Team Adventure Life:

My story begins the day after Expedition Africa when my teammate Damon asks if I’m interested in doing Expedition India. Hmmm I shrug, India. When I think of India, I think of the slums, congested roads, pollution. What would make me want to do an adventure race there, I ask myself?

But the seed is planted and over the summer an onslaught of images on social media show that India is a treasure trove of majestic landscapes. Still I’m not convinced. My sister Claire is visiting from Australia in September and I have The Beast in Donegal in August and I’m still tired after Exp Africa. And then on the 28th June I’m on facebook and a post pops up looking for two team members to join Team Adventure Life. Oooh, there’s a conflict raging in my mind for well, maybe a minute and then I’m tapping out a message of interest with a short resume and before I can catch my breath to question my audacity, I’m signed up and on my way to India. The team is assembled from all around the world. Jay in New Zealand, Mike in Switzerland, Zane from South Africa and me from Ireland and Kirsten our media guru. Communications consist of one skype video call and a lot of whatsapp messages. I’m happy though that we all seem to be on the same page as regards our ambitions and race outlook and as the race approaches I get more and more excited until finally my bike is in it’s box and all the bags are packed and I’m on my way to the airport for an early morning flight to India via Istanbul.

Monday, September 11th.

Delhi and Agra

Heidi and Stephan, the race organisers, promised that Expedition India would be an adventure from the moment we arrived in Delhi and this certainly proved to be no exaggeration. My flight landed at 04:30. Jay, Mike and I had arranged to join a bus tour to the Taj Mahal at 06:30. Zane would unfortunately be arriving too late so he was going to have to look after himself for the day. Terence, Adventure Life’s CEO and the event photographer, was deported a couple of days before we arrived because his visa was not in order so queuing up at the immigration desks, I was a bit anxious that I had the right forms printed out. I joined the wrong queue first of all. It’s a bit confusing and there’s nobody to give you direction and then when I was in the right queue, it was only by chance that I realised I had to fill out another form before I reached the desk. The line was moving really slowly and it took at least an hour before I was through. I couldn’t get the wifi to work, I had my bike box and two bags and I wasn’t too sure how I was going to find anybody so it was a great relief when I walked through the arrivals door and heard Jay calling my name. He had arrived an hour earlier and was waiting for me with Jose, one of the volunteers. There was some panic that we were going to miss the bus to the Taj Mahal that was collecting us at the Centaur hotel so with no time for niceties, we were quickly bundled onto the shuttle bus with our bikes and away we went.

The first thing I noticed in Delhi was how warm and muggy it was. Monsoon season was here but the rain was in short supply and the humidity made the air heavy and oppressive. The next was the traffic and the endless cacophony of car horns. Over eight million cars – more than in India’s three other major cities combined – jostle for space on Delhi’s roads. Impatient drivers use all available lane space and instead of slowing down when turning or approaching another vehicle, drivers blast their horns to warn others of their presence. They also honk violently at motorbikes, scooters, pedestrians, children, dogs, cows and anyone else unfortunate enough to be slower than them. The noise pollution is overwhelming!

Jay and I met Mike, who had arrived a day earlier, in the foyer of the Centaur hotel and also Murray from team BSB rangers and having left our bikes and bags in a safe corner of the hotel we were soon on the bus with mostly race volunteers to the Taj Mahal. The bus journey to Agra took about 3 hours. It didn’t seem that long. I think I must have slept ! The Taj Mahal is magnificent. So perfectly symmetrical and intricately carved, it’s hard to comprehend that it ‘only’ took 22 years to finish. As with most things in India though, the beauty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal contrasts sharply with the lack of sanitation outside the palace, the fetid smell that hangs in the air in places and the multitude of beggars and cripples who line the streets of Agra. We also visited the Agra fort and a workshop to see how the precious stones are carved followed by lunch and the bus ride back to Delhi. To avoid the infamous Delhi Belly we only drank bottled water.

 

The Taj Mahal

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

Outside Agra Fort

  

 

When we arrived back at the Centaur hotel, we caught up with Zane and Team Adventure Life was finally complete!! Tomorrow we were flying 650 km to Srinagar so we had to put stickers on our bike boxes and sort out our flights. Jay was on an early morning flight with the rest of the team a bit later and when we left for our own hotel it still wasn’t entirely clear what was happening to the bike boxes ….

