I’m very happy to report that Team Cascadia was not only the only fastest North American team to represent the continent at this year’s Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG), but we were also the only team to finish the course without any team members dropping early. We finished 16th in the Senior II group and in the top third overall.
What follows in a more detailed race report than I would usually write. This isn’t because I think it’s more entertaining, but because the information available in English for those who want to race the PDG is sparse at best.
I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to Skimo.co. It was great to be supported by and to represent North America’s best backcountry ski shop. You guys distinguish yourselves with your inventory, knowledge, and overall classiness, time and again. We hope we did you proud.
Finally, I dedicated my performance in this race to my Uncle Joe, who, as we were preparing to depart on the course was working harder than any of us to get through an ICU admission for pneumonia. The man has just one ‘good’ lung that’s an aging transplant, so he breathed harder than any of us did. Still thinking of you and Marcia!
The day before the race was a busy one that began early with gear check. After reading about this process potentially being a nightmare, we lined up early outside of the Zermatt sports center, ending up ninth in line after arriving at 8:15 for an 8:30 entrance. Thankfully, there were nine tables of Swiss Army folks inside checking gear, so we went right into the process. Our skis, boots, poles, shovel, probe, piolet, and helmet were all inspected and stickered with the race sticker. Skins and goggles (called “ski masks” on the gear list, but required for the Z1 course) were also inspected but not stickered. The remainder of our gear, which we’d brought, went uninspected.
At a second station, our rope was inspected for length but not diameter. Contrary to the skintrack.com race tips, it was possible to do this check with bungee on your rope. Ours was unbungied on account of the skintrack report. Finally we received our numbers, tracking chips, official race cell phone, and were allowed to pilfer Swiss army food rations. All in all, the check took about 30 minutes.
After the check we found a local park in which to set up our rope (more on this to come, but 8m between racers, attach bungee to the rope with climbing tape, not zip ties). Once the rope was dialed we took our gear up to our assigned hotel, which was the nicest hostel I’ve ever been in.
The afternoon was free but for the pre-race briefing in the town church at 4pm. It was quite a scene. The Swiss military band played outside as racers were allowed into the church. Inside, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance, with speeches from the mayor, the governor, the commandant, and blessings from a Swiss army chaplain and the local priest. There wasn’t a lot of information that we didn’t already know, except that the forecast had warmed further. Additionally, because of the high snow year, we would be able to start skiing just outside of Zermatt instead of undergoing the usual ~1 hr of hiking to snow line. The commandant enthusiastically said that the race was a go.
We returned to our hostel, ate our ample and free dinner there, and retired for a nap.
Our start time was 11:30, and we were asked to report 45 minutes before the race began. We walked through the streets to the start dressed for racing and stood aside to cheer the 10:45 departure of racers who went running through town just as we approached the start.
At the start, we passed over our luggage. You’re given a plastic bag to contain your bag to be taken to Verbier. This bag easily accommodates a piece of carry-on sized luggage, and it was quickly loaded onto a Swiss Army truck. From there we were ushered into a freight elevator, taken to a basement, and passed through a final equipment and beacon check before being allowed into the starting bin. We lined up about 2/3 of the way back, anticipating a paced start to what was to be a long race.
Start to Col de la Tete Blanche
The vibe in the start bin was electric in the seconds leading up to the start pistol. At the gun, we began a jog through the rolling cobblestone streets of the town of Zermatt. Locals poured out of the bars and cheered along the way with shouts of Allez! and Bravo!. Within a mile, we crossed a bridge, hit snow, and were skinning up a groomed road.
Several miles of rolling groomed road stretched out the pack, and we gradually found ourselves near the start of our departure, with just an Italian team in front of us. We tried to keep a steady conversational pace to save our gas for later, and largely succeeded.
Further up the valley stretching below the matterhorn, we left the groomed road onto a pair of skin tracks leading up into the night. The skinning was gradual, and generally friendly. The pace was good and we were feeling great.
After 2hr:09, we reached Schönbiel, where teams stood roping up under flood lights. From here we were to proceed in a 3-man rope team over the Tête Blanche and down to Col de Bertol. Militarymen checked our knots as we left the checkpoint and then it was off into the night to make the steeper climb to the Tête blanche.
Approaching the rocky mass of the Stöckji, which must be passed up the steep toe of the glacier, the track divided into a “fast” and “slow” lane. A traffic jam here and one team that had made the wrong choice turned them both into slow lanes that afforded a brief rest and chance to eat. After a few switchbacks the climb continued up the glacier with challenging, slippery skinning that taxed the legs and arms. We passed many who were struggling despite having large skis and thicker skins, relying on some herringboning, side-stepping, and stubbornness.
