Saturday, 14 August 2010

Alta Via 1 - Italian Dolomites

As usual we had left holiday planning to the last minute, but found a trail running holiday specialist Holimites who would book huts for us and arrange transport from the start and finish of the Alta Via 1. The itinerary that Igor recommended was a day or so longer than we would have liked, but we figured that we could find plenty of diversions en-route.

Small rucksacks packed we set off on a lovely sunny Tuesday morning from a Lago di Braies. We scampered around the lake cheerily greeting the tourists who had piled out of the coaches at the start. We soon started to climb and the crowds thinned and soon we were soon in the wilds of the limestone pavements of trail 28, which was a great diversion and one not listed in our guidebook. The scramble up Croda del Becco made sure we got some stunning views from an elevated spot at 2810m. Arriving at Rifugio Fodara Vedla we were spoilt to have the luxury of en-suite accommodation, a stunning sunset, very friendly cows and a great evening meal.

Day 2 we set out on the steep track down to Rifugio Pederu and then climbed up the rough mountain road to Rifugio Fanes where we played Pied Piper to a herd of goats! The Fanes and Sennes National park is a truly beautiful mountain landscape. Having made good time we decided to take the variant through Val Travenanzes along path 17. The mountain we were heading for looked like a giant chair and the slopes were covered in snow. The going was steep and nobody had ventured that way for some time. We reached the Bivacco della Pace, but then decided that trail shoes were not grippy enough to traverse the snowy ridge. It was clear when we got there that the "Giant Chair" had been partly formed through being blown up during WW1, some of the fortifications were still scattered across the hillside. It was now a long descent down to retrace our steps and a big climb to Forcella del Largo a steep rocky descent to the Largo, made easier by a fine path and then the first sighting, high up in the distance of Rifugio Lagazuoi 600m above us. The final climb was a fitting end to a long day and after the final snow field we reached the refuge and a welcome coffee and cake! This had been a long day, due to our little detour but through a spectacular, wild and rocky landscape.

Day 3 started with a little detour to the nearby peak of Lagazuoi and then down into the Galleria Lagazuoi. As Brits we learn little about the WW1 fighting between Italy and Austria in this hostile mountain environment. The remains of the trenches, gun emplacements and look out posts are testament to the bravery of the soldiers and the hardship they endured must have been horrendous, just as bad if not worse than that suffered by those on the Western Front.

We were then back into the sunshine and wild outdoors and saw the wild landscape that we had missed in Val Travenanzes. We made another abortive detour to Castellato on Tofane as the Via Ferrata looked OK to solo without gear but was already occupied by a couple of quite slow climbers. We made a brief detour (deliberately) to Rifugio Scoiatalli attracted by the crowds singing there and amazed at the skill of the drivers of the cement mixers which were negotiating the mountain track to Rifugio Averau! We ascended to Rifugio Nuvolau, which is one of the best viewpoints on the route. We looked back to see Tofane and Cinque Torri, both distinctive at different scales. The refuge is perched on a rocky outcrop and we made a descent of the scrambly ridge. We were almost put off by a group of blokes in full Via Ferrata gear, but the descent is only a scramble. Our route meant that we descended to Passo Giau and then had a detour up and down to Rifugio Fedare to avoid going on the road.

Day 4 started out with a 250m climb back up the road to Passo Giau looking up towards Rifugio Nuvolau and the Ra Gusela. We soon reached one of the most runnable bits of the route past Forcella Ambrizzola to Forcella Roan and then onto the cowbell welcome at Rifugio Citta di Fume. Monte Pelmo's imposing North Face with it's distinctive Breche was a constant companion. Having been thwarted by snow on Day 2 we enquired at the refuge as to whether the Val D'Arcia was passable, only to be told there was still 2m of snow at the forcella. So we took the route down to Passo Staulanza and then set off to investigate the dinosours footprints at the Orme. After a slippery scramble we found the place where there are over 100 prints dating back 220m years. With our backs to Pelmo we were facing the Civetta, another Dolomite giant and one we needed to traverse to reach that night's resting place. The weather was closing in and we could hear the thunder rumbling in the distance. We descended to Palafavera and then ascended the ski pistes to Casera di Poda. We felt we were outrunning or at least out-walking the storm as it had now enveloped Pelmo. After a steep climb to Rifugio Coldai we were greeted by the beautiful turquoise Lago Coldai, we descended to the banks and tried to capture its beauty with the camera. The thunder was getting louder and the deep grey lowering sky behind us added to the drama as we entered Val Civetta with the vast rockwall of the mountain towering 1200m above us. We still felt we might reach the refuge before the storm reached us, but the going was slow over the snow and scree.

