Mountain Mysteries in the Himalayas
David Yon, India, Part II
Once again the engines roared and the big mechanical bird rolled down the runway, gaining speed until it finally gathered the “strength” to break the grip of gravity. Safely off the ground, the wheels were tucked firmly away and the crowded streets of Delhi became distant objects. We landed about two hours later in Bagdogra, a bustling city in eastern India and a “gateway” of sorts to the Himalayas. There our group of six or so piled into a jeep and a tiny taxi, along with all our gear for a 90 minute to 2 hour drive to Mirik Lake Resort, our “base camp” of sorts for the Himalayan 5-day 100 mile stage race.
The road to Mirik, like all the roads in the area, was narrow, winding and hilly, making for exciting traveling. Vehicles, with outside mirrors either removed or pulled in close to the vehicles, roared past each other with no more than a foot and half between them, while negotiating the pedestrians and animals attempting to coexist on the same streets. Only when the distance between objects was less than 6 inches did the vehicles slow as they passed.
It is simply not possible to tell the story of our journey along the border of India and Nepal in the normal weekly column space. For one thing, the story must live and breathe for a while to be fully appreciated by author and participant. It cannot be put in a box and described with platitudes. There are too many paradoxes, not the least of which is my decision not to run on Day 4, resulting in a DNF as I only covered 87 miles instead of 100. There are many others, such as how a land that is so beautiful can be littered with so much trash and how groups of people from 10 different countries covering at least 5 languages can bond so tightly during such a short period of time and become cheerleaders for each other. There were 35 participants in our group, with each person designated primarily as a runner, walker or photographer. No one, in my view performed better than Gary Griffin, who after trying to carry me around for two days, went on to finish the entire 100 miles in 24 hours and 7 minutes.
The mountains. How do you describe the mountains? Mirik, at 5,800 feet, was the lowest elevation where we would stay or run during the stage race. More than once we would have clear, stunning views of 4 of the highest mountain peaks in the world. The majesty of the snowcapped peak of Mt. Kanchenjunga, 28,156 feet high, 3rd highest in the world, was clearly visible from the trail around Mirik Lake, a lake one would not dare swim in or drink from. While the lake certainly had its charm, it was taking a beating from the humans that surrounded it, litter gathered on its bank and pollutants in its water.
October 18, 2014 was start day for the stage race. While I am a flat lander, I have been at altitudes (once above 19,000 feet) and I have even run some above 9,000 feet. I knew the running would be hard and I was certainly a little afraid of the challenge and just what mischief Parky might be able to create. We left the safety of Mirik and our lodge at 5:30 a.m. for an hour and a half bus ride to the small town of Maneybhanjang for the start of the race. A Tibetan blessing was delivered to each participant by young school girls who placed a scarf around each participant’s neck, both enjoying every minute. A speech, some cheers, and a whistle followed and we started running downhill for approximately 200 yards, and then made a quick left and began the climb to Sandakphu. While Maneybhanjang was located at 6,600 feet, our “accommodations” at Sandakphu waited for us at 11,815 feet and there was only one way to get there. The “running” start came to an immediate halt for most participants including me, as the steep uphill and altitude made even a brisk walk a challenge. I am sure water boarding is another whole level of suffering, but that is all I can think of to describe the feeling as the lack of incoming oxygen began making exercise and breathing at the same time impossible. It did not take long to realize this was going to be much harder to do than I had planned. The gasping would calm down, but as we fought our way up to Sandakphu, the 24 miles we covered just wailed on me. The road just never stopped climbing, and most of the time the climb was very steep; the race organizers state we did 10,000 feet of climbing the first day. Gary and I would cover the distance together in 6 hours and 40 minutes. The lead person covered the same distance in just under 5 hours. Peg and Mary Jean battled many of the same monsters as they kept company with the determined walking crew.
Tired, but nowhere near beaten, we had finished what we hoped was the hardest day of the event having climbed to the lodge at Sandakphu, the highest point on the course and our home for two nights. There was no running water or plumbing in the lodge and a small generator created enough electricity for light bulbs, but not much else, especially not heat. The food was cooked with the help of a fire and like everywhere else it was delicious. The night was cold; this is why we bought new sleeping bags. Morning in Sandakphu, however, was where all the gods came out to play. Kanchenjunga was back and closest, grabbing the very first rays of the sun. But turning westerly around the horizon, Mt. Lhotse and Mt. Makalu stood as sentries guarding the world’s tallest Mountain, Everest. The peaks of these giants rise to altitudes of 27,890, 27,790 and 29,018, respectively.
Just because you have reached the highest point on the course, however, doesn’t mean you are finished climbing. Our destination for day 2 was an 11,655 foot peak named Molle. While it was nearly 200 feet below our start and 10 miles away, the trail plunged much further than that, then came back only to plunge again. Once at Molle we simply were to retrace our steps to Sandakphu. The weather was grand as we left the lodge that morning. After a short climb, we started a downhill stretch. For the first time, I felt pretty good about running and soaked in the spectacular scenery as we ran along the border of Nepal and India, border guards cheering us along. The vastness and the beauty can be experienced, but I am not sure they can be described.
It was almost perfect. Almost. First, there were the unavoidable rocks covering the road. These nasty bandits began sapping away muscle strength and coordination long before you realized their evil game. They pounded your quads and stressed your feet and ankles. And then, all that wonderful downhill was followed by uphill, then downhill and then uphill again. The uphill seemed always just a bit stronger than I was and I would find myself stopped, bent over gasping for air. I would start again after a short rest.
Moving much stronger than I was, Gary Griffin patiently held back pulling me along as best he could. Soon we were above 11,000 feet again shuffling to the peak of Molle (11,300+), the turnaround point. The top was a welcomed sight, but I knew it was a long way back. As I tried scurrying down the hill, I realized I had forgotten my Parkinson’s medicine. I am not sure I really needed it at that point, but Parky sure wanted me to think I did. It seemed Gary would be running or walking just behind me and the right side before instantaneously moving to the left, only to suddenly appear on my right side again. For whatever reason, I lost confidence in the ability to control the landing of my feet on the downhills. My quads and shins were becoming potted meat from the beating the rocks were delivering. Of course the downhills that were so grand on the way out became the uphill on the way home and the closer we got, the steeper it seemed they were. Four hours and 40 minutes after we started, we finished up the day. I tried to put the fact that tomorrow was marathon day out of my mind as I crawled into the sleeping bag and passed out.
Coming next week – Marathon Day and a temper tantrum.