Tag Archives: trekking

Nepal: Restful Days in the Annapurna Valley

Greetings all! In our last post, I took you through the more remote parts of our trek where we wandered the quiet side trails through the Nar Valley and up and over the 5,320m Kang-La pass. Well, for this post and the next, we now join back up with the main trail around the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, but also drag you all up with us up to the highest point in our trip, at 5,416m. This was the Thorung-La Pass, and was also the day of our 2nd wedding anniversary. Hard to top that! Luckily, the journey up to that height also included a couple shorter days spent enjoying the amazing scenery of the region. Here’s a map of that part of our trip. Read on for the full details of the short days before our 2nd major summit!

Thorung La Trekking Map2

Ngawal to Braga

After our incredibly long and challenging trekking on the day before, where we climbed up and over the Kang-La Pass, it was time for a slightly shorter day to recharge. Luckily, we had just the ticket. Ironically, we made this day even shorter than the original itinerary called. Instead of making our way from Ngawal all the way to Manang (a bigger village), we opted only to go as far as a small town called Braga. Why? Well, quite simply, I’d seen on a map that there were a few interesting side trips that could be easily hiked there on the same day, so I thought it might be fun to make a short trek to Braga, then spend an afternoon doing just an easy day hike with no packs.

The actual hike from Ngawal to Braga was pretty flat and just followed along the valley floor between the two villages. The way was quite dusty, but uneventful. Due to the fuel shortage already well in effect (although not clearly appreciated by us just yet), there was almost no traffic on what is normally a local road used by tractors, and motorbikes. So we had the road to ourselves, with just the warm sun keeping us company as we plodded along.

Monk Carvings

The other reason it seemed like a good idea to have a short day was that poor Deanna was really starting to feel the combined impact of being sick along the trek with the general tiredness of hiking every day. In the end, it meant that she could make the decision to spend the afternoon at the guest house with her feet up and just read a book and drink tea in the amazing sunshine and Himalaya views. Our porter also decided he’d take the afternoon off rather than join in the side hike. So, in the end, it was just our guide Ram and myself who made the all-uphill trek to the mystical Milarepa Cave. I was okay with that, as I knew it would make a happier overall trekking party if people had a bit of personal time. After a tasty lunch, Ram and I grabbed water and snacks, and left on foot.

Peaceful Area around Milarepa

After the long climb, which took us through some really nice wooded areas as well as past a few Gompas, we emerged at the top near the cave. It was a very quiet area, and we hadn’t seen a single soul on the entire trek. We quietly wandered around the spiritual site, eating a few cookies and having some water. It was just a beautiful peaceful day up there. The walk back was very uneventful as well, and I took the time to watch the way locals work in the fields during harvest time, using the same tools they’ve no doubt used for centuries. Very interesting.

To close the day / night off, we had another wonderful meal in this guest house. Interestingly, we were once again the only tourists in the area, and were outnumbered by the family members (and relatives) that lived in the area. As our supper was being prepared, we wandered over to a nearby monastery in hopes of getting to hear and see their evening prayers. Unfortunately, things were already locked up tight for the day. However, in interesting thing did happen after supper. They had satellite TV at our guest house, and after supper, we ended up watching (with the locals), a movie. What movie? Well it was The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Why is that interesting? Well, part of the movie takes part in Tibet, and the Himalaya mountains, and has Yeti in it. Here we were, in the Himalaya, watching a funny fictional adventure more set in the same area, but with locals. I got a kick out of watching them laughing at the situations and locations, but also had a different appreciation for the portrayal of the region and the temples in the movie. It just all seemed a little surreal!

Braga to Manang

After our short day from Ngawal to Braga, we followed that with an EVEN SHORTER and easier hike between Braga and Manang. While passing through was certainly possible, Manang is in fact the headquarters for the region, and therefore is a notable stop. It is also tourist central, and pretty much all trekkers and hikers make a stop in this village of 500 or so houses, which is quite large for the region! Again, however, having a short hiking day meant that we’d have the afternoon to go on a side hike.

Carvings on Route

Again, the hike between the two villages was pretty much a flat walk between two points. Probably not much more than a walk from my work office to the Market and Parliament Hill. But talk about a world of difference in scenery and feel! Just thinking about that for a moment really puts the whole trip in perspective. We saw only a few other people on our hike, spotting more people working in the fields for the fall harvest than anything else. When we arrived in Manang, we were quite early for the tourist crowds, so the guest house we checked into was still quite empty, enabling us to snag an amazing room with windows on 3 sides, looking directly into the Annapurna mountains around us. Spectacular!

Not only did we have exceptional views, but this room boasted a first for us in a while. We had an en-suite (of sorts), and, wait for it… electricity! Yup, there was a single outlet in the room (getting power from a solar panel on the roof), which allowed me to charge up everything from camera batteries to my Kindle. The ensuite also had a shower of sorts, so I took my first shower in days, hosing off the layers of dust and sweat with a relatively warm flow of water. We also headed into town to buy some powder detergent, allowing me to do some ‘bucket laundry’ and clean some of my trekking clothes. I’d been heavily recycling my duds anyway, but it was nice to clean them up. Darn western standards stuck in my head right?

Outhouse with a View

With laundry done, body washed up, and devices charging, we grabbed another tasty lunch before finally heading out for another afternoon hike. As usual, when you are in a valley, your options are usually limited to uphill hikes to take in the better views, and that’s just what we did. In this case, it was a hike up and along the Gangapurna Glacier. A nice example of a Himalayan glacier that finished off in a nice glacier lake that we got to walk by. At the top of the hike was a superb lookout area with lots of little snaking trails to wander around  and take in the view from different points. However, for me, I got a bigger kick out of going pottie in what I’d call yet another excellent example of a Loo with a View. The picture above doesn’t quite do justice, but you get the idea. Tiny little squat toilet here at 4000m, with fine views of the glacier and other surrounding mountains.

After our day hike, we settled in back at the hotel to meet other trekkers that had now completely filled up our hotel. I took advantage of the opportunity to get a nice cold Everest beer, and sit outside chatting with other world travelers. Deanna and I enjoyed chatting with new people and hearing lots of interesting stories and sharing in some funny experiences (which I won’t get into here, but hopefully it will trigger my memory about our bare chested Canadian vagabond friend and his bag of weed that he harvested en route….). All in all, a funny and fun night, that went later than usual. And by that, I mean we may have stayed up as late as 10pm, rather than the usual 8pm curfew.

End of Day Relaxing

While the plan had been to spend another day in Manang and just recharge there, we awoke the next morning, and over breakfast chatted over options with our guide and porter. In the end, we decided that pressing on might be the better idea. For two reasons. The most obvious was that it would get us to a higher elevation, thereby shortening the next day, when we’d hoped to get as close as we could to Thorung-La pass (making the summit day a bit easier). The second, and more esoteric reason was that it was ‘too easy’ in Manang. We’d found coffee shops, bakeries, lots of tourists, cold beer, plumbing, etc. Frankly, it had been a bit of a culture shock, and we weren’t ready to go back to the ‘luxuries’ yet. So, the plan was to press on, and move onto the tiny village of Gunsang, not far up the valley from Manang, but a world apart in feel.

Manang to Gunsang

So, with that, we moved on. Another relatively short day of trekking, and this time, with no side treks to follow up with. As a result, we didn’t get going to late in the morning, taking our time enjoying a final morning in Manang. What that really means is that Deanna went back to a cafe to have a tasty coffee. We also went to the local post office to send off a couple postcards. We made our way slowly and deliberately, but still covered the 4.3k in about 1h 15mins. That left us with quite a bit of day, and not too many things to do. Luckily, we’d picked up some playing cards in Manang, so passed the time playing various games.

