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Yak Attack 2013 – Part Two.

Yak Attack 2013 – Part Two.
Yak Attack – Those Two Imposters!
Hmmmm… CAKE!

I’m sure most people will be familiar, in some form or other, of Rudyard Kipling’s very famous poem “If”. And “If” you aren’t then it’s worth looking up. It’s a great poem about humility, respect, honesty and decency, in a British Empire stiff-upper-lip kind of way. Bear with me.

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two imposters just the same,…”

“… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!”

Read on.

Taal is a nice place to stay. It isn’t really much more than a handful of trekking lodges but it lies on the banks of the Marsyangdi Nadi River in a steep sided valley with waterfalls cascading down the sheer rock faces. I like it.
It was warmer this year too. In fact the temperatures throughout the whole race were a few degrees up on the previous year making for a more comfortable experience.

Day Six (Taal to Chame). The race was to follow a different route this year; no longer following the trekking trail but picking up a section of the newly blasted Jeep-road before continuing on to Chame.

Pushing out of Taal, the altitude didn’t help.
Giving it some on the relentless climb towards Chame.
It began with a very steep, loose, climb out of the village which had every rider off the bike and pushing for a short section near the top before joining the new road and continuing relentlessly upwards, higher and higher for about 16kms. It was at this point close to cresting the summit at around 2700m that I stopped at the feed station for a refil. As I stood chatting to the medics, Yvonne and Natalie, I felt something sting or bite my leg behind my right knee. Yvonne saw it fly off and said that she thought it was wasp. “Are you sure?” I asked; “Well it was yellow and black” she said. Now it just so happens that I’m allergic to wasp stings! I casually mentioned the fact and Yvonne asked me “Exactly how allergic?”. “Very allergic!” I replied . I have to say that I wasn’t actually that concerned at the time; I hadn’t seen any wasps at all in Nepal and thought it fairly unlikely that I was going to die, beside I also knew that they were carrying Epi-pen’s in the medical supplies. By the time they had sorted out some Anti-Histamines and an Epi-pen I was confident that nothing was amiss. My reaction is so severe that it is noticeable within a few minutes. I popped the pill and went off with strict instructions to use the Epi-pen if anything developed. I was fine.

Approaching the feed station just minutes before I got stung.
Thankfully the terrain levels out somewhat for the last 7km in Chame. “Updulating” is a phrase often used by Phil Evans for these stages, it sums it up perfectly.
At a point further on the trail I crossed through a stream and as I put some power through the pedals to clear some rocks my chain snapped. I was beginning to think it could be one of those days! Fortunately it’s a simple matter to resolve and within a few minutes I was on my way again. As I set off I spotted another rider approaching further down the trail; not wanting to be passed I put the hammer down and gave it some beans all the way in to Chame. Zoltan Keller (Hungary) rolled in to the finish a few minutes after me and commented that he had seen me briefly but then was unable to catch me and never saw me again. I laughed and replied that I’d seen him too, panicked, and pedalled like mad.

Chame is tightly sandwiched between huge imposing rock walls and the river here absolutely thunders through the valley, crashing over over enormous boulders probably left behind by some long retreated glacier. The mountains are now The Annapurna’s proper and they dominate the landscape, blocking out most of the much welcome sunshine. These giants of The Himalaya are stunning; white capped with snow and dripping with impossibly large glaciers. Truly a breathtaking sight. At 2700m above sea-level it drops cold very quickly in the evenings.
Bike wash facilities are a glacial stream that feeds the main river and it’s cold as ice, you don’t spend too long cleaning the bike. There isn’t too much in the way of things to do so most of us hung out in the dining area of the lodge, ate, and chatted the hours away. I wandered down the village took a few photographs and had fun with some of the curious local kids. I often wonder what they must think of a bunch of unwashed mountain bikers marauding through their village every year.

Richard park taking advantage of the bike wash facility!

Day Seven (Chame to Manang). There is a bit a tradition in Chame each year where the local dignitaries queue up to bless the riders before the start of the stage. It’s nice, and they present us with sweets and ceremonial silk scarves (known as a Khata I think). We then do the usual ride out of the village to a suitable starting point.

Getting blessed by the local dignitaries.

The course “updulates” all the way from 2700m to 3500m at Manang and this year we were told to expect a lot of snow on the trails higher up. I set off feeling strong, I’m happier in the mountains and perform much better than I do on the early stages. In fact I was flying along. About 3 miles (5km) out I was blasting down a short, smooth, descent when I spotted a group of three trekkers ahead on the left hand side of the trail. As I swept out to pass them I hit a large branch laying across the trail that had been obscured from my view. I was thrown off course, completely out of control, and slammed hard in to steep sided bank on the right hand side. I’m not entirely sure what actually happened but I hit my helmet and my shoulder and came to a very abrupt halt! I was scuffed up pretty badly and knew immediately that I had dislocated my right arm and that my race was effectively over there and then.

