Vertical Blue 2015

Dean’s Blue Hole

Post from my favorite freediving competition: Vertical Blue (2015 edition). Long Island (Bahamas) looks like a travel brochure: empty white sand beaches, with locals who welcome you like family. We dive in Dean’s Blue Hole: the size of an Olympic swimming pool, Dean’s plunges to a depth of 202m (662 feet), only feet from shore. Every Vertical Blue is different. This year started hot: athletes in swimsuits Days 1-4, with crystal clear water. Then cold: the front end of a tropical storm Days 6-7–windy, rainy, feeling like December. And little ones: Alma Thelaus and Nefali Money (both toddlers) cheering on the divers from shore. World-class athletes and amazing dives, in the sport’s only onshore amphitheater. Competing for medals were Sayuri Kinoshita, Tomoka Fukuda, Katerina Linczenyiova, Sofia Gomez, my girlfriend Karla Mendez, and Misuzu Okamoto; Will Trubridge, Ryuzo Shinomiya, Alejandro Lemus, Johnny Sunnex, Johan Dahlstrom, and first timers Adam Stern and Dean Chaouche.

Free Immersion with Sandfall

The women impressed–national records more dives than not–Sayuri taking gold, Tomoka silver and Kate bronze. Misuzu topped most of the men (myself included), reaching 92m with her monofin (chapeau). Will posted his usual outrageous numbers for men’s gold. Six of us should have competed for silver and bronze, but no one looked in-form. Ryuzo locked up second with some solid early dives, Alejandro moving into third on the final day. I finished fourth: should have done better, but could have done worse. Dean took fifth place, impressing everyone with some great dives.
I played catch up–training dives Days 1 and 3–but bagged another national record on Day 5: first American to 90m (296 feet) free immersion (pulling down and up the rope). I passed on diving during the storm (Days 6 and 7), coming back with 90m constant weight on Day 8, and 61m no fins Day 9. Close, but no cigar: Alejandro hit his dive late on Day 9 to take bronze. Disappointed to miss the podium, but happy with the record, and to be the first American to hit 90m in constant weight and free immersion in the same comp (Nick and I had each come close a few times).
To sum up VB 2015 in a word: fun. Great friends, great diving, with conditions going from summer to winter, and back again.. Kudos to Will for moving it back to April!

Free Immersion Descent

Altitude Training: Chamonix-Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi; Mont Blanc du Tacul on left

Altitude training in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, French Alpes: fun, scary, and beautiful. The morning after landing we headed up our first peak: La Prarion (1969m; 6,458 feet), 1000m above Chamonix. Mont Blanc (4810m) dwarfs it, but La Prarion stands alone with 360-degree views—worth a hike. We reached the shoulder on dry trails, in sunshine. A group of British soldiers (“on vacation from Afghanistan”) passed us, moving fast. Polite, well spoken, and calmly organized: looked like Special Forces. Just above us, they stopped joking and went into military mode: “last man on; last man through”. We soon saw why: snowfields covered the trail, sloping down to a vertical cliff. No place to slip. The summit looked east to Mont Blanc, north to the Aiguilles Vertes (“Green Needles”), and west to the Aiguilles Rouges. Hikers snapped photos; they’d come up a dry trail to the east. We took that route down, enjoying it more knowing what was behind us.
A few days later we were off to see a glacier. I was giddy—had only seen them in photos. Reaching the “glacier view point” on the map, at the tongue of the Glacier des Bossons, we looked up and saw…. nothing. My map was old, and the glacier’s now half a mile above. If you want to see a glacier, do it soon.