 

Tuesday, September 12th.

Srinagar, Dal Lake

 

We woke a couple of hours before we were due at the airport. Jay was gone. Then we got a message that 3 of our bikes were still at the Centaur hotel and needed to be at the airport. Following a speedy breakfast with a very nice cup of tea and an even speedier checkout, we grabbed a taxi from outside the hotel, strapped Mike’s bike box to the top and did the customary negotiations for the fee. When we got to the Centaur hotel our bikes and Murray’s were the last ones there so we loaded them on top of two taxis and drove the short distance to the airport. There was lots of confusion at the check in desk because all the bikes had to be weighed and the excess charges paid for and then the bikes had to be taken to the oversize luggage. By the time all this was done our flight was nearly ready to leave and it was a mad rush through security where I lost Mike and Zane because I had to go through the women’s section and I didn’t have my boarding pass so the guard made me go back out and get it from my bag which was waiting to go through the scanner which was the other side of a barrier and it took me ages. So when I was done I couldn’t see Mike or Zane and I just sprinted to the plane but I got there before them because I was in my seat when they got on the plane looking for me! After an hour or so we arrived in Srinagar airport. It’s a military airport with lots of soldiers and guns and photography is strictly prohibited. We had to fill in more forms, load the bike boxes onto a big lorry and then clamber onto the buses which would take us to Dal Lake. During colonial times the English were not allowed to buy land so they bought boats to holiday in and these house boats would be where we would sleep for the night.

 

Our house boat

    

 

House boats with the Shikara boats in the foreground

Photo: Zane Schmahl
Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

 

We were taken across the lake to our house boat that we were sharing with the French team, Vaucluse Aventures Evasions,  in the local Shikara boats. Very cool

.Photo: Zane Schmahl
Photo: Zane Schmahl

After some tea and eggs and another boat trip around the lake to see the lotus flowers we had to get ready for the official opening ceremony which was a very prestigious event with the Minister of Tourism for the area and the CEO of J&K Bank in attendance. There was also a performance by some local Kashmiri musicians which was a big hit with the teams

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxCi7UJ6gyQ

 

Wednesday, September 13th.

Srinagar, Sonamarg

Leg 1: Dal Lake prologue

 

We woke early (5 a.m) as we had arranged for one of the Shikara boats to take us via the water canals to the local vegetable market. It was a bit of a drag getting up so early but well worth the trouble. We bought tea and spices and chocolate from the very entertaining and persistent salesmen who would pitch up in their boats next to us.

 

Then it was back to the houseboat for breakfast of eggs and toast and a trip back across the lake for the short uphill hike to the Shankaracharya Temple. The temple is at a height of 300m and overlooks the city of Srinagar. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and parts of it date from 200BC. To enter the top temple, we had to remove our shoes and then we were given a blessing from the temple priest. No photography was allowed.

 

The start of the prologue was in the large parking lot down the hill from the temple. Teams gathered here in front of the starting arch with some enthusiastic soldiers who were very keen to be seen posing nonchalantly with their guns in the photographs. After the countdown we ran downhill over trails and rocks and in our case through someone’s house for about 2km until we reached the edge of the lake where we could collect our Shikara boat. Each boat had a local child in front carrying our flag and the owners of the boat also came along for the ride. We had a map and two checkpoints to collect.

 

Padding the Shikara boat

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

The paddles were large and wooden with a heart shaped blade and the main issue we had was trying to keep the boat straight. Thankfully we didn’t have too far to go and we finished in a fairly respectable 9th position.

After devouring our lunch boxes, we returned to the houseboats and got ready for the 3 hour bus trip to Sonamarg.

 

Sonamarg, meaning “Meadow of Gold” is a sixty mile long valley and deep rock gorge, home to open grassy meadow land and village dotted slopes.

