Caroline George gets after it as much as anyone on our team. But her drive to train for and complete the famous 53-kilometer Patrouille des Glaciers race along the Haute Route is one of the best competitive stories she’s ever told for us. The ski mountaineering race itself is a true Swiss sufferrest and the Swiss military history of its genesis is captivating. But Caroline’s personal story of training, guiding and racing—as well as her family history with the PDG—drew us into a storied rando experience that made our muscles and our lungs hurt to read. This is her race day report on completing one of the longest ski mountaineering races in the world. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Caroline George
One of the most beautiful sights I have seen in the mountains was while racing in the Patrouille des Glaciers this year. As we neared the Tête Blanche checkpoint–the highest one in the race–we emerged above the sea of clouds we had been immersed in since leaving Zermatt a few hours earlier, and there it was: the outline of the mighty Matterhorn standing proudly in the pitch-dark starry sky, standing proudly and alone above the clouds. Moments like these are what make this race so special, so unique, and well, so popular!
The Patrouille des Glaciers is a 53-km-long race with about 4,000 meters of elevation gain and 4,000 meters of elevation loss. It’s one of, if not the longest, ski mountaineering races in the world. It starts in the prestigious town of Zermatt and finishes in Verbier, following the itinerary of the Haute Route. During WW2, the Swiss army had decided to have military teams of three race each other on this traverse, completing it in a day, rather than the usual four days required, to test the operational capacity of its soldiers. The first event took place in 1943. But in 1949, a party of three fell in a crevasse and died. As a result, the race was banned by the Federal Military Department. It was revived in 1984.
The race takes place every two years and is organized by the army. There are two races: the long one from Zermatt, and the shorter one from Arolla, which is more or less the halfway point for competitors leaving from Zermatt. In 1986, the race was opened to women for the first time. And my mom took part in the shorter race with two other women. They won the race for three consecutive years. I was immersed in ski mountaineering races my whole life through my mom, having fond memories of going to see her cross the finish line. I took part in the short race twice, and one time was with my mom. In 2004, I did the “long one” from Zermatt for the first time.
The race has grown so much in popularity that since 2006, there are now two events: one in the middle of the week and one on the weekend. The Patrouille des Glaciers is a military race that is open to civilians. So as a member of the military you can enter the race without having to go through the lottery process that civilians have to go through. Another way for civilians to make sure they are enrolled in the race is to have a mountain guide race with them. And this is one of the reasons my teammates, Floriane and Aline, asked me to race with them.
Ortler Training Gallery Images by Caroline George
At first, I was a little reluctant to do the race. Having done it before, I knew how much training was required to do it and, with a toddler in tow, it was hard for me to imagine guiding all winter, being a mom, and training for the race. Though I was happy to do it with them, the only way I could make it work financially was if they would hire me to do some training sessions prior to the race, so that we could train together and I would work. They agreed to that and we signed up for the race. Floriane had already entered the race twice, but hadn’t yet crossed the finish line. And Aline had done the race multiple times. Floriane and I have been friends for years and she has been my most regular client since I have become a guide. I knew that doing this race meant the world to her and I wanted to do that for her.
The training process started early in the season by skinning up the piste in nearby Les Houches, a 5-minute drive from my home in Chamonix. Ski mountaineering races have become very popular, and skinning up the piste is the easiest way to train. A few ski resorts have made ski touring itineraries just outside the piste so that people won’t skin up the piste anymore because of the obvious inherent dangers that go with it. The Patrouille des Glaciers takes place every two years. During the “on” year, there are so many people training that it has become a real issue. But training also involves doing longer ski tours with friends and long days ice climbing, and my job as a guide has me spend so much time at altitude that it’s all a form of training.
In March, our team, the PDG-ettes, headed to Ortler, on the Austria-Italy border, for our first training mission. We ski-toured between 1,500 and 2,000 meters a day, with the last day being a 2,700-meter day. It was amazing to travel for such a long time in the mountains, skiing as much as we could and being fed delicious Italian meals every night. A few weeks later, we entered a 2,400-meter race called the Trophée du Muveran in the Swiss Alps. And the following week, we headed to the Haute Maurienne, which is located on the French-Italian border, at the end of the longest valley in the Alps, to do more big days ski touring at altitude to acclimate for the race, which was two weeks out. We had perfect weather and snow. It was great to combine training with discovering new ski touring venues. The race is only the reason, justifying spending a lot of time ski touring in the mountains. But by the end of that trip, we were ready for the race.
Muveran Trophy Test Race Images by Caroline George
We checked the weather forecast daily, almost hourly actually, over the few weeks before the race because it was very uncertain, with lots of snowfall, cold temperatures, wind, and a bad forecast for D-Day! The race was meant to start Monday night into Tuesday. But Sunday, we received a text message telling us the race had been postponed by a day. We didn’t know if the race would go at all. But we headed to Zermatt Monday night, hoping the race would start Tuesday night. It was a total downpour in town.
The following day, we did the gear check as planned. For the race, we needed a 30-meter single rope, one ice axe, one set of extra skins, headlamps, harnesses, helmets, backpacks, one extra pair of sunglasses, two pairs of gloves, a ski touring set-up, beacons, shovel and probe, and food and liquids. When we got out of the gear check, it was snowing heavily in town. The crux of the situation was to know whether we should eat a lot or not. We took a nap in the afternoon, prior to the meeting in the Zermatt church at 5pm, where we would find out that the race, indeed, would happen! What was nice about not knowing whether or not we would race was that we had let go of any expectations, so there was no stress. We were serene.
