Blending Running and Mountaineering at an Andorran Ultra

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The sun crested the ridge illuminating the face of Estanyó, the day’s second 2,900-meter peak. I cursed myself loudly, incensed that I’d taken my crampons from my pack. I had gambled, 25 kilometers into the world’s most technical trail race, and now lost my bet. My consequence for a misstep was immediate, as I slipped and began sliding down an ice-covered rockfield.

The inaugural Els 2900 Alpine Run had seemed the perfect venue to test my skill at moving fast and light in technical terrain. It’s an alpine run traversing Andorra, a small European principality in the Pyrenees Mountains. The event starts at a mountain hut on the border of Spain’s Cataluña region and charts a circumnavigation of the state, finishing 70 kilometers away at another hut in the heart of Andorra.

The Els 2900 race's midnight start at the Refugi Estanys de la Pera on the Spanish border.
Midnight start at the Refugi Estanys de la Pera on the Spanish border. Photo by Jordi Saragossa

The race begins at midnight so everyone can face the crux, Cresta del Forat dels Malhiverns, in daylight. Most adventurers attempt this ridge in full mountaineering fashion, harnessed and tied together for protection. During Els 2900, though, we had the opportunity to clip into fixed ropes that ran a kilometer along the near-vertical rock spine.

But before that, in the first hours of the race, we scrambled, climbing over large boulders, to Portelleta, the first peak over 2,900 meters. After summiting, we careened through a 15-kilometer descent on steep slopes leading to cow pastures and the sleeping town of Canillo. I collected my harness at the first aid station at 4 a.m. and removed my crampons to lighten my load by a pound. I’d need the harness for the fixed lines, 40 kilometers away.

Matthieu Lefort and Carles Rossell, Andorran mountain men, founded Els 2900 after years adventuring on myriad mountains near their home. Their creation climbs 6,700 meters (22,000 feet) over Andorra’s seven highest peaks. Much of the route is off trail, involving navigation through loose scree and fields of wildflowers and alpine grasses, and slogging up couloirs that rear dauntingly overhead. Ascents are often equal parts pulling on rock and pushing hands-on-knees. The ruggedness was exaggerated by minimal support, only three aid stations. We moved in autonomous style. My pack contained supplies for enduring 100 miles in just about any other setting.

Navigating along the Cresta dels Malhiverns ridge during the Els 2900.
Navigating along the Cresta dels Malhiverns ridge. Photo by Jordi Saragossa

Lefort and Rossell had envisioned standing atop all the great peaks of Andorra in a single push. No one had before so, in 2013, the two set an Only Known Time for the route. The duo realized it could become an ultra of epic proportions.

“It’s not running nor mountaineering. It’s alpine running,” says Lefort. “We wanted to return to the roots of skyrunning–traversing through the alpine along the most aesthetic, difficult line, from hut to hut.”

Andorra is known for its mountain culture. The density of peaks and valleys has built mountain tourism into the principality’s largest industry. Andorra is also home to world-class trail and ultrarunning events such as Ronda dels Cims, Ultra Mític and the Comapedrosa Skyrace.

Skyrunning began in the early 1990s in the Alps with a style pitting runners against the most difficult and steepest routes. The sport’s popularity has boomed over the past decade, with national associations in over 40 countries. Recent growth has led to a broad offering of distances and difficulties, including technically tamer courses accommodating mass participation.

Els 2900 is a return to the skyrunning of Marino Giacometti, Bruno Brunod and other Italian mountaineers who pushed the bounds of running on the Alps’ iconic peaks.

In late 2014, “registration” for Els 2900 opened. The process included submitting an extensive resume of experience in climbing, scrambling, via ferratas and trail running, and a short essay on one’s motivation for connecting with the mountains. Lefort and Rossell spent hundreds of hours reviewing applications.

I’ve come to ultrarunning from climbing and mountaineering. The ultras I’ve been successful in, including podium finishes, are on rocky, rooty and steep terrain in the backcountry. Naturally, the style of Els 2900 resonated within me.

I submitted my request, hoping for full immersion in the sport’s founding principles. Upon hearing of my selection,  however, I became intimidated by the event’s jagged profile. Lefort told me I was chosen, in part, from his review of my adventures shared through social media and the outcomes of self-supported alpine projects in my home mountains of the Canadian Rockies.

Looking into Spain from the eighth 2,900-meter peak during the Els 2900 race.
Looking into Spain from the eighth 2,900-meter peak. Photo by Jordi Saragossa

In late October 2015, 36 athletes traveled from across Europe. I was the sole representative of Canada, North America and, well, the world outside of Europe. I knew I’d find equals in ability and passion; yet, I was surprised by what I saw when we arrived. We looked like brothers and sisters, sporting bodies built on the edge, in the blending of running and mountaineering: broad backs and strong shoulders; musculature developed, from climbing, to an extent not found in a “runner’s” body; and complexions weathered by thin air and sun. Most of the men had beards and wooly hair like me.

The oddest part of recognizing our shared embodiment was knowing we’d been brought together not because we looked or moved alike but because we also shared an ethos, thanks to Lefort and Rossell’s intensive vetting process. Our outlook brought us together and our bodies spoke the same language–steep trails and tall peaks opened through self-reliance and specialized skill sets.

Runners study the course's topography before the start. Photo by Jordi Saragossa
Runners study the course’s topography before the start. Photo by Jordi Saragossa

On Halloween evening, we readied. When 12 struck, we strode toward Portelleta. The air was still and warm. The night was quiet. The only light was the string of headlamps snaking into the sky. The ground underfoot was soft in between sharp rocks. Above 2,500 meters, dirt trail became painted squares tracing a line through increasingly steep, large boulders.

Sunrise arrived as I reached Estanyó’s summit ridge. Two days earlier with Lefort, I’d been out helping to mark the course between Estanyó and Serrera. There was shin-deep snow. We assumed the predicted warmer temps would melt the snow by race day. Well, the snow had melted. However, arriving at daybreak meant the shade-bound cliffs were encased in ice. My rubber soles provided no purchase or consolation. I fell down Estanyó’s face.

My jacket, gloves, socks and tights ripped apart as I cascaded through the rocks to the col below. The rock also ripped apart the most crucial gear–my diabetic equipment—tossing it down the mountain, and damaged my ankle, sprained only two months prior. Things fell apart slowly. Running slowed to a hike, a trudge and, finally, a seated slump. The course offered no respite. I chose to drop out at the third aid station, at 55 kilometers. Some days, the best you can do to remain free in the hills is finding the humility to step away.

Twenty-two starters completed the traverse. Jokin Lizeaga of Spain’s Basque Country was the first to finish, after nearly 15 hours. For comparison, most “difficult” 50-mile (80-kilometer) ultras in North America are won in eight hours or less, a little over half the time it took Lizeaga to complete the 70-kilometer Els 2900.

Sonia Regueiro Rodriguez, also of Basque Country, was the only female finisher. “Matthieu [Lefort] didn’t speak of difficulty, but of the mountains’ beauty,” says Rodriguez. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the countless obstacles in our path strengthened our soul. This is what I came for.”

The Andorran peaks share an extreme style of running with the world. Els 2900’s novel approach brings an invigoration of imagination to the sport. I left with unfinished business but unparalleled inspiration for exploring the world in new ways. Come October, I will be back, ready and stoked for more.

This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.

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