The thunder was echoing off the rockwall above us and the lightening cracking across the sky. Then down came the rain.... and we lost the path. Luckily the visibility was still OK and we scrambled across the scree and boulders to the shoulder where we were heading and found the path again. Soon we found the turn off to the refuge and we were racing up the path, overtaking people and getting wetter and wetter. Near Rifugio Tissi we really did hurry past a chap standing under an umbrella...not good in a thunderstorm! The Refugio was a welcome haven and it was full to bursting with very wet people and kit!

Day5 dawned fine with a curtain of mist and cloud clinging to the faces of the Civetta. We descended along the rest of the valley and watched the climbers on the vertical rock faces. The flowers were beautiful adorned by the raindrops until the sun dried them away. There was good running on the tracks to and from Rifugio Vazzoler.We then traversed around a big bowl towards the Rifugio perched on a wooded outcrop where we stopped for lunch. It was then a short grassy run down to Passo Duran, a favourite day out for hill-climbing cyclists.

Day 6 saw us set off briefly down the road and then take a path traversing below the rocky pinnacles of Cima Moschesin until we reached the Rifugio Pramperet where we stopped for coffee and more delicious homemade cake and contemplated the Cime de Zita which was our next destination following across a wild and rocky bowl. After a detour from the Forcella to the summit we started the long runnable descent to Rifugio Pian de Fontana. It was early afternoon when we arrived and the meadows were strewn with wild flowers, so after dropping our sacs we went on a little detour to one of the flower strewn meadows a couple of km from the refuge.

As we had arrived early we had first choice of the bunks and chose two near the window giving us light and chance to dry our washing. As evening fell we were settled into the main refuge building looking forward to our evening meal. It started to rain, but we were not worried as we were safe inside. Then it began to rain harder and harder and the hailstones got bigger, hammering on the tin roof and then the rain began to seep in through the windows as the wind drove the water against the walls. We realised that we had left the window open in the sleeping barn, but should we go out now? After over an hour the rain abated and our kit and beds were soaked as the rain had driven in through the open window. I have rarely seen such a severe storm. The hut guardians were stars and put on the stove so that we could dry our kit and then found us another bunk in another barn. This was the wettest we had been all week!

Day 7 dawned sunny with the mist rising from the saturated ground. We descended quickly from the hut and crossed the swollen river before a short climb before we started the long descent down to the road through the beautiful Val Vescova a fitting end to a wonderful week in the mountains.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

A tale of the Mountains, Rivers, Cowbells and Boats

It was always going to be a hectic couple of weeks; a few days holiday in the Vanoise National Park followed by the TDS (Traces Ducs de Savoie) the new 106km race in the UTMB series and then the World Masters Rowing Championships in Vienna.
Chamonix as usual was buzzing and there was no getting away from the pre-race build-up. We were staying in le Praz and everyone in the chalet was doing one or other of the races. There was Kenichi Yamamoto, Hiroko Suzuki, and Chiharu Watanabe from Japan all running for Vasque, Stewart from the UK and another 4 guys and girls from Austria. The Japanese guys were subject to loads of press interest and Ken was even on a special pre-race diet prepared by his trainer...serious stuff. It was also good to meet up again with Krissy Moehl the evening before the race - we first met two years ago before the Hardrock 100 race in Colorado (see for more)
So on Friday evening we saw the main race depart from Chamonix, seeing lots of friends from the UK and giving thenm a big cheer. Then off for a pre-race meal and off to bed although the alarm would be going off at 3:30am ready for the 5:00am start.

