Amazing India

WHY EXPEDITION INDIA? BECAUSE IT’S THERE

As some know, I am a secondary school teacher, which often means, my choice for the year’s expedition race is dictated by school schedules. When Expedition India popped up over the winter and I saw that it fit my spring break, I jumped and started working on finding some teammates for the event. This said, it quickly became apparent that there were a multitude of other reasons to be excited about this race.

First off: it was set to take place in the Himalayas. How many adventure racers can claim to have raced among these lofty, hallowed peaks? True, these were more “hills” compared to the icy, deadly spires of Everest and K2, but I’ve never been to a mountain range with 3000 meter foothills.

Second: Heidi, Stephan, and their team from Kinetic Events in South Africa have built an amazing reputation, both from word of mouth but also from their impressive efforts in the world of social media. I wasn’t sure if the hype would live up to expectations, but I knew we would be in good hands.

Third: Culture. As much as I have loved many of the hundred-plus events I have competed in, including 11 other expedition races, none offered anything that would compare to the rich cultural heritage of India. Stories from Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises ooze with interactions with the locals. While I have interacted with locals before, I wouldn’t claim this as a defining experience in any past race. Instead, “local culture” has led to encounters with the sort who cruise around in oversized trucks, who go running inside when you want to use their garden hose, or who marvel that anyone would want to walk for a few miles, much less race for a few hundred. I had a sense that India would offer the ethnocentric adventure that seems to have somewhat vanished from many races.

Putting together a team was a challenge as Abby would be 6 months pregnant at race time, and my other normal Rootstock Racing teammates were out of action for various reasons. For a moment, it looked like we would reunite our team from Tasmania in 2018 minus Abby, but that didn’t quite work out either. If I had one complaint about the entire Expedition India experience, it was that we had very little lead time with information to plan and ponder, and this made it more challenging to organize teams and logistics and secure commitments. Finally, in mid-January, all the pieces fell into place. Ryan VanGorder and I would represent our Tasmania team, Jen VanGorder would replace Abby, and long-time expedition teammate, Mark Lattanzi would step in to fill out the squad. But while all the normal pieces were fitting together, some unpredictable developments unsettled me as the race approached.

GETTING THERE: YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY…

That old cliché about getting to the start line? Multiply it by 50 for Expedition India, at least for me. All of the usual challenges of flights, bag-weight, shipping bikes, etc. came into play. Add onto that securing a visa (not that hard to be honest, but still, there are companies selling FAKE visas to India, so have fun with that) and updating a host of vaccinations, some of which left me ill for a few days.

I also had the unfortunate experience of coming to grips with some unforeseen health issues leading up to the race starting with a persistent cough that literally started back before Nationals in September and continued until mid-January when I started an intensive regimen of inhalers, antibiotics, and nebulizers. The diagnosis? Long-standing asthma. During my initial visit to the specialist, the doctor told me I “have the lungs of a 60 year old, and if it wasn’t for how active you are, you’d be laid out on the couch”.

Huh…

Rather excited about the diagnosis, I dove into the treatment, cleared up the cough…and then went on to have some bad reactions to the medicines with less than two weeks left before flying (or so I thought; to be honest; I’m still sorting all this out, and I’m not sure if I have gotten to the bottom of it or not). Ultimately, after visits to the specialist and my primary, I decided I needed to cut off the treatment. Not ideal, but at least the cough was cleared up and I figured that I’d be OK considering I’d been unknowingly racing with asthma for years anyway.

Still, this added a level of anxiety that I could have lived without going into the race, and ultimately, I most certainly did not feel like myself.

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Crammed into the back of a minibus, 2 AM, Delhi. No rules in India when driving an…anything…

As for the travel itself, I took off from Philadelphia on a 9 PM flight to Doha, landing 14 hours later for a short layover before continuing onto Delhi. Once there, I met up with Mark in the airport, we haggled for a taxi that whisked us off in the middle of the night for our first taste of lawless driving in India, and we arrived at the crumbling Centaur Hotel at 430 AM, disoriented, exhausted, but also humming from our first experiences in Delhi. Heidi greeted us to my horror (I couldn’t believe it when the front desk called to wake her up; let her sleep! As it turns out, she had instructed them to call her upon the arrival of every team so she could greet them. That’s how they do it at Kinetic Events.), and we then settled into a room for 4 hours of fitful sleep.

The “next day”, the field met at the Centaur for an afternoon rendezvous, we boarded busses and settled in for a 12-14 hour bus ride that ultimately took 20. Harder than the race? Ultimately, no, but I’ve never had a journey like that to get to the start line either.

MANALI: A JOURNEY BEFORE THE JOURNEY

We boarded the busses ready for a 12-14 hour ride to the start (I swear, the number started at 12, and then it was 14…then 16 hours…), and we all were alert, watching the wild street-life of New Delhi as we drove north toward the mountains. After an hour or so, we had barely made any progress amidst the unimaginable traffic patterns of the sprawling metropolis. Roads meant for 2-3 lanes of traffic swelled with twice that volume, cars, trucks, motorcycles and livestock all meshing into a sinewy morass of moving parts that steadily but slowly pulsed, never quite stopping but never freeing up either. I think we all were waiting to hit a highway, but instead, the coaches maneuvered into an impossibly small parking area at the HQ of the Indo-Canadian Bus Line.

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Pre-Race welcome from Indo-Canadian

Here the sponsors who supported the event and our “transportation experience” greeted us warmly with a bit of Holi paint, some snacks, and some opening remarks (Grant, seriously, you have some work to do to match what we experienced in India). It was an uplifting welcome to the chaotic sounds, smells, and sights of India, and all racers began to get a clearer handle on what we were in for as this didn’t help the time estimates for our trip to Manali.

By the time we re-boarded the busses and headed north, the sun was setting, and appetites began to rumble. We did stop for a break to relieve ourselves and to eat, but this would be one of the last stops until sunrise, which made for a long night as the busses lacked bathrooms, and everyone was on vastly different internal clocks.

While I can’t say I “enjoyed” the 20 hour bus ride to Manali, I also was amazed that I was still sane when we finally disembarked. Traffic did finally clear outside of Delhi, and we made good time to the mountains afterwards despite one more head-scratching detour to another Indo-Canadian office. Once we crossed the threshold of the Himalayas, the bus shifted into low gear for an endless, serpentine, pilgrimage along narrow, mountain roads framed on one side by steep, land-sliding slopes and on the other by precipitous eroding cliffs falling away in the darkness. Glowing shrines dotted the road, the hilltops on the ridges, and the valleys around us, and despite the fatigue from a relatively sleepless trip thus far, I was captivated by the journey while most of the other racers snored in the bus behind me.

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Relatively wide road in the Himalayas

The night and morning passed, as did endless mountains and canyons. The orange-turbaned motorcyclists complete with flying banners amidst severe, dusty roads and landscapes conjured images of Mad Max, raging rivers cascading through the narrow mountain valleys below us left us in awe, and the constant battle with the oncoming traffic drew both smiles and gasps as we made our way onward toward Manali.