 

View from the Snowland Hotel, Sonamarg

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

In its vicinity lies the great Himalayan glaciers of Kashmir Valley, Kolhoi Glacier and Machoi Glacier with some peaks over 5000m. The town itself is at an altitude of 2800m and is abandoned in winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. When we arrived we were treated to Kashmir tea on the lawn and then we decided to walk into the town to buy some supplies for the hike in the morning. On our way we saw some locals playing cricket so the lads decided to ask if they could join in. We were warmly welcomed and it was just such a cool thing to do. I would have liked to play but alas my hand eye co-ordination is dismal so I had to content myself taking photos!

 

The cricket field

 

Zane bowling:

 

Team photo

 

Thursday, September 14th

Sonamarg

Leg 2: Hike to glacier ~ 29km

 

Another early morning start for Leg 2 of the race. The teams who finished highest ranked in Leg 1 and 2 would start the rafting paddle first. The air was noticeably thinner in Sonamarg especially on the short uphill hike to the start.

 

At the start of the hike

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

We set off at a controlled pace. There was so much to see and the landscape was truly breathtaking. We passed villages, herders with their large flocks of sheep and ponies, which were being used to transport goods from one end of the valley to the other and military personnel doing their drills.

 

Herders:

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Glacier HIke

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

On one river crossing I slipped on a wet rock and gashed my knee and ankle and earned the dubious distinction of being the first to end up on the floor. It was a really enjoyable hike but quite long. The lead teams passed us on their way back from the cp and they all said the same thing. ‘It’s longer than you think’. The distance didn’t bother us too much though

as we weren’t racing it and the terrain was constantly changing so we never got bored.

 

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Photo: Craig Giese

 

And there was also a really fun downhill section in the woods which we skidded down on our backsides!

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

We were the last team to reach the CP @ ~ 3500m and when we got there we sat and had samosas that we’d bought in Sonamarg. I think Jay was fairly ok on the hike to the CP but on the way back he got bad altitude sickness. We had to drop the pace completely and Jay puked his guts up about three times. One of the dogs that was herding sheep had an early supper as he was passing!

 

As well as puking violently, Jay had a headache, very little energy and was unsteady on his feet so progress down the mountain was slow. He did improve slightly as we descended but he was still feeling pretty rough and the finish line couldn’t come soon enough for all of us and the two volunteers who had caught up to us.

 

At the finish of the glacier hike

Photo: Craig Giese

 

Friday, September 15th

Leh, Ladakh

 

We left Sonamarg at 4a.m on the long drive (~10hrs) to Leh. We set off in a convoy of buses from the hotel. We would be travelling over some interesting mountain passes such as Zojila which was the scene of the highest ever tank battle during the 1947 Indo Pakistani war.

We were sharing a bus with the Kashmiri team from Srinagar and Umar was keen to fill us in on the locality and its history. We passed through Dras which is the second coldest permanently habituated area in the world, after Siberia. On 19th January 1995 a temperature of minus 65 deg Celsius was recorded there.

 

The journey didn’t seem that long. There were lots of pee breaks and a visit to the Alchi Temple Complex. This is a Buddhist monastery complex built in the 10th and 11th century. We had lunch here sampling different traditional cuisines some of which were quite strange to my Western palate!

 

Not too far from Leh we had to abandon the buses and walk for a while as the road over a river crossing had been damaged in a landslide and it was touch and go as to whether the buses would be able to get up the steep incline or not. Thankfully they did!

 

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Leh and Team Adventure Life were soon installed in The Wang Residence. Having eaten lots of spicy Indian food for the last number of days, we were all craving something a little more familiar so we decided to walk into town for pizza.

 

Mike and Zane had beer but Jay was still feeling the after effects of the altitude sickness and I don’t drink beer so we decided to go with a chocolate milkshake. Big mistake!!!

 

Saturday, September 16th

Kardung La pass

Where’s Jason?????

 

We had an early morning briefing and ceremony at the Dragon Hotel so we got up and had breakfast (toast, eggs, porridge) at The Wang Residence. Everyone seemed fine. Jay ate as normal and then we all walked down to the briefing. We were waiting outside the hall when Jay suddenly didn’t feel so good ….

 

Jay not feeling so good – right about now!

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

We went in for the briefing but Jay was feeling really nauseous and he spent most of the time outside. Was this more altitude sickness or something else? We hadn’t incriminated the milkshakes at this stage because I was feeling fine.