Looking back at Manang

Lucky for us though, the weather was still quite amazing, so we also passed some time outside just taking in the view. I think that Gunsang, although it was comprised of basically 3 or 4 buildings, was one of my favourite little stops. Our guest house was tiny, but had a nice rooftop terrace with a bench on it, as well as a courtyard. When the sun was up and the air still, the roof was an ideal place to pass the time in a meditative way. When the wind picked up and made it too cold, you could sit in the courtyard, or move indoors where a nice panoramic window looked out from the dining area to the mountains across the valley. I defy anyone to look at the photo below and NOT be moved by the idea of being in that very spot and spending 10 minutes just staring out!

Enjoying the Vista

All in all, the rest and recharge would do us some good, as the next day would be another long one, and also finish off at a pretty high place. Our plans were to make our way from Gunsang all the way to a place called Thorung High Camp. Basically, the closest place you can sleep to the Thorung-La crossing.

Gunsang to Thorung High Camp

Here we are, on October 4th, the day before our wedding anniversary, and the day before we cross the highest mountain pass we’ve ever hiked to together. We got up at a reasonable hour, had our tasty breakfast, packed up, and headed out. The plan was to hike most of the way to High Camp before even stopping for lunch. This meant a near 14km of hiking, ascending over 1000m before eating again. In fact, lunch would be at Thorung Phedi, which sits at 4,525m itself!

Bridge to Head Towards Thorung

Luckily, we didn’t really have any time goals in mind, just to continue to feel strong as we went. Unfortunately, this was to be one of Deanna’s toughest days. The cold was really taking its toll on her, and I could see she was struggling a bit (although trying to hide it). In the end, I took both her daypack and my own on my back, allowing her to carry on unencumbered with anything but a water bottle. This helped her bounce back a little bit, and we still made good time. It was funny to note that even though she was ‘struggling’, we were still faster than pretty much anyone else we encountered on the trails.

The trek just became more and more beautiful this day, as we got ever closer to the high mountains. By the time we got to our lunch break, it was clear we would be done in good time again this day, leaving us with even more time for a potential side hike / acclimatization hike once we arrived.

Watch your Step

The most interesting part of this day would be our endpoint, which was at 4,868m. That’s a pretty high elevation to be sleeping, with a LOT less oxygen than you are used to. I wan’t sure how well we’d sleep and how we’d feel. Luckily, we were treated to tea and popcorn for a snack when we got to the high camp, so I knew that I’D feel great. After all, popcorn is a magical food, right?

Our room was pretty tiny, and the whole camp was in a pretty barren, but protected moonscape of a plateau high up in the mountains. There was a nearby scrambly hike that would take us a couple hundred meters higher and give us a little more chance to acclimatize before the big push on the next day. The four of us took the opportunity to head up that way, take a few pictures and just generally enjoy the views in the area. It was a surprisingly busy place, with lots of trekkers now here, and getting ready for the same push the next day.

Steve Looking Over High Camp

Given the early darkness up here, and the accompanying cold at the high elevation, we didn’t stay up very long after we ate supper. We went over plans with our guide and porter, agreeing to be amongst the first to leave in the morning, to give us the best shot of a quiet and peaceful summit experience. With that, we wandered down to our room, tucked ourselves into our warm sleeping bags, and tried to get some sleep.

Stay tuned for the next post, where we pick back up from here, and climb up and over the Thurong-La Pass for our wedding anniversary!

Nepal: Climbing to 5,320m in the Nar Valley

After our first couple introductory days of hiking, it was ‘high’ time to get into the proper mountains! The next section of our trip was a 3-day stretch through the Nar Valley, a place only visited by those with the proper permits and an official guide. We were originally supposed to take a rest day somewhere on this leg, but opted to push on in order to be able to visit other places. The absolute highlight of this part of the trip was crossing the Kang-La Pass, situated at 5,320m above sea level. Read on to hear all about it, and check out the map of this sections’ trekking below.

Nar Valley Hike Map

Koto to Meta

Starting the Nar Valley Trek

The first part of this trek was a gorgeous trek through the Nar Valley itself. For the most part, this was forested trail, and quite desolate / remote. That is to say, we didn’t encounter a single soul for most of the day along this route. It was also one of the few part of our entire trip where we were crossing through any villages during the day, which meant we actually had a packed lunch and just stopped at the side of the trail to chow down on lunch when we felt hungry.

Another Log Bridge

This entire day was pretty much uphill the whole way. We had started our day at about 2,600m, and finished off at 3,560m.  After we crossed the river leading to the Nar Phu valleys, we hiked up through beautiful woods above the Phu Khola (river). The route took us past several small shelters (caves) and a pilgrims’ ‘Dharmasala’. As we emerged out of a narrow canyon, the trail actually passed under a wide waterfall just before the dharmasala, from which point the woods become thinner and the vistas wider. A steep climb up the valley along a small, scenic river brought us to a high pasture on a plateau and finished off at Meta.

Traversing Waterfall

Although the clouds had been denying us any views of the mountains up to this point, we got a very nice surprise overnight. After a hearty supper prepared in front of our eyes on a roaring fire in the guest house where we stayed (the only one up here!), we crawled into our sleeping bags to fight off the chilly mountain air and get some rest. However, as often as it does, the call of nature came halfway through the night for me, so I trudged out to find the squatter to do my business. What I say bowled me over! It was a perfectly clear night, and a full moon! It was almost as light as day up there. Of course, I grabbed my camera and a tripod to grab some amazing pictures of this sight. It was great to finally see the mountains, and got me suddenly very excited for the next few days up here in the high mountains!

Midnight Mountain Views

Meta to Naar

Steve on Bridge

After a ‘brilliant’ night in Meta, we were pumped to get up and start trekking again. We were greeted in the morning with a full bright sun, and near-cloudless skies. Finally, we were immersed in the majesty of the mountains all around us, and would be spending our whole day wandering and marveling in them. Due to the topography, our day started with a lot of downhill hiking down the valley, only to climb all the way back up and out of the valley. Distance-wise it wasn’t the long of a trek (under 8k), but all of this was at higher elevations, so we took our time and enjoyed the day. We’d be finishing off at 4,150m this day.

Stupas en Route

The scenery on the day was just amazing. I was more than happy to keep a leisurely pace and just soak it all in.  As our guide put it:

This morning is one of the loveliest walks in the Himalayas. The landscape is white rocks, low shrub and juniper, scattered evergreens, delicate brick-red and orange leafed bushes, crumbling shelves of flat slate, white, sandy trails and gnarled trees. The mountains around us were utterly spectacular, and the Phu Kosi  (river) shadows the trail far below.  An hour past Meta, Junam is the second semi-permanent settlement, one where “khampas” from Tibet sometimes sheltered. Above the kharka to the right looms a massive glacier, which falls jaggedly down to the high pastures above us. It’s all truly amazing scenery. Across the river, the cliffs contort in swirls and waves, similar to Ladakhi landscapes. Trek descend to Nar Phedi after crossing Mahendra Pul  as we trek down to the old bridge spanning a deep, contoured and narrow gorge. After crossing a bridge a short hike near the Yonkar Gompa as there are 2 monasteries lower one is older and upper one is newly build.  From here gradually   hike up to reach the Nar gates at the top of the hill, and pass by yet another line of wonderfully painted, bamboo-topped chortens and a large tiered chorten before turning the corner and being rewarded with sublime views of Nar, the undulating patterns of the surrounding barley and mustard fields, four old, colorful and traditional gompas and the snow-peaks looming overhead. Physically, Nar is not far from the main Annapurna trail, but it feels centuries away, is rarely visited by trekkers and is about as picturesque as they come.

Himalaya High

I really can’t describe it any better than that narrative, which gives you a good idea of what we were enjoying. Because it was a relatively short hiking day, we were in Nar before lunch. This gave us a chance to enjoy the sunshine, and experience a bit more of the village life, including watching the locals hard at work chipping stones to build a new guest house. It was pretty impressive to watch them working, using only hand tools, and carefully building a structure from stone that is hand-hewn and could stand up to the rigors of life at over 4,000m!

