The Patrouille des Glaciers (or PDG), is one of the most famous ski mountaineering races in the world. It covers 53km with an altitude difference of around 4000m, over some of the most spectacular Swiss mountain terrain. Its origins go back to the Second World War where the Swiss Military organised a course to test the ability of its soldiers, and to this day the race is still organised by the military. It is considered a real right of passage for the Swiss. Speak to any Swiss person and they have heard of the PDG. So obviously having lived in the Swiss Alps for 3 years I thought I better give it a punt! The race is done in a team of three, so on the closing date of registration I managed to round up a band of fellow Skimo punters (basically just men who enjoy wearing lycra and posing) to join me. Obviously this is a really popular event so on registration you are entered into a lottery. It was amazing that we were picked and got an entry, and don’t tell anyone, but for one of the team this would be their first ever Skimo race! As well as signing up the three main team members you are required to sign up a reserve. Time being tight (deadline of entries) I just signed up my girlfriend without asking her. My thinking was that there was such a slim chance of one of us dropping out if we got in…obviously I was proved wrong. Just the kind of experienced team I am sure the Swiss Military were hoping to entice.
We knew there was a slim chance that we might not make the podium, so I think its fair to say that we all took a fairly relaxed approach to training. All of us made sure that we were clocking a couple of ‘big days’ each week, with a sprinkling of evening skins in our local ski resort to compliment the bigger days in the mountains. With things like this, I have found that it is mainly time out on the legs that makes the difference…lets forget about the hill reps! Coming into race day there was the normal nervous excitement and anticipation, but from my part I felt really confident that we had a strong team that was going to get from Zermatt to Verbier in great style. At 9pm on Friday 20th April we were ushered to the start line with impeccable Swiss efficiency. The day had been a whirlwind of train journeys, kit checks, buying new kit to pass the kit checks (as prepared as ever!), briefings, and soaking up the excitement that had encapsulated Zermatt. But now it was time to get the job done. The classic suspense filled music was pumping from speakers as the MC got everyone suitably amped for the adventure ahead. It felt, and I don’t use this word lightly, epic. To start off with, you run (walk) through the centre of Zermatt carrying your skis before you meet the ski piste that leads you out of town and towards the mountains. Hundreds of people were lining the streets, ringing cow bells, and cheering on the lycra clad throng. After 20mins of skinning the pack had spread out and we were able to take a deep breath, “we’ve started, we are on our way, relax, don’t go too fast”. We settled into a nice pace the rest of the way to Schonbiel, and the first 1000m vertical was out of the way, but once arriving at the check point we had a few moments of frantic activity while the three of us had to rope up. It is compulsory to do so here, as you are venturing into glaciated terrain. Only another 1000m to the next checkpoint at Tete Blanche. Getting there is a major mental checkpoint as you have done a big chunk of the vertical. The skin track was icy, and at points, quite steep. We were glad we had decided to pack the ski crampons! Pulling into the checkpoint, all thoughts turned to getting on some layers for the long decent down to Arolla, taking on a bit of food and getting into downhill mode. The soldiers stationed there were really helpful and friendly (as they were at every checkpoint). They even helped with our skins and zipping up our waterproofs.
We set off down towards the Bertol hut, still roped up, with me still leading the rope. Skiing roped together, at night, over bumps is definitely an acquired skill. Or maybe 60% skill, 30% balls and 10% luck. It is fair to say that the one evening of skiing down our local piste did not quite prepare us as fully as we had hoped. But feeling in total hero mode I set off at, some would say, an overly enthusiastic speed. Within the first 30sec we had our first crash, shortly followed by another in which Fran almost lost her ski. Dave took over at the front, the altitude had got him a bit and he was feeling pretty ropey, and in turn the speed dropped to a more suitable level. From the Bertol hut it was just a case of ignoring the screaming quads all the way down to Arolla. Some friends of ours had been timed out at Arolla previously, so we were pretty stressed about getting there.We made Arolla in good time, so we decided to have a slightly longer break to take on food, and water, and to let Dave regain a bit of the energy that had been knocked out of him by going up to 3600m. We set off just ahead of crowd that were starting the short course at Arolla. There is always a level of demoralisation in these kind of situations, where even though you know that they have just started, you are a bit depressed that everyone is overtaking you. Things went well, we were all feeling good, and before we knew it we were coming down the fixed ropes after passing through the col du Riedmatten.With the swell of extra people having started in Arolla things seems to feel a bit hectic on the ski down through the Pas du Chat, but the sun was coming up after a long cold night and things were looking good. At some point I heard a ‘ping’ from my skis, and assumed that I had just skied over a small rock. Unfortunately that was not the case and when we stopped to put on skins, to get around the Lac des Dix, I noticed that the lever on my toe piece of my right ski had completely sheared off. “Well thats my race over” I said over-dramatically without giving myself any time to think around the problem. Luckily brute force was at hand, and for the rest of the race if I wanted to release my boot from the binding I would get Dave to kick my boot as hard as he could, and to get my toe into the binding to start skinning again I had to awkwardly lever the binding open. Luckily my race was not over!
Fran put a spurt on going around the Dix toward La Barme, she had got the cut off times wrong in her head and was convinced that we were going to get timed out if we didn’t get shifting. Turns out we were about 3 hours ahead of the cut off, but it did mean that we could take loads of time at this checkpoint to go to the toilet and hoover up Swiss chocolate. Next was the Rosablanche and another 700m of vertical. I felt like I was crawling once we started boot packing up the final climb to the col. For me this was the most emotional part of the day. Loads of people had come out to watch, and there was a real party feeling in the air. The combination of the tiredness, beautiful surroundings, and the great atmosphere made me well up a little. It felt great to be there, with a great couple of people, and we knew that we were going to finish, just one more col to go! The closer we got to Verbier, the more and more people had come out to watch. This is where you really see how important this race is to the Swiss. There was even people that were truly for filling the stereotype and had brought out their fondu sets for lunch on the mountain. Fran took the lead on the last boot pack of the day up to the Col de la Chaux, and having been the member of the team that was most worried about being able to get around the course, she left me and Dave for dust. I don’t think she will ever let me forget that! The ski down to Verbier was basically 1500m of whooping, laughing, smiling and fist bumping. Having Dave kick my ski off for the last time at the bottom of the piste was an feeling I won’t forget for a while. Just a short jog to the finish line in the centre of town… Turns out it was further than we thought. We started enthusiastically running like the heroes we felt we were, soaking up the cheers and applause from the crowds that had come out to watch, but after about 5min of running we had still not crossed the line. That embarrassing moment when you start to walk…In my mind, if you see one of those big inflatable arches over the road, then that means ‘finish line’? Well, there seemed to be an endless supply of inflatable arches in Verbier that day which meant that every time we saw one we would start running, only to be let down and revert to the awkward walk. Eventually we saw it and broke into our hero run once again, but this time, for the last time. More Swiss efficiency, soldiers telling us where to go and what to do, showers, food, more fist bumping aaannnddd relax. It turns out that an inexperienced, underprepared team of punters can smash the most famous ski mountaineering race in the world in 13 hours, not quite as impressive as the 5.30hr that the winners achieved, but respectable none the less. A great piece of Swiss history to be part of, and a once in a life time experience. Surely having completed it entitles me to citizenship, right?