American rando racer Lyndsay Meyer sent me this great report of her and teammate Nina Silitch’s experiences racing in this year’s Pierra Menta just last weekend. It is a four day stage race and arguably the hardest ski mountaineering race there is. Lyndsay and Nina were the first ever complete US women’s team to compete in the event. Nice job ladies! Read about some racing in the states in today’s New York Times.
I stared wide-eyed at the profile of the Pierra Menta. 9800M (32,340′) of uphill over four days…thank God this was a team event. My partner, Nina Silitch and I sat at the pre-race briefing and began to feel the nervous butterflies. Big ones. Maybe more like bats or small sparrows. We stood in line as they inspected gear and taped electronic DAG timing system chips to each ski. 21 female teams had signed up this year, a record number for women, and 150 male teams. Looking at the competition, the teams were very strong, stronger than at the World Cup. Nina was coming back from a nasty strep throat…car accident… strep throat relapse, and I was just plain scared, but thankfully so was everyone else. Our goal? Simply to finish the famous race as the first U.S. women’s team and do the best that our bodies allowed.
Saturday, day three and the famous Grand Mont stage, dawned sunny and warm. A beautiful course complete with an exposed arete and 3000 people waiting to sing you praises at the summit. The weather was good, but we were tired and wondering how our bodies would react to the 2700M (8910′) stage. We had never tested ourselves this way. Thursday, day one and 2450M (8085′) seemed like years ago. It was a mellower stage and the course was changed due to avalanche danger. Friday, day two, had gone well. The longest of the stages at 2980M (9834′) and was very technical. Adding insult to injury, the last climb was up a tree filled gully with slightly iso-thermic snow. Skins were failing, people were falling and the sun was sweltering. After three false summits we were VERY ready for the finish. We had watched as one female team we were closely following lost a ski during a transition. Placed on an uneven surface, the ski flew off the ridge down hundreds of meters. Our friend, Fabienne sat down and cried, and we touched her on the shoulder as we moved on. “Its okay,” said her teammate Jane. “We can have a rest now.” After that Nina and I just wanted to complete the stage, all gear in tact. Thanks to snow the day before the start, most of the descents (minus one ice death slide, reminiscent of skiing at Buck Hill in Minnesota) were in great condition. We both grew up ski racing, so the downhills were a relief and where we made up lost time.
The start of the Grand Mont stage was unexpected and with no warning as usual. The tape dropped, allowing all the categories to blend together and chaos ensued.
“Watch your poles…keep them by your sides…get a good rhythm.” Nina is always the voice of reason, calmly reminding me of proper technique.
We turned the corner after a long flat cross country section and my heart dropped as we saw the steep climb. It was a wall of ice…with competitors picking their line and kick-turning their way up the slope. It was extremely technical and with everyone fighting for their position, it was the most challenging of the ascents…though nothing about this race was easy. This is after all the Pierra Menta…and Areches-Beaufort, France is the cradle of the ski mountaineering world. We heard a loud shout and someone lost a ski, I tried to stop it, but it went flying down the slope. A quick check ensued that our bindings were secure.
Closer to the top the terrain mellowed out. The 1100M (3630′) gained quickly by the steep slope and we were surprised to find how good we were at kick turns after about one hundred or so. With one final crossing over avalanche debris to the summit before the descent, Nina lost her footing and started to slide. Another competitor grabbed her pack and his team-mate planted his pole under her skis. A reminder that even though this is a race, the unwritten rule in the mountaineering world is as always safety first. We moved on towards the summit and could hear the crowds and clanging cowbells.
“Eat if you can Lyndsay,” Nina reminded me. Frantically shoving a gel in my mouth, I was sick of the taste and fairly certain I had gotten more on me than actually in my mouth.
“Allez Niiiinnnaaa, Allez Lyyynndsay.” Spectators had the start list and cheered us on by name, switching to “go go go” or “way to go America.”
We were absolutely blown away at the support we were receiving. The sound of bells was deafening and it was incredible to see that people skinned up or took the telepherique at 5am with cowbells the size of your head and straight off the neck of the family cows. Others brought wine, food, and accordions to serenade racers with old French folk songs. The Pierra Menta is the Tour de France of Ski Mountaineering and the energy was awesome. Some spectators slowly followed behind on course like angels. At the transitions they would plant poles for you, brush off skis, making everything just a bit easier as the hours pass. Although we did hear that they were not quite as kind to the male racers. Some told me I imagined these angels, which admittedly is entirely possible.
