La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) is the first and longest race in the week-long Chamonix carnival that culminates in the famous Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Although strictly speaking this is not actually a race. As the organisers said in the briefing beforehand, the course has been designed as a mountain adventure which will draw on the essential solidarity, collective spirit, and basic skills of human mountain endeavours. Whilst the course stats (roughly 290km and 24000m ascent this year) might suggest a challenge roughly double that of the UTMB, this event is far removed from those runnable and meticulously flagged trails, and their spectating crowds.
The PTL is a circular route, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, and run in teams of two or three. The majority of the course is on small footpaths, frequently taking the lesser known route across the mountains, giving the race that remote feeling of the high mountains. In places there is no path at all, or it is so overgrown that its existence becomes irrelevant to the exhausted travellers trying to find the next refuge in the dead of night.
Our team, composed of myself, Konrad (my husband), and Jim Mann, had been planning this PTL adventure for some time, in fact an entry for the PTL was my long-term goal when I ran the UTMB in 2016. Nevertheless, somewhat ironically, our team was far from prepared when we arrived in Chamonix the day before the race, feeling significantly less fit than we’d have liked (in my case due to a grumbling injury over the summer, going back to clinical work whilst still finishing my PhD thesis in the evenings, and a small person who likes company at night), with zero altitude acclimatization, and in Jim’s case also without any food (cue some last minute shopping and an unusual assortment of bakery products comprising a large portion of his race nutrition).
The race started at 8am on Monday morning, cheered on by a not-insignificant Chamonix crowd. Despite our efforts to set off conservatively, the first 10km of easy trail down the valley to Les Houches were by far the fastest of the race. From there, the course proper kicked off with a 1500m climb to Cabane des Rognes, with a short ‘helmets compulsory’ steep section with ladders at the top of the pass. We continued to make good progress throughout the day, until the afternoon when Konrad (who never does well with heat) started to suffer on the climb to Col de Enclave. Fortunately, there was at this point a small lake available for cold-water rejuvenation therapy (of which I am a strong believer, Lac de Champex saved me at UTMB 2016), so I forced a very reluctant Konrad to dip himself in, whilst I swam around happily, and Jim offered encouragement from the shore. With renewed momentum, we crossed the pass, and dropped to Refuge des Mottetes, and a welcome meal. By now it was late evening, and although we’d originally planned to run through the first night (the way I did on the Spine), we decided to rest for a couple of hours (at this early stage of the race it was of course impossible to sleep, too many people, too much adrenaline). It was a good decision, although a hard one at the time. We re-started with renewed energy, keen to chase back all the teams that had pushed on. The night was tough, with long sections over rocks and no discernible path, a steep scree traverse above a drop which - in the dark of night at least - appeared terribly exposed, and a challenging 2000m descent (the first of many) on rough steep ground and later a trod through overgrown brambles and branches, to finally arrive at the first live base in Morgex (82km) at 8am on Tuesday morning.
|Refreshment stop day one (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
The leading teams had arrived in the night and had either moved on, or were rested and setting off by the time we appeared. Keen not to get stuck in the valley in the heat of the day, we quickly ate a couple of servings of lasagne, stocked up on apple puree pouches (what a race-food discovery!) and showered before setting out again, climbing up towards Rifugio Fallere. Engrossed in chat, we missed a turn, and had to negotiate a huge herd of cows on their way to the milking parlour to re-join the route. Luckily there was a farmer present to re-direct our navigator Jim, who seemed determined to take us on the straightest line meeting the bovine march head-on. At the refuge we ate again, rested for a couple of hours (Jim and Konrad slept, I still couldn’t), before continuing the climb to Mont Fallere. We reached the top just as a storm broke, and pushed on swiftly, glad to get clear of the metal summit cross, given the lightening flashing across the horizon. It rained for most of the night, and we were grateful for the straightforward long descent on an unusually large and runnable track (not many of those on the PTL!).
