A 4am alarm call on 7 April saw Henry and I waking, packing and wolfing down an early breakfast before jumping onto the 5am train from Bex, down in the valley floor, up to Gryon, 700m above, for the start of the 72nd Trophées du Muveran ski mountaineering race. The carriage was packed with fellow competitors in various states of wakefulness, some staring vacantly into the dark, others having last minute tactical discussions. I tried to ignore the unpleasant thoughts relating to the weather forecast for Bex, showing heavy rain from 6am to midday, exactly the period when we were expecting to be racing. I wasn’t too worried about the physical challenge of doing the ascents but mildly apprehensive about the descents which I imagined would be in very heavy snow… if there were any snow at all.
The view from our hotel in Bex the evening before the race.
The weather forecast on Sunday morning (race day)!
After we had completed our compulsory equipment check and were waiting for our wave to start at 6am, we were enveloped in a wet mist. So it was not the most auspicious conditions in which to start our first ski-mo race. We’d had the benefit of some advice from Ben Tibbetts a few weeks previously (see Four Mellow Chamonix Ski Tours) so we weren’t completely clueless. However, as with any new experience we learnt a lot and whilst there is lots of information available from people that are much more competent and experienced, I’ve extracted 8 ‘lessons’ which may be useful for anyone about to do their first race.
Waiting for our wave to start which was postponed to 6.10am.
Pre-race team selfie.
The forecast of poor weather had meant that the organisers had already changed the course, so instead of two big climbs ascending 1700m and 600m and taking us high into the mountains, we would now be in the Villars/Gryon ski area with 6 smaller climbs totally 2200m. That meant many more transitions than we were originally expecting.
Map of the race course (clockwise around the loop). 22.4km with 2205m of ascent.
Lesson 1: Have a routine for the transitions. Ben had given us a useful mantra, “boots, bindings, skins” which provided a good mental checklist both for racing and general ski touring. As expected though it felt more tricky to do it smoothly when under pressure.
The mass start led to a power walk up a muddy piste until there was enough snow to start skinning. Although our skins were already on our skis it wasn’t so easy to clip into the pin bindings in the dark. Most of the small portion of the wave that was behind us passed us then and there. A 300m vertical ascent up a piste led to the first transition. I’d come up with the word “de-peau” in my head for taking off the skins so I was pleasantly surprised when one of the marshals shouted it was 100m until the “zone de dépeautage”.
In spite of the fact that people still have their headlamps on, it was light enough to see by the first transition.
The wan dawn light didn’t help much as we descended a piste through fog. As I couldn’t see the edges I set off in a snow plough. All was good until it steepened and became icy when I was sliding down on my backside.
Nevertheless we were soon putting on the skins again and commencing the second, 800m climb to Le Chamossaire. About half of this was on pistes and half in the forest. The steeper sections were strenuous as the grip of the skins was at its limits and you had to use a lot of arm power through the poles to stop sliding back.
Lesson 2: Train the triceps. I have a good level of aerobic fitness from cycling but the one part of my body that started to cramp up during the race was my triceps. I am not sure how one can get the specific training needed however without doing ski-mo or cross country skiing… perhaps by running uphill with ski poles. (This blog post by an American ski-mo athlete contains some useful info on training.)
On the steeper sections I noticed I was going faster than Henry; as with cycling, climbing on skins is about power to weight and Henry is lot heavier than me plus he’d been injured and unable to train as much as planned. As there were several more massed starts of faster competitors behind us, were being passed by many teams and had seen a few where one teammate was giving the other a gentle tow through a bungy cord clipped between them. So it seemed like a good time to get ours out too. It helped increase our pace, but on sections where there were kick turns we found that the bungy was getting in other people’s way and Henry suggested disconnecting. Although we subsequently reattached we disengaged again about 100 vertical metres before the top when the track started winding again. I can’t speak for how Henry felt about it, but from my own experience of being the recipient of pushes from my partner in mountain bike races, I know it doesn’t make it easy; in fact it makes the climbing harder as you are forced to ride to the rhythm of the pusher rather than your own.
Lesson 3: Keep the bungy short. Ours was 3.5m long but should have been much shorter. Next time we’ll go for 2.5m.
The transition on the top of Le Chamossaire.
As we left the transition zone on Le Chamossaire, the marshals warned us that the descent was going to be off-piste and technical with no visibility. I skied it well enough though it wasn’t easy with the lighter but soft boots we had rented. However about half way down two members of the Swiss national team flew by, hunched over their skis and looking out of control as they disappeared into the cloud with no trees or any other features, other than small red marker flags, to show what lay ahead.
On the third climb of about 200m, up from the Lac de Bretaye to the Petit Chamossaire, we backed off the pace a bit. I figured if I had anything left in the tank I could do some more bungying on the final ascent. As it was one of my skins fell off about three quarters of the way up the climb. As we were in a steep section of switch-backs and we not so far from the top I decided to just walk up. Luckily the snow between the two skin-tracks had been compacted from skiers’ poles which meant I did not sink in that much and lose any time (walking in the track itself would have been bad form I think).
Lesson 4: Check your skins the night before. This is a statement of the obvious and we had actually gone for a kit test ski the previous evening – in balmy and clear conditions – and I found that in the wet snow conditions the silicone skins that came with my rental skis kept falling off so we decided to use our spare set of skins (with a regular sticky glue back to them) in the race. Although I did spray some glue on the tails I should have more carefully checked the full length of the skin as there was not enough glue on the edges.
