The Annapurna Mandala Trail 2008 (AMT2008) by Roger Henke
The Annapurna Mandala Trail is hardly known outside France; so much for ‘globalization’. As in many other sectors, the disconnect between the Anglo-Saxons and the Gallics is near total. France has a large and vibrant mountain and ultrarunning community. Within that community the AMT is well-known, receiving coverage in specialized magazines (e.g. Endurance) and even on television (TV5).
But when Marjan and I meet the other participants we turn out to be the only two non-French amongst a total of 48 runners and walkers. Apart from the eight Nepali invitees among those participants that is. Of the 48, 43 are going to run the AMT, which means that they carry all they need on their own back. The walkers can hand over 10 kg to a porter of the supporting trekking agency Base Camp Trek (BCT). As it turns out, we are all walkers on the up-hills, although there is walking and walking, and walking as fast uphill as you can is a pretty exhausting discipline; and some of the walkers do not eschew the occasional downhill run.
Next to the language-based Apartheid, running with a full pack is probably a major ingredient in what makes this a very French event. Multistage runs requiring participants to be self-sufficient seem to be a particularly French pastime, with the Marathon des Sables as maybe its best known example. I do not know why this ‘extreme’ – or is it rather ‘pure’? – form of sojourn running seems to appeal to French runners in particular. But that it does seems evident. Outside France, carrying a rucksack seems often to be seen as not for ‘real’ runners. I can now certainly confirm that it is hard work! I can also confirm that the obsession of experienced backpack runners with the weight of their pack makes sense. The surreal rigor with which the Crane brothers, who set the benchmark for running the Himalaya with their 1983 Darjeeling-to-Rawalpindi trip, cut their weight down to the absolute minimum was hilarious to me before (check out Amazon if you can get a second hand copy of their incredible tale). Being Dutch and stingy I thought that a kilo more
or less wouldn’t matter. I now know better. However: the AMT is a real trail RUN.
Bruno Poirier: Chevalier du Vent extraordinaire
In 1994 Frenchmen Paul-Eric Bonneau and Bruno Poirier ran across the breath of Nepal in six weeks. The duo took a mere six days to complete the Annapurna circuit.
By April 2007, Bruno, a journalist for Ouest-France, had run 8.250 kilometers through the Nepal, Himalaya, adding up to 284.000 positive and 278.500 negative altitude meters, figures already superceded by two more stage races since then. He created the Annapurna Mandala Trail in 2000, the longer and even more adventurous Himal race in 2002, and the even higher Lafuma Sky race in 2003.
With a group of friends he started the Chevaliers du Vent Association for the purpose of organizing these races, and participates in all of them himself, consistently scoring top positions. He is an accomplished (ultra) mountain runner in France. With unprecedented drive and care, Bruno has created a universe of its own, for the benefit of many.
More on the ‘why participate in something like this’ in the FAQ on my website. That pre-departure reflection piece already highlighted my worries about what it takes to do this (i.e. if I actually have that…). Mid-March the organizer e-mailed an overview of the running experience of the first 20 on the participant list and that didn’t exactly boost my confidence. The awe that very experienced (i.e. way beyond my limited exploits to date) Dutch multi-stage and ultra-running friends seemed to display when hearing about my plans didn’t help much either. It’s actually somewhat of a mystery to me why I didn’t panic because this info came on top of many well-meaning inquiries if I was out of my mind, or at least questioning the safety of this undertaking. I have a history in the trekking business and several old friends told me that they would never sell an itinerary like this because it goes against accepted wisdom regarding acclimatization to altitude. Also, the closer we got to departure, the more squeamish Marjan became about what she as a walker had signed up to.
Mmmm, expected time needed for the walkers for that stage was 12 hours….However, I remained strangely detached as if sleepwalking to my doom, and taking my wife along for the ride. As it turned out, the itinerary had been vetted by
authoritative altitude specialists, (as with many things in life, experts seem to disagree about what is responsible), and this was the eighth edition. Also, the active selection of participants on prior problem-free experience above 5000 meters –
although with altitude sickness that is no guarantee for the future – did seem to make for a smaller proportion of difficulties than with your average group of trekkers. And in the end altitude did not cause serious problems.
However, getting to meet the rest of the group in Kathmandu and getting to know them a bit during the first couple of easy walk-in days, I am confronted head on with my nagging worries about being ill-prepared. The Nepali participants are the running elite of their country. The French, well, it’s a mix of extensive trail and ultra-running experience that emerges from the chats I have. The UTMB (close to 100 miles around Mont Blanc) and the Marathon des Sables, appear in so many CVs that they might as well have been qualifying races, and the crowd coming from la Reunion has all participated in the Grand Raid, some of them doing it every year. I know Nepal and its trails quite well. My first trek was in 1978 and I’ve lived and worked there for a couple of years. So I know what to expect. But this crowd suggests that it is not going to be a normal trek, or even a normal mountain run. My Freudian talents must be well developed: even these chats do not manage to really wake my worries from their subterranean slumber. What is my confidence based on?
In 2006 I participated in the Mount Kinabalu climbathon, a half marathon in East-Malaysia, starting at 1865 meters, going to 4095, and back down again. That went well. Was that it? Living in Cambodia, as flat as the Netherlands and quite ‘warm’, does not make for an optimal training environment. But that is where I had trained for the climbathon too. However, this was a run like the climbathon, but with a backpack, and then the next day again, and the day after again….Maybe one shouldn’t question things like this. After much pondering I had come to this conclusion regarding the question of ‘why’ (see the FAQ), it might equally apply to the issue of confidence.
We all arrive in Kathmandu – those flying in from France, la Reunion, and Phnom Penh – on Saturday the 12th of April, and get together in Hotel Manaslu, just off Lazimpath, a bit North of Thamel. The next day starts with a check of the obligatory equipment, a brief medical check, and some paperwork with Base Camp Trek.
