Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Musings from my first OMM

Back in 2012, I met Clare Howes at a leadership development course and upon realising that she was a keen orienteer, my memories of being dragged around courses with my parents came flying back and I was keen to re-ignite the forgotten hobby of my childhood and combine it with my more recent venture into the world of mountain-endurance sports. Thankfully for me, Clare dumped her mum as her OMM partner due to a “fallen-apart shoe epic” at the OMM in 2013 and so I got the call up in 2015.

I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for, but despite this, I jumped at the opportunity and replied with an immediate, “Yes”. Having completed what is sometimes regarded as “The toughest team event in the world’, the ski-mountaineering race, La Patrouilles des Glaciers, in 2014, I have a warped sense of perspective on tough events and now approach everything with a, “Well it can’t be harder than that” attitude…

or could it…?

Several months before the race, Clare sent me a spread-sheet kit-list, which anyone who knows me will know, made me extremely happy. This included such items as ‘plastic bags for your feet at mid-camp’ and ‘teeth wipe’ as opposed to a tooth brush to save weight and other such peculiar items that only an OMM veteran would know. We also agreed to do a practice race, and so competed in the Rab Mountain Marathon, which turned out to be a fantastic event on a beautiful late summers weekend in Snowdonia.

Before we knew it, we were on the start line of the OMM in the carefully organised torrential rain that so frequently haunts this weekend in October. Feeling fresh, we opted for the longer tracked route to Check Point (CP) 1 and then swiftly navigating the rides between the forested area just south of Tweedsmuir to CP2. We then had our first taste of what was to come, a trudge up and down a couple of valleys over the boggy, marshy, knobbly, heathland that frequents this no-mans land of Southern Scotland.

It didn’t take long for me to realise, that I was in a team with a navigational genius. Always taking the most economical route along contours and taking the line of least resistance wherever possible. And whenever I thought I was being helpful by suggesting a possible route for a future control, she’d already worked out the most sensible route. As a result, I opted to put my compass away, keep an awareness of where we were but take on more of a ‘morale boosting’ and ‘feeding clock’ role for the team. Having competed in several endurance events previously, I’d made enough mistakes in the past to know that sticking to the ‘eat every half hour’ rule was obligatory if we were to make it through the long weekend of racing that lay ahead.

As the day went on, we gradually knocked off the check points. Clare consistently navigating us directly to the check point every time. The weather was kind and gave us clear conditions allowing us to navigate well by sight. However, there was a howling wind on the top of the moors that screamed right into my bones. My feet started to go numb and my fingers became useless and I became less and less helpful with the nav until I realised that I needed to get some extra layers on fast to avoid becoming totally useless. Fortunately we dropped into a valley by the Megget Reservoir and I layered up and got back on track.

After 5 hours on the go, we made it to CP7 and the mid-camp didn’t look far on the map but the going through CP8 to CP11 was infuriatingly slow and our initial expectation of making it there by 2pm, rapidly slipped out of sight. However, we trudged on over the arduous heath at our steady pace and we eventually ticked off each control and made it to the mid camp just over 9 hours after setting off.

Having agreed before the race that our main aim was to ‘enjoy it’, we popped up our tent and went to collect some water ready to cook, and then innocently glanced at the results on the way past to miraculously find that we were the leading ladies on the B course! We then proceeded to gobble up as many calories as we could ready for an early rise for the ‘chasing start’ tomorrow. It really pained me to see the hill-side littered with head torches well after dark as the late comers fought their way down to camp. Navigating in darkness really can’t have been fun on such unforgiving terrain.

After a cosy night’s sleep in our pathetic, light-weight tent, we were woken by the sound of bag-pipes. For some, this was agony, but for me it almost brought a tear to my eye as it harked back to my childhood memories of growing up in Scotland. We scoffed a large saucepan of porridge, packed up our things and made it to our 07:04 start with one minute to spare. My legs complained bitterly but knowing that we had another full day of ‘mountain-marathoning’ ahead, I had to rapidly block this thought from my mind and push on. I had vaguely hoped that the route might be a little shorter today but the planner had other ideas in mind and sent us yet further from the finish line for the first 4 CPs over even more arduous, boggy moorland where it felt like just to move forward you had to lift each foot as if it were stepping over a small fence because of the sinking nature of the heather and moss. The views, however, were a great boost to morale with endless mountains in every direction lit up with an orange-tinted morning mist. It truly felt like complete wilderness with barely another competitor in sight.

