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Extreme mountain racing - 300km through the alps without a GPS

by Editor
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Tags  La Petite Trotte a Leon   |   PTL   |   Flippers Gang   |   Steve Watts   |   Tim Laney   |   Digby Harris

Race report: Digby Harris tells the tale of a mammoth adventure - La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) Chamonix, France, August 2013

The PTL is a bit of an Alpine adventure - an extended circumnavigation of Mont Blanc - for teams of two or three people.  The event always starts and finishes in Chamonix but the organisers vary the route each year and in 2013 it was going to be 300km with 24,000m of ascent. 

Steve Watts and I agreed to enter back in January and then Steve managed to recruit our Bath based friend, Tim Laney, at the High Peak Marathon to complete team “Flipper’s Gang”. Steve (Flipper) and I have done this event before but I don’t think Tim really knew what he was letting himself in for! Nevertheless, with his pedigree, we knew he would have no problem.

Photo: Meet team “Flipper’s Gang” - Steve Watts, Tim Laney and Digby Harris

We arrived in Chamonix a couple of days in advance of the start at 10pm on 26th August to sort out gear, buy supplies and missing pieces of kit for our three drop bags, review the route, soak up the UTMB atmosphere and eat lots.  Registration with the other 88 teams went smoothly until it came to download the route onto our GPS.  Representatives from Garmin were present the previous time to help with downloads but not this year and whilst the organiser did his best he finally gave up, commenting that Steve’s three year old GPS was too old!  Little did we know but this did not seem to be an issue as, like most fell running Brits, map and compass only navigation is the norm for us.

Day 1: Evening of Monday, 26th August

By 9.30pm Place du Triangle de l'Amitié in Chamonix was jam packed with organisers, head torched competitors and well-wishers alike – it was an electric atmosphere full of anticipation.  A countdown saw us off for the first climb of 1,300m over the Col du Brévent.  It must have been an impressive site from Chamonix to see 228 head torches zig-zagging their way up the hill.  We deliberately took it steady but, even so, started pulling our way up through the field and continued to do so through to dawn. 

Day 2: Tuesday, 27th August

Just after sunrise we arrived at the Col de Tré I’Epaule (34.3km; 2532m) above the ski resort of Flaine. This is where the PTL adds another layer of interest over more conventional trail races such as the UTMB. The route to the Refuge de Véran (37.5km; 1597m) involved descending down some steep, exposed hunter’s paths requiring the aid of rope handrails to ensure safe passage.  We were greeted with a stunning view over the massive limestone cliffs into the cloud filled valley occupied by the E25 Geneva/Chamonix road. 

Having been on the move continuously for eight or so hours we stopped for our “first” breakfast at the Refuge, where a number of other teams at the front end had already arrived. A quick bowl of salty soup, cake and coffee and we were off, heading west, descending via steep paths (and with the aid of a ladder on one occasion) down to Magland (46km; 507m) to cross the E25 towards the Aravis mountain range.

After our “second” breakfast in Gravin we dug in for the climb up to Gueule au vent (55.7km; 2014m) via some very steep and exposed cliffs with wire handrail protection on tiny paths. The weather started to clag in as the day wore on, coats went on and by the time we arrived at the Refuge de la Pointe Percée (62.9km) for lunch it was getting rather chilly and grey.

We were greeted by hail and rain as we crossed the steep Col de Verts (64.1km; 2598m), which was not ideal for traversing the most technically challenging section of the whole route - a barely distinct path on steep slippery rock with a massive run out below. Steve was lucky to only get clipped on the ankle as some falling rocks whizzed by at speed from above. However, we were rewarded with a stunning setting and a rather hairy traverse over a steep, slippery, black shale ridge in which Tim and I at least had to resort to face up descending on hands and feet. 

Interestingly we had had a shadow with us for this last section - a French guy who was not part of the event but wanted to tag along to see how fast the PTL teams were going (not very!). The weather set in and full waterproof cover came out for a bit of a trudge.  We knew at this point that we were in second place following a Finnish pair, who, not very imaginatively, we dubbed the “Flying Finns”.

Not sure exactly what time we arrived at our first overnight stop, the Plan de L’aar (82.2km; 1732m), but it was about 24h and 7-8000m of ascent after leaving Chamonix and I was very grateful (broadly equivalent in distance and height to the Ramsay Round). On our previous PTL in 2010, Steve, Spyke and I successfully survived on 4h sleep in every 24h bar the first and last days so we decided to more or less stick with this strategy.

Day 3: Wednesday 28th August.

Soon enough we were being woken up for a quick breakfast. We learnt that two teams had gone through whilst we slept; so three teams ahead including the Flying Finns. Our aim was to survive the first few days and to remain in contention, but not to race, then see where we were placed and push on in the last 24 hours if our bodies held up.

