[article] Mountain of the Spirit

Two runners running in Nepal

Reposted from a feature in Sidetracked Magazine. Written by Lily Dyu. Published July 25, 2016.

At 4,000m, the sun was penetrating, loosening rock and ice. Gleaming chains of peaks ran in every direction and faded into the horizon. Above me, a raptor floated on thermals, silhouetted against the blue, whilst below me, glacial lakes were turquoise gems set into the platinum landscape. In the silence, I could hear my heart pounding. In Sanskrit, Manaslu means ‘Mountain of the Spirit’ and in this place, where heaven and skies meet, the thin air seemed imbued with an otherworldly spirit.

A low rumble rose from below and echoed about the valley. I stopped to watch the debris of a small avalanche tumble over the crevasse-scarred glacier, snaking around the mountain. Breathing hard, I continued up the steep trail, my running long slowed to a hiking pace. My eyes followed the path to the snowline, and here the first runner appeared. He was on his way to the finish before I was even a third of the way to the turnaround point.

Lumpy in a leotard, terrible at tennis and hopeless at hockey – as a child I was the polar opposite of sporty. My younger self would have laughed and snorted if you’d told her that one day she’d run a ‘sky race’ to the base camp of the world’s eighth highest mountain. Yet here I was in Nepal, with 40 others, including world-class ultrarunners, on the fifth stage of the Manaslu Mountain Trail – an eight-stage foot-race, covering 212km and 13,500m of ascent around the 8,156m mountain. I’d been a runner since my twenties, and my goal was simply to complete rather than compete, and to trail-run in a country I’d long wished to see.

In the lodge at Deng, we crowded around long wooden tables, wrapped in down jackets and hats, eating dhal and roti. We hadn’t washed for days, apart from wet wipes or a Thermos of hot water, but thankfully all we could smell was the aroma of the spices rising from our bowls. Laughter and talk warmed the air. Outside, it was pitch black, but the glint of a head torch signified the final runner arriving from that day’s 40km stage. I’d been one of the last to finish that evening, running the last 10km alone through a wooded, shadowy gorge, abandoned early by the sun, with alpenglow smearing the mountaintops pink. Running by moonlight, and guided by the sound of the river, I ran against the chill to the glow of the tiny hamlet, where the quickest runners had arrived hours earlier.

Collage of images from the Manaslu Trail Race

That evening, there was a long, tired wait for our bags to be delivered when the mules took longer than expected to make the journey. Eventually I went to sleep in a tiny space that doubled as a storeroom, amongst sacks of rice and lentils. In another mountain hut, with no window panes, and fully dressed in my sleeping bag, I slept fitfully as the banshee wind wailed outside. It was a couple of years before the region was to be stricken by the 2015 earthquakes, and living conditions were already hard. In many villages, there were no schools, medical outposts or clean water, and firewood was still collected daily. Our accommodation had no light or electricity, whilst Asian squat toilets and frozen water added to the challenges for many of us who may have taken the comforts of the developed world for granted.

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