The Flip Side: A First Hand Impression of Post Earthquake Reconstruction in Nepal

It’s natural for me as a photographer to want to show and share with you images of the many beautiful subjects I come across in Nepal, just as it is natural for me to gravitate towards them. And I dare say, I’m not so different from any foreigner who comes here: we tend not to come for the air pollution, the noise pollution, the water pollution, or to witness the squalor and struggle in which many people in this country exist. But for me to continue sharing only these things of beauty with you – the noble Mongolian face against the white Himalaya backdrop, be it literal or metaphorical – would be disingenuous to say the least. It would be to mislead, to give false impression.

So in this short piece I’m going to focus on a few of the places where the tourists and to a degree, the aid organisations (too often one and the same) don’t go; places at the epicentre of the second 2015 earthquake which exactly because of their unattractive locations, set deep into the recesses of more difficult to access side valleys, or at river level, hemmed in by steep, jungled hillsides, receive little or no attention in the effort to build back better.

We start in Charikot, District Capital of Dolakha.

Being the main town of one of the most severely affected districts, Charikot in May last year was fairly buzzing with Aid presence. The UN chaired cluster meetings in an effort to co-ordinate the work of the various players. And large 4x4s, heavily logoed, plied the main dirt road, linking to Singati, 40km further North. A few days ago, there was not a foreigner to be seen.

I returned to the upper eastern edge of town where last year five and six storey concrete buildings had toppled into one another like dominoes. At that time I had seen the beginnings of the monumental effort to demolish these displaced behemoths, the work at that time being done by hand: sledgehammer vs reinforced concrete. It was a very different scene today, the crippled buildings throughout town having successfully been cleared, making way for redevelopment, as and when funds permit.

20161217-road-trip-14

A slow process of reconstruction

I also returned to a hill on the West side that overlooks the town. Where last year the terraced fields around the fringes had been full of makeshift tarpaulin homes, they have for the most part returned to their agricultural use: but not all. 18 months on there are some facing their second winter living under tarpaulin, and there are thousands who have graduated to home under a single thickness sheet of corrugated tin. Have these people heard about ‘building back better’? or are they simply meeting their shelter needs in the only way they can?

3-charikot-ok-until-you-look-closer_

Charikot 18 months ago (May 2015). Note tents in foreground and tarps on terraced hillside

20161217-road-trip-21

Charikot today. Tarps largely but not entirely absent.

Even last year, when the dirt road North was flowing with Aid vehicles, a short and not so difficult detour changed the scene entirely. I had been directed by Plan International’s District Co-ordinator to, if possible, get to Lapilang VDC (Village Development Committee). It was somewhere they hadn’t managed to get to yet. On my Royal Enfield Bullet (hardly an off road machine) I made the hour detour into a western side valley. It was admittedly harder and slower going, but not by much. Nothing a 4 x 4 couldn’t do comfortably.

I arrived in Lapilang two weeks after it had had 100% of its housing stock destroyed and to my surprise, I learned from the villagers that I was the first outsider to reach them. They had received emergency supplies; these had come in Nepali trucks. The villagers took me on a several hours tour of their village, showing me the remains of their homes, the fissured earth which they feared would yet tumble down the steep hillside to the river far below, and the ghotes (animal shelters) higher up, on safer ground, where most of them were now living in co-habitation with their beasts.

8-krihna-thamis-house-lapilang-ward-6

The condition of most homes in Lapilang

7-ghote-community-lapilang-ward-6

The relocated village where people and animals co-habited under tarpaulin

I did what little I could, training them how to use and maintain simple drinking water filters and leaving them with all I had.

The school had been the only concrete building but it had not survived. Only it’s skeleton remained, misshapen. It stands there still, bearing testament to the 45 seconds in which the life of the village shook and changed. Next to it there is now a tin school, hot in summer, cold in winter in which children sit on wooden benches at wooden desks or stomp about in the dust, running amok in the absence of teachers.

6-children-bucket-school-lapilang-ward-6

The wreck of the school and a water filter

18 months ago, the community needs where for shelter, food, water. These needs have now been met, to varying degrees. Now a proper school that is their number one priority and hope. But how will this need be met? And how long before temporary (corrugated tin) becomes permanent?

20161217-road-trip-63

The new school. When does temporary slide into permanent?

The disparity of aid and reconstruction is now one of the most striking and troubling elements of Nepal’s post-earthquake reconstruction. What demarcated the ‘getters’ and the ‘go-withouts’ is plain to see, though an inconvenient truth for those for whom personal gratification is part of the Aid deal (typically along the lines of coming to the aid of a noble Sherpa community, that exists on a trekking route – and thus, a place of natural beauty and already, some wealth – and involving aid worker travel to places tourists have to pay to go)

20161217-road-trip-251

Contrast the new school of Lapilang and Simigaon

20161217-road-trip-253

Could that disparity be something to do with having or lacking this? (this is the other view from the Simigaon school)

I move now back to the main Tama Koshi valley, to Singati, a transit town on the junction of rivers and routes and where the earthquake caused considerable loss of life, mostly due to multiple collapses of concrete buildings. This is the entry point to the Gaurishankar National Park, a place where tourists show a permit but don’t linger. It has little or nothing of beauty, either natural or man-made with which to endear itself to a tourist or donor.

20161217-road-trip-110

As scenic as it gets in Singati

It’s a place where even the football that the kids kick around in the dust is misshapen, where a wrecked car passes for a climbing frame and where 400 children go to school under a single tin roof.

20161217-road-trip-141

Football (photo credit: a local child)

20161217-road-trip-161

Climbing frame (with my hotel rear right)

20161217-road-trip-85

School for 400

What is impressive is the sheer amount of hard graft that is taking place to rebuild. And perhaps it’s a good thing that there is no sign of foreign aid here: no fostering of unhealthy dependence; but are the same mistakes of construction simply being repeated in the absence of funds or expertise for anything that constitutes ‘Build Back Better’?

20161217-road-trip-189

Young men straighten mangled reinforcing rods and cutting to length for re-use

20161217-road-trip-168

Gangs manually fill wire net with rubble in an attempt to hold back the unstable terrain

20161217-road-trip-192

The site of a collapsed hotel. More than forty people were killed. For weeks if not months nearly half of the bodies remained in the rubble: digging them out was simply not best use of man power in an emergency

On we travel, another twenty something kilometers up the road, impassable last year due to the many earthquake triggered landslides. I stop at Chhetchhet, leave the bike and climb six hundred vertical meters to arrive at Simigaon, idyll of rural, rustic, Himalayan-view-enjoying, organic village life. This is a very different scene to Lapilang, its similarly rural but mountain view-less cousin. So what’s the single biggest difference? How does Simigaon have numerous buildings of significant size that are still intact? How does Simigaon boast a well built new school? I believe that the single biggest factor is location. It has mountain views. It is in a beautiful location. It has thus become a trekking route. Locals have become comparatively wealthy because of this, both in material wealth but also, critically, in social capital and worldly knowledge. They have forged bonds with foreign trekkers upon whom they can now call, or who come forward to offer their help because it feels good to help that guy whose teahouse they stayed in in that beautiful place with the view of the mountains. And so it goes, the gap widens, the disparity increases. If you want to see it and feel good, there are plentiful examples of ‘Build Back Better’. If you want to see it and feel something different, there is a flip side.

More images:

20161217-road-trip-195

Singati, 18 months on

20161217-road-trip-196

Singati, 18 months on

23-singati-pul

Singati 18 months ago

20161217-road-trip-191-2

Singati today

21-singati-school

First day back at school post-earthquake (May 2015). The building is unusable and remains so today

20-singati-ground-zero

Locals contemplate those lost under the rubble of the hotel. Singati, May 2015

20161217-road-trip-95

A Room with a View. Singati. Note houses of corrugated tin

20161217-road-trip-24

The full spectrum of housing. Charikot. Dec 2016

Posted in #Aid, #buildbackbetter, #Dolakha, #NepalEarthquake, #NepalQuake, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trail Running Nepal: Kathmandu Ultra

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-208

The Kathmandu Valley

It’s my second morning in Nepal and at 5am my sleep is penetrated by an alarm; nothing untoward, just the timeless “beep-beep, beep-beep” of my Casio announcing that it’s time to move: the Kathmandu Ultra awaits.