 

We were due to meet back at the Dragon hotel for a bus trip up to the Khardungla pass. At 5,359m it is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass and spending an hour or two up there would be an important part of our acclimatisation process. Unfortunately for Jay he was in no condition to go anywhere especially not to an extreme environment at high altitude. He was stuck in his bed at The Wang Residence. He was trying to stay hydrated by drinking electrolytes and water but he was vomiting so much that it was literally coming straight back up again. I was concerned about him when we left because he looked terrible. His skin was a grey colour and he was so miserable. We had to wait for about half an hour before the buses left and I nearly went back to check on him but I didn’t.

 

While we were waiting on the buses, Simon, one of the media guys, came on and said there was space in one of the Isuzu jeeps for 3 people. Naturally Team Adventure Life jumped at this opportunity and that was how we found ourselves travelling up to Khardung La pass in our own jeep. It made for a much more comfortable journey and our Indian drivers were very entertaining. The road up is narrow and steep so although it’s not that far (39km) it takes a couple of hours to drive.

 

The road to Khardung La

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

At the top:

Photo: Kirsten Roberts  

 

When we got to the top we wrapped up warmly and headed out for some photos and some jumping jacks to elevate the heart rate.

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

We were supposed to stay up here for a couple of hours but after 45 min the race doctor said we must go back down as a number of people were getting symptoms of altitude sickness. Because the air is ‘thinner’ at high altitudes, your body cannot get as much oxygen as it needs so the only cure for altitude sickness is a drop in elevation.

 

When we returned to the hotel we were surprised to find Jay missing from his room. The door was locked but Mike climbed in the bathroom window and Jay definitely wasn’t there! We were due to start marking up the maps so initially we thought maybe Jay was feeling better and that he had headed down to start the map marking on his own. But when we returned to the Dragon Hotel Jay wasn’t there and neither were the maps. Eventually we found Heidi who told us that Jay had been taken to Leh hospital!!! Apparently Jay felt so bad about an hour after we left on the buses that he managed to stumble down the road to the Dragon hotel where he presented himself to reception, demanding a doctor. He was nearly collapsing at this stage and Heidi and Shaukat took him immediately to the hospital. Unfortunately when he got into the hospital there was a mixup in communications and he ended up in the surgery ward which is where I think Jay saw the blood and teeth on the floor!

 

Jay in hospital with Heidi

If Jay’s engineering career ever goes bust, I’m sure he’ll always find work as an actor because that is such a fake smile!!! I left Mike and Zane at the Dragon hotel marking up the maps which they had located back at the hotel and Shaukat took me to the hospital to see Jay. When I got there he was on his third half litre drip bag and his mood was alternating between hysteria and manic depression. He was convinced he was after contracting every infectious disease going from Hepatitis to Zika virus and that an air embolism was currently tracking towards his heart to block a coronary artery. This had me way out of my comfort zone. I do not do sympathy and compassion but thankfully I do have a medical background so I was able to offer some reassurance of some sort. The last drip was half way through and Jay decided he needed to defecate. In an ordinary world this is not a problem but this is India and the bathroom is a hole in the ground with no toilet paper. And Jay had diarrhoea. There was a moment when it looked like I would have to sacrifice my buff but Jay selflessly decided to use his underpants as toilet paper instead!

 

When we finally got back to our hotel, Mike and Zane had been busy marking up the maps and packing up our gear for the departure to the camp out in the morning

 

Packing up the bike boxes with pizza for fuel!

 

Sunday, September 17th

Camp out Nubra valley

 

Jay was feeling much better this morning so it was with much lighter hearts that we loaded the bike boxes into the lorries and our bags into buses for the 5 hour journey to Nubra valley. We stopped for the many customary pee breaks and at the top of the pass to allow for some more acclimatisation.

 

View across the pass

O

Photo: Zane Schmahl

Hambotingla Pass near Kargil (4024m)

 

Snowball fight

 

The team was in good spirits and even took part in a good natured snowball fight. When we arrived at the campsite we saw to our delight that Rimo Expeditions had done a fantastic job with dozens of bright orange tents for us to call our home. After we had had something to eat Mike was the only one who felt like travelling down to the river to investigate the rafts. Jay was tired from yesterday’s ordeals, I had tummy trouble and Zane worryingly was starting to develop a chest infection.

