My Madmen of the Ventoux Attempt: Or, An Introduction to Hypothermia

I first climbed the mighty Mont Ventoux in 1995, then again in 2000 and 2007. But “only” once a day each time. That seemed enough. And then, I heard about the Club des Cingles du Mont Ventoux. Cingles translates to: Crazy, mad, loony. 

Yep, that sounds about right. 

Why?

To become a Cingles, you have to climb the Ventoux three times in one day. From each of the base towns: Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. I call it the VentouX3.

According to the club’s website (at the time): “For someones, it was sheer utopianism, a kind of provocation on behalf of the organization: 4443 [meters] in difference in and 68 km of climb … What folly!”

Folly indeed, although I’m not quite sure how utopianism factors into the ride. The three ascents add up to 84-miles, exactly half uphill. The 4,443 meters (14,576 feet) is the equivalent of going up 2.8 miles, or climbing to the top of the Empire State Building 12 times. King Kong could only manage it once, and he was a king.

And yet, I had to try to do it. 

Which is why, on September 25, 2010, I was in Sainte Colombe, which is about five kilometers up from the start of the Bedoin route. It was dawn, and I rode down, into Bedoin, to officially begin my Cingles attempt. And get my passport stamped.

Passport?

For 20 Euros (back then), the club sends you a “passport” you must get stamped at a café or shop in each of the base towns, and in the gift shop on the summit. This proves you did it, although, I guess, you could cheat if you had a car. I wonder if anyone has?

The guy in the café didn’t say a word or look at me in awe as he stamped my passport. I guess a lot of Cingles riders stop by for a stamp since it was the only open café.

Rode back up the Bedoin route, past Sainte Colombe. You can see the summit from here, and it was shrouded in dark, ominous clouds. “Maybe they’re blow away by the time I get there,” I naively told myself. I was wearing bike shorts and a short-sleeve bike jersey, and had my yellow windbreaker stuffed into one of the back pockets on my jersey. This was all I’d needed the past few days, which included two practice ascents up the Ventoux. It had been warm, in the 70s and 80s, at the bottom and at the top.

Not so much today.

It got colder the higher I climbed. I stopped, and put on my windbreaker, and kept climbing. I was the only one on the mountain, as everyone else who was going to tackle the Ventoux just the one time had the luxury of sleeping in and waiting until it warmed up. Lucky bastards. My prescription sunglasses began to fog up, making it hard to see. I pushed them up, onto my forehead and squinted my way up the mountain. They kept sliding down, so I took them off and put them into another of the back pockets on my jersey.

Aside from being cold and not able to see very well, I felt good. My legs were strong and I was able to ride at a nice, steady pace, maybe six or seven miles an hour. I got to the 20-kilometer mark, emerging from the forest onto the moon-like summit, and the Chalet Reynard café.

I saw another rider coming up from below. We chatted. His name was Dieter, or maybe Dietrich, and he said he was going into the café for a drink and to warm up. He was also trying to become a Cingles. We wished each other luck.

“See you in Malaucene,” I said.

The wind was fiercer and colder now that I was out in the open, and I was quickly engulfed in thick, white clouds. It was an almost-total whiteout of fog, clouds and snow. Yep, snow! It was snowing on top of the Ventoux. In September. Snow.

My hands were getting colder and colder. I began to shiver and shake and enter into the teeth-chattering zone. I was two kilometers from the top, and the gusts of wind were coming at me more often and faster and faster. It was all I could do to stay upright on my bike. I could hear the gusts coming, from off in the distance, and braced myself as they smacked into me like a slap in the face.

This is the Simpson Memorial, from a different day … when it was sunny

Past the Tom Simpson memorial and, finally, to the summit. I was the only person up there. No push carts with candy and sausage. The gift shop was closed. My plan was to head down to Malaucene, then back to the summit, down to Sault and back up to the summit. This is the recommended route: Hardest to easiest, but any order will do to join the club.

“Forget Malaucene,” I told myself. “I’m going back down to Chalet Raynard, get some tea and try to warm up. If I can warm up, and the weather heats up, then down to Sault and I’ll do the Malaucene climb last.”

