This is an in-depth report from Eric about his and Nick Elson’s amazing journey to 15th place at Pierra Menta few weeks ago.
I have had a few people ask if the Pierra Menta is what I expected. The honest answer is partly yes. Stories from Stano, Melanie, and Reiner certainly prepared me for what to expect and the 30th anniversary of the race lived up to every expectation.
For those not intimately knowledgeable about the European ski mountaineering race calendar, the Pierra Menta is generally regarded as the premier event of the season. Certainly, the World Cup events host a high caliber of athletes at every race. The World Championships bring in athletes from many countries. However, the Pierra Menta is one of the longest running skimo races on the circuit.
Being a ‘Grande Course’ race, it is longer and more technical than a standard World Cup. Athletes compete in teams of two over four days with a total of ~10,000 meters of elevation gain. You can take a look at the exact stats for each stage and a map from each below.
With about 200 teams racing, the event is quite a show. It was easily the biggest competition that I have ever taken part of, in terms of athletes, organization, and spectators.
We arrived at the race in good time thanks to Emelie Forsberg who kindly loaned us her car. The race essentially takes over the town of Areches (mainly composed of cheese making cooperatives). Racers check in at the community centre and are assigned to a room in one of the many hotels throughout the area taken over by the race. Nick and I were assigned to a hotel near the start/finish line along with Melanie Bernier and her teammate from Norway – Malene, and Nick Francis and Eric Bunce (from Utah). It was quite nice to be able to ski two minutes out of our door to the start line but it was a bit of a tradeoff as we were a 10min drive to the race briefing every evening.
Race briefings were invariably drawn out affairs in a room filled with people far beyond what would be acceptable to North American fire codes. Race information was presented in French, Italian, and English so the process was slow. French and Italian were usually long multi-sentence instructions while the English translation was usually just a few words. We were continually wondering if we were missing out on any crucial information.
» Stano’s report of Day 1 at 2015 Pierra Menta
Waking up on Day 1, it was hard not to be excited. So much training led us here and after a few weeks of tapering we were quite full of energy. To avoid the chaos of a mass start, the organizers planned an individual start time trial. Having never raced Pierra Menta before, Nick and I were ranked somewhere in the middle or back 3/4 of the field. We started and immediately passed a few teams (starting at 15 second intervals). It was a short stage with just two climbs but we continually passed teams. The biggest shock of the day were the descents, either steep and icy or steep and icy through alder – a theme that would persist through the week. We finished in 20th and were quite happy with ourselves. It was a good enough placing to be seeded in the front row of the next days start line and with a handful of places only seconds away.
» Stano’s report of Day 2 at 2015 Pierra Menta
Because the first stage was so short (~1400m), we still felt pretty energetic when we woke up on Day 2. The second stage was much longer (~2800m) and we knew it would be a tough one. Nick made sure to keep reminding me to take it easy on the start. With a 1000m climb off the line, it shouldn’t have been hard to keep the pace in check. Running off the line with 200 other teams, however, is a different story and it’s easy to red-line it immediately.
The race tackled a long boot pack and then was in the alpine. We hit another boot pack up a rocky ridge with awesome exposure on either side. Later, we found out that our British roommates, already battling the time cut-off had a disaster here when one of their pairs of skis detached from their pack and rocketed down the mountain into another valley. They had to be helicoptered back to the start area.
The first descent of the day we were warned was icy and had cliffs. We dived in behind another team and started descending above the cliffs. We saw Kilian Jornet and his partner Mark Pinsach (ESP) clinging to the icy slope trying to get crampons on. We traversed above the cliffs and into a couloir before opening it up into the faster descent and passing one of Mark’s skis laying at the bottom of the descent.
The next climb took us to another summit and another steep, icy descent. This one was steep enough for fixed ropes to be in place. A Catalonian team took off from the transition just ahead of us and one of their skis went immediately flying into oblivion but the racer skied on with just a single ski without slowing. Nick made relatively cautious jump turns while I grabbed the fixed rope and power slid. The final series of climbs was all skins on in the mid-day sun with big groups of spectators until we hit the last descent and shot back through the woods to the finish.
» Stano’s report of Day 3 at 2015 Pierra Menta
Day three was looking to be a big one but it also had a few exciting sections that we were looking forward to. The race started with a short (~50m) climb and then a longer (~150m) skins-on descent. We chose our fastest skins and strategically applied them to one side of our skis hoping for a bit more glide on the descent.
The race started fast as always and we stayed in a reasonable position of the line but as soon as we started descending, big groups of racers started whizzzing past us like they didn’t have skins on! We realized that these guys must have planned ahead and were using 1/3 or 1/4 width skins with excellent glide. Oh well.
