The Ultrarunners’ Hell: Donnas to Gressoney – 54 km / 6086+
The much-hated stage from Donnas to Gressoney is actually the only one to have no cols over 2,500 meters. It has only 4 cols above 2,000 meters with the highest, Col Lasoney, just exceeding 2,300 meters. Those stats though don’t give the full story: the initial climb packs nearly 2,000 vertical meters and if that isn’t enough a ruthless muscle-crunching, and truly mind-fucking, sequence of never-ending ups and downs awaits those who have completed the 150 Km to Donnas. It has the highest cumulative climb of the entire course and, notoriously, the highest attrition rate with staggering numbers of runners dropping out on the way to Gressoney. If Dante Alighieri’s Hell had a circle for ultrarunners, this would undoubtedly be it!
I began climbing a series of switchbacks all the way to a hilltop only to start going down again, and then up, and then down again… There were a few other runners on the trail and we chatted for a while, mostly about the rumors of pizza being served at the next checkpoint: it would have sounded like one of those ultra trail legends but a young woman who had done the Tor the previous year confirmed the intel to be true.
After going up and down for what seemed an eternity, we finally made into to a village called Perloz – the place where the pizza was supposed to be. I walked into the big white checkpoint tent, my mouth already watering when a volunteer broke the bad news by pointing the finger to a pile of empty cartons: there was no pizza left. I had seen the checkpoint in Perloz before on Youtube so I wasn’t completely caught by surprise: there was a band playing music, people dancing, other people sounding horns or chasing runners while twisting huge cowbells; it looked like a crazy village out of an epic fantasy book. Despite being out of pizza, they had had some really good homemade food: for a couple of minutes I just ate, chilled and then forgot the clock was ticking. I was eating some home-baked spinach and cheese savory cake when I saw the other runners were already heading out. I would have loved to hang out there longer but I really had to get going and start the long climb to Sassa.
We went through thick forests, crossed old bridges, traversed open mountain sections, short stretches of paved roads through small villages or hamlets: the continuously varied landscape to some extent helped make the incessant change in elevation mentally easier. We finally reached Sassa which I had imagined being another small town like Perloz but instead, it was a country road lined by a few of houses. At the end of the street, to the right, there were two large white tents with the volunteers and food. On the left side of the road, there were high-viz dome-shaped sleeping tents. I gave my number and asked if I could sleep: one guy abruptly told me the bar had been closed. I wasn’t sure why he had mentioned the bar, he looked as if he was in a bad mood. had been on the trail for over 60 hours, traveled 160 Km, climbed over 13,000 meters and had only slept 90 minutes at most at Rhemes. Not to mention only 10 hours in three days before the race. I still had 40 Km and cumulative of 5,000 meters before reaching Gressoney: if I could catch some sleep, this was the right place to do it. And I wasn’t going to take a no for an answer that easy. I asked again and a more reasonable volunteer looked at a list on the table and told me there was somebody leaving in 20 minutes and that I could have a place in one of the tents. It was good enough for me. I ate while waiting and drank hot coffee and tea to warm myself up: it was getting really cold very quickly.
The volontor called me and showed me to a big white tent. I asked him to wake me up 84 minutes later, then he left. Inside the tent, there were two cots: the one closer to the entrance was taken while the one on the far side was free. On the cot there was an old blanket that must have dated back to the Great War: it was perfect! I did the usual trick of tying my poles to my pack, placed the pack as a pillow on the cot, and slid under the blanket. The guy next to me got up and told me, he had been there for an hour but had been unable to sleep because it was too cold and humid. He was going up to Rifugio Coda hoping to sleep there. I figured I’d better layer up so I threw on my ultralight insulation hoodie below my Goretex shell, then closed my eyes and finally slept. I was woken up by the volontor exactly 90 minutes later: I was so cold that when I got out from under the blanket I began shivering right away. I geared up and walked back to the checkpoint and refreshment areas to have a hot drink before starting the 800 vertical meters climb to Rifugio Coda. While I was sipping some instant coffee I overheard the CB radio crackle: somebody from Rifugio Coda announced the temperatures had reached or exceeded minus -10° Celsius! It was time to get rolling: I thanked the volontor and left!
I went up for some time and finally warmed up. While I was about to walk past a lone runner going up the hill, I realized it was the guardian angel. He looked 10 years older than when I had last seen him at Rifugio Sogno. He said he was OK, he was just really tired and would stop to sleep in Rifugio Coda too.
