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Yak Attack 2017: The Sound of Silence

By Neil Cottam
05, Jan, 2018

The beauty of biking the Yak Attack and finding the grit to get through

A biker is riding along the crest of a hill, the himalayan mountains are in the background

For the first time in a while I was riding alone, enjoying the solitude and the simple pleasure of spinning the pedals at a natural pace. I rolled to a halt, mesmerised by the same view that had stopped me in my tracks exactly a year earlier. The low sun cast shadows across layers of barren mountain summits. Nothing stirred. Nary a parched leaf rustling on a twisted shrub nor the bellow of livestock could be heard on this windless day.

Silence.

There are few places in the modern world where it's possible to hear nothing, nothing at all, the sound of silence. Nepal's sparsely populated Forbidden Kingdom - The Upper Mustang - a high altitude desert, is one of them, and it is intoxicating. I wanted to stand there forever and bathe in its glory. The electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating sound of absolute silence.

Alas I couldn't, I had work to do. I pushed on the pedals, the gentle crunch of rubber on dirt seemed almost deafening.

I hadn't really figured The Yak Attack into my travel plans this year, but here I was once more. 

 

Preparing for the Yak attack in Kathmandu
 
Neil Cottam preparing for stage one of the Yak attack, doing a wheelie in Kathmandu
The riders lining up at the start of the Yak Attack 2017 in Kathmandu

Registration in Kathmandu and preparing for stage one

 

It is my job to act as sweeper during the race. Technically I don't fully race anymore, I meander along with whomever is suffering on each stage before spinning off towards the finish line at my own pace.

The first few days can feel a bit overwhelming, unparalleled amounts of tough climbing with minimal time for recovery make finishing the race seem almost impossible. Simple foods, basic accommodations, squat toilets, and the increasing effects of the debilitating altitude all combine to demolish aspirations.

 

Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal
Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal

Besi Sahar to Taal

 

Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal
 
Neil Cottam fixing a puncture on the trail during the Yak Attack 2017
Neil Cottam riding the Yak Attack 2017

 

Manang, Yak Attack 2017
Manang, Yak Attack 2017
Manang, Yak Attack 2017

Taal to Manang

 

As the stages roll on the routine becomes normal. Early morning bag drops, eat, wait, race, eat, eat some more, sleep. Adapt, grit your teeth, dig in. Almost everyone comes to race; some rise from the back with growing confidence, some adopt survival tactics, others falter. Most discover their grit.

There are no limits beyond the ones in our minds, you have to learn to override those limits, it's just your brain freaking out because it's in unfamiliar territory. Once that limit has been crested the brain puts a new one in place, a little higher than before. 

 

A man riding Thorong-La Pass in the Himalaya Yak Attack 2017

 

People pushing and carrrying their bikes over the Thorong La pass in the Himalaya, Yak Attack 2017
Two men stopping for a rest with bikes over their shoulders on the Thorong La Pass in the Himalaya durning the Yak Attack 2017

 

A man looking tired with bike on his back on the Thorong La pass in the Himalaya during the Yak Attack 2017

 

Prayer flags around the sign at the top of the Thorong La pass in the HImalaya the Yak Atttack 2017
Neil Cottam in front of the Thorong La pass sign in the HImalaya, surrounded by prayer flags, during the Yak Attack 2017
Neil Cottam with friends at the top of the Thorong La pass with fellow riders during the Yak Attack 2017

Thorong-La Pass

 

Sweeping singletrack, loose, exposed, uncultivated, uncivilised, followed by steep and technical, then usurped again by rock and flow. Quite possibly one of the great natural trails on earth. I shared it with a young lad called Freddie Sellwood. He epitomised my ethos of the race - If you’re not there to win it then do it with style, enjoy the trail, get loose, pop some wheelies. Freddie came out to ride the whole thing as a once in a lifetime experience. He rode it all with style, we even stopped for tea - at a teahouse no less.

As we entered the Upper Mustang I marvelled once again at the startling transition in geology. 

Two days of purgatory on trails ankle deep with arenaceous floury dust that crept into every pore. On our way back we would holler and hoot as we raised magnificent rooster tails under wildly whizzing wheels; today we choked on it.

