After a couple of Pierra Menta skimo races I was keen to try another classic and since 2016 was a PDG year (only runs every other year) then it seemed rude not too. Run by the Swiss military, it’s 4000m of climbing and 50 km of alpine travel in one long day. A unique experience in skimo racing. It’s a ballot entry in November so I teamed up with well known adventure racing loud man John Houlihan and Malc Rudge from Marmot to put an entry in. The rules state that you have 4 people on the entry with any 3 to race, absolutely no substitutions before the race. Our back up man is Phil from Backcountry UK so almost an industry team. There are no qualifying criteria for the PDG. It is a huge mass participation skimo event unlke any other. The same way that the 3 Peaks Cyclo Cross is not a normal cross race or a Cycle Sportive is not a road race. There are a couple of timed sections on the course to identify anyone who has bitten off more than they can chew but the times are appropriate for a mass participation event.
The PDG is a confusing affair first time round. There are 2 courses Z (full course Zermatt to Verbier, via Arolla) and A (Arolla to Verbier). Each course runs twice starting on the Tuesday (Z1 and A1) and the Friday (Z2 and A2). Z2 is the most popular and our choice. Each start then has a number of start windows, the idea being that the faster teams start later in the night (first window 2200,last 0300 for Z) to maximise time spent in the daylight. However there is a cut off in Arolla that you must be past by 6am for av safety, miss it and you are out.
The entry ballot is complcated by the choice of start times. You can increase your chance of acceptance by not picking the busier early slots but you still need to make the cut off in Arolla. A rough time appreciation suggested that we would be OK fitness wise so we skipped the first 2 windows and went for 2330. I don’t know how much difference this made but we got in. Don’t forget that many early slots are taken by teams that contain a guide. These teams get priority entry and may have less competitive racers who want the extra time so tend to go for the earlier slots. We did think of including a guide in our team to get priority entry and then subbing him out as the 4th man but the rules were way ahead of us…
We got our acceptance email early December and began training. This consisted of the excellent Scottish Skimo Races, indoor xc ski machines, long bike rides, long runs and in Malc’s case some pulk pulling. John and I managed a week in the alps watching the Pierra Menta and getting some metres in around it. We have 2 nights in the Bertol hut the week before the race which is our last minute acclimatisation plan as the race tops out at 3650m. We are a very evenly matched team so nobody should feeling under pressure from the others.
Kitwise the PDG is pretty similar to most other skimo races. No crampons are required but extra clothes and a rope are. The course goes high during the night for most people. A decent headlamp, light down jackets and proper warm gloves are a must if the weather is good. Bad weather means thinking more about a standard mountain experience rather than a race. Out goes the tiny e+Lite headlamp normally carried and in goes the Petzl Nao. The PDG has a very unique feature which is the night time glacier descent from the Tete Blanche. You must ski this roped up! The rules state a rope of minimum 8.5mm. Most nice light glacier ropes are 8mm so not acceptable. The Beal Joker 9.1mm has been a very popular choice but Beal have just released the Opera 8.5mm. Like the Joker the Opera is a triple rated rope (full, half & twin). It was the only sub 50g/m rope I could find that was acceptable. The generally accepted method is to use a 20m bungee (ours is 4mm but as yet untested). Stretch the bungy out to 30m and attach the rope along it’s length with cable ties. Release the tension and the rope is carried off the ground by the bungee in a much more manageable fashion. The bungee soaks up the energy if (when!) one skier gets out of position hopefully without pulling another skier off his feet. The rules translation is a little rough but I think it states that our rope must be unfetterd for inspection so after some pre race practise we will have to strip this system off and then re attach it after kit check. I have received some conflicting info on this from 2 members of the same team so will have to be prepared for either. Regarding kit selection for any race, I always do some agonising and choosing at home on my best guess of the conditions and what will pass kit check. Then I put in alternatives for better and worse weather, plus a safer option for any item that is ambigously covered in the kit list / rules. Take the whole lot with you to avoid any last minute stress about kit.
Another feature of the PDG is the Lac Des Dix traverse. You need to traverse this lake about 2/3rds of the way through the course and it’s above 2500m. I heard it was 10km but John measured it as 6. It’s not flat but the gradients are gentle. I also heard it’s cambered one way for the majority so very hard on one leg. You can either skate or skin. Skating is undeniably faster but has a much higher energy cost than skinning. If you are feeling good and competitive then skating is probably best. If you need a bit of time to get some food and fluid down your neck and know the next climb will be hard then skinning is probably the best option for the fastest finish time. It’s not a race around the lake. A skin followed by a skate is also an option as is holding back earlier in the race so you know you can skate.
I was beginning to stress about food and water but have been told that food and water are freely available in Arolla and at the end of the Lac traverse so there is no need to carry to much of either. There is nothing before Arolla but here I quote guide Jon Morgan “its’ freezing cold so you won’t need much extra fluid”. Looks like a 1 litre bladder and some jelly babies will cover it.
So with 4 weeks to go I have found answers to all my major questions, have got my head around the course and feel at least physically capable if not ‘race ready’.Along with some some pre race skinning and a couple of nights in a hut it’s shaping up to be a great ski touring holiday. I will of course write a post race blog to highlight how much of the above info is incorrect and how we got on. There is an excellent race report from Ben Tibbetts on his site HERE