No blaze of Glory: Ollomont to Courmayeur -50 km / 4210 D+
The seventh and last section stretches an additional 50 kilometers with two major cols: Col Champillon with a height of 2,700 meters and the Malatra which rises to almost 3,000 meters. Between the Col Champillon and Col di Malatra, there’s a long downhill followed by a long section of almost level terrain. The Malatra is the last climb of the whole Tor Des Geant: from there on is pretty much a one last, memorable descent all the way to Courmayeur’s main street.
I began the climb out of Ollemont in the warmth of the late afternoon; the trail weaved up a pine forest and open green plateau and soon I was joined by other runners. We continued the climb together when the sky suddenly turned dark and it started raining. We stopped and dug into my pack to layer up – I quickly took off my hoody windshell to slide into my Gore-tex 3L waterproof shell. We started climbing again and as night fell kept going in the light drizzle until we reached the rifugio.
Inside the rifugio, close to the door, there was a Volontor sitting next to a small table with some boiled rice and cookies. I was hoping for a dish of pasta but it was not possible so we just sat down and had some cookies and an espresso. There were a few rifugio customers sitting at the tables in the cozy, small, wooden dining hall. The kitchen had an open window with a counter giving out to the hall. Between the small entrance door and the kitchen counter, there was a flight of stairs probably leading to guest rooms on the second floor. The waitress went to the kitchen counter, took a steaming tray full of spaghetti in a juicy, dark tomato sauce and served it to the patrons sitting at the table behind ours. It was for a couple in their late 50s but the tray was probably enough for four people – or a single aspiring Gigante! For a moment I seriously considered tackling the waitress, snatch away the tray, run up to the Col and eat it all with my bare hands while howling at the moon. Then I thought it might have been somewhat extreme and almost got on my knees and begged the two customers for a small dish of their pasta. Sitting in the warmth of the rifugio, looking at people chilling out and eating delicious food before heading to their cozy room upstairs and lying on a comfortable bed wasn’t mentally supportive so I decided to leave.
The climb to Col Champillon wasn’t too bad, I could still climb at a good pace but once we began descending on the other side both my heels started throbbing and aching with each step: I had to step aside and let the other runners go past. I kept going down slowly, staring at my headlamp beam to be able to see where I was going to step. The descent was taking so long that constantly staring at my headlamp beam on the ground made me feel nauseous. I eventually ran into a hiker climbing up and found out Ponteille Desot – the next refreshment point – was approximately 20 minutes away. When I got there had some food at a table outside an old small house, sat a couple of minutes on a wooden bench, and resumed the descent. I could fight through the pain and discomfort but by now I was practically walking the steep downhill; soon I began being passed by what felt like a huge number of runners going down at a much faster pace – I had slowed down so much that I was expecting a couple of poodles to bark me off to the side of the trail to get past!
I reached another small refreshment point on the slope which consisted of a small, aluminum shelter, a noisy generator, and blinding neon lights. I refilled my flasks and asked how far the valley was, apparently less than half an hour. At his pace, I was seriously risking to miss the final 150-hour cutoff and I certainly did not want to find myself on the Malatra to realize my only chance was to sprint the last seventeen kilometers down to Courmayeur. Not to mention that those seventeen Km might actually be twenty-one: my Foretrex 401 by now was showing much higher cumulative climb and a slightly longer distance than official stats; and so were the GPS devices of pretty much everybody else I had talked to.
I really had to start going faster and try to gain back some of the time lost. I casually slid my hand into the elastic, mesh pocket on the right strap and dug out a small transparent plastic bag filled with meds. I dropped two 500 g pills of paracetamol and took a swig of water out my right flask bite tube. If my estimate was right, the paracetamol would kick in by about the time I’d reach the level trail section ahead. And if the fear to fail had driven me to jog up some steep uphills after oversleeping at Rifugio Magia, it could as well get me to jog ten stupid kilometers along a gentle downhill!