 

The camp at nightfall:

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

Monday, September 18th

Race start

Leg 3: 75k rafting

Leg 4: 42k bike

 

Monday morning dawned bright and clear. Jay was good. Mike was good. My tummy was a bit dodgy and I still had mild diarrhoea but I was good. Zane was not good. His chest infection was worse and he was coughing like someone with the plague. We put on wetsuits ( I also had a base layer and my cag jacket on) and made our way down to the start. All the teams lined up beside the flags and Stephan got us to stand for a moment and just take in our surroundings before the race started with a 75k paddle down the Shyok river. When it was our time to go, we ran down the short hill, hobbled over the rocks until we reached our boat, turned the boat onto the water and jumped on.

 

Rafting

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

The first 30k was super fun. The water was flowing quickly and there was loads of rapids to keep us entertained. Zane was managing the paddling and we were flying along. After about 3 hours though Zane started to feel chilled and lethargic and we decided it would be better if he rested in the boat while the other three paddled. This was working fine until we reached a large rapid going under a suspension bridge where all the media were stationed and Zane had to jump into action to keep the boat steady. Soon after this the water flow slowed considerably and it was harder to pick the right channel. With Zane resting in the front of the boat, we were soon relegated to last position but it was a small price to pay as our main consideration was to keep Zane in the race for as long as possible. This was actually one of my favourite boat legs in an adventure race. It was such an amazing place to be, nestled among the mountains with the sun beating down on us and the raft was super comfortable. A far cry from our torturous kayak across the atlantic in gale force winds and 4ft swell during Itera!!

 

The Shyok River winding it’s way through the Nubra valley:

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

When we reached the end of the kayak, there was a small group of race organisers to greet us and direct us towards the bike transition. Zane was still feeling rotten and it took us a while to get our bikes organised. Our bikes were cool. They all had prayer flags that we had bought in Leh on the handlebars.

As we were leaving to start out on the bike leg, the lead team Skylotec came flying in on their bikes. They told us it was an easy leg and it had taken them maybe an hour and a half.

We had to cycle about 500m across rocks and up a slight hill before we reached the tarmac road. Zane was wrecked after this and needed to stop for several minutes to recover.  A portent of what was to come! Even the slightest climb sent his heart rate rocketing. The only way we were going to progress was if Jay towed him. I believe this was the first time that Zane has ever been towed in a race!!

Even though he was being towed Zane was still finding the bike tough and at one stage we had pulled over off the road because Zane was despairing that he wouldn’t be able to finish when Terence and Kirsten passed us in the media jeep. Zane was hoping he could get a lift back to transition with them but Terence was having none of it. The media are invisible! We were going to have to tough it out ourselves! They did agree however to alert the medical staff so they could be on standby.

 

.

 

Zane in trouble on the bike leg

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

We eventually got to the first bike CP and the turnaround point while it was still daylight. Zane was just about managing on the tow but we were travelling at a very sedate pace.

Collecting the bike cp

Photo: Zane Schmahl

We collected the second CP with no more problems and then it was a straight ride back to transition. When we arrived back Zane was not in a good place and was taken immediately to the ambulance. The doctor said he had a chest infection and gave him antibiotics and painkillers and a banana which he promptly puked straight back up.

 

Zane in the ambulance

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

On the bike back, Zane was adamant that he was in no fit state to continue the race and we had decided, as a team, that he should pull out and Mike, Jay and I would continue as soon as we had transitioned with the next leg which was the 53k trek. However, when we reached transition there was a lot of media and race personnel who were pushing for us to sleep until morning so that Zane could recover and go with us. We eventually agreed to do this. It’s hard to say definitively if this was the right call or the wrong call but it’s what happened. We slept until 4 a.m. in two tents which had been vacated by the media.

 

Tuesday, September 19th

Leg 5: 53k trek

Leg 6: 120k bike

 

When we woke Zane seemed to have improved slightly and was happy to accompany us on the trek so we set off with two volunteers who were coming with us to collect the CP. It was another beautiful morning and the hike, from what I can remember,  was really enjoyable. Once we had collected the CP at the river intersection the volunteers left us and we climbed higher out of the valley. Zane was finding the uphill parts difficult and consequently our pace was relatively slow. Our route was following the Shyok river back along the valley which we had rafted yesterday.

