ROO FOWLER HEADS TO THE HIMALAYAS TO TACKLE THE 1,000M + CLIMBS OF THE WORLD'S HIGHEST STAGE RACE
As if stage races aren’t punishing enough, this one traverses the Himalayas. Brutal! –
SOME NINE YEARS ago I was flicking through the pages of MBUK when I stumbled across some amazing images of incredibly high snowy peaks set beneath impossibly dark blue skies. The words ‘Yak Attack!’ stared out at me from the page. It all looked and sounded so exotic, it drew me in, and I began to read. That feature planted a seed in my head. It sounded like the ultimate adventure – a multi-day stage race through the highest mountains in the world.
After bugging me for nearly a decade, the seed finally sprouted. Months of preparation and two days of travelling later, I’m astride my bike in Besisahar, deep in Nepal and around 850m above sea level, nervously awaiting the start of the race. Today’s stage is just a warm-up – 33km and 1,200m of climbing, with one main up and one main down – and while I can see snowy peaks, they seem far away. For now, the scenery is mainly rice terraces. It’s an unremarkable start – that is, until we drop off an open ridgeline, not dissimilar to something you’d find in the Lake District, and find ourselves teetering along rocky ledges with water pouring over us and vines hanging around – instant rainforest! Further down, as we slide round tight hairpins on greasy singletrack, there’s a clearing where a stunning 100ft waterfall cascades into a deep green pool. No big deal here, just part of the scenery!
The next day we start the race proper. It’s a monster of a stage, with over 70km to ride and nearly 3,000m of elevation to be gained. Two phrases coined by the race organisers at the previous night’s briefing come back to haunt us today – “updulating” and “Nepali flat”. “Updulating” terrain includes some downhill gradients but heads inexorably upwards, while “Nepali flat” describes the way mere hills seem to get overlooked out here, when the highest mountains on Earth are lurking in the background. The bumpy 4x4 track we’re following is relentless. Every now and then the road is paved with cobbles, which try to stall us with each pedal stroke and bounce us around on our saddles. The track continues for longer than you’d think possible – just more endless uphill. I run out of water and am thankful that I packed purification tablets as I fill up my bottles from a dubious-looking waterfall. Exhaustion sets in and my mind starts wandering. I stare at my shadow as the sun beats down on my back – is it suffering as much as I am right now? Hearing a horn, I look over my shoulder to see a dog about to overtake me. Odd. He trots past, happy as Larry to be out wandering in the hills, and
keeps me company for the next 20 minutes until I lose him on a descent. Near the end, when practically every gram of motivation and excitement about riding bikes has left my body, I round a corner to see a line of snowy peaks, some 4,000m above me, with the sun radiating beams of light from behind the ridge. The sight sends shivers down my spine and the past seven hours of effort suddenly make sense. It's cold when I finish. I seek out my bag, collect my room key and find the dark, dank shower and start fantasising that there’s some warmth in the water. I can’t believe how exhausted I feel, with over a week of racing still to go. Routine sets in – finish the stage, cold shower, pile on as many warm clothes as possible, eat, drink, eat, go to bed. Wake up and pack bags, eat, try to stay warm until the start, ride all day, repeat. Each day we gain more and more altitude, while temperatures
drop away. By the end of day four we’re at 4,540m, we’ve all been sleeping badly and some, myself included, have been up all night visiting the toilet. It seems eternally cold. Meanwhile, the top guys appear to be suffering little from the altitude.
The Thorong La base camp lodge is our accommodation for the night. It sits at the head of a valley surrounded by rocky peaks and is the last stop before crossing the Thorong La pass, which is the highest in the world, at 5,416m. But that’s for tomorrow. Right now, we’re digging into our daily dalbhat (lentil soup and rice) in one room, while the next is full of French hippies singing away to bongo drums and the occupants of the last room are sitting in disbelief as the results of the US presidential election are announced. Surreal.
If last night was surreal, the first hours of the morning take things to a whole new level. As alarms ring out around the site, heavily-clothed figures emerge into the bitterly cold darkness. For safety, we need to make the summit before the fierce sub-zero winds pick up. Bags are dropped, breakfast appears at 3am and by 4am there’s a seemingly endless stream of lights zigzagging up the steep mountainside. The moon has set so it’s just starlight and torches guiding this bizarre pilgrimage of donkeys, porters, hikers and cyclists with bikes strapped to their backs. There’s no riding uphill today, not even for the pros. The path is steep, the air is thin and it’s a 1,000m hike-a-bike to the summit. I reach a left-hand hairpin and wobble to a stop, catching my breath. Dust is whipped up by the frigid wind and blows through the beam of my head torch. To my right, the mountainside falls away – maybe 40ft, maybe 400ft, maybe 4,000ft. My light can’t reach the bottom. A couple of donkeys stagger past. This is wild.
We’ve now hit upper Mustang, a region that was shut to tourists until 1992 and remains hard to reach. You
every few hundred metres the scenery changes, from barren desert, to frozen moorland springs, to volcanic-ash-like soil which falls away in mini avalanches
won’t find mobile reception here... Much of the race so far has been on 4x4 tracks and uphill, but today we’re rewarded with an incredible singletrack descent. Epic is the only word. Every few hundred metres the scenery seems to change, from barren desert, to frozen moorland springs, to volcanic-ash-like soil which falls away in mini avalanches as our wheels pass through. Then, around a corner, we weave between huge boulders forming a singletrack maze, where we can only see a few feet ahead. I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to step onto the surface of another planet, and now I know – the scenery in Upper Mustang really is that special. So special, it helps us gloss over the monstrous 1,000m+ climb out the other side. Days come and go. Some stages see certain riders struggling, then they come back strong the next. It’s looking like for the first time ever a non-Nepalese rider will take the win. Canadian Cory Wallace (Kona) is currently leading, with South Africa’s Thinus Redelinghuys (Jeep) a close second.
Every place we stop for the night is stunning in its own way, and each provides its own challenges, whether it’s water freezing up overnight or working out when there’s power. Days crossing 4,000m passes become normal, as does the feeling of looking up, seeing where we're going and deciding that it’s too demoralising to look again. Bikes break and get bodged but, miraculously, everyone is pulling through, albeit with serious fatigue. The short stage of day eight is cancelled the night before. At first some riders complain, but in the morning they agree rest is needed.
Finally, we’re on the home straight – but that straight is twisty, with over 1,000m of uphill yet again, and into a strong, gusty headwind. Rolling into the finish in Jomsom is anticlimactic. Hugs spread around, but it doesn’t feel like it’s over. After nine hard days of racing, we half expect to be getting back on the bikes tomorrow, but I’m glad we’re not. We’re exhausted from the effort, but also from seeing and experiencing so much. It feels like we’ve been away for months. I dream of burgers, pizzas and hot showers as I sit down for my last portion of dalbhat with all 38 members of my new extended family.
This page Day six, and the racers reach the Forbidden Kingdom via a truly epic descent Top right It's an indescribable feeling summiting the highest pass in the world at sunrise Bottom Porters, racers, hikers and donkeys alike make their way up the infamous Thorong La pass