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The drive to the start was breathtaking and constantly engaging

Finally, the busses pulled off, and we transferred bags and bodies to mini busses. We were a mere 7-10 km from our final destination, a welcoming, warm, cozy lodge, but it would take another 90 minutes or so to traverse this final stretch of traffic-jammed mountain madness. 20 hours after boarding the busses at the Centaur in Delhi, we disembarked at the Anant Maya Resort, a genuine slice of heaven relative to the Centaur and the refuse we had been driving through for the past hour. Perched high above the river valley below with soaring, snow-capped peaks looming in the distance, the manicured lawns and walkways of the resort offered welcome reprieve from the epic journey before the real adventure would begin. I think everyone was grateful to collapse for some rest, and we were once again welcomed with kind words from the hotel’s staff who outfitted us in local, customary woven hats.

PRE-RACE: NERVES

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Holid up and ready to go!

After a very, very hard nap, we woke up for an Expedition India-only Holi celebration. It was the sacred day of Holi, but in Manali, they had celebrated a day before. I was a bit disappointed to miss the colorful extravaganza in the streets, but our joyful moment in the hotel’s courtyard was a suitable substitute as racers and volunteers mingled, smearing each other with handfuls of colorful powder.

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Expedition India Holi celebration

We then caught a taxi downtown, all organized and provided for by the RDs, wandered Manali for a couple of hours and did some final shopping for the event. The narrow streets and alleys of Manali were mostly carless and full of delightfully dark corners, shops, and passageways. From there, it was back to the hotel for one of the many delicious buffet meals of curry, naan, and a host of other Indian dishes that we would consume leading up to race week. This was AR luxury.

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The next day was largely spent doing the expected song and dance that precedes any major expedition race. Skills tests, gear checks, initial briefings, distribution of the first two legs’ maps, welcome speeches from the RDs and local sponsors and magistrates, and a wonderful local dance led by four Manali youth on the stage that really picked up when the VanGorders led the charge up onto the stage. All of this was conducted at the Manali Mountaineering School, a quiet, peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the town, set amidst towering pine trees and well-manicured courtyards and pathways. The theater was an absolute ice-box, but the sunshine was warm, and I think everyone was starting to feel the impending race start the next day.

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Studying the first maps with some beautiful Himalayan dogs basking in the sun

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Opening ceremony parade, Manali

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And the next morning arrived sooner than I would have liked. We spent the rest of the evening before finalizing our bags and boxes and turning them into the race staff before settling into what would be, for me, a fitful night of sleep. I wasn’t feeling myself, anxious about my lungs, energy, and performance, and before I knew it, the alarm was sounding for an early morning departure to the start line.

Of course, however, it was India, so the start was delayed. Freezing temperatures and landslides meant that the planned start was inaccessible (actually, from what we heard, the true planned start had long ago been abandoned as the race was once expected to start with an epic trek that was scrapped due to a historic snowpack, lingering longer than it should have). Instead of eating and jumping onto the minibuses, we loitered in the lobby, dozed, ate, and waited.

A couple of hours later, we finally made our way to the start, a modified venue on a narrow, twisty, village road far up the valley above Manali. It was an incredible location: bike boxes in corners between vehicles and looming snowbanks, livestock wandering among us, an occasional vehicle frustrated by its inability to pass 100 racers from all over the globe. With nervous energy, we built our bikes, ate a bit more food and then converged behind the starting line arch. The backdrop of the snow-covered Himalayas was spectacular, the most incredible start line I have ever toed.

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The Himalayas

 

STAGE 1 AND 2: MURPHY’S LAW

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Building bikes before the start

It was a cautious start as we all jockeyed for position, descending a one-plus lane road to the valley floor. Occasional slushy ice slicks, cattle, ATVs, larger vehicles, and snow banks made for a white-knuckle start, but once at the bottom of town, we crossed a bridge and found ourselves on much quieter country lanes with the Himalayas towering around us. The first several checkpoints went well enough, and it seemed some teams were already floundering a bit with navigation. We made steady and efficient work through the first three points and then hit Manali and our first sustained climb amidst a sea of smog-belching vehicles.

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The modified start line. Not too bad.

The fourth checkpoint hung in the lobby of the Anant Maya Resort, our home for the days prior to the race. By the time we reached the hotel, a knife had burrowed itself into the center of my chest, I was gasping for air, and I had to stop for a moment to dig out the emergency inhaler I had brought with me. I puffed away, repositioned my buff over my mouth, and we set off for the rest of the ride, the traffic largely clearing out past the lodge. The air was still thin and dusty, and this would induce a fair amount of suffering for me due to my breathing for the four days of racing, but it was better than the oil-slicked air we raced through in towns.

And so we started to settle in. It became clear that I didn’t have the pop for the uphills, but there was enough down to make up for it. That said, we found ourselves confronted with a new annoyance as Jen dropped her chain two or three times in that first hour or so of racing. No big deal we thought…until it was.

We had paused in a village to look at the map, and then I set off to get ahead a bit, knowing the team would catch up. We were in fine position, sandwiched between Indian teams (which had completely blown up in the excitement of their first adventure race, individual riders kilometers apart from their teammates) and strong international teams all around us, but as I cruised down through a town, I noticed my teammates had lingered back and vanished. I paused, watching as a number of teams zipped by.

Finally, Mark arrived, noting that Jen’s bike had broken down, the chain falling off once more but taking some part of the drive train or something with it. I never really figured out what happened, but when we rode back up the road finally, we found a scene of utter chaos as Ryan was huddled by the bike, a horde of Indian men and boys pressing in around him, trying to help but mostly just observing, violating personal space, and generally heightening the anxiety that accompanied the moment. It wasn’t our first “We’re in India” moment and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but it was a disappointment to lose an hour or more between the time it took to fix the problem, and then the impact it had on Jen’s riding.

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Friends are not always helpful when trying to fix a bike

Unfortunately for Jen, she found that if she stopped pedaling, letting the hub spin, the chain would get sucked back into the drivetrain’s hungry maw, so, she had to make sure she kept the gears engaged, not always the easiest feat, and a requirement that meant she had to actually ride slower on downs and flats to protect the bike. Our pace slowed, which actually was helpful as it gave me a chance to calm my lungs down a bit, but morale deflated a bit.

Nonetheless, between my breathing, the stops for the bike, the full breakdown, the subsequent loss pf pace, a small nav bobble, and our first experience navving through complex villages on 1:50,000 maps, we fell way behind most of the field. That said, it was also evident that this race was going to be something special: the mountains soared in every direction, the villages we climbed through were captivating with narrow stone-flagged pathways, a mix of stone and wood architecture including amazing rough, slate tile roofs, footbridges, prayer flags, shrines, and temples. Curious and mostly friendly looks greeted us at every turn. The charm of the villages and genuine kindness of the people stood in stark contrast to the clear poverty and environmental pollution that accompanied that poverty and their daily habits regarding refuse and such, but the good outweighed the bad and despite all our issues, those first few hours were spectacular.

