Last year, Captain Tania Noakes, The Oxford University Officer Training Corps Adventure Training Officer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide, approached several Officer Cadets with the idea of competing in the Patrouilles des Glaciers. The race is a demanding and challenging ski-mountaineering competition for three-member rope parties run by the Swiss Military. The course, which runs from Zermatt to Verbier, is comprised of 52km and a 4000-meter positive altitude difference. Renowned for being one of the toughest team events in the world, none of us really appreciated the gravity of what we’d signed up for, and never could have imagined the incredible journey that we were about to embark upon.
Over the course of the winter, Tania took us from ski mountaineering novices to ‘ski-mo racers’ in a series of five progressive training exercises. Highlights included an intense weekend of three races in three days based in Chamonix, the Sellaronda Marathon, a fantastic week of isolated hut-to-hut touring in Switzerland and a speedy ascent of the 4000m peak, Grand Paradiso in Italy (to name a few!). Having been awarded one entry for the race, Tania selected an all girls team made up of myself and Debbie Morgan. So on the eve of the 3rd May, it was with great excitement that the three of us found ourselves on the start line of the 2014 Patrouilles des Glaciers.
With motivational music blaring from the speakers, we tensely waited in the starting pen as the seconds counted down to our start at 23:15. The starting gun was followed by 10 minutes of running through the town centre past the buzz of crowds and cowbells, importantly remembering to pace ourselves knowing what lay ahead. We kept up a good fast-walking pace to the snow-line, where we quickly swapped our trainers for skiboots, put on skis, and bungeed up for the skin to the first of the five cols that lay ahead.
The race is not only extremely physically demanding but also technically challenging, particularly during the descent from the Tete Blanche where all teams are required to rope up whilst crossing the glacier. It can be difficult trying to maintain a constant speed in order to keep the rope the right distance between you. Most teams, including us, have a bungee attached, which keeps the rope off the ground and also allows a bit of slack before pulling your teammates over.
The Tête Blanche is the highest point of the course and has an altitude of 3650m. Fortunately, our previous weeks acclimatisation paid off whilst we witnessed other teams slowing down, and in some cases throwing up, as they gained height.
The first few descents during the night involved a few powdery lumps and bumps but were generally enjoyable as we followed the string of cylumes descending into the darkness under head torch whilst trying to avoiding the sections of sparsely covered rocks!
We were pleased to make it to the half-way point, Arolla, in good time and enjoyed a short pause to rehydrate and refuel before the next stage.
Our departure from Arolla coincided with the start of the shorter course, and the slopes were flooded with several hundred more competitors, which then later led to a frustrating bottle-neck at the next col where we had to wait for about an hour. However, the sun was beginning to rise, and the rose tinted mountain tops were a welcome sight after the hours of racing in the dark.
Having lost time waiting on the Col de Reidmatten, we realised that we were now running dangerously close to the cutoff times. The next section of the course is a cruel gradual incline above the Lac des Dix. It was at this point that Tania said, “This is the part where you decide if you really want this.” We pushed forward on tired legs and were relieved to make the La Barma checkpoint with 25 minutes to spare. With one more big climb to go we pressed on over the slippery icy steps cut into the snow and were greeted at the top by the sound of cowbells and crowds cheering. Having reached the ridgeline an hour before the cut off, this was the first time we allowed ourselves to believe that we really were going to make it!
From this point, all that lay between us and the finish was a short climb and a long ski down through the slopes of Verbier. After more than 12 hours on the go, the exhaustion was taking its toll but the elation of approaching the finish line provided the final boost to push ourselves to the end. We crossed the finished line after a total of 14 hours and 21 minutes, feeling very emotional and immensely proud of the feat we’d achieved as a team and were delighted to discover that we had won first female military team!
We are hugely grateful to Oxford University Officer Training Corps for supporting and allowing us to take on this challenge, and also to those who have made this financially possible with their generous grants – The Army Mountaineering Association, The Ulysses Trust, The Eagle Ski Club, the Eastwood Family (British Exploring), South East Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association and the Skiiers Trust for Great Britain. We are also immensely grateful to the Swiss Military, who organised this vast operation with flawless military precision. The opportunity to be able to be part of this world renowned event as an international military team was a real honour, and it was a great privilege to meet the PdG Commander; Col Max Contesse.
Most importantly however, Debbie and I are massively indebted to Tania, who right from the birth of the idea to crossing the finish line, has been an incredible inspiration. Her belief in us has given us the confidence to believe that anything is possible, and we look forward to many more adventures with her in the future!