The three German trekkers rushed straight across to help me and fortunately they were carrying a pretty comprehensive first-aid kit. I was on my feet but a bit dazed and they cleaned my wounds and dressed them up as best they could. During this time the eight or nine riders that were behind me passed through, most giving a cursory glance before continuing on, I do remember one rider asking me if I was OK but I don’t recall who it was. The last rider through was Laxmi Magar, the only Nepali female rider in the race. (Along with family & friends we had sponsored Laxmi’s entry in to the race in memory of my cousin Darren who had sadly died at the age of 42, a few months previously, whilst taking part in a mountain running event). She pulled up, concerned, and asked if I was alright. I told her that I wouldn’t be able to carry on. We chatted and she told me that she was having problems with her bike, an issue with the rear wheel. I insisted that she took my bike and used it for the rest of the race; if I couldn’t finish then I figured that Laxmi might as well benefit from my loss. (She went on to complete the race and posted some great times in the latter stages). In the meantime one of the media guys had headed back in to Chame to inform Snow-Monkey of my predicament.

Snow-Monkey showed up and after a brief chat we began the long walk back to Chame. I was slow, having to stop regularly and rest my arm on the floor to ease the pain; so Snow-Monkey forged ahead with Laxmi’s bike to try and arrange some medical help.
By the time I had got to within a few hundred metres of Chame I was starting to get seriously pissed off with the discomfort of the dislocation. I decided to have a feel around the shoulder bone and see If I could figure out the way to relocate it. The arm had pushed under towards my armpit and this made the shoulder feel like it was sticking out; it was a pretty weird sensation to be honest. I pushed my left hand in between the arm and my torso, formed a fist and then squeezed. It just popped back in! Easy as that. I couldn’t believe it. The worst of the pain subsided immediately although I knew it would be too painful to attempt riding. On a little wave of euphoria I ran all the way in to the village to tell Snow-Monkey that I would be carrying on. He had been busy on the telephone trying to make arrangements and unbeknown to me (I found out later) he had a helicopter on two hours stand-by in Kathmandu to airlift me out! Bugger that! I was fit enough to hike and was determined to stay with the race come what may.  I hung around whilst Snow-Monkey tried to secure a couple of motorbikes to give us lift. This was proving impossible so I suggested we just set off walking for Manang. So that is what we did. 

The offending branch that put an end to my racing.

About halfway along we stopped in a village for lunch and bizarrely I bumped in to the good Samaritans who had helped me out when I crashed. They were amazed to see me. I shook their hands and thanked them for their help.
During lunch Snow-Monkey managed to flag down a couple of local lads with motorbikes heading in our direction and we hopped on the back. It was slow going in the mud and the snow and when we eventually got to a point where it was impossible to carry on we began walking again. I don’t actually think we gained any time by it other than, perhaps, the time we spent having lunch.

The friendly local bikers who gave us a lift.

We quickly began to catch up with many of the porters carrying the gear up to Manang. Snow-Monkey was angry when he found several of them tucked up in a little bar (actually not much more than an old barn) drinking Raksi, the potent local spirit. Some porters can be in the habit of getting quite drunk apparently and will often turn up staggering about hours later than expected. I elected to push on alone rather than waste valuable time. It’s gets cold very quickly at this altitude and I wanted to make Manang before sundown.

At this point I was still pissed off that the other riders had passed me when I had my accident. I thought it was completely unacceptable that anyone would do this and I wasn’t particularly shy about it when I arrived in Manang either. Luckily by the time I arrived in Manang I’d had plenty of time to calm down a bit. Later on, after giving it a lot of thought, I figured that they may not have realised the gravity of my situation. It was a fast section of trail, I was stood upright, and had assistance from the trekkers. At a quick glance you wouldn’t necessarily think that too much was amiss. Later in the race another rider (Pete McCutcheon) suffered a serious accident after clipping an oncoming vehicle and every rider stopped to assist him without hesitation. If I did upset anyone then I apologise for it. Sorry guys.

As I walked in to Manang my fellow Yak Attack veterans, and good friends, Sonya Looney & Tyler McMahon were just walking out of the German Bakery, I shouted to them and they were really surprised to see me. The last they had heard was that I was going back to Kathmandu for treatment. In my eloquent way I declared “You didn’t think I was going to let you lot have all the f***ing fun without me did you?” We laughed, hugged, and walked up to the lodge.
That evening, for all the wrong reasons, I was a bit of a celebrity I think!
Rocky Prajapati, a photographer following the race, said that he thought I was a Terminator!
The race was being followed by a team filming a TV documentary for Channel 5 in the UK and they insisted on filming me with my top off. If that makes the final cut all you ladies out there are in for a real treat let me tell you. My naked, pale, squishy, torso and man-boobs on show to the nation! Nice 😀
Ed Venner sampling the delights of the German Bakery.