After around half an hour, I finally reached a wider dirt road, stopped to get some water at a fountain, and realized I was in the valley. I paused for a quick breather, put on earphones, selected my adrenalin playlist, and began jogging ahead. The pain in my heels had decreased and the reviving effect of the seven tunes worked its magic once again. I first went up an incline and soon began passing entire groups of runners. The more I kept going, the more I caught up and passed people. Passing other runners in itself was no achievement, it meant nothing but realizing I was able to go again at a faster pace gave me a mental boost!
Soon I found myself completely alone speeding down a forest fire road and, through the trees covering the slope to my left, I could see car headlights passing in the distance. I got distracted wondering how far I had gone when I realized I hadn’t seen a TDG flag in a while; I turned around and began backtracking carefully scanning both sides of the dirt road, hoping badly to spot a yellow flag soon. Almost a kilometer later a small group of runners coming down confirmed it was the right direction and that they had passed a couple of flags only a few minutes earlier – I had wasted a good 20 minutes but at least I was on the right trail. I joined the group and we started descending again. After a series of switchbacks through the forest, we first reached a paved road, and shortly after a small town. I was hoping it was Bosse, the last checkpoint before the Rifugio Frassati and the Malatra, but instead, it turned out to be Sain Rehmy. We asked where Bosse was and we were told only a few hundred meters ahead. It goes without saying, we had to keep going for at least another 40 minutes before finally reaching the village.
The checkpoint was in the portico of a fully renovated building, possibly a town or community hall. I ate some cold-cut meat then asked how far Rifugio Frassati was: I realized the volunteer was one and the same person who had served the delicious dish of pasta and nearly gave me a cardiac arrest at Niel; I briefly explained to him how he had almost gotten me into a panic when giving different time estimates in French and Italian. He smiled and then said, “I could clearly tell you were faster!” – we both laughed loudly.
I asked if I could crash somewhere and a different volontor showed me into the building, up three flights of stairs, into a dark floor full of camping beds. The place looked like a modern art museum with stuff on the walls or maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. I was just too tired to figure it out so I just lied on the only free cot, secured the poles, to my pack, placed the pack under my head, and closed my eyes.
Seventy-seven minutes later the same volontor woke me up, exactly as I had asked. As I walked toward the door, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a room with an open door: it was an ultra-modern and squeaky clean bathroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes and didn’t hesitate to rush in and lock the door behind me. I really could use refreshing my butt before the final push: if I had to pass out while climbing to the Malatra, I still wanted the Soccorso Alpino to find my body smelling decent!
I went out to the portico area where the food was and ate some chocolate only to realize I could have asked for a dish of freshly cooked pasta. I was about to leave when a volontor told me my tracker hadn’t been working so they replaced it, activated it, and, after 15 minutes fiddling with it, I was finally able to take off. When I left Bosses it must have been close to 3:30 am. I tried to jog but instead, I broke into a zombie-like shuffle. Outside it was very cold and the street was dead quiet – there was nobody aside from me and two other runners slightly ahead. Soon the paved road turned into a wide gravel road, then some wooden signs pointed me onto a trail along a stream and across a flat, grassy plateau.
My headlight stepped down to the lower brightness level, signaling the battery was running out of juice. I had climbed many of the cols needing no more than 70 lumens and using brighter levels only on the descents to make sure I wouldn’t run out of 18650 batteries. Being this exhausted I didn’t want to take any chances and with still three spare 3500 mAh 18650s fully charged in my pack there was no point in being stingy on lumens! I pulled out my flashlight from my softshell pant, set it on low output, then clipped it head down to the right shoulder strap of my pack; I took off the headlamp, unscrewed the tailcap, and placed it in my right pocket to make sure I wouldn’t drop it: without it, the headlamp would be unusable. I turned the headlamp sideways, letting the depleted 18650 battery slide out onto my hand, then dropped it into my pocket too. I took out the waterproof bag with Powerpax battery holder from my pack right side pocket, pushed out a fresh 18650 and, holding the positive with my index finger, let it slide into the headlamp. After screwing the tailcap back on and adjusting the headlamp on my head, I slid the depleted 18650 positive side down into the Powerpax holder to be able to tell it had been used, then carefully placed it into a watertight bag and back into the pack side pocket, making extra sure to pull the zipper fully closed. I switched off my flashlight and dropped into my right pant pocket, then finally switched on my headlamp and set it to 400 lumens. I was so tired, I wouldn’t have been able to scratch my right eyebrow; still, I was able to replace the battery practically out of pure muscle memory. As pathetic as it may sound, I stupidly felt proud of being able to change the battery so quickly. I must have been grasping at whatever I had at that moment to boost my self-confidence. And if was changing a battery worked to that end, then maybe it wasn’t so stupid after all!