I pointed my bike down, toward Chalet Raynard, and started down. And immediately realized it was infinitely colder going down than it had been going up. So much colder. My hands and arms started shaking uncontrollably and, since my hands were connected to the handlebars, and the handlebars were connected to the stem, which was connected to the front wheel … the entire front of my bike was shaking. 

Toss in gusts of wind well in excess of 100 kilometers, and it felt like a crash was imminent. I tried to slow down, but my hands were too cold and numb to squeeze the brakes, and I sped down the mountain, a lot faster than I felt comfortable going. 

About halfway down, I saw Dieter on his way up.

“It’s too c-c-c-cold,” I shouted as I flew past him. Actually, shouted is an exaggeration. My face and lips were so numb that all I could generate was a weak mumble.

Finally made it down to Chalet Raynard. My fingers were so numb I couldn’t unsnap the clip on my helmet, and had to pull it off of my head. Which isn’t easy. And really hurts. Especially your ears. I was shaking uncontrollably as I stumbled into the café. It wasn’t officially open yet, and two waiters were unstacking chairs and setting them up around tables. One took pity on me and told me to sit down.

T-t-t-t-tea,” I stuttered.

He brought over a big, metal pot of hot water, a cup and a tea bag. My hands, which were bright red, were still so numb I couldn’t open the plastic wrap around the tea bag. Finally, I bit off an end with my chattering teeth. The waiter brought over a dishtowel, and he wrapped it around the metal pot.

“For your hands,” he said.

“M-m-m-merci,” I said.

I wrapped my hands around the pot, and couldn’t feel anything. “This p-p-pot has to be hot, there’s steam coming out the t-t-top,” I thought. And yes, I was so cold that even my thoughts stuttered. “I better be careful or I could b-b-burn my hands.”

I drank the entire pot of hot tea, and still couldn’t stop shivering. I couldn’t warm up. My core was frozen and I was deep into hypothermia, which can be quite dangerous, and even fatal in some extreme cases. You know, like my current situation! The feeling slowly began to return to my fingers, and hurt like hell. Finally, after a second pot of hot tea, I stopped shivering. It was time to get back on my bike.

To Sault?

Maybe, let’s see what it’s like out there.

I put on my helmet, and reached back, to the pocket in my bike jersey, to grab my prescription sunglasses. You know, so I could see. They weren’t there. No matter how many times I reached into each of the three pockets. They had somehow fallen out on the way up the mountain. They were gone. With no other option, off I went, down the mountain, and immediately started shivering and shaking. Forget Sault and this stupid Club des Cingles du Mont-Ventoux. Nobody told me it would be snowing up here. I’m going back to the hotel before I freeze to death.

I squinted my way down the Ventoux, somehow navigating all the twists and turns. It was warmer once I got below 1,000 meters and warmer still in Saint Colombe, about 70 degrees. It took a while, a 45-minute hot shower and a nap under three blankets, to warm up.

Fortunately, I still had a few days left in Saint Colombe, and would get another whack at the VentouX3.

The next day, I talked to a few other cyclists, all French, who had ridden to the summit of the Ventoux the day before. In the afternoon. Once. One guy told me he saw the wind knock over more than one rider near the top. Another guy told me he was so scared of the wind he had to walk his bike up the final kilometer. Someone else told me the wind was so fierce it knocked over several trees in the forest. “Very dangerous,” he said.

                                                            ***

Nineteen hundred meters up there, is completely different from 1,900 meters any place else. There’s no air, there’s no oxygen. There’s no vegetation, there’s no life, just rocks. Any other climb there’s vegetation, grass and trees. Not there on the Ventoux. It’s more like the moon than a mountain … Lance Armstrong

                                                                        ***

September 27 …

It was cold and windy, but not as horrible – or dangerous – as it was two days ago. Plus, I was wearing a lot more bike clothes: two pairs of socks; leggings over my bike shorts; a long-sleeved shirt over my bike jersey; yellow windbreaker; winter bike gloves. 

