Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Yak Attack: The Essentials.

Yak Attack. What it's all about! (Image courtesy of Jeremy Dean)

With the experience of two Yak Attacks under my belt I thought that I would share some tips and advice with anyone who is registered, considering it, or just plain interested. It is all based upon my own meandering experience of the event and of my time spent in mountains, and at altitude, and in particular The Himalaya.

Initially I intended to discuss the problems and solutions to the limited kit allowance and how best to solve some of these issues without taking unnecessary risks; but with the announcement of an increase in the portered luggage allowance to 20kg, from 2014 onwards, some of these problems solved themselves.

There should now be no excuse for riders to take risks with kit choice.

Hike-a-bike!

It was something that concerned me during the 2013 event and I discussed it with Phil on the eve of the 2013 Thorong La stage. I felt that riders were going to attempt crossing the pass in completely inadequate kit. This is all well and good if the weather holds fair, however mountain weather is less accommodating than that and storms can blow in quickly and without warning. Unfortunately my concerns proved to partially prophetic because a number of riders suffered from being unprepared, with one case of frostbite and several cases of "snowblindness". This blindness at altitude is caused by exposure to high UV rays that are exaggerated by reflecting off the snow and causing serious damage to the eyes. With the cost of flights and entering the race being around the £3000 mark it makes no sense to me that anyone should come without investing in suitable kit too.
The main issue facing riders is the huge variation in conditions experienced during the race. You are packing both for the altitude & extreme cold in the higher stages as well as sub-tropical heat & humidity at the lower elevations.

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Bike choice is simply down to personal preference, or what you have available.
A Full Suspension bike will be more comfortable on the very rough trails but the trade off is the extra weight and the additional potential for more mechanical issues than with an Hardtail.
An Aluminium Hardtail will punish your rear end!
A Carbon Hardtail will be much more comfortable as it absorbs much of the chatter from the trail, it is also much lighter for carrying on the hike-a-bike sections. I have one built around a Carbon Kona Kula Watt frame with 120mm of front travel and 26" wheels.
It is perfectly do-able with 100mm of travel but 120mm is the better option in my opinion. Any more than 120mm will make some of the very long and very steep climbs a lot more difficult and, technically, the terrain doesn't require long travel forks.
I guess in an ideal world a super-light 120mm Full Suspension, Carbon, 29'er would be the perfect bike.
Like I said, it's all down to preference and availability.


My Yak Attack steed.


Tyres are important too. Make sure they can handle rough terrain, I have seen several riders with split or damaged tyres. Race weight tyres might be great for your local cross-country events but they won't last long on the Annapurna Circuit. A tyre with robust sidewall's will ensure you get to the finish line. It's just not worth the risk to save a little bit of weight.
I've used Maxxis ADvantage tyres and they have proved to be reliable.

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Luggage choice is fairly simple. A 70l kit bag will accommodate everything you need and when full holds around about 20kgs! Handy.
There are loads available depending on your price point, all of the major manufacturers have them in their ranges. I have one from Mountain Equipment in the UK, it is waterproof, and robust enough to handle whatever is thrown at it.

70L Wet and Dry Kit Bag from Mountain Equipment.

Kit choice for the early stages is easy enough. It's very hot and dusty.
I'll be using a high quality merino base layer t-shirt to help keep me cool, and I also have a Buff necktube to cover my face when it gets dusty; this is particularly bad when you have to pass the occasional vehicle along the way.
With stage 2 now being 86kms hydration and fuelling will be the important factors to plan for. It will be hot, anything from 25c to 36c is possible during Stages One to Three.

Carbohydrate/Electrolyte drink mixes, gels, and power bars will be essential and you should prepare for 5-10 hours (on stage 2) of riding depending on your speed and race objective. Torq Fitness, long time supporters of Yak Attack, do a superb range of performance products. Maybe throw in a few slices of Soreen Malt Loaf, Jelly Babies, Raisins, or Salted Peanuts too. All along the routes there are small villages and it is possible to buy water, soft drinks and snacks if you need them.
A recovery shake ready to drink at the end of each stage is really useful. Meals can take quite some time to arrive and you will be glad of the quick calories to help you recover while you wait. I like For Goodness Shakes but there are plenty to choose from.





