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Athletes & Explorers

May 29, 2019

Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

In an alpine-style journey for the ages, Peter Van Geit has just embarked on a 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Peter Van Geit is a Belgian-born wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, and founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, a 40 thousand member volunteer-based community that is active in environmental and social initiatives within India.

In traditional alpine style, Peter has selected a self-planned and navigated running route that traverses over 100 high-altitude passes in the Himalayan mountains. He’ll be carrying his own shelter and food, only refueling in between passes in small villages. Although he typically runs solo, Peter will be joined by award-winning filmmaker Neil D’Souza to document the entire journey and create a feature-length film, that is, if he survives the journey.

“I’m trying to make a story of an adventure that has never been done before. I’ll be the one behind the camera capturing all the beauty and culture and if I come out of this alive, then we’ll have a good film to share with the world.” – Neil D’Souza

Peter runs in a disciplined minimalist and self-sufficient style, carrying only 6 kg of gear in his bag and only packing two to three days of food at a time. A comprehensive route map of the journey, along with the preparation and minimalist gear are all listed on the expedition page.

Peter completed a similar journey over 40 high passes in 2018 and shared the clips from his OnePlus 6 phone with Neil, who compiled them into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

Over the course of six months, the pair will cross the three most northern states in India, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. However, while Peter is used to covering 50 km per day at altitude, the longest distance that Neil has ever run in his life is a 10k at sea level. Neil has been training of late, but it will be a huge step up to cover the estimated 15k to 20k day after day. In his words, it’s a bit of a “leap of faith.”

Although there is a large gap in ultra-running experience between Peter and Neil, they both share a passion for sharing the majesty of the remote spots of the Himalaya.

For Peter and Neil, the goal of their journey is to create a beautiful film in remote locations never seen before, capturing the magnitude of the landscape and the warmness of the people, running on passes only used by shepherds, to inspire other people to experience the outdoors.

“I love venturing into these remote corners of the planet for the mental peacefulness and also the humanity and hospitality of the local people–it’s heartwarming.” Peter Van Geit

The Outdoor Journal connected with Peter and Neil just days before their departure to discuss their motivation for setting out on a six-month expedition into the Himalaya, how they will overcome their gap in running experience and how alpine-style ultra-running at altitude brings a mental peacefulness found nowhere else.

SETTING THE 100 HIGH-PASS CHALLENGE

Peter has self-planned a route covering over 100 high passes.

TOJ: Peter, I know you have experience running in the Himalaya, but what is the impetus for setting this challenge?

“I choose lesser known high passes used by shepherds to connect from valley to valley.”

 

Peter: I’ve been into ultra-running for the past five years, before that I was more into wilderness hiking, exploring dense jungles. I’ve been going to the Himalaya and running about 700 kilometers from one town to the next along the roads about 50 kilometers per day, running with a tent in my bag so I can pitch up my shelter wherever I end up at the end of the day along the villages.

I did a similar run in Vietnam through the mountains, close to the border with China, that was also 2000 kilometers over 50 days where I ran self-supported, navigating my way with maps. I’m pretty good with map reading and navigation on dirt tracks between villages. I’m attracted to remote places, small villages, and tribal settlements, not touristic places. That’s where you come across hospitality, where people invite you in for dinner and to stay. Last year I took the next step by challenging myself to run high-altitude passes.

I planned a 75-day journey, all across the Himalaya of some 40 high altitude passes with over 1500 kilometers covered, fully self-supported, alpine style. So of course when you go through these high altitudes and also challenging terrain, you need a little bit more luggage to protect yourself in the extreme climate of the Himalaya. I went up to 5,500 meters on these lesser known passes used by shepherds or local village tribes to connect from valley to valley. That turned out to be an amazing experience. I really love to push the limits in terms of physical endurance and also my mental capabilities in the extreme climate at the high altitude where oxygen levels drop far below what they are at sea level, with challenging terrains like landslides and glaciers. This year I want to push it again by going for the entire summer season, basically six months from the end of April to the end of September.