 

Jay on the hike back along the Shyok river valley

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

We tried to stay as low as we could but in some cases this wasn’t possible and Zane needed to rest for several minutes in places. Once the sun had risen fully there was very little shelter to be had and the intense UV rays, added to the altitude (we were climbing to over 4000m) made this quite a difficult section.

 

The sun beats down on us:

Photo: Zane Schmahl

 

My favourite part of this hike was a section where we had to criss-cross through the river to avoid climbing high in the mountains followed by a tough scramble across the cliff face. The glacier water was so cool and refreshing.

 

The last three or maybe four hours was a real struggle for Zane. He needed to stop frequently for long rests to recharge himself. And he looked sick. He had the same grey tinge to his skin that Jay had before he went to hospital. When we were discussing the race at the finish, Zane said that getting through this leg was the toughest thing he’s had to do in a race.

 

Our route was taking us around a cliff face and we seemed to have been looking at the same cliff for hours and hours without it getting any nearer. We continued to plod on tenaciously and eventually rounded the cliff and made our way by road for the last 15km to transition. We were coming into a little village when Stephan drew up in front of us in his Isuzu. He asked us how we were, gave a dismissive shrug of his shoulders and told us to get in the back of the bakkie (South African word for pick up truck). In spite of the fact that Zane was like a dead man walking, we didn’t want to be short coursed but our attempts to convey this to Stephan met with only one response. “Get in the back of the bakkie”.

 

Stephan said that we needed to leave a.s.a.p on the bike leg if we were going to have enough time to get to basecamp and he had already picked up a few other teams at this point and that it was simply 15 km on tarmac roads so there was no challenge to it!  Driving back to transition was somewhat of an anti-climax but it turned out to be quite a long way so we ended up being quite thankful of the lift!

 

It was late in the evening when we reached TA and the dusk was beginning to settle but there was no time to dilly dally as the organisers were waiting for us so they could move our bike boxes to the next transition. We quickly made up some dehydrated meals, filled our water bottles and reassembled our bikes for the next leg. Zane helped with the bikes which made us a bit quicker and then we said our goodbyes and Mike, Jay and I rode out on the next leg while Zane got some much needed rest and recovery.

 

Wednesday, September 20th

Leg 6: 120k bike cntd

Leg 7: Trek to homestay ~ 7hrs

Leg 8: Trek to basecamp

 

When we left transition, we were shortly followed by the Isuzu jeeps of the race organisers. Some of them were heading to the next transition and Stephan was following us to collect the two bike controls after we had passed through. Once we were certain we were on the right road the bike was pretty straight forward. I think both CPs were on bridges and the second one was before the last military post before you enter Pakistan. It was 20 km from Pakistan and 40 km from the second highest mountain in the world, K2. After taking our CP photograph we crossed over the bridge. The soldiers must have been asleep or just not bothered and we began the last 90 km on mostly tarred roads.

 

There were no big hills to climb, just lots of little undulations and plenty of lekker downhills. It was a long ride though and after about 3 a.m, I started to get really sleepy. I was drafting off Mike’s back wheel and Jay was keeping an eye on me behind and we were tipping along at a good old pace but it was really hard to keep my eyes open. I also had some kind of heartburn or indigestion and my throat was sore but as long as I kept sipping water it didn’t get any worse. We stopped for a ten minute nap around 4 a.m but it didn’t do much to revive me.

 

Transition was at an eco village and the last km up the narrow roads was really hard for me. Kristen and Zane and some of the organisers were there to meet us when we got off the bikes. My eyes had completely glassed over and I was finding it difficult to focus so there was no arguments from me when I was instructed to leave my bike with Zane and head off for a shower and some sleep.

 

We had a lovely shower in Kirstens room and slept for a couple of hours and we also got breakfast (scrambled eggs and toast). Stephan was keen for us to start on the next trek immediately so that we would have enough time to summit. He was following the other teams on the tracker and had a good idea of how long it would take us. We reckoned about 7 or 8 hours to get up to the homestay @ about 4000m which was our intermediate goal and then another 8 – 10  to get to base camp @ 5000m and then 12 – 14 to summit  @ 5600m and descend.