I kept following the stream across the alpine meadows, then began climbing up what looked like a very long slope. The more I kept going, the more I felt tired, nauseated, and found myself hating every second, every step: even the most gentle incline now felt like climbing a cliff! In the distance, I could see some lights higher up and wondered or rather hoped it would turn out to be rifugio Frassati: if it was, it wasn’t more than an hour away. I reached the lit-up buildings about half an hour later only to realize this was definitely not Rifugio Frassati. This had to be Merdeux, the smell of cowshit left no shadow of a doubt in my mind. It was supposed to be a checkpoint but I did remember the young volontor at Rifugio Cuney mentioning the previous year the checkpoint at night had been moved to the Rifugio.
I resumed the climb and as I went up I thought of reports I had read mentioning the Malatra could be tricky to pass, especially in bad weather. The sky was now crystal clear but I could already discern white snow patches further up which meant there could be ice and snow on the col. I could throw on the anti-slippery crampons but ice on a slope in such a state it could still be dangerous even with mountaineering crampons! I reminded myself of the first of the seven rules I had set for the Tor: Rule # 0 (Zero): “Never take unnecessary risks – you don’t deserve it, those who love you don’t, and those who’d have to rescue your injured ass don’t either!” I wasn’t exactly sure what I should make of it at this stage as I was never going to turn back. I just told myself to be as careful as I could.
I finally staggered into Rifugio Frassati and once past the door the smell of sweat hit me like a wave. It was a field hospital scene all over again, just with wimpy ultrarunners like myself instead of actual casualties. I hollered my number at the two volontor behind a desk and tried to find some coffee but they only had the instant broth so I looked for the bathroom instead. When I walked inside I caught a glimpse of somebody standing there: he looked so bad he nearly gave me a fright! I spun around but the bathroom was actually empty… it took me a couple of seconds to realize I had just stared into my own image in a mirror and failed to recognize myself. Saying I was looking pretty bad was an understatement: my lips were five times their normal size and horribly chapped. I had huge eye bags and my whole face was swollen as if I had had an allergic reaction. Looks were the least of my concerns, especially considering I was heading for Col Malatra at 2928 in the Italian Alps and not some casting event on Hollywood Boulevard. All that said, I was worried looking deformed could be a sign my body wasn’t going to withstand the physical effort for much longer. Courmayeur was undoubtedly closer than it had ever been but nothing was sure yet and remembered the accounts of people collapsing on the climb to the Malatra – on the last climb, and with only a few kilometers left to go because their body shut down and were unable to go even a single step further. There was no point in hanging around worrying about it – I walked back into the main hall, told the volunteers I was leaving and walked out the door.
Outside it was predictably freezing cold – I began climbing the last 300 vertical meters to the col above but it didn´t take more than a couple minutes before I started feeling exhausted again: I really felt I had used all my mental and physical reserves! Nothing seemed to help to get the cold, the exhaustion, and the pain off my mind: no matter what I tried to tell myself, it just felt plain miserable. I was struggling badly, each step taking more effort than the last. I felt sick, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I just wanted it to be over!
It tripped on a rock and strived to stand still, instinctively propping myself straight using my poles when I suddenly sensed somebody next to me. I whipped my head to the right and saw Harvey.
“How goes it?” Harvey said.
I looked at him and could see four rabbit ears. I was unsure whether I was seeing double, having hallucinations or both. I shook my head to clear my eyes, then looked again: two ears only so it was real, no two ways about it!
“I feel completely smashed, I can’t stand this shit anymore!” I replied.
“I don’t think I can make it up to the Malatra…” I continued hesitantly.
“Don’t be a pussy and hike up that hill as fast as you can!”