On a flat section of the Grand Balcon Sud, Mont Blanc in the background

Next up was the “Grand Balcon Sud”. “Balcon” can mean different things, but here it means hillside trail with a view: across a narrow valley toward the Mont Blanc Massif. In July and August, télécabines zip you up to the Balcon, for a scenic two-hour hike and photo op. In June we walked up, the views worth the effort: the rock towers of Les Drus; Mont Blanc and surrounding peaks; the pyramid of Mont Bionnassay.
In late June there’s a race from Chamonix to the top of one of those télécabines: 3.8km long, 1km vertical ascent (the Chamonix Vertical Kilometer, “VKM”): ( I was leaving France before the race, but it sounded fun, and there was a vertical kilometer just outside our apartment: Aiguillette des Posettes (2201m, 7219 feet), looming 1000m above our terrace. We’d been up the Aiguillette twice: first turning back in a snowstorm, and a week later reaching the summit in summer sun.
I started early. At 2000m the sun rose above the hills. By 08:00 I was on the summit in soft morning light, with cowbells ringing up from the valley below. There’s something sublime about a summit at daybreak; there’s also something solitary, reminding you to return to family and friends. Freezing air and brisk wind were another reminder to hurry down. 1000m in 75 minutes felt respectable, until I saw the VKM results: 1st place, 35 minutes. Time to start training.
I wanted to hike the Vallée Blanche, a glacial valley next to Mont Blanc (3500m above sea level), but our schedule and the weather didn’t click until our last day. It was the cherry on the cake: outrageously beautiful; occasionally terrifying. The téléphérique zipped us up to Aiguille du Midi (3800m): the téléphérique is like an elevator packed with 70 climbers and gear, with a view. We hired a guide—mainly to keep us from falling off a cliff or into a crevasse. From the Aiguille we descended 300 meters down a ridge to the Vallée Blanche: slip to the right, you’d fall 200m; to the left, 700m. I nearly puked. Some hiked it un-roped.

Dent de Géant from Aiguille de Toule

On the glacier we headed south. A white desert, with rock spires bursting upward from the snow. I wanted to climb Mont Blanc du Tacul (4200m), but lacked experience with crampons, so we went to Plan B: Aiguille de Toule, a small rock spire on the far end of the valley. That was fortunate: one of my crampons released on the approach. On Tacul, hundreds of meters up high-angled snow, it would have been a problem. After an hour of hiking—in a world of snow, crevasses and peaks—we reached de Toule.
Rising only 150m (500 feet) above the Vallée, de Toule is really a hill. But the snow and ice ascent was steep—up to 70 degrees. I remembered advice from a climbing mentor: “don’t look down, and don’t jump”. I had to focus on each step, using my axe for belay. On top we took photos: Mont Blanc towering to the south, Mont Rose in the distance to the east, the spire of Dent de Géant to the north. The descent was mixed snow and rock. I led the way down, and even enjoyed it. We took the télécabine across the Vallée back to Aiguille du Midi. My head was swirling: relieved, overwhelmed by beauty, determined never to do it again, and wanting badly to get back up there. Next year.

Blue water: Diana Bank, Bahamas

Into the blue at Diana Bank, 30 miles south of Long Island, Bahamas. The bank is an offshore pinnacle, exposed to wind and swell: an island no longer able to reach the surface of the sea. Days calm enough to get there are rare in winter, but a window of good weather gave us the chance to make the run. The crew included Atil Tosun, our captain and host, Ren Chapman, husband of U.S. and world record holding freediver Ashley Futrual, and local charter captain Luke Maillis, whose knowledge of the bank was a big factor in our success.

Diana Bank rises from thousands of feet of water to within 20m (65 feet) of the surface. Upwelling currents bring in baitfish, which bring in larger fish, which in turn bring in sharks. We hoped to catch fish and film sharks, and weren’t disappointed by either.

Leaving Clarence Town harbor at 06:15, we raced south to the bank, the sun rising brilliantly to our left. By 7:30 we were trolling the bank, and within minutes landed our first wahoo. By noon we’d have over 400 pounds of wahoo, plus a couple of mahi mahi. Both are spectacular fish—fast, and brilliantly colored in the water—and great to eat.

By mid morning the fish boxes were nearly full, and we hopped in the water. I hoped to spear a wahoo: tricky business with a spear gun, and trickier here in the Bahamas where spear guns are verboten. I was limited to a pole spear, a metal pole with a barb at one end and elastic band at the other, attached to a float line and buoy: the idea is to shoot a fish, let it run against the buoy, and retrieve it before the sharks devour it. Not great odds to spear and land one, but a good excuse to see magnificent fish in their own environment.