I use an Osprey Talon 8 waist pack to carry a small first aid kit, spare parts, multi-tool, innertube, bars, gels, and snacks. It also accommodates 2 water bottles. The Camelbak Podium Big Chill (750mls) bottles are great for keeping your drinks chilled (or warm when crossing The Thorong La). I carry an additional bottle on the frame. This gives me enough fluid for around 3 - 4 hours of riding depending on the temperature/humidity. Many riders choose to carry an hydration bladder instead of bottles but I personally prefer a waist pack for comfort. Sunglasses are an essential bit of kit throughout the whole race.

Osprey Talon waist pack. My choice for most of the race.
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From Stage Four - Besi Sahar - onwards you will require some fairly specific kit.

Buy the best that you can afford.

The temperature starts to drop rapidly and the arrival in Chame will see riders pulling on base layers and down jackets frequently for the following four days.
My choice is a Rab Neutrino Endurance Jacket and their MeCo base layers.

Softshell jacket and pants are a necessity for keeping warm, and keeping the wind at bay. Depending on temperatures you could well be riding in these from Chame onwards. I use "Superstrider" pants from British company Rohan and a Rab Baltoro Alpine jacket, but there are plenty of good outdoor brands to choose from.

You may also find that you need to carry a pack on the bike too. Porters arrive with the bags long after the riders finish each stage, and you will need extra clothes to wear to keep warm.

It will also herald the use of a good quality sleeping bag too.
I use a Rab Neutrino Ascent 700 down filled bag. It warrants a good quality four season bag because the night time temperatures higher up plummet to as low as -15 Celsius, and there is no heating in the bedrooms.

Pedals: It is worth considering taking a set of flat pedals, along with your SPD's. The stages from Chame-Manang, Manang-Thorong Phedi, and Thorong Phedi-Kagbeni will almost certainly see mud and snow on the trails and flat pedals can make life easier and safer. It also means you will be able to wear hiking boots for the push/carry sections.


Rab Baltoro Alpine Softshell Jacket.


Thorong La 5416m. The Pass.

The dreaded "Pass day". DO NOT underestimate Thorong La. It is the crux of the entire race and has the potential to be a very dangerous place.

Altitude sickness, snow-blindness, frostbite, and dehydration, are very real hazards. Please ensure that you are familiar with the symptoms of Altitude Sickness. Look out for your fellow riders and support anyone who looks like they might be in trouble. Be prepared.

It will be cold, -15C is the norm. If it is windy you can expect a windchill factor of -30C or below.
Camelbaks will freeze up and you will be left without hydration for a long time. It is more sensible to carry a bottle of warm water for this stage, and you can stash it in your jacket for extra warmth.
I used a Camelbak Podium Big Chill 750ml insulated bottle in 2013 and it was perfect. I ended up sharing it with several riders!

At altitude the air is very dry and dehydration can be acute.

The strength of the sun is also magnified. Apply a good quality Factor 50 Sunscreen.
You will benefit from a decent lip balm too to help prevent dry, cracked, lips.
Wear sunglasses!
In 2013 two riders suffered from acute snow-blindness and had to retire from the race with one stage remaining.
Sunglasses should be the very best you can afford. They should be polarised along with UVA/UVB protection, and need to have "Category Three" lenses suitable for high altitude. I have a pair of Oakley's with vented lenses but there are plenty of options to choose from. Visit a reputable outdoor store and get the right advice.

You will also require a decent head-torch. The hike up begins in darkness. Carry spare batteries in your pocket, keeping them warm prevents the power from draining out of them.

Hiking The Pass.

Decide, and practice, before you leave home how you plan to carry your bike. You really don't want to be experimenting at Thorong Phedi the evening before.
Many riders choose to simply shoulder the bike. Others use straps/foam etc. I prefer to attach it securely to my pack (Osprey Atmos 25). This leaves me "hands-free" and allows me to use a pair of trekking poles for balance. I also attach a pair of Hillsound Trail Crampons to my Hiking Boots.
It is unlikely that you will choose to hike in your Down Jacket but it will be essential to have it handy. The wind can be ferocious higher up and you will suffer badly if you don't have it available.
Start the hike in your Softshell's/Windproofs.
As soon as it begins to get light put on your Sunglasses and leave them on.


