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Summit rush to Mt Yunam

Shail Desai | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Tough run | The course for the Ultra Half was designed by trail runner and ultra marathoner KierenD’Souza

The Ultra Half marathon to Mt Yunam in Himachal Pradesh is the highest such race in the world, organisers say

It takes four days on an average to make a round-trip from the nearest road head to the summit of Mt Yunam, a mountain in the Lahaul Valley of Himachal Pradesh. The peak had been on Ravindra Charan’s bucket list ever since he took to trekking and mountaineering a few years ago.

Recently, Charan, a brand manager for climbing and mountaineering at Decathlon, the sports goods chain, stumbled upon the perfect way to make the trip and scale the peak. The catch: He had to race 21km in 10 hours. Charan signed up for the challenge. So did 64 others.

Charan and company were part of the Ultra Half, which at a maximum altitude of 6,111m, organisers claim is the highest in the world. Sixty-five runners were slated to take part in a 21km and 10km race through the frigid climes of the remote valley on October 4 (this article was written before the race commenced).

The race was conceptualised by members of 4Play — a motley group of storytellers, athletes and adventurers based out of Manali. A few years ago, mountaineer Pranav Rawat, who monitored the safety aspects of the race, had pulled off an arduous crossing from Chilling in Ladakh to Dharchula in Uttarakhand, along with two friends. Sukrit Gupta, race director, went on an 80km solo run up the Pindari glacier in 2015.

Both the efforts were self-supported and pulled off with minimal gear. Rawat and race photographer Abhijeet Singh soon made independent speed ascents up Mt Kanamo (5,990m), another peak in neighbouring Spiti Valley, and all this inspired them to start the Ultra Half.

“It’s not an ultra marathon distance. We decided to restrict the race to 21km and 10km categories (to be finished in six hours), so that it was accessible to most competitors. But it’s the altitude that makes it challenging, especially the 5km climb up to the summit of Yunam,” Gupta says.

The course was designed by trail runner and ultra marathoner Kieren D’Souza, who has the experience of running international races such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in the Alps and Spartathlon in Greece. He also represented India at the IAU Trail World Championships in June. The Ultra Half begins at an altitude of 4,700m at Bharatpur in Himachal Pradesh, before climbing to the summit of Yunam and back over scree, moraine and ice, then getting to the top of Bara-lacha La (around 4,900m), a high mountain pass on the Manali-Leh highway, and ending at the starting point.

“We have terrain in India which is on par with what is offered around the world, though the sport has a lot of catching up to do. Races such as these will hand our runners exposure and pose a good challenge for those who are experienced,” D’Souza says.

Gupta points to the difficulties. The uphill race has a cutoff of three hours for the first 3.5km, a stretch that takes runners to an altitude of 5,400m. “Anyone who exceeds this time is pulled out of the race. It is done to ensure that everyone finishes the trail section safely,” he says. A helicopter and road evacuation team stand by in case of emergencies.

What makes this race a challenge besides the altitude is the weather in the semi-arid region. The valley has of late witnessed high winds, freezing sub-zero temperatures and snowfall, making the race extremely tough for the runners.

“A mandatory health check-up is conducted before the race, where we look for signs of altitude sickness besides the usual monitoring. We then decide if we need to pull someone out. There is also a medical team on the course, aid stations for nutrition and help from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation,” says Rawat, a UIAA-certified Himalayan Alpine guide, who has trekked to Satopanth in Uttarakhand (7,075m) and scaled Saser Kangri (7,672m) in the Karakoram range.

The organisers received 1,500-odd entries for the two categories. While four recce trips were conducted over the last two months in order to finalise the route, another team screened the participants based on their past experience with running and at altitude. Those who made the cut were trekkers, mountaineers and ultra runners.

“The altitude makes it impossible to run for long stretches. It’s still possible on the road section, but on the route that leads to the summit of Yunam, your best bet is to use walking poles and hike up steadily,” says Shambhavi Mishra, a contestant.

Mishra is a lecturer at the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology in Prayagraj and a keen trekker, having reached a maximum altitude of 5,500m at Kalindi Khal in Garhwal in the past. She spent the last few weekends running up trails around Mussoorie to prepare herself, and also took part in a half marathon last month.

Charan, who has climbed peaks such as Stok Kangri (6,153m) and Kang Yatse II (6,350m) in Ladakh, prepared for the race with high-intensity interval training measures (a series of demanding exercises). “I’m not big on running long distances and, in any case, at altitude, it’s all very different. Nobody can predict anything in the mountains,” he says.

Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Published on October 04, 2019
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