Mountain Reflections

Since we had the extra time, we decided to head up a little higher and do an acclimatization hike. After all, tomorrow’s trek would take us up to the dizzying height of 5,320m as we crossed the Kang-La pass! These short hikes are a great way to prepare your body for the stresses of working in lower oxygen levels. Of course, Deanna and I were ‘cheating’ just a little bit, as we’d opted to start taking Acetazolamide, a drug that helps speed up the body’s natural acclimatization. We really didn’t want to risk having a bad day up in the mountains! We only went up about 180m from Nar, but it provided great views over the village, and made for the perfect pre-supper activity.

Naar to Ngawal via Kang-La Pass

Moonscape Trek

Little did we know when we set out in the early, very cold, morning, that this would turn out to be the single greatest day of our entire Nepal trip! We knew it would be impressive due to the surrounding mountains and the high pass we’d be crossing, but honestly, this was both humbling and flooring from both a scenery and effort perspective. It was a long day of trekking, and also involved a LOT of climbing followed by A LOT MORE descending. It’s safe to say that by the end of this day, we were completely pooped! We started at 4,200m, climbed to a max of 5,320m, then descended all the way to 3,650m.  The first 9.5k was all uphill, and the last 6.5k was all downhill, and VERY steep!

Break on the Trail

The day was absolutely stunning, and we found ourselves making pretty good time on the way up. Generally, when you get to the really high elevations, you spend only a short time before heading back down, but it was just too beautiful, and we were all feeling really good, so once we arrived at Kang-La, we decided to hang out for a while, including eating our packed lunch up there at 5,320m, surrounded by the gorgeous views of the Annapurna range including the peaks of Annapurna II, Annapurna IV, Annapurna I,  Gangapurna, and Tilicho. I’m not sure I will ever experience and see as beautiful a sight as we did that day. I think it was made even better by the fact that very few tourists make it up to this path, and we were almost alone up there. I say ‘almost’ because a small group of 4 Norwegians and their guide did eventually join us up there. Wondering about the view? Well, this will give you an idea:

Annapurna II III IV and Gangapurna

Another thing we took the time to do up there was to undertake a typical ceremony, involving lighting incense, blessing a roll of prayer flags, and then laying them out up there. Deanna and I quite enjoyed this process, and were pleased to have our very new, bright colourful prayer flags join the many others that were already up there, but faded due to exposure. After finishing off our lunches and realizing we still had a fair ways to go downhill, we decided to head down. And boy, what a downhill! The trail down was initially very steep; scree jumping was the easiest option for the descent. After the scree, it was still pretty steep going, and we eventually made it to a plateau overlooking the peaks, which gave us a chance to rest sore knees and shaky legs. We were so shaky from the descent that we all collapsed in the grass, not caring much about the dried yak dung dotting the pasture!

Happy Place

From here we would continue to contour the mountain to get to Ngawal, which is on the upper Pisang route of the Annapurna circuit (off the main Annapurna circuit). The walk down was very nice, and while we should have taken it really easy and enjoyed the views, we couldn’t help but to go pretty quickly. The end result were some very tired legs when we finally arrived at our guest house.

But the day’s fun wasn’t completely over yet. After a nice little nap on arrival, I got up and did a little exploring around the village, and then, treated myself to some hot water for a mini shower! It had been a few days, so it felt quite heavenly. Not only that, but later on, I even managed to get some fresh popcorn and a beer! Yup, the day ended absolutely perfectly, and resulted in a perma-grin on my face for the rest of the day. The next day, we’d be joining back up with the main Annapurna circuit, and start the next part of our trip, and climbing even higher to celebrate our 2 year anniversary! Stay tuned for that post next!
Soaking up Morning Rays

Nepal: Let the Trekking Commence!

Howdy all! To work our way to the true ‘highs’ of the trip to Nepal, this post will now focus on the first few days of trekking. Well, actually, part of the post will focus on the DRIVE to get to the trekking, which was an adventure in itself! While I had hoped to share exact trekking maps for all parts of the trip, the first few days didn’t make it, as my GPS watch ran out of memory and overwrote the first couple days. Too bad, as one of them was a pretty good distance. At any rate, there are far too many stories to talk about EVERYTHING we did and saw along the trails, but the post should definitely give you a flavour of this section.

Kathmandu to Besisahar

View from Hotel

The next morning, after having supper at the tour company owners’ home the night before, we piled into a private car which was going to drive us from Kathmandu to a little village in the Annapurna region known as Besisahar. Before leaving the big city, our actual guide (Ram) and our personal porter (Purna) joined us for the ride. These two would be with us non-stop for the next couple weeks, so we hoped we’d all get along. For the ride, we did our best to start getting to know each other a bit, and also to try and figure out how their English skills were.

I’m happy to report they had excellent english, and while things weren’t ‘perfect’ the entire way, we all got along very well and we’d definitely recommend them if you ever find yourself in Nepal! The drive to Besisahar, while only 175km or so, took well over 5 hours. Believe me when I say that even though you’ll see lots of roads on Nepali maps, they are not ‘western roads’. At any rate, once we arrived at Besisahar, we had our first ‘acclimatization’ hike as a group. I actually think it was more a case that our guide wanted to assess our fitness level. Fair enough. We passed. It was stinkin’ hot here, but with little to do in the small town, Deanna and I headed off on our own after this hike to do a little more exploring, ending up a fair bit downhill by a river. There, I collected my 2 stones that I intended to carry with me and eventually leave one at each of our two major summit passes.

The plan was to overnight in Besisahar before hiring a 4×4 for the next days’ journey, which would take us to the start of the real trekking, which we were quite looking forward to.

Besisahar to Tal

Clicking the link below will take you to the full album on Flickr, or you can scroll through the images here.

Arriving at Besi Sahar
Alright, so this day started with a pretty amazing 4×4 adventure. While a car had been sufficient to get us this far, our next ‘road’, which took us from Besisahar to Chamje, would require some heavy machinery. Although it was only 37km of road, this trip took us almost 4 hours! Ironically, people would pay a lot of money for the 4×4 experience we had, but for us, and the locals, this was actually more like the ‘taxi service’. It was amazing, with sheer drops on our side, deep mud to get through in parts, and even sections where we all had to get out so that the road could be ‘fixed’ on the fly by either adding or removing rocks / boulders!

Creating Traction

After this very impressive ride, we arrived in the tiny village of Chamje to enjoy our lunch before *finally* starting the actual trekking portion of the trip. We both opted to have some tasty curry dishes to energize ourselves. This is where we first noticed a funny etiquette point of utilizing guides / porters. Ram and Purna would take our orders and relay them to the restaurant owners, but would then disappear and leave us alone. Apparently, they are not supposed to eat with us. Over time, we convinced them to dine with us a couple times, but generally speaking, they would eat with the other locals in the kitchen, then rejoin us. They also wouldn’t get to eat until we were served. Lucky for them, they can eat really fast, so they were almost always ready to go before us.

This first leg of trekking was relatively short and sweet. All told, we would be hiking less than 6km. However, given the jungle-like atmosphere, with heat and humidity, we were happy to not go too far on this first day. The journey took us along a very lush green valley. And when I say ‘green’, that involved a rather impressive marijuana field. Yes, I’m not kidding, we just trekked right through a weed field, and kept going! We also had our first experience with the local critters, including leeches that were all too happy to latch onto our heels / ankles (we each had a few). Later in the day, we also had a visit from a big spider in our room!

Verdant Views as we Hike

We finished our day in the late afternoon, and had our first experience of staying in a proper ‘guest house’ or ‘tea house’. Essentially, along major trails, all the villages comprise of enterprising residents. Almost every home turns out to be a guest house, a restaurant, and a store! Very rustic, but very practical. You can always be guaranteed of finding a place to stay. The plus side of having a guide is that they know the ‘good’ places with the best cooks. Never mind that the menus are pretty much IDENTICAL everywhere, but they can still be better and worse. For our first night on the trail, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We also learned on this day that once the day is done, there is very little to do, so we were glad we had Kindles, and feet to explore!