Wahoo on line

The wahoo seemed to know my plan, passing by for a look, but out of range of the pole spear. Turning my attention to floor of the pinnacle, I swam downward, and saw a large hogfish cruising the bottom. I thought I could spear it, and maybe even swim it up to the boat before the sharks made a meal of it. Then I lurched to a stop: float line fully extended, the buoy stopped dead at 17m (55 feet)—I could keep going, but not with the spear. Feeling that karma was against spearing, and surrounded by inquisitive sharks, I swapped pole spear for camera (a GoPro, but better than nothing). Ren and I spent the next hour shooting still and video of sharks, who seemed more than happy to cooperate.

Reef shark, Diana Bank

By 14:00 we were on our way back to Clarence Town, looking forward to many evenings of fresh wahoo!

Vertical Blue 2012: Dean’s Black Hole

CWT -94m: finning out of the gloom

I’d made plans for Vertical Blue 2012 early in the year. My training partner (Will Winram) and I were going to train Constant No Fins (CNF): with zero current, Dean’s Blue Hole is perfect for it. With two AIDA World Championship silver medals in CNF, Will’s the perfect person to train no fins with: he’s an expert on training and technique.
But sometimes even good plans go out the window. In August a film project landed in Will’s lap, and he had to back out of VB. My first reaction was to back out too, and go as a safety diver: that would leave me more free time to spearfish. Will talked me into staying in the comp (and doing constant weight), and in hindsight, this was a good idea. Since I didn’t plan on doing CNF, I didn’t bring my light neck weight. In hindsight, this was not a good idea (more on that later).
Had I been looking for omens for VB, they may not have been good. In addition to losing my training partner, Hurricane Sandy hit the Bahamas in late October, and then devastated the U.S. East Coast. My family (in Rhode Island) were spared the brunt of the storm (I was glad to be with them when Sandy made landfall), but New York was hit hard, leaving friends and their families without power and transportation. Long Island (Bahamas) avoided serious damage, but suffered a barrage of insects: kamikaze mosquitos, which even flew down our snorkels offshore; scorpions, showing up in odd places (in my yoga mat, and in other divers’ wetsuits and beds).

CNF descent

But as soon as I started training, I was glad I came. Dean’s Blue Hole is magnificent: the size of an Olympic swimming pool (about 50 yards or meters across), it plunges over 200m (650 feet) straight downward. Sheltered by a headland and reef, Dean’s is free of waves and current that can make deep diving difficult or impossible (more pix of Dean’s are on the “Photos and Videos” page). Vertical Blue is an extraordinary competition: with over 50 of the world’s best freedivers, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. In addition to Will Trubridge (our host), Guillaume Nery, Alexey Molchanov, Ant Williams, Morgan Bourc’his, Simon Bennett, Ashley Futral Chapman and Alena Zabloudilova were competing. I met others for the first time: Miguel Lozano from Barcelona, and Alfredo Roen from the Canary Islands. Miguel and I hit it off from the start (both being Barcelona football fans), and Alfredo and I did some serious spearfishing (his roommate Simon egging us on to spear instead of train).
Dean’s Blue Hole does have a dark side. In fall and winter, wind and groundswell stir up sand, and tides bring it into the blue hole. This causes poor visibility at the surface, and darkness at depth: not low light, where it’s hard to read your gauge, but pitch black, where you can’t see your hand passing in front of your eyes. That can be creepy. At Vertical Blue, Dean’s was mainly black: complete darkness, pierced only by the lights of the bottom cameras, eerie beacons looming out of the depth.
So into the darkness we dove. I announced free immersion for Day 1, and set a new U.S. record of -87m (285 feet). On Day 2 the darkness got me: I had problems equalizing, and with the lights seeming far below, I turned early. When I got to the surface my gauge read 88m: I’d been only 5m (15 feet) above the plate. I was disappointed, but on my next dive did an easy -94m (308 feet) constant weight, for a second U.S. record.
For the last comp days, I planned another free immersion or constant weight attempt, but a look at the overall standings got me thinking. Guillaume and Morgan seemed focused on the AIDA ranking list, rather than a medal at VB: a decent no fins dive might get me onto the podium. There were only two problems. First, my no fins neck weight was in France: the weight I brought—2+kg (5 pounds) —is too heavy for CNF. Second, I hadn’t done a no fins dive in over a year (since the 2011 world championships in Kalamata): unless your name is Herbert, a deep no fins dive with no training is a bad idea. So I skyped Winram: how deep should I announce with no training? How deep could I go without the lactic acid buildup (guaranteed in CNF) leading me to bail out and pull up the line?