I ride across town in the darkness. The rhythm of my Enfield’s single cylinder taps a familiar beat and carries me smoothly through the empty streets of Kathmandu. I arrive at the house of Chechi Rai (née Sherpa), a formidable Nepali runner from the Solukhumbu.

The alley way is dark and the gate locked. No sign of life within. I call out and wait. Still nothing. As we’ve little time to spare, I climb awkwardly over the spike-topped gates and into the compound.

Upstairs two year old Dawa Alex is crying, indignant at the prospect of being deprived of his Mum for the day. Chechi comes down and we thread our way back through the dark courtyard to the bike.

It’s a long ride back across town and out to the North. By the time we reach the gates of Shivapuri National Park I am well and truly chilled. Although we made it on time, in true Nepali style, not many others did. The bus laid on by Trail Running Nepal has taken a wrong turn and Richard, the race organizer can only apologise, quipping that the bus driver has probably gone to his ex-girlfriend’s house.

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-75

Lizzy Hawker checks in the runners

To the sound of cheers the errant bus eventually arrives, a race brief ensues, we are checked in through the park gate and it begins. The 50k runners take to the start line first, followed by the 27k and 12k (the lunatics doing 80km started at 5am)

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-67

Mira Rai being Mira Rai and inspiring young runners

 

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-56

A chilly start line

Our route starts with a climb of zigzagging stairs before reaching a traversing trail along which the 50k-ers break away, leaving the shorter distance runners to continue a more direct ascent.

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-168

First of many staircases!

Along the traverse the scenery is beautiful. Early morning sunbeams cast long shadows across the waking city below and I’m not alone in stopping to take a photograph here or there. Indeed, for several minutes I forget running entirely and engage in a playful photo shoot with some snotty nosed children. They lean in on me from all sides, hustling for the best view of the camera’s LCD and spinning away with peels of laughter on seeing their image or that of their friend or sister.

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-242

Making scary faces!

The moment passes and I resume running, reaching the first check point after several further kilometers, during which time I meet Anne, a British Doctor who has just spent the trekking season at Pheriche working at one of the Mount Rescue Association’s Aid Posts.

Beyond the check point the trail leaves Kathmandu Valley behind, wrapping around the back of the Shivapuri massif, climbing and descending through a series of jungled ridge lines and saddles, to ultimately arrive at the biblical stone staircase that leads to the 2750m Shivapuri summit.

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-273

Langtang Himal

During this stage I’ve flick-flacked with a couple of runners, including Chechi who’s going well in spite of minimal training and what I can only image is the tiring burden of breast feeding a two-year old.

Further up the great stone staircase I catch up to another female Nepali runner with whom I share water and a few encouraging words.

There’s little to linger for at the summit as unchecked jungle hinders what would otherwise be spectacular views. We drop off to the East, descending a few kilometers before reaching the second check point (22km).

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-259

The welcome shade of thick jungle

From here a 14km sector proves hard going. The sun is at it zenith and where until now we’ve been in shady jungle, the ridge lines here are exposed. About half way though this sector my mouth is dry and my strength is draining away. I sit down in the shade, drink deeply and enjoy a few moments of being still. Around me the trees are alive with what sound like parakeets. Every now and then a cooling breeze moves through the canopy, dislodging dry leaves which fall to the forest floor where they crackle underfoot.

The dusty trail now descends: down steps, through gullies, past an army camp and ultimately back to the inhabited flanks of the Kathmandu Valley. The terrain is unforgiving: stone steps and sun-baked earth – little give in either. My focus is entirely on moving lightly and efficiently. Finally an intersecting traverse is met and followed. Running inclines has become too much effort. It’s all I can do to maintain a running gait on the flat. Turning a corner, the third check point is a welcome sight.

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-275

More himalayan vistas

I take on another flapjack, some salty biscuits and plenty of jivanjal (an oral rehydration salt).

The marshal is a very chatty and helpful young man. He’s happy that I speak to him in Nepali and asks where I’ m from. It turns out that his family is now living just a few miles from where I grew up, in Hampshire. He tells me he’s just met another Brit, a chap from Wales who passed through about 15 minutes ahead of me. This must be Ann’s husband, Peris.

I’m about to move on when to my surprise, Chechi appears, looking as fresh and cheerful as ever and having clearly smashed the descent! On the climb to Shivapuri she’d appeared to be struggling. And given how little opportunity she’s had to run, I’d been wondering if encouraging her to race today had been the right thing to do. I needn’t have worried. My concern now is to keep ahead of her!

The climb from this third check point is only a shallow gradient but until the jivanjal kicks in, it’s all I can do to lean into my poles and stride it out. As the minutes tick by and my system starts to absorb the fresh fuel, I rally, finding once again a healthy and sustainable rhythm. Indeed after a few more kilometers I am catching the man I assume to be Peris! He is duly surprised by how much I know about him but pleased to hear that I’d been running and chatting with his wife, albeit some time ago. We chat for a bit but my body now no longer wants to walk and I run on.

To our surprise there’s a check point around the next bend, on about the 41km mark. The profile marked on our race numbers is strangely out of kilter with what we are experiencing and in our weary state there’s no making sense of it – so I don’t trouble myself to try!

I’m now descending on a dusty vehicle track, all runnable. I relax and let gravity take me. To my further surprise a few fellow runners are walking back up the track towards me, having finished. They tell me it’s not far to go, perhaps only a few kilometers. Hmmm. The end is somewhat sudden. I’m psychologically prepped for at least 50k but just past 44k I turn a bend and recognise the start/finish line.

There’s a nice ripple of applause from other finishers and I’m adorned with a medal. Peris is a few minutes behind and Chechi just a few seconds behind him. After 7hours:50minutes, 44km and 2000m ascent the spectacle of a strapping Royal Marine having to sprint for position with a diminutive, breast feeding Mum was so tantalizingly close. Alas!

20161210-kathmandu-ultra-289

Chechi takes the finish tape – 3rd placed lady!

Anyway, what a fantastic way to be reintroduced to Nepal! A great, hard race. A great, friendly community. A well-set, well-marked course (all bar the 6km out and back which almost every 50k-er missed and most upsettingly, where the hot food I’d been so looking forward to lay!). And best of all, piping hot Nepali dhal bhat at the finish – my first in too long!

Thanks:

to Richard Bull, Lizzie Hawker, Mira Rai and all Trail Running Nepal’s staff and supporters who delivered yet another fantastic experience to yet another diverse international field. And for the phenomenal work that they put in towards nurturing this sport in Nepal, making the impossible possible for young Nepali runners.

to The North Face and Inov-8 for providing not only prizes but kit for aspiring Nepali runners who are being given nurture and opportunity by Trail Running Nepal and its supporters.

Epilogue:

Ever the problem solver and pragmatist, Richard retrospectively split the 50km into the Kathmandu 50km and the Kathmandu 45km, with both races being recognised by the sport’s governing bodies and counting for equal points towards UTMB qualification. Chapeau!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Around the Mountain – Träume Leben

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-11

If it wasn’t for the last minute nothing would get done, so goes a saying I heard years back and which has stuck. I guess it rings true for many of us who don’t really get going until there’s that pressure that moves in step, like a shadow, at the side the last minute. Well, in any case, true or not, what I’m recounting here is a testament to the last minute and the amazing power of just saying “yes”. It’s a last minute adventure, and it’s the fulfilling of a dream, the morphing of a vision into something real.

