Feeling breathless is a sensation you soon get accustomed to in Nepal, but it’s often hard to decide if this is due to the lack of oxygen at altitude, or the sheer awe of where you are and what you’re seeing.
Day 4 of the Yak Attack race, from Manang to Thorong Pedi at 4450m, is one of the days that defines this struggle. It has to be the hardest 17km I’ve ever ridden (actually, let’s be honest, it was mostly pushing!), and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful too. Being dwarfed by towering 7000m peaks all around, feeling the bright sunshine warm your skin, seeing the sky as vivid blue as I’ve ever seen it, and finding no roads or traffic, other than trains of yaks and donkeys carrying food and supplies up the hill, it was a truly magical experience.
I've wanted to visit Nepal for as long as I can remember. It's one of those places that captivated my imagination since I read about it in accounts of some of the early mountaineers who first scaled these beautiful, majestic mountains. Those tales are the stuff of legends and they create an almost mythical aura around the Himalayas, the greatest mountains on our planet, and the culture of the mountain people who live in such a harsh but beautiful environment.
For a self-confessed lover of the mountains, the Himalayas have always been somewhere I knew I would go when the time was right. If I'm honest, I didn't imagine taking this trip alone, but rather with Gareth, my late husband, and my adventure partner in the mountains—and this trip wouldn’t have been to ride bikes but instead to climb amongst these giants.
That was never to be, and instead this November marked five years since Gareth died, and it felt right to want to fill the month with excitement and adventure in a new place. This place needed to be somewhere I could have time away from my normal life and time to think and remember the past, whilst appreciating the here-and-now. This would be the kind of trip, and the kind of place, Gareth would definitely have approved of.
I first came across the Yak Attack in an article online 6 or 7 years ago and it instantly joined my list of must-do adventures. The Yak Attack is billed as the highest and one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. It’s 10 days long, spans 350km, accounts for 15000m of climbing (with a high point of 5416m) and covers 17 mountain passes over 3600m. Even on paper it looks tough!
What these statistics don’t tell you is that you’ll be ascending to that high point of 5416m in just five days as your body screams out for more oxygen with every step or pedal stroke, and you’ll be doing the hardest race of your life with none of the home comforts you would normally enjoy after multiple long, tough days on the bike. You go without the things you normally take for granted like hot showers, centrally heated houses, clean running water, washing machines and flushing toilets, and western food. You’ll be expecting your body to deal with the fatigue of riding for those ten long days while at the same time acclimatising to the thin air at altitudes you’ve never experienced and attempting to stay healthy despite different foods, different levels of hygiene, extremes of hot and freezing cold, and dust like you’ve never seen before. It’s a lot to ask, and the reason why I chose to ride it was beyond the competition: this wasn’t ever really a race. It was a journey, an experience, a personal challenge, and I wanted to be able to have fun and enjoy it too. Just surviving it, finishing in one piece and challenging myself, having met inspiring people, learning more about myself, and seeing incredible places was going to be enough.
Nepal is a country of contrast: from the riot of sounds, sights and smells that greet you in Kathmandhu and the pupil-dilating, intoxicating, and often frustrating life of the city, to the serene peace, stillness, spirituality and connection to the World around you that you find in the great Himalayan mountains. I loved Kathmandhu, and the chaos there. There’s the smell of burning incense on the air, the noises of cars beeping, scooters rushing past, animals wandering through the narrow streets, streets packed with shops selling trekking gear and brightly coloured pashmina shawls, and people chattering in many different languages. It was vibrant, colourful, and somehow fast AND slow paced all at the same time. I enjoyed the a few days I spent exploring and being a tourist, building my bike and getting over the journey.
My good friend and fellow Juliana Ambassador Rachael Walker (also, Hope Tech Brand Manager) was out for the race, along with photographer Rupert Fowler. Although I’m used to traveling, racing, and exploring on my own now, it was lovely to have some familiar faces to ride with and to look after one another.
I was riding the race on a Juliana Joplin, kindly on loan from Santa Cruz UK importers Jungle Products. The Joplin was bedecked with beautiful purple components from Hope Technology which I know and trust that I could rely on to survive the tough conditions of a 10 day race without fail. Lots of riders had chosen to race on super lightweight carbon hardtails, and whilst they would undoubtedly make the climbing easier, we soon found that the extremely rough terrain we were descending on was much more fun on a full-suspension bike. The Joplin was the absolute perfect bike for the event; it made the climbs easy (when the altitude allowed!) and it was great fun on the descents.