TOJ: Neil, there’s a big gap in your running experience with Peter. How do you think you’ll be able to cover the mileage goals for each day that Peter’s aiming for?

Neil: I’m going into this journey with a mindset that there might be a situation where I can’t do certain sections. I need to have the ability to make the decision to head back on my own and find an alternative route. I do not have a running background. I’ve never liked running ever in my life. I asked Peter for his mileage and he said cumulatively over the past five or six years, he’s run 14,000 kilometers. And myself, cumulatively in the past 31 years, I’ve run about 150 kilometers. That’s a huge, huge gap. But this is a challenge I am willing to face and a journey that I want to finish.

A MARIE KONDO METHOD FOR MOUNTAIN TRAVEL

Following a minimalist approach to ultra-running, Peter only packs a six kg bag for his six month journey.

TOJ: What does it mean to you to follow a minimalist approach?

Peter: The key difference between me and the regular hiker, which I usually meet on the way, is that most of the hikers carry 60-liter bags, which is a lot of comfort level stuff. People sometimes put the balance a little bit more towards comfort, like warm clothing and shelter for the nights, which of course means they need to carry all this heavy luggage along with them throughout the day. Secondly, I haven’t seen too many people that actually self-navigate. Most European hikers hire local guides and have a couple of horses to carry their luggage, and they have a cook.

“Even if the whole global financial system collapses, those people won’t even be affected.”

If you go solo, without support, there are no porters and no animals. And if you want to do it in a pretty good pace then you have to minimize your luggage. Normally I go pretty fast across these passes. So even if the pass is at 5,000 meters, I set up my base camping site below 3,000, do the pass completely and again get down to below 3,000 because camping at lower altitudes allows you to stay warm. As you carry more gear, you become slower. As you become slower, you need to carry more gear and more food. So my minimalistic approach with just carrying 6 kg works well. Most of the time I just run in my shorts and T-shirt, as opposed to the typical image you have of a hiker with a full down coat. Only at night when I get settled into sleep do I layer up. The most important gear for me is my rain jacket. Secondly, my lightweight fleece allows me to keep warm against the cold winds.

In 2018, Peter Van Geit set a route that covered over 40 high passes in the Himalaya.

TOJ: Neil, what kind of film equipment are you going to be able to bring in the minimalist style?

Neil: I’m going to be carrying a OnePlus 6, which was the same phone that Peter shot his previous journey on. I’m also carrying two lenses from Moment, a wider lens and a slightly zoomed-in lens. I’m also carrying a GoPro and a Mavic drone.

TOJ: What is your plan for food? Will you be relying on the good graces of local shepherds?

Peter: Going minimalist, you only carry enough food to last you from the last village in one valley to the first village in the next valley, that’s just enough for two to three days. Some of the glacier crossings might last five to six days, where we might have to carry a little more. But those are exceptions. I made a conscious decision to drop all cooking gear to cut down on weight.

AN ALPINE STYLE FOR HIMALAYAN ALTITUDES

TOJ: Why is it so important for you to hike and climb in a purely alpine style?

“I’m interested in exploring new wilderness with my compass, not a marked trail.”

Peter: I’ve been hiking through South Indian jungles for the last 10 years, which is quite different from the Alps or other places in Europe. As part of the Chennai Trekking Club, we have done a lot of expeditions through dense jungle. In the Himalaya, the alpine meadows are actually above the forest zones with open spaces which are challenging, but jungles are also challenging because they are quite dense. So I’m continually interested in exploring new wilderness with topographic maps, GPS and my compass, rather than walking behind a guide on a marked trail.

Peter runs in shorts and a T-shirt, unlike most hikers in the Himalaya who wear many layers of clothing.

