Sonya Looney Yak Attack Nepal Race Report and Interview

Race Coverage

Stage 9: Thorong La Pass

Thorong La: 17,769′.

2:26 AM. That’s the time I woke up on my own this morning. My alarm was set for 2:30. We had garlic soup last night for dinner, but the garlic was mostly raw and I’ve suffered all night from an upset stomach. I don’t know why I ate it. I could still taste it and feel it in my stomach when I got up. It was nauseating. Although we slept at almost 15,000′, the morning was not nearly as cold and miserable as I expected.

Breakfast was served late (we were supposed to eat at 3:30AM, but at 3:50 AM, we were trying to wolf it down for the 4 AM start). All the flush buckets were (still) frozen, but I managed to find a pit toilet and hoped to cure my stomach woes. By the time I got to my bike, Phil called out 1 minute to start. I had my harness I had created, but I didn’t have enough time to get it on right and scrambled to get my bike on my back. I regretted not taking an extra 2 minutes to get it situated correctly. I was glad I had it, but it didn’t operate as I had designed and used in training. I started in the back and scrambled to get in a spot where I wouldn’t have to be worried about trying to pass people on a narrow trail in the dark. My headlamp worked well, but it was still tricky hiking in the dark. The first part was tough and very steep. We were in the mix with trekkers and porters. I hiked most of the way with Cefin. There were some really sketchy sections with off camber snow and a cliff on one side; one mistake and down you go. I couldn’t help but look down and I regretted it. I started freaking out because I hate heights and was hyperventilating. I told myself to focus my little tunnel of light straight forward on the trail. There were a few sections like this. I also had to walk sideways over a bridge before a teahouse and the bridge frame was tricky to navigate. The wind picked up considerably before the sun was even up. It was bitter, dark, and cold. I was thankful for all the awful, cold training days at 9,000′ I did to prepare for the race because my gear choice (what seemed like overkill), was barely enough to stay warm. I chose Hestra Pro Alpine leather gloves and some hand warmers. That was a very good choice as several people had frostbite after the pass.

I was paranoid the whole time that I would suddenly get altitude sickness. I kept thinking that maybe I was feeling symptoms(“am I nauseated? Am I dizzy?”) and forced my brain to turn off because I was not helping my cause. I had to unsnap my waist strap on my harness because it was pushing on my descending colon and I felt like I had to poo! Let me tell you, there is NO place to go to the bathroom along the trail. It’s snowcovered with a narrow pathway to walk carved into the side of the mountain. There was one teahouse along the way at high camp, and that’s all you get. All the weight of my backpack and bike was now on my shoulders, my neck was screaming at me. I’d bring poles next time, especially to help with the sketchy walking sections. The altitude (other than heavy breathing and not moving too fast) didn’t bother me as much as I thought. I surprisingly did not have a headache like the one I had after stage 8. The hike was only 3 miles, but it felt like 20. At one point I was hiking with Santosh and I asked him if we were almost there. He said, “No. Long way.” What choice did I have but to keep walking? I felt frustrated and impatient to get to the top. I kept looking for the sun to peak up over the horizon, but all I saw was darkness. The wind and cold were getting to me although for most of the time, I was warm. There were about FOURTEEN false summits. I stopped to add my down jacket because I was cold, making that my 7th layer on my torso. I was walking with the porters when I spotted the top. The sun had just come up and I had been walking for 3 hours. The fast guys did the 3 mile ascent in 2.5 hours, so I wasn’t as slow as I thought. I was so glad to finally make it. I was overwhelmed that I got there after months of anxiety about Thorong La Pass. I stopped to have tea and a twix in the teahouse with Chandra and Cefin. I hadn’t eaten in about 3 hours. I was so overwhelmed that I cried a little bit – because I was so happy, because I was exhausted, because it had been hard and I was relieved, because I was bonking, and because we were there. We made it to the high point of the race…. we made it up the highest and longest pass on the Annapurna Circuit and we carried our bikes up there!!

Chandra and I on the pass.

Chandra and I took some photos, but it was very very cold. I was shivering so hard I could barely control my body! I wanted to get the hell off the mountain.

I barely took any photos this day because my hands would have instantly frozen if I took them out of the glove.

A lot of the downhill from the mountain was sketchy walking on off camber snow and ice. I went to use squeeze my brakes and my guts dropped inside me. NOTHING. My front brake did not work AT ALL. There was oil coming out of the reservoir. My rear brake had about 10% braking power and pulled all the way to the bar and I could wheel the bike along, try to engage the brake with nothing happening. It was EXTREMELY difficult to push a bike down a very steep downhill without being able to stop the wheels so I had to carry the bike. It was really slow going and frustrating. There were dangerous slides down the side of the mountain. I was definitely nervous for my safety and was very cautious, but I did fantasize about throwing my bike down the side of the mountain. The worst was when I got to the point where it was rideable and I was walking. I was a complete wreck. Negative, bawling, angry, disappointed. I had worked so hard for so many days and to have it come down to something so far out of my control killed me. Something that would have taken less than an hour to ride took me hours to walk.

This shows how real it is, how difficult, how exhausting and frustrating…and how it’s harder to deal with things after 9 days of racing in a foreign country. (look how many jackets I’m wearing, haha) …to work so hard and think that I might not finish because of something out of my control. I could only imagine how Jeff felt inside.

I got a big blister on my heel and my feet hurt so bad. I tried to ride singletrack very slowly with the teeny bit of rear brake I had. “Maybe if I go really slow, I’ll be ok.” I couldn’t stop and went over the side of a switchback and crashed hard on the rocks. I laid there for awhile before I could move. That was the end of that. Once I got to Muktinath, the trail turned into a gravel road was more steady with not so many switchbacks. My rear brake was slowly coming back a little bit more and thankfully, I could ride at 5mph for the flatter sections of the road. If it got steep, I had to walk. I had a horrible, throbbing headache and had only 20oz of water in the 7.5 hours that I was out there. In previous years, the race ended at the end of the trail in Muktinath. This year, it ended 10km down the road in Kagbeni.

Due to the brake problem, I lost about 2 hours in the GC. This was upsetting because I wanted to finish top 10 in the men. After everything, the place I was in seemed irrelevant. I thought it was over for me. I had made it to the high point of the race where the rest of the race was almost all downhill (or so we were told) and I had no brakes. A 9000′ descent that day. I made it up in good time, but I was passed by everyone coming down. I was positive that I’d lose my lead and wasn’t confident I’d be finishing the race because the next day was 42 miles… and even if I wanted to walk my bike to the finish (and I would have had that been an option), I simply cannot walk 42 miles. When I got to the finish, I found out that I had finished 1hour and 40 min behind Carena. I couldn’t believe that I still had about a 20 minute lead in the Women’s GC and was thankful that I had that despite how awful my day had been. I was completely exhausted. Everyone was laying in the grass at the hotel when I arrived. I slumped down into the grass – a defeated mess. The saving grace was our room had an actual toilet which I hadn’t seen in days. I also had a tepid shower for the first time in many days. I was emotionally exhausted. I tried to nurse myself back to life with a lemon sugar pancake, milk tea, and spring rolls. I anxiously waited for Jeff to get back. I was very worried about him and his health; he had to ride a yak over the pass, hike down the back side and get in a jeep in Muktinath. I was also hoping one of his brakes held up and I could take one of his. I racked my brain to figure out how I’d finish the next day. His rear brake was completely blown out, but his front worked -the brake I needed.

That was it. I’d be able to start the next day and finish the race.

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