 

First things first, we needed to get to the homestay. We set off just after midday from transition. The sun was beating down and it was super warm but Stephan said we would get a good bit of shade from the cliff face on the trek. The first part of this leg was a camel safari so we walked to the top of the road and waited for a few minutes before our camels arrived. The Bactrian camels are native to central Asia. They have two humps to store food and water and they’re not very friendly. They’re mostly domesticated and the ones that we were to ride on had nose rings and a put upon expression. Safe to say they were not in love with life. They had to lie down for us to get on and off and their knees and hocks were badly scuffed from lying on the rocks. I didn’t mind being on them but the boys found it a bit more uncomfortable especially with our loaded backpacks.

 

Mike making friends with his camel

 

2 km up into the canyon we were deposited from the camels and left to our own devices. We were quite high up and the air was thin. The canyon was fantastic with a large river flowing vigorously through the middle of it and high cliffs to either side. Such a fantastic place for a hike.

 

I can’t remember when we first noticed that Mike wasn’t feeling well. We were all short of breath and my throat was still sore but Mike seemed to be suffering a lot more. We thought maybe he’d picked up Zane’s chest infection. He was only able to move very slowly and he needed to stop several times on the way up for 10 minute naps. I was setting the pace and trying to keep it nice and steady by counting in my head.

 

We stopped for a breather before we crossed over the river about 4 km from the homestay. Mike was sitting on the ground, Jay was facing uphill and I was facing downhill so I saw the Indian lady as she came around the corner but the others didn’t. She gave a cheery hello to us and Jay nearly jumped 2 foot up in the air with the fright. It was very funny. She wanted us to follow her but she was booting along at a good clip and after a minute or so I had to tell her that we were happier on our own going at a more pedestrian pace!!

 

As we neared more habitual areas, there was a well built wall fencing off some farmland and we passed some villagers who were grinding wheat. They were very friendly and we exchanged lots of “Juley” meaning Hello in Ladakhi. It was about half six when we first made out the yellow brickwork of the homestay. Mike was suffering a lot by now and the last climb seemed to last forever so it was a pleasure to see the Expedition India flag and be greeted by the volunteers as we climbed up the stone steps, took off our shoes at the front door, laid down our heavy rucksacks and trekking poles and entered the warm, hospitable environment of the homestay. Heidi had asked us to bring some toys for the little boy who lived here and as we handed over the colouring pens and books and the toy car his little face lit up like it was christmas!

 

The homestay

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

 

The medic was waiting for us to check our blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. The human body requires and regulates a very precise and specific balance of oxygen in the blood and measuring the oxygen saturation is a quick and effective way to diagnose how well you are coping with altitude. At sea level normal levels are between 95 – 100%. Levels below 80% may compromise organs such as the brain and heart and action needs to be taken as continued low levels may lead to respiratory or cardiac arrest. Mike’s oxygen saturation was 70% so he was immediately given supplemental oxygen and told that his race was over. He stayed on the oxygen for 20 minutes and he looked a lot brighter when he was done. Stephan told Jay and I that we should have turned back when Mike started feeling sick. That made us feel a bit guilty but we honestly didn’t think he had altitude sickness and by the time he got really bad, it was quicker to continue to the homestay than to attempt the descent.

 

My oxygen saturation was 85% and Jay’s was 89% so Stephan said we were allowed to continue to the basecamp as long as we agreed that if either of us felt nauseous on the way up we were to turn around. The Swedish team Skylotec had already needed a helicopter evacuation from the mountain and Stephan was not too keen on having to do another.  If we got a slight headache we could counteract that by drinking more but the only cure for nausea, which is a sure sign of mountain sickness, is to drop elevation.

 

Before we tackled the journey to basecamp we filled up on some delicious homemade noodle soup with plenty of tea and water. We also decided to sleep for a couple of hours to try and ensure that we were as rested as possible. While we were sleeping, Mike was being towed back down the mountain by Stephan to where the bus was waiting to take him back to Leh.

