Race Report: Nevarest Jabberwock Team – Expedition India

After our defeat to Skylotec and some Ozzies earlier this year at Expedition Africa, team Nevarest Jabberwock was ready for the top spot on the podium for Expedition India. It was far from an easy target though, with teams like Skylotec and Yo Running, two of Sweden’s top teams, as well as our local competition, Red Ants, all in the line-up.

Stephan and Heidi had a foolproof military precision plan on how to get the teams acclimatized over roughly 5 days and two prologue races, before the start of the main event in the Shyok / Nubra valley, just over the mountain from the Indus valley and the town of Leh. This entailed moving all teams and logistics from Srinagar in the heart of the Kashmir valley, through to Sonamarg and then on to Leh, over a total distance of roughly 450km and one long day of around 15 hours of driving. However, not even Stephan could manage the confusion that only India can add to any plan. It soon became apparent that we had to take this expedition one day at a time and re-negotiate everything on the go.

But I’ll leave that chaos for some other time, I’m not writing a book here. So our first prologue event in Srinagar at roughly 1600m ASL was basically a media stunt. We started at a temple on a hilltop next to the Dal Lake, ran 2km downhill on a small windy forest track to the lakeside, where we hopped into Shikaras (a type of boat that is used by the locals on the lake) and then paddled like possessed westerners in these barges for about 2.5kms to the finish.  We managed to stay with the three other top teams making it onto the water, but that’s when the chaos started. It started with shouts of “Jabberwock!! You’re in the wrong boat!!” from Simon, trying to maintain some sort of order, but it was too late for that. We started with a couple of 360 degree turns on the Shikara, bumping into a lot of innocent Shikara operators who came out to watch the race and even completely wiped out another Shikara flower seller’s stock when we managed to almost beach our boat on his – not one of our finest moments. The way I see it, this is the last time they’ll allow any westerners to touch their Shikaras. Long story short we limped in at around 8th place for this prologue – not quite winning stuff.

We then moved camp to Sonamarg at 2600 ASL. This was an absolutely stunning little place where I felt more like I was in the Alps than in India, except for the mountains being significantly larger and higher than the Alps of course. This was then also the spot for our second prologue where we ran up two valleys ending up at altitudes of 3500m ASL, excellent for acclimatization.  Now unlike the previous prologue, this one was the real deal, a proper 28km run (planned to be only 15km, but we can thank some over-eager checkpoint marshals for the extra distance) with lots of altitude gain. Stephan has however made it clear that the prologue races will only determine your starting sequence of the main race with one-minute intervals, so worst case you could lose 14 minutes on the start of the first team, with 14 teams lining up at the start. This called for serious strategizing. You don’t want to push too hard on this prologue, tiring yourself for the main race, but psychologically you also don’t want to finish too far behind the front guys either. So the plan (at least in my head) was to hang back and just stay in touch with the leaders for this day.

Well, that plan went for a ball of yak dung about 2 minutes into the prologue. The pace was intense and Nevarest Jabberwock, Skylotec, Yo Running and the Red Ants were all pushing hard “not to be in front”.  It turned out that we took the lead up to CP2 with Yo Running hot on our heels, then back down the valley to CP3 where we stayed in the lead trying not to push the pace. CP3 happened to be in a little village area and in the confusion, Janneke followed Yo Running and ended up wading through an angry little river going up to her, well let’s say navel, while we crossed the footbridge about 20m upstream. That was actually very funny, for us anyway. Maybe not so much for Janneke who had some choice words about the water temperature. We then headed to CP4 which included some spectacular bum sliding on Janneke’s part, down the mountainside while being towed downhill by Ruan. Once we crossed the river at the bottom of the valley, the route went skyward once again as we started the mother of all climbs up to CP5. This is roughly where the fun stopped. At this stage, we were together with the two Swedish teams and Red Ants only slightly behind. We were all towing, huffing and puffing and reverting to serious hands on knees slogging up the mountainside. There was No holding back now, it was gloves off and we were all set on breaking each other. Well, Nevarest Jabberwock managed to win this un-official “King of the mountain” section and reached CP5 first in a slight drizzle – just to add to the fun. On the way down to the finish Yo running however decided to get crazy and stormed past us opening a significant gap. We fought back and managed to catch them close to the finish where our 2 teams ended up slightly unsure of the exact position of the finish line – this happens when navigating mountainous terrain by Google map. The Swedes spotted the finish line before us and the final sprint to the finish ensued with us chasing Yo running – up an additional hill we should not have come down in the first place. Even though it was a bit silly considering the bigger scheme of things, we chased into the finish with Janneke and I just pipping two of the Yo runner’s members across the finish line. So Nevarest Jabberwock got 1st place for the 2nd prologue, which did a lot for our mental game if nothing else. I wasn’t too worried about the sore legs because we now had 3 days to rest before the main event.