White card: into the medals

We settled on 56m, which was a good call. Using a weight belt for the first (and hopefully last) time in competition, I finished easily, but the lactic build up was distracting. Only practice gets you over that mental hurdle. Could I have done 60m? Sure. Could I have done 70m that day? I’m glad I didn’t need to find out. It was enough for third place overall, at the largest individual competition of the year. Not bad for Plan B.
Making the podium at VB is something I won’t soon forget, as are many other charms of Long Island: boat trips to offshore reefs, morning swims in the sea, fresh fish (Thanksgiving dinner of mutton snapper and grouper cooked by the French team—Guillaume, Morgan, Chloé and Remy—was extraordinary), and a spontaneous house warming party at William and Brittany’s in early December. All the more reason to hurry back to Long Island!

Back Training: Thin Air and Thin Trails

Mont Mounier Summit

After a sea-level summer of training, competing (the Red Sea Cup) and judging (the 2012 AIDA Freediving World Championships), I was ready to get back to the mountains. The Maritime Alpes are my favorite place to train: stunning scenery (plus changing weather and thin trails) provides welcome distraction to workouts. I got lucky with weather this fall, reaching peaks that stymied me last spring. But luck is fickle, and can run out in strange ways (as I found out on my last peak).
After warm ups on Mont Bastide (500m ascent) and Mont Mangiabo (1500m ascent), I was ready to go. Top of the “to do” list was Mont Mounier: I backed off it in May facing snow and thunderstorms, and had been daydreaming about it since. Mounier’s a relatively short climb (the summit only 1100m higher than the loungey Vallée Blanche lodge I’d booked in the ski resort of Valberg), and clear skies lulled me into the thought of sprinting up both Mounier and neighboring Cime Negre in one go. 30-knot winds at altitude brought the first dose of reality. Mounier’s summit rises from a narrow rock ridge: an interesting route on calm days, more so with wind. Keeping low in the gusts, I found spectacular views from the summit, including Mont Gelas and Bego to the east, and Cime Negre to the west (the first photo shows the summit in the background). I enjoyed the views of Cime Negre (its summit now below me), wondering if I would reach it that day.
Moving west along the “Crest of the Alpes” that connects Mounier and Negre, I soon realized my late start, plus the lack of a visible or marked trail, put the second summit out of reach before sunset. Not looking forward to orienteering in the dark, I reluctantly put Cime Negre on hold: a project for next summer.
The next peak was further east: Mont Bertrand, on the border of France and Italy. Bertrand’s summit towers over the Italian border, and forms part of a ridge system leading 20+ miles to the coast. Views from the summit were again amazing: Mont Gelas and Clapier to the west, and Argentera—tallest of the Maritime Alpes—towering above the Savoy fog to the northwest (the second photo is of Argentera). Climbing in the Alpes is a bit like playing “Whack-a-Mole”: from each summit, you see another that looks more interesting. From Bertrand I saw several, and returned days later to climb Mont Marta, Bertrand’s neighbor to the south, past the villages of La Brigue and Morignole in the valley below. With warm inns and B&Bs, these towns attract climbers and non-climbers alike: the restaurants, serving local cheeses and cuisine, are worth a trip. If you’re going, call ahead to check on local events, like the Chevre festival in La Brigue and the Chestnut Festival in Sospel (chestnut cakes, and even chestnut beer).