Marjan and I had already made a first stroll through the old part of town, and visited our old base, the Summit Hotel and Summit Trekking, the day before. Phnom Penh friends, Brian and Ann and their two daughters stayed at the Summit before departing to Pike danda, and we just cannot be in town and not say hello to Kit Spencer, Sangye Sherpa and others that have been friends for such a long time. Summit also provided us with some gear that non-climbing tropical flatlanders do not have in their cupboard, like crampons. On Sunday afternoon some more street life and paperwork before we return to the Summit to meet up with a lot of De Stoppelaars, family of Cas, who is the hotel’s largest shareholder, the owner of trekking (and thus my former boss), honorary consul of Nepal in the Netherlands, a very gifted storyteller, and the author of a great book of faction on how the Summit came to be.
Quite a few runners had a GPS with them and all produced different figures. In general, altitude was underreported, even with continuous calibration. The data below are from Cédric as published on his kikourou-blog.
AMT – Stage 1 – Annapurna Base Camp – Tadapani
+1993 m/ – 3365 m
AMT – Stage 2 – Tadapani – Dana
+437 m / – 2806 m
AMT – Stage 3 – Dana – Marpha
+1700 m / – 450 m
AMT – Stage 4 – Marpha – Muktinath
+1100 m / –150 m
AMT – Stage 5 – Muktinath – Manang
+2160 m / –2280 m
AMT – Stage 6 – Manang Marathon
+1558 m / –1549 m
AMT – Stage 7 – Manang – High Camp
+1599 m / –336 m
AMT – Stage 8 – High Camp – Jomosom
+868 m / –2895 m
+12415 m /-13831 m
First walk-in day: On the morning of the 14th we do not have an early morning flight to Pokhara so no rush before departing. We’re such a big group that we need two planes. After both planes are in we board buses – Marjan and I and some others like our cameraman Fabien Brusson actually the roof – and drive to the road head at Nayapul from where we make a start around 13:30 for the first walk-in day to Ghandrung (1970 m). Marjan and I do not stop in Birethanthi (1080 m) for lunch but just after, at a local tea shack. As soon as we sit the rain starts. Now, that wasn’t foreseen in the program. When I say rain, I mean RAIN. We enquire: yes it’s been like that for a while, rain in the afternoons…as seasoned monsoon trekkers we know a bit about rain and are not really bothered. We arrive at our lodge in
Ghandrung totally soaked as some of the last in. The lodge is a bit of an eyesore, but the village is very much a normal village. I’m amazed at this because we are in the heart of the most trekked area of Nepal here! Yes, I’ve been here before and made the same observation then, but that was more than 15 years ago. We arrive so late that it takes some effort to find us a room, but in the end all is sorted out.
Second walk-in day: The next morning we wake up to a spectacular view. The days of mountain views from Kathmandu are largely over. The smog in the valley bowl has taken over. We had some views of the Matterhorn of the Himalaya, the Machhapuchare or ‘Fishtail’, yesterday but this is the first grand panorama of what we’re in for since we’ve arrived. The excitement ripples through our group. The day starts with ‘a bit’ up and down, before making a steep drop to cross the Kimrung river (1800 m). Marjan flies down this descent but starts to feel the Iliotibialis tendon of her left knee. It’s a steep climb up at the other side – a climb rewarded with our first blooming rhododendron tree – to get around an enormous landslide, before arriving at Chhomrong (2100 m) where we stop for lunch. This village has clusters of lodges and houses at several heights. We’re now in the valley of the Modi river draining the Annapurna Sanctuary, and we drop down an endless staircase to a little side-river, indeed, as always in Nepal, before climbing up again to the same height we came from. We’re entering a narrow wild gorge, the weather deteriorates, we are hit by a hail storm and shelter in a lodge in Bamboo (2310 m) before doing the last bit to our night stop Dobhan (2540 m). We huddle together in the dining room, drying clothes and shoes under the table where blazing kerosine burners make for smelly comfort. The rain is relentless.
Third walk-in day: Like yesterday, we wake to a glorious morning with a spectacular view on Fishtail. The mountainsides are dusted with snow. From Dobhan to Machhapuchare Base Camp (MBC; 3700 m) is only a long half day walk. It takes quite a while for the sun to hit the valley floor. The valley gradually starts opening up and becomes more alpine. We cross the river to avoid a landslide area that is dangerous in the spring season. The altitude slows me down a bit but doesn’t hurt.
Marjan is struggling, going up is always hard for her and on top of that the knee gives her great trouble. In the evening the accompanying doctor Maryse Dupré treats her with a series of injections containing a cocktail of a local anesthesia and an anti-inflammatory (‘meso-therapy’ in French). MBC is definitely alpine territory.
Expected time needed for walkers for tomorrow’s first stage is 9 hours. But more than 3000 meters downhill with obviously very painful tendonitis…. I am worried because it looks like Marjan is never going to make it. I cannot face the possibility of splitting up at this early stage. She herself also seems determined to give it a try. All of this is largely implicit. Anything said might make things definite. Let’s give it a night, we’ll see.
