La Petite Trotte à Leon is an ‘ultra pedestrian’ big brother of the UTMB race in the Alps that encompasses a 300km and 25,000m loop around the base of Mt.Blanc through the steep, rugged and trackless mountains of France, Switzerland and Italy. The route varies each year, it is unmarked (you navigate using maps and GPS), there is a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and autonomy, and numbers are strictly limited to 300 carefully vetted entrants.
This year Team Carnethy HRC (Olly Stephenson, Jason Hubert and Graham Nash) were faced with the worst possible weather for Brits, namely a heat wave, and the only small consolation was finding a team from further north (i.e. Finland) who appeared to be suffering even more than us.
We set off from Place De L’Amitie in central Chamonix at 9am on Monday 22nd August 2016 and the first 24 hours proved to be a gruelling snapshot of the week ahead – namely a huge ascent and traverse immediately beneath the famous rock towers of the Chamonix Aiguilles, followed by a massive descent/re-ascent up the opposite side of the valley to eventually reach the 3,096m summit of Mt.Buet in pitch darkness, to be confronted with arse-clenching exposure and a series of chains, ladders and cables as steep as the North Face of Ben Nevis. Meanwhile a storm had whipped up out of nowhere and we were struggling to stay warm despite wearing everything and moving fast. It felt a little surreal to be this high, this cold and solo-ing everything with ski-poles clenched firmly in one hand, cable or ladder in the other, constantly repeating a silent “don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall” mantra, with our headtorches licking the edge of the truly monstrous void like some prowling tiger.
By the time we made it back down to the village of Le Buet the next morning we’d effectively completed a ‘Ramsay Round’ in terms of effort and allowed ourselves a 30 minute nap before starting up the next massive re-ascent in an attempt to reduce our exposure to the midday sun. It made little difference, and in the end we were basically in an oven for 5.5 days (135 hours), punctuated by an average of 2 hours sleep/night (of which Graham noted we only actually slept for about 1 hour each time). On the plus side the views were spectacular, we had multiple amazing sunrises, sunsets and starry nights, and I’ve never seen the Alps looking more beautiful.
We worked really well as a team, travelling at a similar speed, and encouraging each other through various mental lows and temperature highs. I was delighted that my back felt OK throughout despite breaking it in a climbing accident 9 weeks earlier (meaning no training for me between accident and race start) – sincerest thanks to Jason and Graham for having more faith in me than I had in myself and for allowing me to remain on the team.
106 teams started, we came 7th (and first Brits) out of 47 teams that finished, and to give some indication of the terrain and difficulties there were no less than seven helicopter rescues throughout the race. By the end we were so tired that in my mind Jason transposed himself into Jamie/Justin, Graham became Mick, and much confusion was generated each time they spoke – especially when I forgot their names altogether – but that didn’t seem to matter as we collapsed across the finish line at 00:03 on Sunday 28th August into the welcoming arms of family and friends, and some much needed food and sleep. Many thanks to Kirsti and family, John, Eoin, Aisling, Digby Harris and others for being there for us.
I’m truly in awe of the organisers of this epic race and eternally grateful for the life-enriching experience they provide. Merci à tous!