Tales from The Worlds Highest MTB Race in Nepal

The Yak Attack is a 10 day race traversing around the Annapurna Circuit and into the Forbideen Kingdom of the Upper Mustang in Central Nepal.  It’s one of the most stunning and possibly the toughest per kilometre race as we battle rough terrain, primitive living conditions, freezing weather and the high altitude with most the race being between 3000 and 5416 Meters.  I DNF’d my first attempt, not being ready for the x-factors of Nepal and fell ill.  Coming back last year it was a tough battle with a few riders as I became the first foreigner to win the race in its 11 year history.

Returning this season I took the race preparations to the next level with a 3 week altitude camp at 2000 meters in India which included racing the 8 day MTB Himalaya race, followed with a week long camp in Nepal between 2700-4200 Meteres. It  payed off with records dropping as the title was successfully defended with the body  running stronger then in 2016. This was a nice treat after some health troubles this summer.  In any race it is important to prepare but when you’re racing at altitude, in a foreign land, eating foreign food and living in tough living conditions it becomes more important then ever as racing is just a small part of the overall battle!

Starting in Besisahar (800 M) we spent the first 5 days of the race on the Annapurna Circuit topping out at 5416 M on Throng La Pass before dropping down a gnarly descent to the sacred village of Muktinath (3700 M).  It’s wild riding this part of the race with loads

of trekkers, yaks, donkey trains and other creatures all over the track to dodge. The most troublesome are the trekkers as they often walk 3-5 abreast across the road and some have headphones on which makes them a real liability.  We do our best to alert them as we pass by but most don’t realize just how fast we are coming towards them.  The Yaks and Donkeys were generally good, staying in a straight line and minding there own business although coming across a heard of 150 + of them on stage 2 opened my eyes.  A farmer warned me the “Yak were coming” but I was more concerned about the racers chasing behind me until I came around a blind corner into a huge heard of moving Yak.  It was a mini stampede as I road into the ditch, climbing up a steep bank with my bike behind me to avoid either of us getting trampled. From that moment forward I began listening when the locals would warn the “Yak are coming!”.   The chickens were also a pain as there squirrel like tactics can be tough to read skirting all over the road in a confusion causing them to be moving land mines.

Hitting Thorong Phedi (4450 M) is the turning point of the race as everyone gets a little nervous before crossing the World’s highest commonly used pass, Thorong La at 5516 M.  I often try to talk the organizers into a later start so we can hit the pass after a good rest and in the sun which automatically increases the temperature 10-15 degrees but they are pretty adamant to wake us up at 2:30 am, for a 3 am bag drop and 5 am race start to hopefully avoid the high winds that can pick up later in the day.  Last year we started at 4am and did the descent off the pass in the dark which caused many wrecks so this year was a treat to be able to at least see where were we going! It was a rough start to the day after a 4 hour patchy sleep, awaking to a mouse eating my laid out breakfast, and then running away, going kamikaze and jumping straight into the water bucket we used to flush the toilet.  The race breakfast this morning was horse food (wheat porridge with rotten apples) so I opted for half a cliff bar before lining up to tackle the races most feared stage.  

From here things went smoothly, dropping everyone except Bhutan’s “Son of the Dragon”, Sonam Drukpa, on the 1 hr 20 minute hike/bike to the top of the pass.  Just before the pass Sonam would also drop off, so I opted to stop for a quick photo with the legendary 5416 M sign.  Unfortunately the iPhone went dead in the -14.9 C weather (5.2 F), but there was a porter up top so he took a couple shots before I bundled up to drop into the 1800 M vertical decent down to Muktinath below.  It was a wicked ride with my Kona Hei Hei being the perfect tool for the job as the descent snaked its way down the rugged mountainside opening up tons of different line options. It was tricky to stay on the bike as the hands froze solid a couple times, requiring brief stops to do the screaming barfies hand swing before continuing on.  Reaching Muktinath at 7:06 am set the new record at 2 hours and 6 minutes from Phedi over the pass.  The finish line staff were no where to be seen so I became the time keeper until they showed up.  While timekeeping I also remembered I forgot to get the Porters contact info so I’ll have to head up the pass another time if I ever want to get the traditional picture from the top!

Once in Muktinath we froze our asses off for the next 4 hours waiting for the sun to come over the mountainside.  It’s definitely the climax in the race as the short sleep, combined with the exertion of heading over such a pass really takes its toll on the riders after 4 days of racing and is tough to bounce back from for the last half of the race.  A couple riders got sick, while the rest of us trudged on into the 2nd half of the race as we entered the Forbidden Kingdom of the Upper Mustang.  

This is an area rich in Buddhist culture and one of the Worlds most preserved regions. It was just recently opened to tourists, now requiring a $500 visa, limiting it to just 2000-3000 tourists a year.  Its a magical landscape mostly between 2900-3900 Meteres in a 

very tough climate which makes much of its Tibetan inhabitants retreat to a lower elevation during the brutal winter months.  There is one road up there which is very rough and a couple trails, thus making it a Mountain bikers heaven.  The terrain is damn rough, dusty, and parts of the road are covered in ice as it snakes its way past waterfalls and over numerous 4000 M + passes.  Kilometres feel like miles up there and the living conditions were primitive, sometimes in barn like structures with Yak standing just 2 feet behind where we would be squatting to use a hole in the ground for a toilet.  The food was good with Buckwheat and Yak both being staples along with the traditional rice, thick Tibetan noodles, eggs and beans.  Fruits and Veg were scarce but thats why some of us pack bags full of green and red powders from Canada which everyone else laughs at, until they get sick from lack of nutrients 😉  

The days in the Upper Mustang were unforgettable but it was  a challenge to stay warm and healthy between racing our bikes.  It’s a battle 24/7 to stay on top of your game and to stay focused and be race ready each morning. Eventually the stages would wind down and we found ourselves racing to the final finish line in Tato Pani, down in oxygen rich air at 1100 M with natural hot pools waiting for our sore and tired bodies.  The Nepali boys, Ajay and Narayan were just 1.5 minutes apart in there battle for 2nd place after 8 hard racing days so they had it out on the last day.  I could enjoy a more leisurely cruise to soak in the amazing beauty of the surrounding Himalayas eventually riding in for a 2nd straight Yak Attack title.  

The toughest part of these adventures is usually after the race when everyone starts heading home and the adrenaline highs start to wear off.  The day after the race is often good, but days 2-4 after can be tough as our bodies shift into recovery mode, while our minds are still racing and searching for excitement.  I’ve learned the hard way many times that its a time the reigns need to be held tight, and the mind has to be slowed down to let the body recoup and then bounce back ready for the next adventure which is never far away.  

One thing we will all miss from this race is the camaraderie and laid back fun nature of the Nepali riders and support staff who really make this race a great experience. Even in the toughest of times the locals are laughing and joking around lightening the spirits of all those around them.

For now its a few more days resting in the Lakeside town of Pokhara recouping and getting over a few ailments from the race before heading back into the mountains without a bike to kick-off the offseason!    

     

 

 

 

 

 

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