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First exposure to navigating a village’s unmapped pathways

We pulled into the zip line, and Mark and Jen took the honors of soaring on India’s highest and longest zipline, a magnificent ride across a huge valley. I took the time to settle down my breathing, eat, drink, and study the maps. Several Indian teams were in the CP with us and were asking about the previous checkpoint, insisting that it wasn’t there. We told them it was and talked a bit with Sharla and the race staff about the clear fish-out-of-water syndrome some of the Indian racers and teams were exhibiting with their wild riding and lack of understanding of some of the rules and navigation. Still, it was inspiring to see such novice teams taking on such a huge event.

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Mark zip-lining with style. Look at that form!

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And there goes Jen! Say a prayer…

Finally, we set off, making fine work of the rest of the leg until the final CP. We passed a few of the Indian teams who were ahead of us and dropped down to the final CP. And once again, we were met with some frustration as we lost 20 or more minutes searching for a CP that had been removed…or never placed…It was never clear, but we know that many of the international teams who were there earlier were told to skip the CP. We didn’t get that message, presumably because the CP had been put out after the rest of the field had passed through…but then it was taken? No idea.

The “silver lining” of the lost time was that on our way out we were brought to a stop by a funeral procession. A large group of men stumbled down the dirt path we were riding on, carrying a pier. Ryan heard some chatter indicating that one of the young men bearing the colorful platform laden with textiles and a body was mourning for his mother. We moved to the side of the path and stood still, watching as the men marched past before turning down a side path to the river where they presumably were going to cremate the body before casting the remains into the Beas River. It was a powerful moment that washed away the frustrations of the lost time and missed CP, and one I don’t expect to ever experience again in an Adventure Race. Only in India.

From there, it was a quick ride to the TA. There we found that we were indeed near the back of the pack. We were firmly behind all of the international teams, and there were only four or five Indian teams behind us, two of which pulled in shortly after we did. The international field of teams for this race was as deep and experienced as any I’ve seen outside of Worlds and perhaps one or two other events. There were no easy outs, and it would become clear by the end of the first night that a couple of local teams had some real ability as well including a strong team of Nepalese soldiers and a couple of the Indian teams. They didn’t always follow the rules perfectly, but they were strong athletes who caught on very quickly to Adventure Racing even if they didn’t always have the right gear with them or if a local picked them up for a rest in a friend’s house. In short, we had our work cut out for us. Maybe we’d get lucky on the white water raft…

Right…our guide fell out of the raft on the first rapid. We weren’t going to be making up any time on Stage 2. In fact, we all just stared at each other wide eyed on the journey down the river, laughing and resigned for the first few hours and then quietly revolting, generally ignoring the guide’s commands that more often than not called trouble down upon us rather than keeping us in the right channels of water. He was, to be fair, remarkably effective at getting us out of trouble, but he also was frustratingly good at getting us into danger we never should have been. On several occasions, we found ourselves trapped precariously on boulders, a lean away from capsizing, and he had a tendency to float into a line with no plan only to freeze up at the moment when a firm decision could have kept us moving forward.

Ultimately, we pirouetted down the river, spinning in circles at least once every few minutes and ramming just about every rock and boulder the river had to offer (I’d like to admit this is all for dramatic effect, but sadly it is not). Considering it was a massive glacial river, there were plenty of those to hit. At one point, we smashed into a particularly large boulder and our guide launched forward, his face ramming into one of the cross pontoons, his neck snapping back. Jen and I both hollered out, convinced our guide had broken his neck, I began to immediately move back to the stern of the raft as we were in the midst of a maelstrom of whitewater, Ryan and Mark paddled furiously while looking back to see if our guide was able to move. Thankfully, he somehow avoided serious injury, and he popped up with a sheepish smile before returning to his position in the back of the boat. I expect he might be in traction today…

Despite the fact that he couldn’t correctly direct us to paddle right or left, it was still a magnificent journey. The water was filthy, but the rapids were impressive and fun, and the Beas River dropped through countless villages and towns. Once again, the contrast between life and joy and desperation was stark. We passed a burning funeral pier halfway down, dead animals spotted the banks of the river, a shantytown built on a burning trash heap complete with rooting pigs and playing children drew our stares. But joyous couples rafted alongside us, prayer flags fluttered on cable far overhead, and the mountains, always the mountains, loomed all around.

I think we were all grateful to say goodbye to our guide, but it was an amazing experience seeing the heart of Indian towns from the river, a significant and holy feature in Indian life. In the TA, we were pleased to find a couple of international teams and some Indian ones still in house. Super volunteer Craig welcomed us with warm smiles and confirmed that many of the teams had similar experiences, which didn’t surprise us. We had an efficient TA, though some small tike swiped my hot meal, I plotted the maps and we set off, dry and warm for the first big trek of the race. The sun was setting, we were two hours, give or take, behind where we probably could have been with a cleaner start, but spirits were high. We were going into the mountains.

STAGE 3: IN INDIA, THERE IS ALWAYS A SHORTCUT

The start of the trek went well enough once we cleared the smog and grime of the town around the TA. After the first CP, we navigated up a streambed as darkness fell, making good time and passing a team or two. The second CP also went smoothly, and then we had our first big climb up the steep slopes of the Himalayas. We hit a road which took us most of the way to the third control, a point that directed us into the mountains proper.

Here we stumbled as all the features pointed us toward a CP-less location. We spent 20-30 minutes stumbling about in the dark before continuing up the access track, an old road bed that ultimately took us straight to the CP. After the race, Silver Ensaar agreed that the CP was mis-plotted. In general, over the course of the race, he and other strong teams seemed to make the exact same nav mistakes we did. Much of the mapping was done by hand, it was rough, and it was 1:50,000 scale. Minor complaints, but a couple of these plots really didn’t seem entirely accurate, or they seemed open to random interpretation.

CP finally punched, we started a massive climb up a steep, pine-tree covered slope. It was our first time escaping the pollution and chaos of inhabited India, and it was truly magnificent. The air freshened, the refuse dissipated and quickly vanished, and the wilderness of the Himalayas emerged in its full grandeur. I also quickly found that I couldn’t breathe due to the asthma and elevation, and within five minutes or so of ascending, the team shouldered my pack and gear. Even then, I felt sluggish climbing the mountains, and I realized that I had left my rescue inhaler on the bike as it’s something I’m not used to racing with. This would make for a very long trek for me and a pattern was quickly established: on the climbs, the team would take most if not all of my weight, I’d slog it out, focusing on forced rhythm breathing, and we’d slow our pace. Not ideal when you are trying to make up lost ground, but it was our reality for the race. Altitude was kicking in as well, which didn’t make it any easier.

We climbed into the night, finally topping out. We actually passed another team or two despite the sluggish pace, and then we set off for a long traverse of a ridge. We elected to side-hill most of this traverse below the snowy summit, using a network of village footpaths and animal tracks. We made good time before turning upwards to attain the summit where we broke out into the remnants of alpine snowfields. Not too deep, but deep enough to slow us down a bit. Finally, we crested the ridge, and then we dropped toward the lights of tiny Himalayan hamlets that offered a mapped footpath. Whoever lived in these magnificent wood and stone havens slept through the barking dogs that welcomed us, and we did pick up an impressive stone pathway, sometimes a ribbon of cement, at other times a well-constructed trail of flat stones. In the distance, we could see headlamps of the mid-pack and forward teams up on the snowy slopes of the high mountains we were heading for.

