August 15, 2014 George Foster

Sierre-Zinal and Les Alpinistes 2014

And so…….

And so a couple of weeks ago I set off in my trusty steed ‘Jean-Claude’ (not my little Belgian bummer boy) and swept across the Gallic lowlands to nestle atop a perch in that sphere of unpredictability known to the outside world as ‘Italy’. How the fuck these guys took over half the planet is lost on me!

I was there for reasons singular in appearance but with a unifying/two-fold purpose. Namely to acclimatise to Alpine conditions for a race, the ‘title’ race, and to climb some Alps 4000ers. I like to think that I succeeded in both. Well I guess there’s no thinking involved. I DID achieve both. That the mountains we climbed were not necessarily the ones we had in mind when we went out there and that I didn’t quite make the time limit I’d set myself for the race is irrelevant in that context.

I went to Italy on a pilgrimage for my man-crush – Kilian Jornet. He’s soooo dreamy. Alas that’s for a separate, more private, post. By chance (I promise) he was presenting a showing of his new Summits of My Life film just down the valley from where I’d harnessed up Jean-Claude in Cervinia. There was some other dude there but my eyes were only for my ‘Kiki’. I didn’t stay to watch the film. It was in Italian. I also couldn’t understand a bastard thing that Kilian and the other guy (Bruno Brunod – bad ass) were saying in their opening gambit cos that was also in Italian. I’m shit at Italian. Luckily though the entire population of Italy is shit at English, or so they pretended to be, so a healthy equilibrium was restored during conversations. Of which there were plenty. These involved wild gesticulations that an epileptic would be proud of with very little substance.

Anyway, all that came later. I cut the power to Jean-Claude in a layby under the Matterhorn with the very real and very naive idea to climb it. Esther was due to fly out to Geneva on the Sunday so I figured I’d climb it by myself that week, then again with her the following week before my race on the Sunday after. Thank you God for the shite weather you brought down that put paid to any such notions of climbing. I’d have surely died. As it was I settled for a couple of lengthy jaunts up and around the area, crossed into Swizzy a couple of times and ran up to just below the Col del Leone for a quick snoop at the approach. The Matterhorn is firmly on my ‘one-to-come-back-to’ list for when I’ve grown some larger balls and got some actual knowledge of what Alpine climbing involves……….luckily I now have that latter knowledge and so next year it could maybe, just maybe be only a few mre years from fruition!  

Nothing of interest happened apart from those few runs. I got steadily acclimatised up to 3,200m and saw some marmots. So far, so Alps. On the Sunday I picked up Esther from Geneva and we drove on into Swizzy, stopping just below Zermatt for a shot at some uber-basic Alpine climbing on the Breithorn. A fairly tall beast the Breithorn but without a technical shred on it’s Southern aspect. Perfecto. Being new to this we started fairly late in the day, arriving as everyone else was heading down. Nevertheless we weren’t the last to the gondola in the evening, having ‘climbed’, in the loosest sense of the word, up to the Central peak and traversed along the fine ridgeline to the main summit at 4,164m. Training route complete and valuable lessons learnt. Namely………WEAR SUNSCREEN!!! Holy Shit!! I made that mistake in the Indian Himalayas and sure as BMW drivers can’t use their indicators I made it again. Cue a week of expressionless chitter-chatter in the van between ourselves. We were literally burns victims. Horrendous and annoying. 

Next up was the chance to combine a 4000m Alpine ascent with a high-up rock route. For this the Lagginhorn over by Saas-Fee was ideal. There’s a great hut, relatively cheap cable-car, straightforward walk-in, good peaks to choose from with difficulties from easy to hard and two fully 5-star rock routes on an adjacent hill. Mega. We spent the Tuesday wandering up to the hut with the intention of a ridge-to-ridge traverse of the mountain. It’s fairly tame at a rather deflated 4,010m but has two very appealing ridges forming an enticing and aesthetic horseshoe when combined with the summit ridge. Via some grade-mashing tomfoolery we found a route quite a bit tougher than the Breithorn that came in at about AD III (AD = not mega tricky but a good ‘second’ route grade; III = approx. VS standard rock climbing). We were ‘advised’ that our idea of an Alpine start (7.30am) was not the ‘accepted’ idea of an Alpine start and so it was that we dragged ourselves out of bed at the unholy hour of 4am to join the masses in the plod up to the glacier crossing. The easiest route up the mountain goes left and immediately crosses the glacier and it was across this that 99% of the parties ventured. We went right. 

The ridge was very straightforward for about 100m then navigation, inexperience and poor command of the German language betrayed us. Nearly 2 hours after we were meant to be, we found ourselves front-pointing up a snow slope towards our intended junction with the dominant summit ridge and the beginning of the technical difficulties of the climb. If I had known how supremely scared I was going to be shortly after I’d have savoured this a lot more. I REALLY liked the ‘classic’ snow slope plodding that took us up there. Exactly what Alpine climbing was in my mind. Sun on our backs. Nicely tired with a good ache in the calves. I know differently now. Once up on the main ridge the exposure was preeeeetty terrifying! I’ve not really felt it like that before so it took some getting used to. Luckily we were up there for hours so I had the time to get accustomed! The climbing I think would have been a lot easier going the reverse of where we went so when I say downclimbing what was effectively a Severe felt like the living end of technical skull-duggery then please go easy on me and remember we were 3,800m up on an Alpine ridge in crampons on loose rock and slushy snow (though I admit this is far from “bad-ass”). Conversely the ‘crux’ of the route in the form of a Grade III airy traverse below a big ass boulder with a 3,500m drop behind you was surprisingly piss. 