The next day we set out at 03:00 for the ultimate “road from hell” between Sonamarg and Leh. This road crosses those passes where one wheel hangs over the cliff while you scrape past an army truck coming from the other side. But it is extremely spectacular and was one of the highlights of the whole Expedition. Heidi also threw in a visit to some Aryan (not to be confused with Nazi Aryan) village where we enjoyed a special festival treat and local cuisine. I made the mistake of drinking some local beer which can best be described as Apple cider vinegar enhanced with battery acid. Somewhere during the trip, we also had to wait for about 3 hours while a bulldozer was doing some road maintenance due to a rock slide blocking the actual road. Piers made the most of this little stop and used the opportunity to go for a very short swim in the river full of glacier water – chilling experience, I’m sure. We arrived in Leh (3500m ASL) at around 20:00 and as you can imagine, our sense of humor wasn’t quite the same as when we set out at 03:00 that morning.

The next day was a day of trying to fix bicycle’s after they had been hopping around for 20 hours in the back of a truck over Himalayan passes. Luckily no irreparable damage and after a couple of hours all our bikes were ready to go. We then all bussed up to the top of Khardungla pass at around 5400m ASL for a final “shock your body into producing more red blood cells” acclimatization session. The next day we left Leh (in the Indus valley), once again in Convoy at around 13:00, crossing another 5400m ASL pass on our way to the start of the race in Shyok valley (FYI: Shyok translates as “river of death”). At the top of the pass, teams broke out into an impromptu snowball fight – just another international battle at high altitude for the area, but this one ending in all smiles and good comradery.

We arrived at an impressive tented village, which the guys from Rimo Expeditions had put up for us in a side valley just before you enter the main Shyok valley. This was to be home for the night. Once again another awesome, spectacular and comfortable setting with a small stream running behind the camp. The teams even had an opportunity for a quick 3km paddle in the afternoon on the Shyok River just to get a feel for the rafts before the big event.

Then came Monday morning the start of the REAL race. All teams lined up on the river bank behind their rafts as the official starting positions were called out. 1st Yo running, 2nd Skylotec, 3rd Red Ants, 4th Nevarest Jabberwock, and so on. Clearly, the result of the 1st prologue didn’t do us any favors. We set off at 1-minute intervals, meaning we were 4 minutes and about 400m behind the leaders when we got onto the water. The rafting once again turned out to be the weak spot of Nevarest Jabberwock and although we didn’t lose any positions we definitely ended up losing about 15 minutes on the 3 teams in front of us and even more to Skylotec who had a great paddle, with the 5th team, After Work Athletes from Australia close on our heels. The first section of this ~80km rafting section was quite fun with many easy, fun rapids breaking the monotony of rafting, however, after we reached the split in the river and sort of the halfway mark it turned into relentless flatwater rafting. Fortunately the spectacular surroundings of over 6000m snow-capped peaks and complete desert like ruggedness made for some awesome viewing, taking into account that we were as close as ~130km of K2 the 2nd highest mountain in the world!

The rafting was followed by a very quick ~40km cycle further down the valley across a hang bridge, cycling over scree slopes that have invaded the road at places and back to the same transition over another hang bridge that could barely fit a small car. It so happened that the small car was starting to cross this bridge just as we arrived – DRAT!! The driver was going at around 4km/h taking care not to touch the sides of the bridge while we were frustratingly unable to do anything but snail behind him over the bridge. At least all-in-all it seemed that we made up some time on the cycle.

