In November 2016 three cyclists from a small town in Australia set out to race the highest mountain bike race on earth; The Yak Attack in the Nepal Himalaya. Tania Tryhorn, Matt Rousu, and Leighann Gnyla are residents of Mount Beauty, a town in the mountains of Victoria’s North East, Australia.
The Yak Attack. What the hell… 10 days, 350km, 15000m of climbing, a high point of 5416m AND 17 mountain passes over 3600m! It’s by no means the longest of distances, but the altitude and steep terrain is the real challenge. 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the race so the organisers created a brand new route up into the Kingdom of Upper Mustang. As soon as I saw this route I was hooked, we only cover four days of the same terrain from last year with six days of new terrain which made it familiar but excitingly unknown.
Upper Mustang is truly unique, it was a restricted demilitarised area until 1992 which makes it one of the most preserved regions in the world, most of the population still speak traditional Tibetan languages and the Tibetan culture has been preserved by the relative isolation of the region from the outside world. Mustang is in the rain shadow of the gigantic Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountain ranges so is dry, barren and stark. It's a rare high alpine desert.November 3rd.
All of the athletes had arrived in Kathmandu ready to tackle the race, it was great fun catching up with old friends who had returned to race this special edition. The big international contenders this year were riders like Cory Wallace Yuki Ikeda, Peter Butt, Thinus Redelinghuys, Wendy Lyall, Mireille Montminy and Tito Tomasi. The Nepali crew all arrived together which made it easy to catch up with Ajay Pandit Chhetri, Laxmi Magar, Roan Tamang, Aayman Tamang, Narayan Gopal Marhajan, and RajKumar Shrestha. The male race has never been won by an international rider, the Nepali boys usually dominate the higher altitude stages but with the new route it felt like anything was possible.
Kathmandu itself is one crazy place to travel, no guide book can really prepare you for the sensory overload experienced the first time you travel through the city (usually in a tiny Suzuki taxi). Dust, millions of people all dressed brightly, cows, public bathing in the gutters and traffic like you've never seen or heard... Riding through these streets is about as dangerous (and fun) as it gets.Riding the Streets of Kathmandu.Testing bike carrying techniques.Last minute packing.November 4
The race traditionally starts in the hills surrounding Kathmandu, however, this year the race began in the small mountain village of Besi Shahar which is generally considered the start point of the Annapurna Circuit. So we packed our bikes onto a bus and enjoyed a long windy drive up into the mountains, it was nice to see the countryside but I think cycling it might have been just as fast, haha... After arriving, everyone settled in and conducted last minute checks on bicycles, enjoyed the sunset and mingled around the dining hall.November 5
Stage 1: Besi Sahar Time trial. 30km. 1300m Ascent.
Ajay Pandit Chhetri had created the stage one loop before the monsoon early this year, however, a large portion of the descent had been affected by a large landslide so the trail had to be changed at the last minute to include a 2km hike a bike through the jungle. The stage itself was a really good introduction to climbing in Nepal, steep, rough and long. The 16km climb is regarded as a Hors Classification (the toughest level) and it began right out of the start gate, it would be one of the longest climbs of the entire race. Leighann and I rode together up the climb and we reached the summit in a little over two hours. The view at the top was spectacular and made up for the shock to the system.
As we began our descent my freehub body seized, basically, I couldn't ride without pedalling which became a nightmare on the steep descent. I decided to break my chain and ride the last 15km without being able to pedal. Most of the descent was fine but as we reached the lower slopes we came across many rice farms that we had to zig zag through, I swear it was the flattest part of Nepal. I had to get off the bike and walk/run alongside it for many kilometres, I don't really enjoy running so it was pretty frustrating, the terrain and view were spectacular and it would have been really fun (and fast) to ride.
In summary, it was a fairly average start to the race but we were happy to be able to ride together in the Himalayas and excited about the days to come. Ours wasn't the worst day, Aayman Tamang was struck by a motorcycle and broke three ribs only 100m from finishing the stage, his race was over. I felt really bad for him as he had been training and racing alongside Ajay in Europe during the Summer and I'm sure he would have been on the podium this year. Tan also suffered badly on this stage, she had picked up a terrible stomach bug and was very ill during the race. She was far from her best but is a true Yak Attack warrior and decided to continue onto stage two.The Start Line.On top of the world.Jungle Waterfall.Check out the spider web.Hike a bike.Epic views of the Langtang Himalaya.Nov 6
Stage 2: Besi Sahar to Chame. 66KM, 2900m Ascent.