The PTL isn’t officially a race but unofficially there’s no doubt about it for some teams! We descended to Praz-sur-Arly, just west of Mègeve, and stopped for second breakfast at a hut on the way to Col de Véry (96.5km; 1732m) via Mont Vores.  To our surprise we met the Flying Finns (Juha Jumesko and Janne Marin – the “North Js” team) who had decided to stop here for sleep assuming it would be quieter. They left whilst we were eating and then the next Finnish team arrived to also have breakfast (Team name “Mustavuoren Reippaat” translated by Google as “Black Mountain Brisk” or the “BMB team” from now on).  They had stopped at Praz-sur-Arly. 

We learnt that a French team was in the lead and they were obviously surviving on very little sleep. On the climb to Mont Vores we were treated to fabulous views of Mont Blanc and we could also see the Flying Finns just ahead but no sign of the French Team. We overtook the Flying Finns sometime later as they stopped for refreshment at a col overlooking Lac de la Girotte.  Shortly after we spotted the French team (Team “Run et sens”) on the ascent to Col de la Gitte (111.1 km; 2359m) and we were quickly gaining.

We noticed that we were generally as competitive as the other teams on the climbs and that our propensity to run steadily on the flats and descents gave us an advantage, possibly as we weren’t hampered by poles or GPSs. We overtook Run et sens on the climb to Col du Roc du Vent (120.8km; 2331m) and were first to arrive at the next organised stop comprising a large tent at Chalet du Roc du Vent (123.3km; 1820m) near the Cormet de Roseland.

It amused us when Tim was jokingly called a naughty boy by one of the PTL helpers for taking a very short short cut! The PTL support team were consistently great: really kind, friendly and supportive, they just couldn’t do enough to help us.

More pasta and then we headed off to the killer climb up to the Brèche de Parozan (130.9km; 2683km). The ascent is absolutely brutal – steep and loose: two steps forward and one step back. By early evening we were descending from Col de la Nova (134.2km; 2798m) and it was here that we spotted a North Face helicopter filming competitors in the TDS (a PTL sister race from Courmayer to Chamonix going clockwise around Mont Blanc). Just above Lac Esola we joined the TDS folk for a couple of kilometres before our ways parted.  It was interesting to note that we were covering the ground more quickly than most of them. 

On the descent to our next planned stop at Les Échines Dessous (144.6km; 1328m) we experienced the first clear sign that a lack of a GPS could be a disadvantage (we believe we were the only team navigating solely by map, compass and altimeter).  The maps that we were given have the route marked as a red line on them, which is a GPS track, and are accompanied by route notes.  Both the maps and the route notes are geared for navigation with a GPS and not a map and compass. 

The red line on the map doesn’t always precisely follow the route, the organised stops are not marked on the maps and the notes are frequently too vague to be helpful (with comments such as “difficult navigation – zoom in with your GPS”).  This is my only criticism of the event but I personally see it as a serious flaw in the organisation that the maps and notes do not always permit accurate route finding solely using map and compass. Not that I had grounds to whinge as it was Steve and Tim that were navigating, I just read out the notes! To cut a long story short, without the checkpoint or the new road down to it being marked and with the inadequacies of the map and route description, we received a phone call from the organisers advising we had overshot.  We arrived eventually but we had lost some height and easily a good half hour. 

Day 4: Thursday 29th August

Up again, after another four hours sleep, we were on the trail of the two Finnish teams and the French Team.  It seems that the BMB and Run et sens teams were surviving on about an hours sleep in 24h.  The Flying Finns, on the other hand, seemed to be getting about three hours sleep.  By the Col de Breuil (159.2km; 2887m) we had overtaken the Finnish Teams and caught up Run et sens. We pretty much stayed together for the traverse past old WWII buildings to the Col Chavannes (164.5km; 2603m) where the camaraderie was such that we all stopped for a short break to admire the close up view of the Mont Blanc range and to take photos.

On the ascent to Col du Berio Blanc (170.25km; 2848m) we bumped into the PTL head organiser, Jean Claude Marmier, who fortuitously supplied Tim with a new complete set of maps to replace those which he had dropped accidentally a few kms back. It was at this point, on the descent to the Aosta valley, that we began to start increasing our lead. 

As we lost height on the approach to Morgex the heat ramped up and it was a relief to arrive, be reunited with our second drop bags, get showered, change clothes and eat. The PTL staff were as kind and helpful as ever and the homemade Lasagne and apple cake delicious. Tim’s dropped maps were miraculously returned by a work party that, I believe, had been checking the chain handrails that we had used earlier to descend a steep section.  We departed within an hour or so of arriving accompanied by a couple of PTL staff, one of whom lead us through the highest vineyards in Europe to the start of the 1,900m climb to the Col du Bataillon d’Aoste (204.1km; 2883m). 