|Another col (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
We reached the town in the valley, where a few hardy supporters were standing in an almost empty car park, to cheer us through. Konrad spotted the open boot of a car and had to be prevented from jumping in for a nap. We did go to sleep briefly on the next climb, lying on the rain-soaked grass beside the path, and for the first time experienced the scarcely credible restorative properties of the ‘power nap’. One and a half thousand meters higher, we reached the ridge, and shortly afterwards arrived at Rifugio Champillon. Inside the atmosphere was party like, and incredibly welcoming. I somehow remember the staff at the bar warming shots of liquor in the stove, which now in retrospect seems very unlikely, but the recollection of hot beef beef stew and vanilla dessert, and many wet shoes clustered around the fire to dry, I am certain of.
|Glacier (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
After two hours of sleep, we set off downwards again, into the valley, before a long slog up to Col de By, the highest point of the route and roughly the halfway point. A helicopter circled overhead for a while filming, and then a camera man joined us in person on the hillside, repeatedly jogging ahead with frustrating ease to get his shots. The rocky summit could have been that of any Scottish mountain, cold, windy, and damp with fog, but as we started our descent into Switzerland the cloud cleared, and the Glacier du Mont Duran opened out in front of us, sparkling in the sunshine. Donning crampons, we crossed quickly, following the prescribed flagged route, and grateful for the presence of the race officials, harness and ropes over the short section of crevasses. In contrast to our rapid progress over the ice, the rocky glacial morain, with no path, took forever. The next refuge was quiet and empty, we stopped only briefly for boiling water and crunchy rehydrated pasta, before traversing a long valley to reach the Lac du Mannoisin dam, and its thundering mass of falling water. At dusk, after two long weary climbs (made easier by the fact that someone had been out strimming the high mountain path!), we reached Cabane Louvie, where we ate and slept for 2 hours, before embarking upon what was to be our longest, and most eventful section of the race.
|Yet another col (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
That evening I was feeling a little emotional, and missing my baby, so I took up a position at the back of our team train, where I drifted into thoughts of home. While doing so, I twice fell asleep on my feet, and (looking back) was perhaps a little blasé about stumbling back into consciousness with a lurch, with the valley floor several hundred meters below in the darkness. Over the next few hours, we traversed a ridge, crossed the ski resort at Verbier that we’d skied through on our Chamonix-Zermatt ski tour in April, and passed a refuge that wasn’t open to us, the warm yellow glow of a kitchen window light seemingly left on to goad us. A tricky section of descending was great fun (although Jim was less of a fan of the technical sections on this race), but the wide gentle ridge beyond refused to end, and finally Konrad and I called another power nap stop, which Jim elected to preside over. Sometime later I woke up in darkness, and calling to Jim, realised he was asleep – who knows how long we’d been there!
|Jim showing off his technical skills (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
Two thousand meters of descent later, we reached the sprawling and already hot valley at Fully, busy with commuter morning traffic, and a massive contrast to the wilderness of the mountains we’d come from. At the live base we met again with the two teams in front, and established that we’d somehow overtaken the first mixed team in the night, presumably by sleeping less at one of the refuges. We stayed only to eat and shower, preferring to climb out of the valley before the heat of the day set in, with a view to sleep at the next refuge if need be. The 2500m ascent cumulated with some zig-zaging through avalanche barriers below the summit of the Grand Chavalard, which was followed by a long-technical section with multiple static ropes (helmets mandatory again) a short snowfield, and finally the reward of an amazing chicken curry at Cabane Fenestral. With plenty of daylight left, we pushed on to the Dent de Morcles, my favourite mountain of the race, a bizarre layer cake of rocky scrambling. The descent was via a narrow rocky couloir, which opened out rightwards into a long and scenic traverse on a tiny trod over a steep scree drop off. The rock here was a beautiful mix of purple and ochre, and I debated taking a stone back for Rowan, but common sense (and the thought of the 70km we still had to run) prevailed. We passed several caves, clearly occupied in times gone by (one even still had an enormous wooden door, with beds and tables inside – I almost wished for a storm to appear), before arriving at Cabane de la Tourche, at 6pm on Thursday evening.
