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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
More on this mission can be found in Seth’s own words at:
This includes maps and data which I’ve not duplicated here.