Nearing the top of the Col de la Tête Blanche, I was feeling strong, though cold. Aaron said that he was feeling the altitude and felt like not “a million bucks” but maybe “one hundred thousand”. Seth silently endured, as is his way.
Tete Blanche to Arolla
Atop the pleasantly windless Col at 12k’ (4:10:26), we ripped skins for the descent under another batch of flood lights and donned wind jackets. We had made the bold move to forgo bringing insulated jackets on account of the warm forecast, and this turned out to be the perfect decision.
Skiing as a roped team of three went very well despite never having practiced together. I don’t recommend our tactic. We are fortunate to be of very similar skiing ability and comfort level on race skis, which made the whole thing a lot easier. We also found the best snow of the course on the descent towards Col de Bertol.
A short skin led to the col (4:51:50), where we unroped and stowed the rope for the remainder of the course. From here we dove into the longest descent of the course, and by far the most punishing. The snow was bad, mostly hard with some breakable crusts here and there, and the descent went 4000 feet downwards to Arolla, weaving among obstacles. We skied fast, passed a lot of folks, hammered our legs, and arrived in Arolla to fuel, leaving on the next climb at 5:20:21. The aid station at Arolla was amply staffed by the army, offering tea, water, broth, coke, sausage, fruit, chocolate, and crackers. They gladly filled any and all water carriers. We each carried around 40 oz of capacity and found this to be adequate.
Arolla to La Barma
Just before we left the checkpoint at Arolla, a group of racers on the short course from Arolla to Verbier departed up the ski piste. We followed in their wake up a steep and icy groomer, weaving among a minefield of racers falling down as their skins lost grip.
On this climb, we started to feel the effort. Aaron bonked as my legs grew heavier, but I put him on tow and we carried on at a reasonable pace towards the Col de Riedmatten. Below the Col, Aaron flagged further, stopping and asking to drop from the race. Seth and I weren’t having it. We were there to finish as a team, not to finish fast as a two-man pair. I respected Aaron’s offer, and understood that it came more from his desire not to slow us down than from a real need to drop. We talked him into continuing, at his pace, to the bitter end.
The sun rose as we climbed on foot towards the Col de Riedmatten, and it was cold. Looking across the valley, several lines of ants stretched upwards as the A1 racers climbed towards the Pas de Chevre, a mellower passage. We climbed a single bootpack up steep snow towards the narrow notch above, enjoying a relative paucity of other racers around us.
Atop the col we were greeted with a view of the descent. From the col, a combination of permanent chains and installed hand-lines led down a 60-degree combination of snow, rock, and ice overseen by helmeted and cramponned members of the military. With a firm grip on the lines, we worked our way down the col without incident, enjoying the exposure and change of pace. With a few hundred feet to go we were allowed to put on our skis, ad the remaining steep (50d?) pitch made for sporty skiing to the checkpoint at Pas du Chat (7:30:08).
Lac de Dix
Skiing down the Pas du Chat was easy enough with the ample snow year, and we soon reached the skintrack along the Lac (lake) de Dix. This lake is not my favorite feature of the race, or of the Haute Route for that matter. The big choice for racers is whether to skin along the lake or to attempt to skate the relatively flat terrain along the flanks of the lake to La Barma.
We opted to skin, as did almost everyone around us, as from the beginning of the lake to skate looks like madness. We were wrong. Skinning made sense for us to allow Aaron to take the pace that he needed, but after boot pain forced me to try something different, it was clear that skating is vastly superior. We’d been told this, and ignored it. Skate the lake.
Granular detail: from the pas du chat, the course goes largely downhill until it turns the corner of the lake. This would skate quickly. From there, there is a short and mellow climb to an obvious knoll. This could go by skating if you’re feeling good, and many did skate it. From the knoll until the steep slope just before La Barma, skating is far superior to skinning. Stay uphill of the track and make several short skating/side-stepping climbs that lead to sustained side-hilling downhills. Thank me later.
I struggled around the lake with increasing pain from sweaty feet leading to blisters, as well as pain in my ankle from the odd fact that for 80% of the course you end up skiing on your left edges. We were glad to reach the aid station at La Barma and take a short break in the warming sun.
La Barma to Verbier
From La Barma (9:00:38) began the heart-breaking climb to the Rosablanche, the last real climb of the course. The sun was hot, the snow was softening, and the bonk was hard. We toughed it out, making gradual progress to the massive boot-pack up the Rosablanche. The pack was jammed with racers, and there was no going around, so we ate a big chunk of time but got a needed rest.