After the summit, and obligatory photo of two ‘alpinistes’ standing like erect penises with a foot on top of a slain dragon (the mountain), the descent was very easy (perhaps we should have gone UP this way?!) and we were literally running across the glacier at the end. 13 hours after we’d set off. Long day.

We also missed the last cable car down so had a long and steeeeeeep canter down to Jean-Claude waiting like the last violinist on the Titanic. An all too quick sleep later and we were returning by said cable car (for twas cheaper to get a return on the cable than sleep in the hut) to climb either of the 4-star classiques on the Jagihorn adjacent to the Lagginhorn. Horn. These routes were, of course, Panorama (5a) or Alpendurst (4c). Big 10-14 pitch monsters topping out at a chokingly thin 3,600m-ish. There was a whopper queue on Alpendurst and we had a cable to catch so we happily settled for a speed ascent of Panorama. It was ace!! Very easy but all the more enjoyable given the confidence battering we’d had the day before and it turned into a very pleasant romp up. Really, really, really good climbing. Well bolted and generally excellent rock quality. The run down to the car was awesome too. 

We rested the next few days until my race on the Sunday.

If you’re into running I imagine there’s a good chance you’ll have heard of this race. It’s also called “Les Course de Cinq 4000” (“The Course of the Five Four-thousanders”). Not because you run up any of them, it’s sadly not that hardcore, but you do get a nice view of some – well five as the name suggests. It’s a fair beast of a start with a super steep climb of approximately 1,600m vertical ascent in just shy of 10km; though it doesn’t actually stop ascending until around the 25km mark when you reach the highest point on the 31km route at around 2,450m. That’s quite a lot of ‘up’.

After a quick stalk of Kilian I settled in to the middle of the pack at the start line, looking somewhat awestruck at all the money that had gone into peoples attire. You could pick out the Brits quite easily. They, being drawn from the fell running fraternity, were predominantly bedecked in knackered old club vests with a shite hessian sack masquerading as a bumbug draped around their waist. A lovely ‘couldn’t-give-a-fuck’ attitude in contrast to the Euros with their matching ‘cap-techvest-armsock-techshort-thighcompression-calfcompression-sock-£200shoe’ investment. Sad to say but the old thinking that “it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it” came into play cos I saw a shit load of these lot finishing after me than I did in front. The mighty grip of consumerism is alive and well amongst the “Skyrunners” of the continent.

Anyway that’s no reflection on their character or person. The gun went off at EXACTLY 9.30am as is the Swiss style. No one moved. Or at least we waited for close to 30 seconds before the weight of numbers cleared the first bottleneck right at the start of the run in the form of a sharp right hander straight out the gates. Not even the Edinburgh Half-marathon was as congested as this! One I got running it was like swimming in a mass salmon migration. Giving myself some fighting space as we neared the end of the road and entered the woods on the start of the death march through the trees I had to duck, dodge, dip and dive (and dodge) along stony tracks with increasingly whopper drops to get ahead of the masses.

The first part was predictably horrible and like all good climbs seemed never-ending. An hour and twenty minutes later I’d reached the top of the really steep bit and not had only 15km of reasonable upwards motion to make, interspersed by the odd flatter, faster section where my legs didn’t want to respond. Shuffling along through the Swiss pastures can be pretty undignified in such a prestigious race as this but at least I got the chance to enjoy the views. Got chatting to the odd British guys as we to’d and fro’d along the course. Not much happened of note, though the Euros don’t like to let you past when you’re clearly going much faster than them. Ballbags. You kind of have to barge past them, which they don’t seem to mind.

The final 6km is downhill and takes a heck of a lot out of your legs, especially the last 2/3km which is mucho steep! I thought my knees were gonna pop off! Suffering the embarrassment of double calf cramp as I came into the village and the applause of several hundred ‘fans’ I was able to hobble over the line in 184th place after 3hrs 32mins 39secs of general pain. Disappointed to miss out on the sub 3hr 30min mark. Spent too much time chatting to people at the aid stations I guess. On the plus side the bloke that won – Kilian, dreamboat, Latin prince etc etc – was ahead of me by over an hour. Fuck that.  

Lessons learnt:

  • If I was doing this again I’d get there earlier and run sections of the course beforehand.
  • I’d turn up at the start line earlier and get in front of the masses so I was sprinting away at the beginning to get some distance.
  • I’d think about food/drink management.
  • I’d train specifically for that start i.e. get knackered on some steep stuff then run flat out to cope with that transition.
  • Be better. 

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