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.