Nearing the top of the bootpack, the ruckus of a rowdy crowd started to reach us, with cheering, cowbells, and flugelhorn echoing through the valley. The energy was contagious and we reached the cheering crowd at the col in high spirits. Hundreds of spectators had skied several miles to cheer and hand out snacks, and Swiss commandos stood watch in winter camo and truly spectacular berets.
We departed on the mellow terrain towards Col de la Chaux at 10:47:58, feeling tired but also smelling the barn. We were met shortly thereafter at a small Col by Taylor, Seth’s brother, and his friend, cheering us, ringing cowbells, and offering sips of beer. Further inspired, we made a short ski descent before beginning the final climb towards Col de la Chaux (11:41:46).
Atop the col was the Italian spectator contingent yelling BRAVO, BRAVO! For the last time, we clicked into our skis and pointed our tired legs downhill. A steep and moguled descent led us onto the welcome ski piste, where our pace quickened. But nothing is for free on this course, and the descent is divided roughly in half by a skate along a road that goes on for far too long. At this point, though, there was no insult that could overcome the sense of a nearing finish.
The snow ran out, and we started jogging down the road into Verbier past yet more cheering townsfolk. This run was longer than expected, and our feet ached. Finally the finish chute was visible down the street! But no! it was just the beginning of a long chute that led to the finish chute.
The local newspaperman in the finish bin was excited to discover an American team and asked for a few words before we passed through the finish tent to register our arrival. The finish area was confusing, and it wasn’t entirely clear where we were to go. Instead we found ourselves in a beer garden without signs or any clear flow.
Eventually, we figured out that if we continued on down the road, signs led us to the sports center, where the Army was waiting. In return for the tracking devices and chips, we were immediately shown to our bags and provided a shower. The efficiency, as usual, lived up to the stereotype.
After high-fives and handshakes, there was only one thing left to be done: find pizza and beer.
- In most years, running/hiking is necessary for longer. Our scouting suggested that bringing spare socks would be a good idea to protect the ski socks from getting wet.
- Carry only the food needed to go for ~3 hours, as this is about the time between aid for a team moving at a good pace. Ditto for 40 oz of water (depends on preference).
- Better to be at the back of a faster departure than at the front of a slower one. This way you may encounter less of a jam at the stockji than we did.
- The Col de la Tête Blanche could clearly be super cold. We were lucky.
- 2 pairs of skins per person. Better one faster (shorter pomoca) and one grippier (longer coltex).
- Whomever is carrying the rope should be at either the front or back of the rope team. That way one end of the rope can be pre-rigged to their harness.
- Ski fast, take chances, watch out for holes.
- Climbing out of Arolla sucks.
- Col de Riedmatten is fun, but watch the ski tails knocking on the snow, as the path becomes a trench and it would be easy to drop skis.
- Skate the lake.
- There’s another climb after the Rosablanche.
- Pizza and beer can be found at La Pergola.
- The UBS bank in Verbier will change CHF for Euro at a very reasonable rate.
Skis: Salomon Minim, 160 cm, 730g
Bindings: Movement Light Tech, race style, 116g.
Poles: Trab Gara Aero World Cup akaPIUMA GARA. I’ve switched to aluminum after breaking too many carbon poles. These are heavier but confidence inspiring.
Suit: Skimo.Co Skimo Race Suit (Trab WC Suit). Perfect. Has 4 skin pockets and beacon pocket. Zips up or zips down. Worn with wool boxers and synthetic long-sleeve base layer.
Helmet: CAMP Speed 2.0 Helmet. Best helmet around. No double certification required for this race.
Sunglasses: Julbo Aero with Zebra Light photochromic lenses. Light enough tint to wear all night in the dark without a problem, but they automatically get dark enough for full sun. Game changer.
Pack: Dynafit RC 28. Borrowed but loved it. This had enough space to carry the rope in the crampon pocket.
Jacket: Dynafit Transalper shell. Great piece. Oddly, I’m a small for a race fit, but would maybe do medium if I wanted my puffy under. Had I brought a puffy, it was going to be this one: Dynafit Vulcan Down.
Piolet: Required, but never used. Camp Corsa 50 cm is the lightest around. Be advised that the lighter Petzl axe is 48cm and not legal for the race.
Misc: Buff, Smith I/O goggles w/light lens.
If you’re headed to the PDG and have questions, drop them in the comments below. I’m happy to answer anything that you need or want to know, however trivial.