I’m in Allgaü, Bavaria and have for the last week been paragliding, flying several flights a day on a novice-friendly hill. It’s an exhausting cycle of repetition: chair lift, hike, lay out glider, clear the lines, harness on, connect the wing, take hold of the brake lines and the As, arms back, chest forward, wait for a nice cycle of wind, step forward, pull up the wing, catch it on the brakes, keep moving forward, hands up, take off! Sometimes it goes just like that and others well, as I said, I’m a novice: the wind, the wing and my own co-ordination fail to make the magic happen and I find myself aborting take off, pulling in the lines and man-handling the bunched up wing back up the slope to repeat the process. Sometimes this happens more than once though as yet third time has always proved lucky (or maybe it’s simply that by the third time I’ve figured out what’s going wrong and correctly adjusted).

With take off taken care of I enjoy a few minutes of serenity. Suspended in my harness under a series of thin lines attached to a large, curved wing, I glide noiselessly through the air. Mostly conditions are mellow which means the flight is smooth and generally short. Occasionally a bumpier ride allows me to ride some rising air. On the best of occasions I spotted a pair of kestrels and followed them into a thermal where I soared upwards.

The serenity of each flight is invariably interrupted sooner or later by the inevitable necessity of landing. Every landing is different; some making only a mild intrusion into the serenity, others smashing down the door, leaving me trembling with the exhilaration of ground rush, near miss and survival. I remember as a child watching an airshow on TV. A pair of Russian pilots provided the ultimate entertainment, colliding in mid air and effectively chopping one another’s planes in half. They ejected and floated down to the ground. The cameras zoomed in on one of the pilots who no sooner than he’d landed was drawing deeply on a cigarette, a reaction which at the time meant little but which I now understand perfectly, smoker or not.

Yesterday evening it was the take offs that were proving problematic. I was the only person on the hill. The chairlift was closing and the wind had started to blow ‘cross’. When it appeared to straighten I tried to launch but without success. I had not been positive enough in my actions. A second time I tried, feeling confident. I was more positive on the As, pulling the wing up, feeling the surge as it starts to fly and running down the grassy slope. For all the world I had done it … except I hadn’t. I slipped at a critical moment and lost control, bringing the wing down more or less on top of me. Having bundled up the wing and hiked back up the slope, I again laid it out in the hope of flying. Last time in this situation I’d packed up and gone for a coffee but this time my determination to fly, my confidence and my ability were greater. I decided to stay in the game. If the right wind came, I’d go. There was no rush. If it didn’t feel right I’d walk back down the mountain.

The windsock told me what I didn’t want to know: the wind was now consistently cross, from the North, perhaps being turned by an increase in strength of the main valley wind (anabatic: air being drawn up the valley to the high rocky peaks at its head). It wasn’t looking good. There was no way I’d risk a crosswind take off and it showed no sign of straightening to come head on. I waited. And I waited. The wind never straightened but it did die. So this was my chance. A few long days ago I’d walked away from a nil wind take off after a failure that left me shaken and slightly hurt. Now I felt ready to try again. Before the next cycle of crosswind could arrive I committed positively to the launch … and totally nailed it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from Hornerbahn Mid-Station across to Rubihorn

The flight was beautiful. I swept along the ridge to the North, above the fir trees, above tracks, meadows and the occasional alpine log hut. When the trees became too close I turned out to the valley, gliding smoothly, taking in the views and then executing a landing which left me standing bang in the middle of the landing field with barely so much as a flutter of the heart rate.

Although lower now in the sky, the sun continued its relentless bathing of the valley. I felt content with the accomplishments of the day, tired and relieved, and I could almost taste the cold beer and the satisfaction of putting my feet up and chilling. Then my phone chimed, hailing the arrival of an opportunity, and a quandary: a small group were planning to hike up a mountain, bivouac and fly off it in the morning. How would I like to join them?

My initial feeling is that I am simply too tired. I’ve had a really good day and I don’t want to push it. There will be other opportunities to do this when I’m feeling fresher and have more than one hour’s notice. I’ve almost resigned to this easy option when the words of mountaineer, Andy Kirkpatrick, chime in my brain: in essence, when there’s something you want to shy away from because it’s scary, hard and a big effort, imagine your future self. Andy used the example of breaking out of the safety, warmth and comfort of a sleeping bag at an ungodly hour to go and climb something scary, hard and a long walk away. It’s pretty easy at this point to listen to that voice that says:

“Stay in your sleeping bag. Don’t get out in the cold. Don’t expend effort. Don’t do something risky. Stay warm and safe. There’s no shame in it”

Well, there is no shame in it but neither is this approach a vehicle for making great things happen. And this is where imagining your future self comes in, the tool with which to prize ourselves from the soft down quilt of safety and comfort.

In this case, Andy imagines himself climbing in the best possible conditions, the ice hard and stable before the air warms or worse yet, the sun hits it and it becomes unstable and more dangerous. He imagines himself topping out, calm and satisfied with what he’s achieved. These ‘future self’ images drive him from the easy option and towards the accomplishment of his goals. And I’m grateful for his sharing of this approach because right now, I am drifting towards the short term feeling of relief that would accompany resting on the day’s laurels and leaving the vol-biv to some other day.

If imagining my future self up the mountain, watching the sun set, or the moon rise, or experiencing my first solo cross country flight, is a powerful motivator, imagining my future self a few hours down the line, opportunity missed, sat in my van doing nothing in particular except looking across the valley at where the other guys would be climbing to their bivouac, is more powerful yet. So, when the easy option gateway is wide open and beckoning, imagine two future selves: one doing the thing, the other having easy-optioned. I bet I know which way you’ll turn.

My mind is made up and I hike with new purpose back up the hill through the beautiful village of Bolsterlang. As I walk I plan exactly what I’ll do when I reach the van: mainly, what food I’ll take, what equipment and what food I’ll eat before I leave. By the time I reach the van my energy levels are already surging back up, driven by the excitement which comes from stepping well outside your comfort zone and saying “Yes, let’s do this!”

Driving like he stole it, Sebi brings his bashed up Opel Estate to a gravel grinding halt at the back of the van. My glider and sparse provision for the evening are cross-decked and with another roar of displaced gravel we’re off.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv

Last minute vol-biv admin

The shadows have already grown long and by the time we reach the car park on the opposite side of the main valley, everything is bathed in golden alpenglow. The four of us shoulder our packs and head up through the forest, following a steep ascent next to a mountain stream. It reminds me of Nepal but with an obvious difference: where the Nepalis build bridges and cliff paths of wood and stone, which may or may not last the ravages of monsoon, the Germans have built with steel; a network of bridges and steps that I’d expect to see looking much the same if I returned in a hundred years.

A few weeks ago I didn’t know these guys from Adam. Now I fall into step with them, and into conversation, as we climb steadily and sweat buckets. Manu tells me about his experience competing in the X-Alps, a 10 day paragliding race which, as the name suggests, crosses the alps and finishes in Monaco. In a highly vetted field of 33 only 19 completed the course. Manu, in his first year, was one of them, finishing in 9th place. I feel privileged to be in such company, among a group whose flying skills are elite and yet who are not adorned with the mantle of arrogant exclusivity that so often accompanies such high performance.

By the time we emerge from the shadowy forest into a high alpine meadow, the sun has set and across the valley an orange glow is fading behind the mountain horizon. The valley up which we are headed narrows. The cliffs above us glow with the sun’s last offering and fade to grey.

Ahead, the valley is effectively damned by a headwall of what I guess to be consolidated moraine, beyond which lies a lake, cradled by rock. It’s all but dark by the time we reach it, strip naked and slide into its oily black waters. It’s cold enough to be refreshing, to lower the core temperature and to trick the legs into feeling like they haven’t just humped a big pack up a 500m ascent after an already long day (if you’ve never bathed in a mountain lake, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Quite simply: Do it!)

We bivvy nearby on the lip of this immense natural dam, the dark walls of the mountain towering above us and the lights of the valley laid out far below. Offerings of cold pizza, bread, cheese, whisky and wine are all shared and a roll-up is passed around.