After a longer skins-off descent into Areches, we put our skis on our packs and start the run through town. I was actually surprised how few spectators there were as we ran up the main street of town but it was quite early and I think most of the town was already up on the mountain! The run was about 15 minutes and we wound our way up to the top of town and into a farmers field where we put skis back on. From here we skied up into the alpine and past the much celebrated Pierra Menta – a very distinct peak – before descending again and back up to Mt. Coin. There were lots of spectators on these peaks and Andrea and Jennie – our biggest cheerleaders – were given a lift to the top of Mt. Coin on the press helicopter as SkinTrack.com photographers!
The final climb took us to the top of the ski resort that was packed with spectators. Earlier in the day, we had passed Kilian and his partner who was not looking so great. Now, as we came into the mass of spectators, Kilian caught back up to us skiing solo after leaving his partner behind. We got huge cheers from the crowd but they were clearly more excited about Kilian than team Squamish. The final descent was a bizarre rally through steep gullies, trees, and much dirt back to the finish line. We skied with Kilian throughout the descent and managed to limit the damage to our skis. Crossing the line, we were pretty stoked to find out that we had moved into 16th place overall.
We gorged on food and had our nightly massage and were feeling pretty worked. The three days of racing were definitely catching up with us now. I was feeling a bit worried about the next day which had been talked up as a pretty serious one.
» Stano’s report of Day 4 at 2015 Pierra Menta
We woke the next morning pretty wiped out still. It was hard to get in a big breakfast and we dragged ourselves down to the start just before we needed to be in the corral. No need to warm up much at this point.
Rather than a short climb and immediate descent, the final day had a long climb into the alpine right off the bat. We moved into position with the top 20 and were cruising along feeling pretty good. The first summit was covered with a huge crowd of people as we skinned along a rolling ridge. The crowd pushed so close that the track was only wide enough for one skier and gave us little boosts as we went. We did a short descent and then started up the big climb to Grand Mont. Steep icy switchbacks led to a boot pack. The switchbacks were dead in the sun and had very little track exposed. I was feeling the last few days and was only thinking about how much I wanted a drink of cold coke.
We were happy not to have any other teams around us when we hit the via ferrata section and clipped into the fixed rope. The ridge was definitely exposed. Considering the other sections of the race that didn’t even have ropes, you can imagine why the organizers decided was necessary to have us clip in! We cruised up with one of our tethers in our hand and the other on the rope and then topped out with another big crowd in front of us.
The top of Grand Mont was the main spectating spot and it was crazy. Spectators were taking over the entire summit and pushed back to the very edge of the cliff. We ran into the transition. I had a smooth one and finished before Nick. As I waited, a french volunteer appeared in front of me holding a two-tier bottle of Coke. I heard the crack and hiss as he opened the bottle. We looked each other in the eye and I stuck my hands out. He passed me the bottle and I chugged away. I turned and passed the bottle to Nick who did the same and then we were off.
I felt supercharged and bombed down the descent from Grand Mont. We passed another team and I ripped downhill faster than I had all week. I was keeping up with Nick! It didn’t hurt that the snow here was the best of the week as well, soft with no crust! I caught an edge and went down hard on my back but everything stayed attached. In a high speed turtle slide, I spun around and managed to flip back onto my skis without stopping or even losing much ground to Nick who didn’t realize I had crashed!
We started the last climb – 100m of skinning, and then 200m of boot packing and managed to hold off the team close behind us while passing a few junior teams before cresting one last spectator filled summit and descending one last icy slope down to the finish.
Finish at last!After four days of racing, it felt a bit strange not to have a race the next day. We were just getting into the rhythm and then it was done. All along, our mantra was ‘there is still lots of racing left’ and then all of a sudden there wasn’t! So we packed up our room and headed into Beaufort for the dinner and party.
Because of the 30th anniversary, the organizers went all out. First, there was a movie about the history of the Pierra Menta. It was cool to see the evolution of gear and styles (our skimo suits look pretty tame in comparison) even though the movie was in French. After that, wine and crackers while they set out big tables. While we waited for dinner, the entertainment arrived putting on quite the show singing and dancing. Finally, awards started and it took forever as they called up every category (there were many) and quite deep. Nick and I got called up being in the top 33 of the men’s race. After the final awards for the top senior men, we hustled out of there and passed out though it sounds like the party lasted well into the morning.
The Pierra Menta was an awesome experience! It had a high level of competition, the most amazing terrain I have ever raced on, incredible organization, and loads of spectators. It is definitely the race I most want to go back and do again. I definitely suggest it to anyone interested in checking out a European race.