Finally reaching the end of the third skin, our friend Fabienne was there, the women who lost the ski the day before. She cheered us on. “Now the arête…everyone is up there…they are waiting for you! Courage!” Skis securely fastened on our packs, we began picking our way up the rocks. The leading men had brushed much of the snow off the rocks, making it muddy and icy and not for the faint of heart. It was slippery and exposed. We made up time catching other teams as the racers ahead were bunched up waiting to clip and unclip their slings on the fixed ropes. I was happy to clip into the line…falling was not an option.
“You are American?” One of the guides asked as he helped us clip in. “This is not too hard for you?”
With big smiles, we said we were fine and could hear him tell his fellow guides how cool it was that we were competing. It gave us new strength. One spectator sat on a rock playing his harmonica and after seeing the flags on our packs he began to play, “When the Troops Come Marching Home.”
Ascending the final 20 meters, the last ridge of the summit hid the 3000 people waiting in ambush. Running into the huge crowd, all pain was forgotten as we heard cheers of “Courage…bravo…bravo les filles!” We ripped skins and clicked bindings as the crowds urgently reminding us to double check our gear. I have never experienced such supportive spectators, willing you in unison to complete the race safely and in one piece. The level of respect for just doing the Pierra Menta was evident. The last descent I can’t really remember feeling my feet. It was a high speed traverse around the peak, then down about 1200m of hairy skiing through forest and ending in a tuck to the finish.
Since there was still one more day of racing to go, I immediately searched out a coke and inhaled an awesome piece of pound cake. Boots and wet clothes came off as soon as possible. Dinner that night had us sitting next to some Tyrolean guides from the German speaking part of the Dolomites in Italy. It was their seventh Pierra Menta. Each year they came for vacation and told us it was the hardest race yet and that we would break 10,000 meters this year.
Day Four began a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. We had done this before and the daily routine starts the same. Eat, prepare, race, suffer, finish. Eat again, rest, daily massages (great perk), eat yet again, prepare gear, sleep. We didn’t speak much that morning and just silently packed our packs, got the skis ready, got dressed, checked beacons, helmets, sunscreen and warmed up. They announced that due to snow, the course has been shortened 300M. What a gift! The final stage was only 1500M (4950′).
The first climb started and was quickly interrupted by a forest hike through mud and trees. The snow had melted from the southern exposure. We are fast on the boot packs and the change of movement was welcome. We could hear women yelling in French behind us. Nina and I still had a chance to move up a few places in the general classification, so their voices spurred us on as we dug deep and found we still had some fight left. The ascent was long and warm…and sweat was getting in my eyes. Though I was redlined, Nina set a good pace and it was easy to just follow and not have to think. To spice things up, there was a 20M ski down on some ice and powder with the skins on before the transition…a true test of balance. Making up time on a great ski down, we again had to put skis on our packs and be part of a “Rambo” run down a muddy gully. Men were not afraid to hurl themselves down these slopes and we went as fast as we could just to get out of the way. Fear of getting trampled made up more time and we caught some stronger teams. We could see a glimmer of respect from some of the women who have competed their whole lives in this sport. One last 300M climb and a short ski to the finish. “Bird’s nest it,” I said to myself (thanks Wick) and just shoved the skins in my suit for the last time, then followed Nina down. Clasping hands through the finish we threw our arms around each other. Nina’s son Birkin had made a “go mommy go” sign. Not only is she an insane competitor, but a mother of two.
We finished the Pierra Menta in 14th place out of 21 female teams. Without hesitation, we both agree it was the hardest thing we have ever done and now we laugh as we think of the things that went through our heads as we battled the mental demons during the race. I had decided that I was ready to give it all up, surf, and move to Bali. Nina thought about going back to cross-country and staying home more with the kids. Elation at the finish erased the low moments. However, we agreed to wait at least a week before considering doing it again. Next up, the Patrouilles des Glaciers…but first we need some sleep.
By Lyndsay Meyer