Now that was hard!
Everyone talks about the Thorong La stage of the race as super difficult but I don’t think any of us expected what we got today, which for some was an 11-hour sufferfest. The conditions were such that even the winners, Ajay and Narayan (of course) were an hour slower than last year. Comments ranged from Steve “that was one for the books” to a handful of variations on “hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”
Other than a few quotes that was all I had written about our most-epic stage of the race. Maybe I was tired, or maybe I felt that I wouldn’t forget but, whatever the excuse, today’s post is mainly from memory.
“Experts tell you to acclimate at 300m a day and we’re doing a 1,000 meters two days in a row!”
I don’t remember who said that but it was an accurate summary of the question on many people’s mind. I wasn’t one of them. I’d been to Everest and dealt with acclimation issues many times in the past so I wasn’t worried about the elevation. I was worried about everything else, primarily the weather and conditions. Still, I was confident. Mountains are more or less my home court. Today I’d have a bigger advantage over the field than any stage, by far.
Due to the bad conditions we started an hour later, 5am. We’d still spend a couple hours in the dark, which is probably an advantage for the Sisyphusian drudgery that marked the first part of the stage, which was super steep and slippery snowy/icy singletrack. Definitely a “one foot in front of the other” kind of ordeal.
pics: above, sonya looney and top, jeremy saowyer
As I stated I might after stage 8, I started further up. Hard to say in the dark but I felt like I was mid pack with no idea who was ahead or behind. Occasionally someone would pull over when a gap formed but other than that it was just up, always up, in a long line.
After a while gaps started to form. It was hard so I didn’t bother about passing but when a small group behind asked us to pull over I let them around and then jumped in. We passed Sonya “I can talk at 190bpm”, the first time I’d been in front of her the entire race and she said “I take it back. I don’t want to be a mountaineer,” something she’d mentioned she’d like to do once her racing career was over. I assured her she’d get used to it and, with her ability to suffer, be fine. She let out a miserable-sounding groan, and I thought for a sec that she maybe she shouldn’t climb, but then she laughed at herself, us, and the madness we were engaged in and I changed my tune. She’d be a great mountaineer!
When the sun came up I was clearly punching above my weight in a group with Rob and Jeremy (both near the front of the standings). And we were passing people. We continued to go by guys I’d hadn’t seen in the race before. When I passed Jon, I wanted to ask if he still planned to run this afternoon but he looked so bad I was actually worried and stopped to make sure he was okay. He said he was but if he wasn’t a doctor I might not have believed him and tried to help (he was fine, just not having his best day).
Conditions where pretty bad. At times we had to swim through drifts because not enough people had been up since the snow to track things properly. Passing was hard, too. If you stepped off the track you’d sink, or fall, so you had to wait for spots. I was really glad that I didn’t begin at the back. It could also be icy and there were definitely places you did not want to fall. I tried to shoot an awesomely-absurd photo at one section that really did look like we were mountaineering with bikes on our backs. Unfortunately my camera froze. Sadly no one else took a shot here—probably because it was a fall and die scenario and you really needed to pay attention instead of thinking about the scenery.
Most people had harnesses to hold their bikes. I went old school, just carrying the sucker. I think this was a good decision because when I need to pass or shift weight around I could easily do it. My fingers got cold enough early on that I was worried about them but I could shift the bike so I only needed one hand at a time and keep the other moving and warm and, by the top, was no longer worried about frost bite.
My only stop on the way up was to fish my sunglasses out of my pack. I wanted to make it to the summit before stopping but the day was bright and I was worried about snow blindness. I kept squinting, blinking my eyes, and trying not to stare at the view hoping not to have to stop, but I finally relented because, well, being snow blind sucks.
While it was really hard I was in my element. Rob asked how I was doing at one point and I replied with something about “my turf”. I’d spent more time getting ready for this race hiking in snow than riding. It was like a regular winter’s day with a bit less atmospheric pressure.
I got to Thorong La just behind Rob, Jeremy, and Zbig. We’d made it! The pinnacle of the race. We celebrated and took some photos. Jeremy passed around some water he had inside his jacket, my first sip since the start because mine was frozen. Then the guys got ready to take off. I’d seen all sorts of pics of the summit and kind of pictured a leisurely time here to soak it in. It wasn’t like that at all. The descent looked grim and was covered in snow for what looked like ever.
I tried to get a tea at the little shop but the guy there was busy and ignored me so I decided to just get moving. My water had to melt sometime! At the hut a hiker said,
“You guys are crazy!”
I hear this all the time in my endeavors and generally deflect it. I don’t think I’m crazy, at least most of the time. Today, however, I had to admit, was different. “I’m going to have to agree with you.”
So we headed down and it was hard, too. I kept waiting for the track to get better but it never really did. Zbig was on a mission and watching him go down was amazing. He’d go faster and faster and –we all agreed later—you’d see him and think conditions must be improving because he was going so fast only to get to where he was and find it as post-holing nightmare-ish as it had been all along.
looking up at thor from low on the descent – sonya looney
I kept hoping my water would unfreeze but it didn’t. I was getting seriously dehydrated but, again, this is something I’ve experienced enough to be relatively okay with. By the time we reached snowline, and a tiny store, I’d gone 4:45 with no food and only a sip of water. I bought a Coke and spent some time repacking and Rob and I joked about how crazy it had been. Tyler then showed up, Rob left, and then Des appeared. That latter two were dead even on time, so Tyler left in a hurry. I really wanted to rehydrate because I had no idea what to expect. It was 20k, which could be a long way in Nepal, but also didn’t want to give up my placing so I moved on, too.
The next section was pretty grim. My head hurt and the riding was icy and snowy, forcing me off and on my bike over and over. We finally hit rideable track and a town, and then we began to lose altitude. Fast.
I was dehydrated and the “Nepali cobbles” (stones placed vertically in the road for traction) were so painful that I was audible screaming during sections. Finally the road smoothed out somewhat and I flew into Kagbeni feeling like someone was jackhammering at my brain. A short while later Steve H finished, also screaming. I was not alone.
The rest of the day was a celebration. We sat in the sun eating, re-hydrating, and waiting for the others to finish. It would be a very long wait for some, as racers were staggering in for the next 6 hours!
In front of most of them came Neil, running. His account of the day wasn’t the same as most of ours. This is from his blog.
I was pleased to be hiking up bike-free and took a nice easy pace. I offered encouragement and help along the way, and even shared my hot drink with friends struggling in the very dry air. At that altitude there is very little moisture in the air and dehydration is a common problem. After having my drink freeze up in the 2012 race and suffering for several hours without any hydration I had elected to take an insulated bottle full of warm water this time, and by stashing it inside my jacket it had the added benefit of keeping me toasty too.
Neil would be back in a month for the Everest marathon and, from this account, seems like he was ready and was, as he ended up doing very well.
Back to the diary:
The town of Kangbeni is stunning. Definitely one of my favorite places in Nepal. I spent the afternoon/evening exploring, eating drinking (including a place called Yak Donalds), playing with dogs, and wandering around in a bliss-like state because I’m done. I mean, there’s a race tomorrow. My bike isn’t perfect and I’m not sure if my headache was from dehydration or the rattling of my modified shock, so it could totally suck. But I’m getting to Pokhara. I’m going to finish the Yak Attack and it was a first-class adventure. I think Papa would have approved. I came to Nepal to race my bike. And it was good.