First stage of the AMT: On the 4th day the runners leave at five, in a long string of headlamps, for a 75 min walk up to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC; 4130 m). The walkers leave 20 minutes later for the descent. Some of the group, including a couple of walkers, visited ABC yesterday afternoon already. Marjan and I didn’t, having arrived late and not in for more walking. So she misses out on an absolutely spectacular place. All returning trekkers we had met had so far had said as much but one has to be there to feel it. How close can one get to seven and eight thousand! Wow. I arrive in front with Pascal Beaury, a 54 year old with an honorary
‘Sherpa’ attached to his name since his first AMT in 2000, to indicate his unmatched ability to keep up with Sherpa runners when the going gets tough. A cup of tea, a visit to the moraine behind the lodge for the best view, a visit to the toilet. Then to a couple of small and deserted tented camps of (Russian, Czech) expeditions – all are somewhere up on their respective mountain – an AMT banner, a group photo, and another, a fake start for Fabien’s film, and we’re off at 7:00 for our 42 km, +1993 meters, -3365 meters first day. The trail is in the snow until close to MBC. Like it is going to be from now on, the pack goes off like madmen. As this is downhill I can keep up with the first half. When my legs are not jelly, I’m reasonably OK at descending. After 30 seconds I pass Phu Dorjee Sherpa, sitting on the ground with a pain-distorted face, and two other Sherpa’s sitting next to him, looking worried. Later we hear he tore an ankle ligament when slipping in the snow, and was heli-evacuated that same morning. Phu Dorjee was the expected winner of this race, with an impressive record of previous wins. He had told me that he was tired (like some of the other Nepali runners) because he had raced ATB’s around Annapurna just a month earlier (some kind of eco-challenge race). But he had obviously gone for victory right from the start, and paid for it. This morning, for the first time, I had dressed in more than shorts and t-shirt. After 25 minutes we’re back at MBC and I get out of my long trousers, coat etc. Now we’re in for a long, long descent. My legs feel good and I feel I’m doing OK. But when I pass Marjan she has only just left Dobhan, and she’s not doing well, her knee hurts like hell, and my thoughts are clouded immediately. Fortunately, running downhill requires every bit of attention I have so the cloud drifts by quickly. They return periodically when the going gets tough. Returning the same trail we came I am amazed at a long climb because I do not remember the equivalent descent on the way up. ‘Nepali flat’ – a ‘little bit’ up, a ‘little bit’ down – can play tricks on the mind. I do remember the endless staircase to upper Chhomrong and it is as exhausting as I had expected it to be. At the top there is a checkpoint and I stop for 10 minutes to drink coke, and eat some biscuits. Sitting next to Pascal – what is he doing here? He should be way ahead of me…- without any urge for chitchat and fighting the thought that Marjan is probably going to make it to this point but will then decide to call it a day. When I take off again I immediately get lost and Pascal saves me by calling out. He saves me a second time when I would have taken the wrong trail had he not been around. We stay close to each other until after crossing the Kimrung river again. There a 700 meter climb starts, higher up through the kind of majestic old growth forest, close to the destination flowering rhododendron trees, that always stirs something in me. A third into the climb Pascal remains behind and I continue with Frederic (who later acquires the honorific ‘Fried Egg Sherpa’). That is to say I follow him for the second third until I
catch up with him when he starts slowing down because of hypoglaemia. We do the last stretch together and arrive in 16th position tired and very satisfied at the couple of lodges called Tadapani (2620 m) after a good 7 and a half hours. The reception is unexpected: most of those already arrived and the staff of BCT cheer and clap and make for quite a spectacle. I’m shown to my room, join the others around the table for food and drink, take a shower, but all of this is interspersed with bouts of restless waits around the finish line. I cannot imagine Marjan is ever going to make it and half hope, half fear she is going to stay in Chhomrong. Around six Jean-Michelle Ferron comes in – he sprained an ankle and can hardly walk. He says Marjan is coming! I start descending immediately, come across the one before last walker, Aurélie, very soon, and after about 15 minutes, there she is. Slow but steady.
After lunch walking had become less painful and she was in good spirits…this is after 13 hours. What perseverance, I am overwhelmed and very happy. Later that evening we hear that three participants, the French organizers call them ‘les ultras’ have decided to quit in Chhomrong. Badwater, the Transgaulle, it apparently did not prepare them for
these trails. Pure, the sirdar – leader of the Nepali support crew – arrives at 10 PM, having arranged the helivac for Phu Dorjee and the walk-out for les ultras. My already profound respect for what it takes to be a good sirdar – one of the inheritances of a couple of years in the trekking business – is reinforced once more.
The view in Tadapani is fabulous, the Annapurna range across a flowering rhododendron forest, with a troupe of langur monkeys playing in some trees down the hill.
Second stage of the AMT: It is uphill through the same beautiful forest, with deforested Poon Hill (3210 m) as the highest point. One very talented but very erratic Nepali runner, Deepak Rai, who came in second yesterday, ‘forgets’ to do Poon Hill, thus arriving way before everyone else at the finish, but with a 2 hour penalty to his name. Before this view point – with today’s checkpoint – we run a ridge that already provides the panorama that makes for Poon Hill’s fame: from Dhaulagiri in the West to the Manaslu range in the east. I am in the top third at the checkpoint and start the long descent to the valley of the Kali Gandaki river. The walkers skip both Ghorepani and Poon hill and take the direct route from Deorali via Chitre. At the end of the day Marjan raves about the incredible forest they went through and that, at walking pace, can really be enjoyed. With my concentration focused on my feet, I am only intermittently aware of both forest and views, it has to be said: running is definitely not the easiest way to appreciate this environment. The descent, unlike yesterday’s succession of ups and downs, is relentlessly downhill and seems endless. It passes various villages and becomes increasingly hotter. The only other runners I see are Pascal and Matthias Gery. Pascal does neither like the heat nor the descent, but deals with it by taking it easy and effortlessly. Mathias suffers visibly from the heat and the ORS I can give him comes at the right moment. The last bit of the descent is incredibly steep. It takes me to a bridge over the Ghar river, and then immediately after that a bridge crossing the Kali Gandaki. At the other side: motorbikes, tractors, and a jeep! Ouf, I wasn’t prepared for that. I had expected the village of Tatopani (1190 m), always lauded in trek descriptions for its luxurious lodges, hot spring baths, and apple pie. Not a dusty road. Tatopani takes another 15 minutes, and then turns out to be by-passed by the road. The baths are right next to the river-lining road, not exactly the most scenic location. I drink a coke in a roadside shack and continue. Our night stop is Dana (1450 m), another half hour over the very gradually climbing road. It’s my first real intro to running flats with the backpack and although it feels sluggish and clumsy, it is running, and it is hard.