Everyone looks forward to Manang. Due to the altitude the race is forced, by necessity, in to having a rest/acclimatisation day and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Guided walks are arranged, we eat obscene quantities of cake in the bakery, and we can even visit the local cinema! (They show “Seven Years in Tibet” every day of the year!)
It is the cultural and administrative centre of the whole region and it is a very beautiful place.
It also gave us a chance to become better acquainted with the film crew. They were documenting former international rugby player turned adventurer Richard Parks’ attempt at the race.
Richard is a very nice guy and I had gotten to know him briefly in Kathmandu.
We had half expected a bunch of pain-in-the-arse luvvies. How wrong we were.
These guys, we discovered, were a bunch of real adventurers; we were just playing at it!
They had been everywhere from canoeing the Amazon to crossing the desert on a camel! The producer, Keith Partridge, had climbed Everest the previous year with Kenton Cool and had been involved with the filming of the world famous movie “Touching the Void”. Talk about impressive CV’s! We were in awe of them. And they were a really nice bunch of people too.
Who’d have thought it?!

A storm was brewing high over the Manang Valley.

Day Nine (Manang to Thorong Phedi) see’s the riders on the shortest stage, only 16km, but this is deceiving because it includes an altitude gain of around 1000m! A storm had passed through on the rest day in Manang and word filtered down that there had been a big dump of snow higher up. I set out early with Yvonne and Natalie heading for the village of Yak Kharka at about 4000m. Once there we would wait for the riders to pass through safely before continuing on to Thorong Phedi. 

Yvonne and Natalie at Yak Kharka. 4000m.

We had barely put our lips to a hot mug of coffee before lead rider Narayan Gopal Maharjan came storming through at a blistering pace, followed shortly after by Ajay Pandit Chhetri. We were amazed to see them so soon and I scrambled for the camera to try and grab a few images. Over the next hour or so all of the riders passed through and I managed to photograph each one of them. I really enjoyed seeing the race from another perspective and screamed encouragement to everyone as they climbed in to the village and passed by us.

My friend and room mate for the whole race. Andre Deplechin.

Thorong Phedi had a generous covering of snow and, as expected, it was cold. We packed in to a small room and clamoured around a huge wood burning stove to keep warm. Due to a recent fire the dining area had been burnt to the ground and this left little space for everyone to hang out together. I spent most of the afternoon in one of the bedrooms talking and laughing with a bunch of the riders as people came and went.

Yak-Dog at Thorong Phedi.

Dinner was a makeshift affair in a large tent heated with kerosene stoves. We were packed in like sardines; everyone was well wrapped up in their high altitude gear and it was cosy.

Cosy dinner in a tent!
Enjoying my favourite Nepali dessert; Yellow!

I sat around in the evening chatting with Phil, Keith Green (the race doctor), Snow-Monkey, Natalie, and Yvonne. At the time I expressed my concern about the pass and that I thought that some of the riders may have been underestimating it somewhat. It is a dangerous place and I was also worried about the fact that some of the riders were planning to hike it in cycling shoes or similar unsuitable footwear.
Unfortunately my concerns proved to be partly prophetic. Several riders suffered serious snow-blindness and had to retire for the final stage; another ended up with frostbite on one of his toes and almost everyone came away with a degree of sunburn.

Day Ten (Thorong Phedi to Kagbeni) – The Mighty Thorong La 5416m
Due to the heavy snow fall it had been decided to start the race an hour later than the usual 4.00am to give everyone a little more daylight on the high climb.
At 5.00am the whistle blew and everyone began the hike towards the pass. Some riders shouldered their bikes, whilst others had fashioned various harnessing systems to allow them to be carried on a backpack. It is an amazing sight to see the light from thirty plus head torches snaking up the hill.
I was pleased to be hiking up bike-free and took a nice easy pace. I offered encouragement and help along the way, and even shared my hot drink with friends struggling in the very dry air. At that altitude there is very little moisture in the air and dehydration is a common problem. After having my drink freeze up in the 2012 race and suffering for several hours without any hydration I had elected to take an insulated bottle full of warm water this time, and by stashing it inside my jacket it had the added benefit of keeping me toasty too.

Riders hiking up towards the high pass.

I arrived at the summit with Thor Loechell (USA) and Sonya Looney (USA) in a little over three hours and I dived in to the little makeshift tea-house and bought mugs of sweet tea and coffee to share amongst us. It is amazing that the little place manages to exist in such a precarious spot but it does a roaring trade with passing hikers, porters, and Yak Attackers! We were grateful for it anyway.

Slightly hypoxic at the summit.