I bathe happily in this camaraderie, in the simple acts of sharing food, drink and experience. And I retire to my sleeping quarters: a tree covered hollow in which I’ve located a semblance of flat ground. I lay out on my glider bag, face to the sky. A shooting star passes overhead, leaving a trail. The gentle murmur of German is the only sound and it lulls me swiftly into a sweet and longed for sleep.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-16

Looking West from our bivouac

As day breaks we stir from our alpine slumbers and lose no time in moving on up the mountain, the only sign of our passing four patches of flattened grass. We climb hard on a rocky zigzag trail that brings us to the head of the valley, down which a warm breeze is blowing (katabatic). Arriving at a second lake we take a little water and then continue upwards, the summit now in sight.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-31

View from the second lake down to our bivouac and beyond

Reaching the summit is a moment of truth. Having never been here before I have only been able to imagine what it will be like to fly from. In this absence of knowledge, Manu has been my guide: the voice of experience based on which I’ve decided whether this is a reasonable or an unreasonable thing to do. But I can’t blindly trust. For one thing, Manu has never seen me fly and for another, he’s an X Alps pilot with a reputation for being a total badass – so maybe our ideas of reasonable differ – or maybe he’s just so comfortable in this environment that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a newbie. In any case, he’s talked about a big grassy hill from which you can take off in any direction and I’ve formed a mental picture of a benign, broad, gently angled affair with something of The South Downs about it. What he hasn’t described is a conical hill with a summit that comes to a steeply angled point; a summit on which it is barely possible to lay out a single wing. He’s also told me not to be concerned by the stiff breeze we’ve been walking into – it’s just a valley wind; we won’t feel it on the summit.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-50

The summit (windy)

Shit.

Major recalibration needed here. I’m stood on a small, windy summit, looking at a launch which after ten meters of grassy slope, drops into an unseen void. Seconds after launching – if I launch – I’ll need to turn hard away from the wall of rock opposite the take off. So! …. I need to bridge the gap between what I had imagined and what I am now faced with, to reconcile that difference, and to keep making decisions. For one thing: just because I am here, doesn’t mean I have to take off.

Having said all of this, if I am going to fly, it’s going to be because I have confidence not only in myself but in Manu.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-33

Manu

I’m using techniques learned through climbing, yoga and meditation to manage the stress. My breathing is short and shallow and the nerves in my limbs are in danger of making me clumsy and un-coordinated. I focus on some deep belly breathing – serving my brain with the oxygen it really needs right now. I take myself outside of the situation for a moment, forget about the paragliding and admire the environment in which I find myself, and in which I love to be; the pale but powerful morning sun which has just breached the wall of rock opposite and is now beaming in our faces, lighting all it touches with immense clarity whilst sending the valley below into a deeply contrasting shadow.

20160825-Rubihorn Volbiv-44

On the left, the Rubihorn

This gives me the opportunity not only to calm myself but to recalibrate; to forget my previous vision of this scene and instead, to be wholly in the present, readjusted to the new vision, the reality.

In this calmer state I turn my attention back to flying and lose myself in process. For all the difference between this setting and my usual take offs, what I need to do is exactly the same.

Having laid out the wing I need to kite it to clear the lines. I’ve only just learned to do this and my fear is that with this wind and on this airy summit, my wing will want to fly away and I won’t be able to control it. But control it I do. Everything is the same as what I know just with the power amplified. The increased energy in the air needs to be matched by increased energy and positive input from me. I can do that.

After various frustrations born mostly of perfectionism and inexperience and which are too dull to recount, I am ready. Manu’s wing is laid out a little below, on a ridge that runs away to the South. His housemate Claire is attached, via a tandem harness, to his front and is now guaranteed – thanks to me – to be resoundingly late for work. But right now, I cannot afford to let that bother me. It is in fact a triviality. What matters right here, right now, is my life and my take off. I’ll go only when I am ready.

I’m impressed by Manu. He’s a calming influence. He does nothing to hurry me. He tells me, reassuringly, that the wind is fine but doesn’t tell me when to go. That’s for me to decide.

The wind is so much stronger than anything I have ever taken off in, the air so much more energetic. There’s that fear of the unknown and the recognition that once I commit to take off, I will have split seconds to intuitively react to this new set of circumstances. I think through what I can expect to happen, and what I want to happen. I break my take off into simple, constituent parts, as taught.

When I step forward, pulling on the As (the lines attached to the wing’s leading edge) the wing will come up fast because of all the energy in the air. It’ll come up with more speed and power than ever before. So I’ll have to catch it correspondingly faster and more positively on the brakes (the aim being to stop its progress forwards when it’s directly above me). Assuming I’m directly under the wing I’ll then release the breaks and keep moving forwards until I’m in flight.

Simple right?

I shut everything out, look to my front and focus solely on the wind. It’s clearly not going to drop away. But there are moments when it’s straighter than others and moments when it’s smoother and less strong. My main sensor is the feel of it on my face. The final decision to go is made in a nano-second and seems born more of intuition than judgment.

It happens fast. Super fast!

I barely need to step or pull and the wing is up. In a fraction of a second it’s above me. It’s overshooting me. I’m a fraction slow on the brake but the margin is small enough and my action firm enough that I catch it. There no need to take another step. I’m whisked upwards. I’m off the summit. I’m flying!

“Whoop!”

There’s no difficulty getting into my harness: the force of the launch has already pushed me back into it. I quickly adjust my grip on the brakes and steer hard to the right, away from the rock wall and towards the finger of rock that runs South from our take off summit and which we must cross in order to start our circumnavigation of the Gaisalphorn and Rubihorn.

My concern about not clearing the ridge failed to consider how, with all this unaccustomed power in the air, I would rise rapidly from the very moment of take off. I soar over the ridge, am joined by Manu and Claire and follow them on a beautiful clockwise traverse. I’m reminded, bizarrely, of a childhood song about witches flying round the mountain. Clearly I have no more recent or relevant reference point for this extraordinary and wonderful experience.

Beyond the ridge the air is clear and smooth. After the tension and excitement of the take off I can breathe deeply and relax. I did it! I am living a dream! Träume Leben!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the left, the valley up which we hiked. Centre shot, the Rubihorn and Gaisalp, around which we flew!

Thanks & Recommendation:

Thanks to every one of the Vogel Frei team who have welcomed me and helped me during my short but sweet time here in Allgaü. I can’t recommend these guys strongly enough to anyone looking to have a tandem paragliding experience. Outstanding pilots, outstanding people.

http://www.vogelfrei.de

Thanks to Jamie, Bella, Ivan and Jess. We talked a good talk back in Nepal last year. And now we’ve made it happen. Nothing written here would have happened without you guys. Eternal gratitude. Onwards and upwards!

 

 

Posted in Allgaü, Bavaria, Hike and fly, Paragliding, Uncategorized, Vogelfrei, Volbiv | 2 Comments

The Three Peaks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Sheila Bull

The 3 Peaks Fell Race, now in it’s 62nd year, is one of the oldest and most significant races of its kind. Until a few weeks ago however, fell running rookie that I am, I hadn’t even heard of it. Now, via a chance conversation, an optimistic sign up, some luck and a good deal of effort, I’ve run it. Here’s the story:

In it to win it:

No, I am not talking about winning the race. I’m not troubling anyone on that front. This is simply a mantra I apply to many things in life, in this case, race entry:

Having heard about the race when I met some Team Salomon athletes during their recent stay in Keswick, I felt motivated to enter.

Growing in popularity, these events get booked up well ahead of time. This was no different. But what’s to be lost from filling in the application and going on the wait list? In it to win it.

A week or so later I get an email linking me to Saul, an entrant who can no longer take his place. I am subbed in. He waives the £25 entry fee and tells me to have a good race. Welcome to fell running: great people everywhere you look.

(Saul’s race fee has gone to the Dzi Foundation who are doing invaluable long term post-earthquake recovery and development work in Nepal. Thanks Saul)

(Check out http://www.dzi.org)

So that’s it. I’m in.