Torn between sleeping and making the most of the daylight, we hurriedly ate and continued, descending back down to 400m, and crossing the warm valley as it grew dark. At the start of the next climb someone had left a huge barrel filled with water and cooled drinks, with a sign saying “PTL Go Go Go!”, which was very cheering at the time, and in retrospect probably prompted by pity, given what was about to come. This was without doubt the hardest part of the race for me (and I think for Jim – Konrad reacted differently to his fatigue and bizarrely almost ran upwards). I was seeing animals in every rock and stick (I tried telling the others, they showed no interest in discussing the fauna of my hallucinations), and could barely walk in a straight line. At one point near the start of the climb Jim, who was walking behind me, blurted out “Oh for goodness sake, can you take a Pro Plus or something, it’s like following a drunk home!”, but it wasn’t long before he too succumbed, staring in wonder at the “huge slugs eating mushrooms on every side”, and realising that ‘hours’ of climbing had taken us only a couple of metres higher up the mountain. Konrad later admitted that in contrast to his apparent lucidity at this stage, our voices sounded far away and unfamiliar, distant memories in the darkness.
To make matters worse, the climb was ridiculously steep and the overhanging trees closed overhead like a tunnel. When the gradient finally lessened the undergrowth thickened, and we had to push back bracken, heather and ferns to make a way through. Konrad asked Jim (who was holding the GPS) several times whether we were still on the trace, until finally taking the device from him, zooming in, and discovering we very much were not. Ironically, when we did finally re-join the path the going wasn’t much easier, rather rocks and ferns, interspersed by boulder slabs running with water. When, at long last, we reached the ridge, bathed in starlight, I whooped for joy, then set off in pursuit of the others, who were already heading down towards refuge Cabane Salanfe, and our final sleep of the race. And what a sleep that was! Some 26 hours, 73 km and 7000 m ascent after our last sleep, now in our own room, with clean sheets and soft feather duvets (or at least that’s how I remember them) - this was the very definition of the phrase ‘fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow’.
|Relaxing last day (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
At 4am, after a life-affirming 2 hours of bliss, we set off back into the darkness, for the final push towards Chamonix. The refuge kitchen had closed for a few hours after feeding us the evening before, and we had 3 big climbs between us and breakfast (or more accurately lunch). Somewhere between the first and second col it started to get light, and by the time we arrived at Col de Barberine the mountains were bathed in an incredible orange glow, the splendour of the whole Mont Blanc range spread out before us. It was one of those mountain moments that you remember forever, a thought to sustain the soul through the long winter months at work in the UK - wilderness, awe, freedom and perspective all rolled into one. We were running with team 3fous, and there was a real party atmosphere, we knew we’d make it to Chamonix by the evening, which in itself was a fantastic feeling.
|Sunrise on the last morning with Mt. Blanc (photo Konrad Rawlik)|
From the last section to the finish it felt like we were flying. Setting off that morning, we’d aimed to finish after the start of the UTMB (as we understood it, the PTL finish line closes from around 4pm to 6pm for the UTMB start), but when our companions said at lunchtime that we could get back before, we were suddenly motivated to try. I’d imagined we’d finish the PTL in a broken state, but it was actually quite the opposite. Whilst we had certainly not been prepared for the PTL at the start line on Monday, by Friday we’d completed a 4-day altitude running training camp, and were all feeling pretty good! We covered the remaining 22km/1000m ascent in 4 hours loving the ladders at the foot of the Aiguilles Rouge, and gradually meeting more and more people as we neared Flegere. Ironically, I found the final 10km much easier and more enjoyable, than I’d remembered from UTMB 2016. Our friends Katie, Iain, and Eoin were waiting for us at the entrance to Chamonix, and from there it was a short celebratory run through town to the final arch, and the prized cowbells awaiting us there. We watched the start of the UTMB in a café eating pizza and drinking beer, and called home to learn that the toddler had missed us less than the dog.
The PTL is a genuine mountain adventure, a mountain marathon with friends on an epic scale, which will leave you with memories to draw on for years to come. Definitely one to do again.
|All done (photo Konrad Rawlik)|