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Prashar Temple by headlamp. The temple complex was vast and sprawling and begged for more time and exploration than we had to give

Time passed, we made steady progress, and we finally reached the track up in the snow where we had seen teams as we navigated the villages. We made good time for the next CP, a spectacular wooden temple complex on a high mountain lake, nestled below peaks and complete with a perfectly circular, floating island. Here, at Prashar Lake, we found two teams that either were ahead of us or whom we had passed on the ascent. We think they passed us back as we traversed the ridge, but we never confirmed who that might have been. Nevertheless, they settled into the temple for a bit of sleep and we pushed on, heading for the final stretch, a route that seemed to travel by trail and villages to the TA.

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The floating island is visible in Prashar lake. 

We left the temple and located the trail on the map, a pathway that should have climbed up to a mountain pass. All seemed in order. The trail climbed, passed through a cut in the ridge and then wound its way along the other side. A highway of teams had passed before us, but after 10 minutes or so, I stopped the team, noting that the terrain was not right. It was dropping on the wrong side, and our heading wasn’t what it should be. For the next half hour or so, we retraced our steps and explored. It took a while, but finally the pieces fell into place. While all seemed to have been in order, we were not on the mapped trail, we had not passed through the mapped mountain pass, and we were now on a major trail that was debatably on the map. Regardless, we weren’t where we wanted to be.

After further conversation, we elected to continue on since it was a major route, and the alternative of heading up into snowy mountains to find the mapped trail seemed foolish. Located, we felt we could skirt the mountain above us and pick up the ideal route. We set off…

…Only to find ourselves further confused. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that this part of the course was literally mapped on the edge of two maps. The printers had not mapped much overlap at all, and it was proving very difficult to actually see the map clearly and its features. We reached a point where the track became a legitimate (and legitimately unmapped) road. No other options really presented themselves on the ground, so we headed off on the road, which dropped into a large valley.

As it turned out, most if not all teams were sucked into the same challenge. We learned afterwards that we were one of the only teams to ultimately follow the optimal route. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know it, but many teams stayed on that road far longer than we did, adding 15-20 kilometers of running. We ultimately found another unmapped road connecting into the main one we were descending. After a bit of debate, I made the final call to ascend this road. Certain that we were well oriented in regards to the terrain, I believed this road would access some of the villages we had been aiming for originally. A local somewhat confirmed this, though he also seemed a bit confused as to what was where. Nonetheless, we started to climb back up to the ridges that now were high above us.

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Many different feelings about the climb back up onto the ridge.

A half-hour or so later, we popped out in another breathtaking Himalayan village. The sun had crested the horizon as we made our way up, and we had a clear line of vision down the ridges and valleys below us. Hidden from us was our TA, but we were on our way now. We tried to communicate with a local man a bit about our destination. He gave us some vague hand signals and we set off, descending through timeless terraces as the morning sun climbed above us.

Eventually, we popped out on a trail and found…the fellow from the top of the ridge. He pointed us down a trail and more or less led us down to a major road. He would ultimately disappear, climbing back up, presumably to his ridge-top abode, but an hour later, we saw him in a car coming up from the BOTTOM?! Clearly, his life living in the Himalaya had him in far better shape than we were, and he also clearly knew all of the shortcuts to traverse the villages more effectively. It was impressive. Also impressive, he refused payment when Ryan offered him a few rupees for his help guiding us to the most efficient trail. Ryan communicated that the money was for his children, for food or something useful, and he did finally accept that. While there are sharks in India looking to make a buck, in the mountains we found that kindness and hospitality trump all and that profit is secondary and often not even acceptable.

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Descending the Himalayas. No big deal, just 4000-5000 feet down to the TA

We made steady work of the rest of the leg, dropping massive amounts of elevation down steep switch-backing trails. Mark led us true, finding good paths to cut the winding road. Toward the bottom, we hit a final stretch.

“Shortcut?” we asked a local man.

He shook his head, pointing us back to the road, which made one final massive loop backwards before dropping the final bit to TA. “No shortcut,” he said. “Road”. We groaned a bit, walking toward the road, stopping and staring as the road had to add four or five times more distance to the TA. As we shuffled down the path, wishing the leg was over, another young many from the same house came running over.

He looked at us quietly, with an inquisitive look. I decided why not ask him? “Shortcut?” I asked, pointing down to the bottom of the valley and the large river below.

He nodded and beckoned us to follow, taking us back past the other man and his house and onward, stopping at another trail that plunged down into the valley. It was an amazing trail, a concrete river down the mountain side. No short-cut indeed. In India, there is always a shortcut. Twenty minutes later, we were at the TA, drinking cold soda, eating some bananas and getting the news.

STAGE 4-5: WHAT GOES UP

In the TA, we were notified that the next rafting leg, a short flat-water float, had been canceled due to blasting and landslides. Seemed like a good decision. The re-route was an additional 10 km or so of trekking along a buzzing valley road. I got my buff ready and set off behind my teammates for the “quick walk” to TA, nearly two hours of pavement pounding, smoke and dust inhaling, sun-baking Indian joy. It wasn’t that long, but after the overnight trek and considering that my lungs felt rather terrible, it was enough to break my spirit a bit.

We turned onto a quieter road, up a small valley to the TA, and I fell behind the team, vomiting four or five times as I coughed the filth and frustration out of my lungs. It was a low moment for sure, one of the lowest I can remember in 100+ Adventure Races, and when we slogged into TA, I had a bit of a meltdown, complete, of course, with cameras and interviews from the film crew. I’ve been emotional once or twice upon completing a major expedition race, but I have never broken down during a race like that. My team was either respectfully ignorant of it (claiming they didn’t know) or they were genuinely unaware, and I later realized that the video would likely make some folks back at home rather worried (turns out, they didn’t air that video clip, though a sliver of it ended up in the final wrap up video; yeah, the video full of absolute joy and beauty…except for the one guy hunched over whining about it being hard. That’s me, my moment of fame!).

Once again, the Kinetic staff were tremendous. Sharla, Heidi, and Craig all caught onto my struggles and offered the perfect balance of space and support to allow me to recover. Craig allowed me a private moment to watch a touching video clip from Zoe and Abby, and I was able to move on to the maps. This worked out well as the maps were set aside from the TA and I had some quiet solitude (mostly) to transpose the data, study the route and meditate a bit on what was coming. The team was off in the field getting ready, and I started to build up a mental wall for the massive climb that was coming. I really wasn’t sure about a 2000 meter climb out of TA considering how I was doing with anything pointing up, but I was reunited with my inhaler and the team took some of my weight to lighten the load. We pedaled out of TA knowing that we had made some good moves on the trek, positioning ourselves just inside or outside of the top 10 depending on whom you asked.

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Up, up, up. 2000 meters or so warm up leaving TA.

And so we climbed. And climbed, and climbed some more. I had my moments, but overall we made steady progress up, and other than needing a couple of stops to avoid melting entirely, I was able to grind the gears without pulling a John Hurt in Alien. As always, we biked through interesting villages, by eager youth ready with a high five or a heart-melting smile, and the backdrop of mountain ranges and temples never stopped.