I kept going up and the Rifugio Coda finally came into sight, sitting on top of a ridge. When I walked in a group of friendly volontor asked me straight away if I wanted to sleep or eat. I replied I had slept at Sassa and only needed to grab a bite. They erupted in a sort of celebration: they had such a long waiting list of people wanting to sleep that they just didn’t know what do with them anymore. People were sleeping all over the place: there were even runners lying on the floor of the narrow corridor just off the entrance. I went downstairs and entered a small claustrophobic room, packed with runners sheltering from the cold and eating some food. Here too they only had instant coffee: I could barely stand the brewed sawdust taste anymore. I was having my usual staple of crostata with nutella and coke when an Asian woman walked into the room and calmly asked if somebody had taken her poles by mistake. Apparently her Black Diamond poles had disappeared and some ultra Santa had left an identical pair but of a smaller size as a non-to-so-Christmasy present! Probably by mistake but I couldn’t help but wonder if the hunchback of Cogne hadn’t solved his own problem by randomly fucking over somebody else’s race. I really felt sorry for this woman: if she was left with too short poles, she might still be able to use them for the steep uphills and that would certainly help. Still, the poles would be close to useless on the long downhills, with all that it entailed for her joints: whether intentionally or not, somebody had just screwed her odds to complete the TDG! I told myself that going to the trouble of folding the poles and always bringing them with me any place, any time – even to bed – had been the right decision: for me the poles were not a fancy option but an indispensable piece of gear needed to keep me going. More runners piled into the cramped room and the stench of sweat became almost overwhelming. In a way, it was great because it made it mentally easier to get back out into sub-zero temperatures. I left the hut and began the descent on the other side of the ridge. The trail was uneven, full of holes and rocks so I set my headlamp on the brightest setting and went downs slowly: with 400 lumens in neutral white at least I could clearly see where I was stepping!
After a short while, despite the nap at Sassa, I began feeling really tired and realized my eyes were closing. I paused and drank water, then took two caffeine pills – they had proven useless earlier on but had not much to lose by trying again. I began the desperate fight to stay awake! The caffeine pills were not making any difference, if anything I felt even more sleepy than before. Even with the headlamp on max and the music blasting in my years, my thoughts were constantly blurring: the epic journey gradually became the “epic trip”… and trip in the ‘70s psychedelic sense of the term! I kept going down reminding myself I had to absolutely reach the port before the last boat would sail out or I was going to be stuck on the island. I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember where I was: I knew I was there for a reason and that I had to get somewhere fast but wasn’t sure where or why. I was even aware I was probably delusional but couldn’t remember why either. I opened one of my soft flasks and poured the freezing cold water over my face. I pulled out my Fenix flashlight and slowly turned around shining the beam in the distance: I was surrounded by big rocks but was I really on an island? Then a song played in the earphones and remembered about running in the Wicklow mountains, training for the Tor Des Geants… That was it, I had to be in the Alps… I was at the Tor Des Geant and had to get moving, I could feel the adrenaline and quickly woke up. I resumed the descent and decided to play one of my favorite audiobooks while waiting for the sun to rise. By the time I reached the bottom of the valley the sky had started becoming bright and it was also much warmer. I removed the headlamp and a layer and began another climb.
I reached Rifugio della Balma, a refurbished hut in the middle of grassy alpine meadows. I walked in, gave my number, and I was kindly asked to leave my poles outside. Instead, I folded them into their pouch, then attached them to the top of my pack, and went in. Two runners, a woman and a man, were having a heated argument with a volunteer about a second serving. The woman kept screaming “Che ristoro del cazzo!” meaning something like “What a shitty refreshment point!” The two runners must have been sleep-deprived and just made a scene out of nothing because not long after I asked kindly and managed to get two servings – both pasta and a soup – without any problem. While I was eating the same woman I had seen in Rifugio Coda walked in and started asking very politely if anybody had found her poles. I really felt sorry for her but I had a hunch she wouldn’t find her poles again. I looked at my watch and suddenly realized I had been there for over 40 minutes: I had to get going! I jumped off the stool and headed through the door while calling my number, then began jogging. Not for too long as less than 100 meters from the rifugio, I tripped on something and fell face down into a pool of mud. A woman came to my rescue and helped me stand up. While walking and trying to wipe the mud off my face we began chatting: she had completed both the 4K and TDG before so I jumped at the chance and asked her a few questions about the route to Niel.