 

The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man is riding with a backdrop of Himalayan mountains
 
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, A landscape of himalayan mountains
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a dusty trail leading towards cliffs and mountains
 
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man fixing a puncture on his bike
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man resting in front of mountains
 
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, Neil Cottam's bike propped up against a rock at the side of the trail,

Ghilling to Lo Manthang

 

At Ghilling, a minuscule outpost of civilisation, I spent a quiet moment in deference to the heavens. Light pollution does not exist. I stood breathless, marvelling at the night sky before my ever-widening eyes. Every single star in the universe bursting from space like crystal sabres, so many and so bright that I could barely discern individual constellations, and the Milky Way - so vibrant, so complete - held me spellbound.

The next day we were catapulted in to mystical Lo Manthang. A moment captured in time, a capsule of life that no longer exists in the Western world. Life at its most simple. 

 

Lo Manthang scenery
The town Lo Manthang

Lo Manthang

 

It is a unique and enchanting place. It is a town dominated by a simple, yet magnificent, walled palace - the ancient seat of the Kings of Lo - which is in turn dominated by a biblical landscape of sand and rock.

In the beginning, the final stage seems like a long way away. When it finally arrives the first stage becomes a distant and blurry memory. It is a day to be savoured.

Tatopani is a glorious place, green, tropical, and fully living up to its name - Tatopani translates quite literally as "hot water" and that naturally occurring hot water is channelled into a series of pools.

All of the riders at the Yak attack before the final sprint

For the full story, visit Neil's blog at chase-the-rainbow.blogspot.co.uk

The Gear

Packing for The Yak Attack can be one of the biggest challenges and takes some creative thinking. Clothing and kit needs to be adaptable, both for the warmth and humidity of lower altitudes and the pervasive cold of the high mountains. With a pack list reading like an Alpkit A to Z I was pretty well covered (except that I completely forgot to pack my Griffon Hoody, so had no lightweight mid-layer). 

Chilkoot Softshell Trousers and the amazing Faro Shorts (excellent for mountain biking), a full range of Kepler Merino Baselayers, Kepler Beanie & Draught Excluder, Gravitas Jacket & Parallax Pants, Phantac Down Jacket, Muon headtorch, Airlok drybags, and a Pipedream 200 sleeping bag - with a Sea-To-Summit liner for higher up. The indestructible Drydock 50, Medium Fuel Pod, Love Mud Blade & Swig Bottles, Love Mud Front Fender, and the extremely useful Love Mud Trace GPS Mount.

Next year I'll be replacing my tattered old softshell jacket with the spanky new Morphosis Jacket once it has been put through it paces this winter (I love it already).

The hardest race requires the toughest kit, all of it was faultless. Thanks Alpkit

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In pictures

A biker is riding along the crest of a hill, the himalayan mountains are in the background
Preparing for the Yak attack in Kathmandu
Neil Cottam preparing for stage one of the Yak attack, doing a wheelie in Kathmandu
The riders lining up at the start of the Yak Attack 2017 in Kathmandu
Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal
Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal
Stage 2 of the Yak Attack: Besi Sahar to Taal
Neil Cottam fixing a puncture on the trail during the Yak Attack 2017
Neil Cottam riding the Yak Attack 2017
Manang, Yak Attack 2017
Manang, Yak Attack 2017
Manang, Yak Attack 2017
A man riding Thorong-La Pass in the Himalaya Yak Attack 2017
People pushing and carrrying their bikes over the Thorong La pass in the Himalaya, Yak Attack 2017
Two men stopping for a rest with bikes over their shoulders on the Thorong La Pass in the Himalaya durning the Yak Attack 2017
A man looking tired with bike on his back on the Thorong La pass in the Himalaya during the Yak Attack 2017
Prayer flags around the sign at the top of the Thorong La pass in the HImalaya the Yak Atttack 2017
Neil Cottam in front of the Thorong La pass sign in the HImalaya, surrounded by prayer flags, during the Yak Attack 2017
Neil Cottam with friends at the top of the Thorong La pass with fellow riders during the Yak Attack 2017
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man is riding with a backdrop of Himalayan mountains
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, A landscape of himalayan mountains
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a dusty trail leading towards cliffs and mountains
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man fixing a puncture on his bike
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, a man resting in front of mountains
The stage between Ghilling to Lo Manthang, Neil Cottam's bike propped up against a rock at the side of the trail,
Lo Manthang scenery
The town Lo Manthang
All of the riders at the Yak attack before the final sprint

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