Looking nervous at the start of the TDS

We woke up to rain and drizzle which was a bit of a surprise, but the forecast was for the rain and mist to clear. The advantage of starting so early was that the pre-race speeches were short! I was feeling nervous and really had no idea about schedule but had a 24 hour schedule and a hopelessly optimistic 20 hour one too. With only 700 runners the trot to Les Houches went quickly and with fewer "pole in the eye" moments!
The smell of freshly baking bread in Les Houches was delicious, and fortified me for the first climb to to Col de Voza, where it ws a change to see a sun-rise over Mont Blanc rather than sunset. It was then headtorches off and down to the first Aid station in St Nicholas Veroce just outside St Gervais. This was 23km in, so a welcome chance to have a bite to eat and drink before the monster 1400m climb to to Mont Joly. I had my climbing legs on and managed to ascend at a respectable pace and then not lose too much ground along the ridge, which was still shrouded in mist that hid the sheer drops on either side. By the time I descended, and could see the aid station, it was clear that the mist was going to clear and the sun would shine on us.
Descending Mont Joly

It was good to see Martin at the aid station and after a brief re-fuelling it was off up again towards Col du Bonhomme by a completely new route. I had always been here in the dark but today the views were stunning and after a brief 300 m descent, then 300m ascent to Col de la Sauce and then 300m descent, the next aid station at Cormet de Roseland came into view. I had one of those encounters with a lady and her son which went "Bravo" and then "merci" until her son saw the flag on my number and we could greet each other in English! Martin had taken the road route over many of the passes in this years Tour de France and unfortunately missed me although he had an exciting drive!
The next bit was not marked with any paths on the IGN map and involved an ascent of the Passeur de Pralognon which looked extremely gnarly on the approach But after a warm, energy sapping 600m climb the pass was reached where there were friendly marshals and moutain rescue guys there to greet us. I downed a gel and knew that once at Col del la Forclaz the going would theoretically get easier. However, what I had failed to realise that to get to Bourg St Maurice, elevation 830m, from my current position at 2567m, involved a 1700m descent all in one go! It was a long, long way down and my knees just knew it although I was pleased to only get overtaken by a few people.
Alas, there was no time for retail therapy in Bourg St Maurice although we did run down the main street to the aid station. One of the helpers offered me soup and then a lovely cup of tea! I took a look at my schedule and was well up on the 24h but I really knew I could not keep up the pace for 20h. Having said goodbye to Martin it was up, up, up again to Col du petit St Bernard. It was quite gentle but long! St Bernard eventually hove into view as the heat and light was going out of the day, but unfortunatly there was another 1km to go to reach the aid station and I was frozen when I got there. Struggling to undo my rucksack clips, I managed to put a whole load of kit on and downed a welcome cup of something warm and sweet...tea I think!
I had spent longer than planned at the col, and the light had gone with darkness falling quickly. Having climbed really well, I was then cold and clumsy on the descent and turned my ankle ending up in a heap on the tussocks. Cursing, I walked on and gradually the pain eased and I knew it was OK to carry on, although my pace had slowed dramatically. After a few more trips and stumbles the 800m descent was over and I reached civilisation and a great welcome at La Thuile which was a surprisingly big place. Only 16km to go but another 800m descent which did go on forever, at a fairly gentle gradient, but where I seemed to make no progress. 5 guys in front of me made it seem much easier and although I eventually caught them again, I tripped and almost came a serious cropper.
At Pre Saint Didier, I had a the briefest of stops and knew that there was only 6km to do and it was gently uphill...ideal! The guy at the aid station also surprised me saying that I was 9th femme but also first in my category. At first I did not believe him but he showed me on the computer, so it must have correct! I resolutely strode off determined to try and keep my placing and finish in less than 21 hours. The scenery was creepy as I approached Courmayeur first, seeing the silhouette of the great motorway bridges to the tunnel and then running near a raging torrent far below me. At last I could see the lights of the town and a supporter said only 1km to go along a circuitous road route to the finish. I was determined to run now and even jogged down the steps and up the ramp to the finish! Not quite a UTMB Chamonix finish but a great feeling of achievement. A big hug from Martin, another cup of tea and a finish in less than 21 hours. After a mixed season I was really pleased to finish 9th lady and first old woman!
Through the tunnel and we eventually made it into bed at about 3:25am. Martin reminded me to switch off the alarm....although it was only 5 minutes until it was due to go off!
After a late breakfast it was then off to Chamonix to see Catherine finish and the prize giving. I am the proud owner of another cow-bell which would come in handy for supporting my rowing crew later in the week.

