This is the third article in a four part series documenting the 2008 Ski Mountaineering Season from the perspective of Lyndsay Meyer and Nina Silitch.
9800 meters of uphill over four days of racing. I stared wide-eyed at the profile of the Pierra Menta. Thank God this was a team event. My partner, Nina Silitch and I sat at the pre-race briefing and began to feel the nervous butterflies. Big ones. Maybe more like bats or small sparrows. We stood in line as they inspected gear and taped electronic timing DAG timing system chips to each ski. 21 female teams had signed up this year, a record number for women, and 150 male teams. Looking at the competition, the teams were very strong, stronger than at the World Cup. Nina was coming back from a nasty strep throat-car accident-strep relapse combo, and I was just plain scared, but thankfully so was everyone else. Our goal? Simply to finish the famous race as the first U.S. women's team and do the best that our bodies allowed.
Saturday dawned sunny and warm. It was day three, the famous stage of the Grand Mont. A beautiful course complete with an exposed arete and 3000 people waiting to sing your praises at the summit. The weather was good, but we were tired and maybe wondering a bit how our bodies would react to the 2700 meter stage. We had never tested ourselves this way. Thursday, day one, seemed like years ago. 2450 meters, it was a â€œmellowerâ€ stage changed due to avalanche danger. Friday, day two, had gone well. The longest of the stages at 2980 meters it was very technical. Adding insult to injury the last climb was up a tree filled gully with slightly iso-thermic snow. Skins were failing, people were falling and the sun was hot. After three false summits we were VERY ready for the finish. We had watched as one female team we were closely following lost a ski during a transition. Placed on an uneven surface, the ski flew off the ridge down hundreds of meters. Our friend, Fabienne sat down and cried, and we touched her on the shoulder as we moved on. â€œIts okay,â€ said her teammate Jane. â€œWe can have a rest now.â€ After that Nina and I just wanted to complete the stage, all gear intact. Thanks to snow the day before the start of the race most all the descents (minus one ice death slide reminiscent of skiing at Buck Hill in Minnesota) were in great condition. We both grew up ski racing, so the downhill was a relief and where we made up lost time.
The start that morning as usual was unexpected with no warning. The tape dropped allowing all the categories to blend together and chaos ensued. â€œWatch your poles, keep them by your sides, get a good rhythm.â€ Nina is always the voice of reason, calmly reminding me of proper technique, when its time to eat, and setting the right pace. We turned the corner after a long flat cross-country section and my heart dropped as we saw the steep climb. It was a wall of ice with competitors picking their line kick-turning their way up the slope, tiny dots in the distance. Extremely technical, with everyone fighting for a place, it was the most challenging of the ascents. This is after all the Pierra Menta, and Areches-Beaufort, France, the cradle of the ski mountaineering world. Nothing about this race was easy. We heard a loud shout and someone lost a ski, I tried to stop it, but it went flying down the slope. A quick check ensued that our bindings were secure. Closer to the top the terrain mellowed out, the 1100 meters gained quickly by the steep slope. We were surprised to find we are pretty good at kick turns after about one hundred or so. One final crossing over avalanche debris to the summit â€” Nina lost her footing and started to slide, another competitor grabbed her pack, his team-mate planted his pole under her skis. A reminder that this is a race, but the unwritten rule in the mountaineering world is, as always, safety first. We moved on towards the summit and could hear the crowds and clanging cowbells. â€œEat if you can Lyndsay,â€ Nina reminded me. Frantically shoving a gel in my mouth I was sick of the taste and fairly certain I had gotten more all over me than actually in my mouth.
Ascending the final 20 meters, the last ridge of the summit hid the 3000 people waiting in ambush. Running into the huge crowd all pain was forgotten as we heard cheers of â€œCourage, bravo, bravo les filles!â€ We ripped skins and clicked bindings, the crowds urgently reminding us to check bindings and boots. I have never experienced such supportive spectators, willing you in unison to complete the race safely and in one piece. The level of respect for just doing the Pierra Menta was evident. The last descent I can't really remember feeling my feet. It was a high speed traverse around the peak, then down about 1200m of extreme skiing through forest and ending in a tuck to the finish. Get me a coke please and a piece of that awesome pound cake, boots and wet clothes off immediately. Dinner that night had us sitting next to some Tyrolean guides from the German speaking part of the Dolomites in Italy. It was their seventh Pierra Menta. Each year they came for vacation and told us it was the hardest race yet and that we would break 10,000 meters this year. Only one more day.
Day Four began a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. We have done this before. The daily routine starts the same. Eat, prepare, race, suffer, finish. Eat again, rest, daily massages (great perk), eat yet again, prepare gear, sleep. We didn't speak this morning for the first fifteen minutes. Just silently followed the routine. Pack the packs, get the skis ready, get dressed, check beacons, helmets, sunscreen, food, warm-up. They announced the course has been shortened 300 meters due to snow. What a gift! The final stage was only 1500 meters. The first climb started and was quickly interrupted by a mid forest hike through mud and trees. The snow had melted on the exposure and the change of movement was welcome, we are fast on the boot packs. We could hear the women yelling in French behind us. Nina and I had a chance to move up a few places in the general classification so their voices spurred us on as we dug deep and found we still had some fight left. The ascent was long and warm and sweat and salt were getting in my eyes. Nina set a good pace, and it was easy to just follow and not have to think. I was redlined. To spice things up there was a 20 meter ski down ice and powder with the skins on, a true test of balance, and then a brief ascent to the transition. Making up time on a great ski down, we again had to put skis on packs and be part of a â€œRamboâ€ run down a muddy gully. Men were not afraid to hurl themselves down these slopes and we went as fast as we could just to get out of the way. Fear of getting trampled made up more time and we caught some stronger teams. We could see a glimmer of respect from some of these women who have competed their whole lives in this sport. One last 300 meter climb and a short ski to the finish. â€œBird's nest it,â€ I said to myself (thanks Wick) and just shoved the skins in my suit for the last time and followed Nina down. Clasping hands through the finish we threw our arms around each other. Nina's son Birkin had made a â€œgo mommy goâ€ sign, not only is she an insane competitor, but a mother of two.