Raiding and the Patrouille des Glaciers

From last Wednesday to Sunday, the Swiss canton Wallis was host to the biannual Alpine competition Patrouille des Glaciers. This is pretty much one of the biggest races in Ski-Touring, an otherwise not very widely-known sport combining running, mountain climbing and skiing.

One of the checkpointsI have a certain fondness for this race, not least because two years ago my annual tour of duty in the Swiss military had my unit participate in building and managing the communication network used both for the race organization and participant safety. To set the backdrop of the race, a couple of numbers:

The competition, originally a military event which was meant to verify the fitness of our mountain troops during and after WW2, has been relaunched in 1983 and is open to civilian and military teams. There are actually two routes available, the “grande Patrouille” or long route, which goes from Zermatt to Verbier, and the “petite Patrouille” or short route, going from Arolla to Verbier (Arolla being one of the checkpoints for the long route).

A couple of figures to give the scale of the race:

  • The short route is 26km long but spans altitude changes of +1881m / – 2361m for a flat distance equivalent of 53km
  • The long route is 53km long and spans altitude changes of +3994m / -4120m for a flat distance equivalent of 110km
  • The winners for the short route close the distance in about 3h of time, whereas in order to participate the teams should be able to run the distance in 8h30
  • The male record for the long route stands at 6h 18 minutes since 2006 whereas the female record was broken this year and stands now at 7h53mins.
  • There were 1412 teams of 3 registered this year, for 4236 participants. 1818 ran the long route, 2418 ran the short route
  • Each team must cross the finish line with a distance below 100 meters between the first and the third member of the team.

Teams scattered through the mountainsWhat’s interesting with this event is that you have about 100 pro teams competing, the rest is comprised entirely of amateurs. The oldest participant I’ve heard of this year is 66 years old. The race is split across two nights, with teams starting in smaller groups at different times of the night. The long route starts in Zermatt at 10 pm, with additional starts given every hour until 3am. The short route starts in Arolla at 4am and has additional starts every 30 minutes until 6.30am.

In 2006, my own military unit, 200 people strong, was scattered all over the canton, with 6 manned and 7 unmanned stations to oversee during the whole event. We had 40 metric tonnes of equipment, which spanned a surface of half a football / soccer (depending on where you come from) field. Although military-grade equipment is particularly robust, we nonetheless had to arrange the exchange of key equipment pieces about every 1.5 days due to extreme temperature conditions (our highest relay was having some nice warm -30° C at some point). That wasn’t too bad though, as we were collaborating with one of the local civilian telcos who plugged into our network to provide GSM coverage for the participants. Contrary to us, their electricity generators were more sensitive to cold, and they had to worry about having a special and customized fuel mix available so that their own kit would continue to run in both extreme temperature and altitude conditions (ask any standard manufacturer of electronic devices, including computers, and you’ll find that their normal operating conditions are limited to 3000m in altitude, not to speak about temperatures of course. Good luck having LCD displays working in sub-zero temperatures).

The Matterhorn, from ZermattAll in all, our activity was taxing but very rewarding – contrary to what often happens during our annual tour of duty, we all worked in the certainty that our contribution wasn’t a waste of time (something which isn’t always as certain, which is a bit the curse of militia army systems). But enough of my military recollections, if you want interesting, funny and well-written accounts, BRK among others has much more interesting stories to tell than me.

What does this all have to do with raiding? Well, there are actually a couple of parallels between the Patrouille des Glaciers and raiding. First of, there’s only a small amount of teams which have a shot at winning the race – for the long route, the average amateur team takes about 10-11 hours from start to finish (up to 18ish for the last to cross the finish line) compared to the 6h and 18 minutes for the male record, a gap not unlike the difference between the guilds competing for world and server firsts, and all the other. The rest of the people race first and foremost for themselves, to overcome a challenge they have set to themselves.

From speaking to teams racing both in the short and the long route, the most common trait is that no matter their final standings, every single participant I’ve ever talked to (and I have both work colleagues and business partners racing) will always acknowledge the efforts made by everyone else. You would be extremely hard-pressed, for instance, to find someone racing on the long route to sneer at the teams running the short route. Or at those who, for whatever reasons, had to drop out. You’ll never find a team talking down the accomplishments of teams who started later in the night than them (it’s obviously a completely different matter to run through the night or through mostly daylight), or earlier when the snow conditions are better.

One of the checkpointsAll the participants respect each others, because what counts for them is overcoming the challenge the mountain and the weather conditions present them with. Similarly you wont find any of the amateurs accusing the pro teams of cheating, doping or similar things, nor would you find a pro team talking down the amateurs because they run the route in twice or even thrice as long as they do.

Contrast that with raiding, in particular the competitive aspect of it. The tone, the mentality is, unfortunately, entirely different. Look at what happened recently on the Eredar Twins: When Nihilum announced their world first, the reaction of other guilds, including some of the future US-first holders, was a complete disgrace. From accusations of cheating to ugly US / EU stereotypes, non-stop play and other nasty things, to Nihilum’s own reply in kind, you’d be hard-pressed to find solidarity or respect as the dominant trait (though SK Gaming, who got the world second, was in fact extremely gracious about it, setting an example of a different attitude), many congratulation posts were also complemented with a couple of cheap shots.

This isn’t reserved to the World First race either – the vocal fringe of hardcore raiders often and routinely talk down and dismiss anyone else’s accomplishments in the game if they are even 15 minutes behind them, and God help them if they actually PvP or take advantage of badge loot or removed attunements to clear instances.

I’m mentioning raiding here but the same can be said, to a point, to arena play (and the delusion of turning it into an e-sport). There’s just something completely different in terms of spirit between the people who go out in the cold and harsh weather and accomplish a big physical effort, and us computer warriors pretending that our button-pressing skills are something particularly remarkable in the grand scheme of things.

That’s where much of the cultural disconnect happens between me and the more vocal fringe of the hardcore raiders. I value progress for itself, regardless of when it happens in the broader context of wowjutsu ranking. The important part, for me, is beating content or overcoming a ranking objective with online friends, and seeing content many won’t have access to (including myself for that matter). You do it for yourself first and foremost.

I believe the hardcore playing scene in WoW would greatly benefit from having a bit more sense of sportsmanship and fair play. That obviously ties into valuing other people’s honest efforts more rather than separating the world into elite and scrubs (where the cut is always made so that one is elite and those below scrubs, no matter where one stands).

One can always dream, of course.

All pictures courtesy of Patrouille des Glaciers copyright

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