In the past this Col has clearly been an important route with evidence of a great deal of building works to support the path.  The descent from the col is steep and tricky as the path is now badly eroded and obviously a bit of an adventure in the dark as was verified later by the Flying Finns. I gave myself a bit of a start later on when I woke up just before careering off down a steep slope approaching the Col de Malatra (the highest point en route at 2928m). 20 minutes later we arrived at the Refuge Frassiti for more food and our final, short sleep (213.1km; 2540m).

Days 5/6: Friday 30th August/Saturday 31st August

I slept like a log but unfortunately the other two had not.  I was concerned about Tim who had a nasty cough but he soon pulled round after a breakfast of bread and paracetamol. The three other teams had arrived after we had gone to bed and we left before they surfaced – the first night that we were departing in the lead. We had been going well so this looked promising – less than 90km to go, or so we thought!

Our progress was good until a momentary lapse in concentration (and not the fault of the maps or route description this time; possibly we were just a bit tired!) meant we overshot the Col de Planards (226.7km; 2735m) and the valley we should have been using to descend to Bourg St Pierre. 

Instead we carried on to the next col (which we had crossed in 2010) and then into the next valley.  By sheer coincidence the route description from the Col de Planards matched the terrain on the ground in the valley that we were in. The phone went but not until we were fully committed to our route.

The vmail message confirmed we had gone wrong and our spirits plummeted.  However, within seconds we were sorting ourselves out. Fortunately our map showed the valley we were in and the terrain and a path over to our next checkpoint at Bourg St Pierre. Spirits rose, it was a lovely day and we were again focussed. Our alternative route, whilst quite a bit longer, turned out to be much more pleasant than the one we should have been on, which we knew from 2010.

We were amazed to find that we still held the lead at Bourg St Pierre (237.2km; 1632m) although we lost a good hour plus getting back on track. The Flying Finns arrived about 15 minutes later and joined us for lunch and chat.  We departed first for the 15km run down the valley to Champex. Several frustrating moments ensued when the inadequacies of the map and route notes hampered accurate route finding, causing us to retrace our steps and lose more valuable time.

At Champex (253.3km; 1477m) we joined the route being used by CCC runners (another PTL sister race from Courmayer to Chamonix going anti-clockwise around Mont Blanc) and received applause from slightly bemused looking spectators who weren’t sure what we were doing until we passed and our PTL race numbers became visible on our packs! Tim was interviewed by the compere in French as Steve and I headed for food and to change into new socks from our drop bags.  

No sign of the Flying Finns as we left for the Croix de Breya - a rather gratuitous climb on the way to the Fenêtre d’Arpette. Not sure why but on the ascent a quad muscle in my left leg starting twinging (possibly something to do with nearly 40,000m of descent I’d done during the past three weeks??) so Tim kindly lent me his poles. The twinging got worse and developed into a full strain.  The descent from the Fenêtre d’Arpette (262.9km; 2665m) was exceedingly painful but the poles allowed me to maintain reasonable progress. Still, I was really fed up as I’d experienced the same problem in 2010 when the last few kms back to Chamonix were grim.

I was also concerned that it would jeopardise our position although I was in no doubt that I would finish even if it meant hopping back! This fired me up and on the last climb to the Col de Balme (272.5km; 2204m) I forced a good pace to do what I could not to let Steve and Tim down, knowing I’d be slow on the descent. After a while we saw head torches descending on the other side of the valley from the Fenêtre d’Arpette and judging by their pace and position we estimated the Flying Finns were a good hour behind – not much of a buffer with my gammy leg.

Tim’s poles allowed me to continue to maintain a reasonable pace on the hop down to Tour from the Col de Balme.We then picked up the Petit Balcon Nord track and were able to shuffle towards Argentiere (Tim was also suffering but with sore shins), where the map and route notes and lack of a GPS once again became an issue.  Anyone familiar with this track will know that the signing is confusing in places and another good half hour was lost trying to find the right path to Chamonix. 

At La Lavanche we lost even more time whilst comprehensively exploring the whole village trying to find the exit path (the route notes were unhelpfully directing us to use our GPS to guide us back to Chamonix!), eventually admitting defeat and resorting to shuffling down the main road instead. On the outskirts of Chamonix we re-joined the correct path and at about 5am, 103 hours after starting out (including 11 hours of sleep spread over three nights), we crossed the finish line – first team back.

Results, Statistics and Acknowledgements

Flippers Gang – 103:08:14
The North Js – 104:34:04
Run et sens – 109:03:07
BMB – 111:48:03

89 teams started comprising 228 people and 43 teams finished.  The fastest team to complete over the exact route took 111 hours and the slowest team 136hours.


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