YAK AT­TACK!

ROO FOWLER HEADS TO THE HI­MALAYAS TO TACKLE THE 1,000M + CLIMBS OF THE WORLD'S HIGH­EST STAGE RACE

Mountain Biking UK - - SPOILED FOR CHOICE - Words and Pics Ru­pert Fowler

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

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