We went back to our hotel, had dinner, finished packing, got dressed for the race, did the final gear check and by 8pm, we were in the starting blocks. When signing up for the race, we had to say how long we thought the race would take and we were given a start time based on that. The first start time was 9pm and the last one was 3am for the pros. At 9pm, the first group of people started and we were among them. It was still light out and it’s always funny to know that you are headed into the night, that soon you will turn your headlamp on for the long journey through the night across the mountains. We all had our skis on our backpacks with our boots clipped onto them, as the first part of the race isn’t on snow. We ran all the way to a place called Ober Staffel, where we switched into our ski boots, leaving our shoes behind for charity. It was snowing lightly the whole time.
Haute Mauriene Training Images by Caroline George
We transitioned to our boots and skis and roped up before heading up the glacier in the dark. After a long flat section, we started up the steep Stökji wall, with a track so steep that we took our skis off, while others struggled and fell off the track. We clipped back into our skis and kept heading up toward Tête Blanche. From Zermatt, we climbed 2000 meters straight to the Tête Blanche checkpoint. When we finally broke through the clouds, the temperature dropped, but it was magical. The forecast had been right! It was so beautiful all around us, and the atmosphere of the race added to how magical the moment was.
Though I love the mountains for the quietness and peace they provide, there is something to be said for being in the mountains with so many people striving to reach the same goal, braving the cold, the night, sickness, altitude and pain. There is something beautiful and powerful in it. You feel almost carried by the flow of energy from other people and from the organization itself: the path is lit up with little lights, the tracks are made so that you can travel parallel with other teams, the checkpoints are like little havens: they shine brightly in the sky, and they are something to aim for in the dark. It’s comforting to see the friendly faces of the militaries welcoming you into the checkpoints, cheering you on, helping you with your transitions, asking if you’re okay or need some tea. It’s a little world of its own, a moment of respite before diving back into the cold darkness of the night.
At the Tête Blanche checkpoint, Aline started getting really sick, throwing up and feeling nauseous. Since it was downhill for a way from there, she decided to keep going. So we skied down, roped up for glacier travel, to the base of the Col de Bertol. We put our skins back on for 20 minutes before reaching the col itself. We then skied down all the way to Arolla. The weeks prior to the race had been really warm and sunny, and a lot of the snow on the descent had melted away. But it snowed just enough during the week before the race to make it possible to ski all the way down to Arolla. We saw plenty of militaries along the way, showing us with their torches where the rocks were sticking out. Arolla is the first food stop and we took a while there to rehydrate, drinking lots of liquids, and ate some food. Aline wasn’t feeling much better but she was willing to keep going.
I drank a lot of broth, and as we started up the second half of the race toward Verbier, I started feeling sick myself. My stomach was in knots. By the time we reached the following checkpoint, at the base of the Riedmatten pass, I had to run to the bathroom and was in a state until an hour later when someone gave me some Imodium. The Riedmatten pass is steep enough that you have to put skis on your back and boot up to the col, before down climbing a steep gully on the backside, using fixed ropes for safety. After a short ski down, we reached the Lac des Dix, where we put our skins back on to travel the flat section above the lake to reach Barmaz, the second food stop. I was feeling better by then, but Aline wasn’t. She stayed strong and pushed on despite not being able to eat much for fear of vomiting. Temperatures were still nice and cool, despite being in the sun, and we gently made our way to the bottom of the next boot pack up the infamous 250-meter-long Rosablanche.
This is where people start showing signs of fatigue. The pace is a lot slower, the couloir is south-facing, and the heat beats down on already tired competitors. But the cow bells at the top, combined with the cheering of all the people waiting around on the summit and knowing this is the last crux before Verbier, are enough to motivate anyone to reach the top. After a long traverse followed by a short descent, we put our skins back on for the last time. Though the ascent to the Col de la Chaux is short, it’s up a hillside, and the skinning is on an uneven skin track that makes it more tiring than it should be. At the Col de la Chaux, we stripped our skins, stuffed them in our backpacks, locked down into ski mode and down we went, all the way to Medran, the bottom lift of the ski resort.
My mom was waiting for us there with my daughter Olivia. I had been thinking of this moment the whole race, and thinking about it brought tears to my eyes. When I saw her, tears ran down my face as I hugged her. But we had to keep going, as the race ends all the way across town at the sports center where the finish line is. We ran the last hundred meters for good measure and crossed the finish line! And just like that, it was all over! Months of training for this race had carried us to right here, right now. It was hard to grasp. We fell into each other’s arms, shedding tears of relief, of exhaustion, of happiness. For me, this race was all the more special because Floriane’s dream of completing this race came true and I got to do it with her, for her.
Though the Patrouille des Glaciers is an organized race and it can seem in conflict with the nature of the mountains, to me it is just another excuse for being in the mountains, for discovering new terrain, new places, for pushing your limits, training with a goal in sight, sharing beautiful moments with people you like. I was lucky enough to do this as my job this winter. I would do it again in a heartbeat because of all of the above and because of that most magical moment I got to experience up there on Tête Blanche, when the Matterhorn greeted us with its presence, making this night even more magical!
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