d already spent at least half that time saying I’d never do this again. I’m dazed, tired, cold and not quite sure what to do. Seeing Steve sat calmly by the entrance to the life base just made everything feel even more surreal.

After watching the rather wet start, Steve decided to see if he could find me at the first life base, and I am truly grateful that he did. I think I talked Steve’s ear off in the first 15 minutes, whilst he very kindly tried to work out if I needed anything. A familiar face and just being able to relate my story in English really helped! What a night. I’d estimated reaching Valgrisenche at 5.15am, so I was 3 hours ahead of my plan despite spending an extra 2 hours on the side of the cliff. Mentally I was all over the place and spent an hour at there trying to sort myself out. I’d ruled out changing socks as I only had one extra pair and it was still raining .. might as well just keep the wet ones on. I’d pay for that big time later.

Slightly dazed at Valgrisenche, Life Base 1 – Photo credit: Wang Bo

Once I was fed, watered and had stopped talking for the most part, Steve gently ushered me out. I’d lost Andrea as he’d planned on getting some sleep there so off I went on my own. The plan was to climb just over 8km to Chalet de l’Epée and get an hour’s kip there. I don’t want to leave the warm, brightly lit life base, but I’m out the door, bundled up and staring at the lit path from my headlamp again. It feels like I’ve already gone a very long way, but it’s only been 48.6km, just a little more than a standard marathon. Oh well, here we go again.