Tour of Monte Rosa
Written by Ben Read & Tom Hill
Photography by Ben Read
We run through the darkness. It wasn’t meant to be this way. I feel stronger than I have done all day, as we move in silence under shadowy giants. The cool of the night has rejuvenated me, and I find flow where before there was only suffering. Occasionally, the gathering storm clouds clear long enough for the silhouette of Monte Rosa, our constant companion for the last two days, to frame us. Moonlight and headtorches glint off each irregularity and imperfection in the trail in front of us. Tired legs tap out a rhythm across each rock; we’ve long stopped thinking about foot placement. It feels more natural to be moving than not. We have the mountain to ourselves. It’s what we wanted, why we set off on this adventure, eschewing the bustle of the start line, the constraints of race tapes. And despite the fact that we are now retracing our steps, retreating, we have finally found what we were looking for.
The Tour of Monte Rosa is 162.5km long and includes around 10,000m of ascent in its loop. It is a popular multi-day trekking route, as well as the course for a new ultra trail race, the brainchild of Lizzy Hawker. When not racing, you can of course start wherever you like on the sawtooth profile that makes up the trail. For James and I, though, there was only ever going to be one starting point. Alagna wasn’t where we formed our friendship, but it’s where we set its foundations. Seasons in the snow, guiding, playing. Now, familiar faces move about the village. It had been three years since James and I had started talking about reconnecting in the mountains, and now here we were. This isn’t Chamonix. Out of ski season, the tourists leave, the ski instructors and lift operators become labourers and craftsmen. We were incongruous in running gear, yet felt at home. If all went to plan, we would be returning back here in four, maybe five days. 50km running per day. 2,500m of climbing and descending, all while carrying probably too-heavy packs. We knew that it was ambitious, maybe not achievable, but that’s part of the point. We share a need to push ourselves beyond our conceived limits and didn’t want to stay in mountain huts, even though it would allow us to travel lighter. This would be our journey. We would choose when to stop, and when to go.
While a sense of belonging declared that we should start from Alagna, the practicalities meant we began from what was the lowest point of the entire route, and climbed to one of the highest immediately. In intense heat, we toiled. One step in front of another. We had barely begun, and my drenched clothes clung to my skin as beads of sweat ran down my arms. James is naturally faster than me. Seeing him move with relative ease as I fought for every step awoke my inner demons. I’d selfishly denied James of his iPod on this trip as I knew, in the darkest hours, I would need to talk my way out of it to distract the ever present negative thoughts of failure and giving up. However, much to James’s annoyance, I’d retreated so far into my own head that I wasn’t talking at all. Self-doubt crept in as I slogged out a contorted fight with the mountain. As we gained altitude, though oh so slowly, past the point that oxygen begins to thin out, roles were reversed. I didn’t move any faster, but neither did I get slower. I forced myself ahead of James and saw open trail in front of me, leaving him to focus on my calves punching out a slow pace for a change. Step, step, step.
We had barely begun, and my drenched clothes clung to my skin as beads of sweat ran down my arms. James is naturally faster than me. Seeing him move with relative ease as I fought for every step awoke my inner demons. Self-doubt crept in as I slogged out a contorted fight with the mountain.
It would be easy to paint a picture of abject suffering, but despite the obvious discomfort, we had chosen this. Each climb brought a sense of accomplishment. We treasured every view.
Over those first few days, we both found strength in each other’s weakness; not in a competitive sense, but one of care. The one who was suffering least took it upon themselves to check on the other. They navigated, suggested stops and forced in calories and fluid. We fathered each other through the low points and had the humility to welcome the care of a friend when we needed it.
The terrain was rougher than we could possibly imagine. It was in stark contrast to the flowing trails that we’d encountered while racing the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc). There were scant opportunities to simply switch off and run. Ground that would, in normal circumstances, be an engaging and pleasurable technical challenge simply slowed our already tired bodies further and we continued fighting on as the heat continued to build into the late afternoon.
It would be easy to paint a picture of abject suffering, but despite the obvious discomfort, we had chosen this. Each climb brought a sense of accomplishment. We treasured every view. When racing we so often lose a sense of where we are, beyond being on a course. A sense of place is defined by kilometres gone and to go, rather than the landscape that we are in, part of. We appreciated the small – enjoying trail-side snacks, sat amongst rocks and alpine meadows. We soaked in the enormous – broad shafts of light cutting through far-off mountain passes, casting glorious flushes of gold across entire cliff faces.
We enjoyed friendly encounters with hikers on the trail. Despite enjoying our adventures at different speeds, we shared more than separated us. Our mutual love for where we were, how we chose to interact with the mountain cut us from the same cloth.
Time and space moved at different paces on our second day. In the moment, time stood still. Minutes felt like hours as we inched our way up the Monte Moro Pass. Yet a day that stretched out before us raced more quickly than our progress. We never said as much, but we were drifting further behind schedule. Stubbornly, we continued. It’s what you do. To make matters worse, the weather forecast was becoming increasingly ominous – vicious storms were predicted. Rather than passing hikers going in the same direction as we were, we met them face-to-face, each checking that we knew what we were running into as they retreated.
The decision was made. Neither of us has ever quit a race. Maybe if there was a safety net there, a checkpoint to aim for, we would have continued. There wasn’t, though, and in the end there was barely a decision to make. We couldn’t afford to be stranded on the opposite side of Monte Rosa, and so, late in the afternoon, we turned back.
Perspectives changed in an instant. Literally, the mountain whose skirt hem we traced was now on our right. Logistically we went from being behind schedule to having time in hand. Mentally, we knew what was to come, the exact scale of what was needed to return to Alagna. We could have camped almost immediately, but as the evening drew in, we followed our instincts and kept moving. With the weight of our own expectations lifted, we pushed into the night not because we had to, but because we wanted to.
The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa race runs from September 1st to September 3rd. For information visit ultratourmonterosa.com or view the route here.
Ben Read is a photographer drawn to documenting people performing incredible feats of endurance, or just all-out-action. Born in the UK, Ben’s love of the mountains was formed on a trip to Northern Pakistan and the Valleys of the Hindu Kush as a 11-year-old boy. Since then he has lived in various mountain ranges skiing and trail running across the globe.
Facebook: Ben Read Photography
James Noorkoiv is a runner, mountain lover, world traveler & adventurer who applies personal sporting passions into every day practice as a performance apparel product manager.
Edited by Tom Hill