The first five days of this 10th anniversary year of the race would follow the famous Annapurna circuit trek from Besi Sahar towards Manang, and then up and over the Thorang La pass and down to Muktinath. The second five days took us into Upper Mustang which was a demilitarized zone and previously restricted until 1992. This zone, known as the Forbidden Kingdom, lies between Nepal and Tibet is now open to the public but with prices for a single-entry permit running as high as $500, the tourist numbers have stayed low, and because of this it’s people and Tibetan cultures have been preserved and remain isolated from the rest of the World.
The journey to Besi Sahar was an adventure in its own right. We were told it could take anywhere from five to ten hours by bus, depending on traffic, which sounded a lot for a 180km journey on the country's main highway. As we began driving, it all became a little more understandable; the highway was a combination of huge potholes, fallen away sections of road, narrow carriageway, and some of the worlds craziest drivers. We saw oncoming trucks swerve to avoid collisions with cars on the wrong side of the road that were overtaking other cars that were overtaking the bus on blind corners—it was pretty scary! Worst of all, we saw crashed buses that had gone off the side of the road and were left lying on their side, almost like a warning to other drivers...a warning that was clearly unheeded based on what we witnessed during our trip! Incredibly, we made it to the hotel in one piece!
After a short but hot and sweaty time trial on day one in the hills around Besi Sahar, day two promised something different. While the time trial riding took us through hills overlooking vibrant green terraces and through small Nepali villages, the following day was 70km and almost all uphill on a ridiculously rough but incredibly scenic jeep track to Chame. The track followed a steep-sided gorge, crossed right under huge cliffs and past magnificent waterfalls and then took us closer and closer to the huge mountains. The riding was loose, dusty, rough, and brutally tough on bodies and bikes. We rode and pushed for eight hours that day, and I know that without each other’s company we would have had some dark moments. The sun had already left the valley when we reached Chame, and it was freezing cold. There was no chance of taking a shower so we washed with baby wipes, put on ALL the clothes, and then sat round the single, small wood-burner and waited for dinner.
Most nights dinner was a variation on Dhal Baht, the national dish consisting of rice, curried vegetables and lentil stew, but that night we were treated to momos (steamed dumplings) and noodles too. It was a bitterly cold night and we were in a drafty wooden room with frozen water water to look forward to the next morning. What made the mornings particularly tough was packing and preparing for the jeeps or porters to arrive at about 6am, despite not being able to ride until 10am. Unless you wanted to carry them on the bike all day, this meant that our kit and the warmth of our sleeping bags had to be given up early. It was then a matter of drinking as much hot tea as possible to stay warm until the race started.
Day three took us from the cold of Chame into the wider and sunnier valleys and views of the mighty Annapurna range—including Dhalugiri, Nilgiri and Annapurna 3 and 4. Our climb into the mountains put us at 3500m and we were treated to a rest day in Manang to acclimate. The city was a great place to spend the day watching movies in the theatre, drinking tea and eating cakes, and even riding Yaks!
It was riding up from Manang to Thorong Pedi on day four when the altitude really started to feel noticeable. It was like breathing through a straw. You were never able to get enough air in or out of your lungs. Over the course of the day the effect of this was a feeling of lethargy. Our muscles were slow to work and event trying to ride up anything more than a very gentle slope left you gasping and unable to recover like normal either. I had a constant thirst and persistent cough from the cold dry air, the dust, and the increased breathing rate, and little nosebleeds plagued me all the time. Doing anything beyond just standing still above 4000m is hard, let alone trying to ride a bike. And things get even harder when you haven’t given your body enough time to adapt to the thin air at altitude. There’s a real risk of Acute Mountain Sickness too, so it’s important to be aware of how your body feels. Fortunately, I had none of the typical symptoms of Mountain Sickness like dizziness, nausea or headache; I was just unable to push my body any harder than a steady walking pace! That evening my oxygen saturation level was measured at 86%. In a UK hospital that level would be treated immediately as a medical emergency with something vastly wrong! At this altitude it was about as good as things get!