Tal to Koto

Clicking the link below will take you to the full album on Flickr, or you can scroll through the images here.

Leaving Tal

The next day, after a simple breakfast, and the obligatory tea, which we had in quantity anytime and everywhere we went, we set off on our way to Koto. Originally, we had been set to hike from Besisahar, stop in Tal, then continue to a place called Dharapani, but we’d changed things on the fly due to Ram’s recommendation. What that ultimately meant for this 2nd trekking day was a nice long day of walking. Total distance was over 22km. While that sounds like a short distance to those who know the races I do, this was NOT a race. We were here to soak it all in and experience everything we could.

The terrain on this day started out once again very lush and hot. However, over the course of the day, we climbed up from about 1600m in Tal up to 2600m in Koto, so the terrain did start changing a bit. While it was still predominantly green, I’d compare it to leaving a junglescape and making your way into more of a forest environment. The trail became more like a typical trail you might encounter on a wooded hike in the Rockies for example.

Continuing Trek

Along the way, we stopped at an obligatory checkpoint in a village called Dharapani (where we had originally been slated to stop the day before). Interestingly enough, we happened to show up there on the exact date of the 36th World Tourism Day. We were also the first tourists through, so we were treated to a special little ceremony where we got scarves, and I even got a typical hat worn by locals. It was a pretty unique experience.

Tourism Day Ceremony

After our little ceremony was completed, we carried on our way, with me feeling a little silly wearing the hat, but not wanting to appear ungrateful by taking it off. Our journey continued on along the road for a while before veering off into the woods once again. In order to make it to our lunch stop, we were now faced with a pretty steep climb straight up. I was loving it. The trail was a very impressive thing, with some sections actually more like a cobbled road, while other sections were really gnarly dirt tracks. Interestingly, these really aren’t just tourist tracks, but also a main way for local villagers to move throughout the valley. It was not unusual at all to bump into people along the way, and greet each of them with a warm ‘namaste’. It’s not just for Yoga over there, it really is the normal greeting.

Climbing Up

Today, like the day before, was not raining, but the skies were also not clear either. It was just a white / grey day overall. This prevented us from seeing any peaks in the region just yet, but we were pretty sure they would make an appearance in the next few days. After all, we were getting ever closer to the highest peaks! Our lunch stop was high up in the hills, and apparently would normally have a view, but instead, we just had a chilly light wind cooling us off up there. However, it was interesting as we learned more about how people live here. Most of the food you eat is basically whatever they have grown / raised on their own. Here, they had been drying out chili peppers and beans, to feed them over the next few months, along with other assorted vegetables. Everything is very fresh and tasty.

To feel more like a local, our porter Purna and I spent some time foraging for food in the woods. Our prize? 40 walnuts that ended up being lugged across all the high peaks for the next 2 weeks, as I patiently waited for them to be dry enough to be ready to open. More on this in future posts ;-).

We Are Belong to Nature

With lunch finished, we carried on our way, navigating another mix of access roads and trails to finish off in Koto, another small village. Most tourists continue up the road to a place called Chame. However, most tourists are trekking the normal Annapurna Circuit. We were about to start our own adventure in the Nar Valley, an area accessed from Koto, and only open to those with the proper permits and a guide. In other words, we’d be heading off the beaten path. As a result, in Koto, we were once again in a quiet town, although we did share our guest house with a few others. I also had access to some gas-heated water to approximate a shower of sorts. I cleaned up a little, knowing that it would be several days before we had that luxury again.

To close out the night in Koto, I had a chance to try a local home-made alcoholic beverage. It’s name: Raksi. This is a distilled spirit made from millet or rice. It is also made by many of the guest house owners, if they have the time. It is cheap compared to bottled beers, but definitely an acquired taste. I eventually learned more about the process, and am curious to try and make it on my own some day, but I’ll need the appropriate pots to make a go of it. As there isn’t a lot of refrigeration around these parts, the drink was served at room temperature, and left a nice warm spot in my stomach.

Trying the Local Raksi

Well, there you have it. The first few days of the trekking. They really are the tip of the iceberg, but were a great introduction to the sublime pleasures of trekking in the Himalaya, and in the Annapurna region specifically. We were building up our ‘team spirit’ for the next few sections, as we’d climb higher and higher. Stay tuned for our next installment, where we’ll cross our first high peak! For now, this post signs off at 2,600m a.s.l with a smile on my face thanks to the hooch!

Nepal: Sights and Sounds of the Cities

Well, it’s high time that I put fingers to the keyboard and started sharing with you all some of the stories from our epic trip of a lifetime to Nepal last fall. I wasn’t sure where to start, so to kick things off, I focused on getting the pictures posted on flickr. Luckily, that work is done, and you can see ALL the pictures in the collection. As you’ll see below, to make it as easy as possible, I managed to whittle down the ‘best of’ shots to just under 200! A tough feat in such a picturesque part of the world. You can scroll through them below, or better yet, watch the gorgeous full-screen slideshow (click the little “play” icon)! At any rate, this, my first post in the series, will focus on the relative hustle and bustle of the start and finish of our trekking, which found us in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Read on for the details!

Best of Nepal

As many of you are aware, I have decided that the mountain goat is probably my spirit animal. I’m always most relaxed when surrounded by imposing peaks. Some years ago, several people suggested I should make my way to the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It’s taken a few years to act on the advice, but last fall, for our 2 year anniversary, Deanna and I decided to do just that, and spend the better part of a month in the high Himalaya, and experience the true culture and beauty of Nepal.  We booked a trip with a local tour operator based on recommendations, packed our bags, and made our way to the Nepali capital of Kathmandu.

While cities the world over may seem substantially the same, any of you who have spent time in far flung corners will know that there are clear differences in all of them, from sights, smells, and sounds. We arrived in the late evening after over 24 hours of transit, so after a full nights’ rest, we were ready to explore and see the very sprawling city of Kathmandu. Luckily, our guide arranged for a driver and for him to personally give us a tour of the city. With only about 24 hours to see the capital before driving off into the more remote regions, we had to be efficient.

Colourful Wood Carvings

In our opening day, we managed to see major sites such as the Monkey Temple, the Garden of Dreams, and a traditional temple / monastery. More importantly, we did a lot of wandering through the market areas and just generally taking in the sights. We were particularly interested to see what sort of obvious damage was still visible from the earthquakes earlier in the year. We didn’t have to look far, as there were lots of clear signs of rubble, and of people still recovering. However, there was also a clear sense of perseverance all around us. Probably the most unfortunate view was the destruction of the Boudhanath temple, which is one of the largest Stupas in Nepal, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Of course, it is only one of many treasures that suffered great damage.

Reconstruction Work

In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the core of Kathmandu was a very special park that we visited, the ‘Garden of Dreams’. Although relatively small in size, this greenspace in the centre of the chaos is a great place to just relax for a little bit. It has apparently also become a go-to destination for young Nepali folks to go for a ‘date’. Easy to see why. Although you pay a small admission fee, once inside, it’s easy to find some peace in the gardens.

Flowers in Park

As a real treat for us though was the fact that at the end of the day, our guide (and company owner) actually invited us to his family’s home to share a meal with them. This was definitely something not to miss, as we got to see how the Nepali live in their own homes, and be treated to some great home cooking of a traditional Nepali dish, Dal Bhat. It’s a meal we’d have many many times over the course of the next few weeks! To cap off the night, we pored over the maps and itinerary for the upcoming trekking while sipping hot tea. All in all, a pretty amazing first day!