This is the toughest stage of the race. It's one giant climb from beginning to end, it's steep, rough and terrible to ride. In previous editions this stage has taken out more riders than all the other stages combined, riders like Cory Wallace and Yuki Ikeda have failed on this terrain. I also suffered badly from a stomach bug last year on this stage and failed to complete it, so I was back for redemption. Leighann and I began well, riding with the tail end of the field and pushing through the first 25km in about three hours. That's where the climbing really picks up and it becomes a lot rougher. Since last year there have been upgrades to the road which included long stretches of sharp rock cobblestones, it was terrible to ride on the flatter sections and almost impossible on the steeper pinches. We began to slow down but were adamant to keep pushing through the day. Race organiser, Phil Evans was riding with us and kept telling us we had plenty of time which was encouraging. The climb winds it way up through a beautiful gorge-like valley, the mountain walls go straight up on either side and the sky above becomes smaller and smaller as you travel up the valley. It's actually quite amazing that a road exists there at all with sheer drops on one side and heavy waterfalls on the other!
As we crossed over the 40km mark we'd been riding for over six hours, we'd slowed a fair bit and Phil had decided to end his day, he was suffering cramps and wished us good luck as he climbed into the jeep. We were riding on our own with the jeep behind us and we continued to push forward, only another 25km to go! The next 15km took us almost four hours and it had started to get dark, we'd been out on the limit, pushing ourselves for nearly 10 hours. The mind has to keep you going in these situations, if that fails then the body will fail too. We kept pushing. The sunset was absolutely stunning, a lone peak down the valley was lit up a deep dark red, I stopped for a quick photograph halfway up the last climb, it was one of the best sunsets I've witnessed and I was truly happy to be out there with Leighann pushing our bikes into the oncoming darkness. Our headlamps came out soon after and we kept pushing into the night. When we reached the water station at the 56km mark Phil asked what our intentions were; I was keen to keep riding as we had made it to the high point of the stage and only a short 9km undulating section remained until the finish in Chame. He told us that it wasn't really safe to continue riding in the dark and after about 5 seconds of looking down the trail into the gloom I wholeheartedly agreed, it was way too dark to keep riding. Our race was over.
It was upsetting but I was happy. It had been an epic day and I was super proud of Leighann for pushing through the crazy mental barriers that this stage throws at you. We would continue riding along with the other racers but we wouldn't be timed for the remaining stages, in a sense the pressure of competing had been lifted and we were free to enjoy riding each day for the amazing scenery. Meanwhile, Tan had continued to suffer from a stomach bug, it had drained all of her energy and she was unable to eat, she also reached the 56km point and retired from the race. She decided to travel back to Kathmandu to recover, we were sad to see her leave but it was probably the wisest choice...An easy section of the long 50km climb.Climbing towards the Sunset.November 7
Stage 3: Chame to Manang (3500m). 30km, 1250m ascent.
This leg of the race is one of the more beautiful days on a bike, it begins by following the river upstream before one long climb of about 5km up through a pine forest and a short punchy climb up to about 3500m. There is a nice descent and then we enter into a beautiful wide valley with the gigantic Gangapurna (7455m) looms high above Manang. Riding today with Leighann was just brilliant fun, it's a ride that will be remembered for a long time. Arriving in Manang knowing that we have a rest day to acclimatise is also one of the highlights of the race as the area around Manang is beautiful and great to explore.Sweet valley riding today.The descent into Manang.Nov 8
Leighann and I spent the day relaxing and eating, I rode around the old city to explore. in 2015 we hiked up across the valley to acclimatise but this year we had done our acclimatisation hike up in the Everest region a few days before the race. We slept well and were feeling fine.Chilling out by the river.Riding the streets of Manang with the Epic Gangapurna looming.Nov 9
Stage 4: Manang to Throrong Phedi (4450m). 16km, 1240m Ascent
The trail from Manang to Thorong Phedi is the best trail on the Annapurna Circuit, it's completely singletrack and has a lot of exposure. We rode above the treeline shortly after leaving Manang and would enjoy stunning views of the Annapurna range all day. It's amazing to ride at that altitude and can be mentally challenging, short climbs that would be easy to navigate at sea level become lung-busting and it's easy to assume you're having a bad day as your legs hurt more than usual. But in reality, the amount of oxygen at that height is about two-thirds of what we normally breathe making even an everyday task like walking feel more difficult. So riding technical terrain at that altitude becomes much more challenging. It's what separates this race from almost every other race on earth and attracts athletes from countries far and wide.