At one point, we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the midst of another huge procession, though this was one was considerably happier than the funeral march we encountered on the first day. We were not quite sure what the parade was for, but men laughed and yelled, clapped and sang, and many played instruments including two enormous silver horns, blasting joy and energy through the high mountain air. I had been, by chance, filming a local boy running alongside my bike just before riding into the crowd and managed to capture the entire thing on film.

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The walking Indian party. Photo courtesy of Craig Giese

The afternoon and evening passed and the kilometers ticked by. Finally, after a long ride down into a distant valley, we biked into Thunag and we immediately enacted our night two plan. We had decided to leave our more serious sleeping gear in TA, and rather than pushing onto the TA and River Camp, we found a hotel, haggled a bit over rooms, food, water, and the security of our bikes, and then settled in for a glorious sleep.

The rooms were tidy, and just before passing out, our room service arrived: egg and potato omelets with Roti bread, perfect items to make delicious sandwiches. Mark even “showered” (more like a sponge bath in a bucket of tepid water, the night air rather chilly). The VanGorders had their own room, and we all settled in under thick, warm blankets for a good three hours of sleep.

We awoke relatively fresh and set off around midnight for the rest of the bike. We had a long gentle climb to start, a local dog making most of the 15km journey with us to the next CP. At the CP, we caught an Indian team that had passed us while we slept, and we quickly left them behind. Soon, we saw more lights that turned out to be a top Australian team, Thunderbolt. We seemed to be slowly gaining on them as well when they continued up a switchback in the road. Excited, I stopped the team as we were supposed to turn off the main road at the hairpin turn and take a track up a narrow but steep valley. The path was subtle and nearly invisible, but once a hundred meters or so into it, we found that several leading teams had also traveled this way, beating a path through ever deeper snow. We kept peeking back, but there was no sign of Thunderbolt correcting their “mistake”.

What started off easy enough quickly turned somewhat hellacious. The snow was deep and cold, the terrain steep, and we had to push and carry our bikes the two or three km up this snowy ravine. Eventually, we were relegated to a rather precarious scramble up 50-100 meters of steep sidehill, the sort of slope you’d normally want all four limbs assisting to ascend. Except we had our bikes. It was a miserable slog, but we finally popped out on a rather spectacular dirt road.

And then we saw the Indians biking up that road.

And we realized Thunderbolt was long gone…ahead of us…thank unmapped road that we were definitely not directed to take…

Rather grumpy from the epic little ordeal, we talked a fair bit about what had transpired. As it turns out, Stephan’s hand-drawn addendums had struck again. Several teams saw exactly what I had on the map: the road ending uselessly but the hand-drawn track (that WAS there on the ground) traveling up the valley to a pass. The crew from Bend and I believe Naturex also did the same as we did. Others stayed on the road. Why? I still have no idea since that is not what was on the plotting map. But as it turned out, staying on the road simply bypassed the entire icebox that was that valley and probably saved an hour or more.

The frustration and lost energy lingered for a bit, until we realized we had begun one of the most epic downhills in AR history. From that pass, the unmapped dirt road drawn onto our map simply dropped. We dropped for hours. Picking off a couple more CPs, the road gradually meeting up with civilization and then turning to pavement. The entire way, we rode with thousands of feet of exposure juet a few feet away off the side of the road. One sleepy miscue…

I think we dropped for two hours. Maybe three, and by the time we rolled into TA, the sun was up. We had timed it almost perfectly, missing the opening of the dark zone by half an hour or so. True, some teams ultimately had a fair bit more sleep, but we were happy to have had ours in a warm hotel bed with hot food rather than in an unpredictable TA next to a river. Spirits were high as we had bridged the gap to most of the leading field, the exception being Naturex who had escaped before the dark zone set in the day before and Agde Raid who had left first thing in the morning. The rest of the leading teams, as it turned out, were still in the tents. No Rafts. For us, we also didn’t get our paddle bags. Not ideal. But it was India. What can you do?

STAGE 6: SMOOTHER SAILING

So, the bummer about our perfectly timed sleep and arrival at the river was that we then had to sit around for two to three more hours as the other teams just kept on sleeping in their tents (we dozed a bit, but for various reasons, getting more real sleep wasn’t to be). The delay in the rafts created the one notable logistical issue affecting a large number of teams. I know that things were a nightmare for Heidi and Stephan behind the scenes as local logistical assistance broke down and created endless headaches. That said, they did an absolutely incredible job hiding that from the racers. A couple of hours delay getting on a major whitewater river? Not all that surprising or unusual.

Long morning aside, we finally jumped in our raft with our Nepalese guide. We were last in the queue but ten minutes or so virtually separated 3rd place from 11th (our placement coming into that TA, I think). We were better rested than some and feeling better than we had as a group in a while, I think. That said, I think everyone was anxious to get back on the water with the river guides after the fiasco on the Beas River during Stage 2.

Thankfully, this would be a very different experience. First of all, this river, the Sutlej River, was remote. Unlike the first rafting stage, which passed through towns and villages overflowing with garbage, this river was relatively pristine. Instead of rapids rolling over and around endless glacial boulders and rock bars, this river was generally deeper and cut through spectacular, towering canyons of mossy rocks and cliffs. The water was big, perhaps bigger than the Beas, and most importantly, the guides were competent.

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The rugged Sutlej River canyon

In fact, it became clear that our guide was not impressed with our need to eat, our occasional tendency to enter droopy-eyed trances, and our general lack of strength compared to him. Our guide (and I think many of those ahead of us if not all of them) had not worked Stage 2, and he hailed from Nepal instead of India. By the end of the raft, he loosened up, laughing with (and indeed at) us. He sang songs, regaled us with stories of the inept Indian rafting guides up north, and told us a bit about his life in India and at home in Nepal.

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We were sad to see him go when we hit the lone CP on the leg, a marker designating the shift to flatwater. From there, we were on our own, though we lost ten minutes or so in our haste to push off. We had dropped our guide at the designated bridge, and in our joy and exuberant goodbyes, we neglected to punch the CP. The river, while flat, was too strong to paddle back up efficiently, so Mark ran back for the CP while the VGs and I labored back up the shoreline. It wasn’t our finest moment, but at this point, playing catch up was our motto, so onward.

The remaining 10km or so was a bit of a slog, but it also went quickly enough. As always, there was plenty to look at, RVG shared some epic race stories from Baja, and we managed to stay awake well enough for a Day 3 pleasure cruise. We rolled into TA, finding several teams still attending to business. A few had rushed through and were out already, but we determined we wanted to take our time to get ready for what we expected would be a rather long night and day out.

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Approaching the TA; photo courtesy of Terence Vrugtman

STAGE 7: IN INDIA, WE WASH FEET

The Stage 7 Trek would ultimately become my favorite trek in my AR history. It started off with some village nav before evolving into a significant journey up a rugged river canyon. We then navved through some small agricultural hamlets along the valley floor followed by a massive ascent up through what was virtually another canyon, ascending thousands of feet to a peak adorned with a remote temple, complete with 360 degree views of the Himalayas. From there, we dove down into a sprawling network of valleys and ridges, full of villages, capped off with a final climb to a smog-lined “highway” and the TA. The diversity of the stage and the experiences within it were staggering, and if we hadn’t already gotten our money’s worth, this trek rewarded every challenge and hardship to date. It truly was a spectacular experience. Like the first trek, it also was a major moment for our team in regards to our comeback from our rough first day of racing.