Finally, we were on to our first hiking leg, not The Big One, but still a monster ~50km hike upstream along the Shyok River turning left (North) into the Nubra valley. We started this leg with a bang and caught up with Red Ants and Yo Running just after the first Check Point even with Craig disappearing, when the side of the tributary, we were scampering along gave way and he fell for about 1m creating his own little avalanche. It was now getting dark and we could see Skylotec’s headlights in the distance. This first section of the hike was mostly flat and went fairly fast, this however soon turned interesting when “River meets mountainside”. Suddenly our options turned to avalanching into the Shyok (remember “River of death”) river, night swimming, wading, crossing, trudging along for what I estimated could be 2kms, OR follow a very steep scree slope path going up the mountain and presumably taking us to where we wanted to go. So like all other sane teams we went up the scree slope path. This path turned out to be extremely adventurous as we encountered sections where the scree slope had completely covered the path which could possibly lead to a short slide and a long drop off a cliff. We and clearly all the other teams, in the end, did manage to negotiate this treacherous path and made it back down to the river on the other side after some interesting scree slope running /bum slides and a final bouldering/rock climbing scramble back to the river’s edge.

I had a bit of a route finding mishap just after this. The path we were on next to the mountain had lots of thorny tree stuff, making it slow to hike on, so I decided to go down into a dry river bed assuming it would be much faster and open to run on. This worked for a bit but then turned problematic and with all the bobbing and weaving, I soon realized we were now almost backtracking, based on our direction. At that stage I just wanted to get back to the mountainside to get back on the “bad” track, but our current position inside the overgrown thorny bushes forced me in weird directions, so by the time we got back to the mountainside we had basically done a loop and ended up pretty much where we initially left the path for the dry river bed -SIGH-. I guess that cost us about 10 minutes and once again, could see headlights closing behind us.

Back on track (staying next to the mountainside this time), we were once again going strong until we encountered the next set of cliffs which were where the Shyok and Nubra rivers met. Once again it was a very steep, although much less dangerous climb across the cliffs and the path finally lead us down the other side onto a nice gravel road which we could follow up the Nubra valley. This was also the point where a sleep monster jumped onto my back and eventually Ruan had me on tow with Craig and Janneke on either side so we could keep moving in roughly a straight line while sleeping. Fortunately, I have mastered the art of hiking while sleeping over the years, so I can do that without really slowing down. The other team members were apparently also not doing that well and just before the next CP (Hut next to river), we pulled into a half-built house next to the road for a quick one hour nap. This is not something we would usually do on the first night of an expedition race, but I guess the altitude made us more tired than usual. Somewhere during that sleep, I woke up to hear the Red Ants passing by with Nicky “yabba yabbaying” on as only she can. We definitely need to talk more in our team!

But nothing like a 1-hour sleep to get going at full pace again, we were awake, fresh and nailed the next CP with only about 6 km to go to the transition. About 1km after the CP we met Red Ants coming back for the CP that they had missed somehow. Would still love to hear that story, I guess the sleep monster was having its way with them as well.

This meant that we reached the next transition early morning, still in second place and with a nice one hour sleep in the bank. We were now heading out on a 120km long, flat cycle next to the river. You will notice I didn’t say “fast” cycle… The heat and I assume altitude, soon had the sleep monster back on our bicycles. Especially Janneke had a hard time cycling in a straight line and the iPod with “Stukkie van der Merwe” blasting in her ears clearly didn’t help much. Somewhere towards the end of the cycle through the village of Diskit coming around the 3857th  sharp bend, Craig had to do some impressive drifting to avoid an oncoming truck while Ruan just went ahead and did a “cave painting” on the side of it. Luckily apart from a bruised shoulder, re-calibrating his handlebar and putting on dry pants, Ruan was okay’ish.  Shortly afterward we finally reached the last transition where we could pack up our bikes one last time before heading out on the monster 60km hike crossing a 5400m ASL pass before heading down into the Indus valley region.

 

The last hike started with roughly a one-kilometer camel ride which was quite different and fun – definitely a first for me. The camel ride, unfortunately, ended too soon and we had to revert back to self-powered leg mode. The first section of this hike out of the Shyok river valley was aptly named “Cliff path” and turned out to be once again simultaneously spectacular and dangerous with sheer cliff faces towering next to us with lots of big loose rocks just waiting to fall. There was also a section where we were hiking on what seemed to be just tree branches stuck into the side of the mountain forming some sort of walkway.