Leighann and I rode consistently and enjoyed the stunning mountain views. I loved riding the sketchy landslide sections, it was fairly dangerous and adds a real excitement to the stage. The trail up to Phedi is just brilliant. We took about three hours to ride the stage and enjoyed lunch at the nice hotel up there at 4450m above sea level.Climbing up above 4500m.Crazy landslide riding.Stunning singletrack up to Thorong Phedi.Nov 10
Stage 5: Thorong Phedi to Muktinath via Thorong La (5416m), 11km, 1036m ascent.
The dreaded pass day. It's the day every rider fears! We woke up at 2:45am to organise a 4:00am start to today's stage. It's necessary to begin so early to try and avoid the katabatic winds that come tearing up the other side of the pass. Just waking up that early to race is a struggle, eating a bowl of porridge at 3:00am becomes the biggest task before setting out, I managed half a bowl, Leighann only a few spoonfuls she would vomit back up only moments before the start, it was the beginning of a rough day for her.
Our headlamps set on bright and the bikes strapped to our backs to hike the 5km to the top at 5416m above sea level, we set off bang on 4:00am and it was pitch black. We kept everyone in sight for the incredibly steep first kilometre, it was a pretty big shock to the system but we kept trudging along in the dark. Just as the first signs of light started to appear in the sky, Leighann began to feel ill. She was very nauseous, had a headache and began to feel quite dizzy, these are signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, the best remedy being to descend to a lower altitude so the body can easily utilise a higher density of oxygen. We were still on the way up the mountain. At about the halfway point Leighann asked Phil (who was walking with us) if there was anyone to take her bike to the top of the pass. Luckily there was a guide who was willing to help and Leighann could move faster. We made good time from there on as the terrain is less steep and the sun had finally come up. We caught up with Singaporean athlete Ching Soo, he was a great addition to the race as he was constantly happy and positive, just being around him would make you feel better. He was taking his bike off his backpack to push it up the rest of the climb and we enjoyed having another rider to walk the final kilometre to the top with.
We reached the top of the pass on a sensational morning after about four hours, there was absolutely no wind and no snow. A truly perfect day to cross over the high pass of the Annapurna Circuit. We could now descend to a more oxygen-rich environment, and what a fantastic descent it was. Pure mountain bike singletrack bliss. The first 3 kilometres was all easily rideable and very flowy so we made great time. Leighann's headache became worse but the dizziness had subsided a bit, having not eaten anything all morning we had a quick snack for breakfast before riding down to the jeep trail. It's basically the rockiest and most bumpy road you can imagine, we chose to ride it though as it was a bit faster than walking down the steep walking trail.
After an epic day, we rode into Muktinath at about 12:30, perfect timing for lunch! Leighann spent the rest of the day in bed trying to rest and recover, she couldn't eat much and Keith Green (the race doctor and racer) gave her a batch of tablets to help fight the altitude sickness symptoms. Hiking up (photo from 2015).The sun starting to rise.Atop the Pass at 5416m.The amazing descent down to 3500m (photo from 2015).Nov 11
Stage 6: Muktinath to Ghiling. 43km, 2500m ascent.
The great unknown! Today history was made, it would be the first time that anyone would race a bicycle into Upper Mustang and it was absolutely amazing. The only downside of the day was that Leighann would sit out today's stage, she hadn't recovered enough energy and was still suffering Acute Mountain Sickness.
We began today's stage with a brilliant 5km singletrack climb back up to 4080m, the view across to Annapurna (8091m, the 10th highest mountain on earth) and Dhaulagiri (8167m, the 7th highest mountain on earth) was most likely one of the best vantage points to witness these giants. Unfortunately, I left my camera with Leighann so I didn't get a photograph, there is some footage in the video, though. What followed from the top of Gyu La was the best mountain bike descent I have ever done. It was super steep, loose, off-camber, and the soil was out of this world. The closest thing I can relate it to was skiing in powder snow, you would turn and the bike would drift for a moment before sinking into deep, but grippy sand.
