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Chasing Rainbows. Yak Attack – A Himalaya Epic.

I was approached recently by one of my Twitter contacts and asked if I would be interested in writing a piece on The Yak Attack for their adventure blog. Dogtag are an adventure insurance company who specialise in providing cover for unusual trips (as well as excellent packages for normal folk too!). I was delighted to, anything to inspire people, and also to help promote the race itself, and it’s deserved efforts on behalf of Nepali riders. If I can inspire someone to visit and enjoy Nepal then all the better.
This is the original piece that I wrote in it’s entirety. I had to separate it in to two shorter pieces and edit it down slightly for them to use it on the blog. They have some really cool stuff on there and it’s well worth checking out. I know that many of you have read some of my Nepali pieces already but I hope you enjoy this one too. I haven’t included any images because there are plenty to view on the Images of Nepal tab.

Chasing Rainbows. Yak Attack – A Himalaya Epic.

What is Yak Attack? Well it certainly isn’t what you might be thinking; Himalaya Yak’s are genial, docile, creatures that don’t really deserve to be attacked and nor are they likely to attack you
Yak Attack is the highest altitude mountain bike stage race in The World. And to be honest with you it’s a little nuts.

It’s held annually in Nepal, in The Himalaya, and comprises of 10 stages over 11 days plus an additional day’s group ride, at the end, to the nearest road, to catch the bus to Pokhara. Starting in Kathmandu it picks up the Annapurna trekking circuit and finishes 400km later in Tatopani. With over 12000m of undulating ascent up to a high point of 5416m it’s certainly not a race for the faint of heart. The riding itself isn’t particularly technical, save for a few “interesting” sections, but factor in the extreme environment and wild weather conditions and suddenly it becomes one of the toughest endurance races on the planet. Temperatures range from +30c in the first few days to a potentially bone chilling -40c wind-chill at the summit of the Thorong La Pass, along with dust storms, mud, rain, snow, high winds in excess of 60km/h, and of course the debilitating effects of high altitude, and you soon begin to realise the extent of the challenge. It was so cold on the day we hiked over The Thorong La Pass that my big toe nails went black and ultimately fell off a few days later! (Did I forget to mention that it is too steep to ride over the pass and that you have to hike through the snow for 5kms to the summit and then most of the way back down the other side!). Not only do you have to be physically prepared but mentally too; some would say just being mental is qualification enough!

One of the 2012 competitors said to me in the later part of the race that “It’s just mental; it throws absolutely everything at you, every day!” And he should know; his name is Henri Lesewitz an editor with the world’s biggest selling mountain bike magazine, the German publication “Bike”, and he has taken part in almost all of the great mountain bike stage races currently on offer, including la Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica amongst others. Henri says it’s the toughest race on the calendar, I believe him.

There are other challenges too. Riders are restricted to a maximum pack weight of 10kgs (this because all luggage has to be carried up the mountains by porter). 10kgs is not a lot when it includes all of your clothes, sleeping bag, supplies and spare parts for 12 days; anything over this has to be carried by the rider during the race. Additionally the race takes place in very remote areas and facilities are as basic as it gets, and I do mean basic. The Teahouses or Lodges are simple affairs to provide food and refuge for intrepid travellers. The only heating is provided for a few hours every evening in the shared dining areas, not in the bedrooms. The bedrooms, incidentally, usually comprise of thin wooden walls and a corrugated iron roof with a small bed and a very thin, hard, mattress. Oh and there are no hot showers. Take it from me you don’t want a cold shower either when it’s that cold, so you go without for about 6 days.
If it sounds tough that’s because it is tough; but it’s also thrilling and one of the most amazing challenges that I have personally undertaken.
I’m Neil Cottam. I have wanderlust. And along with that I also have a taste for adventure and fun. I like to Mountain Bike, Fish, Climb, Snowboard, Mountain Board, Run, Trek, and generally get involved in anything that looks like fun. I also (also also) have a taste for visiting exotic destinations and seeking out the treasures that they hold. I’m fortunate to have visited some of the World’s most amazing places from the temples of Angkor in Cambodia to The Sistine Chapel in Rome amongst a whole list of other places in between. But my heart really lies in the hills, and if those hills happen to be next to an ocean then that’s even better. The North West Highlands of Scotland fall nicely in to that category and if you never been then you should; a truly stunning natural wonder that stands shoulder to shoulder with anywhere else on the planet. I’ve visited all of the major ranges in the UK along with many others; The Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland & Austria, The Julian Alps  of Slovenia, The Western Ghats in India and other ranges across Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, and most recently the greatest of them all, The Nepalese Himalaya.
My trip to The Himalaya started out simply enough. High on my wish list of places to visit stood Mount Everest Base Camp. For me a place not just to tick off on a list of must-do’s but a place of pilgrimage. I was born in 1970 in beautiful rural Derbyshire, and during the 1970’s many of the world’s great adventures were still being played out. My lust for adventure was born to the triumph of the British summit of Everest’s South-West Face by the likes of Chris Bonnington, Doug Scott & Dougal Haston in ‘75; and the pioneering Polar adventures of a much younger Ranulph Fiennes. The news pages were full of acts of these brave, some might say foolhardy, men and women pushing the boundaries of possibility. I was enthralled.

