Thursday, December 28, 2017

The sound of silence. Yak Attack 2017,

For the first time in a while I was riding alone and I was enjoying the solitude and the simple pleasure of spinning the pedals at a natural pace. I rolled to a halt, mesmerised by the same view that had stopped me in my tracks exactly a year earlier. The low sun cast shadows across layers of barren mountain summits. Nothing stirred. Nary a parched leaf rustling on a twisted shrub, nor the bellow of livestock could be heard on this windless day.
There are few places in the modern world where it's possible to hear nothing, nothing at all, the sound of silence. Nepal's sparsely populated Forbidden Kingdom - The Upper Mustang - a high altitude desert, is one of them, and it is intoxicating. I wanted to stand there forever and bathe in its glory. The electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating sound of absolute silence.
Alas I couldn't, I had work to do. I pushed on the pedals, the gentle crunch of rubber on dirt seemed almost deafening.

I hadn't really figured The Yak Attack in to my travel plans this year, a shoulder operation earlier in the Summer, a painful reminder of the 2013 edition, had kept me off the bike for the best part of three months - actually I had never imagined that I would take part, in one form or another, for six consecutive years, come to think of it. But here I was once more; at the behest of my friend, the Race Director, Phil Evans.
The Consultant Surgeon had signed me off a few days before I flew out, telling me that I could start to ramp up the riding; I omitted to mention that I was popping over to Nepal to take part in one of the worlds hardest mountain bike stage races.
I made the most of limited time in Kathmandu and managed to get out on a couple of social rides with friends. The first was an "Enduro" trip with my buddy Santosh Rai; a Jeep uplift to Nagarkot before railing long sections of forest singletrack. The second was the iconic "Helipad Trail" with my old friends Tyler McMahon (an American ex-pat and 5 x Yak Attack veteran) and Eric Coomer (back for number 2) plus a few of the now arriving racers.

Registration in Kathmandu

Generally speaking it is my job to give race briefings & presentations, field front line questions, and to act as sweeper during the race. Technically I don't fully race anymore; I usually sweep with the slowest riders and then race the last section of each stage from the final aid station, at which time, depending on the particular stage, the jeeps follow through after collecting the aid station volunteers.
So I kind of meander along with whomever is suffering on each stage before spinning off towards the finish line at my own pace; sounds easy right? Nine stages, 500kms of riding and 15000m of climbing on very unforgiving trails keep concentration, and exertion, at acute levels. And then there is the trifling matter of cresting 17 different passes over 3600m. I was quite thankful not to be flat-out racing given my distinct lack of preparation.
Unusually, for me at least, this was to be a fly-in/fly-out trip; a whirlwind of registrations, transfers, briefings, problem solving, and presentations, with a bit of cycling thrown in for the restoration of sanity.

Preparing to leave Kathmandu

Inge Iverson and Elias Sjostrom relaxing en route to Besi Saha
The first few days can feel a bit overwhelming, unparalleled amounts of tough climbing with minimal time for recovery make finishing the race seem almost impossible. Simple foods, basic accommodations, less than salubrious squat toilets, and the increasing effects of the debilitating altitude all combine together to demolish aspirations. As the stages roll on the routine becomes normal. Early morning bag drops, eat, wait, race, eat, eat some more, sleep. You adapt, occasionally grit your teeth, and dig in. Grit is the most important characteristic for finishing Yak Attack. I've been here before, I know the drill.
Most haven't. One of the most fascinating aspects of the race for me is observing those changing aspirations, seeing how the pack shuffles as the days get ticked off. Almost everyone comes to race; some rise from the back with growing confidence, some adopt survival tactics, others falter, most discover their grit.

Preparing for Stage One in Besi Sahar

Phil Evans and Hisayuki Sasaki on Stage One to Taal

Phil Evans

Acting the goat

Phil Evans and Neil Cottam at the Aid Station

The start line for Stage Two - Taal to Manang

Styling it for the camera on Stage Two

Assisting Elias with a puncture on Stage Two

Prayer wheels in Manang

This years surprise rider (there's always one) was a young fellow from the UK - Justin Atkinson - who came out of nowhere to finish eighth overall and third fastest international in the Open Male category (behind Cory Wallace (Canada) and Sonam Drukpa (Bhutan)). 

Lining up for Stage Three - Manang to Thorong Phedi

Hisayuki climbing to towards Yak Kharka on Stage Three

I love it

Another rider, John Da Costa from Australia, a man more accustomed to the mid-thirties of arid Darwin than the sub-zeros of Annapurna almost disintegrated at one point. and looked odds-on to drop out, but suffered, survived, and then finished with aplomb. I spent a couple of long days on the trail with John, encouraged him, gave him the benefit of my sage wisdom(sic), and swapped gloves him in on the brutal 5km hike-a-bike of Thorong La - the worlds highest navigable pass at 5416m. 5km; a mere 1 percent of the total distance that feels like 10 percent, it's the crux move of the whole race.

Suffering at High Camp (5000m) during Stage Four

Hiking towards Thorong La with John Da Costa

Finally I arrived at Thorong La (5416m) for my sixth time

Sharing a drink with John Da Costa (left) at Thorong La

Six times, still smiling :)
 I've said it before but I like to see, and help, people reset their limits, to achieve things they think they can't do. There are no limits beyond the ones in our minds, you have to learn to override those limits, it's just your brain freaking out because it's in unfamiliar territory. Once that limit has been crested the brain puts a new one in place, a little higher than before. If I can finish Yak Attack so can anyone else.
The 6km/1700m descent from Thorong La to the sacred town of Muktinath could be sat on an entirely different mountain. The misery is soon forgotten when gravity takes hold. Sweeping singletrack, loose, exposed, uncultivated, uncivilised, followed by steep and technical, then usurped again by rock and flow. Quite possibly one of the great natural trails on earth, the reward for the ungodly experience of a 5000m+ pass. I shared it with a young lad called Freddie Sellwood. Freddie epitomised entirely my ethos of the race - If your not there to win it then do it with style, enjoy the trail, get loose, pop some wheelies. Freddie came out to ride the whole thing as a once in a lifetime experience, and he rode it all with style. Why we even stopped for tea, at a teahouse no less, while we waited for the evil genius Phil Evans to catch up, such was our reverie.