CHENNAI TREKKING CLUB TRAGEDY

TOJ: On March 11, 2018 the Chennai Trekking Club was involved in a tragic fire near Kurangini, resulting in 18 deaths. And there was a legal case involving Peter. We’d like to give you the opportunity to share your perspective on the claim against you as well as the status of your case.

Peter: One thing about South India is that it’s a pretty conservative society. It’s rare for people to step out into the outdoors, even more so for women. One of the things we focused on with the Chennai Trekking Club is ladies treks, so we can get more women into the outdoors. And then last year in March on National Women’s Day, we had some volunteer organizers in our community set up a meetup to expose women to the outdoors on a pretty plain route, not a jungle or anything, that is pretty risk-free. Unfortunately, some local farmers burned down their grasses and the high winds and long, dry grasses made the fire get out of control. That’s one thing.

“Full settlements, which would have been vibrant, are now completely abandoned.”

The second thing is that forest officials, the fire department, and the police department were all attending a ceremony by the Deputy Chief Minister. There was actually a proper warning system in place that automatically triggers SMS and email alerts when there are temperature anomalies, and the forest department received hundreds of warnings the morning of the fire but they didn’t act on it because they were attending that political function.

In a self-supported journey, Neil and Peter carry their tents with them in minimalist packs.

It could have been accepted as a natural disaster, but my understanding is that the forest department got scared that the finger might get pointed at them, so they tried to shift the blame to an easy target, myself, a foreigner who was running the Chennai Trekking Club. As it so happened, I was running a 150 km marathon that same weekend and not involved in the organization of this specific trek. Two years back, they praised me as a hero when I rescued some 130 people in the Chennai floods, but two years later it was time to put me down in the media. I was advised to go undercover for five weeks to avoid being forced to make a false confession in prison, then the judge gave a wonderful judgment, he also clearly saw what was happening was a blame game, and I was given bail.

LEARNING FROM LOCAL CULTURES

TOJ: Neil, why is it so important for you to create a film that raises awareness about adventure sports in India?

Neil: Good question. I’ll know the answer during the journey. With a challenge like this, I believe that If you’re going to overthink it, you’re not going to do it.

Peter: Neil is a little less prepared than me physically and he’ll be a little bit more loaded with his electronics, but, one thing that matches between me and Neil is that we are both passionate about exploring these places and then also inspiring other people to do these kinds of journeys in alpine style. The Himalaya are one of the most beautiful places in the world but the whole area needs quite a bit of study to establish solo routes unless you want to go on a commercial trip with 50 other people.

TOJ: Have you learned anything from your experience with a floor-living culture where they don’t use chairs? In America, there’s a saying that “Sitting is the new smoking,” in terms of the toll it takes on health.

Peter: You can definitely see it in India, it’s not far behind in the sense that people have become very physically inactive. They sit at home, at their office, and in their vehicle. The number one cause of death in India is actually lifestyle related.

TOJ: As you pass through the Himalaya, are you witnessing pollution or other negative effects caused to the environment by humans?

Peter: Even though it’s very far away from civilization, industries, and cities, all three of which contribute to global warming and pollution, you definitely see signs within the Himalaya, such as changing weather patterns and glaciers retreating. You can see full settlements, which would have been vibrant, now completely abandoned over the last few years, most probably because those lifelines of water streams are drying up, turning them into barren desert landscapes.

TOJ: Peter, what’s something that Western culture could learn from the simple way that the shepherds live?

Peter selected remote traverses that are only used by local shepherds.

Peter: In these remote villages, one thing that strikes me is that people live in a very simple and very sustainable way. Anything they use–their blankets, their clothes, it’s all self-made at home. They grow their own food. They don’t live any dependency on the global economy or the virtual money economies so even if the whole global financial system collapses, those people won’t even be affected. Meanwhile, most of us living in cities completely dependent on the economy will go hungry because we have forgotten the old ways of sustaining ourselves.