The Race

The race covers nearly 38km and demands 1600+m of ascent. I’ve never done anything quite like it so I’ll have to be careful not to go too hard and blow up. The strategy is to chunk it. Avoid getting ahead of yourself. Break it down: first peak, transition, aid station, next peak and so on.

Peak One – Pen-y-Ghent

It’s pretty awesome being in a mass start of nearly a thousand athletes. In spite of the excitement though, I run within myself and ease into the race. The sun is warm. I break into a sweat and de-buff. After a bit of road we break off onto a rolling, climbing farm track that leads to the Pennine Way. From here we turn hard right and run straight at the wall ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Peak One – Pen-y-Ghent (Photo by Sheila Bull)

I enjoy the steep climbs and easily make up places on the more technical ground. Emerging onto the top we squint into the glare of sunlit snow and head along to the summit. This is the first check-point. I reach it in 39 minutes, insert my ‘dibber’ (a device worn on a string round the neck which registers your presence and your splits) and then turn my attention to the snowy descent.

It’s fun letting the legs spin out over the soft terrain. Across the rolling summit plateau we go and then steeply off the side. A marshal spots me slipping and sliding at a rate of knots past some more hesitant descenders:

“Eh up, here comes a chancer”

he remarks in a thick Yorkshire accent.

Transition One

It feels good to have got the first peak under our belts but now comes the long, long transition to peak two: Whernside. I am not feeling great and a number of runners go past me on the somewhat dull, rolling trail. The trick is to concentrate on your own race, focus on your own strengths. Encourage yourself. Maybe these people are going too fast too early. Maybe by going slowly now, I’ll go fast later. The other trick is to avoid looking too far ahead. Whernside is a truly distant feature on the horizon. Best not to look at it, or your watch. Just run.

I take a cup of water at the High Birkwith aid station. There’s a slight boost to morale but it goes as quickly as it came and I settle back into a steady rhythm. The second part of this transition is duller than the first. We are running along a vehicle track and then, worse yet, a road. There’s a head wind and we fight painstakingly against it, tiny dots moving slowly through a very big, open landscape.

On the road my morale sags further, along with my energy. A diminutive lady passes me and I envy her her light frame. I feel bulky and heavy by comparison. We pass parked cars and I smile at my reflection: a little trick to harness some positive energy and change the mood (and make yourself look like a nutter).

The road section gives way to a lively aid station: road accessible and next to The Station Inn, there are crowds of people here and a lady on a PA system announces my name and number. I take on two cups of water and feel lifted by the crowd.

Whernside lies just beyond the viaduct, not far from us now. Its summit is obscured by stormy skies. The heavens open, firing ice pellets on us and people stop to put on a layer. I don’t. My mood becomes markedly more cheerful. I love the fact that all these people are out running about in this weather!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stormy Skies over Whernside (Photo by Sheila Bull)

We pass the viaduct, go through a tunnel under the railway and then cross a river. I get across with dry feet, jumping stone to stone but they don’t stay that way for long. Over the next crest is an unavoidable bog. I take a gel in readiness for the climb.

Peak Two: Whernside

I’m at the back of line of traffic, moving at a march up the steep, boggy ground. The bog is now topped by snow and mushed by the passage of hundreds. Our feet sink in, getting a fresh rinse of icy bog water with every step. My circulation is poor and my feet become numb. It’s unpleasant. I wonder if everyone is feeling the same. There’s nothing for it but to keep going.

As the climb steepens I realise that my body wants to go faster than the ones in front so I break trail and start moving past. The climb steepens. People ahead are climbing it with their hands as well as their feet. Keeping my own body upright and balanced, I move past them, focusing solely on the efficiency of each step. I don’t at any point look up. A marshal’s voice from up in the cloud tells us to have our dibbers ready. The summit can’t be far now but still I don’t look up.

Suddenly there’s no more up. My dibber bleeps in the slot and I’m away, descending from the summit along a windswept crest. I’m in my element now. Hail is whipping down on us. Life is suddenly beautifully simple. All decision-making is lifted from me. The only thing to do is go down as fast as possible.

As I start the descent, my body has other ideas. My hamstrings are threatening to cramp and I have to stop to stretch them out. This isn’t normal. I figure it’s predominantly the work of the cold, combined with poor feeding and the 6 hours of driving to arrive late at the campsite the evening before.

The stretching works. I relax and flow. The fast turnover brings feeling back to my feet, despite the fact we are splashing through inches of freshly melted snow. I ski one or two of the steep sections and am having a lot of fun. I fly down, making up a ton of places, some of which are then returned as the climb bottoms out and we start the next rolling transition.

Transition Two:

 After the adrenalin rush and all-consuming concentration of the descent, the transition is again a dull battle to keep the legs turning over. I reach the Hill Inn check-point in 2:48 and have another cup of water. Although I’m now weaker, this transition is psychologically easier than the first. It’s much shorter for one thing but there’s also something reassuring about having reached the furthest point and being on the home leg.

As we get onto the grassy rolling climb towards the base of the final peak, another runner and I leapfrog a few times. He moves faster than me, then cramps, allowing me to plod steadily past. He congratulates and encourages me and I him in return. I don’t see him again but hope that he was able to manage his cramps and finish.

Peak Three:

We’re on the gently undulating paving stones now. A handful of runners pass me. Damn these gentle inclines! I use my second gel as we approach the wall. It’s with a sense of relief that we hit its base and climb the flank of Ingleborough. One measured step after another I regain places and enjoy the steep technical climb. My legs feel weaker than on the other two peaks yet still I prefer this steep climbing to the rolling running sections.

We soon top out, onto the crest and a gentle incline, runnable to the summit. I can really feel the tank running low now.

At the check point a marshal tells us that a 4:15 finish is still on. I doubt him very much and for a while am motivated only to finish in the least painful manner. I trot weakly and stiffly down the summit plateau. The ground is rock-strewn and difficult to run on but it gives way to an easier trail and I re-establish a rhythm.

I’m still just chugging along though – running for pride more than a 4:15 finish. Several steady kilometres pass and then at a junction someone shouts out:

“Only 2km left!”

A look at my wrist tells me this isn’t quite true. It’s more like 3. But we’re close enough now that I can start doing some time/distance calcs and realise that 4:15 might actually be possible.

I start to become driven by that. The terrain has other ideas though and refuses to yield an easy run-in. Angular limestone pokes up through the soil and we have to navigate on tired legs through the maize of myriad angles. There’s still plenty of mud and rough ground too.

We crest a fold and the finish marquee down on the valley floor comes into view. We drop into the next fold and lose it again. Over the next crest must be the run in to the finish; to the end of this pain. But there’s a gentle ascent to drive up first. A marshal at the top of it promises us it’s the last climb. I’m now really fixing on that 4:15 target which is very much in doubt. My body wants to walk the incline, as it has been allowed to do on some earlier ones.

“Shut up body. Not this time.”

I drive it on, keeping the legs turning over.

At the crest we pass through a gateway and into a lush grassy field. The finish marquee is closer now; so too is 4:15. A glance at my wrist shows me I have two minutes. It’s now or never time. Ignoring all protest from my body, I let gravity go to work and hurtle down the glassy slope. I close fast on two runners ahead. We go through a tunnel, up the tiniest incline, wiggle through someone’s back garden, cross the road and are into the finish field. There’s a gentle bend and I run it like I’m on the track, leaning into the bend in a 200m race. Quite where this surge has come from I don’t understand. It’s pure magic; better than anything money can buy. The seconds are ticking by and the only thing to is to give everything.

Suddenly I can’t run any further. There’s a marquee in front of me. I grab for my dibber and insert it one last time and in doing so, glance once more at my wrist. 4:14:45! After more than 4 hours, 37km and 1600m ascent, after so many mental battles, it’s done. And it’s sub 4:15.

