High StridesIt bears no pointing out that the Himalayas aren’t exactly an evening stroll. Especially when you consider traversing some of the least trodden paths over rugged terrains, and throw in dozens of high passes, and not to mention sporadic blizzards, landslides and rockfalls.
It bears no pointing out that the Himalayas aren’t exactly an evening stroll. Especially when you consider traversing some of the least trodden paths over rugged terrains, and throw in dozens of high passes, and not to mention sporadic blizzards, landslides and rockfalls. Now imagine running the entire course as a race, testing your endurance and mettle. Case in point—the Great Himal Race (GHR), a trail running event that stretches across Nepal on the higher routes of the Himalayas.
GHR, which totalled 1,600km in distance spread across 46 stages, started from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to the east and Hilsa to the west—the first of its kind and scale in Nepal. Organised by France-based Les Chevaliers du Vent and Nepal-based Base Camp Treks, the race started out with 45 participants—mostly from France, Nepal, United States, Belgium and Indonesia—from the startline at 5,200m in altitude, reaching which in itself would be a considerable feat. Ultimately, only 11 participants would go on to finish the event, among whom the winners were Jagan Nath Timilsina in the men’s category, and Chhechee Sherpa in the women’s.
Given the evident risk to life and limb, in addition to demanding trails that are physically and mentally draining, it begs the question—why even do it? “I am always looking for a challenge to hone my skills and abilities,” says Timilsina, a seasoned traveller, trekking guide and even an Everest summiteer who took the GHR podium by storm. “I’ve always had the desire to see Nepal and how people live up in the mountains.” With more than 15 years of experience working in the outdoors, Timilsina adds that it’s not merely the distance to take into account but the altitude and the erratic terrains. “Though I’ve travelled extensively through Nepal as a trekking guide and scaled several summits including Mount Everest, I haven’t had a chance to do something remotely challenging as the GHR—physically, mentally and financially. It was the perfect opportunity for me to put my skills and training to test, while fulfilling what had been a dream to visit the most remote settlements in the Himalayas. I must admit, and quite obviously so, that it wasn’t an easy task, but well worth it.”
Organiser Bruno Prorier, a French national, stated that the Great Himal Race, which took almost three years to design, was first an adventure and second a race. “The cultural diversity, landscapes and camaraderie among the runners along the way was what made the event unique. We had a handful of Nepali runners who were quite familiar with the terrain, but despite their local knowledge, it was impressive to see them run such distance with such grace.”
In one of the stages, Jagan ran two day’s worth of course in a day in order to dodge inclement weather looming over the infamous Thorung La Pass that connects Manang and Mustang. This put him a day ahead of the pack and thanks to his guiding experience, Timilsina even helped out with logistical arrangement of meals and accommodation for the other runners.
Grueling and tiresome as the race was, Timilsina says the race was absolutely fantastic to engage with local people and to learn about their simple lifestyle, particularly in isolated regions. He says, “I particularly loved the interaction I had with them, which were devoid of any kind of monetary expectation—an incident often faced in more commercial trekking routes. It was a life-altering experience to see and learn about their daily lives, their happiness and contentment despite having next to nothing; nothing but simple, humble lives.” Timilsina works as a trekking guide in mostly commercial trekking routes, but “the experience of venturing into the most pristine parts of the country was beyond incredible. I can now say I have seen the real Nepal, met real Nepali people and experienced real Nepali hospitality. I feel really lucky in this regard and made a tad bit more proud about Nepal and to be a Nepali. This is not a feeling I normally get from my work.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t always roses. “Crossing Tashi Lepcha between Rolwaling and Everest regions was the most challenging, in fact dangerous, section of the race. If the pass wasn’t treacherous already, I could barely see through the whiteout and the trails were all covered up.” A father of two, Timilsina jokes that his wife and kids didn’t know about the occupational hazards of the race. “They were happy to see me back in one piece and the prizes I got from the race!” He shares about his training, “Every day for six months before the race, I’d run around the hills of Pokhara, which is where I live. Several times I trained in higher altitude around Annapurna areas. I racked up more than 30km a day.” A pre-existing condition on his knee meant he would have to do several sessions of physiotherapy to prepare it for the big adventure. As for the diet goes, Timilsina’s preference was simple—dal bhat.