Cowbells for Vets!

On Tuesday we set off on a long train journey from Geneva to Vienna, 800km all for 45 euros! What a bargain! We reached Vienna late in the evening and crashed out immediately in preparation for meeting up with my UK Gold rowing crew the next day.
We were rowing on the new Danube and predictably the course was buzzing with crews from all over the world, rigging boats and preparing for the competion that would start on the Thursday. It was disconcerting to see so many wind turbines in close proximity to the course, but not as disconcerting as the numerous nude sunbathers on the bank and swimmers in the water. Our cox was quite phased for a brief moment!
So competition started on Thursday and we were well beaten in our Eight by the Estonians. A great disappointment as we still felt them beatable. However we were rowing in a younger age group than our years and tomorrow was another day, when we would be rowing in our real age category. But despite a much better row, we were still beaten into second place. So it was now down to our coxless four, which had been unbeaten over the past few years in our age category, but this year we had decided to take on the youngsters too. And at last, later that day a victory, albeit there were only three to beat in the youngest age group.

The real test then came in the next day, when the Danube looked like the North Sea with waves and a horrendous headwind. We got aligned on the stakeboats and we were off, not the fastest start, but we were in the pack. Our push after 250m was solid and the crew to beat were the Hungarians on our strokeside. By 500m it was still too close to call, but I just had the feeling that we could still take it up, by using our experience to keep calm and strong. We began to make our move and at 250m to go, we heard Martin ringing the cowbell, time to push for the line and with slightly calmer water we took up the rate and yes there was almost clear water between us and the Hungarians. Yes, definitely one of our good wins.

Relief after a win on the medal pontoon

So two down and one to go. The water had calmed a little by the late afternoon and we had grown in confidence and were not going to lose this last race. We knew it was won by 500m, so even when we heard the cowbell we did not need to go for home. Probably just as well as my legs were beginning to feel tired after the past couple of weeks' exertions. But it had all been worth it and we could now enjoy a beer! Despite the disappointment of our eight we knew that we had beaten allcomers in the four and posted the fastest time too.

All Smiles with medals and cowbell!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Lakeland 50

Hearing the wind howl and the rain beat on the windows on Friday night, I was not regretting my decision to downgrade from the lakeland 100 to the 50 and I was just hoping that Rachael and everyone else was not having too horrible a time. BUT the weather was due to perk up at lunchtime on Saturday and so it did. At about 11:45 the sun began to shine on those of us gathered at Dalemain and at midday we set off for a loop around the fields, before getting on the route proper.

Start of Lakeland 50 - Martin and Martin taking an early lead.

Once at Pooley Bridge, the route began to look familiar, although I think the tourists were a bit perplexed by 100 people jogging through the village. If it had been France there would have been lots of cheering and clapping, but the Brits are a bit more reserved!

The first checkpoint was at Bobbin Hall in Howtown, which a group of us managed to miss the turning to, but found it eventually. Then along Fusedale, working our way up to the highpoint of the course at High Kop. The route we took was much better than the "long shortcut" that I had taken when reccying the route earlier in the year. The visibility remained amazingly good so it was easy to find the trod down to Haweswater. I felt more relaxed about the route now as this was the trickiest bit of the route now over.

Haweswater is surprisingly long, but Mardale was soon in sight and it was good to fill up with water and have a banana. Well that was until I tasted the water that was that delicious iodine flavour! Yuk!

Gatesgarth is a stiff climb, but not too long and then begain the long rocky descent to Sadgill and on to Kentmere. I had met up with Chris Armour at Mardale and it was good to catch up on common acquaintances and have some company. We met Rachael on the way down from Gatesgarth and it was great to see her still going so well, still no regrets about not doing the 100!

Approaching Mardale

Kentmere was about halfway and a chance to try to get some fresh water as well as down a plate of welcome pasta and have a smoothie. A quick thank you to the checkpoint leader for a great spread and then up over Garburn, which is a horrible ankle turing track. We passed a few more guys on the 100, all still going remarkably well.