A suspension bridge leads into Dana, where yesterday’s reception spectacle is repeated, something I can really appreciate after my 5:50 hours of effort. It was a bit easier than yesterday, as confirmed by the time and the day’s stats: 37km, +1437 meters, -2806 meters. The lodge has a nice garden and I settle into the routine started yesterday: re-hydrate (limitless quantities of lemonade are waiting for us at each finish line) get installed in the nice room that Bruno has reserved for us, take a shower and wash my clothes, and then food. Exhaustion usually requires a start with soup to get my system geared towards replenishing, but after that I manage to eat at least two more dishes of whatever seems appetizing. Around three I walk off towards Tatopani to pick up Marjan. This afternoon it rains only very lightly. I pass several late arrivals, amongst them Jaganath Bista, a Nepali runner with a fast marathon time to his name, but now struggling with a painful foot, and walk all the way back to the bridge across the Kali Gandaki before meeting up with her, Jean-Michelle, Aurélie Collado (a walker; and physiology student doing a small study on the emotional reaction to an event like this) and their BCT companions. Marjan is doing great again, same story as the day before: before lunch real trouble, afterwards easier. Jean-Michelle decides to take a hot bath, Aurélie waits for him, Marjan and I climb up to Tatopani and have a tea on the roof terrace of one of the lodges. We encounter Pure with some other BCT staff and also Tsering Ghale, a Nepali runner who complained about a sore knee yesterday, and who can now hardly walk. It’s an hour back to Dana, and I love the opportunity this pace offers to take in my environment. The shock of the road gives way to awe at the beauty of the valley. I am tired when we arrive, but the warmth, the candlelit dinner in the garden, great company; it all makes for a very agreeable evening.
What’s it like being a Nepali runner?
Not easy! The mountain runners do not do much specific training. They tend to rely on their natural talents, and often work in the trekking business. The ones (also) running normal races, trying to qualify for international meets with the national selection, face the same difficulties as runners in other poor countries without facilities – like Cambodia. Time in training is time not available for working. Serious training also includes time to rest, more expensive diets, and good shoes. Prize money? Not the races accessible to them. Corporate sponsorship? Forget it. Until now, the AMT (and the other races) has managed to attract the local elite. The Nepali participants get a free ride, received a full set of equipment (shoes, backpack, sleeping bag, etc. etc.) and are compensated for the opportunity costs by being paid a trekking staff salary ($165 for the 14 day trip), but obviously they have en-route expenses like everyone else. Race winners get a ticket to France and are hosted for two weeks by various Chevalier du Vent friends, as well as participate in the Course des Tempeliers.
Third stage of the AMT: Today, we start in two groups, the first 19 in the results list – which includes me – half an hour later than the rest. Like usual the pack takes off in what feels like a sprint to me and I am at the back of the field in no time. Today’s stage is largely ‘gradual up’, and again shorter than the day before (34 km; 1700 meters, -450 meters). It’s quite warm at this altitude and many in the group don’t like that. The combination of heat and running with a pack on flat trails turns this into a tough day for many, also for me, but in relative terms I’m doing fine: with a ninth place in the day’s results list I bag my best placement of the whole event. Training in tropical heat does have some advantages. The leader of the field confirms his dominance, beating everyone again. Deepak seems totally demoralized by yesterday’s penalty and takes a day off as far as running goes, arriving as one of the last. The going is tough but any qualms I had about running a jeep road are gone. What a valley this is! With 8000 meter peaks at either side, the Kali Gandaki has carved the deepest depression on earth, creating a passage between the Tibetan plateau and the Gangetic plane that makes for fierce winds. The views of the Himalayan main range are more than impressive, with the Annapurna I panorama from Lete (2480 m) as the day’s highlight. The route takes a couple of shortcuts
through the increasingly widening river bed and takes us through a couple of villages, but unfortunately not Tukuche (Marjan who walks the required detour confirms we really missed something). Close to Marpha (2680 m), our night spot forthe day, the landscape starts changing dramatically, becoming much dryer: we are entering the rain shadow, the area shielded by the Himalayan main range from the onslaught of the yearly monsoon rains. Very soon we’ll enter what is geologically part of Tibet. In the outskirts of Marpha I catch up with Stephan (‘le Grand’) Bruand, and first placed woman Lakhpa Diki Sherpa. At a crossroad we hesitate: left is signed as ‘Marpha village’, straight seems a fast way to the end of the village.
Stephan and I take a left, Lakhpa stays on what looks like the main trail. Stephan is one of those for whom heat is a killer, and I manage to finish first in 5:18 after what seems an endless stretch through Marpha’s main street (but takes less than 5 minutes). Lakhpa shows up 10 minutes later and is emotionally shaken by her wrong decision. It takes until evening for her normal smile to reappear. Bruno had described Marpha as the most beautiful village in Nepal. That is a debatable statement but it is certainly very scenic, although touristy. The views from the lodge roof are smashing. The offer of delicacies in this ‘apple capital’ of the country is enticing: I drink at least a liter of pure apple juice and the crumble is delicious. The number of runners needing treatment from Maryse increases. Tsering and Jaganath finish but are no competition anymore, and Nigma Yangji Sherpa, the other female runner, is also slowed down by a painful and swollen knee. After the arrival routine – it takes me at least 1.5 to 2 hours to recuperate – I again walk back to pick up Marjan, whom I meet about 45 minutes out of Marpha. She tells me from afar that stopping, even to say hello, is out of the question; breaking her rhythm would mean the end, very sorry, so I fall in line and we return at a brisk pace. Like yesterday I enjoy every step of this opportunity to look around and see all kinds of things that I hadn’t noticed earlier: the desert-like erosion walls before Marpha, the beautiful village at the other side of the river, the views of the main range towering above the sides of the valley.