Day five was the day I’d been most apprehensive about…the Thorang La pass. At 5416m, it was the highest I'd ever have been, and we didn’t get much time to acclimatise. Just rolling over in bed the night before left me feeling me breathless, so I was concerned what it would feel like to climb even 1000m higher. I didn't sleep much, and I'm not sure it's possible to at 4500m! So when the alarm went off at 2:30am, I was already awake. The morning was cold but beautifully clear. Stars filled the sky and the Milky Way clearly visible. Just standing still for a minute I watched several shooting stars cross the sky. It was going to be a tough climb so we knew we needed to eat food but eating was hard. Our porters left with the bags at 3am, and I felt so bad seeing them carry the heavy loads with straps on their heads, and many with poor clothing and footwear—a tough life. I made sure to personally thank every single porter we saw on the way up just in case they were the one carrying my bag!
We left on foot at 4am, and the first hour was brutally hard. It was so difficult to breathe, and each steep step felt like hard work. We set a really slow pace to keep control of our breathing and our altitude increased steadily as we eventually settled into a rhythm. Bizarrely, the higher we went the better I felt! There was no headache or dizziness, and as we plodded along at our steady pace I wasn't really struggling to breathe too hard. We steadily passed lots of Trekkers, porters and other riders and just as we reached the top, the sun rose and cast its light on the pass and the surrounding hills. This was absolutely glorious. It was a special place to be and especially at that time....and then it was all downhill from there! 1800m of it to Muktinath in fact! The first part was fast, loose, steep and comprised of switchbacking singletrack. The riding was awesome but my hands were so cold I couldn't tell if I was holding onto the handlebars properly or not. It was until they warmed up that I could properly enjoy the great trail.
Our Joplins really came into their own and Rachel and I whooped our way down together and occassionally stopped for photos along the way (it was too spectacular not too). As we came into town we rode down the steps of the temple and crossed the finish line… at 8am! It was my favourite stage so far.
Stage six was a 45km ride from Muktinath to Gilling and into the Upper Mustang region. This stage included 2000m of climbing and we had learned that in Nepal, that meant it was going to be a tough day. Almost immediately we were greeted with the most incredible views in all directions. We could see Annapurna, Nilgiri, Dhalugiri, and many other huge peaks and below those, enormous canyons and crazy rock formations. It felt like we were in the Wild West but it was so much bigger. We reached the top of the first of five passes of the day and then dropped our saddles and set off down the descent.
Rachel and I chasing each other down 10km of brilliant singletrack and through constantly changing and constantly mind-blowing scenery is something I’ll never forget. It was absolutely brilliant. I felt completely privileged to be able to ride bikes in such a stunning place. At times it felt like we were the only two people on the planet. Huge scenery stretched out all around us, and there were no signs of roads, houses or civilisation. It was untouched, unspoiled, and beautiful. The bottom section wound its way through crazy rock formations made of lumps of pebbles stuck together with mud! We giggled our way through and passed the first water station at the bottom of the descent on a massive high. We were grinning from ear to ear and buzzing with adrenaline!
It took quite a few hours to finish the rest of our riding that day. We climbed up steep and VERY dusty tracks and descended into shaded icy canyons, and no matter where we went, the scenery continued to be unbelievable. Blankets of clouds sat in the valley and different views of the big mountains were revealed at every turn. The riding was hard on the legs, and with all the dust, dry air, and altitude, it was hard on the lungs too. Despite all that, I loved it though—what an amazing place to ride. Our accommodation for the night was incredibly rustic but also really cool, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. On top of it all, the local village kids loved sitting and riding on the bikes and having their pictures taken!
The next day took us from Gilling to Lo Manthang. Huge rock formations and canyon-like valleys sprung up and pinks, reds, whites, purples, and so many other vibrant colors took over the landscape. It was a bit like Bryce Canyon in America but bigger! We were riding up and down to 4000m, but it definitely felt easier than earlier in the week. We still struggled to breathe but at least we were now able to pedal more.
Lo Manthang is the ancient capital of Mustang and where the King of the region still lives. It's only 20km from the Tibetan border and there are definite Chinese influences in the buildings and artwork. The scenery is wild and open all around and at 3800m it feels like a high desert. The town is really old and it shows in the open drains, narrow dirt streets, cows wandering around, and lots of painted doors, prayer flags and Stupas. It felt like we were miles from anywhere and far removed from the rest of the World. In town the electricity only comes on at 5pm as it is either solar powered or from a generator and because of this the showers were freeeeezing. The running water in town freezes overnight and it doesn’t run from the taps until the sun metls it in the morning. The locals collect firewood and dry dung to burn to stay warm during the long cold winters, and they’ll butcher yaks to provide meat for their food stores. It’s a very different life from what any of us on the race were used to.