Tweaking Plans

We did spend another day in Kathmandu, but not until the very end of our trip, and by then, our focus was on picking up a few souvenirs, enjoying the last couple meals there, and reflecting on our whole trip. However, before that, we had spent a couple nights in the city of Pokhara, the largest city in the Annapurna region. Whereas Kathmandu was very chaotic and noisy, imagine Pokhara being Ottawa and Kathmandu being Toronto. Still large, but much more laid back. This is a true tourist town, with countless people in town either finishing off their trekking, or gearing up to head out. Since we were all done our trekking, this was our rest and recharging point. In fact, the first stop for me was to find a barber shop to have a hot shave, getting rid of my mountain man beard.

Stroll in Park

It’s worth noting a few things about Pokhara. First, it is a lake-side town, so it great options for heading out on the water and admiring the peaks around you. Unfortunately for us, it was a bit overcast when we were there. Secondly, thanks to a national fuel shortage (compliments of a blockade by India), things were even quieter than usual in the core of the city, with only limited vehicle traffic. Of course, that actually meant a few headaches for us as well (e.g. having to fly from there to Kathmandu due to lack of buses / cars). I think this is a town we could have easily spent an extra few days in.

Mountain View from Pokhara Hotel

As it was, we spent most of our time on foot wandering around the waterfront area, thanks to a plethora of bars and eateries. However, the stop wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a place called the World Peace Pagoda, an imposing structure high in the hills surrounding Pokhara. Getting there would have been a challenge, were it not for our sense of adventure. We ended up renting bicycles for half a day and making the trip on two wheels. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on it being so HOT and hard a ride up the winding mountain road. However, we were rewarded with great views of the Pagoda, as well as the entire city of Pokhara sprawling out beneath.

Looking out over Pokhara

In addition, having the bikes gave us a chance to visit a few of the other more far flung sights such as Devi Falls. As always with a bike, it also allowed us to explore the whole region with no fixed schedule or expectations. We meandered around here and there on side streets, getting somewhat mixed up about where we were, but stumbling across plenty of cool opportunities to interact with local and see the back alleys. Good thing we felt safe out there.

The Falls

While I’m always the first to tell you all that I don’t like cities, these two Nepali destinations would be on a ‘must see’ to any trip to Nepal. Firstly, you can’t avoid (nor should you) Kathmandu on any flights to the country. The entire Kathmandu valley is massive in size, with the population of this city of about 1 million sprawling out in an area of about 50 square kilometers. Pretty much all the buildings are below 5 stories, so you  can imagine it spreading out. Secondly, Pokhara is truly the ideal ‘chilling out’ town of Nepal. There is enough of an ‘east meets west’ vibe here, that there are endless options for entertaining yourself and people watching. For those reasons, this seemed like a good way to start the chronicles from Nepal. But much more exciting to me will be sharing the next major sections of the trip: the actual trekking! Stay tuned for those stories coming up.

Slideshow of the Sights and Sounds of Nepal Cities

Arrival at Kathmandu Hotel

The Highs and Lows of Pennsylvania

Greetings friends. I’m pretty excited to be able to write a blog post about a race I recently did in Pennsylvania. Why? Well, for starters, it was a 44 hour adventure race. Also, I have never been to Pennsylvania for a race. And finally, it was because this race was not even on my radar until a few weeks before, when Deanna pointed out a post on Facebook from a friend stating they were seeking a team-mate. Had she not encouraged me to throw my name in the hat, I wouldn’t have even raced a multi-day AR this year! How sad would that have been? Read on for my tale of climbing mountains on my mountain bike over and over again….

48 Hour races (44 in this case) in the AR world are one of the best challenges for a middling team. You have enough time to get into real trouble and/or make some really great decisions to help your standing. Anything can happen, and you definitely start to hit the wall of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. Going into a 48 Hr race, you know you will not sleep, so it is all about smart decisions and figuring out as much as you can in advance, so you are not planning when dead tired. Unfortunately, this race didn’t really allow you to use that strategy, and in my opinion, this race was more like a multiple stage orienteering race than a pure adventure race.

Full Map Set

What do I mean by that? Well, here are a few things. First, the maps. They were huge, and not marked. We got them 1.5 hours before the start, along with a very brief (<1 page) instruction sheet. I started trying to furiously plot the points on it using the UTM co-ordinates before realizing they had master maps posted on a wall of a building. Unfortunately, all teams were trying to copy the maps at the same time, making it VERY challenging to transcribe, and also prepare all your gear, since it was the first chance we had of seeing the order of events. Oh right, and I should mention that I was in the navigator role so that my teammate Brad could focus on doing filming of the event, and my other teammate Jessica could focus on the fact that this was her FIRST RACE >8 hours in length!

Matters were made worse by colder-than-expected weather, forcing organizers to completely re-imagine the course a day earlier! They had to cancel rafting, swimming, and ropes sections right off the bat, forcing extra mountain biking on us. As a result, we also only got instruction for about the first 20 hours of racing. The next sections would be revealed to us later (or maybe just made up as we got there??).

So, where exactly was the race and what was it? Well, this was the Equinox Traverse Adventure Race, and took place in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania (near the Maryland and West Virginia Borders). This region features many state parks and state forests, leaving lots of options for adventuring. It is also very close to the highest point in Pennsylvania, Mount Davis, at 3,200ft elevation. While we did not climb that feature, we DID go up and down MANY >2,000 ft climbs during the course of our race.

So, back to the start line. Maps now marked and roughly folded to fit into my map carrier on my bike, we straddled our mountain bikes to get ready for the rolling start as a group. We had a roughly 2k road section where we were to stay together before we were cut loose to hammer to the next transition. This section was a taster for what would become a theme of this race. On our bikes. Climbing long sections, then bombing down others. On a combination of roads, gravel roads, fire tower road, trails, and singletrack. Not to spoil the surprise, but we basically spent ~35 of our 40 hours of the race on our butts doing this!! Not everyone was as ‘lucky’ as us, as you’ll learn.

Our first section didn’t feature any real CPs to be punched, just a nice bike section to the first transition of the day, where we were switching to trekking. We started the bike leg at 9am, and got into the first transition at 11:15 am. You can click here for detailed results and times for the race. At this point, we took the time to organize food and maps before heading out. We didn’t want to overlook anything, as we only had until 6pm to get as many CPs in this area as we could, and we wanted to get them all. This area featured some great trails and elevation gain giving us impressive views of the area. I wished I could pull out my camera and snap pictures, but my hands were full with maps and compass, navigating and keeping us on track. We quickly discovered that there were plenty of trails not indicated on the maps. When trekking, I can say that I personally HATE that! The easiest is to take a bearing and just bushwhack in my opinion. When you have myriad trails, you have to take educated guesses on which might help, and decide then to abandon them.

Heading out on Trek

Luck was with us for the most part, and the route choices and trails made general sense. It helped that our destination was often the highest point in an area, so we could read the terrain around us for cues and clues. It took us a little longer than we’d hoped to grab our 2nd CP (the first was an easy grab on a small island not far from the TA). This CP also introduced us to the fact that this area was THICK with stinging nettles and briars. The best sum-up would come from a post I came across on Facebook after the event:

The only hints I’m giving away for the Equinox, is if your in the stinging nettles, briars so thick Peter Cottontail would have hard time crawling through, knee straining rock gardens, seeing occasional piles of bear poop and maybe hearing the sound of a baby rattle in the middle of the woods…..you might be close to a CP. Oh and ticks.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of pushing your way through a sea of stinging nettles, I do NOT recommend it. The going was very slow, and it definitely tested our mental fortitude. Looking at the time we’d spent already in this section, we got concerned about getting the remaining checkpoints in time, but pressed on, deciding to run to the furthest CP in the section, and making our way back. Once again, we had a slight challenge getting this one due in part to mis-reading the cue sheet descriptions. In reality, our navigation was in fact bang on, it was just finding the actual CP flags that seemed to challenge us, as they are often in an area of 100 square meters or so, and it can take time to locate them. Once again, although we were a little annoyed at the time delay, we again re-grouped and pressed on, with me adjusting our route plan on the fly in hopes of getting lucky on the next few CPs.

