Manaslu Trail Race 2015 – words and images by Mark Brightwell
The race starts in gloomy greyness at Soti Khola, 700m above sea level and flanked by the roaring waters of the Bhudi Gandaki. We will follow this river to its source at the snout of a glacier below the towering twin summits of Manaslu but not directly. That would be too easy. Instead we climb away from the river, through the inversion and into glorious sunshine, our spirits rising in conjunction with our altimeter readings.
Having climbed a vertical kilometer our path starts to traverse, taking us first through Lapu and then along to Lapsibot where a flattened heap of rubble bears testament to where the school once stood. The epicenter of the 25 April earthquake was just a few kilometers from here; the race wraps around it like a horseshoe.
A multi-day mountain race that not only covers 185km and ascends nearly 15 vertically but that also circumnavigates the epicenter of a recent earthquake? Clearly this is no ordinary race.
After sweeping down an airy ridgeline the sandy trail descends through pine forest all the way back to the banks of the Budhi Gandaki. The final kilometers to Korlabeshi are flat, rocky and hot but salvation is at hand: cups of hot lemon at the Finish Line and better yet, the cold refreshing pools of the river in which to bathe.
On Stage Two we learn the meaning of ‘Nepali flat’: whilst the trail follows the course of the river, as it does so, it rises and falls so much that by the end of a 30km day the total ascent is still comfortably running to four figures. We reach Pewa and are accommodated there in a new wooden lodge. The sound of the river once more ushers us gently towards our dreams.
Each day is a transition. Today we leave jungled hillsides behind and criss- crossing the mighty river, climb steadily into an alpine wonderland. In Namrung we pass women working in the fields, taking out potatoes from the earth where they have been stored. Further up, on an exposed crest at Lihi a lady in the fine colourful Tibetan dress is using the wind to sift wheat from chaff.
At a fork we bear left and climb away from the main trail towards Hinang Gomba, a Buddhist monastery where we receive a warm welcome and have our first taste of thukpa, a Tibetan soup, thick with freshly made noodle and vegetables and highly restorative. At the head of the valley towers Himal Chuli, a southern satellite of the as yet unseen Manaslu.
For the first time we start the day with a descent.
The speed is a shock and my eyes stream with tears as they’re blasted with cold morning air. I catch a trailing foot on the rocky ground and sprawl forwards, sliding on all fours across the dirt before picking myself, no harm done, and continuing my downward trajectory.
Back in the main valley we reach Lho where the distinctive M-shaped peaks of Manaslu dominate the skyline. Again deviating up a side valley, we climb straight for them and arrive in spite of the best efforts of gravity at a barely conceivable plateau, flanked on three sides by mountains and at the very furthest recess of which lies our Check Point.
This particular Check Point allows a ‘Check In, Check Out’ system whereby the race clock stops as you arrive and only re-starts when you depart. A stroke of compassionate genius by the race organisers, this means that the splendour of the setting can be enjoyed at leisure and the body can start to acclimatise and recover before hurtling back down to the main valley.
From our new base the format changes slightly and we have the luxury of two nights in one place! The day’s racing, an out and back from Samagaon to Manaslu Base Camp, is quite possibly the world’s highest vertical kilometer race. It’s a battle to ascend at speed from 3550m to 4750m and the ‘Check In, Check Out’ is again a welcome opportunity to rest, acclimatise and appreciate the incredible surroundings.
At Samagaon, as part of its mission to encourage and develop trail running, race organisers, Trail Running Nepal, link up with the local school to hold a one kilometer race. Apparently oblivious to the effects of altitude that have been steadily slowing us down, the children tear through the village, pass beneath the recently re-built chorten and take the Finish Line. Their sunlit faces portray a mixture of excitement and curiosity.
From Samagaon a short day takes us to Samdo, another ethnically Tibetan village. The nearby border has just been opened and caravans of yak pass through on international shopping missions. For some, the temptation of going to the border with Tibet is too great and they follow the yak. For others the temptation of bed is greater and they enjoy a slumbersome rest day.
Having climbed over the course of the week through various ever-sparser biospheres we must now cross the barren post-glacial wastes of the Larkye La, the 5160m pass that stands between us and the resumption of our race and the final descent to Dharapani.
We start out in the dark, a snake of headlights heading into the inky blackness. Long before the sun finds its way above the horizon, the snow- covered flanks of Manaslu are lighting up a magical pre-dawn purple. Ahead of us the inky blackness recedes towards the far horizon.
The long gradual ascent through snow-covered fields of moraine eventually leads to the welcome sight of prayer flags, beyond which the earth drops steeply revealing a new vista; a desolate, harsh landscape of snow and rock.
The steep descent eventually gives way to a gentler gradient. We turn the corner into a misty valley strewn with boulders and flanked by forest. The hardy trees are adorned with hanging mosses that move, ghost-like with the breeze. At the foot of this valley is Bhimtang, our final stopping point.
After the cold concrete of Samdo, the warm wooden huts of Bimtang, not to mention the flowing beer and fresh-made pizza, ensure that our final evening is passed in high spirits and to the sound of laughter.
Whilst sections of ‘Nepali flat’ go some way to slowing our progress, the 22km descent from Bimtang to Dharapani nonetheless flashes by and we are all too soon passing under the Finish banner for the final time.
The race has been many things to many people. For some it was their first taste of Nepal. For many it was their first experience of a multi-day event. For the three young Nepali runners, sponsored by Trail Running Nepal, it’s the first chance not only to race in an international field but also to spend time among foreigners, practice their English and learn something of the world beyond Nepal’s borders. For the communities we’ve passed among we hope it’s reinforced the notion that after the earthquake trauma of six months ago, normal life can resume: tourists are returning and with them, a more positive outlook for their livelihoods.
For me what stands out most is the beauty not only of being able to travel through such spectacular mountains, sometimes running, sometimes, walking, sometimes stopping to take breath, a photograph or a moment’s reflection but to be able to do this in the company of such a wonderful, diverse but above all, friendly and buoyant group of fellow athletes.
NOTE: 1st female, Bishnu Maya Budha from Jumla proved herself at this event and got the chance to race in Hong Kong with financial support from race participants. See the campaign here and her progress on a Facebook event page. Good luck Bishnu.
See more at: http://manaslutrailrace.org/
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