What logistics does a race like this need?
Just talking the actual event itself, not the preparation: it takes a group of five French Chevaliers du Vent and a much larger Nepali group from Base Camp Trek to make
it all possible. Race director Bruno Poirier, Pascal Beaury and film director/
photographer Fabien Brusson share Bruno’s responsibility to look after the group,
doctor Maryse Dupré does the medical checks and treats every evening, and Gildas
Leugé Maillet takes care of the daily results list. The BCT team, led by ‘sirdar’ Pure,
is divided into five sub-teams: arrival time-keepers, check-point time-keepers, pack
safety (e.g. being at crossroads to ensure that all take the right trail), tail-end support
and the team looking after accommodation and the provision of breakfast and
evening meals. On top of these 25 Nepali’s there are 7 porters carrying the excess
baggage of the walkers, a heavy load of medical supplies, a Gamow bag, and some
food that is not available in the mountains. Team communication is by walkie-talkie
(when they are not too far apart). The easiest way to picture the complexity of this is
to imagine a 60 people mobile half-board hotel.
Fourth stage of the AMT
Today’s stage doesn’t take the envisioned route via the Lupra valley. It’s not entirely
clear if the quality of the trail (a safety consideration), or the risk of people getting
lost (a logistic consideration: it requires more BCT staff at crucial junctions, and/or
staff to search for lost runners) is to blame. Whatever it may be, I would have
preferred going via Lupra but am not getting upset over changes of plan. I’m not
responsible for this crowd, those who are carry a weighty burden, and I am very
grateful for the happy-go-lucky freedom that their work creates for the rest of us.
Tour leading is one of those professions that is highly undervalued; with a couple of
tour leading friends and a couple of years in the trekking business, that insight is
impossible to avoid. Instead, we take the regular route via Kagbeni. Either route is
relatively short and not very extreme in its positive altitude meters: 24 km, +1100
meters, -150 meters. After another flying start (of the faster second group), and a
struggling yours truly at the back of the pack, the first part is through the river bed
and over the flat jeep road to Jomosom (2760 m), Eklobhatti (2830 m) and the
checkpoint at the entrance to Kagbeni (2840 m). From there it is a steep ascent into
the valley of the Jhong river that emerges close to the Thorung pass, and then more
gradual, passing the villages of Khingar (3270 m; a coke for me), and Jharkot to a
last short but steep ascent to the entrance of Mukthinath (3710 m). Our lodge is the
very first ugly but comfortable building in the village. The landscape in this valley is
otherworldly, but I struggle with climbing. I arrive exhausted after 3:30, and my very
reasonable 13th position in the day’s results list is more due to bad route choices of a
couple of others (taking shortcuts that turn into detours) than to my own efforts. I’m
happy with the rest day ahead of us, with such a short stage actually a day and a
half. I’ve been here before in the summer 2000, and changes are evident, but the
overall impression didn’t change that much. Our then time lodge has been
reconverted to a normal family residence: couldn’t compete with the newer larger
guesthouses. A big new gomba (Tibetan Buddhist temple) has been build in the
centre of town, and lots of other gomba building is evident around the village,
strangely enough mostly nunneries, in general very much the exception. Internet has
arrived, a slow satellite connection, three PCs in a first floor room of a traditional
house (such disjointed fusions of old and new always evoke a pleasantly weird state
of mind). And Muktinath now has a Bob Marley restaurant, with befitting music, a
hippie-era interior, ganja-smoking youngsters fiddling with a guitar on the roof at the
back (OK, the pool table is out of place), and a lady boy running the show, very
popular with our group. Without the summer clouds, the grandeur of the valley is
more evident. What an absolutely fabulous place. I don’t have the heart to go search
for Marjan, cannot face another climb, but she arrives early afternoon, and we join
the others in exploring the culinary possibilities of the village and then visit the
temple, which is surrounded by 108 spouts, for which this village is famous. All
afternoon a big helicopter keeps arriving and taking off again and when we are close
to the entrance of the temple compound, it just arrives again, nearly blowing us off
our feet. A group of Indian pilgrims is waiting on the path for the arriving group of
Indians to vacate the thing. I ask the first lady emerging if she indeed is from India,
yes she is, and when will she return, oh, in an hour or so….I think we count at least
five or six flights that afternoon, each spitting out 20+ pilgrims, mostly very, very old
people, supported by one of their children or grand children, clearly a once and final
lifetime visit of penance. It is purnima, full moon, a most auspicious time for such a
pilgrimage. We also visit a nunnery on the temple compound (this is very typical
Nepali, Hindus and Buddhists share sacred places in perfect harmony), which
contains both a spring and a flame of natural gas emerging from the same rock, a
sight I had missed last time.
