Summit / Race Report Monte Rosa Sky Marathon::

When my mate Graham Friend who’s an accomplished mountaineer asked me if i wanted to team up with him for the #MonteRosaSkyMarathon (MSM) – which would be a first for both of us – it did not take me long to confirm. A trail run race that starts in Alagna Valsesia (1,192m) in 🇮🇹 from where the race goes all the way up the Signalkuppe (4.554m) – the 4th highest peak in the 🇨🇭 Alps and back down to the valley. 35KM including 3.500m positive elevation. Neither the distance, nor the positive vertical elevation scared us hugely as both Graham Friend and I have – individually – ran far longer trail races including more vertical. But It was the ratio between the distance and vertical elevation, the ambitious time cut offs and the altitude at which a significant part of the race would take place that made this race a real challenge.

Graham Friend had planned us a few days ahead of the race in the Refugio Gnifetti – a mountain hut at 3.700 m – to acclimatise at the altitude. Wednesday and Thursday, we climbed Vincent Pyramid (4.215m), Ludwigshöhe (4.342m), Corno Nero / Schwarzkopf (4.321m) and Parrotspitze (4.432m). 6 hours of mountaineering per day (which usually started with a 4:30 am breakfast to be out on time) might not be the best preparation for a tough race like the MSM, but it certainly helped to get our bodies acclimatised to the thinner air.
During our evenings in the Refugio, Graham took some time to talk me through basic mountaineering principles such as how to perform a rescue when your mountaineering partner falls into a crevasse and vice versa, how I could get out of one. The kit room in the Refugio served as our practise area where I kept on re-knotting ropes, clicking in all sorts of carabiners and setting up anchors until done correctly. Very useful and necessary stuff if glaciers are your playing ground.
The one summit that needed me to push my comfort zone a little was Corno Nero / Schwarzkopf. The approach to the summit was short, but quite steep followed by a tiny ridge without providing much grip on one side, and a steep abyss at the other. Despite being belayed to my climbing partner, slipping or falling were not an option. It’s moments like these that made me hyper focused and very carefully performing moves that I would normally not even think about. As I’m a novice at mountaineering, my ridge line shuffle must have looked rather clunky – especially as Corno Nero is ranked PD (Peu Difficile – not very difficult).
My highlight summit was the Parrotspitze, aesthetically a beautifully shaped mountain with a long ridge line towards the summit. The strong wind made that every step created a snow drift that completed the experience. On our way back down the ridge line which I led, I thought of my family who’s support is invaluable to be able to make these kind of trips. I could feel the endorphins kicking in supporting an intense happy state of mind.
The race on Saturday made us both feel more nervous than for any other race we entered before. At the Refugio, we carefully thought through our raceplan to make the cut offs on time. Our plan meant we had to climb at a pace of 700m per hour for the first 3 hours to make the first time cut off at Indren (3200m), which is quite challenging, considering we’d be out for around 9 hours. Knowing how hard we needed to push to make all cut offs, we were both not very confident of a successful finish – although I visualised what success would look and feel like many times (a proved approach for athletes to mentally prepare for success).
As we descended from our higher playground back to the valley on Friday morning, we had all day to prepare our race kit and have a pré race sleep in a normal hotel bed allowing for a proper night of sleep.
Saturday, our race started at 5:30am The first kilometer went through the village and it was an asthma attack right after the start which challenged Graham quite significantly. We decided to take it easy until he found his breath back and Graham would set the pace to manage his heart rate and breathing. It did not take long until we found a rhythm that we both could sustain over a longer period of time. Whilst Graham kept a close eye on his heart rate, I managed our race data and gave an update every 20 mins on our progress. Knowing we had to cover 11 km / 2070m D+ in 3 hours to make the first cut off, we had to continuously keep the pressure on. Closer towards the first cut off, Graham found his beast mode again and took a 15 meter lead which made me need to push hard to stay in his slip stream. Once I could see Indren Cable car station with another 200m vertical and 18 min left, I knew we’d make the cut off, although our margin would be tight with 2h54m on the clock.
To make our next cut off, we had 1h35m to get to Refugio Gnifetti for which we had to climb a very steep couloir. Fixed ropes provided the needed support for our climb and we made it there in 45 mins. This meant that we now created a 45 min buffer on the cut off. It’s here that we entered the glacier where we had spent the preceding days and started to feel the advantage of our acclimatisation. We gained 21 places in the GC on the higher part of the route which made us feel confident that we’d reach our first objective, the summit of Signalkuppe (4.554m) and the turn around point – in time. Once we got to the summit of Signalkuppe, we managed to keep our 45 mins buffer from the cut off.
From the summit, we slid down the first part – a mountaineering technique that’s called glissading. Apart from it being a lot of fun, it’s quite efficient as well, as it’s fast and doesn’t require a lot of effort. We ran down the remaining part of the glacier back to the top of the couloir where snow conditions had significantly changed for the worse. The snow got very slushy making us reliant on the fixed ropes and our carabiners to not slide down the entire couloir and risk of hitting rocks. I found conditions a little challenging, which made us eating into our buffer. With a 20 mins margin, we arrived at our last cut off point which meant that – in theory – we had 1hr 45 mins to get back to Alagna, but in practise, we had been told that a finish time above 9hrs, would still qualify.
As I had set my mind on a sub 9 hr finish, i kept pushing the last 11 km. The parts we were glissading went fast and provided for a lot of fun. When we eventually got out of the snow, several kilometers of technical single trails were lying ahead of us were I took the lead as I felt strong and knew we could beat the 9 hrs if we kept pushing. After managing through another asthma attack, Graham had to dig a bit deeper to maintain the speed I set. My physique (1.95m – 98 kg) doesn’t make me a naturally gifted ultra runner, and especially not fast on the descents, but for some reason, I found a good flow and ran the best descent of my running career so far. It was because of Graham’s resilience and my excitement we were likely to beat the 9 hrs, that we finished in 8h52m. I knew Graham is not much of a hugger, but he happily disappeared in the hug I wrapped around him at the finish line. From the 167 teams that started, we ranked 97th. 126 teams in total did finish.
We both felt extremely satisfied to have finished the Monte Rosa Sky Marathon sub 9 hours. A relentless race throughout which our partnership proved strong and successful. The race was a brilliant icing on the cake of a few days mountaineering. I again felt very confident under Graham’s leadership guiding me to the summit of 5 *🇨🇭 4000m summits. I came out with more confidence, improved mountaineering skills and another great adventure under the belt.