From the sound of it, the randonée course Janelle Smiley faced at the World Championships in Pelvoux, France last month was fiendishly difficult. But it was just one day, or part of one day.
Rando races in this country are similarly staged as one-day events. The Grand Traverse leaves Crested Butte at midnight, with the fast teams arriving in Aspen for breakfast. The Sneffels Half Loop departs at sunrise from Last Dollar trailhead and finishes at beer-thirty in Ridgway.
But when we, Team Smugglers’ Notch, did Le Raid Blanc in 1987, we raced for six days straight, with a couple of “specials,” or stages, each day, the times accumulating like they do on the Tour de France. To be sure, we were well fed and slept most nights in hotel beds. (A planned night in “igloos” on the side of Mont Blanc was cancelled in a blizzard when the French Army couldn't get up there to build them. Our first night together was spent sorting gear with the other 37 teams on a gym floor in Cervinia.)
I thought the second special on Day 1, following our morning of crevasse weaving, might be my last. Not my last of the Raid, my last ever.
It was a full-on downhill, from the top of the Plateau Rosa to the town of Cervinia several miles below. Monte Cervino, as the Italians call the the Matterhorn, loomed over the route, which paralleled the Kilometro Lanciato, the infamous speed run on which most of the speed skiing records (120 mph-plus) were set from the 1930s into the 1970s.
I was running fourth in the duckling line with Vermonter Paul Abare sweeping behind. It was a relatively flat section of the course; I had my head down in the most wind-resistant tuck my aching quads would allow. When next I looked up there was a spectator crossing the track directly in front of me.
I feinted left; he dodged left. I hurled my body to the right to keep from splintering us both and slid off the course straight for a gaping crevasse.
It wasn’t like my life flashed before my eyes. But I did have time to think about a moment before the start when our insurance was double-checked and we were each fitted with those permanent, plastic hospital bracelets.
I also somehow had time to recall a phrase from the Raid’s promotional literature. It was written by Gilbert Sabine, father of the event’s founder, Thierry, who carried on despite his son’s death the year before. The translation read: “[The Raid will be] a new ski, a total ski, a liberating of the tops of the most massive Alps...a rally which crowns...the surpassing of yourself, qualities that Thierry had always wanted to put first.”
It was that “surpassing of yourself” bit that concerned me.
Once I flew over the lip, I could see it wasn’t a crevasse after all, but a 10-foot deep wind trough. My fear turned to anger, and I popped up screaming at the miscreant pedestrian: “Merde! Putois, vas te faire foutre!” It occurred to me that I had never been so fluent in French.
Never mind that we were in Italy.
Paul helped get my skis back on, and we soldiered to the finish line. For each stage, the team’s time was the time of its last finisher. Somehow, even with my crash, we ended that first day ranked in the middle of the pack, 16th to be precise.
Around dusk, we took the cable cars back to the top of the Plateau Rosa and traversed across to the Refugio Theodul, a four-story, chalet-style hut on the shoulder of Monte Cervino, where all 120 competitors were billeted for the night. The place was virtually unheated, but with everyone sardined in, six to a sleeping shelf, 24 to a room, we would not be cold.
We ate in shifts at long wooden tables in the common room. The hut mistress served perfectly cooked pasta and hard cheese, cheap red wine, and a brothy chicken soup. The mood was cozy and convivial between the teams, something that would not survive the next difficult days.
But we felt good. We’d persevered, with most of our dignity intact. Kip’s shoulder dislocation on the morning stage had re-seated itself with remarkably little trouble. Our guide James was cautiously optimistic: “No problem!” he said.
A fellow on one of the French teams told me to put my pillow under my knees and use my jacket beneath my head. There was no room to roll over, and the shelf was too hard to lie on one’s side. It worked. I don’t think I moved all night, despite the snoring and the funk of exercised bodies.
We rustled awake at dawn to a fog so thick you could just barely see the outhouses beyond the hut door.
To be continued . . .