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Race Report: Yak Ru – Annapurna Challenge: On Top of the World

Yak Ru – Annapurna Challenge ’14, the preeminent mountain biking enduro style race concluded on May 12 after 6 racing days in the remote Himalayas of Nepal. The race route traversed five of Nepal’s most beautiful and remote districts covering 240km in this 5-stage race. The formidable Thorong-La pass (altitude 5416m) was the most daunting stage for all participants, especially the riders traveling from sea level. International and Nepali riders agree that they are humbled by the mountain, but this high altitude race is not for the weak of spirit or faint of heart.

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Organizers Dawn Till Dusk and NepalSutraTM presented the race as “super extreme” to the participants and briefed them extensively about the intense nature of the competition. Race Director Chhimi U. Gurung, an accomplished mountaineer and adventure sportsman never understated the grueling nature of this unique race, “Participants will battle all of the nasty elements including extreme heat, severe cold, high altitude, dust and gusting winds, and long and treacherous riding. For some of the racers their biggest obstacle may be their own ego and personal limits, but as it is a race they have to battle everyone else’s too.” In this inhospitable terrain, organizers planned to support every contingency during the race including emergency evacuation, trauma and illnesses. A tie up with Nepal Army and Grande International Hospital proved vital in successfully managing two medical emergencies requiring helivac rescue during the race. The entire race was designed to test one’s mettle in a competitive and unforgiving environment.

At the outset participants traveled 165 km by bus to the starting line in Besisahar (577m), a small gateway town to the mountain district of Manang. Besisahar means “a low altitude town”, and it is all uphill from there. The first day was expected to be hot and humid but a torrential down pour hours before the race provided a great respite and also a taste of the fickle mountain weather. The day remained cloudy throughout sheltering racers from the onslaught of the summer sun.

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Everyone completed this stage – a short 20 km section designed to warm up riders to more challenging stages ahead. The trail, mostly jeep track and mix of single tracks follows Marsyangdi River upstream to reach the village of Bahudanda (1250m) perched on top of a scenic ridge. All but one of the riders reached the stage one finish line in around 2 hours. Korean Rider Jae Chun Woo broke his front suspension in a fall near around the halfway mark. He didn’t give up and carried his bike to the finish. Dawa Sherpa and Ram Kumar Tamang from Nepal were neck and neck till the finish line closely followed by Singaporean Wilson Low. The trio made it to the podium finish for stage one.

The riders awaken to a beautiful overcast morning in Bahundanda. By 8:30am, with their belly filled up with porridge, fruit, boiled eggs and tea all riders were ready to conquer stage two. Race Director Chhimi U. Gurung flagged the riders off at 8:50am. Moments after the race began, participants had to dismount and carry their bikes down a steep slope. After that, it was an easy but technical single track ride till they reach Lili Bhir. There on, the riders maneuvered their bikes on a tricky stone step trail against the dramatic backdrop of Marsyangdi River till they reached a river crossing at the Syange Bridge. The real battle of the day starts from here – an all uphill 35km jeep track section to Chame (2600m).

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The faster riders seemingly enjoyed the long uphill sections while the slow riders just had to endure the uphill for longer. Fast or slow, even the strongest riders were wilted by the time they reached Chame. At 2600 meters above level, Chame is the first place where riders may begin to feel the effects of altitude and everyone is aware of the risks. In the case of, Jae Chun Woo, with a broken bike on the previous day decided to carry the bike and run the entire 45 km stage. It was a herculean task which took a toll on his health. Tired and exhausted Jae Chun Woo makes it to the finish line around 9 pm after plodding for nearly 11 hours. His only wish when he arrived was to have hot Korean Soup “Ko Tsu Jang.” Wishful thinking! He had to settle for a Himalayan portion Dal-bhat.