Out of the transition, we trekked along the river, hoping to easily link together a couple of villages on our way to the first CP. Our logic was sound: rivers are integral to India, there were villages mapped all along this stretch of the Sutlej, and we figured there would be paths along the banks. At first, all went well, and we moved along nicely. Unfortunately, we were stopped cold by a deep reentrant…that doubled as a trash dump. We had seen worse, so we elected to push through it, trekking down and through the garbage, across the reentrant floor and then pushing forward and up to a road. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and we all tried to just ignore our surroundings, going to whatever happy places we were able to conjure. In general, I have never felt so dirty and grimy as I did in this race, and I don’t mean dirty in regards to good old fashioned soil. This was, perhaps, the low moment of the race in regards to that, but by this point we were also quite good at feigning ignorance and making the best of it.

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Village nav

We popped up on the road, continued on and made better work of the next village, walking through and then shortcutting over a large spur, nailing some village nav and ending up back on the main road within five minutes or so of the CP. “Village Nav” is, in a sense, its own discipline. The villages in India are a sprawling and seemingly endless network of foot paths. There must be millions of miles of them across the country assuming much of India is similarly developed. Almost none of those paths show on maps. Compass bearings help, but so too does a massive dose of intuition. While no one understood English, communication is also critical and included butchered pronunciation of the next village and general hand/directional gestures, all of which RVG proved quite adept at. The added challenge was interpreting the locals’ responses as their hand gestures and head nods could easily be interpreted as “Yes” or “No”, “This way” or “That way”, “Go ahead” or “Stop”. Most locals seemed happy to help, though we also saw genuine looks of concern and even fear on some faces. It was truly an amazing experience marching along these pathways, sometimes literally traveling through peoples’ yards or compounds of buildings.

While we lost some time on the trash dump, we nailed the nav and moved on, traveling through a bigger village as the sun set on the horizon. We passed through fields and stony alleys and popped out at the same bridge where we dropped our river guide several hours before. A troupe of monkeys rampaged across the bridge before we crossed and we met up with the media crew on the other side. Everyone was in grand spirits. We had actually discussed another civilized rest stop in the town on the river as it would be the last such town for a long while, but we still had some light to work with and we were plenty awake. So, on we went.

We next marched along a typical mountain road under a sunset infused double rainbow, the river roaring beneath, the mountains towering overhead, before turning into a side canyon with a massive construction site full of mud, chemicals and debris. Not for the first time, we remarked on the boldness of the course, the fact that the RDs didn’t shy away from sending us past or through environments or scenes most would probably avoid. I’m not sure you can avoid such things in India, but it was still remarkable. In contrast to the polluted construction zone, a spectacular, cascading river was pouring over boulders and beneath cliffs below.

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Heading toward the end of the road and the first canyon 

Soon, darkness fell and we picked our way along the canyon’s floor. At times, we traveled along distinct footpaths. At others we bushwhacked or traveled in the water course, scrambling over and around boulders or wading across the current. Once or twice, we happened upon remote flocks of sheep with their shepherds, clearly surprised to see our headlamps emerging out of the night. After a while, the canyon floor opened and flattened out a bit, the going became easier and we found some more legitimate settlements in the night. We weren’t slowing much, but fatigue was settling in as night three deepened, and we knew we would have to sleep at some point before the night was out. We had a couple more hours of time in and among the villages before we started the ascent, at which point we knew we would lose all chances for a comfortable, dry, warm sleep. So we started looking.

What an amazing experience we found. We popped up into a small village and at first failed to communicate with a curious family about sleeping in their compound. Around the corner, however, we found another family, an older couple and their 20-something son who was able to pull out a bit of English. Several minutes of back and forth, and they led us to a room. They rustled about in the other rooms in the building and quickly outfitted our room with four mattresses, thick blankets and comforters, hot chai, a bit of food (they wanted to feed us more, but we declined), and then they hit us with…

Foot washing…

They insisted that it was local custom to wash guests’ feet. Ryan was doing most of the communication and stood firm that we weren’t going to allow them to touch our sore, dirty feet, and we settled on a delightful compromise. They filled a basin with perfectly warm water, we soaked and massaged our feet while they dipped and dumped water on them. It truly was glorious, and we joked (kind of) that we might be adding that cultural custom to our home lives. A good, warm foot bath before bed? Wow…

Our final excitement came in the form of an enormous spider, crawling about on the wall. They tried to shoo it out the window, but this failed, and ultimately, they ended up killing the poor fellow so that we could rest easy. Circle of Life…

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Feet washed, tucked in, cozy and ready to turn the lights off

So, we settled in, and had an amazing two and a half hours of sleep. We woke feeling “rested” and ready to go, and I think we executed our sleep strategy perfectly with two high quality sleeps. I still remain in awe that so many racers and teams seek out the miserable hour, shivering in a ditch, exposed to the cold and damp without any insulation from hypothermia-inducing cold. I’ve had those moments, and sure, they make for good stories. But they do absolutely nothing but add to the misery and sleep deprivation that can undermine a race effort at best or cause significant safety issues at worst. A few years back, we really adjusted our sleep strategy after I awoke legitimately hypothermic in Alaska, and I think we have raced better since and I know I have genuinely enjoyed our racing much more as a result. Anyway, we were on our way, better rested than several teams ahead of us (or so I will venture).

And we were so well rested that we MOVED through the next section of unmapped tracks, which led us back to the river and through some amazing little farms, terraces, and aqueducts. We moved faster than I was estimating and soon we were having our one significant debate of the race, Mark and Ryan ultimately overriding me and leading us up from the river. I was convinced we had to go further, but as it turned out, they were right. We did not ultimately find or take the mapped track on the map (yet another hand-drawn trail), but we found our way up to the road, oriented ourselves and headed to the checkpoint.

And then threw away an hour or more. The features matched the map, but the clue was something like “End of construction zone, start of trail”. The plot was RIGHT off the road, but we didn’t see a marker and while there was some rubble, we all agreed this didn’t feel like a construction zone. In addition, there was little sign of an established trail after the first few hundred meters. By this point, we all were a bit unsure of how to interpret all of these vaguely annotated trails, and I don’t think we had a full bead on the RDs’ personality, so we spent a fair bit of time investigating the area around the CP location. In doing so, the team walked by a tarp covering some hay (I was trying to communicate with an Indian couple who had woken to our lights and musings), and Jen leaped into the air with a small shriek.

Our Australian friends from Thunderbolt had passed us while we slept, but they too were thrown off by the absence of the checkpoint and the confusing discrepancy between mapped information and what we were seeing on the ground. Instead of floundering about, they had bedded down under the tarp in the warm hay, eager to give us or some other passer-by a fright. Mood lightened, we spent another twenty minutes or so confirming our location using a trail we hadn’t explored that was on the map, and then we set off up the steep ravine, trusting that the trail was in reality a suggested route.