Rest day: After breakfast the first activity is a photo shoot on the hills behind our
lodge. Bruno and Fabien need pictures for articles in the French press, for sponsors
etc. So, off I go with a couple of the fast young boys – very ego-enhancing such an
invitation – and we all enjoy it, because the views are just stupendous. Marjan goes
along as the photographer of the photographers and we spend a good hour before
returning to the lodge for a medical check and trying on the crampons. The advice is
to go for an acclimatization walk – anywhere to 4000-4500 m – but Marjan and I
decide that we’ve had our walk already and head for Bob Marley’s instead to feed. In
the afternoon we go to a large field full of ammonites (fossils) just beyond Chhongar,
the village just after and below Muktinath, taking Benoit along. On the way back I’m
eager to find out where exactly in 2000 I had crossed the Jhong on my day trip into
Mustang (technically only accessible with a very expensive special permit) and we
venture into the fields outside Chhongar. We come across a large herd of mountain
goats. The landscape is dotted with enormous walls indicating community
boundaries. It does remind us of the geologically very similar Nar-Phu region that we
also visited in 2000. The visit to Chhongar itself is another highlight, half deserted,
but what magic architecture! Some of the buildings seem to walk straight of the
pages of Robert Powell’s drawings of Mustang: The ochres, yellows, mud-plastered chortens, the woodwork and dark passageways. On the way back, once
more hippie fare, a quick visit to the new gomba, beautifully painted, and back for an
early night, because tomorrow’s start is going to be early. Marjan has decided to stay
at this side of the pass. She loves this arid, eroded landscape with its Tibetan
villages off the main trail. Jean-Michel will climb to the pass but return to Muktinath
and the two of them will do some unhurried exploration and wait for us in Jomosom.
Fifth stage of the AMT
A four o’ clock in the morning start for a ‘stage de liaison’, not timed: all get five
hours added to their time from the top of the Thorung pass to Manang, irrespective
of the real time it takes them to reach the top. The hour of day shows itself in the
irritation visible around the breakfast table when tea arrives fifteen minutes later than
announced during yesterday’s briefing. Shake a very undemanding and accepting
crowd out of the comforts of their beds too early and they turn into a complaining
bunch of spoiled tourists. Anyway, ‘not timed’ makes the most sensible strategy for
the ascent very evident: take it easy, don’t waste unnecessary energy, the race only
starts afterwards. My spineless nature wrecks havoc: As usual I attach myself to the
fastest walker/runner I can keep up with, which turns out to be Pascal Beaury. I start
off with my headlamp but soon follow his advice to switch it off. It’s full moon, light
enough. The field around us gradually thins out and when we reach the pass (5416
m) after 3:30 hours, only this stage’s numbers one and two, Sonam Sherpa and
Deepak Rai, are (just) before us. I am tired and breathless but without nasty
symptoms like nausea, headache, or disorientation. Afterwards I learn that 10 to 12
of the group suffered above 5000, and Fabien had serious trouble, again confirming
that altitude experience is no guarantee whatsoever. Later, in Manang, Bruno is
visibly worried when waiting for the last arrivals, and only relaxes when all are in
sight. Obviously, the back of the pack is never without BCT support, but the race
director’s responsibility weighs heavily on him. Pascal and I only spend a couple of
minutes with the BCT staffs on the top and then start descending, through snow.
The difference between us now shows itself, he flies off and is out of sight in no
time. I am very aware of my tiredness and the associated risk of falling. That
awareness is certainly realistic: one of the young stars of the group, Sylvain Bazin,
does fall off the trail, all without serious consequences beyond a bruised body and a
shocked mind, but that’s sheer luck. It takes me an hour to reach Thorung Phedi,
where I drink a coke before setting off again. I slow down considerably, feeling totally
drained. Luckily Marjan had given me some spicy dried lapsi of which I devour half a
package (haven’t trained eating while on the move so I can only chew and swallow
at very slow pace…) and that helps a bit. But during the 2:20 it takes me from
Thorung Phedi until Manang (3540 m) I am passed by three runners who reached
the top after me, and of those arriving later than me in Manang a fair number end up
before me in the day’s results list because they need less than my 3:20 from the
pass. The view into the Manang valley is awesome. Many of the trekkers ascending
towards the pass from Manang seem to have heard about us, we’re known as ‘the
marathon’, and all let us pass, many waiting to clap and cheer. The way into Manang
is longer than expected. Once in the valley I first need to run through Tengi, before
reaching old Manang, and find my way through all of its narrow lanes to the lodge
part of town where the finish is exactly opposite the lodge where we stayed during
our 2000 monsoon trek. For me, today’s 35 km were hard (+2160 m / -2280 m).
Changes in Manang are minor: bigger lodges, bakeries/pie shops, that’s basically it,
and a jeep road, but without motorized traffic yet (the bridges still need to be put in).
It needs to be seen what the road will do. But as it is now, the incursion of modern
life does not ‘ruin’ my experience of the place. It’s actually the third time I’m here,
have seen it in the winter of 1981, three years after the Marsyangdi valley was
opened up to foreign trekkers in 1978. Yes, it was different then, lodging with local
families, most people wearing traditional clothing, nothing much beyond dalbhat, the
prototypical Nepali meal: rice, lentil soup and some vegetables (potatoes and/or
spinach) for food, not many trekkers. I had expected my monkey brain to play the
comparison game. It doesn’t. I’m grateful for that because it is a futile and
emotionally draining game. Don’t know whom or what to be grateful to, but I am. In
2000, monsoon clouds hid the splendor of the peaks surrounding the valley most of
the time. Now they’re out and tower over me. The wind is fierce. Knew that would be
the case in the Kali Gandaki, but had not expected it here. I spend the afternoon
strolling through the tourist part of town, eating, writing and chatting. On my own
now, the contact with other group members intensifies. I very much enjoy that, but it
does feel like a crash course in French and my grey matter is really tired at the end
of the day.
