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. ☺