Upon reaching CP4, we had the option of taking the longer route via the road or taking the more direct route over the moors. The landscape around us teased us into taking the direct route because the squishy heathland had changed into easier-going grassland. However, we quickly came to regret this decision as the ground rapidly converted back to the unforgiving, pace-destroying moorland that had stung us at the end of yesterday.

The day dragged on and we eventually made it to CP6, where Clare suddenly declared that the cut-off times were an hour earlier than we had thought for the last few check points and that she wasn’t sure if we would make them in time. I’d spent the day riding on an etherial high that we were in pole position only to have this swiped away from me and told that we may not even complete the race. I was gutted. I wanted to do everything in my power to complete the race. With this renewed sense of urgency I discovered my legs had some extra power in them and we set off in a jog towards CP7, where we would ‘re-consider’ our position there.

Having run out of food yesterday, I’d eaten into todays rations and was now cursing myself as my food ran out, knowing that we still had several hours to go. This was the moment where we would win it or lose it. The was the time when it became mind over matter.

Clare predicted that we would make it to CP7 in 2 hours and so we were relieved to make it there 10 minutes faster. But there was no time to hang around with 4 check points still to and go and just 2 hours and 10 minutes to collect them all. Our inner-competitor selves took over from this point, whilst several teams on the same course as us converged together, it suddenly became much more of a race that it had done before. We ploughed on down the final big valley, which our knackered knees were less than grateful for. As we crossed a river, Clare noticed a female pair behind us and it suddenly dawned on us that they might swipe our victory from us at the final hurdle. Clare concisely navigated us through the rides in the trees with the course cruelly forcing us up and down several steep-sided, forested mounds. We battled through the last few CPs with the other teams around us and with just one CP to go we could hear the buzz of the finish line. We pushed on up the final track, every muscle and bone in our legs screaming at us to stop, tagged the last control and ran, rolled and tumbled down the final hill to the finish line overwhelmed to make it with just 10 minutes to spare before the course closed.

As we received our scores at Download, neither of us could quite believed our eyes as we read the total time of 17hours and 42 minutes. That’s quite some time to be on the fells!

Unaware of whether the other female pair had taken 1st, we scoffed the delicious sausage, couscous stew layed on by the OMM team and stumbled back to the car to start the journey South back home. It wasn’t until several hours had gone by that I received a text saying, “We won, we won, won.” from Clare. I was overjoyed! I never expected to come even close to winning! A truly epic weekend.

So, was it tougher than the Patrouilles des Glaciers? Almost...but not quite!


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Oxford UOTC Female Team take on La Patrouilles des Glaciers

Almost a year ago, Captain Tania Noakes, the Oxford University Officer Training Corps Adventure Training Officer and IFMGA British Mountain Guide, approached Debbie and I 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, neither 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.

Les Tartines Race at Les Marecottes - one of three races in
three days as part of our training. (Photo: Tania Noakes)
Over the course of the winter, Tania took us from ski mountaineering novices to 'ski-mo racers' in a series of progressive training exercises. So on the eve of the 3rd May, it was with great excitement that we found ourselves on the start line of the 2014 Patrouilles des Glaciers.
Start line selfie - nervous and excited! (Photo: Tania Noakes)
 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!

As we reached the edge of the town, the gradient steepened and we settled into a fast paced walk, making sure to stay close on each others heels to keep the pace up.  After an hour we were welcomed to the first checkpoint of Stafel by our support crew - Mary with her multi-coloured umbrella and Tom in his distinctive banana suit outfit. We quickly swapped our trainers for skiboots, put on skis, and bungeed up for the fist skin to Schonbiel at 2600m. A snapped skin attachment had to be swiftly swapped for the spare skin and we were quickly on our way again. The gradient was fairly gentle, and we made good time across the glacier, reaching the Schonbiel checkpoint in 2 hours 16 mins. 