Day nine was a big day and it took us from Lo Manthang to Chele. The first 15km flowed along singletrack and the next 40km took on jeep track that included 2200m climbing, mostly into a strong headwind with masses of dust.We had until 2pm to reach the water station at 36km, and we knew we were going to have to push hard to make it. From the start, the cold air, 4000m-plus altitude, and dry dusty conditions didn’t help. The reward of a fun, loose, rough, dusty descent through beautiful scenery was enough to make up for it though. Unfortunately, the navigation of this stage was more than a bit tricky.
We'd been told not to follow the GPS for part of the day or take one of the sections of single track, and instead follow the signed red arrows. The arrows were inconsistent though, they weren’t always there at the junctions, and sometimes arrows from previous stages were re-used and thus pointing the wrong way! It was confusing and several times we were left frustrated and wondering if we were riding in the right direction. Lots of people got lost during this stage. It was the first time during the race where I started to get angry and annoyed. Fatigue, effort, battling the wind, and thinking we might not make the cut-off made me feel a bit pissed off with everything. It was also the first day where Rach, Roo and I didn't really talk much to each other....it was a head-down get-on-with-it sort of day! Our small group made the cutoff, battled on through the wind and up and down passes, and finished with a huge dusty descent in just under seven hours. We were so dirty and dusty that we looked like coal miner! It was a tough day but we were so close to the final stage of our journey that we forgot about the day’s difficulties as soon as we sat down for a cup of tea in town. The teahouse we fond was very rustic but it had possibly the best hot shower I’ve ever had! This was probably the toughest day of the race for me, but during a race this long, in this kind of environment and taking into account the conditions like we experienced, you have to expect some ups and downs!
The last and final day was a 30km ride to Jomsom. All the girls in our group rode together and everyone seemed to enjoy the journey and the day passed really quickly. We headed along a huge river valley into the wind and rode out front as a pack with Wendy and Mireille (the two strongest ladies in the race). Riding as pack meant that we had protection from the huge gusts of wind and dust clouds and we didn't get blown off our bikes too much! It was a real team ride, and fantastic to finish by crossing the line together. It was weird to cross the finish; you get so accustomed to your routine that it feels like you’ve been living on another when you stop and try to readjust to the normal world!
We thought the race was over at this point but getting back to Kathmandhu after the final day was like an entirely new stage! After an early rise we walked to the airstrip and it was going to be complete chaos to transport our bikes back home. My bike had made it on a jeep that was going to take two days to get back to Kathmandhu but other riders needed to fly with their bikes and the twin otter planes at the airport were tiny—bikes and owners were immediately separated and split up. Our first flight—to Pokhara—was a bit of a gamble if you don’t show up early. The wind picks up in Jomson in the morning and planes can’t take off, so in some cases you end up sitting on the runway unable to leave. Thankfully, we made our morning window to take off and landed at 9am where we were able to take a taxi to the Lakeside to get breakfast and coffee.
It was great to get some different mountain views too—Machupuchure and Annapurna dominated the skyline above the city. It was noticeable how much warmer it was in town after being at altitude too. Our second flight was at lunchtime and took us to Kathmandhu. It was an equally chaotic and exciting flight, but I was impressed that despite being a tiny plane there was still an air hostess and snacks and drinks!
Would I recommend the Yak Attack to others? Yes, but it’s definitely not for everyone! Nepal, and it’s scenery, people and culture, blew my mind. At the end of the day it’s still a developing country though, and you have to accept that things won’t be the same at this race as a race in a Western country. It is tough, a real challenge no matter what pace you ride at and how hard you push yourself. The trails are rough and there aren’t any easy miles. Throw in the external factors of altitude, temperatures, dietary differences, lack of home comforts, and lower levels of hygiene, and just getting your body through it is an achievement to be proud of. Being able to race through some of the most beautiful and untouched places on Earth is a real privilege too, and one that I’m glad to have experienced.
My memories of Nepal aren’t just of the big things like the epic scenery and the journey we experienced though, they are also of lots of little things and moments.
Nepal, you are awesome. I’ll be back!