Mont Argentera, above the Savoy Clouds

Training had been going well, and I started my last route—a timed sprint up Mont Mangiabo—in clear skies and expecting no surprises. Though nearly a mile vertical ascent, the trailhead’s low and the summit below 6000 feet (1821m), so in clear skies it’s a strenuous but straightforward route. All was good until just below the peak—perfect temperatures and ahead of my PB time—when I heard bells clanging above me. On this mountain bells mean sheep, and sheep mean sheepdogs: Pyrenees Mountain Dogs, large and protective animals that don’t appreciate anything moving quickly toward their flock. Last 200m to the summit cancelled for the day!
Descending the southwest ridge, I gazed north to Mont Chapelet and Cime du Diable, and west to snow covered Mounier, looming like a ghost ship above an intervening ridge. To the south the Mediterranean glistened in the sun, Nice airport clearly visible to the southwest. Beyond the airport stood Cap d’Antibes, the Lerian Isles, the red hills of L’Esterel (looking bluish grey in the distance), and the peninsula of St. Tropez. Gazing southeast from Baisse de Liniere, the mountains of Corsica rose clearly above the sea clouds 100 miles away. No PB today, but still a feast of a climb, and heading to the Bahamas for Vertical Blue with legs ready to sprint up from depth. What depth that is I’ll know in just a few weeks. ☺

2012 AIDA Team World Championships: Swapping my Monofin for a Judge Shirt

2012 AIDA Team World Championships: Constant Weight

Constant weight, with AIDA President Kimmo Lahtinen

At this year’s AIDA Freediving Team World Championships on the French Riviera, I found myself in a different position: judging instead of diving. I was excited to be part of great team of judges, and knew our busy schedule would keep me occupied day and night. But in the back of my mind, I wondered weather watching others dive while I stayed on the platform would slowly get to me; even lead me to peel off the yellow judge shirt and try to sneak in a dive before being apprehended by the army of safety divers. Definitely a risk.
Team World Championships are intriguing competitions. Unlike most comps–where athletes compete against each other individually or try to break national records–at Team WCs countries field teams to compete across three disciplines: depth (“Constant Weight”), time (“Static”), and distance (“Dynamic”). Since aggregate score determines the winner, athletes tend to be conservative: one blackout or major penalty can drop a team from the podium to mid-table. But given the large number of athletes, there’s usually plenty of drama.
This year was no exception, with surprise medalists for men and women, and unexpected problems and penalties dropping frontrunners out of contention. At the opening ceremony, for the women’s competition Russia, France, and Japan looked like safe bets for the podium. For the men’s, it looked like a two-horse race: Denmark returning with the same divers (Jesper, Jacob and Rune) who won the last Team WCs in Okinawa (team WCs held in even numbered years, individual WCs in odd); and host France with an intimidating team led by 2011 Individual World Champion Guillaume Nery. Though France had home court advantage (Guillaume a native of host city Nice), I had judged the Danish National Championships in August, and seen no weaknesses in the Danish team.
Is judging easier than competing? Yes and no. Judges don’t suffer the sleepless nights that haunt freedivers at comps: depths that sound reasonable when announced (the afternoon before the dive) seem menacing in the predawn hours before the dive. Nonetheless, our judging days often started at 5 a.m. and finished at 9 p.m., so sleep deprivation became a challenge for us as well. Like the athletes, I was part of a team, judging with AIDA President Kimmo Lahtinen (with me in the second photo), Sport Officer Ute Gessmann, Judge Responsible Marcello di Matteis, and senior judge Panagiota Balanou. Given organizational issues that popped up regularly during the comp, we were lucky to have this experienced group to respond with.
Judging does have one major benefit over competing: you get to see a lot of performances, and in a competition like this, that means some extraordinary ones. I watched Guillaume Nery surface easily from his 114m Constant Weight dive—the deepest ever in a Team World Championship—and then face a barrage of reporters on the platform (the first photo shows the platform, benign in calm seas). I was also fortunate to judge Jesper Stechman’s and Alexey Molchanov’s competition-best Static and Dynamic (respectively). Perhaps most impressive was Goran Colak’s 7:26 Static. Visibly shivering minutes before his start (once and a while, we all choose the wrong wetsuit) he put up an amazing performance, well below his best, but right at his limit in those conditions. Goran’s strong performance was a warning shot from the Croats: below radar before the comp, their scores began to catch everyone’s attention.
Though I saw a lot of performances up close, on the final day I was as unsure as anyone about team results: I was hearing rumors of big performances, but total focus on the athletes I was judging meant I was oblivious to events in other lanes. In the end the Japanese women didn’t disappoint, racking up clean dynamic performances and an huge point total to take gold; France took silver on the back of consistently strong performances, and Serbia surprised everyone by locking up third place (divers Lena, Tijana and Natasa seemed as surprised as anyone, jumping and screaming when they heard the results).
For the men, it came down to the wire. Denmark had stumbled early (one diver unable to recover from a pre-event lung squeeze), and the Russians—looking certain to medal after the first two events—bowed out in the last with an uncharacteristic DSQ. The Czechs—surging with Michel Risian’s 238m Dynamic—took bronze. Croatia, capped by Goran Colak’s 236m Dynamic (short only in comparison to his 273m world record at last years WCs) were sitting on 840 points: still in reach of the French, whose top two dynamic divers (former world record holder Fred Sessa, and Morgan Bourc’his) were head to head in the final heat. Sessa came up easily at 213m, an impressive distance, but over 40m short of his PB. Had someone told him to be conservative to ensure a silver medal? If so, Morgan never got the memo, busting out a 227m PB to give France 821 points, and a massive lead over everyone–except Croatia. When Morgan surface cleanly, the mainly French audience erupted in applause at their compatriots’ extraordinary performances, and also for Colak and Croatia: 2012 Team World Champions.
Exciting it was, but will I judge a World Championship again? Hopefully, but now I’m focusing on diving. Watching the athletes dive in calm blue seas, and gliding through long dynamics in a 50m pool, made me want to dive even more: after two days of rest I was back in the sea, gym and mountains training, looking forward to competing at Vertical Blue in November.

