Conquering the Mountain

PHOTOS BY: Nepalsutra

Envisioned as a means of promoting and reinvigorating tourism around the remote village of Ghya Ru, the 8-day Yak Ru Annapurna Challenge mountain bike stage race is an endurance competition unlike any other.

Participants race through amazingly diverse landscapes over the course of 5 stages plus 2 non-racing ‘group rides’ in Nepal’s iconic Annapurna Range.

As race organisers Dawn to Dusk warn participants, “Yak Ru is not an extreme race; it’s a super-extreme race”.

 

STAGE 1: Besisahar-Bahundanda, 20km

 

 

The flag-off to this short opening stage is low-key, but it marks the start of what will be an eventful week. The 12 riders quickly spread out as the route passes through riverside villages and steep singletracks, not all of which is rideable. Stone steps and jumbles of rocks – or ‘rock gardens’ in MTB parlance – make the decision to get off and portage an easy one rather than risk a crash or fall.

Thick, grey mud cakes bikes and riders alike on the trail after the village of Bulbule, where the once-narrow village roads have been breached to accommodate heavy vehicles for the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam – the cause of the cement-like paste that coats us.

Leaving this scarred landscape behind, the race climbs steadily once more on bikes heavy with dried mud. The penultimate climb of the day delivers us to Bahundanda, where the aptly-named Hotel Superb View marks our finish.

 

STAGE 2: Bahundanda to Chame, 46km

 

 

Today’s long ride opens with a steep descent down a walking path. The Nepali riders are adept at portaging their bikes and even more daring as mountain-conditioned runners – as they bolt downhill the field spreads out fast. Passing groups of schoolchildren and village-folk carrying crops or tending live-stock, the slippery rock steps give way to singletrack.

After a suspension bridge over the Marsyangdi River, the real work begins. It’s a 40km slog up a rock-strewn jeep trail snaking along the valley. In sections, the sheer gradient forces riders to dismount and push, while the downhills are welcome, save for the occasional dusty erosion ruts. The road rises though the valley, and before long we enter a spectacular gorge with treacherous cliffs, and numerous cascading waterfalls bisecting the trail.

Several times, the jeep trail traverses cuttings in the barren cliff face, with dramatic over-hanging rocks providing some welcome shade. Leaving the fertile valley behind, it’s a relentless ascent up forested pine slopes, heralding the race’s entry into the sub-alpine region as we continue pedaling doggedly past villages and guesthouses.

Finally, the day’s grueling stage ends at a signboard reading “Chame, Manang” – the finish line.

 

STAGE 3: Chame to Manang, 32km

 

 

Stage 3 is a mix of more hike-a-bike, but with some of the best singletracks so far, leaving 4WD access behind; from here on porters haul gear from point to point with a combination of hiking and motorcycling.

The Nepali riders, accustomed to high-altitude and portaging heavy loads, make short work of the unrideable climb to the scenic village of Ghya Ru (or ‘yak horn’), from which the race gets its name. They move fast uphill, carrying their bikes over their shoulders or atop their heads.

The reward for the punishing ascent: spectacular views of the Annapurna range.

Even better, the descent from Ghya Ru is fast and challenging – making a narrow, rocky traverse of the mountainside. The amazing views pose a constant distraction to the task of making it down the trail safely. The exhilaration goes up a few notches as we hit several high-speed natural rollers (gentle jumps) and switchbacks going down to the valley floor.

The trail traces the Marsyangdi River up-stream – not the roaring, gorge-cutting torrent of the previous two days; instead, here it’s a rocky stream flanked by scree slopes and towering peaks. The pristine singletrack eventually crosses fields of buckwheat en route to the day’s finish at Manang.

The next day is a rest day, to acclimatise before the last two arduous racing stages.

 

STAGE 4: Manang to Thorung Pedi, 17km

 

 

There’s relentless altitude gain from the very start of this short stage, and air is let out of the tires to prevent them exploding due to steep pressure drops. The big climb out of Manang narrows to a busy singletrack, with racers encountering bell-adorned mule caravans, porters hauling duffel bags and wooden beams, and trekkers.