TOJ: Do you think there are both pros and cons to traveling with a partner this time as opposed to the type of introspective experience you get when you’re traveling by yourself?

Peter: Going solo, of course, has pros and cons. If anything happens to you, nobody’s there to give you a hand. But once you overcome that initial fear of being all alone in that huge, overwhelming landscape, there is an extreme experience of peacefulness. Going solo, you can set your own pace and also the local people are more eager to host you and treat you like a royal guest. Then again, being the runner and the filmmaker at the same time is pretty challenging.

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

To see more of Peter’s expeditions, visit: http://ultrajourneys.org/about/
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

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Athletes & Explorers

Aug 06, 2019

In Defense of the Struggle.

Mountain bike racer Alicia Leggett reflects on how the obstacles she's faced have made her a better competitor and a stronger person.

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WRITTEN BY

Alicia Leggett

Like many ambitious people, I hate being bad at things.

Here’s my problem: It’s hard to become good at anything worthwhile without sucking for a while.

I’m a pro mountain bike racer, and last summer was my first season of world-level international racing. I raced in six countries as part of the Enduro World Series and traveled to races outside of North America for the first time. And although this was the season I’d been dreaming of for years, it was the hardest and most frustrating season of my life. More importantly, it took a lot of work to get there, and it will take much more work to keep progressing.

My 2018 season kicked off in March with races in Chile and Columbia, countries I’d never visited but had researched obsessively since I first looked at the season calendar. Living in Missoula, MT, I had spent most of the winter off the bike. I also received my bike for this year the week before I left for South America, so although I was beyond excited and itching to escape the snow, I wasn’t exactly prepared to compete with the world’s best.

“I remember crying in the shower”

I had done what I could. Moving to somewhere warm and dry wasn’t an option for me last winter, so I made the most of things and embraced the mental break from riding. I skied more days than I didn’t ski, I learned to enjoy running in the snow (and started borrowing my favorite dog, who became a great running buddy) and I started lifting heavier and more consistently than I ever have. Still, when I showed up to the start line at 11,000 feet in the Chilean Andes, I struggled.

The two-day race was brutal. I remember crying in the shower after the first day, dreading the morning when I’d have to wake up and do it again. But somehow, those two days are imprinted in my mind as two of the best days of my life. The Chilean sky is beautiful. The mountains are rugged. The terrain made me feel like I was riding on another planet. A week later, I raced in the Colombian jungle, in a mess of tire-sucking mud and suffocating humidity. I reveled in the misery.

“I’m not here to write about the times things went well”

All things considered, those two South American races went all right, and I collected a couple of race results I can be proud of, but I returned to the U.S. battered, exhausted and demoralized. But things improved from there. I put one foot in front of the other, took one pedal stroke at a time, and kept moving. I spent time riding my favorite trails, taking bike park laps and racing at the regional level for the next few months. I started running women’s clinics in my area, continued coaching teenagers and generally had a great time riding my bike. I won four regional races in a row, which was exciting proof of my growth as a rider. But I’m not here to write about the times’ things went well. This is a defence of the struggle.

After racing the Enduro World Series round in Whistler, I returned home and focused on preparing for the season’s final races in Spain and Italy.

The first day of racing in Spain was one of my best race days ever. I climbed about 6,000 feet and raced four tricky stages to land myself in 19th of 41 of the world’s best racers heading into the next day. I was so excited I could hardly sleep – I loved the course, and being in the top half of the EWS field felt great. I just needed to keep my riding smooth through the next day and I’d land myself in the top 20.

On the first stage of the next day, things fell apart. My dropper lever got stuck engaged and my seat kept popping up, which was not helpful in steep, rocky terrain. I crashed. Hard. I finished the stage, much slower than I wanted to, then admitted to myself that I might not finish the race. I looked like I had an extra elbow in the center of my chest and it hurt to breathe. I watched a volunteer wheel my bike away and felt my high hopes disappear.