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Hmmm…India…skulls…remote wilderness…Temple…I think Indian Jones tried this one once…

The journey up the canyon was epic. Hints of settlement existed throughout the canyon with small dams built along the water course and some occasional foundations hidden below cliffs or in the undergrowth. In some places we could tell there was active sheep herding…or something…still going on, but we didn’t see a soul for hours as we trekked steadily upward. Mark struggled early on, energy a bit low and his stomach threatening to revolt a bit, so I took some weight for the first time in the event, happy to finally help, even if I would have to pass that weight back a couple of hours later as the increasing elevation eventually began to close down my lungs.

When we started our climb, it was still dark, and the initial going was slow but fun as we had to boulder our way up into the deep canyon, occasionally following a trail of vibrant red Holi powder. At some point, we did pick up a faint foot path, and we would stick to that as much as we could for the next several hours, deep into the morning. Occasionally, we remarked on the fact that we were out of water and that there was an impressive dearth of it up in these mountains considering that the maps suggested nothing but streams and creeks in this Himalayan canyon and its countless side reentrants, ravines, and gashes. We had a ways to go and we expected to traverse a high ridge once we reached the top of the range, so we wouldn’t find water there either.

In short, we were starting to worry that we might have a problem.

Sometime after sunrise, we had paused, and I mentioned the issue once again. We shrugged, unable to do much about it and continued on. Literally, a moment later, I spied what looked to be a reflection in a small hole in a pocket of rocks. At first I suspected I might be hallucinating, but I focused in and confirmed that I had found an elusive spring. Ryan had noticed a small red cloth hanging from a nearby tree, but he hadn’t caught sight of the spring. Seems there was a system of springs and resources for the herders and sheep. We had figured as much but hadn’t managed to sort it out until this moment.

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Refreshed and reassured after finding water and confirming we were still found.

Excited, we stopped, filling our water in this cool, hidden alcove of clear water, and then we continued. The mountains around us were imposing, and I had been worried that we could have ended up in the wrong canyon during the climb, especially while it was dark. But Mark, Ryan, and Jen forged ahead, and our progress was true. Other teams did stumble in this section, but we made steady work of it and finally we began ascending the final, seemingly endless climb to the ridgeline. We had lost the trail, but we had picked up a trailing Indian team that had gotten lost in the mountains and somehow picked up guides to lead them to the correct mountain where we would find a summit topped by a sacred temple. The final climb up was on an extremely steep, wooded pitch, one that required a fair bit of physical and mental effort, as a slip could mean several hundred feet of rolling or sledding back down.

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Maa Shali Temple waits; photo courtesy of Terence Vrugtman

My breathing deteriorated, and by the time we reached the more defined ridgeline trail, I was staggering. I thought of the videos of truly high altitude climbers, those who summit Everest, literally taking a step every minute, as if their feet are magnetized to the earth. I wasn’t quite this bad, but I fell behind the team even further on the trail, and I literally found myself weaving side to side on the trail, my head spinning, my breath ragged. I stumbled several times but finally reached the Maa Shali Temple’s gate, climbing the access stairs and marveling at the 360 degrees of panoramic views of the Himalayas, a massive wall of snow and ice on the distant horizon. It was absolutely stunning, and what I would have given to have had the time and space to simply take that all in for an hour or so.

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Instead, we visualized the final stretch of the trek, a long traverse of a ridge. On the map, it looked relatively tame, and we had considered the possibility that there was a good track that would take us north before meeting up with another ridge which would take us to the TA. From the temple, however, this ridge looked imposing. There was significant elevation change as the rocky, tree-enshrouded spine rolled away into the horizon. No open-range trekking here.

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Jen standing on a foothill of the Himalayas; in the distance, we get the “real” mountains, though they are “only” 6000 meters tall, an Indian mountaineer told us

Nonetheless, we descended to the saddle below the temple quickly and started up the ridge. Within five minutes, we stopped and examined the map to look at alternative options. There was no trail on the ridge, the terrain was steep and slow going, and we felt a bit worn down after the climb to the temple. I quickly studied the valleys below on the map and noted that there was a rough route through the countless villages below that would allow us to navigate through a series of valleys with minimal elevation change. I reckoned that we could do a big descent and then more or less work our way through the villages without any measurable gain before a sizable climb up to the TA on the far side of the main valley. I doubted this would be much more elevation than the cumulative changes of the ridgeline, and I suspected we could do it faster.

And so we dropped.

Everything in the Himalayas is massive. The map showed a handful or contour lines or so, but when each line is 50 meters, this adds up quickly and between the steep decline and the escalating heat, we were a bit parched by the bottom.

But then things really took off as we set off on an epic little journey through the network of villages, confirming general directions from the occasional bystander who seemed stunned to see us traipsing through their home. For a couple of hours we steadily worked through village after village, Ryan and I leading and conferring as most of this was done without much assistance from the map. Jen and Mark chatted behind, and I think it was a great mental break for everyone. Eventually, we reached the final ascent, and even though it was a bit daunting on paper, we actually made good time of it, climbing through terraces, by houses and actively farmed fields, past small temples and shops where we bought some ice-cold soda. Before long, we reached the top of the climb, met up with the smoggy “highway” and trekked in the last 5 km or so through a busy, dirty town to the TA.

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More village nav, in dramatic mode, of course. It was pretty dramatic.

From start to finish, I believe this was the single most amazing leg of an adventure race in my 100+ race career. The diversity that included the riverside villages the afternoon before, to the river canyon, village sleep, mountain canyons, exposed ridgelines and mountain temples, and sprawling Himalayan villages was simply remarkable. It was challenging in various ways, but it was also incredibly engaging and interesting, and as it turned out, we also made our biggest move of the race, coming into TA in 6th place. We were a bit gassed, but we transitioned as evening descended and set out with the hope that we could hold off the Australians who were coming in behind us. It wouldn’t be easy, but we had a big enough lead that we felt it was our position to lose. We just had to make sure the “wheels didn’t come off.”

Famous last words.

STAGE 8: THE WHEELS COME OFF. WAY OFF

We biked out of TA, passed an Indian team walking in and then Thunderbolt who had taken the same rough route through the trek as we had. They had just popped up onto the “highway”, so we were able to confirm that we likely had an hour or so on them, maybe a bit more depending on how long they took in TA. We bombed by and then looked for our left turn, which would point us down from the ridge into a massive valley below. Immediately, we were off, ending up losing a few minutes on an unmapped road that easily could have been ours on the 1:50,000. I quickly turned us around and we found the right road. From there, we settled in for a somewhat exhausting downhill.

On the map, the road headed down with a handful of switchbacks. In reality, there were dozens upon dozens of hairpins and blind curves and corners for every turn on the map. It was unsettling as it was virtually impossible to keep track of our location or even confirm that we were in the right spot. In addition, the road was jarring, and as usual vehicles kicked up lung-searing dust that at time created a white-out feel as our headlamps reflected off the haze.

We all were a bit fried by the descent and the nerves of coming around a corner into a truck, but finally we made it down, and found the first control. As it turned out, we were the first team to elect to go this route, and it sounds like it paid off. The teams ahead of us had a much harder time than we did, and we were told that we had closed the gap to 5th to some degree. I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s nice to imagine it. Regardless, we were on our way, knocking off another control or two and riding into a town where we were to pick up another drawn-on track.