The up and down continued, then the trail changed from grass to a wide unpaved road. The weather had turned sunny and warm maybe even too warm. While climbing up to Col di Marmontana I ran into a group of local hikers who seemed intrigued by the way I was dressed and the fact that I was donning an Ireland bib. They asked a lot of questions about the Tor, how long I had been going, how many hours I had slept, etc. I told them the situation was not looking too promising and didn’t have too much time left to get to Niel first and then to Gressoney. They were really encouraging and said I could make it even if it was indeed tight. The fact that they didn’t deny the unfavorable odds gave me confidence me as it meant they were being realistic rather than simply reassuring.
The trail ended and found myself going through and around giant rocks: I went from jogging to scrambling. The poles were constantly getting stuck between the rocks and had to be extra careful not to break them when pulling them out. I had bought these poles just before the Tor and used them only on a couple of short training runs to make sure there were no defects. At the start of the Tor, I could have probably sold them as brand new to a trail junkie in a Courmayeur side street. Not even halfway into the Tor, they looked like they had been through a war. I climbed the last big rock thinking I had reached the top of col and was ready to go downhill when I realized I had only reached the base of the col with at least another 300 vertical meters still left to climb. I cursed briefly but there was no point in complaining, I just had to keep going. I finally reached the Col Marmontana and followed a wavy downhill trail on the other side till I hit a grassy plateau with a small lake: if it weren’t for the refreshment point next to a stream where a group of volontor were roasting meat, it could have looked like a remote place on a mountain! Welcome to the Tor: the journey where an insane Alpine adventure suddenly meets a barbecue event in the middle of nowhere!
I only stopped shortly to refill my flasks, eat half a crostata while chatting with a volontor, and started walking again; I was going through another stretch strewn with giant rocks when I saw a woman standing ahead in the middle of the trail. It was one of the runners I had met while climbing out of Donnas – she was from one of the Baltic countries, possibly Lithuania. She looked pretty spaced out so I asked if she was OK; she explained she hadn’t been able to even catch a nap and couldn’t deal with the sleep deprivation anymore. “When I get to the next checkpoint, I’ll tell the organizers I’m going to finish here!” she said firmly. I tried to tell her to wait to make a decision and see how she would feel once in Gressoney; that maybe she would be able to get some sleep and continue further ahead but she cut me short and firmly repeated she did not want to continue because she could no longer stand not being able to sleep. Sleep deprivation is a real bitch and, if you get to a point where you can’t handle it anymore, it also becomes a matter of personal safety. If she had made her mind up, it was probably the best decision. I just walked with her the next section to the col as the signs between the rocks were not easy to follow and I thought she might get lost. In fact, after 70 and some hours on the trail and only 1.5 hours of sleep, I wasn’t in great shape either and could have gotten both of us lost. Somehow we found the way across the rocks and reached the next refreshment point at Col della Vecchia only a few kilometers away.
After I left the Col, the sky turned dark and it began thunders in the distance. My attention immediately shifted back to the trail as I realized had to cross an exposed section: the trail was very wide, even wider than col Loson which was wide enough already. Still, I was so sleep-deprived and paranoid that I walked the whole stretch with my shoulder virtually grazing against the rock wall to my right in order to put much distance I could between me and the drop: at least 3 good meters and maybe more, then a runner passed me with a wide grin on his face!
I got past the drop and followed the trail weaving down through brush and short pines: at last, I had begun the descent to Niel! Somebody coming up from the opposite direction told me Niel was only about 20 minutes away. That could have been really good news if it wasn’t that almost an hour later there was no sign of Niel and I was still going down.
I kept descending through a lush forest and could hear faint music in the distance but couldn’t see anything beyond the trees. I finally saw a volontor and she he told me Niel was 15 to 20 minutes away; I started going down again at a much faster pace trying to catch up some time and all of a sudden I came out of the forest onto a paved path; a few people were there cheering, yelling to keep going down. I had at last made it to Niel! I checked in at the rifugio and asked right away how long it would take to get to Gressoney: I had only a slightly over 7 hours left and was hoping to get some sleep at the life base. A friendly man reassured me it would take anything between 5 and 7 hours through 6 may be more realistic at this stage. He asked me if I wanted to eat or sleep: the question threw me off as I clearly had no time to sleep so I just asked if I could have some pasta. He went inside the hut and a minute later came out with a huge dish of penne al Pomodoro: It was absolutely delicious, restaurant-grade al dente pasta with a perfectly cooked sauce! The rifugio looked really nice: the perfect spot to stop for food or chill out with a beer after a long summer hike. There were music and plenty of food on the tables outside. The place was bustling with runners getting ready to leave and more just checking in. As soon as I was finished eating I overheard a runner asking in French how long it would take to get from Gressoney: I was about to reply myself when the man who had given me the pasta replied “Between 6 to 8 hours”, maybe 9!” My heart suddenly sank! What the fuck? Only 10 minutes earlier he had told me it would take 5 to 7 hours at most and now he just had added 2 additional hours! I could see the runner who had asked the question was glowing self-doubt already; he was about to be a goner and drop out! He didn’t look in poor shape or anything but it didn’t matter: he could have been perfectly able to continue but if he had let the virus get him it didn’t really, that was it. With 350 KM and 28,000 meters cumulative climb, it wasn’t anymore about who you were or were still physically able to accomplish – the way I saw it, at this stage what really mattered was who you wanted to be and how much you really wanted to cross that finish line in Courmayeur!