The training paid off and everything in the race went as planned, except almost halfway into GHR, on the 24th day, Timilsina received devastating news from home. One of his cousins had passed away while Jagan was on the trails. Following tradition, Timilsina survived the next three days on fruits and no salt, which for the distances he was running each day wouldn’t sustain energy. “The food made me weak physically, but the news disturbed me thoroughly. We were very close,” Timilsina says emotionally. “I questioned myself about why I was running in the mountains rather than being with my family at such an hour. For most of stages upto that point, I would be the first one to finish, but during the first three days of getting the news, the fasting was taking a severe toll on my performance. It was difficult to keep up. Eventually I pulled myself together and decided the race would be a way to show my respect to my cousin’s soul—by finishing the race to the best of my ability.”
It wasn’t merely the sense of adventure that drew Jagan to GHR but also the opportunity to spread awareness and raise funds for an outdoors project he recently initiated. Timilsina runs the trekking company Freedom Adventures, which besides operating trips frequently organises Outdoor Education Project for rural Nepali students. It is a non-academic curriculum aimed at teaching adventure-related technical and soft skills to kids in rural parts of Nepal. Speaking of his participation in GHR, Timilsina states, “One of my main reasons for joining the race has been to raise funds for purchasing proper equipment and gear for the Outdoor Education Project, which I believe will go a long way for the children as well as for Nepal’s tourism. We work mainly in backpacking, climbing, rafting and survival with a special emphasis on outdoor leadership, so as to empower the youth in the tourism industry.”
This idea, as Timilsina maintains, is not a new one as he’s worked previously in conducting such courses for school kids in Nepal and abroad. But his friend and business partner, Arun Pariyar, adds “We have carefully designed this course and are hopeful about bridging the void between the market demand in Nepal for qualified guides and pave the way to extra-curricular training for rural kids. Freedom Adventures has been working hard to bring this project to schools in rural areas.” Youths in villages tend to be generally more physically adept as they’re accustomed to working in harsh terrains. Pariyar adds, “There’s no doubt that with Jagan’s leadership and expertise in this field, the project will be beneficial to the children we hope to reach out to. After all, he started as a porter back in 1998, at the age of 14, and worked his way up as an assistant guide, trek leader, mountaineer, outdoor instructor, a tourism entrepreneur and finally an endurance racer.” Along with his Freedom team, Timilsina hopes to share technical and life skills from his journey to other promising school kids, who’d otherwise lack the resources and avenue to do so.
Timilsina and his team seeks to introduce and equip the youth with the basic set of skills that is common to all outdoor professions. From there they can branch out according to their interests such as trekking, rafting, mountaineering, rock climbing, mountain rescue, wilderness medical and more. So far the project has raised 15 percent of the funds required through crowdfunding. The first pilot project will start as the crowdfunding mark is reached.
For an outdoor bug like Timilsina, adventure never stops. Within the few weeks of returning from an epic race, he is already preparing to head off to the USA for two months to learn and teach in the outdoors. Having received his certification as an outdoor professional last year from the outdoor school National Outdoors Leadership School in Alaska, Timilsina is now keen on bringing the skills home and hopeful of raising funds in the US, as well as sharpen the course curriculum for his project.
Whether it be running the GHR, climbing the highest mountain, organising trail races, helping out after the earthquake or teaching his skills to students, Timilsina keeps himself occupied doing what he absolutely loves. It’s been a long time coming for Timilsina from his early days as a porter, all the way to the GHR podium. And by the looks of it, he’s just warming up for more adventure in the days to come.