Every mountaineering stage race needs its villain, and ours became the team from Piau Engaly.
We weren’t sure where Piau Engaly was (somewhere in the central Pyrénées near the border with Spain) or how to pronounce it (“pio angally”), but we took a dislike to them after one of their team members dropped his helmet on my head as we were crowding onto a bus that would take us under Mont Blanc, from Italy to France. The crack was louder than the hurt, but the kid didn’t even apologize.
Their cumulative time was near ours in the standings, too, which meant that we started stages in close proximity. They had an air about them, a little bit arrogant, a little too desperate for their placing in the middle of the pack. Most of the teams around us were friendly, pretty laid back. The Piau boys, in bumblebee yellow and black, were neither. And our next encounter with them was not so benign or forgivable.
We were in the final mile of a big run that had begun with a skin-sprint up the Grand Col of the Aiguille Rouge. A steady blizzard pricked our faces with wind-driven ice grains. But on the lee side of the pass, out of the wind, a powder cirque the size of Rhode Island unfolded beneath our ski tips.
Five nonstop miles and 6,500 vertical feet later, we were running neck-and-neck with the boys from Piau, everybody whipping the same turns on strips of muddy snow across ditches and ancient stone walls. Suddenly, one of the Frenchmen cut wildly across Paul Abare’s tips in a vain attempt at a shortcut. Only luck and Abare’s Vermont-race-coach athleticism prevented an ugly crash.
At the finish Abare confronted the culprit. “You ski more carefully!” he said wagging his finger as if to an errant junior racer. The boy mumbled, “Je m’excuse,” but Paul wasn't having any of it. “No!” he said. “You’re not excused!”
We got even on the longest, most punishing stage of the Raid. (A Parisian journalist who knew the route told me, “Tomorrow you will call for your muzzer, and you won’t even remember your name.”)
At first light we caught the old red téléphérique up the Brévent north of Chamonix. The route from there was by skin track up another 2,100 vertical feet to the Col d’Anterne followed by a 5,000-foot descent, across scrap heaps of frozen avalanche debris, to the hamlet of Sixt.
The morning climb approximated what I had imagined, and hoped, the Raid would be: a brilliant midwinter sun silhouetting Mont Blanc behind us, a ribbon trail through huge, naked snow forms, and the metronome rhythms of placing one foot in front of the other.
We passed the boys from Piau on the steep summit pitch. One of them was suffering pitiably. His climbing skins weren’t holding, and he slipped backward almost as much as he moved forward. His teammates didn’t help. Mostly they just yelled louder at him, as if the verbal lashing would somehow compel him up the final 400 feet.
We finished more than three hours after the start, 11 minutes ahead of the Piaus. The kid who had struggled on the climb now staggered up the last bit of road and pitched, red-faced, in a heap to the ground. He was gasping for air, his heart pumping like it wanted to jump out of his chest. The medics removed his skis and worked on him where he had fallen.
In Les Arcs for the final two days of competition, James Merel, our guide, seemed listless. He smoked even more of his nasty Turkish cigarettes. And he disappeared frequently to call his girlfriend, Brigitte.
But he knew the next stage route – a huge descent across the Glacier du Varet and down to the micro-ville of Villaroger – like he knew the flex of his well-worn Rossignols. This is where we would distance ourselves from Piau Engaly, he said. No problem.
Bodies were strewn everywhere on the glacier; wind had glazed the surface with a treacherous, striated crust. But James skied like a man who needed to get home. He cut sweeping giant slalom arcs, ignoring the dicey conditions underfoot. We smoked Piau Engaly by five minutes. And also passed a team from Guillestre in the overall standings.
On the final day’s run – a beautiful climb and ski through shafts of light and flour-fine powder on a peak called the Thrush’s Needle – we hardly noticed the Piaus. They would not challenge our middling but hard-earned 16th position. They looked plumb tuckered out.
At the start, time moved slowly. The winners, the Jean-Noël Augerts and Patrick Russells, were long gone. The sun was barely up, but the red wine had already begun to flow. Some teams sang or yodeled, fashioning beautiful harmonies, arms draped around shoulders. James hauled out his Turkish cigarettes and offered them around to L’équipe Américain Smugglers’ Notch. No problem.