‘If I can do it, anyone can do it!’ claims British dad Richard Lewis, while talking to En Bref about his participation in the Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG).
Given that the ‘short’ version of this ski mountaineering race, is a 27 km trek from Arolla to Verbier, with an altitude difference of +1881m and -2341m, En Bref might take some convincing!
The PDG originated during WWII when the Swiss Army developed a race to test the abilities of its soldiers. Even the so-called ‘short’ race sounds to En Bref like an incredible test of skill and endurance. It is hard to believe that just anyone could do it. Why do you say this, and what inspired you to become involved?
Some friends of mine had been talking about entering for years, and they convinced me that it would be a good idea to join them! I had done some ski touring, about 10-15 times, and really liked it, so I agreed to give it a go. You participate in teams of three, with a back-up member, in case anyone has to drop out, so I joined the team as their backup person in 2014. The race takes place every two years, so I became one of the ‘core’ team in 2016, when the race was cancelled at the last minute, and then again in 2018, when I finally got to complete it.
At the outset, I thought that I would never be anywhere near fit enough to participate – and I was probably right at that point! I was reasonably fit, but not through doing anything special – mostly walking the dog! What I have realised, however, over the past 6 years, is that fitness is an evolution – there is an incredible continuum of fitness that you can achieve, and I have only started that process. It’s mind-blowing what the people participating in the ‘long’ PDG [53 km, 3994m ascent] can do. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to be innately fit to achieve a very high level of fitness, it’s just a matter of hours and commitment. So 6 years ago, I would be on my knees by the end of a day’s ski touring, but roll the clock forward 6 years and I’m able to chat all the way up, and enjoy every minute of it. As a result, at 51, I’m now fitter than I have ever been, and that’s definitely something which gives me a lot of hope for the future. What’s more, you do see some people doing this race who are 70+, and they’re doing it in better times than I would!
The training involved to get you to the appropriate level of fitness must have been fairly gruelling.
Not at all! It was an absolute joy! We did about 10 ski tours, with a guide, in the December to April before each race, getting to appropriate altitudes. So we would be out in the middle of nowhere, in usually perfect conditions – no people, beautiful snow. We would climb for about five hours on a typical training day, but then you’re skiing downhill for two hours in pristine conditions, with beautiful views and a good lunch at the end! This is exactly what I want to be doing with my spare time.
Other than that, skiing with the family at the weekend, I would quite often skin up the piste, rather than take the lift. In general, I tried to maintain a reasonable level of fitness between races via moderate exercise – stuff I would be doing anyway. It was only in the late summer, before the following April’s race, that I started to ramp it up. I invented my own training regime, which I think will be extremely interesting to your readers – extreme dog walking! Mont Mussy is right behind my house. There’s a steep route up, and I ran up and down it twice every morning – that’s 45 mins, and it’s absolutely exhausting! Your pulse goes through the roof. So no need for gym memberships and complex equipment! I hope that makes people appreciate just how achievable it is.
How disappointing! So no drama, or tales of hardship?
Sorry! Although we did have a couple of training days when the weather was horrible!To be honest, there wasn’t even much difficulty fitting training in with normal life. We had to allocate time for our whole day ski touring trips, but we tried to avoid weekends so as not to impinge on family time. I was lucky that my work was flexible in this respect. That said, please make sure that you write that Catherine, my wife, was wonderfully supportive!
Done! What about the cancelled race, that must have been very disappointing, after all the preparation?
To an extent. We were already in Arolla when it was cancelled, and had been to the pre-race dinner, and the incredibly involved kit check, where the Swiss Army weigh and check everything to make sure that it meets regulations – it’s for safety, but also, if you leave something out, or one of your ropes is shorter than stipulated, it might give you a weight advantage, and therefore a competitive advantage! Anyway, the organisers made the right call, as it happens, since the first checkpoint was avalanched.
The risk of avalanche isn’t the only concern, is it? Wasn’t the PDG cancelled for many years following the death of three soldiers, who fell into a crevasse?