I had decided that I would attempt to run the remaining 20km of the stage to Kagbeni and so I set off downhill at a decent trot; the deep snow prevented me from running properly and I kind of waded and bounded my way down, occasionally falling over and disappearing in to the drifts.
At the bottom of the snow line sits another small group of tea-houses. I stopped here to remove a few layers of clothing and to put on my trail shoes. The shoes weren’t really all that suitable for running in but they would have to do. As I skipped down the trail I spotted Jamie, one of the Channel 5 camera guys, and he shouted me over for a short interview as I passed by. We had a laugh or two and then I carried on, I had a long way to go.

The run was tough and seemed much further than I remembered. The last 5kms were punishing on the bone-hard road and my muscles were screaming, the trail shoes weren’t helping matters much. I thought a lot about my cousin Darren and had to wipe away tears more than once, I spoke out loud to him “Come on Daz, give me a hand” and remembered his favourite saying too – “Dig in”. I shouted it out. “Come on Cottam; DIG IN!” I like to think that he was smiling down on me that day, shouting words of encouragement, and chuckling to himself. I reached the finish line and had a few moments away from the crowd to gather in my emotions. The loss of Daz is still very raw but I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me, it wasn’t like that.

It was an age before anyone else got to the finish, well over an hour, and we were starting to worry that something had gone wrong. Keith and I discussed it and he made contact with one of the officials. We were reassured that everything was alright; shortly after that John Sturman (UK) rolled in, then Laxmi, then others. Eventually everyone arrived in safely. Several of the guys took over nine hours to complete the stage. It is one hell of a day.

Kagbeni lies in the heart of The Mustang Region, it’s a lovely town and it feels good to back at a reasonable altitude and warmer temperatures once again.
Most of us visited the local restaurant – Yak Donalds – and enjoyed Yak burger and fries! It takes a while to arrive, they cook everything fresh, but it is worth it. Delicious.

Day Eleven (Kagbeni to Tatopani – Stage Ten). The final stage of Yak Attack is another race of two-halves. The first 35km or so undulates along a wide river valley (The Kali Gandaki Nadi) until it reaches the village of Lete. From then on the trail descends all the way to Tatopani; 25kms of fast, exhilarating fun! This year the riders also benefited from a favourable tail wind and the stage times were going to quick.
At almost 60km it was too long for me run or hike so I hitched a ride on a spare motorbike with the Channel 5 team. this also meant that I would be arriving early at the finish line and would be able experience the climax of the race.

Ready for my ride to Tatopani with the film crew.

It was a rough old ride on the bumpy trails. It got a even worse later; the bike I was on got a puncture.

The punctured tyre.

I had to wait around for a short while until another rider turned up on a dirt bike and I climbed aboard. The seat was tiny, the suspension was definitely on the firm side, and I could only hang on with my one good arm! By time we arrived in Tatopani I was more saddle sore than I had been from seven days of racing. Ouch!

The stage turned out to be blisteringly fast with the wind assistance, and the lead riders actually passed us before the finish. It was amazing to see Ajay and Narayan battling it out for the stage win. We were also passed by the third placed rider, Zbigniew Mossoczy (Poland).
Ed Venner, the director, had to ask them to re-stage the sprint to the finish for the documentary.
After the first seven or eight riders had arrived there was a long gap and we started to wonder what was going on. Eventually news filtered through that Pete had crashed. He was taken on to Pokhara in a Jeep for hospital treatment and the remaining riders neutralised the stage and rode in together. It was a shame for the race to end in such a way, but Pete was fine, after a night in hospital and several lots of stitches to his neck, much to everyone’s relief. 

Enjoying the finish with my good friend Sonya Looney.

Tatopani is a relaxed affair, with the race over, and the pressure off, everyone is free to cut loose a little. Most of us spent the day enjoying the natural hot springs and drinking a beer or two. In the evening we were treated to a wonderful display of traditional dancing, and we joined in!

The fabled hot springs at Tatopani.
Eric Secher (Sweden) and Andre Deplechin (France).

Day Twelve is the final group ride down to the main road. Bikes were loaded on to the top of the buses and we were transported on to Pokhara for the presentation ceremony and a night of unbridled partying!

Loading the bikes for Pokhara.

And that is it. After another night in Pokhara we flew on to Kathmandu. Over the course of the next couple of days all the international riders departed for home, and with several vowing to return in 2014 it looks like being another fantastic event. My place is secured already and I can’t wait to return for one more go at this amazing race.

I made a whole host of new friends and I will certainly be seeing some of them again in the not too distant future with a bit of luck.
Thank to you to everyone involved for making Yak Attack what it is. Especially Phil Evans and Snow-Monkey, without those two the event wouldn’t even exist.
To all of my Nepali and international friends, I miss you already and I can’t wait for the day our paths cross once more, you are all amazing people.

Group photo at the presentation ceremony.
Three of Yak Attack’s legendary female finishers!

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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