How does one describe a truly grand, epic adventure where the details are so fuzzy, where each day melds seamlessly, sometimes jarringly into another? Vague memories punctuated by crystal clear snapshots- a perfect view of a vast Himalayan icefall, ice-choked squat toilets at 6:00 am, breathless searing pain riding rough shod over rocky terrain… This is Yak Attack!
Over the next few days, I will try to capture some thoughts I wrote down for each stage, but as I sit here, 4 stories above the ever lovable chaos of Thamel nearly two weeks after we first set out on stage 1, after two days of lounging about the sleepy strip of Pokhara, I want to try to capture the essence of the experience. I know this is futile, but worth the effort.
I’ve been fortunate to have some pretty raw adventures in my time. Was this the hardest, most difficult thing I have done? Probably not, but maybe so- how does one really measure something like this? Time and memories are so fluid- a land where days can seem like weeks, and months like the briefest moments, even simultaneously. Reflection on an experience is never the same as in-the-moment. Without a doubt, there were moments where I was stretched to my limit, a rubber-band cracking and straining, yet I never fully broke. It was, however, the hardest, most raw, committing thing I have done on a bicycle without a doubt.
The sheer scale of the Himalaya is overwhelming. Sitting on a deck, sipping real Lavazza coffee and eating Black Forest Cake at 11,500′, the soaring Annapurna range loomed high above- I could not fathom the size, even sitting at the base. My familiar frames of reference are useless- even having spent so much time in the high mountains back at home.
Valley views of centuries old terraces as far as the eye can see- dug by hand into the steep unforgiving sides of the foothills- pass by almost daily. Bewildered stares, with a hasty “Namaste” greet a passing rider in every town. Stark, barren, and cold rooms dominate each night as you climb higher into the mountains. There is never enough sleep, enough food, enough time recover, enough beer…
Most of us are strangers to one another. There are the various couples that come to race together- life-long friends on a quest for adventure, fellow racers from “back home” or acquaintances from some brief moment in the near-distant past. We share similar experiences, but many different colored passports. There are the truly elite, world-class racers vying for the podium, along with the average Jane chasing the experience of a lifetime.
Then there is the riding- holy shit! The riding! ancient foot paths, blasted jeep road, ephemeral steeps through deep snow. Fast, techy, dusty, grinding track through the iconic Annapurna circuit. This is perhaps the most unique location to race a mountain bike. Tropical forests down low, to hypoxic altitudes up high- this race has it all- from sweating it out and barely escaping heat exhaustion in the opening days, to suffering from hypothermia well below Thong La on “Pass Day” wearing almost every stitch of clothing available. Every day presents a new challenge, a new type of terrain, a new chance to suffer or shine.
We all share the misery and pain that comes from pushing the limits in such an environment. This race is as much about luck- of staying healthy enough to keep turning the pedals, as it is about fitness, or capabilities on a mountain bike. It is a race that will test you- a race where you will have to dig deep in order to continue- beyond reason, or logic. Not all who show succeed. If it was easy, or guaranteed, it would not have near the meaning that it does. And yet, crossing the finish line is not the end. Riders continue to succumb to the punishment. It’s frightening to watch a friend faint from illness on the final return flight to Kathmandu, days after the official race has ended.
Some, many likely, of the people I spent the last two weeks with, I will never see again. But there are others I know I will not only see, but will share other, soon-to-be-known adventures with- in some far-way, or close locale. I will, once again, share a beer, a shot, and a good story with some of these fellow adventurers. That time cannot come soon enough.
This is an adventure that will last- that will continue to impact my day-to-day, my future experiences- a new yard-stick by which to measure other tests. The future is always uncertain, unwritten till the moment it is lived, but I do not think this will be my last time here- my last time to experience all that this wonderful, amazing country has and is. Nepal is a kingdom that has long held adventure for those willing to only to seek it out, and I look forward to my next chance to share a smile, an adventure, and a part of myself in the heart of the Himalaya.
If you want to take the test- sign up. I did a fair amount of things right, and a fair amount of things wrong. I had some great gear, and some of the wrong gear. But I made it. If you persevere, and can recover from the lowest depths of self-doubt (you will reach them for sure), then the finish line, the medal, the celebration, and the memories are there. Realize though this is not a luxe tour. The accommodations are sparse- the toilets are some of the most disgusting things on earth. Unless you like glacial temps, showers are pretty much non-existent- my last shower was on stage 2 before getting to Pokhara 8 days later. Due to logistics, porters can depart 3-4 hours before race time and they will have your sleeping bag unless you want to carry it while riding. This leaves you the option of shivering on your bed in below freezing temps in your lycra, scoring an often impossible “blanket” or sucking it up and heading to the common area (unheated) for some tea and shivering with fellow riders. There are few creature comforts in the Yak Attack though they do appear at random points. Schedules can be fluid in Nepal, and plans are always subject to change at will. If you’re looking for a catered event with detailed directions and schedules, look somewhere else. But if you are looking for adventure, there is plenty of that in spades.
This is Yak Attack!
My sincerest thanks to all of the support staff involved in this one of a kind event- Snow Monkey, and all of the porters do an incredible job getting supplies from point to point along the route. Phil Evans realized a dream of creating a truly great event in one of the most magical places on earth. Finally, the Nepali people are some of the warmest, most sincere people I have met- and some of the most talented athletes I have ever raced with- Namaste!