Troutbeck came into view and then it was not too far to Ambleside and what a welcome from Ian and the crew in Lakes Runner! He had told me that he was the best checkpoint last year...and he would get my vote this year too! At last some water that was drinkable, without the sickening iodine taste. Looking at my times for a 12,13 or 14 hour schedule, we were on track for about 12 hours, which was a boost and something to aim for.

We arrived at Chapel Stile and had some soup and some biscuits. We got our torches out in the gathering gloom, but did not need to use them until we reached Blea Tarn and then it seemed to go dark and start to rain quite hard all in the space of a few minutes. Not sure whether we were on a path or following a stream but trusted the compass and we hit the road in the right place, mistaking the sheeps' eyes for other headtorches!

Having found the track past the cottage, we followed the broad track and eventually reached the road and saw the flashing lights of Tilberthwaite checkpoint. We were now on the home straight, although we had lost some time and would be lucky to stay on the 12 hour schedule. I kept checking compass bearing as there were a few headlights that we could see in places that did not seem quite on route. Eventually we were over the hill, literally and then it was the steep rocky descent to the Coppermines and then into the other bit I had not reccied...the way back though the village. Luckily Chris had, and we only had one short trip down a cul-de-sac before we found the school and the welcome sight of the Sports and Social Club and it was just after midnight.

It was good to do the 50 and a tough race. The fact that I could walk the day after was proof that I made the right call not to do the 100......after all there is always next year!

Was also really pleased with the new Vasque Momenta shoes that I had worn only once before and only for a few miles.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Fellsman 2009

Sunday 10th May and I have that very weary feeling, so it must be the day after the Fellsman. 61 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing, so this really does qualify as Grand Day Out. This is the fourth time that I have done this event and although the visibility was the best I have experienced it was pretty chilly with a stiff breeze and a few sharp, hypothermia inducing, showers.

This is one of my favourite races in the series. The route is great as it goes to the top of the hills, the organisation is brilliant and whilst always competitive, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.

Unusually this year I had done a bit of recceing of the route. It was good to see the end section in daylight. There really are some good views from Great Whernside on a sunny day!

I set off not really knowing how I would perform this year, but as this was my fourth ultra this year, I was hoping to have gained a bit of fitness. But having been suffering with sinusitis, I did not know how well I could go.

The first climb up Ingleborough is hard work, but a fitting start to the race and I was not feelng as dreadful as I feared I might at the start. So grabbing a piece of flapjack it was off to Whernside where it was good to see Rachael having a good race and well up the field. Nicky Spinks and Sarah Rowell were flying and well up the field too. The weather started turning a touch inclement and in the blustery gale I managed to get my waterproof on....and never felt inclined to take it off for the rest of the day!

I always manage to forget one of the hills in this race and this year it was Blea Moor. Coming round the traverse, it loomed very large and suddenly there was a whole load of weather. Delaying the moment of puting my gloves on meant that my frozen hands could not even undo the zip of my coat without assistan ce,to get my tally clipped. As always the marshal at the top was smiling and stoical about his precarious position out in the elements. Getting out of the wind into the woods was a relief, but I was frozen as was everyone else around me. At Stonehouse the pasta was delicious and I have never seen the tent so crowded as we all took shelter. Having got some assistance to undo my rucksack , I got some more clothes on and headed off at a bit of a plodding pace. However the sun came out and after an hour or so I was feeling warm again and all those negative thoughts of packing in had been blown away.

It was at Redshaw that I caught up with Lewis and Jane, Gerry and Steve joined us up onto Dodd Fell and we then all went across Fleets Moss together. Middle Tongue was horrible! Having been up about a month ago after the dry and sunny spell in April, I had forgotten what a quagmire it quickly becomes. So we all got to Cray together and set off as a group up Buckden Pike. Another stunning sunset as we ascended up the gully and looked behind us.

As the sun set the moon came up and what a huge orange moon it was, filling the sky. We made good progress to Park Rash with a bit of jostling of position between the groups around us. Then up and over Great Whernside where the wind and mist threatened but that over we were on the home straight. Yarnbury came quicker than I expected and off we went down the road, which is not quite downhill all the way! Just past the drunken revellers and into the finish. Not my fastest time, but not my slowest either and great to be out in the hills with like-minded company.