I’d made it through the whole season without any serious crashes or mechanical problems. Why did the problems have to show up at one of the races I cared about the most?

At least I had one race left. After a round of chest x-rays (verdict: nothing broken) and a few days of rest, I was ready to ride again. I drove to Italy, fixed my bike and studied the course. Practice day arrived, and it was the first day I could move around without chest pain, so I considered that a good sign, until I caught my front wheel in a corner and body-slammed the ground. Once practice was over, I started to feel everything.

My chest still hurt and I had a massive bruise on my quad left from the previous crash. On top of that, I’d landed on a big rock just inside my hipbone and my bloody arm had started to swell.

“I crossed an ocean for this,” I kept thinking.

I showed up to the start line battered but determined to make the best of things. I just had four race stages left in my season. I would show up and ride my best.

I hadn’t quite learned the lesson the previous week: Sometimes, things just fall apart. We can’t control all of it. And if we could control it, where would the adventure be?

I controlled the variables I could, but in that final race, my luck had run out.

I bent my derailleur on a rock on the first stage. I also broke my chain guide on the first stage. My chain broke on the second stage as I tried to sprint up a hill with my limited gear range. I rode a clean but conservative third stage before lining up at the top of the fourth stage.

My entire season had built up to that moment. I left the U.S. riding better than ever before, and I’d made sure everything on my bike was dialed. I’d take all the steps I could to set myself up for success, and things still hadn’t gone my way. Regardless, I had to keep giving my all. The last stage that day was my favorite, and I went in for redemption.

I knew I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. After a few minutes of riding fast, skipping through technical rock sections and pedaling hard whenever I had the chance, I felt my chain drop off my chainring and all I could do was try to keep my momentum. So much for having a good stage. I dropped into one of the most iconic sections in all of enduro racing, a rocky corridor lined with thousands of cheering spectators that feels like it goes directly down the ridge to the Mediterranean. It was incredible. After a brutal day, when it felt like everything went wrong, I crossed the line ecstatic.

An article I read once explained that gamblers experience a bigger rush when they almost win than when they actually win. That’s part of what keeps them coming back. I think I’m the same way. For the entire trip, I had great race stages interrupted by the most frustrating moments of my season. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling awful over and over, in just a few seconds each time. Those races showed me that I could be on-pace with where I wanted to be, racing with the best of them, but reminded me to never take a good result for granted.

“Learn to love struggling”

If I’d finished the season the way I wanted to, I would probably be content, and maybe I wouldn’t train as hard through the off-season. I can use my unfinished business with the EWS as motivation to come back stronger. I learned much more from the Europe races than I ever learned from races that went well, and I will focus on everything I can carry forward with me into future races. I learned about on-the-go bike fixes and gained practice staying calm when things felt disastrous, which, as it turns out, is important.

I’m now in the middle of my 2019 race season, and haven’t forgotten last year’s lessons. I’ve had a few explosive, unprecedented results so far this year, so I know I’ve internalized at least some of what I learned. Each setback has poured a bit more fuel on the fire, and I’m back, mentally and physically tougher than ever.

I’ve heard so many times that we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react. I’m choosing to learn whenever I can.

Years of riding bikes has shown me the value in doing things that are difficult. The most fun trails are usually the ones I’m good at riding, so I make myself ride the ones I don’t enjoy. I look for technical climbs, off-camber corners and tight switchbacks, which I would love to avoid. And these days, I can think of a few trails I used to hate that I now find satisfying.

Riding bikes is hard. Crashing out of a race sucks. Mechanical problems also suck. Both at once… well, you get the idea, but that’s mountain biking sometimes, and life. We are all doing the best we can with what we know.

So, my advice to anyone reading: Learn to love struggling. Do the things that are hard, especially when you don’t want to. If a ride or race falls apart, find the lesson and keep moving. You’ll prove to yourself, over and over, that you can survive.

 

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