And once again, the ambiguity of the rough approximation of inked-on tracks wreaked havoc on our nav, and not at an optimal time. In addition, the roads of the town were complicated and there was much more going on, including some false parallel features. We rode around a fair bit, losing half an hour or so before we finally worked our way through the correct village on the outskirts of the town. Our confidence rose, but we knew that Thunderbolt would be closing in. We rode on, still not 100 percent locked in (for good reason; we were riding through a network of dirt tracks that were simply represented by one annotated line) but sure we were at least heading in the right direction.

We were able to nail the next point and then rode down into another valley for the start of the last big climb. We looked back a few times, and while we didn’t see lights (Mark actually thought he did), I think we all knew that things were slipping away a bit and not going as we had hoped they would.

After crossing the creek at the bottom of the valley, we were supposed to follow the one mapped road up to the top of the ridge and the next control. It looked straightforward enough, and a highway of tire tracks quickly climbed upward out of a mystery junction. Immediately, I knew something was off. I knew we weren’t doing what the map said, but on the 1:50,000 it was easy to argue that the dirt road would ultimately do what we wanted. We hit another unknown junction. We followed the herd.

We were collectively a bit sleepy, so we stopped for 15 minutes. Two expeditions ago I purchased some ultralight foam sleeping pads from Gossamer Gear. I’m done sleeping on cold ground that leaves me convulsing and more miserable than when I knock off, and it weighs about 2-3 ounces. It makes these small stops MUCH more pleasant. We grabbed some Zs, woke up, and continued.

At a third junction, I hesitated more, but we elected to make a turn and explore, starting to realize that we could either slow way down and go back to the beginning or just follow the road up. All roads lead up…why not? So we rode on for a while…and then turned back to the junction…and then we rode through that junction. I thought we MIGHT be on the mapped route, BUT my gut said we weren’t.

Long story short, we weren’t. From there, we rode through a nightmare. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had been right to worry from the start and that we were riding on unmapped routes, and there were a LOT of them. We actually did see another team at one point. At the time, we thought it was Issy, the fifth place team. I really have no idea who it was, but in retrospect, I suspect it was Thunderbolt and that they snuck ahead of us when we did our out and back exploration after the nap. Regardless, they disappeared, and we didn’t see them again.

From there, we spent several hours working up, exploring some routes that either dead-ended or didn’t feel right. We rode through some villages, one of them quite big. I suggested we were in an area with some mapped buildings and not a single track, but again, where exactly we were was hard to tell. Up we rode. The temperatures dropped. So did the team energy and morale for understandable reasons. I was awake because of the nav, but the others had their struggles with the Monsters.  We rode up.

At one point, Mark and I rode ahead a bit and explored a route that sidehilled along the mountain. At first I was convinced we were on the right track, but we kept riding and riding with no defining, confirming features. Finally, we turned back, and then we rode in the other direction. Mark suggested we were PAST the control, further along the ridge. I didn’t agree, but I kind of threw up my hands mentally, dejected and willing to explore back the other direction.

And so we rode back and kept climbing. Ultimately, this allowed me to confirm what I had believed all along. We had not, in fact, ridden past the control’s location on the mountain. We were definitely in the unmapped pocket of the map I had suggested we were in two hours before, and we were now confirming with our altimeters that we were actually above the control. With all this information. I stopped the train, turned us around and insisted we ride back to where Mark and I had explored.

We made good time back to that spot with my newfound conviction, as I was sure I had it sorted. We rode through our turn-around location and kept on, eventually popping up on the ridgeline’s more defined road in a silent town. From there we road along the ridge, found the control and then stopped for another 15 minute catnap before the final ride to the finish. We were exhausted, sleepy, cold, dejected. Best case scenario, only Thunderbolt had passed us. Worst case: we might have fallen out of the top ten.

We rose from our nap and set off, climbing more until we topped out at a junction with a major road on a towering ridgeline. We rode down to the junction with some sort of old route which proved to be a well graded, relatively flat road terraced into the side of the mountain. The sun rose over a distant mountain range, the air warmed, and we settled into a relatively happy ride, though we all remarked that we all felt incredibly slow as the final kilometers ticked by. As often happens at the end of expedition races, what looks to be a quick and easy finish seems to elongate, stretching into a tortuous final mental challenge.

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Finally, we reached the ridge-line town and a paved road. We cruised through quiet streets, a bit unsure of where we were going, trusting that logic and the occasional white arrow would lead us to the finish line. It took longer than expected, but we found ourselves riding through the stunning finish line arch at the lodge, a beautiful oasis perched on an open and panoramic bald spot surrounded by the Himalayas. Heidi and Sharla greeted us with food, drink, smiles, hugs, and the love that they and the entire Kinetic Events team infuses into their events. It was about as close to heaven as one can feel at the end of a long event.

POST RACE: MAGIC SHIMLA, MAGIC INDIA

For the next few days, we slept, ate, and recovered. I was relieved to put my lungs to rest, though I found I still labored for the next few days. Altitude, pollution, and some longer walks around Shimla than expected left me feeling like I had undertaken another unplanned stage of the race. Still, Shimla was an amazing town to wander, a holdover from the British imperial days, home to British and Indian summer palaces. Towering high above the sprawling town and those buildings of imperial wealth and memory stood an imposing pink statue of Hanuman, a deity of celibacy, at the Jakhu Temple reminding all that India was and always has been for India first. It felt fitting to marvel at the history and legacy of the British Raj but ultimately a Hindu deity reigns above all.

What more is there to say about Expedition India? As always, we made new friends from around the world, battled the Himalayas and ourselves (well, I did at least; I think my teammates were held back a bit but incredibly supportive in tolerating my weakened state), and explored an incredible country full of unbelievable people, culture, and sites. As noted, the field was smaller than some, but it was deep and mighty, and I at least was thrilled with our final result considering the obstacles we faced and the level of competition.

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Jen outshining us all combined…though RVG’s scarf always is a nice touch.

Ultimately, we finished in seventh place out of twenty or so teams. The French from Naturex, one of the absolute best teams in the world, flexed their muscles over the last day or so of racing to run away with an impressive victory, followed in by another strong French team Agde Raid and a young guns team from Spain, Endurance Aromon. The competition was fierce and thrilling among the next ten teams or so with constant jostling all the way to the finish, but with that strong competition also came deep camaraderie and a communal sense of having been part of something extremely unique and special. I suspect everyone left India with full hearts and minds, and I imagine all still daydream about this once-in-a-lifetime event, regardless of finishing place or how each team managed to run their race.

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Champions

Three months removed, I look toward Nationals, but I’m still not entirely in control of my breathing, which remains a frustration and project that lingers on longer than I expected it to. The fact that I was able to enjoy India so much considering that I feel miserable on a day hike at times speaks to the amazing effort Heidi, Stephan, and their whole crew put into Expedition India. I’m sorry to say that I doubt another such event will take place, but if it does, schedule permitting, I will be the first to return. Everything about the experience was truly magical.

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Drones. Where we go, I don’t need drones…Hanging with Thunderbolt in Shimla. You should have seen the bathrooms…

Posted on June 23, 2019, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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