Chi-running the Himalaya
When preparing for the AMT I had discovered chi-running and hoped that this
running technique would help me in the mountains as much as it already did on the
flats of Cambodia (see my FAQ). Marjan and I where fortunate enough to get some
expert instruction during a one-day workshop by Marion Meesters when we were on
home leave in January. Now did it help? ‘Nepali flat’ is not the easiest terrain for
applying chi-running principles, but I’m convinced that it is a major reason why I got
through the AMT without injuries, well, got through it at all! I cannot claim to have run
most of it in chi-form. But focusing my attention on correct posture (aligned and
leaning forward), on relaxing my leg muscles and ankles, on engaging core muscles,
when the going got rough was an instant ticket to some relief and new resources. My
hill technique certainly needs improvement but whatever I could apply did save
energy (and thus my ass). I’m lucky in that my natural style – or the style that I had
adopted over the years – didn’t need radical change and some basics of chi-running
thus immediately felt OK. I know that less fortunate others are going to have more
difficulty adopting the chi-running technique. However that may be, it does work: I
get a lot more efficiency for the same perceived level of effort and I am a lot less
Sixth stage of the AMT
The day of the ‘Manang marathon’ (every GPS gives different figures; we agree on
35 km). It’s a out and back run: to Upper Pisang (first checkpoint; 3240 m) on the
valley road, passing the airstrip at Hongde (3420 m), then back on the high trail via
Gyaru (3670 m) and Ngawal (2nd checkpoint; 3620 m). A run with an empty
backpack, the emergency food rations, my medical kit, survival blanket, whistle and
water bottles (empty, I decide to do it on coke alone), also, a ‘late’ start, thus
sleeping in, and an unhurried breakfast. We have three local runners joining in. The
pack goes off like usual and within a kilometer I’m toast. An advantage (?) of stage
runs is that one’s personality quirks manifest themselves in undeniable explicitness.
One of mine is that the adrenaline rush at the start does away with any sensible race
plan I might have made before hand. I know this weakness but being affected by it
only once every so often (how many races does an amateur like me run in a year…)
the pattern remains alive and kicking; whatever I resolve to do ‘next time’ is long
gone when ‘next time’ is now. This time, ‘next time’ is ‘next day’ and even my
decaying grey matter starts adjusting. Not that I can avoid the fast start, but I start
looking for a feasible rhythm much earlier and start having some confidence that all
will be fine even if I loose sight of others. But I am tired today and the thought
emerges that I’m nearing the end of my reserves. One of the routines I developed
over the last couple of days has been a semi liquid dump in the morning, which feels
like emptying my body of most of yesterday’s intake. I eat like a pig but not much of
it seems to be absorbed. The ultramarathon that I have planned for next month
seems like a very unattractive prospect now…Today’s course if typical Nepali flat,
Cedric’s GPS gives +/- 1550 meters, with the steep climb from Pisang to Gyaru
being the killer that many have trouble with. No weight on my back, the spectacular
view and some fast runners not disappearing out of view keep me going and despite
the tiredness I am back in a respectable 4:13. This is one of the two stages that Sonam doesn’t win (he comes in second at both). ERLINK\l”Bruno”Bruno arrives
after me and is extremely tired. I’m sure it’s the stress of feeling responsible for the
well-being of so many people. The rest of the day is spent eating, writing and talking
French and Nepali. I can manage in either but it takes a lot of concentration, I’m
always the only non-native speaker in a crowd and when addressed directly it’s
usually OK but when trying to follow conversations amongst themselves, well….I
start having a ‘Khumbu’ cough, nothing serious, nothing bothersome, but another
indication that my reserves are emptying.
Seventh stage of the AMT
The itinerary for the 7th and 8th stage would originally have been terra incognita for
me: to Tilicho Basecamp, Tilicho lake and via the seldomly crossed Mandala pass
directly to Jomosom. First doubts about the feasibility of this route had already
arisen when we were in the Kali Gandaki valley and wondered what the rains at our
altitude would mean for the snow levels up there. The Thorung pass has large
trekking groups crossing it daily, which means that even with a lot of snow there is
always someone to break trail. The envisioned itinerary had been part of the route of
the 2007 AMT. At that time a trekking group of BCT had broken trail for them. And
the runners had already crossed two difficult 5000 passes, and lost those (couple of)
participants who had trouble with that altitude. When a bunch of us had trouble with
the Thorung pass, Bruno had become very worried and tense. There was no group
crossing before us to break trail, and this other pass required staying above 5000
meters for at least 3 to 4 hours. Thorung is different, basically a jump across and
down again, ensuring that trouble is as short-lived as the time it takes to descend a
couple of hundred meters. I am in two minds about wanting to explore new and
more difficult terrain. How difficult it could be had been made very clear to me by my
friend Kit Spencer, manager of Summit Hotel and Trekking, an accomplished
mountaineer (I got to know him first as a member of an Everest expedition via the
West ridge – the normal route is a walk up compared to that), who told me that his
day from Tilicho lake across the Mandala pass to Jomosom, in bad weather, had
been his worst trekking day ever….Crossing Thorung pass hadn’t exactly been a
walk in the park for me. The Mandala pass is estimated to take 50-75% more time, it
would be hours in (deep?) snow, I am very unsure that this is within my capabilities.
When Bruno decides not to take the risk, a small and irresponsibly macho part of
me is disappointed, but the dominant rest is actually relieved. It takes a couple of
waves of disappointment to ripple through the group before Bruno’s natural authority
prevails and the inevitability of this decision is accepted. So we return on our steps,
and stage seven is a short but intense climb to Thorung Phedi high camp (4700 m). I
am a bit worried about sleeping at that altitude without any intermediary night stops,
but compared to crossing the Mandala pass that is a minor concern. Climbing to the
Thorung pass from the Muktinath side had been trouble free for me, and the only
time I had been among the top five a couple of hours into any day’s stage, but this
climb is a struggle from beginning to end. Especially the last 200 meters, a steep
climb from Phedi to High Camp are utterly exhausting and I arrive looking as I feel:
drained and grey. I take 3:35 hours for the 18 km of this stage and many others do
not fare much better so my position in the results list remains the same. The +1599
meters / -336 meters stats of today in no way reflect how hard it was. However, my
memories are less determined by this than by my amazement about the
environment of High Camp. I had passed this place twice before, in 2000 and just
two days earlier, but I had absolutely not registered. After my normal recovery
routines I climb a viewpoint next to the lodge, together with my closest competitor
Robin Meyer, and am absolutely overwhelmed. One thing exhaustion does is knock
down one’s defenses. Bless those who do not need to be exhausted for their
defenses to come down, it is a laborious and roundabout route, but it is a route, and
the world is a wondrous place when the doors of perception are cleaned of their
normal clutter. Tears trickle down my cheeks and I am not embarrassed, just a bit
worried Robin is. Something that went into this surge of emotion was certainly the
encounter in the lodge with a young American family from Colorado and their two
little girls of 1.5 and 4 years, happily playing and enjoying themselves. The reaction
of most of my companions is covert skepticism but I had been here myself with a 5
year old (and her older siblings), and had carried a one year old across another high
pass (even longer ago) and their presence make me mourn the passage of time, the
absence of my mate, but also the joy of having been with my loved ones right here.