I began researching my potential trip to Nepal with an eye on trekking independently, which is without the need for guides and porters. I also wanted it to be more of an adventure than the standard Base Camp trek which usually involves flying in to Lukla from Kathmandu and taking around 12-14 days. The old expedition route from Jiri was my preference. This trek takes considerably longer and passes through the Himalaya mid-hills with places hardly visited these days. It turned out to be a very good decision.
During all this frantic research I stumbled upon The Yak Attack, oh dear! I had heard of it before, it gets the occasional brief mention in the mountain bike press. What a challenge! I ummed and arred over it for several days, not least because of the cost of entering; £1600 is a lot of money and would push my meagre budget way beyond where I wanted it to be. In the end my heart overruled my brain and I clicked the enter button. Possibly one of my most rash, but ultimately rewarding, decisions. “Right then, this is definitely happening now” I thought to myself; in for a penny, in for a pound.

I had aired the prospect of the Base camp trek with one of my very good friends, Dave Slater an equally rash individual. He discussed it with his partner Lyndsey and got the go ahead. I also wanted at least one other person to make up the team (when travelling in mountainous terrain it is prudent to have at least three members in a team). I had two people in mind; my cousin Darren Holloway, a man of great mountain experience and a very accomplished Fell-Runner, and an old friend from Holland – Wilco Voulon – who I had met many years before whilst I was living at, and managing, a Carp fishery in France. Dave also had a colleague of his in mind, another experienced outdoorsman called Robert Butt. Any of these guys would make a valuable and welcome addition. As it turned out neither Darren nor Robert could spare the time necessary (4 weeks) to come with us. To my great delight though, Wilco said yes. Wilco spent most of his formative years serving with the Dutch military, including active tours in Cambodia and Iraq, and would be great to have along; notwithstanding his terrific personality. I knew that Dave and Wilco would get along well, and so it proved.
So that was the background to the trip sorted. Our trek went off successfully, but not without the usual hitches and hiccups that accompany Asian travel let me tell you. That is a whole other story! We had enjoyed our time together in Nepal and I was sad to say my farewells to my great companions when the time came. I was to stay in Nepal for another three weeks to compete in The Yak Attack.

My attempt at The Yak Attack was a personal challenge; I didn’t enter it to be competitive or to win it. In reality you would have to be in the Elite class in order to stand a chance of winning it anyway, the young Nepali mountain bikers have astonishing levels of speed and endurance and it has never been won by an international rider.
I found it incredibly hard. I had picked up a particularly bad travel bug in Kathmandu prior to the start of the race and had been laid up in bed for several days along with some other very unpleasant symptoms. By race day I had only eaten one proper meal in a week, just the evening before. For the first five days of the race I struggled to keep going and had little energy to push on each day and had to dig deep to find the strength to complete each stage. However from Taal onwards I felt more like my usual self and managed to improve my daily finishing positions considerably, usually finishing mid-field rather than with the stragglers. Those first few days cost me dearly in terms of overall time and finishing position but it mattered not. What mattered most to me was finding the grit to persevere and to complete the race. Your immediate thought on completing is to say “Never again”, however as your aches & pains begin to recede your thoughts turn more to the memories you have accumulated and the friendships forged in adversity. And you begin to wonder…
In 2013 I am going again!

Not only am I returning to do The Yak Attack but I have also let myself be talked in to an attempt of The Tenzing-Hillary Mount Everest Marathon with Wilco. Why do I let these things happen??? Wilco asked me to accompany him, and assist with the guiding of a group of 30 trekkers, back to Everest Base Camp, once again on The Old Expedition Route in May 2013. We will then take part in the marathon.
Wilco is the director of a foundation in The Netherlands that works with Autistic children, he helps them to develop skills & confidence through the mediums of sport and recreation. He loves his job. We are going to highlight, and raise funds for, the work he does with his charity along with Autism Care Nepal.
I have never run in a marathon before but it has been a long held ambition of mine.
Better start training then!
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Copyright Words and Pictures – Neil Cottam. 2012.


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About The Author

Neil Cottam

Neil is the founder of Chase The Rainbow. He has spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors, from a childhood climbing trees and scrambling his bike around old pit heads to hiking in the Himalaya and backpacking around Europe and Asia.

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