“Get back to Courmayeur: no blaze of glory, it’ll be just you, me, and two shot glasses!”, Harvey added.
I looked at him with confusion for a few seconds, then smiled and replied: “This isn’t a race, it’s a mindset. I need to dig deep at every climb, every descent! I know I can do it because we all have it: we all do! It’s that unyielding desire to never quit and never surrender!” I put my right hand on his hairy shoulder, and said, “See you in Courmayeur!” I turned around and as I began to climb the last 300 vertical meters while punching my right fist in the air yelled over my shoulders, “Usque ad Finem!”
I started going up fast, then slowed down to take my MP3 player out, scrolled to my seven-song playlist, and selected Reaching by Audiomachine. Slowly brought the earplugs to my ear and began climbing even faster than before.
It was still pitch dark outside but I could make out the outline of the Malatra ahead and could also see a couple flickering headlamp beams further up the trail. All I had to do, was getting my tired ass up and over one last alpine col: it may have felt difficult as hell but if it was for the Tor… then I could do it, I would do it, and I would love doing it!
The sky began slowly getting brighter: I cast a quick backward glance and realized the tip of the sun was now glowing above a horizon of snow-covered high peaks. While listening to Rising Dawn, I continued closing the distance as quickly as I could, passing the few other runners climbing along the same trail. The excitement of reaching the Malatra instantly defeated the cold, the exhaustion, and the pain; the view of the Alpine sunrise now was simply overwhelming. There were a few of us and we must have looked like a group of zombies still celebrating new year’s eve at dawn… on an Alpine col! If only for less than a minute, it was a truly epic and unforgettable moment. I took one picture of the sunrise, then turned around and began to carefully go down the steep rock, supporting myself by grabbing the rope with my right hand.
By the time I was descending along the trail, Unbroken by Audiomachine was playing and I was in a total state of bliss. It goes without saying, I was anything but unbroken! If somebody had seen me coming down from Col di Malatra, they would have probably wondered who was that sorry-ass, deformed fucker stumbling down an alpine col this early in the morning.
The truth was, coming down from the Malatra, I felt like the most handsome dog on the planet! Saying I felt handsome is actually an understatement: I was feeling outright invincible! They could have choppered in a shrink to the yellow shelter I was about to reach, just to explain that I actually looked like shit and smelled like a rotting animal carcass but it would have been pointless: nothing and nobody could have taken away that overwhelming feeling of joy!
I filled my flasks at the shelter where instead of a shrink on a mission, I found only a sleepy volontor and resumed descending while enjoying the majestic view of the sun-lit Mont Blanc ahead. The happiness-induced adrenaline completely killed the physical pain and this time got me into a steady, relentless pace.
With Path to Freedom playing, I went on for quite some time, crossed some local hikers who never failed to congratulate us for being close to complete the Tor. At some point, I followed a right hairpin turn and unexpectedly found myself in front of Rifugio Bertone, the last checkpoint only a few kilometers above Courmayeur. There was a large crowd around the rifugio but I was unsure whether it was for the Tor or if people were just hanging out there for the weekend.
I called out to my number to the two volontor just outside the main door, then talked with them for a couple of minutes. Unless I was going to be hit by a meteorite, reaching Courmayeur in time was now pretty much a near certainty. With just five hours and a few minutes before the final cutoff, I was convinced there were at most some 50 people behind; instead, there were apparently almost 200 people still going. I mentally wished them the best of luck, drank some water and went down the usual hard-packed series of switchbacks preceding a town or life base. I suddenly realized I was descending for the very last time and was hit by a bizarre sense of nostalgia. I instinctively dug into my right pocket, pulled out the MP3 player, and set Voyage of Dreams by Audiomachine to single repeat. I had first listened to this song the day I had decided I would attempt the Tor Des Geant in 2017 and it instantly became the anthem of my epic journey. During the previous 144 hours, when all seemed to be lost, when I felt I was done, with absolutely nothing left to give, playing this epic melody triggered some undefined cerebral activity and flashbacks of the constant and rigorous training, the obsessive preparation, and the “why” I was there. It got me back into the fight, and most of all, it made me refuse to quit! It’s unbelievable the magic that can work a sequence of sounds and the mental visualizations associated with them!