I drop into a squat and take a moment: a moment to savour, a moment to reflect. The harder it is, the deeper you go, the greater the feeling that washes over you when its done. Maybe that’s it. Whatever it is, right now I am just happy happy happy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fresh and Happy pre-Race

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mira getting in the zone

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Mira Rai fan club – great to see the British Gurkha community supporting their sister

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mira – smiling as always

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mud, blood and strong fast legs!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Winner and runner-up – amazing run by both

More on Mira

Nepal’s Mira Rai is an amazing young lady with an amazing spirit and an amazing story (yes, I know, lots of ‘amazings’)

To find out how amazing she is you can watch a beautiful film about her journey from hard working hill girl to Maoist child-soldier to world class mountain runner and Team Salomon athlete.

http://www.miraraifilm.com

All proceeds from the film go back to Nepal.

You can follow her progress via Facebook as she races all over Europe this summer.

Last week it was the snow and bog of the 3 Peaks, today it’s the the brutally arid rockscapes of Spain’s Transvulcania!

Go Mira!

Thanks

Thanks to Sheila Bull for her support and the images in this blog – all of which are hers.

And to Richard Marsden for his support and his great company post-race.

Thanks again to Saul for giving me his place in the race.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fell Running, Mountain Running, The 3 Peaks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Forcan Ridge – a photostory

This gallery contains 12 photos.

                   

Gallery | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

They are all Mountains of the Mind

 

West along Shiel Ridge-B&W

‘Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon the trip is making you – or unmaking you’

Nicholas Bouvier, The Way of the World

Where does this story start I ask myself. Is it simply the story of climbing some beautiful mountains? Is it ever that simple? No. This story starts 8 weeks ago: I’ve just returned from the Far East: a long way to go to come an honourable second in the interview for a dream job. But I’m not just bringing home disappointment. I’m bringing home a virus. Something is attacking me. Deterioration is fast. One minute I’m thinking ‘bad jetlag’ and the next I am in an emergency room. There’s a line going in and there’s blood going out. A Doctor wearing a mask is talking but my consciousness is fading.

When I come around I am too weak to move. I’m wired up to an ECG (Electronic Cardio Gram), there’s a drip giving me some goodness back and my bloods are off being tested for who knows what. Who does know what? That’s the scary part. As a family we know about malaria. It could be that. My brother had it. It ruptured his spleen, nearlykilling him. The Doctor is wearing a mask – a precaution against a SARS/Bird Flu type virus. I’m hoping for a least worst option. I’m hoping this won’t affect me for the rest of my life. The fact that it could take my life hasn’t really occurred to me. I think I just shut that one down.

I’m lucky. It’s dengue fever. It’s nasty and there’s no cure. But if the body can fight through it without complications, there shouldn’t be any lasting effects. I’m discharged. Two days later the phone rings and I’m back to hospital. My platelet count is dangerously low. Platelets allow the blood to coagulate. I have so few left that I am bleeding from the inside. My skin looks like a sun-burn.

My body turns the tide just before we go down the blood transfusion route. It turns into a platelet-making machine. A week after getting back from the Far East I am discharged from hospital and this time, there’s no recall. By the end of the next week I can walk a mile. To call it snail’s pace would be a disservice to gastropods but no matter: I’m outside, mobile and on the way back.

The following week I travel North to catch the winter that is in danger of completely passing me by. I stop over with a great friend in The Lakes and start with an ascent of Wetherlam. Conditions are great and I delight in being able to don crampons, wield an axe and free style through the mixed terrain away from the main ridgeline trail.

A few peaks later it’s time to head to Scotland.

The early morning hard yards to Sgurr na Moraich .876 f-3.5

Making tracks

In 2014 I walked for twenty days through the highlands, travelling from Corrour Railway Station (made famous by the film, Trainspotting) to Shiel Bridge, via all the most appealing summits and ridgelines. Part of me had wanted to keep walking North, towards and maybe even to, Cape Wrath. But commitments elsewhere ended that journey. It had been strange to stop after twenty days on foot and suddenly be gliding through Glen Shiel on a coach, so alien it may as well have been a magic carpet ride. I looked up at the snow-covered ridgelines on either side of the road and knew I’d be back.

Now it’s time to resume the journey.

I arrive after dark and park up at the head of Loch Duich, a sea loch from which rise the peaks of Kintail and Glen Shiel Forest. Stars twinkle above me in a black sky. The air is cold. I feed well and bed down early. Tomorrow I am heading for the Forcan Ridge and I have a feeling it will demand the best of me.

After a fair amount of faffing I leave the van and head South from Glenshiel Lodge, backtracking on the final hours of my 2014 journey. After a few kilometers I decide to turn left at a fork in the river, embarking on a path that means hitting the technical difficulties and steep ground of the Forcan Ridge in the early part of the day. It’ll be better to hit this fresh and going steep up is better than steep down.

This side valley is a lonely place. There’s no trail and no sign of man. From isolation emerges a feeling of independence. I start to feel very aware; very present. Fuck up here and I’m dragging myself out.

Forcan Ridge - the walk in

Lonely valley

The head of the valley is walled in on every side bar that I’ve come from. The only way to get where I’m going is through hard graft, breaking trail through the snow and weaving a path of least resistance through bands of rock. I’ve climbed into a world of harsh beauty: blue sky, white snow and black rock. Nothing else.

Rising up from this landscape of snow and ice is the Forcan Ridge. At the base of it are tiny black figures; climbers gearing up. There are seven of them and from the age it takes them to get ready I’m guessing they’re a guided group. I join them at the foot of the ridge. The sight of ropes and the jangle of climbing gear is momentarily disturbing. How hard is this route? I know nothing more about it than what I can glean from a 1:50 000 map.

 

Forcan Ridge_

A team gearing up for the Forcan Ridge

I reason with this voice of alarm, reassuring myself that I have the experience and ability to warrant being here. And that if I reach an obstacle that I’m not happy soloing and I simply turn around.

 

Guided team starting Forcan Ridge_

Guided team starting up the ridge

I pass the group and focus on my own thing: the accuracy of each step. Remembering to breathe. I look at the exposure, the drops on each side of the ridge, am cognisant of it but focus back to the accuracy and efficiency of my step. I start to flow. Then the rhythm is broken. My path is blocked by rock. So this is why the guides are carrying gear! I need to traverse under the rock and then pull up around it, climbing a small chimney to regain the snowy ridge.

It’s exposed. Falling is not an option. My entire world contracts to this microcosm. I slide my axe between my pack and my back and start feeling out the rock. I optimistically scrape my boots over the rock at my feet. The snow slides off and there’s nothing but smooth slab underneath it. I bring my feet higher, bunching my body up and start traversing left, out over the empty space below.

I see my hands with intense clarity, gripping the rock. That they continue to do so is the only thing in the world that matters; a beautiful simplicity and focus. I round the bulge and start up the chimney, feeling less exposed. I regain the narrow snowy ridge and move on. There’s an exhilarating sense of commitment and exploration. Reversing what I’ve just come through would be scary and I don’t know what’s ahead. By going in blind I’ve given the mountain back its fangs and after all, this is how someone first climbed this mountain. And it’s the only way that first ascents happen – by being bold and stepping into the unknown. It goes against all that we’re taught. And there’s magic in it; something more powerful exists man and mountain than when the latter has been neutered by reading of an instruction manual.

I reach the Eastern summit, a classic snow arête. Having passed over it I stop, kick a hole in the snow for my pack and pull out my thermos – tea on top of the world.

Summit crest Forcan Ridge_

Nice spot for a cup of tea

The guided group have gone back to being tiny black figures. The ridge ahead of me is now mostly in view, rising and falling on its way to the summit of The Saddle (1010m). It looks do-able. There’s a roped pair ahead of me and reassuringly, there’s another soloist approaching the next summit. In every direction the views are immense. To the South I can make out almost every peak of my previous journey, right the way back to the Nevis Range. To the West I can see the distinctive Cuillin Ridge, which after last year’s acquaintance, I now look at as an old friend. To the North, The 5 Sisters of Kintail beckon.