Luck was with us from that point for the remainder of the trek. We picked up some very useful trails, and had gotten more used to ‘guessing’ where the CPs might actually be. We also had the chance to do some classic straight-line bushwhacking, which netted us some solid progress and ending up finding the rest of the CPs on the mountain (while enjoying a few glimpses of the spectacular views). Time was tight, but we were confident we could run back to the TA in time. Luckily, backtracking was made simpler as the route I had chosen took us back to a point where we’d be able to basically just double back on the ‘right’ trails more easily. However, it was still a real push to wrap things up quick, as you’ll see by our time in at the TA. 5:56pm. Yup. 4 minutes to spare! While many teams had already left, we learned that several teams had not ‘cleared’ the section, so we took this as a small victory (and personally, I’d say in retrospect, that was our greatest accomplishment in the race).

The team was cooked from the recent effort, so time was spent re-grouping, filling water, etc, before taking off. This was perfect for me, as I had not even started planning out our next route choices on the bike, which involved plotting 3-4 supplementary maps, and preparing for a long night of cycling, much of it in remote park locations. As I sorted the routes out, it seemed very likely to me that we’d face our first true decision point on which CPs to skip, since our next deadline was 4am, and there was a LOT of ground to cover. Sadly, we mis-interpreted another little instruction on the sparse directions, which noted we had to check in at TA3 by 4am, and would not have access to any CPs north of a certain highway. Uncertain of which road that meant, we took that to mean we were not allowed to grab any more of the CPs in this whole quadrant by 4am. As we learned later (and others also made this mistake), that was not true.

So fast forward on the bikes now. I had plotted as conservative a route as I could (i.e. avoiding as many of the crazy long climbs as possible), while having a clear plan to get as many CPs as possible, while giving us ‘outs’ and shortcuts as needed in some of the parks. I was quite pleased with the plan I had devised as it should have maximized our ability to grab CPs. The plan involved working on clearing the ‘south’ area of this leg first, then working our way north before veering east to the TA. In effect, it meant we were grabbing CPs that we’d eventually (although at that time unknown to us due to not having the information yet) see again, and COULD have picked up AFTER 4am! Looking back at the maps, it isn’t clear that we would have done things differently, as the alternative was a LOT of trails and tougher biking, and we were already not that fast at this point.

I will state that although this section was now in the depths of the night, it was actually quite fun to navigate and ride. There was a good mix of route types, and enough trails and challenges that you had to be sharp, but not ‘perfect’. Given more time and speed, clearing it wouldn’t have been that difficult from a navigation perspective. However, hindsight is 20/20, and in the end, we left a LOT of CPs out on the course once we made our move to head to TA3. Some of the CPs were so far removed, and required really long slogs up or down trails that were un-rideable that losing an hour on 1 CP was quite easy. Again, we made our priority getting to the TA before that 4am cutoff a priority, as we were warned there would be ‘severe’ penalties for missing them.

Let me digress here to point out a complaint we felt is warranted here. The notion of a ‘severe’ penalty was completely unexplained to racers. There was not a single ‘rule’ about the race, nor how it would be scored or how we’d be ranked depending on these cutoffs, etc. This left us uncertain what the best choices to make would be. Rush to make cutoffs? Grab an extra CP or 2 to get more points? Would there be a short course option? Would we be disqualified for missing cutoffs? It was frustrating to have more questions than answers, especially when we were out there trying to make a decision on what to do in a pinch. So, we made the best decisions we could, and hoped for the best.

Digression over, I’m happy to say we yet again got to the cutoff with 8 minutes to spare. You’ll note on the timesheet we cut it closer than anyone else EVERY time :-). This particular cutoff was at a 24 / 7 gas station. At this point, it was FREEZING outside (like 4-5 degrees!), so we loved the heat indoors. We also loved the gas station Pizza, Burgers, and other food that we bought to fuel up. Once again, we took our grand time here. In part to fuel up, and also so that I could plot the next section, which was only revealed to us now. It involved quite a bit of back tracking, and then entering an area called ‘Bear Run’ and following what they said were orange ribbons to the next TA. We were given no information on what awaited us there, only that we had to make it there by 10:30am.

Seemed easy enough. 6.5 hours to bike to the next CP? Not so fast tiger. First, by the time we left, it was already 5am. Then, Jess flatted out as soon as we got underway, which I fixed as fast as I could on the roadside, but this still cost us time. THEN we made the decision to pick up 2 CPs from the previous section, now that we knew we were allowed to. We were happy to grab them, but didn’t realize the fresh hell awaiting us on the way to Bear Run. For starters, the climbing was really starting to wear on poor Jess. She was hurting and struggling, so we took some weight from her, and did what we could , but admittedly, progress on the roads was slow. The focus was on eating, drinking, and bouncing back, which she did by the time we got to the ‘entry’ of Bear Run, which was a flagged roadside trail entry. The directions just said to follow the flagging tape to the CP. We assumed that it would take a while with the mountains, but at least it should be straightforward, right?

WRONG! The flagging was pretty consistent for the first couple kilometers INTO this park, then, all of a sudden, it STOPPED! Ok, now what? We were well into the park, but with no map indicating ANY of the trails we were on (even though they were named). Once again, all we knew is that certain roads were completely out of bounds. Logically, we new that we might hit one such road, and wanted to avoid it, in case if would lead to disqualification. That meant a bunch of climbing up, looking for flagging, then changing our minds, doubling all the way back and dropping all the way down off the mountain, still not finding tape. We heard the road, worried about the DQ risk, and eventually decided to head back all the way UP, agreeing that either we’d missed flagging, or it didn’t exist, and that we should have just kept going up and around. This was definitely a low point on team morale, but the worst was yet to come.

Once we got ALL THE WAY BACK UP and a whole lot further, we finally saw another team, commenting “oh look, another team trying to follow the flagging”. They were trekking, so at least we knew what was next. They were kind enough to: a) share their own absolute frustration at this part of the race and b) share an additional map they had gotten AFTER the bike showing the trails and their names in this region. This indicated that we had to go ALL THE FRIGGING WAY BACK DOWN, and that we had been dangerously close to the TA and not known it (like 10-15 minutes away). We had lost many hours by now. Ultimately, although the cut-off had been noted as 10:30am, we only showed up at 1:21pm, but were told the cut-off was not being enforced here. Small miracles!

At this point, we got the lowdown on the next section, which was an orienteering leg in the Bear Run State Park. It looked quite easy (with the now-supplied map), but time consuming. Teams seeking to clear the whole course were taking about 4 hours to do so. Our main issue was that in order to make it to the NEXT transition, we still had a lot of biking to do, and were looking at a 6pm cutoff. We had the idea to grab at least 1 checkpoint near the TA, but after overhearing several other teams discussing the time it would take to bike to the next TA, we got spooked, and decided to pack back up and get right back on our bikes. All told, we spent 40 minutes in the TA. This was spent eating, addressing sore parts, and mapping out the next part of the race. This was the FIRST (and ONLY) chance we had access to our miniscule 40L team gear bin. It basically only had room for a little food, and spare clothes should we need it. In this TA, I was in a bit of a funk after the last major delay, and not excited about riding the saddle for many more hours. However, such is the way things go sometimes. We’d now been on our bikes from 6pm Saturday to 1pm Sunday, a total of 19 hours, and about to keep pedaling.

Once again, the route we were going to follow was a bit of back-tracking in the State Park, then we had to make a choice on how to get to the transition area. We decided to take a bit of a gamble by heading down an extremely steep ATV trail from the top of the mountain we were on down to the river, then follow this ATV trail along the river into a village before linking with the road many other teams were likely taking. What a ride! We had to stop numerous times to let our forearms have a break as well as make sure the brakes weren’t overheating or wearing out. It was STEEP! What a rush. At the bottom, we discovered our ATV track was not as ‘smooth’ as we’d hoped, so any time gain we might have had by taking the shorter route was likely offset by the slog we faced. I now hit my absolute lowest in the race. We often use a scale of 1-5 to share with the team how we feel. I reported a 0.75. However, that merely frustrated me, so I ate more, blocked out everything else (not even talking…), and just plowed on hard, taking no rest or giving me any time to get frustrated. I was determined to not make this be a factor in our race. After a little while I bounced back (as we always do), just in time for a stand-off we were NOT expecting!