I first thought to ask the man why the hell he had given us two different answers – and mostly time estimates – but then told myself I didn’t want to find out and I wasn’t going to ask! Whatever the explanation could have been, it would have made no difference nor made the climb to Lasoney any faster!!! There was one and only one thing left to do: check out and fly up that mountain, no matter what it would take. There would be no quitting, I wasn’t going to quit! I would never choose the easy way out: if I had to miss the cutoff at Gressoney, it would be while giving all I had left, and nothing less than my very best!
I refilled my flasks, threw my pack back on, grabbed my sticks and I was out jogging uphill on a rocky path. I was rabid, I told myself I was going to smoke Col Lasoney, that would do anything to get to Gressoney or die trying: the only real failure was the failure to try! I crossed a road and then went up a series of switchbacks through a forest till I reached the open mountain: there was steep climb ahead, probably a good few hundred meters, with a long bottleneck of runners heading up. I began walking fast again when I realized there was a runner behind me struggling: I turned around and yelled at him “Come on! We can do this, it’s just one last climb!” I went up and relentlessly passed one runner after the other, yelling random phrases of encouragement “If we have made it this far, we’ll make it Gressoney!” I was out of control: I had just self-appointed myself to a hybrid role between motivational speaker and drill sergeant! In hindsight, I must have looked either ridiculous or utterly insane, probably both! Some runners were smiling, others decided to simply ignore me. While it may have looked I was trying to motivate others, I think I was actually trying hard to motivate myself and it worked just fine because it got my mind off the fatigue, the pain, and off the fear of not making it to the life base in time!
Soon I found myself getting past one runner after the other: by the time I reached the col, I realized there was nobody left ahead of me, at least not within sight. I turned around and I could see a line of runners coming up, that furhter below looking like the garden gnomes! Down in Niel I would have never imagined having the strength to go up Col Lasoney at such a fast pace: it gave me the much-needed confidence that not only I could still make to Gressoney but I could and would complete the Tor Des Geants! It felt absolutely great!
The top of col Lassoney was a grassy plateau and the trail was easy on the joints! In the distance I saw a farm with a fountain: I had climbed so hard I had drunk all the 1.5 liters water I had in my flasks and reservoir: I headed down to the farm and asked a man standing outside if I could get some water out of his fountain. While the man was helping me fill up my flasks, I asked him how far did he think it would take to Gressoney and he told if I kept going the same speed, I’d be there in less than 2 hours. We talked briefly and I explained I was happy I might make it to Gressoney but had slept so little and wouldn’t have time for a nap in the life base as I had hoped. He said that if I could sleep even 20 or 30 minutes, it would still be better than no sleep at all. He had a point: he had helped me with the water but also given me a piece of sensible advice in the most nonchalant way. I thanked him and resumed my descent as fast as I could while listening to the defibrillator playlist: I felt high, I felt blissful, I felt invincible and enjoyed every second of it!
Soon I could see Loo, the next checkpoint, which looked like a farm. When I arrived the volontor seemed intrigued about how I fast I had been coming down. One guy told me most runners by now looked completely exhausted and zombied their way down! I had no good answer to give, all I could do is being honest even if it was boring… just delivered another rabid motivational speech saying I had waited 3 years, trained day in and day for 7 months and now that I was finally there, I was never. ever going to quit nor let one last stupid climb kill my dream! Yes, I was again out of control and I was loving every second of it. Doing something insane, it simply requires such a mindset!