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One of the Nepalese riders, Suroj, pulls out of the race after stage 2 due to abdominal pain – but this gave an opportunity to Jae Chun – as he was able to swap out his broken fork with Suroj’s and renew his hope to complete the race.
Despite Suroj’s illness, Nepalese riders dominated stage 2. Ram Kumar Tamang finished in 4 hours 8 minutes and 8 seconds. Second position was taken by stage one winner Ngawang Dawa Sherpa in 4 hours 14 minutes and 53 seconds. Himal Tamata completed the race in 4 hours 28 minutes and 23 seconds, to earn third place. Singaporean Wilson Low did notably well although his position slipped to 5th position in stage 2. Stage 3 is the most rewarding section for altitude savvy riders as they push themselves up to reach Ghyaru (3700m). The village of Ghyaru was originally named “Yak Ru” – meaning Yak horn. For some reason the village name has been changed but the race is named in honor of this beautiful outpost in the rugged Himalaya.

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Riders are treated with amazing 360 degree views of the Annapurna, Gangapurna, Chulu, Lamjung and Manaslu mountain ranges. The signature stonewalled fort-like houses give a unique identity to this village and indication of its prosperous past. Although situated high up in the mountains, Ghyaru still produces plenty of potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables that are highly sought after in the 12 VDCs that form the district of Manang. After a quick refill of water bottles riders gaze into the single-track trail ahead that thins out into the horizon. Singaporean rider Wilson said it best when he arrived in Manang, “This has to be the best single-track I have ridden anywhere in the world!”

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All riders arrived by 3pm in stunningly beautiful Manang (3500m) and congregated at the Bakery shop. It is a mountain luxury to find fresh baked Apple strudel and chocolate cake in the rugged mountains. Early riders dig their teeth into their favorite meal of Yak steak and other delicacies. After the meal they attend to their bikes. Everyone is in relaxed mode as the group is going to spend an extra day here exploring and acclimatizing.
The rest day in Manang is anything but relaxing for Korean rider, Seung Beom An as he pulls out from the race citing his leg injury. The only way to send Seung Beom safely back to Kathmandu is via a chopper. Early the next morning, Nepal Army’s chopper arrives to safely evacuate him to Kathmandu.

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A short excursion to Lake Gangapurna invigorates the mind and keeps the legs in good shape for the more competitive climbing that is yet to come. Mingling with other trekkers and doctors from HRA is a perfect social activity for the rest day in Manang. Conversations are dominated by the mention of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Visitors to Thorong-la start to show early signs of AMS in Manang. A few trekkers we met had been taking rest for several days at the advice of HRA doctors to overcome the AMS. Everyone is reminded to take lots of fluid and rest well to aid their bodies to adjust to the mountains and avoid altitude sickness.

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But there is little rest for the support crew who plan to walk up to Yak Kharka ahead of the racers and reach Thorong Phedi before the riders arrive the following day. It is indeed a good plan as the riders will reach Phedi and complete the stage within two hours – versus nearly 7 hours for those on foot.

Stage four starts by 9am with 10 remaining riders. Dawa, Ram Kumar and Tamata are still in the lead and complete the stage well within 2 hours. The other riders complete the higher altitude section within 5 hours with the exception of Jae Chun Woo. He showed clear signs of fatigue, looked pale, and was no doubt beyond his limits from pushing too hard to carry his bike the day before. He struggled to reach Thorong Phedi in a little more than 6 hours. Once at the lodge, he is attended by the race doctor. His questionable health condition is of primary concern to the organizers and fellow racers. Woo’s oxygen saturation level is below 35% and he is showing other signs of exhaustion and AMS. While the doctor administers oxygen and stabilizes his condition, the organizers are busy trying to relay communication back to Kathmandu for another helicopter evacuation to bring Woo back to the safety. Preparation and planning pay off as Woo is now inhaling oxygen via an oxygen mask and lies in semi awake state, under observation much of the night. Fortunately, communication was established with Nepal Army HQ for a Heli evacuation at first light the next morning.

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At 4am, while the rest of the racers start the final assault on the Thorong-La pass, doctor Abhijit, helper Suresh and Woo wait for the chopper to arrive at the Phedi. Touching down at daybreak on the makeshift stone helipad, Woo is loaded into the chopper with the rotors still in full motion. Pilots do not switch off the engine in high altitude, thin air, rescue missions. Within moments, Woo and the doctor were airlifted from Phedi. Back in Kathmandu, Woo is brought to Grande International Hospital and released on his own recognizance after 24 hours of observation.