 

When we woke just before 11pm we both felt good and excited about the task ahead. We said goodbye to our hosts and headed out into the cool night air. The stars were twinkling overhead but the moon was nowhere to be seen so we were reliant on our headtorches for visibility. And I had packed the one that had no batteries into my rucksack at the last bike transition. Fortunately Jay had a spare one that I was able to use.

 

We hiked up over lots of farmland before meeting a branching river which divided the valley. Jay was leading. He has much longer legs than me so I had to keep reminding him to slow down the pace. We crossed the river several times trying to find the best path. Not easy in the dark. As we got higher and higher it was more difficult to keep on the right path. And we were climbing all the time.

 

We must have had about four and a half hours done and we were at 4500m when I noticed Jay was becoming slightly disorientated and he started complaining about feeling dizzy. I wanted to stop, pitch the tent and wait until dawn when I thought it would be easier to see where we were going. Jay didn’t seem too enamoured with this idea and as we were on a rocky outcrop we continued onwards. Less than ten minutes later Jay felt nauseous and we made the call to turn back. It was an easy enough decision at the time. Jay had been really sick with mountain sickness on the prologue and he didn’t want to reach a stage where he was feeling terrible and couldn’t get off the mountain. My throat was still sore and I didn’t feel anyway nauseous but I don’t navigate and I did not want to be responsible for Jay feeling sick and being stuck on the mountain.

 

It took us an hour and a half to descend. We managed to find a much better path than on the way up so it was slightly easier. Jay was still quite disorientated so I was trying to choose the route as well as I could with his help. When we reached the village we had a bit of trouble finding the right path to the homestay but we got there in the end. We had to wake up our host by knocking on the window. Thankfully he was a light sleeper and even in the early hours of the morning having been woken from his slumbers, he still managed to be friendly and welcoming. Jay was feeling bad and he had developed a headache so I woke one of the volunteers who gave him oxygen. He started to improve after an hour or so and we were able to settle down for some sleep.

 

Thursday, September 21st

Trek to basecamp cntd ~ 5.5hrs

Bus to Leh over Kardung La pass

 

We slept  until 10 a.m, when we were roused by Stephan who was ready to take us to the buses. While we were sleeping another team, Addicted to Adventure, had had to turn back before they reached basecamp and they were waiting to go too. They had had an eventful time with one of their team members needing CPR for nearly an hour before she was able to descend.

 

We said another goodbye to our hosts and hiked about 4 km down the valley. It was a lot easier going down than up but Stephan moves at a really fast pace and I empathised for how Mike must have felt the previous night! The last bit was a steep climb up to the buses and it really taxed both my legs and lungs.

 

It was a sorry group of adventure racers who loaded onto the bus for the 5 hour journey back to Leh! As the bus climbed out of the valley we saw 5 antelopes in the distance. They were perched on a sheer rock face and as if to emphasize the limitations of the human body to us, they were moving at ease up and down the vertical cliff!

 

The route back included the Khardung La pass which was good for Jay who missed out on going there when he was in hospital but not so good for all those with altitude sickness as we would be heading back up above 5000m. Not helped by the fact that when we were nearly at the top the bus had to stop for road repairs for about twenty minutes. I noticed the altitude was making my face tingle and my tummy didn’t feel so good so I was happy when we reached the tar roads and could descend quickly.

 

The bus stopped in the middle of Leh and we all got out. We hoisted our backpacks onto our backs and walked the short distance to collect the final CP. From here we turned the corner and ran the short distance to the finishing chute on the main street. There was loads of supporters and cheering as we ran under the arch to complete our journey. Kirsten was one of the first people we saw and she told us that Mike and Zane were on their way with their race bibs for an Adventure Life reunion …..

 

FInishp

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

Tears:

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

More tears:

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Team Adventure Life reunited

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

 

Epilogue:

I love adventure racing. I get to meet the most amazing people and do the most amazing things. It’s such an awesome experience and I go away from every race with a new (and improved) outlook on life.

 

Some people live their whole life and never see even a fraction of the places that I have seen. Visiting places like India makes me realise what a privileged life I lead and how lucky I am to be  fit and healthy and in a position to do the things I do.

 

To my Adventure Life teammates, thanks so much for letting me be a part of your team. I had so much fun with you guys. You all helped to make my Expedition India an unforgettable experience!