Lesson 5: Carry a small can of spray on glue. I felt pretty stupid that this sitting in our car rather than with us in the race.
The next descent, to the Lac des Chavonnes, would have been enjoyable off-piste skiing on a clear day. As it was, whenever we picked up speed we were blinded by the snow, which was falling quite heavily now, and couldn’t see where we were going.
Lesson 6: Don’t put your goggles on your helmet if it’s snowing. It may have looked pro but when I wanted to wear my goggles they were too wet to be of any use.
Lesson 7: Carry a microfibre cloth to dry off goggles, skis and skins.
I had by now given up on my glue on skins and decided to switch to the silicone ones which I’d been carrying as a back-up. These periodically fell off and once I lost faith in them it became quite a lot harder to ski effectively. Eventually I switched back to one of the glue ones which had warmed up in my pocket and regained some stickiness. As an aside I realised that because racing skins do not have any attachment at the tail as soon as they get loose they slip off the ski.
This section of the route took us on a meandering climb through lightly forested snow-covered meadows. It was beautiful and as we had by now been passed by all the fast waves, it was also peaceful and idyllic. The trail ended at a seemingly impassible cliff and I could just see a black fixed rope dangling out of a hidden couloir as we approached. Unfortunately when we arrived at the platform that had been cut to enable skis to be transferred to backpacks, we were told that for us the race was over. We’d missed the cut-off time. The poor weather had meant the cut off times were tighter than on the original course, something we hadn’t appreciated. With hindsight we should have chosen an earlier start time.
It was disappointing but at least we had the time to take some pictures as we climbed the couloir and up through the cliffs above.
Henry in the couloir.
A photo from the race organisers of competitors climbing up above the couloir.
In the final steep section.
The last few metres of ascent above the ladder.
At the top we waited while a group of about 20 competitors formed.
And had a photo taken by one of the nice race marshals.
We then we skied together over the Chaux Ronde and down to the start of the final difficult section, an exposed ridge which all competitors had to do on foot, which led to a descent and the final 500m climb. But that was not for us. Instead we waited for everyone, including the marshals, to get ready to descend en-masse. I had been tempted to described the damp conditions earlier in the morning as Scottish though in truth it wasn’t windy enough to be like Scotland; however the description seemed increasingly more accurate as we stood shivering on the windy pass.
Once everyone was ready there followed a strangely enjoyable ski convoy down the pistes to Villars – it felt like being in a kid in ski school again – where a bus then took us back to Gryon. Everyone was given a three course lunch in the ‘Big Tent’ by the finish; it reminded me of the scene after a big mountain cycling sportive or an étape du tour.
For the c.4 hours it took us to reach the bottom of the couloir we climbed 1550m and travelled 14km. In terms of results, of the 175 teams that entered the Trophée du Muveran (the most popular and middle distance of the three courses available) only 103 finished so we were far from alone in missing the cut-off. That said it would have been nice to have finished the course – although I wasn’t upset to miss the muddy downhill run to the finish – but a failure this year should make a subsequent success more satisfying. Plus with the event having been held on the ‘bad weather’ course last year as well, the organisers are due some good luck with the weather in 2020… although perhaps next year we should choose a different team, our choice of name this year having been ‘Slow-Mo’!
A photo taken by the race organisers of the Swiss Team that (I think) passed us on the descent. They came second overall with a time of 2 hours 41 minutes. The winning time was 2 hours 36 minutes!
Lesson 8: It’s worth buying the specialist clothing. We’d made some impulse purchases of ski-mo race suits the previous day, tempted by a 70% end of season discount in a specialist ski-mo store in Martigny. Although we were a bit worried about having all the gear and no idea, I was glad I’d bought it and really pleased with the way it performed. I didn’t get too cold waiting around after the cut-off even though I was wearing just the top and a shell outer. Plus the top had a pair of deep front pockets for skins as well as lots of inside pockets so you could stuff things (phone, gels… goggles) into the jersey without them falling out at the waist.
A photo of the ski-mo race kit taken on our kit test the afternoon before the race. Very pro looking but not in the same league as Henry who had been enticed by the bargain price to go for a one-piece race suit…
Other Useful Information
Lightweight Skis and Boots. It’s not so easy to find shops that will rent light-weight kit. We hired our skis (Black Cow Vastus Freebirds – excellent) and boots (Atomic Backlands NCs – okay) from Ravanel & Co in Chamonix. One of the guys there, Sebastian, was super helpful, finding us some old glue-on skins to use as backups for the silicone ones that came with the skis. We were also were told by Jean Pellissier Sport in Martigny, which is where we bought our race kit, that they rented super-light race skis and boots.
Mandatory Equipment. As well as skis, poles and boots with a grippy sole, the other compulsory equipment was for the race was as follows. Mandatory for each competitor: shovel and probe (minimum 2.4m long); avalanche beacon; windproof top and trousers; third warm upper layer; rucksac; hat/headband; gloves; survival blanket; and UIAA 106 helmet (a helmet certified for climbing meets this requirement). Mandatory for the team: 3 pairs of sunglasses; 3 pairs of skins; and map (provided by the organisers). Recommended: headtorch; harness, slings, carabiners (we didn’t take or need these); couteau (we didn’t take these either as they were not recommended in the race briefing).