The trail descended for about 10km through narrow gorges and would change from black sand to red earth before finally weaving through giant yellow rock pillars. The diversity of the terrain in such a short section of trail was unbelievable and truly sensational. Everyone I spoke to had the same feeling.
But the stage was far from over.
What followed was the longest climb so far, 18km of climbing with three passes. The first was a long steep climb from 2900m up to 3600m, I rode alongside 2015 Yak Attack companions, Tetsuo Shimada and Paul Cooper who were great company throughout the day. Once getting to the top of the 3600m you could then look up at the 3800m pass above you off in the distance and then upon reaching that point you could then look up and see the next pass at 4000m. It was soul destroying to achieve one pass just to look up at the next in the distance but it was also exhilarating to be riding up in Upper Mustang, every valley was completely different than the next, the colours of the sand and rock mountains would seemingly change at random, it's indescribable. Riding down into Ghiling was a great moment, I rode the last 5km with Yak Attack first-timer, Craig Forsyth which was great fun. It took just under five hours to complete the stage. There was a great sense of adventure among all the riders and everyone lingered outside looking out at the countryside where we would spend the next four days exploring.
The 18km climb up from the valley floor.The climb begins.Laxmi at the top of the 2nd pass.Awesome ruins off in the distance.Tito letting the kids ride.Tito and crew, haha.Nov 12
Stage 7: Ghiling to Lo Manthang. 38km, 1600m ascent.
The profile of today's stage looks like a row of shark teeth, up, down, up, down, up, down. It was another brilliant day of riding in Upper Mustang. Leighann had decided to sit out today's stage and follow in the jeep again, after not eating for two days it was a wise choice as we were still riding at altitude and the climbs were long and steep. To ride without any energy stores is just not smart. She was frustrated at not being able to ride as we came all this way to ride together, but her time would come.
The first climb of the day was the steepest and took us back over 4000m, it began straight away and many riders struggled to begin the day with a tough climb. I was feeling strong and found myself midfield towards the top of the first climb. The first descent of the day was by far the bumpiest of the race, my arms were wrecked by the bottom. The 2nd climb was brilliant, a typical switchback climb of about 4km where you can see riders zig-zagging up the entire mountain. I'd look up at a spot and see a rider and think I could catch them, but it would take half an hour to reach that spot, then I'd look down and see riders all over the mountainside. The descent down the other side was brilliant, super smooth and really really fast.
The third and last climb of the day was twice as long as the first two but at a gentler gradient, about halfway up there was this beautiful and massive Stupa, it was literally in the middle of nowhere and was so amazing to see during the stage. I couldn't help but stop and wonder at it.The descent into Lo Manthang was brilliant also, a wide open road where you could ride almost anywhere you wanted, a super fun way to finish the stage. Perfect skies for the start.Looking down to Craig on the switchback climb.Stupa in the middle of nowhere.The summit flags above Lo Manthang. Sunset Moonrise in Lo Manthang.Nov 13
Rest Day around Lo Manthang
The organisers of this year's race had planned a 20km stage that would start and finish in Lo Manthang but they decided to cancel the stage in favour of a rest day.
It was a great idea and everyone thought it was the best choice. After a healthy sleep in, Leighann and I decided to join a group ride out to Choser (the last town before entering China) and the famous caves out there. It was fantastic to ride alongside the other riders at a leisurely pace, Tito and I actually found a crazy hip jump that Cam Zink hit in the film 'Where The Trail Ends,' we were super excited and began looking for other features and lines. We explored exposed ridge lines and rode up barren valleys, I felt like I could ride anywhere up there, the only limit being imagination. It was brilliant. We explored the caves of Choser which were very impressive and very old, over 1000 years!!! We also visited the local monastery which has been built into a giant wall. On the return ride Leighann was feeling ill again and vomited once more, she was still very weak but finally could stomach food, she was back on the bike but not ready to tackle the queen stage of the race the following day.
