• Your Mountain Brand
  • 30 days for free returns
  • #SPEEDUP

RACE | 12.23.2018 | Benedikt Böhm

The Mezzalama Trophy - the Holy Grail of ski mountaineering

The Trofeo Mezzalama is the world’s highest alpine ski mountaineering race, and not to mention one of the toughest races in the sport. Making it to the finish line of the course through the Italian Monte Rosa massif requires focused training and a significant tolerance for suffering on race day. Benedikt Böhm has stepped up to the challenge on several occasions and reveals just what it takes to be successful.

The ultimate. Legendary. Insane. Pushing you to your the limits. These are the buzz words that ski mountaineers use to explain the Mezzalama Trophy. The Patroille des Glaciers is one of the best-known competitions in ski mountaineering. Members of the general public have even heard of it, thanks to Pippa Middleton who completed the race in 2016. In contrast, the Mezzalama Trophy is simply known as one of the toughest, most challenging races in the sport. Unlike the PDG, competitors need to be more than just in peak condition -- they need a considerable amount of alpine experience and the ability to think and act for themselves. I’m an experienced speed-mountaineer and, even for me, the Mezzalama Trophy is anything but a walk in the park. It represents a significant challenge and requires both physical fitness and mental discipline. Twice, in 2011 and 2017 I was able to successfully complete the race. In doing so, I learned one thing: The Mezzalama is only for serious, hardcore athletes. If you’re going to take part in the race, you might even get called "crazy". At the end of the day, it’s worthwhile, because there’s no other race that brings together all the things that ski mountaineers dream of -- and that also teach them to maintain respect for the mountains -- in a such a massively impressive way. The level is incredibly high. But the fun factor is incredibly high, too.

The PDG perfectly masters the balancing act between adventure and safety. In the Mezzalama, adventure definitely wins out.

Statistics show that the Mezzalama Trophy is no "walk in the park" race. The event takes place every two years in the Monte Rosa massif: in the shadow of the Breithorn, the “Klein Matterhorn” and the famous twin summits Castor and Pollux. The classic route runs from Breuil-Cervinia to Gressoney-La-Trinité. Throughout the course of 45 kilometers (28 miles), there are 2,862 vertical meters of climbing (9,390 feet) and 3,145 meters (10,318 feet) of descent. Several points on the course reach above 4,000 meters in altitude (13,000 feet), including the ridge of the Castor summit, which is exposed and in some places only 12 inches wide! The passes that have to be negotiated are pretty serious and demand maximum concentration from the 900 participants who race in teams of three. In icy conditions, the Il Naso di Lyskamm can quickly turn into a critical passage with a high risk of falling. Technical sections over ice-covered steep steps, and knife-edge ridges are far from all that the Mezzalama has to offer. The course is rounded off by an apparently endless descent through countless moguls, ending up with an occasionally extremely slushy section for a grand finale.

Individual responsibility is important at the Mezzalama

Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that the event organizers (led by Adriano Favre) use strict criteria in the selection of the competitors. The Mezzalama is not just another event; it demands significant individual responsibility on the part of the athletes. The selection process and strict time limits guarantee that only ski mountaineers with the necessary skills and technical ability will be at the starting line. One thing must be made clear: The Mezzalama is -- in parts -- a pretty serious affair. The danger of a person falling and taking the whole team down with them is a risk that the participants are willing to take.

The caliber of the competitors becomes clear when you glance at the finishing times. Your average ski tourers would generally take three days to cover the distance, while the top teams in the Mezzalama Trophy finish in less than four and a half hours. If that sounds like hard work, it is! But at the same time, there’s no better feeling than pushing yourself to your limits through such a grandiose landscape until you stagger exhausted but euphorically across the finish line. It’s a moment of relief and satisfaction that is difficult to put into words. With focused, regular training, every ambitious ski mountaineer is capable of completing the Mezzalama.