Roped pair on Forcan Ridge_

The roped pair

Fed, watered, rested and half way to high-fiving myself, I resume my journey, dropping down along the ridge. Turning a rock corner my warm fuzzy glow suffers an instant chill. Unseen from the summit is a steep notch. Ten or twelve meters below me the snowy ridge resumes. Shit. Looking down this steep, indeed, overhanging rock step I hardly need the presence of a bright green piece of tat to tell me that this is best abseiled.

The green tat is a loop of climbing rope thrown over a spike of rock. It provides an anchor through which to thread an abseil rope: all well and good except I don’t have one. Hmmmm. I hang off the anchor and lean out to get a better view. I release my grip and make a few tentative down-climb moves. Then there’s a bare slab followed by a blind overhang. Not happening. I climb back up.

Being deprived of the opportunity to continue along this majestic ridge is a bitter pill but there’s no time to linger in disappointment. My new mission is simply to get myself safely off the mountain.

I wonder about waiting for the guides and asking to use their rope. I could body belay myself down safely enough. But they won’t arrive here for a long while and besides, there’s another problem: I’ve taken responsibility for my situation, not on the basis of being able to rely on other people but on the basis of not getting into anything I can’t get back out of. The ethic is simple and it’s one of self-reliance. It sucks but I will have to turn around and back track. Reversing the rock move won’t be much fun but there’s no avoiding it. And what about facing failure? What about going back past the seven climbers coming up behind me and telling them that I couldn’t go on? Well, what about it? It’s not what I hoped for but it’d be a damned long way from failure. What an adventure it’ll have been. What soul lifting scenes! What intensity. And how tantilising to see the ridge rising and falling ahead of me but not being able to access it – not today at least. No, I am OK with turning around.

I’ve not gone more than a few meters back when I notice steps dropping off the ridge. Eureka! How could I have missed it! It’s a safer down-climb, mostly on snow. It takes me under the rock obstacle and back onto the ridge. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about stepping back, being calm and exploring all the options.

I reach The Saddle without further incident and take another pause for thought. I can see along the ridge in both directions and it’s clear that easier ground lies ahead. To my right corniced edges give way to steep North faces, sweeping down to the shady corrie floor. To the left, the angle has eased and with it, the intensity of the experience. I can relax a bit, move faster and simply enjoy being present in these surroundings.

Tracks from Saddle

Looking back on my solo track – a simple, beautiful thing

The other soloist, having turned around, joins me on The Saddle and then descends North towards Sgurr na Creige. The roped pair have dropped off to the South and are passing far below me. From the next summit, Spidean Dhomhuill Bhric, it’s untracked right round to Loch Coire nan Crogachan. The ridge becomes broader and rises and falls ever more gently. Eventually I drop off it and beeline for the loch, rejoining my 2014 trail which after all the day’s unknowns seems comfortingly familiar.

I high tail back down the valley, shedding just a quick glace back at the horseshoe of peaks I’ve spent the day on. There’s satisfaction in knowing what the world looks like from up there.

Nine hours after setting out, I am back at the van. Everything is as I left it. Nothing has changed … except me. I’ve changed. I’m different to when I set out this morning. It was a different person who left the van nine hours ago. I want to tell someone that I’ve just had one of the best days of my life.

Epilogue

Over the following two days I would spend another twenty two hours in the mountains: rising early, climbing hard and then traversing complete ridge lines that I didn’t know were possible until I did them.

As each day shaped up I’d go through the same battles and each day I’d be reminded that ‘they are all mountains of the mind’ (Robert MacFarlane). Each morning I would suffer under the weight of the pack, the fatigue of yesterday like a hangover of the legs. I’d walk in the early morning up cold shady valleys, unable to see beyond the snowy slopes that dwarfed and confined me. I’d reach a headwall and climb what I came to know as ‘the hard yards’: the leg-sapping zigzag, the best guess at a path of least resistance, the ice that sends your effort sliding backwards, or the crust that gives way and sends it downwards into softer snow.

Each early morning, I’d know that if I could persevere there would be riches; that as long as I kept going, I would break out of the dark valley onto a sunlit ridge where my world would be illuminated and to every horizon, range after range of snow covered mountains would unfurl before my wondering eyes.

As each morning passed I’d get a sense of my progress in relation to the ridge and I’d gauge my ability to complete it. By the afternoon I’d no longer be thinking about escape routes or contingencies. I’d be thinking about outlasting the ridge “This ridge will end before I do. This ridge will end before I do”. And so they did.

Late day sun from Sgurr a  Bhealaich Dheirg

A late-in-the-day watery sun signals the drawing to a close of three days of mountain madness and mountain magic

Posted in Forcan Ridge, Mountaineering, Mountains of the Mind, Scotland, The Five Sisters of Kintail, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Kathmandu Valley Rim in a Single Push: 172km. 12, 608m gain. Not Possible Right? Seth Decided to Find Out.

Seth has been running, mostly solo, for 36 hours. In the space of 24 hours he’s slipped 12 hours behind his best-projected estimate for arrival at our rendez-vous, The Hattiban Resort. The sheer scale and complexity of the Kathmandu Valley Rim is kicking his ass. As I’ve checked in with him during the day he’s sounded progressively more tired. When I call him one last time to confirm the rendez-vous he’s thrashing about on an overgrow trail in a valiant effort to stay on the true rim.

Shivapuri Run

Kathmandu from the flanks of Shivapuri

Two friends have joined me. Mara has just bounced back into town after making a reconnaissance of trekking routes in Bhutan. Manesh is a nineteen year old Nepali runner who was recently sponsored by Trail Running Nepal to compete in the Manaslu Trail Race, his first multi-dayer. It seems to have really lit a spark for him.

MT Start Portrait

Manesh

As we climb a huge stone staircase, away from the stinking waters of the Bhagmati and into alpine forest, the light fades. It’s a strange time to be going out for a run. The warm, soft lights of the Hattiban Resort guide us in from the dark forest and in a slightly surreal turn of events we are minutes later sitting in a plush lounge perusing Golfing magazines and photo books. We’ve just had hot chocolate when Seth arrives, safely the dirtiest and wildest-looking man ever to grace this scene.

Upstairs in the dining room we eat expensive dhal bhat and drink beer. Seth has earned this. He’s been going for 36 hours. He’s cut up, filthy and generally reeking of adventure. So far I’ve done nothing but eat, drink and climb a small hill.

12304399_1003705986368834_2763521017938873030_o

Hattiban Resort – never before so violated  

Around 8 we head out, trading the opulence of the resort for a huge jungly ridgeline that fluctuates between eighteen and two thousand five hundred metres. By moonlight and from a distance is arguably the best way to experience Kathmandu. From here it looks tranquil. Lights glow like sequins on a blanket of darkness. We stop on top of the first rise and gaze on it, pondering how such a tranquil image could mask such chaos.

Seth & moon

Seth

We drop into a saddle and then hit a stone staircase that climbs relentlessly to Chumba Devi. Seth’s occasional stumbles make me feel guilty for having fresh legs and not being able to share them. He’s already deep in the zone. He’s already wrestled with small voices that told him to quit. He’s beaten them and now he’s breaking the back of it. We, on the other hand, are like warriors who’ve turned up to the battle after the hardest fighting’s been done.

At Chumba Devi Mara leaves us. We pass the summit shrine and shuffle off down the ridgeline. Although mostly under moonlight every now and then the path leads into thick jungle, the canopy forms a black tunnel around us and I feel glad that Seth isn’t on his own.

For Manesh this appears to be no more than a walk in the park. Whereas Seth and I are leaning into our walking poles and grunting our way up the next huge stone staircase, Manesh’s movement is smooth and graceful. Arms folded across his body or hands interlocked behind his back he glides up without a sound.

In the next saddle a tin shack reflects our head torch beams. The occupants come out and ask “What’s happened?” assuming some kind of emergency must have precipitated our being on the trail at this ungodly time of night. “Nothing” we reply and move along.

We traverse a narrow trail. The jungled slope drops steeply down to the city below from which the sound of party beats come floating up; an odd rhythmical accompaniment to our night march.