Red Sea Cup: First American to Reach 300 Feet

Staring at a rope leading 300 feet down into the ocean depths can be intimidating, especially if you’re planning to dive to the bottom of it on a single breath of air: no air tanks, rebreathers, weighted sleds or motorized propulsion. Bright sunshine and calm seas don’t distract from the job at hand, especially knowing that no American has ever done it. As the judges announce the start time (the “Official Top”), you ignore human instincts and rely on training. I’ve been here before, but I’m still not feeling warm and fuzzy.
The 2012 Red Sea Cup in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, looked promising for a record dive: warm, clear water guaranteed, and on good days calm seas and light current. Sharm is Europe’s version of Cancun, with year-round sunshine and no shortage of tourists and resorts. For freediving, it offers deep water close to shore: 400 feet deep only 500 feet from the beach. My last record with fins (“Constant Weight”) was in 2010, and I was ready to put on my monofin and try again.
Deep water was only part of the Red Sea Cup’s appeal: good friends were also competing, and the chance to spend time with them counterbalanced the pressure of competitive diving. George Miller, Liv Philip and Daan Verhoeven were in from London (enjoying sunshine after a grey London summer); Matt Molina, whom I met in 2009 and with whom i dove the Dahab Arch, was in from Poland; and my training partner Will Winram (a Canadian, who lives with his wife in Switzerland) flew down from Geneva. Will and I met in Sharm at the World Championships in 2007; I missed the training period with an ear problem, but his advice led me to a PB in Constant Weight and a U.S. record in Constant No-Fins. We have a lot in common (we were both from the west coast and avid surfers before competing as freediviers), and have been training and competing together since.
Even when the sea cooperates, the Red Sea can be a tricky place to train. Summer heat is oppressive (110 Fahrenheit a typical daily high); the call to prayer (amplified by loudspeakers everywhere) provides 3:45 wake up call to the entire town; and the risk of stomach bugs lurks at every meal. Regardless, there was some impressive diving: Matt busted out some big dives, Will did deep no fins dives with minimal training, and Catalan Aleix Segura Vendrell did a impressive timed breath hold (“Static”) in a warm degree pool.
But no matter where you are, a 300+ foot competition line is still a bit intimidating. At that depth, the pressure is ten times that at sea level, and the air that filled your lungs at the surface has moved to equalize your non-compressible air spaces (ears, sinuses and trachea): there’s nothing left in your lungs (and keep in mind that if you exhale fully on land, you still have about a third of your lungs filled with air–their “residual volume”). I’m often asked what it feels like at this pressure. Oddly enough, if I relax and the dive is going well, I don’t feel anything: it’s only if my ears don’t equalize, or if I’m stressed and unable to let my ribcage and diaphragm compress, that I feel the pressure. This record attempt went well: 300 feet below the surface, I had compressed calmly, grabbed the tag, and had a pleasant swim back to the surface. After a few minutes of breathing oxygen after surfacing (a decompression safeguard needed at these depths), I was ready to celebrate.
As always, I’d like to thank my family for supporting me (even though they worry about what else might be swimming around in the depths during my dives), and William Winram