The special charm of the Mezzalama comes from the technical challenge combined with the spectacular scenery

One unpredictable factor that can make the Mezzalama even more challenging is the weather. I can still remember my first Mezzalama in 2011, it was an experience that stays with me still. It was indescribably cold. We stood shivering, waiting in line at one of the icy ridges. Above our heads, helicopters circled, dropping off warming shelters in which exhausted and hypothermic racers could take refuge from the cold. That was the moment when it became clear to me that the Mezzalama Trophy is a really exciting race, which demands that you be in perfect physical shape. But, know that that by itself isn't enough to guarantee that you will get to the finish line. In addition to your physical state, you need to have the right strategy, a strong team and the right equipment. If you ask me, these are eight points that I believe are crucial for a successful Trofeo Mezzalama race:

1. Staying warm is priority #1

The Mezzalama course crosses above 13,000 feet several times, and at that elevation the temperatures are really cold, even in good conditions. As soon as you notice that you are getting really cold, you should stop and add a layer. The basic rule is simple: You are climbing higher, and therefore the cold is going to get colder. At some point you are going to have to stop and put on something warm so it’s better to do it as soon as you feel cold. This means you don’t tap into your reserves, and your energy is maintained. We were able to overtake other much stronger competitors close to the end of the race because they were freezing cold and had used up much more energy. In summary, maintaining your body temperature sustains your performance. It’s especially important not to arrive at the technical transitions chilled to the bone. If your fingers are frozen, you’re going to have a hard time attaching crampons or putting on your skins.

 

My product recommendation: I really like the DYNAFIT Borax PrimaLoft Mitts. These mitts are warm, but if you want to get a little cooler, or you need more manual dexterity, it’s easy to slide your fingers through an opening in the palm - meaning, it's not necessary to take off the gloves, which rules out the risk of losing them.

2. Don’t cut corners when it comes to saving weight

Obviously, it’s essential to carry as little weight as possible in a race like the Mezzalama. The lighter you are, the less energy you need and the faster you go. But, be smart in where you save weight, you don't want to forego bringing necessary items with you. Make sure you always have a light but warm insulated jacket as an additional layer in your pack. It’s not uncommon on the Mezzalama for small logjams to form before moving along critical passages. If this happens, you simply have to deal with the cold until you can get going again. At times like this, you should pull on an extra layer to prevent your core temperature from dropping. Starting the race without additional warm clothing in order to save a few grams is the wrong decision.

 

My product recommendation: the Radical Down Hooded Jacket. It weighs a mere 422 grams but is very warm. The shell material shrugs off snow and the stretch panels give you an unrestricted freedom of movement. It’s simply perfect for the really cold sections of a ski tour.

3. Go slow to go fast

It’s really important for a long race like the Mezzalama to find the right strategy and mentally divide up the course into sections. I’m always amazed that some competitors take off from the starting line as if they were in a 100-meter sprint, rather than a race that is going to last several hours.

In my experience, you definitely shouldn’t start out too quickly. It’s better to set a pace that you can maintain over the entire course. This almost always pays off if you're able to maintain a steady pace during the race. The same pace throughout the race will almost always help you improve your overall race position and pick off the competitors who started out too quickly and are now fading.

4. Don’t forget food and drink

Your body can only reach peak performance if it has adequate energy reserves. Even if you don’t feel hungry or thirsty, it’s extremely important to keep refueling to maintain energy levels. Ideally, you should drink slowly, in small amounts, and eat either gels or energy bars every 45 minutes. If you get to a point where you are really hungry, or your blood sugar level is too low, it’s already too late. So, make sure you eat and drink regularly throughout the entire race! The best thing is to frequently slurp energy gels -- you can do this quickly, and they are easily digested. Keep the gels next to your skin so they stay warm. Trying to eat an energy bar when it’s really cold and your face is frozen can be a real challenge. Insulated water bottles should be attached to your pack in a way that allows easy access. if you use a hydration bladder, it will need to be carried next to your skin to prevent it from freezing --- the Mezzalama is a really cold race.

 

My product recommendation: A Race Thermo Bottle stowed in the insulated Alpine Bottle Holder means that you always have water or an electrolyte sports drinks that is easily accessible.

