The skimo race season is finally over, and although I’m still ski guiding for a couple more trips the skinny race skis have been waxed and put in the cupboard until next season. Only six months before they come out again!
The final race of the season was an epic day out. Taking part in the classic Mezzalama race, a team event in Italy that crosses some high altitude terrain between Cervina and Gressoney. Climbing over the 4200m peak of Castor and skiing some impressive glacier terrain roped up adds up to a very ambitious race.
This year the weather was looking pretty iffy. Lots of fresh snow and high winds were forecast. The race was delayed 24hrs and then there were rumours flying around the briefing room. Sure enough, the route had been changed. We were no longer climbing over Castor, but were dropping down below the Mezzalama refuge, climbing back up to the Quintino Sella before again dropping and climbing into the ski area of Gressoney. This route change would actually end up with 800m more ascent, which resulted in a few groans from the assembled skiers!
The alarm went off at 3am the following morning, and the hotel had put on a good spread of food for the few skiers staying there, even cooking up some Italian pasta for us. Trying not to overeat was difficult, but we had time for the food to settle before the start at 5.40. The start line was the usual jangle of nerves, last minute kit adjustment and jostling to get a good place in the start line. There were 300 teams (900 people), but luckily they had put everyone in grouped pens and were were right at the front with the fastest groups. It would be a case of maintaining our place rather than fighting through the crowds.
After a run through town with a backdrop of rock music and fire works we were skiing up the piste in the dawn light. As always, it’s a difficult job getting the pacing right. It’s a long race and you don’t want to over cook it, but on the other hand the lower altitude slopes were going to be easier than the thin air above…
As we approached the col du Breithorn the wind was howling, and we took it in turns to help each other into jackets without stopping. Skinning uphill in a warm jacket whilst racing was a first, but it was bloody freezing and super cold on any exposed skin. Many of the Italian racers had put physio tape across cheeks and noses which we had laughed at earlier, but now it seemed like a pretty good idea!
The rope went on and the three of us skied downhill in the cloud. There was very little visibility but with marker posts every twenty meters of so it was ok. There were plenty of other teams amougst us as well, which with everyone roped up meant avoiding a tangle was tricky. Considering Nuno, Jon and I had done zero practice together the downhill roped skiing went pretty well. One or two minor spills but good steady progress despite the difficult snow at times.
The second climb up the Quintino Sella refuge was a long drag and it was here that I really felt the altitude. Ten days in Devon prior to the race maybe wasn’t the best acclimatisation plan and although I could hold onto the pace (just) I felt seriously nauseous, and it was an effort to keep hold of the little food and water I had consumed. We were back in the wind as well, frost nip was a genuine concern and we were pushing hard to get to the wind shelter of the hut.
I managed to gulp some tea provided outside the hut whilst making the transition to downhill skiing and then we were off down the second big descent of the day. This started with some nice wind blown snow but we soon reached the crust. Some of it had been chopped up by the earlier skiers whilst some was waiting to be broken. With tired legs and very light skinny skis it was hard work. A couple of short stops were needed to shake the legs out… and now we could see the unexpectedly long final climb. A heart braking skight when you see how far you have to climb out of the valley!
Now that we had dropped some altitude I felt stronger again and although fatigued at least I wasn’t feeling so grim. The crowds at the final col were doing a good job at lifting the spirts and we only had some mellow off piste followed by pisted slopes to get us to the finish.
The sun was out and the grass was dry – a total relief to sit down and eat whilst the winners recieved thier flowers and medals. A testing day out in the hills with good friends Nuno and Jon.
My watch says 41km, 3911m ascent, 7 hours 15min, 4962kcal, 120 hours recovery time. We were the 39th team to finish in the general catagory.