And when those magic tunes weren’t playing, my friends always made sure I wasn’t lacking anything in terms of motivation: in those mountains, I may have been on my own for a lot of the time but their support made me feel I was never alone!
The more I kept going down, the more people I ran into, and the more they cheered me, the more I went unhinged…and the more I loved them all for supporting a nobody achieve a three-year-long dream. I had seen incredibly beautiful places, majestic mountains; beguiling lakes, enchanting valleys: the two Alta Via had truly taken me through breathtaking adventure but the greatest surprise of the Tor Des Geants the people of the Val d’Aosta, the Valdaostani. The level of encouragement and support the locals had offered had been humbling to say the least. As the finish line came into view, I felt grateful for how they made me feel welcome, how they made me feel special, and – for 145 hours – how they transformed the mediocre athlete I am into an invincible dreamer…
October 2017 – South Tyrolean Dolomites, Italy
After flying home the day after the ceremony, I resumed my normal life, even though not my normal way of walking. I went back to work the following day only to realize I was physically exhausted and almost fell asleep in the office elevator. Luckily, I had a 2-week vacation in the Dolomites already booked so I had to survive only through a few days a cubicle life. Once on holiday, after taking it easy and eating good food for a few days, I began feeling great again and decided to go for a steep 20-Km hike. I had already done it once before, two years earlier, on a sunny day, and had found the initial climb out of the valley to be strenuous. It is an incredibly beautiful hike with some of the best views of the Dolomites.
This time I went through that steep, long initial climb as if it was a single flight of stairs. While approaching Rifugio Zsigmondy-Comici, I ran into a group of hikers coming down from the opposite direction. They had seen me coming up at a fast pace so they cautioned me to slow down as there were still another 300 vertical meters to go. I smiled and confidently joked that I sure could handle it after climbing nearly 24000+ in less than a week. They looked at me wide-eyed in disbelief for a few seconds, then one man hesitantly asked me where I had done such a feat; I replied it was near Mont Blanc, at the “Tor Des Geants”. They looked at one another, unsure what to say, then turned to me and started laughing and so did I. I wished them a great day ahead and continued my climb as I was hoping to get to Rifugio Locatelli in time to cherish the sunset. Before completing the climb, I took a quick backward glance over my shoulder only to realize the group of hikers were still down below enjoying their break. I wasn’t disappointed they had laughed at me: why should I have expected a bunch of strangers for doubting something that hardly sounded possible? What others thought was irrelevant, what really bugged me, was all the times I hadn’t believed in myself and let self-doubt kill my dreams. And if on January 7, I hadn’t seen a photo of somebody who had refused to let life-changing injuries define what he could do, maybe the Tor would have been killed by self-doubt too…
A long while later I finally jogged the last uphill stretch to Rifugio Locatelli which, luckily, this late into the year was closed. Since it was early October there were very few people around one of the most visited spots of the whole Dolomites. It felt somewhat ironic that I had first heard of the Tor Des Geants while visiting these same mountains and exactly while enjoying a stunning sunset! It was June 30, 2014 and my only “running” experience had been a flat 10-Km trail run where I had attempted to have a smoking break halfway through. That night I had promised myself one day I would complete the Tor Des Geants and about 42 moons later, that outlandish idea had become a reality: it gave me a sense of peace and freedom!
I began getting ready for the descent, through Alpe dei Piani and further down on path 102: if I had grown to love being in the mountains, I loved them even more at night! Just as the sun was slowly disappearing behind the jagged peaks in the distance, it was in the mellow glow of that fall sunset that I thought back to what Harvey had told me below the Malatra and realized how true it was: my Tor Des Geants 2017 had been no blaze of glory… just my long-due, humble homage to all those people, who either dead or completely unaware I even exist, inspired me to believe we should never let our past, doubts, or fears define our limits. And most of all, never, ever let anybody tell us how far we can dream!
Usque ad Finem,
A mediocre athlete and – for 145 hours – an invincible dreamer!