Just before we hit a real road in the village we had targeted (and dangerously close to the cutoff) we realized we were about to cross a sign that said “Private Property”. A mere 500 feet from the road we wanted. And of course, the owner was on his porch, and none too pleased. We had a genuine standoff here, uncertain whether we were going to be fired upon, have police called or what. In our exhausted state, we did all we could to assure the gentleman we meant to disrespect, and were merely ‘lost’ and didn’t realize the property was private. In all fairness, this was true. From the map, this trail clearly went across state park land (free access) and was not clear that the final 500 feet might be private. We lost precious minutes before finally somehow convincing / promising him we’d leave quickly, quietly and would NEVER return. Apparently they are very zealous of property rights in this area. Duly noted. Reinvigorated by the adrenaline and fear, we roared off on our bikes, now more than ever determined to make the 6pm cutoff. A few quick route decisions, and we were pulling into the TA, seeing a sea of bikes, but no other teams. On the plus side, it was 5:59pm!!! We’d made it. Brad was ecstatic.

Just as quickly as he was ecstatic,  he was crushed. As we were hugging the fact that we’d ‘made it’, the race crew clarified that we had to be on the water at 6pm, not arrive at the TA. So we had missed the paddle section! This also meant we would miss the next trekking section, since it involved trekking from the kayak pull-out BACK to this point before grabbing bikes and cycling to the finish. However, the “good news” was that we could just take our bikes and do the trekking section using our bikes before making our way to the finish. We had now been awake for about 35 hours, and on our bikes for the last 24 hours straight. We didn’t immediately see the fact that we’d get to keep biking as ‘good news’.

For my part, I let Brad and Jess sort through their feelings about this while focusing on plotting the next section on the maps anyway. There was little point to getting angry now. On the plus side, there was no way we wouldn’t be finishing the race at least, and getting out as soon as we could would be helpful, as we still had some daylight to use to find the final 4 checkpoints. I soon realized that we had a VERY long climb ahead of us, and didn’t want to share the extent of this with the team just yet, instead just encouraging everyone to get ready and head back out. Which we did, but not before witnessing the eventual winner of the race running into the TA having finished both the paddle AND the trek, and back to grab his bike to head to the finish! He had a mere 7-9 miles left on rail trail to finish the race, whereas we were now facing many more hours on trails and access roads on our bikes before getting there. If nothing, it was inspirational to see a solo racer that far ahead and winning!

Off we went! We made our way to the bottom of what was called ‘fire tower road’, a climb of probably over 2,000ft total lay ahead. Luckily, a nice old timer at his house invited us to use his outdoor hose to fill up our bladders with fresh filtered creek water. This kind of made up for the last cantankerous fellow. We were warned by him (and several other people we saw on our way) that this road was NOT friendly, and very steep. Lol. If only they knew what we’d been up to for the past 32+ hours. We slowly made our way up and up and up. When we reached the top and grabbed the 1st of the final 4 CPs, we started running across teams on foot completing this trekking section, including friends. They were a bit confused seeing us on bikes. We explained our situation, wished everyone well, and kept going. Night was now upon us again, but luckily, I felt confident about the route choices, and just settled in for many more hours of riding at a slow pace to keep us all together (Jessica didn’t have a proper light for night 2, and was a bit bagged).

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say the last 3 checkpoints, while not incredibly hard to find, did take us quite a little while to get. The final CP involved a long ride on a fun single-track trail (usually limited to hikers, but we got to ride it), then a long road climb to a park summit. Once we finally located the CP hidden in the woods, we knew it was just a matter of downhill riding to the finish line. We had a mini-celebration up there, knowing we had succeeded.

At the FinishWe rolled across the finish line at 1:08am. Technically, this put our finish time somewhere in the middle of the pack, albeit having finished an ‘alternative’ course. Our category standing put us in 6th of 9 teams, and overall  8th of 16 teams, based on our points. However, more importantly, we finished the race strong, as a team, and with smiles on our face (proof above). We had raced hard for 40 hours, been awake for 45 hours straight, covered about 260 km (most of this on mountain bikes), and used our bodies to climb 25,000 feet or more of elevation! Not too shabby. I was happy to race with both Brad and Jessica, and proud to call us a ‘Team’. We had a great attitude, helped each other out when needed, and managed to show Jessica just how far you can push yourself. I’m pretty sure she’ll be back for more!

The Video

Now, as a reward for sticking with me through this really long post, I have a treat. As mentioned, Brad was filming for this race, and as a result, we have a full video of our experience. Click below to watch it. Put it on full-screen HD and see what 40 hours of racing looks like from the inside!

 

Chasing Checkpoints in Beautiful Lac Ste. Marie

Well, the race season is shaping up quite nicely so far this season. I’m staying busy, but trying hard not to over-commit to racing in order to give myself to properly train for a few key events. However, it’s hard to say no to fun adventure races when I get the chance. With that, I bring you my re-cap of the ever-awesome Raid Pulse adventure race close to home. This early May race is a nice 8 hour duration, and this time, was held and hosted at Mont Ste Marie, a mere 1 hour drive from home. As a bonus, that means sleeping in my own bed the night before and after the race! Bonus.

This was, in fact, the 14th year that Thierry and his crew have been putting on events. In the world of AR, that is something to brag about. What makes it work and keep people coming back? Simple. The race is both accessible, and challenging. Top racers can put it all out there and try to clear the course to get all the advanced checkpoints, and novice racers can choose to chase less checkpoints yet still have a great day. Thierry has done an excellent job of crafting courses that can take you pretty much to the full 8 hr mark, both for the top racers and the newcomers. To make things even more accessible this year, there was even a 2-hour event, but I didn’t see any of that, given that we started before, and ended after their entire event and awards were done!

Based on the fact that the course was hosted at VeloMSM, the mountain bike trail group out of Mont Ste Marie, we had an inkling that this race would feature a fair bit of biking on the amazing trails of the region. We were not disappointed. VeloMSM has been around for a few years, quietly building up the trails around the ski hill. They have done some amazing work. This was my 3rd time racing in the area, and each time, it seems they have added to the trails, including building amazing wood berms and structures and ensuring there is a good mix of easy, medium, and hard trails. But I digress, back to the race.

Leg 1 – Mountain Biking

Leg 1 - VeloMSM

As mentioned above, our race began with a pseudo-remote start. For the start, we were bused back to where we had dropped bikes off on our way to the race HQ. This was about 10-12km from the ski hill, along rolling roads. The intent was to give everyone a chance to sort themselves out and separate the pack before the technical trails. After the roads, the next equalizer was the fact that most people opted to bike straight up the access road winding its way up the ski hill. This meant a steep climb, and chance to further spread out. A theme of this particular race was that pretty much all the checkpoints of the race could be picked up in any order within each leg.

For this leg, there were 8 regular checkpoints and 2 advanced checkpoints that we could snag. I had sketched out a tentative route at the briefing, but on the bus ride to the start, basically decided on the fly to try a completely different approach after the first big climb. The trick was to minimize the amount of double-backs on this section. Certain trails were 1-way only, and were scattered around a lake, so it was hard to tell on paper the most ‘efficient’ route. All in all, I’d say I made pretty good time. I learned early on that there was a faster way to get to one CP right off the bat, but only a few teams had lucked out on that (it involved a non-marked ATV trail from the original road INTO the ski hill area, where most of us got there via conventional trails).  For that reason, I knew I was about 5 teams back from the get-go.