5. Acclimatization makes altitude more bearable

The Mezzalama is a high alpine race, and it is strongly recommended that you acclimate yourself appropriately before the race starts. The Breithorn mountain offers the perfect opportunity for a tour, as well as a night of sleep at altitude. If you have the time, I'd also recommend making the trip to the summit of Castor. The summit gives you the chance to become familiar with the technical critical ascent sections, which will give you an advantage later in the race. The view is also amazing from the summit of the Valais Alps and the surrounding mountains such as Pollux, Liskamm and Felikjoch.

6. Practice your technical transitions and stow your gear systematically

The Mezzalama has a little bit of everything: running with skis on your back, ascending and descending on skis, taking your skins off and on, crossing exposed ridges while using crampons and fixed lines. You have to practice all of these different technical transitions, as every move must be perfectly organized so you don't waste valuable time. Every piece of gear has to have a dedicated place in your backpack, and you have to pack with a system in mind. It is incredibly irritating if your crampons are bouncing around somewhere, or if your skis are not secured properly on your pack when you start running. This is where precision, concentration and a systematic approach are needed. Each team member will have his or her own system, but it’s essential to practice stowing and deploying gear until it is second nature. It’s the only way for a team to move efficiently and without unnecessary stress.

 

My product recommendation: The Speed 20 Backpack is the perfect companion for ambitious tours or longer races. It has a capacity of 20 liters: enough room for all the gear you need for a ski tour, yet it weighs in at a mere 360 grams. The Speed 20 has plenty of intelligent features. A separate compartment for safety equipment, a removable ski attachment system, attachment points for a helmet an ice ax, and a separate crampon pocket keep everything perfectly in place while allowing easy access without needing to set down the pack. The Speed 20 Pack is a genuine masterpiece for ski touring and skimo racing.

7. It takes a team to win

The Mezzalama is a team effort. You struggle and suffer together as a team of three -- and you celebrate at the finish line as a team of three, too. In some cases, you get the feeling that teams are not acting as teams. They’re not racing together, but as individuals, trying to outdo each other. Sure, you always push each other in a team -- that’s part of what makes a team competition so special. But each team member has to be clear on the fact that the team is only as strong as its weakest link. It comes down to the team to set a pace that the seemingly slowest member can maintain, and it comes down to everyone helping one another out. Each member plays his or her part in a successful outcome. One person may not be as physically strong as the other, but they may have the motivating words within them to keep the team going.

In 2017 I was lucky enough to participate in the Mezzalama with my longtime friends Javi and Arnaud. We were all on the same wavelength and complemented one another perfectly. If you get to the top of an ascent or to the bottom of a descent faster than the others on your team, you help your teammates with a technical transition, by assisting them with ski skins or crampons, or by getting an energy gel or a drink ready for them. Being part of a team like that makes what could otherwise be a hard grind more fun and contributes to each athlete being faster -- and the team as a whole. Teamwork is what this race is all about!

8. Descending while roped together is a skill you need to learn

Descending while roped together, in extremely difficult terrain is the supreme discipline in a team competition such as the Mezzalama. You need maximum concentration and coordination to successfully manage this kind of three-way relationship. You definitely need to practice in advance how you descend together, and you need to decide who will lead. Ideally, you should agree on hand signals, so each team member knows where the team is going and when it will be stopping. If the skier in front wants to go right and the skier at the back wants to go left while skiing at 35-40 mph, it is not going to end well, which is something we discovered in 2017. 80 kilos (50 pounds) headed in one direction, 80 kilos in another, and it tore us in every possible direction in the air. When something like that happens, it can take some time before you can untangle yourself from the rope….

Benedikt Böhm participated in the Mezzalama Trpohy in 2011 and 2017.

In 2017, together with Arnaud Anguera Bigas and Javier Martin de Villa, they finished 26th out of 300 teams. Their team of three took 6 hours and 23 Minutes to complete the course. The winning team in 2017 led by DYNAFIT athlete Damiano Lenzi completed the Mezzalama in an unbelievable 04 hours and 18 minutes, which set a new course record.

 

The next Mezzalama Trophy takes place on April 27th, 2019. Once again, DYNAFIT is the main sponsor of the race. In addition to numerous athletes, the six winners of the “Mountopia Mezzalama” (in two teams of three) will also be at the starting line.