That’s true, and the Swiss Army take safety at these events very seriously. It’s incredible; there are about a thousand soldiers camping above the tree line for two weeks beforehand to organise the event. In the places where you have to climb with your skis on your back, they have roped it up and have even cut in some steps. Also everyone is tagged, and there are six checkpoints along the way that you have to get through in a certain timeframe, otherwise you are kicked out. This is because the race is in April, when it’s quite hot, and if you don’t go up and over a certain mountain at a certain time, then the avalanche risk builds up – once you hit midday it’s very risky on some of the traverses. (This is also why the race starts at 3am.) When we did it, at least 50 people were stopped in the middle of nowhere, for not making a checkpoint on time, and they all had to be helicoptered out.
The Swiss Army don’t just manage safety, they still participate in this event, don’t they?
Yes. There are almost 5,000 participants overall, and I’d say that about a third are military. For civilians, it is extremely difficult to secure a place, since the PDG is always over-subscribed. We managed via our guide, who was also one of our ‘core’ team members each time. There’s no selection process as such, other than self-selection! You have to know that you can reach the first checkpoint within 1h40m, or else you will be sent back, so people don’t enter unless they know that they can achieve that milestone.
Talk us through the 2018 race, where you finally got the opportunity to participate.
Since training for the PDG was the part that interested me, rather than the race itself, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. I thought that there would be too many people, that it would be hard, and that the skiing would be rubbish! (I was right about the latter; it was like skiing on corrugated iron!) However, at 3am on the day itself, when we were thrown into this environment with thousands of people milling around, the excitement was infectious, and the adrenaline really kicked in.
When the starter gun went, the sheer movement of people was impressive; thousands of participants, all packed in together, all in a straight line, people overtaking, some falling, because the slope you go up at the start is steep, and having difficulty re-joining. It gradually thins out, but over the course of the first hour you’re caught in this motion, not noticing anything other than people and the clanking of the skis as you climb this icy piste. Once through the first checkpoint, you’re immediately taking off skis and climbing up a very steep corridor to the top of the first coll. This is where I stuck my head up and looked around for the first time, to see the most wonderful image – a snake of head torches stretching back 20 kms, all the way to Zermatt.
After that was a long, exhausting stretch. By the time the sun was starting to rise, we got through the longest climb of the tour, the Rosablanche, behind Verbier, only to be greeted at the top by over 300 spectators, ringing cowbells and offering food and drink. The only way to the top is to climb, so they had done that, getting up at 4am themselves – amazing.
When you finally ski into Verbier, bizarrely, you have to run across the whole town to the finishing line, in your ski boots with your skis on your back. I think drew the energy to run from the people lining the route, including friends and family. My eleven year old son ran with me across the finishing line!
Did you have an objective at the outset, in terms of the competition, and, if so, did you achieve it?
Initially, it would have been to do my best time, and not let my teammates down. I was expecting to be the slowest person in the core team, but then, when the event came, the main guy couldn’t participate, due to work commitments, so the backup stood in, and I was no longer the weakest link! It was the perfect situation for me. You have to complete the course as a team, so we ended up going more slowly than we would otherwise have done and, as a result, I enjoyed every minute of it, even getting the chance to chat with other competitors, and to take photos! So for a first attempt, it was a great way of doing it.
How did you feel when it was over, after all of the build-up and preparation? Were you deflated?
Absolutely not! I had a warm glow of achievement, and still do, when I think of it.
So what next? Would you enter the PDG again, or perhaps undertake another physical challenge?
I haven’t yet decided. If I were to do it again, I should either aim for the fastest time that I can, or do the ‘long’ race, and both would require a big commitment, which is asking a lot of the family. Also, my work is less flexible now. However, back to what I said at the beginning, once you have the mindset that you’re not in decline, and have, in fact, been able to become fitter than ever, then you start to think ‘I could do this when I’m 65’, so I think it really has given me a perspective that there’s a long way to go, and that there’s no rush.
I really enjoy cycling, and have done the Tour du Lac for the last three years, so maybe I will tackle an étape of the Tour de France next. I take my hat off to people who can do that, because some of the étapes are at least as hard at the PDG – a 200km ride and 4000m ascent!
Finally, how would you summarise your experience of the PDG?
It’s a tale of accessibility and later life fulfilment!
Click for more information on the PDG.
Interviewed by: Olive Fenton