Another good sign was that as I exited this area of the course, I linked up with Adam Mallory and James Galipeau, both of whom are strong competitors, and whose paths I’d crossed on the trails a couple times. We all took slightly different routes, but all started the next KILLER climb on a dirt road to the first transition. And by climb, I mean hard walk up a near-vertical road with our bikes!

Leg 2 – Trekking

Leg 2 - Trekking

The next leg of the race was what I consider my strong  suit. Trekking and orienteering. This time, we had 4 regular checkpoints and 3 advanced checkpoints to go after. Once we had reached a the transition zone at the peak of one mountain, we dropped our bikes, and headed off into the bush. A quick study of the may showed that the first regular 4 checkpoints shouldn’t be much of a problem, as they were located on ATV trails criss-crossing the area. Not only that, but our maps seemed to be pretty accurate, improving the odds we could run between these CPs. However, the 3 advanced CPs were placed at much further distances, and also involved some considerable elevation gain and loss.

I grabbed the first four points, then struck out on a bearing through the bush to reach the first of the advanced CPs. In this little section, I came across a few other racers, including James and Adam once again. Once again, we had NOT taken the same route in this section, but were together in the search for this particular point. Upon reaching the first point, we agreed that the most efficient route to the next point was down a pretty steep re-entrant along a stream from our high point. While it was not necessarily advisable to go at this one alone due to cliffs, we decided that by heading down together, there was some safety in numbers.

Not long after grabbing the next CP, I realized there was a serious problem with my navigation. James and I agreed on the bearing for the next point, but for some reason, we were pointed in complete opposite directions. Shortly after, I realized my compass was completely borked! The needle wasn’t moving. At first, I thought maybe it was a magnet or something, but I came to realize that the fluid in the capsule had somehow drained, to the needle was not able to properly moved. I guess 10 or so years of compass abuse in races leads to damage. Even more surprising is the fact that I *ALWAYS* carry a spare compass in a race….. until this one! I had NO backup. I was shocked. Not only that, but I was in the bush in the most remote part of the course. I had to trust contours, instinct, and most importantly, James!

I told him my predicament, and given the fact we had the same CPs left, we stuck together until the end of this leg. At one point I remembered my watch has a compass on it, but it wasn’t quick enough to give readings, and they were only bearings, making it harder to use in a hurry.

Add all this to the fact that there was a 2pm cutoff back at the TA in order to be allowed to continue onto the next ‘advanced’ bike section, and you can understand my concern for our pace. We picked up the pace as best we could , but ended up over-shooting the TA by veering a little too far east. Luckily, we hooked back up with a trail and ran / jogged back as quick as we could. We showed up a couple minutes after 2. Normally, it would be game over, but the race organizers had decided to add 30 minutes to the cutoff. Sweet! Still in the hunt for a course clearing. No time to waste, it was time to grab a couple glasses of Nuun, plot the new advanced CPs onto my map, and head back out.

Leg 3 – Biking / Advanced Biking

Leg 3 - Biking

Compass snafu aside, I was feeling that I was in a good position now. Not that many teams had made it to the cutoffs, and I was on track to finish and clear the full course. In other words, whatever position I was in at that point in the race should be the worst I’d end up in. With that in mind, I wanted to charge hard and see if I could pick up a spot or two. The rest of the race was bike / paddle / bike, and wouldn’t require the use of my compass, so I put that fear out of my mind. What I didn’t count on however, was how miserable the advanced biking leg would be. Ostensibly, it was on a ‘trail’, but this thing was horribly overgrown, and resulted in a lot of bike-whacking, and when riding, resulted in a lot of branches smacking me in the face. It was demoralizing. Eventually, I just closed my eyes and rode through the branches. Apparently, my wife does not approve of this technique.

There were only 2 CPs to grab, and both were super-easy to find once we were out of the really gnarly ghost biking trail. Having grabbed those, it was back onto backroads that were on the map, and the longish ride to the next transition. On the ride, I studied the maps a bit more to see if there might be a shortcut, and ended up devising a plan to cut back through the MTB trails at the ski hill and ultimately through a golf course rather than taking roads the long way around one spot. The jury is out on whether that was faster on the way TO the transition, but it would pay off later. There were a few delays as I had to consult maps and double check where I was.

Emerging as hoped by the golf course, it was a quick 800m bike to where the boats and transition bags were waiting.

Leg 4 – The Paddle

Leg 4 - Paddle

Considering I had only managed to go out once on my boat this season, 3 days before the race, and for a mere 45 minutes, I wasn’t expecting to break any records. However, I had the rush of being near the end of the race in my favour AND the sight of a lot of other racers around me. Keep in mind that these were racers that had skipped certain parts of the course, so there was the mental boost that I would likely keep up to, and/or pass them on the water. For this section, there were 3 main CPs and 1 advanced CP to grab. Looking at the distances and time, it looked pretty much a lock that I could grab them all and finish under the 8 hour mark, so off I went!

Not long into the paddle, I linked up with a few other solo racers in kayaks, and couple canoes. We were similar in speeds, so ended up paddling much of this section together. This lead to a few traffic jams near the CPs, and one spot where I tried hopping out of my boat only to discover that the ‘rocky shore’ was actually a dropoff. I dropped down to my belly button before propelling myself upwards again owing to the frigid water. Lesson learned. I decided to just wait my turn at the CPs and try to better position myself for the next ones.

James and Adam had started the paddle ahead of me (they got through the bike quicker), but I caught up to Adam on the water. James had gotten too far ahead, so we crossed paths with him on his way back to the transition. I’m guessing he had 10-15 minutes on us. I decided I had to at least stay ahead of Adam in this mini-battle we had set ourselves up for. After grabbing all the CPs, I gritted my teeth and focused on a smooth paddle stroke to get out of the water first. On the way, we also passed Deanna and Adam’s wife, who were racing as a team of two (ironic, no?).

I reached the shore at ramming speed, hopped out into the mud, and dragged my kayak up as fast as possible…

Leg 5 – Bike to Finish

It was down to the final 4-5k of biking. I knew that I would only be out for maybe 15-20 minutes from here. As a result, I made what I would arguably call my fastest AR transition ever. I left all my paddling gear on (well, mainly just PFD). Threw on my helmet, dropped paddle off in my bag (along with my map bag that I wouldn’t need) and hopped on my bike, all in one relatively smooth movement. I was back on the road probably within a minute or two of pulling off the water. It was time to put my shortcut theory to the test again.

Word on the street is that when Adam pulled off the water, he was gunning for me, and was fighting for an equally fast transition (although he took time to take off his PFD, which I think was a bad decision). I rode back up to the golf course, and turned in, now having memorized the exact route to get to the faint trail back to the ski hill.  A few other racers watched me turn with some interest, as the conventional route was to stick to the road all the way. However, this was the time to gamble in my opinion. Adam might well have caught me on the road!

Pushing hard, I emerged right where I’d hoped, in the ski parking lot. I crossed the line, relieved to see no sign of Adam. James was already there, and let me know he’d only just gotten there a few minutes before! In the end the results show me as having arrived 5 minutes after James, and Adam arriving 4 minutes after me! Our standings were 3rd, 4th, and 4th in the solo category. I’ll take it. Sad to be a mere 1 step off the podium, but there was some heavy competition in this category in this race. 1st place had beaten us all by an hour, and 2nd had beaten James by about 15 minutes. I feel the main difference had to be speed in the advanced bike section, and time lost on the trek due to the compass issue. Oh, and for the record, my finishing time was 7 hours, 34 minutes.

Time to celebrate! We all made our way to the awards ceremony to await the warm meal awaiting us. It was a tasty spaghetti with salad and bread, followed by a desert. The obligatory awards presentation, then lots of random draws. Sadly, I won no prizes that night, nor did Deanna, but I was happy just having had the chance to run yet another fun race. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, I actually filmed the whole event with my array of cameras while racing ;-). If you haven’t done so yet, have a look at my re-cap video below. This should definitely give you a sense of the actual race. Enjoy! Next up, 44 hours of racing in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania!

The Video