THE SLOW CLIMB TO HEAVEN
“Adventure sports are not for idiots. It takes intelligence to do this race” — C.S. Pandey
It wasn’t just me. It turns out that everyone gets dumb legs on day three. That’s exactly as C.S. Pandey designed it 21 years ago, when he came up with the idea of a 100-mile stage race in the Himalaya.
Mr. Pandey, who does not divulge his first name and answers only to Mister Pandey, is a charismatic and dictatorial man prone to two things—treating his clients like unruly children in need of discipline, even calling them “naughty” when they disobey; and becoming misty-eyed when discussing his love of the mountains. (At a talent show that the runners and staff staged one night, Mr. Pandey sang a love song in Hindi, which replaced every mention of the word “woman” with “mountain.”) A former top runner and scholar from Delhi on the fast-track to an elite career as a scientist, he got hooked on the very un-Indian activities of mountaineering and rock climbing in the 1980s and become the first Indian to lead trekking, running and mountaineering expeditions.
His teachers and parents didn’t get it. “For me, the mountains are essential,” Pandey says. “They thought I was crazy.”
That’s probably because the Himalaya Mountains, arrayed like a wall along the country’s northern borders with China, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan, are unknown territory to most Indians and Taj Mahal tourists—in many ways they are the anti-India. Vast, cool, relatively empty, quiet and home to the mountain people of Asian features and Buddhist persuasion, it is a stark contrast to the “real” India—sweaty, loud, dirty and chaotic, every intersection and byway a honking, confounding morass of cows and monkeys and cars and bicycle rickshaws and motorcycles crammed with families of four and three-wheel motorized “tuk-tuks” and buses overflowing with people hanging off the roof and back like luggage, all of them just millimeters apart, as if a billion Hindus and Muslims decided to come out and jostle for space at that instant. To see it, to smell it, to be in it, is exhausting, wondrous and unforgettable—coincidentally, a description that also fits the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race founded by Pandey in 1991.
The 100-mile loop, which launches from the famed tea-growing highlands around Darjeeling and runs along the Nepal border, consolidates some of the most popular trekking routes of the eastern Himalaya and West Bengal state. It instantly emerged as a “bucket list” race for adventurous runners because of its difficulty (30,000 feet of climbing) and remarkable scenery. It is one of the only places from which you can see four of the five tallest mountain peaks on Earth, including 29,029-foot Mt. Everest.
Last October, three dozen of us from 11 countries gathered at the start on day one in the village of Maneybhanjang. We ranged in age from 26 to 71 and in experience from a 200-time marathoner to a casual 5K runner (me). Not an ultrarunner or even recent marathoner, I was paranoid about the first day’s 24 miles until the Tibetan blessing ceremony ended, the gun sounded, and we ran into the great equalizer—a 20-percent grade road made of giant, random, mismatched rocks.
I had no idea until this day that most ultrarunners don’t run the steeps. It’s too exhausting, especially at elevations like this. We began at 6,600 feet and ended at 12,000 feet for a total climb of 10,000 feet.
Spooked by the numbers and the threat of being scolded again by Pandey for being naughty—I forgot to bring my yellow ID scarf on a Darjeeling sightseeing trip the day before—I heeded his warnings to drink like a camel and eat like a llama to stave off the bonk and altitude sickness, which tends to hit me hard. I forced myself to enjoy eating a banana slathered in salt and pepper, which Pandey practically jammed down my throat at an aid station. “Electrolytes and potassium!” he shouted. Topped off with papaya and potatoes, the only other menu items. “Complex carbs!” Pandey exclaimed. I slogged past Indian border guards and cargo-carrying oxen for eight hours up to our mountain-top finish at Sandakphu, a village of primitive bunkhouses at 11,815 feet, the highest point in West Bengal. It sure wasn’t the Hilton, but it did offer a small kitchen with hot soup, hot chocolate, hot food, and the stories and laughter of a bunch of strangers quickly bonding in a crucible of cramps.
And, of course, Sandakphu also has that National Geographic view. To the west are three of the world’s five tallest peaks, Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu—the tallest, fourth tallest and fifth tallest, respectively. Straight ahead is Kanchenjunga—the third tallest—the closest, least climbed, and most spectacular. Out of sight is K2, the second tallest, which is “in Pakistan for the moment,” said Pandey, eliciting laughter from those aware of India’s territorial disputes with its rival.
Kanchenjunga, dangerous to climb due to avalanches and hurricane-force winds, is the crown jewel of an awesome massif that includes four peaks over 27,720 feet and another 17 over 23,000 feet. A blinding pile of white on the horizon often referred to as “The Sleeping Buddha,” the 28,156-footer glows from every elevated clearing, radiating like an ivory sun through groves of moss-covered rhododendron trees and rocky outcroppings.
Kanchenjunga was our guiding light for the better part of two magnificent days on the Singalila Ridge. James Hallet, another South African, was so moved by the sight that he had an epiphany—something about “man’s insignificance relative to nature”—that several times openly moved him to tears.
I’m a little skeptical of epiphanies, reserving my deepest thoughts for more mundane issues like hygiene. Because day two was a 20-mile out-and-back “recovery” run on the ridge (with a mere 6,000 feet of climbing), we spent two nights at Sandakphu, where the temperatures go to freezing very quickly at sunset. I don’t know who got it worse—those hardy souls who finished after dark, or those (such as me) who worked up the courage to take a shower.
You’re thinking hot, running water? This isn’t Switzerland, man. My room had an Asian-squat toilet hole with a 25-gallon water barrel accessed by a small plastic hand bucket. Maybe I was hallucinating, but I swear there were small clumps of ice floating on the surface. My strategy to not freeze was to wash and towel-off one body part at a time from north to south. So after an ice-water shampoo, I moved on to wash my face, armpits, chest, etc., shivering wildly the whole time. Yes, the “shrinkage” episode of “Seinfeld” did come to mind. All the hot tea and spirited conversation at dinner couldn’t warm me up. Although I wore every layer of clothing I had under a jacket and long pants inside my sleeping bag, my teeth clattered all night long.
At least we’d be spending the night of day three in a normal hotel room in the river valley, 5,000 feet lower. It would be the longest trek of the five days at 26.2 miles; marketed to single-day participants as the Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon. Already wracked with deep aches in my hips, butt and hamstrings, I dreaded the thought of that killer descent. But a hot shower was good motivation to get it over with fast.