Transition from trainers to
ski boots having hit the
snow line.
(Photo: Tom Goldstein)
Tom, one of our support crew in his banana
suit - great moral boost! (Photo: Tom Goldstein)

At Schonbiel all teams have to be roped up for the ascent of the glacier. With Tania in the lead and the gradient steepening again, we set off towards the Tête Blanche, with the outline of the Matterhorn against the starry sky, and a trail of lights above and below us from the other rope teams. 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.

We reached the top in just over two hours. Temperatures combined with the wind chill were as low as -18°C, so we hurried to put on extra layers before the ski down. The descent is also roped up, and 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 snow was powdery with a few lumps and bumps, but generally enjoyable as we followed the string of cylumes descending into the darkness. We had a bit of "chuz" as the terrain flattened out, before the brief skin back up to the Col de Bertol, where we could see the welcoming lights of the Bertol Hut perched on the skyline.
Profile of the race course from Zermatt to Verbier (right to left). (Image: www.pdg.ch)
The descent from the Col de Bertol was an exhilarating rush through soft powdery moguls, interspersed with sections of sparsely covered rocks, all navigated under head torch. After a short section of skating, we arrived in Arolla in a total of just under 6 hours, pleasingly ahead of our predicted timings.  This marked a rough half-way point to the race, and we paused to rehydrate and refuel before the next stage. We were very appreciative of the Swiss provided hot tea and snacks, and the ‘real food’ treats of lasagne and gingerbread from our trusty support crew!
The icy ascent from Arolla towards the
Col de Riedmatten (Photo: Tom Goldstein)

Our departure from Arolla coincided with the start of the shorter course, and the slopes were flooded with several hundred more competitors. The pistes were hard and icy, and it was a struggle to stay upright requiring a strong pole stance with each step in order to avoid slipping back. The sun was beginning to rise, and the rose tinted mountain tops were a welcome sight after the hours of racing in the dark.

As we approached the Col de Reidmatten, we could see a long snake of slow moving people hiking up along the boot track. The officials were holding people at the checkpoint and releasing them in waves, in order not to have too many people pushing over the tracks at one time. We frustratingly waited around an hour for our turn to climb up over the boot track, and down the ropes on the other side. Despite this frustration, and the freezing cold, we were pleased to see and catch up with some of the other international teams we had stayed with the previous week. The steep decent from the col over the rocks and ice was fairly difficult. With each precarious foot placement likely to slide, we were very reliant on arm strength to lower ourselves down the fixed ropes.

Boot track up the Col de Riedmatten
(Photo: PdG Facebook page)
We descended to the Pas de Chat, and having lost time waiting on the Col de Reidmatten, 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.

The Rossablanche Col loomed dauntingly above us. This is the last big climb and we knew that if we made it to the top, we would be able to complete the race. After a hurried refuel, we began the steep climb, steadily chipping away at the altitude. The occasional glance up made it seem like we weren’t making much of a dent in the long ascent, but eventually we reached the base of the final boot track up to the Col. We were inspired to press on by the sounds of the cowbells, crowds cheering and even a horn on the ridgeline above. The boot track was well trodden but this had compressed each step into ice, making it hard to get a confident placement of each foot. This was a real game of mind over matter, taking each step one at a time and the increasing sound of the supporters above drove us on. It was with relief that we summited 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 up the Col de la Chaux 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 30 minutes, feeling very emotional and immensely proud of the feat we’d achieved as a team.
Oxford UOTC Female Team at the finish line. - couldn't
have asked for a better team! (Photo: Klaus Zleiker)
Overcome with elation crossing
the finish line (Photo: Tom Goldstein)

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 Ulysees 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!
Final goodbyes after the race with our trophy for winning
"First Female Military Team" (Photo: Tania Noakes)

By Rozzi Martin and Debbie Morgan