Tito on Cam Zinks Hip Jump.Gods and Bikes.Another epic ruin in Mustang.Riding out to the caves.Riding to China.Some of the caves.The main Cave complex.Leighann wanders the caves.Glenn cruising the desert.Glenn bombing down a gorge.The monastery in the wall.Laxmi and Leighann, the mountain in the centre of the frame is the Tibet/Nepal border.Nov 14
Stage 9: Lo Manthang to Chele, 54km. 2825m ascent.
Quite possibly, today's stage was the toughest of the race. Although 10km shorter than stage two, every part of today was up over 3400m. We crossed six passes! The first at 4250m and the second at 4150m. Two over 3900m and the final two at 3800m! It was an epic day. The first 20km was on singletrack, we climbed straight away up a remote valley strewn with boulders with barren mountains all around, it took me a while to get going but by the top of the first pass I was feeling good. The singletrack between the first two passes was brilliant, very flowy yet exposed and you could see forever. I was riding alongside Paul, Tetsuo, Soo, Rachel and Julia. The descent down the 2nd pass was another one of those fantastic trails, although not as bike friendly as the trail on Stage six. The terrain was simply stunning, we rode through huge rock formations on loose black sand, the trail was littered with rocks and was quite steep which made for a technical descent where looking ahead was critical.
Upon reaching the bottom we were greeted with a massive open boulder field where there was no discernible trail, many people just continued riding the fall line thinking to bump into a trail sooner or later. I followed Tetsuo and Paul down the boulder field before Paul noticed people riding above us on a road, so we traversed across and descended a super steep cliff face to join them on the road, we only lost about 20 minutes, some other riders were not as lucky...
After finding our way back onto the road the stage turned into a great battle of climb after climb. We almost covered the same amount of ground as stages 6 and 7 combined. What made it worse as the day wore on was the really strong headwind, but we persevered and pass after pass we fought on. I rode with Paul and Tetsuo for most of the day with Craig not too far behind me, it took me seven hours to complete the stage. It was an epic day but it was also sad to leave the upper reaches of Mustang behind. I felt like every pedal stroke was taking me further from a mystical and wonderful region of the world which I fell for instantly. After the long last descent into Chele I could feel the sense of wonder and achievement amongst my friends. We had truly experienced something special.Views for days.One of the pass summits.Tetsuo leading the way down the cliffside.Paul and Craig on one of the climbs.The same ruins we saw on Stage 6 from a different trail.Near the finish of Stage 9.Nov15
Stage 10: Chele to Jomsom, 30km, 1280m ascent.
Leighann and I began the race together and we would finish it together. She had recovered enough strength to ride the last stage and it was a joy to share the trail with her again. We actually missed the start of the stage as we still had our down jackets to put in the sweep vehicle at the start, but there was no jeep. Luckily a cameraman was filming and we left our jackets with him after watching the entire field ride off, haha. It was another beautiful day in Nepal and another new section of trail was found by Ajay for us to enjoy. We had stunning views of Dhaulagiri all day and one last fantastic singletrack descent out of Kagbeni before a brutal slog into the headwind through the Kali Gandhi riverbed.
The finish in Jomsom was good and the sense of achievement was real. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon with old and new friends who now have all ridden alongside each other in this wonderful country Nepal. The epic Kali Gandi valley.The last singletrack descent of the race.Leighann rides in the shadow of the epic Dhaulagiri (the world's 7th tallest mountain).The finish line at Jomsom.
I was lucky enough receive an official finisher's certificate thanks to the organisers of the race for recognising my effort to continue racing all of the stages of the race. I was really there to ride alongside my Fiancé Leighann, I believe that if we can ride such an epic mtb race (regarded as one of the toughest of 2016) together, then we can achieve anything together. I am one lucky guy!
Overall winners of the race were:Men:
1st Cory Wallace
2nd Thinus Redelinghuys
3rd Peter ButtWomen:
1st Wendy Lyall
2nd Mireille Montminy
3rd Sabrina Filzmoser
The epic terrain and amazing culture will always keep me coming back to Nepal and the Himalayas, there's so much left to explore and many amazing people to meet and ride alongside with. I can't wait to come back and discover more trails that will make it onto my all time favourites list, until then, happy riding and thanks for reading!
Be sure to check out the http://theyakattack.com
website for more info on the race. If you do travel to Nepal I recommend checking out www.himalayansingletrack.com
, they have the best riding knowledge of the whole country.