A strange and indefinable mix of emotions, apparently bottled up. Who am I to
question its release?
Eighth stage of the AMT
The night was not cold. I wake with a slight headache, not feeling great. My bowels
empty themselves again, and the bowl of breakfast porridge feels like a pretty shaky
foundation for what I expect is going to be a long hard day. My mind, clouded by my
empty physical reserves, just cannot believe Bruno’s estimate for the time the
winner is going to take, but obviously he’s pretty close (between 3:30 – 4 hours). We
leave early, hoping to beat the normal trekkers to the narrow trail that makes for
difficult passing. We ourselves also stage our departure into three groups, split up
according to the overall results list, to avoid the fast ones from being held up. Our
strategy does not work, lots of trekkers are already on the trail, but the envisioned
problems do not occur because all immediately give passage, often breathlessly
cheering us along, also breathless, just a bit faster. It takes me an hour to reach the
pass, a very strenuous hour, again emotional because of resurfacing memories of
my son, nearly nine at the time, suffering from the altitude during our 2000
crossing. When I top I know I’m done and I need to be very careful on my way
down. The stats of today’s 33.6 km stage are +868 meters / -2895 meters, and such
a descent on legs of jelly is risky, very risky. I do stumble quite a few times but am
lucky and stay upright, somehow… After an hour of descent I shed my warm cloths
and continue in the gear that I have run most of the AMT in (my yellow shorts and a
t-shirt). Half an hour later I am back in Muktinath and stop for a coke. From
Muktinath, the descent is very gradual, on the jeep road. Finally, the inevitable fall
occurs, on a completely flat and easy stretch. The damage is limited, some wounds
on my hands, a bleeding knee, an egg-like bump on my head (protected by my cap).
Robin, who is a hundred meters ahead of me, returns and helps me back onto my
feet, very welcome assistance because for a moment I just do not know how to get
up and feel quite helpless. But as soon as I am standing, I feel OK and I send him
on his way again, not wanting him to be held up. The fall releases a jolt of adrenaline
and that seems just what I need. In hindsight it feels like I could only finish the last
two hours of this stage because of it. The last hour, after the steeper and very
beautiful descent to Eklobhatti, passing the entry of the Lupra valley, is through the
flat and hot riverbed/jeep road through the Kali Gandaki. I keep jogging with my
heavy backpack, never loosing sight of Robin (yes, he is not going to pass me in the
overall ranking….I am very aware of the silliness of such a thought in the bigger
scheme of things, and of the motivational force it has on my toddler brain). The heat,
the endlessness of the trail, it reminds me of the weekend runs in Cambodia. That
helps, because, however tired I am, I know that I’ll eventually get back to the
‘Japanese bridge’ by putting one foot in front of the other. My tropical training may
not have been the ideal preparation but for stretches like this it certainly pays off. I
know Marjan is waiting out there, which turns out to be a couple of hundred meters
before the finish, a couple of hundred meters that we run together. When reaching
the finish I’m initially a bit numb, just happy to have it over with, but when, after the
usual four, five glasses of lemonade, Marjan shows me our room – in a lodge that is
more a real hotel – the tears that I expected do come, and the relief, the tiredness,
the cleansing feels very good. The afternoon is spent getting a shave, eating momos
(a dumpling-like Tibetan delicacy), getting a police statement for our insurance
(Marjan lost her I-pod somewhere between Kagbeni and Jomosom), more food and
drink, and taking in the stupendous panorama across the valley from our hotel.
The winner: Sonam Gal Sherpa
Sonam definitely establishes himself as a force that mountain runners worldwide
should reckon with – if he would have the means to challenge them. As the younger
brother of Dawa Dachhiri Sherpathat was always a possibility, but its realization is
more than impressive. He is 2.5 hours faster than numbers two and three of the
results list, Nepali Bhimsen Awale and race director Bruno Poirier. And some of his
times of individual stages are otherworldly. In 2005, the AMT followed a similar
itinerary and the first stage was more or less the same as this year’s but a bit easier
because it avoided the climb to upper Chhomrong. That Sonam beat the time of the
2005 winner of this easier version, the Swiss Christophe Jacquerod, the only non-Nepali winner of the AMT ever and considered Europe’s premier trail runner, speaks
to his incredible talent.
Next morning we fly to Pokhara, for a day at lakeside, eating copious quantities of
food and loafing about, and a night in what feels like a very luxurious hotel. A small
number of die-hards go out late afternoon for a two hour ‘recovery’ run, aiming for
the stupa at the top of the hill lining the other shore of the lake. On Sunday, a
morning flight to Kathmandu, saying goodbye to friends, meeting Cas, a bit of
shopping and an evening ceremony-cum-dinner at the hotel. Wow, what a trip!
More info on the AMT 2008
Information on the running experience of all 2008 participants is available on here.