Since the FFME Championnat de France épreuve de sprint race in Chamonix in January, I had not been able to arrange my schedule to photograph another ski mountaineering race all season. Finally, it seemed I would be able shoot the Patrouille des Glaciers, a race in the Swiss alps from Zermatt to Verbier via Arolla, held every 2 years. There are several courses (and some shorter versions from Zermatt to Arolla or Arolla to Verbier) and I wanted to photograph the long course with the national teams competing.
I left Chamonix by car at around 4am, but would still reach the La Chaux chairlift check-in station in plenty of time to catch my hard core skimo racing friends in team 2338, Lyndsay Meyer and Nina Silitch who hoped to be passing through with their teammate Sari Anderson just after the fastest men in the race.
The Patrouille des Glaciers is run in teams of 3 and much of the course has to be skied while roped together. The race is fully manned by the Swiss Army and places in this prestigious and historic race are hard to come by, so coveted by the ski mountaineer racing crowd. The start times for the teams are staggered. The earliest times for departure are given to teams expected to go slower, and later starting times are given to the fastest teams (such as Killian Jornet, the eventual winner this year).
This year’s US women’s team have competed in other skimo races previously and formed their team for the PDG with Sari flying out from Colorado especially for the race (Nina and Lyndsay are Alps-based Americans). They had a departure of midnight and hoped to get to the areas above Verbier by around 8am.
I checked their progress before I left Vallorcine to enter into Swiss phone territory using the PDG Android app that the organisers had been kind enough to invent for their race. They seemed to be moving along well, as did another team of women that I was following who included my friend and local awesome ski instructor and BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety trainer Alison Culshaw, as part of a British women’s team doing her first PDG, having recently been bitten by the bug of ski mountaineer racing.
As I drove up the Swiss Val des Bagnes, there seemed to be an awful lot of traffic coming from the direction of Verbier … I hoped it was just traffic coming from the Grand St Bernard tunnel, but as I approached Le Chable below Verbier, the headlights kept coming in streams. The car park was still full when I pulled up, and loads of people were getting out of their cars and putting on their touring gear – so I did the same.
I went up to the cash desk to get a lift ticket but was told that the race had been cancelled due to an avalanche at Pas de Chat, a check point between Arolla and the Rosablanche at Verbier. They did not think anyone was hurt, but said the race was stopped. The decision to stop the race was the right one , but heartbreaking for the athletes who had trained so hard. We had two weeks of snow/rain in a rather cold April, followed by a sudden intense warming in the day before the race. The freezing point the night before the race was above 3000m. Also, very high winds were forecast – up to 90km/hr at the altitudes the racers would be going.
They later announced that the teams would be transported from Arolla back to the finish line at Verbier, where they would walk across the finish from the buses, and that the race rankings would be given out based on the teams times to Arolla from Zermatt. A special ticket price of 10CHF round trip was given for supporters who wanted to go up and greet the teams . I stowed my touring gear back in the car, and changed into walking shoes, a bit deflated, but I imagined not nearly as deflated as all the athletes who had trained so hard for this race only to have it stopped in the middle. The PDG only runs once every 2 years, so the next chance for anyone will be in 2014. The decision to cancel this race was not taken lightly. There were some disappointed supporters already breaking out the bottles of wine they had brought for the end of the race, and drinking in the cable car bottom station – at 5am !
I re-packed my camera and arrived at Verbier and wandered around, and grabbed some coffee at one café near the lift who was nice enough to be open several hours early for this occaision. It was sad looking – seeing all the decorations, the preparations that had gone into welcoming the racers to the finish, and knowing now that there would be no steam of triumphant teams running down the main street with big grins on their faces. There were grandstands from television stations, and TV camera positions already staked out all across the town – all now unmanned. Swiss army vehicles were the only cars on the road now and again, and lots of Swiss army uniforms were wandering in the streets, no longer having a real task.
I was able to reach Alison by SMS and she confirmed they were OK, and had been turned around at Arolla and she was getting onto a bus, but was happy to hear from me as the racers did not yet know why the race was stopped.
Lyndsay and Nina did not reply to texts, so I assumed that they did not bring their phones along for weight. I found a results board with raw times posted for check in points for each team. I located Team USA on the board andfound that they had checked into Arolla, and had not gone further, so they were fine. Only three teams had reached Pas de Chat, checking in just before 4am, and after that no teams recorded a check in. I have to assume one of those men’s teams or one just after them either set off or observed the avalanche, and that is why the race was stopped.
The racers started to arrive in dribbles by bus, and I decided to capture the atmosphere anyhow – not really the glorious ski mountaineering photos of strong women in the mountains that I had envisioned, but the ladies teams in general were in decent humour – of course disappointed not to have skied the entire course, but happy to have had a safe race.
The results based on the Zermatt to Arolla section are published here : PDG Results