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Miles, mountains and memories

A look at Ultra runners who attempted the 870 mile Himalaya run, by Capt Seshadri.

This is one of the ultimate trials of endurance and an outstanding example of mind over muscle. It is also a journey through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. And breathtaking, not just to the eye, but to the lungs as well.

The Great Himalaya Trail or the GHT, is an extremely physically taxing and psychologically draining, but rewarding ultra run, with a ‘high’ that transcends all altitudes. 870 miles or 1400 km of grueling track, at times reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet in extreme and often fluctuating weather conditions, icy cold wind, driving snow and a harsh sun that glows with an unearthly light over the mountains. Moreover, rather than a well traversed, official route, the GHT is a set of interconnected smaller, unofficial trails.

A record for this, popularly known as the Fastest Known Time, or FKT, was set by South African Andrew Porter in an astounding time of 28 days, 13 hours and 56 minutes. In an attempt to surpass this zenith of human endurance, 36 year old Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel, 38, set forth on February 28, 2018 from Hilsa in Nepal, with the object of reaching Pashupatinagar on the Indo-Nepal border, in the fastest possible time. The duo followed the same path as Porter, with the same checkpoints, naturally keeping the record in mind.

This 870 mile route includes 230,000 feet of climbing both up and down in the mountains, combining upper and middle level routes often referred to as the Great Himalayan Trail, its high and its cultural routes. The world’s tallest mountains were on view as they toiled on, while passing the base camp of Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world. Along the route were several designated checkpoints, starting with Simikot at an early 77 km, through Chharka Bhot at roughly 380 km and the closer to the finish point Tumlingtar, at roughly 1,075 km, with 300 plus km still to go.

The runners had to navigate their paths on their own. No porters, no mules, but with 20 litre Salomon backpacks filled with energy bars, dietary supplements and equipment critical to each of the segments they had to traverse. Six pre-determined resupply points en route would provide short eats and nutritious snacks to keep their energy levels at their peak. For regular relief, basic food and water, they would depend on villages along the route and rest and recuperate in the tea huts that dot the paths. Villagers’ homes and monasteries were their lodgings and Sandes and Griesel heaped praise on the hospitality and warmth of their temporary hosts. Says Ryan: “One of the villages, a spot where we had hoped to get accommodation, was completely deserted. I honestly believe that if we hadn’t come across a monk and monastery that night, we would have frozen to death.”

If it wasn’t the altitude and the shortage of oxygen, it was the chilling danger of frostbite. In spite of adequate clothing and accessories, Ryan and Ryno were exposed to painful chillblains, especially on their fingers, as they had to constantly remove their gloves to read the maps. Finally, after almost a month of body and mind sapping endurance and pressure, a new speed record was set. On March 26, 2018, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel completed the 870 mile GHT in an unbelievable time of 25 days, 3 hours, and 24 minutes, a good three days ahead of the old time set by Andrew Porter.

Every year, several women and men rise above odds and conquer mountains. This conquest however, was of a different nature. It was a conquest by the mind, of its superiority over the body, dictating its terms and winning.

Some more fabulous feats by these wonder athletes

Andrew Porter holds the solo male record for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT). He did a North-to-South run in December 2009 and set the record at 61 hours 24 minutes 11 seconds. Not satisfied with this effort, he returned to the venue in end May 2015 and did a solo South-to-North DGT in 45 hours 8 minutes.

Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel hold the men’s group record for the DGT, of 41 hours, 49 minutes, set in March 2014. Ryno held the previous men’s group record of 60 hours 29 minutes set in April 2010, along with teammate Cobus van Zyl.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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