After the next summit we drop to a dirt track. There’s another tin shack but at this one the lights are on and there are sounds of life. We buy bottled water. It’s cold enough that it gives me an ice-cream headache. The vendor seems mildly amused.

Ahead of us in the moonlight we can make out the strange shape of a cable car that’s being built on top of this ridgeline’s final summit. Across the dark hillside leading up to it are pale zigzagging lines; scars torn by bulldozer shovels as they forge new vehicle tracks.

For the most part there are shortcuts; direct lines that negate the zigzags. Manesh has a true Nepali’s eye for finding these. Soon we are at the top, meandering about in a building site. The moonlit framework of the cable car looms above us like some strange Transformer-like creation. We can see the line of descent but no way to get to it. Everything has been ripped up by the machines and large piles of sand and gravel lie where our path might once have been. After some frustrating minutes casting about I try to descend a steep, loose slope, lose my footing, slide down it on my arse and land on the half buried steps of the old trail. Eureka! Seth congratulates me on a ‘good eye’ (which seems generous).

Now that we have the trail and are on the ridgeline, the descent goes quickly. Every now and then Seth declares a section ‘runnable’ and breaks into a shuffle. We pass a few more tin shacks, warmly lit with bare bulbs hanging from trees. It’s a strange scene. From one of them a man steps out of the door, takes one look at us shuffling by and steps back inside again.

At a four-way junction we pause for thought. The true ridgeline lies ahead. It would bring us directly out at the Police check point at Thankot, one of the few main roads in and out of the Kathmandu Valley. The problem is that Seth has reconnoitered it and knows that it is overgrown, will cut us to pieces, soak us in dew and risk route finding difficulties. I’m fresh enough for this still to hold some warped appeal but it’s not my mission and I haven’t been running, sleepless, for forty hours.

We drop off the ridge and descend via a zigzagging vehicle track. We’ve not gone far when Seth calls for a magic nap. It’s just gone midnight. We don our jackets and hats, find a bed of dry leaves and turn off the lights.

Manish Magic Nap

Magic Nap

10 minutes of magic later my alarms sounds, warm kit is stripped off and we’re on the move again. Manesh consistently finds the short cuts and hares off down them. Seth and I consistently follow at a slower, more hesitant pace. The ridge now towers over us. The jungle looks dark and impenetrable. Aside from the trail we’re on, it probably is.

We reach the foot of the climb and shuffle down a gentler incline past traditional old buildings, many adorned with prayer flags. The buildings show little sign of earthquake damage. It’s warmer down low and I stop to shed my windproof. From a window above a man is snoring loudly. The occasional dog barks but thankfully they are all shut inside.

We pop out on the highway a little below Thankot and shuffle along the road, climbing towards the pass and the Police check point. Passing trucks periodically dazzle us and red flashing cats’ eyes disturb our vision.

Thankot

The Pass and Check Point at Thankot 

At the pass we trade Manesh for a dog. The former has had enough of our strange nocturnal pass time and has college to consider. The latter for some reason thinks that following us might be more fun than lounging about in Thankot. She’s young, beautiful, fox-like and has more spring in her step than Seth or I ever had.

The climb from Thankot is one of the highlights. For the most part we can follow the trail without need of head torches; a pale line, it snakes through fields and emerges onto a bare shoulder. To our right, Kathmandu; to our left, an enormous cement works, lit up like a cathedral in an otherwise dark valley.

We sit on the ground for a minute and share a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Our canine companion sits neatly next to us. A heavy dew is falling and in no time we feel the chill and need to move again.

At the top of the climb we pass through a small settlement. This place has been badly affected by the earthquake. We pass the pale, jagged features of broken walls and holes gaping skywards where roofs once were – the sad skeletons of peoples’ homes. Among the ruins tin shacks provide the temporary shelters in which these people will dwell for who knows how long. Aside from a baby’s cry the settlement is sleeping peacefully.

Leaving the ghostly ruins behind us we descend towards our final obstacle: the climb up Nagarjun and the Army Post at the top, which we need to somehow negotiate our way past. The descent is tricky. If there is a true path we are not on it. We slither from terraced field to terraced field before dropping into an untracked wood. We follow the fall line – a bit too literally in Seth’s case; something hooks his trailing leg sending him lunging forward, as he accelerates downwards he frees the leg, semi-recovers only to tumble a second time and slide to a halt among the leaves about 5m down the slope.

He’s okay but in the course of his unplanned horizontal travels he’s lost the phone that was in his hand and which has been our main navigational aid. It takes an improbably long time for us to locate it. Phones can slide a surprisingly long way.

Our uncharted trajectory soon transects a veritable trail. It leads us onto yet more stone steps, these ones exquisitely slippery thanks to the heavy dew and sparse traffic. From Kathmandu, a chilling wind funnels through the saddle, ruffling prayers flags, the silhouettes of which flutter above our heads.

This final climb to Nagarjun is a tough one, partly I think, because our destiny lies not in our own hands but in those of the soldiers at the Check Post. Will they let us through, into the National Park, out of hours, in order that we can complete the true loop, the desired trail leading us to the exact spot where Seth began this epic journey? Or will we get turned around and be forced to descend until we can pick up some contrived route to the finish? This underlying doubt nags at us as we push tired limbs to keep ascending.

I suggest trying to ghost past the Check Point with head torches turned off. Seth reflects on this and suggests that he’d rather not get shot. This seems reasonable. With head torches on we approach the camp. A pair of watchtowers rise above us. A bright light shines down onto the trail which is canalised to pass between them and into the camp. As Seth had warned, the camp is unavoidable.

At the last moment we notice a goat track that breaks left, crossing a steep slope underneath the tower. In hasty whispers we agree to try this. It’s 5am and there’s no sign of life from the camp. The track leads unseen right underneath the outer tower and continues in this vain, traversing under the ramparts. In a few minutes it has taken us beyond the camp. Hope rises. A fiercely steep animal track links us back to the main trail that will now take us unmolested to the finish. We surge up it, smug and boosted by a small fix of adrenalin. We made it!

Seth's Second Dawn

Finally! The flat, grey light of a jungle dawn

From this point everything gets easier. The trail is, in Seth’s words ‘runnable’ (cue shuffling). It follows the contours of the behemoth forested hill, Nagurjun, on top of which, wrapped in security, lives the former king, Gyanendra. It’s starting to get light. The last hour before dawn was the hardest. It’s uplifting to have broken through that. As we shuffle along in the grey light Seth stops, stands aside and ushers me by

“Can you lead? I’m having trouble seeing”

If we wanted to know what two days and two nights of near constant movement does to you, here’s an indication.

A bit further along Seth calls “magic nap”. We stretch out on the leaf-covered floor.

12308701_1003705999702166_7974890120123436840_n

Adopting the position

10 minutes later my alarm sounds. It’s properly light. We trot on. Seth confesses that this bit is much longer than he remembers it – probably something to do with the slow pace we’re moving at and the cumulative fatigue of the last 49 hours.

“Uh oh. 17 minutes left for the sub-50”

Seth conjures one last effort, shuffles a bit faster and sustains it. In 49 hours and 55 minutes we turn a corner and suddenly, there it is: the gateway to Nagarjun, the very spot where nearly 50 hours ago Seth stepped out of a creaky Maruti taxi and without fanfare or fuss began what many didn’t think was possible: the circumnavigation of the Kathmandu Valley Rim in a one continuous push.

Chapeau Seth. Chapeau.

Seth's 50 hr face

Seth’s 50 hour face

More on this mission can be found in Seth’s own words at:

http://sethwolpin.com/2015/12/running-the-kathmandu-valley-rim-trail-kvrt/

This includes maps and data which I’ve not duplicated here.

 

Posted in Kathmandu Valley Rim Trail, KVRT, Mountains, Nepal, Running, Seth Wolpin, Trail Running, Trail Running Nepal, Uncategorized | Leave a comment