Phil Evans, me, Freddie Sellwood at 5416m
As we entered the Upper Mustang I marvelled once again at the startling transition in geology. We climb the 4000m Gyu La out of Muktinath and the landscape mutates in an instant. Like a line drawn in the sand. Behind me sits the majesty of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, 8000m giants, and before my eyes lays the magical kingdom - the arid, barren, wind-carved, entrance to the Tibetan Plateau. High altitude desert at it's most breathtaking (in more ways than one), not to mention the 10km world class singletrack descent that plunges us down to a river gouged gorge. Two in two days, oh yeah.

John Da Costa climbing out of Muktinath. A line in the sand...

... John Da Costa, the other side of the line

Inge Iverson repairing a puncture on the descent to Chussang

Skidding into the Aid Station after an epic descent
We climb in earnest once more. Two days of purgatory on trails ankle deep with arenaceous floury dust that crept into every pore. On our way back we would holler and hoot as we raised magnificent rooster tails under wildly whizzing wheels; today we choked on it.
At Ghilling, a minuscule outpost of civilisation, I spent a quiet moment in deference to the heavens. Light pollution does not exist. I stood breathless, marvelling at the night sky before my ever widening eyes. Every single star in the universe bursting from space like crystal sabres, so many, and so bright, that I could barely discern individual constellations, and the Milky Way so vibrant, so complete, held me spellbound.

Neil with John Da Costa. Stage Five to Ghilling

Always smiling

Heavy traffic

Fuck Yeah!
The next day we are catapulted in to mystical Lo Manthang. Lo Manthang is a moment captured in time, a capsule of life that no longer exists in the developed world. Life at its most simple. Well, except for the espresso machine that serves tourists in the town bakery that is; delicious local apple pie fills the shelves and ravenous mountain bikers filled the seats and their bellies.
It is a unique and enchanting place. It is a town dominated by a simple, yet magnificent, walled palace, the ancient seat of the Kings of Lo, which in turn is dominated by a biblical landscape of sand and rock.
The Time-Trial was cancelled, a chesty cold was sweeping through the field, a day off to explore a place we might never visit again; welcome relief for most I think. The lack of a 20km Time-Trial would hardly impact the outcome of the race anyway, certainly not at the sharp end at this point; by now Cory Wallace had built a commanding lead.

Hisayuki, John Da Costa, and Neil. Stage Six to Lo Mantang

Lo Mantang

Lo Mantang

Indifferent local - Lo Mantang

I'm with him - Lo Mantang

The Coffee Shop in Lo Mantang

Rush Hour in Lo Mantang
The long climb out of Lo soon had us panting hard, the rest day having fooled us into forgetting we were still way above 3000m. For a mostly down hill stage the 2100m of climbing, and the odd traverse of a frozen waterfall here and there, were hard won. The 4250m  Chogo La was eventually subdued, the first of six passes to be defeated en-route to Chussang. The 21km of singletrack that led us up an over it considerably lessened the trauma, particularly the furious descent through rock and scree. Then of course came the previously mentioned rooster-raising riot down through that now magnificent arenaceous floury dust. The ideal opportunity to perfect ones drifting technique if ever there was one.

The climb to Chogo La begins

In the beginning the final stage seems like a long way away and when it finally arrives the first stage is a distant and blurry memory. It is a day to be savoured. A 50km mixture of jeep road, singletrack, and suspension bridges that draw to a conclusion in the warmer climes of Khalapani. A savage headwind had other ideas, one final sting in the tail just to remind us that we were still doing The Yak Attack. 25km further on lay our hotel in Tatopani, thankfully all of it was downhill. Yes, you read that right; 25km of rampageous downhill to be ridden at will. That is the way to finish a race.
Tatopani is a glorious place, green and tropical, that fully lives up to its name - Tatopani translates quite literally as "hot water" and that naturally occurring hot water is channelled into a series of pools. We took full advantage of the steaming hot goodness and soaked our aching muscles for an age. We may also have taken advantage of the adjacent well stocked bar. Cheers to next year.

Lining up for the last stage to Khalapani

Enjoying the hot springs in Tatopani

The whole group in Tatopani
 Packing for The Yak Attack can be one of the biggest challenges and takes some creative thinking. Clothing and kit needs to be adaptable, both for the warmth & humidity of lower altitudes and the pervasive cold of the high mountains. With a list reading like an Alpkit A to Z I was pretty well covered (except that I completely forgot to pack my Griffon Hoody and so had no lightweight mid-layer). 
Chilcoot Softshell Trousers and the amazing Faro Shorts, a full range of Kepler Merino Baselayers, Kepler Beanie & Draught Excluder, Gravitas Jacket & Parallax Pants, Phantac Down Jacket, Muon headtorch, Airlok drybags, and a Pipedream 200 sleeping bag - with a Sea-To-Summit liner for higher up. The indestructible Drydock 50, Medium Fuel Pod, Love Mud Blade & Swig Bottles, Love Mud Front Fender, and the extremely useful Love Mud Trace GPS Mount.
Next year I'll be replacing my tattered old softshell jacket with the spanky new Morphosis Jacket once it's been put through it paces this winter (I love it already).
The hardest race requires the toughest kit, all of it was faultless.

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