Weaving through this traffic is a challenge as the gravel-strewn trail is precariously exposed along scree slopes and canyon cuttings. On the steepest grades – and under serious fatigue in thinning air – instead of pedaling, it paid to get off and walk in order to recover one’s composure. A loss of concentration or wheel-skid could send rider and bike into an uncontrolled tumble dozens of metres downhill.

As riders battle skywards, the snow-capped Annapurna Range looms in the background, with majestic cliffs and gushing waterfalls closing in on the trail. Traversing scree becomes a game of Russian Roulette as riders and trekkers alike take cover behind rock faces, then dash across the exposed slopes quickly to avoid being hit by falling pebbles (which can reach bullet-like velocities).

While Thorung Pedi (4,450m) is a welcome finish, there’s no respite as riders must quickly re-organise and recover for the sub-zero, pre-dawn assault of Thorung La Pass – the Yak Ru’s penultimate racing stage.

 

STAGE 5: Thorung Pedi – Thorung La Pass – Kagbeni, 28km

A tough morning is taking a mountain bike up a 1,000m vertical ascent – over mostly unrideable, high-altitude terrain.

The 4am flag-off probably favoured the psychologically unprepared, as the inky darkness masked the true extent of the abominably steep climb from Thorung Pedi to Thorung High Camp. Racers complete this first segment using headlamps, and from High Camp onward, there’s snow to compound the effort of each footstep – the melted snow that’s now ice is especially treacherous. The rising sun illuminated the vast white landscape, with the blue-white ice cornices of nearby Thorung Peak particularly stark against the cloudless dawn sky.

Numerous false knolls along the way make this ascent as much a mental game as a physical one. Step by step, breath by laboured breath, eventually the route hits Thorung La pass (5,416m), marked by waving Buddhist prayer flags. There’s a few short minutes here to take photos, eat, re-hydrate, or to simply catch one’s breath – and then the downhill.

And it is a truly remarkable downhill – a big pay-off for the brutal uphill. Dropping more than two thousand metres, the route crosses  bumpy snow patches, loose scree, rock-strewn switchbacks, jagged rock gardens, and high-speed singletrack. Essentially a giant ‘enduro’ descent – steep, technical, and long – it’s a true test of technical riding skill and stamina, especially on the short travel cross-country bikes the riders prefer.

Sweeping views of the Mustang Valley – a wind-blown, ochre-hued landscape of semi-arid desert – greets riders as they negotiate the downhill. Once off the mountain, the route descends a sun-baked dirt road all the way to the finish at Kagbeni.

At the race hotel, several of the exhausted racers are nursing headaches brought on by a combination of a relatively sleepless night, dehydration, and heavy exercise at high altitude.

Outside, the wind is building speed and a rainstorm hits, while up at Thorung La it’s snowing. By then, all racers have safely completed this 28km final stage – thus capping off one of the world’s hardest endurance MTB races.

 

With Yak Ru’s competitive stages over, riders switched from ‘race mode’ for two days of non-competitive group riding through Mustang Valley and down towards Pokhara.

More than just a multi-day endurance test, Yak Ru transcends a typical MTB race. Because of its remote nature and arduous logistics, there’s a close-knit fellowship between racers, officials, and support staff – on and off the trail. And through the extreme elements and harsh terrain, the fiercest competition was not against other participants, but against oneself, in body, mind, and spirit.

Not simply a race for endurance junkies, Yak Ru demands more than just cycling fitness and skill. It demands the physical knack to pick up and run or hike while portaging a bike. The mental ability to cope with the thin air and altitude, and fortitude to simply keep going.

Yak Ru is that kind of race – an ode to Nepal’s wild, daunting, yet spiritually uplifting mountain environment. For more on Yak Ru, visit www.yakru.com.

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