Photo by Daan Verhoeven

Photo by Alice Catteneo

for coaching me to another record. I would also like to thank Elios, my wetsuit sponsor, Aeris, my dive gauge sponsor, Ocean Minded, my footwear sponsor, and Trygons, my fin sponsor: your support is very much appreciated!

Altitude Training: Maritime Alpes

The French Riviera is renown for beaches and bikinis, but one of its best attractions remains a well-kept secret: the Maritime Alps. Along the coast from Nice to the Italian border, the Alps march right down to the Mediterranean Sea: mile-high peaks offer breathtaking views of the coast to the south, and of higher snow-peaked mountains just to the north.
Like many triathletes and marathoners, I use altitude to train. For a diver, training altitude next to the sea is ideal. I came to Nice in 2010 to do a Master of Science in Finance, and while other students spent spare time wine tasting and sunbathing, I was putting in miles in the mountains. Competing at a high level demands a few sacrifices. ☺
Why train altitude for diving? Because freediving is the ultimate anaerobic sport: you leave the surface, and for the next three minutes the only oxygen you have is what you brought with you in your lungs, blood and muscles. Muscles work anaerobically for most of the dive, and anaerobic training is critical. There are lots of ways to train anaerobically, but few as challenging and exciting as training in the mountains. A day in the Alps can be many things—from awe inspiring to life threatening—but it’s never boring, and sprinting uphill into thinning air works you out as hard you can bear. This isn’t a post about training methods—I can’t tell all my secrets, at least not yet—but to let you in on some of the secrets of the Maritime Alps.
The trails start in the river valleys surrounding Nice: the Roya to the East, Bevera and Vesubie to the North, and Haut Cians to the Northwest. The mountains tower above those valleys: Gelas (3200m/10,500 feet), above the French/Italian border; Mounier (2800m/9,200 feet), standing majestically north of Cannes; Cime Negre (2500m/ 8,200 feet), rising like a black Egyptian pyramid above the Crest of the Alps; and Mont Mangiabo (1800m/ 6000 feet), whose summit seems only a parasail away from Nice and the sea. Wildlife is abundant and exotic: ram-like bouquetin, antelope-like chamois, and whistling marmots at altitude; wolves roam down to the coast itself.
The trails can be as challenging as they are beautiful: safe trails are easy to find at lower elevations, but summits demand more commitment. Pleasant footpaths give way to scree and talus fields at elevation, and trails turn into little more than ledges without warning. Summits require as much judgment as commitment. My ethos in freediving is to dive only as deep as I can safely swim back from—not to get rescued by a safety diver; in the mountains, I climb only as high as I can safely return from.
This spring, weather made that ethos challenging. April and May in the Maritime Alpes are usually clear—high pressure pushes most storms north, and mountains to the northwest block the rest—but this year, those months were the wettest in history: even the better days offered only short windows of clear skies. To an athlete training with trail shoes and light gear, these were interesting days. The first photo captures the Maritime Alpes this spring: taken near the Italian border above the Refuge de Fenestre, with clouds blowing in and snow lingering, it’s a reminder to take the Alps seriously, no matter how inviting they seem on calm blue days. The Refuge itself is a more hospitable place: a huge dormitory strategically placed to house alpinists, with a friendly host who prepares hot coffee and toast for breakfast, and rustic dinners for the hungriest of climbers.
A peak that I hoped to summit this spring was Mont Mounier, a limestone mountain towering above the surrounding countryside. I had first seen Mounier the year before, while cross-country skiing at Roubion with Guillaume and Julie, (who later told me about the approach from Valberg, and the route to the summit). Storm after storm kept it snow covered, and though I waited as late as I could to climb it, I still hit snow at 2500m. High-angle snow and trail shoes are a poor mix, and with snow falling on the mountains just east, and a line of thunderstorms just west, I decided to leave the summit for a better day. The second photo shows the lower peak in the foreground, and the summit behind and to the right, taken from an approach ridge to the south. From the ski resort of Valberg, it’s a moderate six-hour round route, and when dry only the summit gets technical.
Fortunately, even with the inclement weather, my local training peak—Mont Mangiabo—was accessible. The main trailhead (for the GR 52) is in the medieval town of Sospel, a pleasant hamlet just north of Nice, with warm cafés for breakfast and artisan bakeries to raid after a day in the mountains. “GR” is short for “Grande Randonnée”, or Great Trek; the GR 52 starts in Geneva, Switzerland, and extends through the Alps right down to the Mediterranean, so “Grande” is no exaggeration. The GR 52 leads to the summit, with a 1500m vertical ascent (about a mile). The third photo is from the summit; in the distance you can see the Mediterranean, and if you look closely, Nice airport and Cap d’Antibes jutting into the Sea.