Off I went, at 7:40, heading down to Bedoin. And then up. And up. Again, I felt strong and set a nice, steady pace that I maintained all the way to Chalet Reynard. Stopped for some tea and pondered the next six kilometers to the top, knowing this was where the wind and cold were worse. How much worse? Too much and I’d be in trouble. Again.

Headed out of the café and … had to wait about 15 minutes while a Shepard walked his huge flock of sheep across the road. There were at least 200 or 300 sheep in the flock. And several dogs. Large, white dogs with spikey collars. 

Got to the summit at 10:40, and the summit sign was covered in ice. “This is n-n-not a good sign,” I said, not even realized this was a pun. “I m-m-may not b-b-be wearing enough c-c-clothes.” 

Headed down, to Malaucene, and started shivering and shaking. A little. Fortunately, the elements were a degree or two above the level that would have caused a reoccurrence of hypothermia. I was teetering on the edge, but it got warmer and warmer as I descended, and was about 70 in Malaucene. Stopped at a café, got my passport stamped and had another pot of tea. And some croissants.

The Malaucene route is marginally less difficult than the Bedoin route, which is considered the hardest of the three and the route they do in the Tour de France. Got to the top for the second time at 2:10 p.m., and it was still cold, but noticeably less cold than it had been a few hours ago. The gift shop was open, the food carts were set up and there were a lot of cyclists at the top, smiling, congratulating one another and posing for photos in front of the summit sign, which was no longer covered in ice. Got my passport stamped at the gift shop, bought two Powerades, drank one and ate the last two (of five) energy bars I’d been carrying.

“OK, two down and one more uphill to go, and it’s the so-called easy one,” I told myself as I started down to Sault. “I feel pretty good, pretty strong, I can do this.” I thought about stopping at Chalet Reynard for more tea, and some lunch, but was really enjoying the downhill and kept going, all the way to Sault. Got a stamp at a café in Sault and had more tea and not one, but two jambon (ham) sandwiches. Filled up my water bottles and off I went, the final 26 kilometers of climbing.

The Sault route is the longest, but starts off at the highest altitude, 790 meters. By comparison, the Bedoin route starts at 290 meters and the Malaucene route at 340 meters. And so, it was kind of easy. For the first 20 kilometers. And then, the Sault road merges with the Bedoin route road, just before you get to Chalet Reynard. And then come those dreaded, final six kilometers. You’re out in the open, exposed to the wind and cold. And, after all the miles and climbing, my legs were getting tired, really tired.

“You can do it,” I told myself. “There’s only four miles to go. Take your time and relax.”

And that’s what I did. I took it slow, turning beautiful circles with my pedals and got to the summit at 5:45 p.m. The gift shop was closed, the carts were gone and there were only a handful of other riders up top. After all the buildup, the hypothermia, the lost sunglasses and the miles of climbing, it was a bit anticlimactic to be there all alone, with nobody to celebrate with. Like Susan, who was at home, and would meet me in a few days in Paris. I didn’t even have anyone to take my photo in front of the summit sign. 

Then again, I had done it!

I’d really done it and was a Cingle (#3526). All I had to do was ride down the mountain. Safely. “Oh crap, wouldn’t it be horribly ironic if I crashed on the final descent and never mailed my stamped passport in and am never officially recognized as a member?” I asked myself. And then rode down the Ventoux very, very carefully. 

Here’s what I wrote in my journal later that evening: “I took a shower and discovered the annoyance on my ass was now more sizeable, and is a painful saddle sore … I really didn’t feel like going to a restaurant, so I decided to hustle into town [in my rental car] hoping the supermarket was still open. I made it by 15 minutes, got some wine, fruit, tomatoes, a can of tuna, bread and dessert: two pre-made tarte tartins that are really good. It’s this upside-down, caramelized apple tart that is one of my favorite desserts. I also got some sort of fruit smoothie in a plastic bottle and am drinking it, and eating some stick pretzels and a nut/raisin mix while I write this before dinner. Legs very tired. Back sore. But hurts. But feel good otherwise. Did it.”

I know, not much of a celebration. Especially for a Madman of the Ventoux.

***

Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.

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