Osprey Atmos 25. Perfect for The Pass.


Some riders foolishly choose to hike the pass in cycling shoes. Seriously, don't do this. Last year one rider had to have the end of his big toe removed due to frostbite. It is just not worth the risk.
Use good quality leather hiking boots with a stiff and supportive sole (make sure that they are at least one size bigger than your normal footwear, otherwise the pressure on your toes when descending will cause your toenails to go black!).
Pair these with the best Hiking/Mountaineering socks you can find. I have tried many brands over the years. By far the best socks I have used at altitude are the Mountaineering socks from Smartwool. Also wear a pair of Merino Wool liner socks too. A pair of spiked trail crampons are really useful, particularly for grip on the descent, but not essential.
Good mountaineering gloves are another must-have. I prefer Mitts because they keep your fingers warmer. But if you don't suffer with your extremities in the cold then gloves will be fine. Wear a liner glove too, if you have to remove your outer glove for any reason your fingertips will freeze in seconds.
You are spending in excess of £3000 to take part this race. Don't skimp on the essentials.

Altberg Tethera hiking boots. Perfect for the terrain.


Acclimatisation to the high altitude is tough. You will gain some during the course of the race but it really only allows you to function, racing is another matter altogether!
It is worth considering the use of Diamox. The side effects are irritating but not too bad. If you decide to take it then, realistically, you will need to start your course on the first day of the race - three days prior to when you will need to benefit from it. To be honest the jury is out on whether it is worth it or not. I tried it for a couple of days last year but the tingling fingers and constant need to pee got on my nerves and so I abandoned them. 

Training tips.

Lots of endurance riding will be necessary, long rides at a decent tempo.
Lots of long hill climbing too. Trust me you probably don't have local hills anything like the climbs in the race, but find the longest, hardest, ones you can, and go up and down them as often as possible! They are often very steep, and almost always very long, 12 - 15kms is not unusual for a Yak Attack climb.
You will also benefit greatly from some hill running.

Checklists

Essential:
Down Jacket
Down Sleeping Bag
Cat 3 Polarised Sunglasses.
Thermal Base layers.
Softshell Jacket and Trousers.
Waterproof Jacket and Trousers.
Hiking Boots & Mountaineering Socks.
Warm Gloves/Mitts. Liners.
Hat.
Factor 50 Sunscreen and Lip Balm.
First Aid Kit. Survival Blanket/Bag. Whistle.
Head Torch and Spare Batteries.
Toilet Paper.

Spares:
Tyre. Inner Tube. No-tubes fluid. Spare Valves
Pump. Tyre Levers. Multi-tool with Chain Tool
Gear Cables/Brake Pads/Mech Hanger/Powerlinks/Tyre boots.
Puncture Repair Kit.
Chain Lube.
Duct Tape and Cable/Zip Ties.
A Rear Mech is worth considering.

Other:
Carbohydrate Drinks. Gels. Power Bars. Recovery Shakes.
Electrolyte mix for re-hydrating after each stage.
Chamois Cream.

Worth considering if you have the space.
Chain scrubber
Chain degreaser.
Cleaning Brush/Cloths
Pressure gauge.
Bike Lube/GT85/WD40.
Flat Pedals.
Hiking Type Trail Crampons.
Trekking Poles.
Compression/Recovery Clothing.

I hope that some of you find this helpful. Thanks for looking.
If anyone has any specific questions please feel free to contact me via:
Twitter - HimalayaQuest
or
Facebook - Chase The Rainbow - Himalaya Quest


Camelbak Podium Big Chill insulated bottle.

Hillsound Trail Crampon. Useful but not essential.


Rab MeCo Baselayer Tee.
Torq Fitness offer a superb range of performance products including Bars, Gels, and Drinks.



Everyone likes Jelly Babies! :)

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Neil, priceless information. See you at the 2016 Yak Attack!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Replies
    1. You're welcome. It's a little bit out of date now, since the race moved from March to November. We get very little snow these days so the requirement for Trail Crampons isn't a necessity.

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