Return to the Blue Hole

Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas

It was with cautious excitement that I returned to Long Island this winter. My last trip to Dean’s Blue Hole—for the Vertical Blue competition in April 2010—was extraordinary: diving with my favorite training partners (Winram and Nitsch), and setting three new American records (including my first 90m dive). Could a trip in winter—when cold fronts typically drop the visibility near zero, making the Blue Hole black at depth—measure up to that? Had Hurricane Irene—which pummeled Long Island last August—damaged the reefs or the Blue Hole?

Long Island rarely disappoints, however, and this winter was no exception. Rather than cold fronts, we had week after week of fair weather, and water temperatures typical for May. In spite of Irene’s 10m/30’ waves and 100 knot winds, the island looked the same (only the tree trunks inside the reef serving notice of the storm’s violence). The diving platform in the Blue Hole was rebuilt, even larger than before (no doubt with this fall’s Vertical Blue competition in mind).

So, comfortably in 3mm and 2mm suits, I focused on technique. After a year out of the water in 2010-2011 (to complete a Masters in Finance), I was rusty at last year’s world championships: a 6th place overall finish in Constant no Fins didn’t blind me to the need to hone technique prior to reaching my next objectives. No deep dives on this trip: only compression and equalization training as a foundation for future competitions.

There was time of course just to enjoy the sea—Long Island is too beautiful just to train. Good viz days spent taking photos, and for shark dives. Early mornings were perfect for swims with eagle rays, stingrays and sea turtles.

The best part Long Island, though, is usually the chance to spend time with good friends. Daan Verhoeven and George Miller from London were my housemates and training partners. Both are a charm to dive and hang out with, and Daan’s a dedicated photographer: my gallery page benefitted heavily from his inability to put down the camera! And as always, Will and Brittany Trubridge were wonderful hosts, stopping by for visits and inviting us to dinners of fresh local cuisine (both are excellent cooks, and Brittany a good baker as well).
Like past trips to Long Island, the only downside to this excursion was departure day, softened somewhat by the knowledge that I’ll be returning this fall for Vertical Blue.