On the steep approach to Thorong-La, riders are fighting to carry their bikes on their backs and negotiate slippery icy tracks in total darkness. With just their head lamp to guide them, they could see nothing beyond a few meters. The darkness shielded them, in some way, from the elements of fear related to the sheer depth of the crevasses or the precipitous drops they would have to negotiate to reach the summit of Thorong-la at 5416 meters. After hours of agonizing pain and endurance, riders make it to the summit one after the other and briefly pose for photos before quickly descending down the pass towards Muktinath. One could not fail to notice the rider’s delight at the prospect of riding the downhill trail to Kagbeni – a 2700m descent – making it the ultimate 100% rideable downhill trail on earth. Those who were able to stay mounted on the saddle covering the steepest downhill section, made it to Kagbeni remarkably quick. Ngawang Dawa Sherpa arrived Kagbeni from Thorong Phedi in 2 hours and 35 minutes some 14 minutes ahead of Ram Kumar Tamang. This is indeed a remarkable record, and we will watch closely to see if it is broken in subsequent races.

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At the end of stage 5, we could see the majority of racers were able to meet the challenge – but the winner’s podium is small and those achievements are unparalleled. We saw Ngawang Dawa Sherpa, a high altitude marathon runner took the first place position beating Ram Kumar Tamang of the Nepal Army by a mere 4 minutes in overall timing. Himal Tamata and Rajiv Chand, both representing Nepal Army finished in third and fourth positions respectively.

The arrival in Kagbeni marked the end of the competitive racing stages of the Yak Ru challenge. Participants seemed relieved but not yet relaxed, until they arrive at Tatopani where a hot spring awaits their aching bodies. Racers entered the non-competitive, fun group ride of 60km on mostly Jeep tracks and the Rocky river bed of the Kaligandaki. Riders took leisurely refueling and photo stops along the way anticipating a dip in the hot water pool. Their desire is perfectly understandable as most have not showered in days- just one of the many physical challenges they had to overcome.

The 60 km windy and dusty section is covered by our riders without much difficulty. As each one checks in to the guest house their stories are punctuated with the sound of beer bottles opening. Everyone is heard making plans for the next years’ race and how differently they plan to approach it next time. Few riders made their boisterous and confident pronouncement to return for Yak Ru 2015 on this day itself. Maybe it is soaking in the hot water that made them quickly forget the hardship they just endured while crossing the pass with their bikes on their back. Up in the pass some of them were cursing like drunken sailors and muttering words like “I will never do this again.” But here in the celebratory moment of completion and camaraderie it is only the glory of meeting the challenge and exceeding individual limits that anyone wants to remember.

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The final group ride takes the riders from Tatopani to Beni in just under two hours. At Beni Bazaar our bus awaits to take the group and gear to the lovely lake town of Pokhara where we are planning to indulge ourselves in some modern world luxury such as a massage, sauna and relax by the pool. A three hour drive via Kusma-Baglung highway brings us back to good old Pokhara and the comfort of the resort hotel Mount Kailash. The final day, still feeling excited with the successful conclusion of the race, we await the arrival of our chief guest, the Chief of Army Staff General Gaurav SBJ Rana. General Rana, who is an avid mountain biker himself and an advocate of “go green” campaign, agreed to grace the Yak Ru – Annapurna Challenge ’14 prize distribution ceremony in Pokhara despite landing in Kathmandu just a day before from his overseas visit. His love and commitment to the development of mountain biking sports in Nepal is evident and genuine. He graced the event and mingled with the riders and organizers listening to their story with much interest – and perhaps a degree of envy.

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Many from around the world have followed this race with great anticipation, from start to finish – and now it is over. Those who came and completed will carry that achievement with them forever. For those who did not make it, rest assured that the organizers are working to again exceed expectations at Yak Ru – Annapurna challenge ’15 scheduled for 02 – 11 April 2015.

More details can be found at www.yakru.com

Words: Sunil C. Sharma | 
Pictures: Kumar Ale, Jivan Ale, Sunil C. Sharma

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