He smiled but I could clearly see he had lost interest and left! One of the volontor who had been listening asked me where I was from: I gave him the short version. He was originally from Rome too but had been living in Val d’Aosta for a long time. I listened to him while eating some amazing farm cheese and homemade bread. I was tempted to eat more but the clock was ticking and I really had to go. I kept running on the grassy trail till I reached the usual final stretch of hard-packed, knee-smashing, trail. Just one more series of switchback all the way down. By now I had slowed down and there were a few runners who caught up and passed me but way fewer than on the previous descents! I finally got to Gressoney at 9:00 pm on the dot which meant I had done the last section in less than 4 hours and half! Though I never read or even found scientific studies on the subject, they often say that when you feel you have given all you have you’re not even at 30% of your full potential. Going through the section I had found it to be true the hard way: If somebody before Niel would have told me I could still hike up a mountain that fast and then run I would have laughed, then called a shrink to help them. For me, it truly wasn’t about what you feel you still can do but mostly how bad you really want to do it!
Once in Gressoney I limped to the life base: there was something wrong with my right ankle. I just hoped it wasn’t the ligaments or anything that would force me to drop out for medical reasons. I thought that if it was that serious, I wouldn’t have been able to walk which reassured me. I entered the Gressoney Life Base which it was a huge sports hall filled with rows of wooden tables and benches, a big separate dormitory, spacious showers, and a food counter which almost looked liked a wedding buffet. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration but the choice and quality of food was great. I got my bag and decided to head for the change and maybe a shower first and leave the food after. I started taking my clothes off when my yellow bag fell off the bench and most of its content rolled out on the wet, muddy, floor. I began cursing then picked all the gear back up, most of which had luckily stored in water-tight bags. I eventually removed my right sock and had to pull hard as it was stuck: there was a few layers of skin, probably 3 cm in diameter, missing just below the malleolus, toward the heel. It was good news as it meant the pain I had been feeling wasn’t due to some sort of ankle injury and neither feet had as much as a blister. I thought to go to medical and get skinned foot taped but the out cutoff time was too close for comfort and didn’t have sufficient time to queue for feet taping, shower, and eat too. I decided to have a shower instead, then came back and got changed, struggling to keep clothes and other gear from falling out of my bag. Closing it, was another feat: this time I managed to do it without help but I nearly got a nervous breakdown in the process. I was truly starving and I finally headed back to the hall to eat. The volontor at the counter were going out of their way to help and even brought my food to the table where I was sitting. It showed how much welcoming and how much respect the people of Val d’Aosta and any volunteer have for those who attempt the Tor Des Geants. As I was eating I noticed a few familiar faces walking in: I was happy to see other runners I knew or had met on the TDG had also survived the hell of section 4.
Done with food, I went back for my drop bag but I realized I was feeling so wrecked I could have dropped on the floor and slept. I went to the two volunteers standing in front of the door and told them I really had to sleep as I didn’t think it would have been safe for me to head out right away. I said and I meant it! I had less than an hour before the out cut-off but I thought about what the nice farmer up on Col Loson had told me: “Even half an hour is still much better than no sleep!” The voluntary replied apologetically that the dormitory was completely full. I was that bad that I asked if I could sleep there on the floor and they said it would be no problem. There was light and some people walking and talking but I was so tired that with a Buff over my eyes I was sure I’d pass out in no time. I hid a can of Red Bull behind my drop bag and I was about to take off my pack and lie down when the volunteer came back to let me know somebody had just left and there was a free spot in the dormitory: I didn’t think about it twice and rushed to find an empty place on what was a huge gym safety landing mattress strewn with sleeping runners. I took off my pack and the guy next to me stood up and stared at me. I couldn’t see his face as it was too dark but I figured he must have been pissed off at me because – in his mind – I was making too much noise. I was tempted tell him that if he wasn’t happy with the service he could go see the night manager and ask for a refund and then maybe even go fuck himself but I was too exhausted for that. Besides, the poor devil was probably just in a bad mood because he had been desperately trying to sleep and couldn’t manage to do it. I slowly sank onto the mattress and the guy stood up again – this time I just ignored him: I was simply too happy to waste my time with somebody else’s frustration. I had survived the hardest section of the TDG and had just realized I had been going for over 200 Km: a first in my life!
I was smashed and I still had nearly 140 Km to go and over 12,000 meters to climb but if I had gotten this far and if it was for the Tor, then I could do it, I would do it, and I would love doing it!
I began to mentally rehearse all the main checkpoints and cols ahead: Alpenzu, Col Pinter, Champoluc, Saint Jacques, Col di Nana, Valtournanche, RIf Barmasse, Fenêtre du Tsan, Magia… and slowly fell asleep!