We reached CP13 also known as the “Home stay” village at just over 4000m ASL just as the sun was setting. This was the last clever place to have a nice warm meal and a bed to sleep in before taking on the big climb. It was however too early in the day for sleeping and we all were feeling strong, so we didn’t waste any time there and moved on. We only later found out that Skylotec was actually having a 2-hour sleep there when we passed through. We were now pushing hard and as it became dark we could see the lights of teams coming from behind. Roughly halfway between CP13 and CP14, the relentless sleep monster that plagued us so much during the race was back.  It was already after 11pm so we decided that it was time to put in a good two-hour sleep before taking on the final stretch, past CP14 and across the mountain pass. Just as the decision was made to sleep, we miraculously stumbled into the ideal soft sandy patch in “Mordor” and pitched our tent. Just as we were climbing into the tent, Skylotec came from behind passing us again on their way up.  This needed some strong mental focus. We were about to sleep for two hours while Skylotec is moving towards the finish line, but then from experience, I knew what difference a good two-hour sleep could do, so the 4 of us squeezed into our tiny tent for the best two-hour sleep you can imagine.

Once we were up from our epic nap, we were back on our fast step pace again and we reached CP14 in no time. CP14 was at around 5100m ASL and was the final CP before the pass at which the doctors checked our oxygen levels, heart rate, and general condition. At this stage, our fate lay in their hands if we didn’t have the necessary oxygen levels they could send us back down. Thinking both Red Ants and Skylotec may have checked in and been on their way again, we were surprised to find only Skylotec had reached CP14 ahead of us and were once again sleeping!? We didn’t know it at the time but it turned out that two of their member’s oxygen levels were too low to continue and they were trying to rest and see if things would improve. Unfortunately, at 5100m ASL things don’t improve easily. Luckily for us, we were all feeling super strong after our two-hour sleep, our oxygen levels were all deep in the eighties and our heart rates relatively low. The doctors gave us a thumbs up and with the fact that Skylotec were still sleeping there, we had all the necessary motivation to rush out of there and over the mountain.

Nature smiled upon us and we managed to do the final 200m climb over the snow-capped pass as the sun was rising. I wanted to take some memorable photos at the top of the pass but unfortunately, my phone was dead because extreme cold and batteries don’t mix well.

Suddenly we knew that it’s all good, we were at the highest point, we can’t see any teams behind us and its now downhill to the finish line with one more smallish pass in between – nothing could stop us now. Well, we were wrong!! The Himalayas have a way of being big, even the downhill is not all downhill and the footpaths keep on disappearing,  leading to lots of rock hopping and trail finding. We finally reached the last set of mountains to cross before going down into the valley where Leh is situated. Take into account that everything is currently happening at altitudes above 4000m ASL. This is where the day really became long. It was hot, VERY hot and the path on the map turned out to be a rumor, so we ended up making footpaths against scree slopes up one side of a ridge and down the other side and then repeat. The maps were also very badly copied and the contour lines extremely hard to read, so I was getting worried that I had missed the ridge line I wanted to cross and are going around un-necessary ridges. In the end, we managed to get to the final ridge looking down into Leh and could actually see the town. I was quite relieved to see that we were still on track but also realized that it was not the optimal path by a long stretch. I was now seriously doubting if we were still in the lead and was worried that Skylotec and the Red Ants had passed us following a more direct route. By this time, we had also run out of water and none of the remaining food we had left seemed appetizing, especially with a dry mouth and the sun was taking aim on us. So the last ~10km into Leh saw a rather sad, dehydrated and despondent team Nevarest Jabberwock slogging into the market for the final CP15 before the finish.

On arriving at CP15 we met a lot of media and my first question was “So what’s our position, how many teams have passed us?” Well, you can imagine the relief and joy to have heard that we were still in the lead! We were still dehydrated and buggered, but at least we could do the last 150m stretch down the market and across the finish line with a renewed bounce in our step even doing a little shuffle across the finish line.

What an Incredible journey, this truly was an Expedition, a once in a lifetime experience from the arrival in Srinagar to the beautiful Alpine-like setting in Sonamarg to the Mordor like barren mountains in Ladakh. This is definitely one of those races that will always be one of the favorites when hauling out war stories and talking about extreme environments and exotic places.

Thanks, Heidi and Stephan for taking us on an incredible journey whilst at the same time giving us a monster of an expedition race!

And a big thank you to Nevarest Team with our main sponsors Keyhealth and Toyota for supporting us and giving us the means to go out and enjoy all these adventures!