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The Grande Course Piera Menta is mythical – for 32 years, it has been the heart and soul of ski-mountaineering. Four days in March in which teams of two dance over the ridges and peaks of the Beaufortain massif in the French Alps. The communion of 600 skiers and thousands of spectators. “It’s our Tour de France,” summarises Kilian Jornet.

Why has Strava come here searching for skimo? The taxi-driver who drives us to Arêches-Beaufort supplies the answer: “François D’Haene has moved to the village with his family. I follow him on Strava all the time,” he says. “He’s spent the season making segments on all the mountains in the area!”

D’Haene is the winner of last year’s Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, the legendary ultramarathon trail race, as well as the course record holder. Like him, many runners cross over to skiing in the winter, especially in the Alps. D’Haene uses skiing mainly as a preparation for his ultra-trail season, and La Pierra Menta is his only race number this winter – and the only ski-mountaineering race he has participated in for the last 10 years. It’s like a ritual: La Pierra Menta is the sport’s high mass.

François, Le Traileur

“What I love is being in the mountains, summer and winter. I’ve done both seasons for a long time now. Ski-mountaineering is the most intense effort, there is less respite. You have to stay focused on the transitions and the descents,”
- François D’Haene

“I post everything on Strava, so its easy to see what I do. I had a good winter, with 18.000 or 19.000m of elevation every week.”

“Skiing is part of my routine. In November and December I have a big break: I eat whatever I want, I drink wine, have beers with my friends. After that I go out almost every day, first doing a lot of cross-country skiing, then ski-mountaineering from February onwards.”
- François D’Haene

La Pierra Menta is a brutal challenge, totalling 10,000 metres of elevation. The four stages start and finish at Planay, a little above the village of Arèches, and the fastest finish in around three hours each morning.

Laetitia Roux: the expert

With almost 20 gold medals at the World Championships, and seven victories at La Pierra Menta, Roux is the grande dame of French ski-mountaineering.

“La Pierra Menta is the race you want to win in ski-mountaineering. It’s the best known, definitely the most difficult. But what motivates me to come back each year is the experience I have with my team-mates. And the atmosphere. You’re all together for four days, the atmosphere is unique, there’s a real energy. Most of the people who do La Pierra Menta are friends. It’s an adventure before it’s a race.”
- Laetitia Roux

Teamed with a Swedish skier, Emilie Forsberg, Laetitia Roux this year ceded the victory to the French-Italian duo of Axelle Mollaret and Katia Tomatis.

In ski-mountaineering seal-skins are indispensable on the uphills. In each stage skiers have to put on and remove them four or five times. The speed and skill of these transitions often make the difference.

Mathéo Jacquemoud: the guide

Twice a winner of La Pierra Menta (in 2013 and 2016), the Frenchman, who is a mountain guide, teamed up this year with his father, Daniel.

“When you do La Pierra Menta with someone, you’re linked. Pairing up is how things go in the mountains – there’s a team spirit. Traditionally, you don’t go into the mountains on your own, you share your experiences. You take care of your partner and you depend on him. It’s like he’s your double. You know how he’s doing by his breathing, or just a look. And your emotions are doubled, obviously, over the four days,”
- Mathéo Jacquemoud

“It’s a race for the real enthusiasts, and it’s a very technical race. There are a lot of transitions in it, and the quality of the snow varies. If you’re not a good skier, even if you’re a powerhouse, you’ll have a hard time on all the descents. It’ll be a struggle, and you won’t have the legs for the next uphill. La Pierra Menta is the most complete challenge in our sport.”
- Mathéo Jacquemoud

After the morning’s stages, the skiers have lunch together, and then wait their turn for a massage in the afternoon. Elites and amateurs stay in the same place, and live the same experience over the four days.

Célia Perillat Pessey: the first timer

“What’s cool is that everyone does the same race, which never happens in the World Cup. Here, the guys and the girls do the same course. I’m 20 and it’s my first Pierra Menta. My brother is ranked higher than me, but I’m ahead of my father!”
- Célia Perillat Pessey

The race is known for its popular appeal. Early each morning, hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators head for the peaks to cheer on the competitors.

“It’s so great to arrive at the top and have all this noise, the crowds really carry you along. It used to bring tears to my eyes, make it difficult to breathe. I had to prepare myself for those moments! There’s so much emotion you can really get carried away.”
- Laetitia Roux

“The spectators are crazy! It’s totally mad, and it gives you watts. If you’re hurting, you forget it straight away.”
- Célia Perillat Pessey

Kilian Jornet: the icon

Kilian Jornet is ski-mountaineering’s biggest star. This is his sport. And the Catalan never misses La Pierra Menta: he’s won it three times.

“This is our Tour de France,” he says. “It’s the heart of ski-mountaineering. When I started competing it was in ski-mountaineering, and La Pierra Menta was my dream.”
- Kilian Jornet

“There’s more of a sporting challenge in ski-mountaineering than in ultra-trail running. It’s more condensed and also more technical. La Pierra Menta is a family. There’s a really special atmosphere over the four days, between the racers and with the spectators. They’re real mountain people. It’s something you want to come back and re-live every year.”
- Kilian Jornet

Unfortunately, Kilian Jornet's race ends in the hospital. On the brink of victory, with his team-mate, the Austrian Jakob Herrmann, the Catalan fell on a descent in the last stage, fracturing his fibula. Victory went to the Italian pair of Michele Boscacci and Robert Antonioli.