Beyond The Edge
Running the Great Himalayan Trail
Dean Leslie // Wandering Fever
‘That can’t be ice.’
The stretch of glistening blue ice that lay directly in our path was not in itself a concern, rather its gentle slope leading to a slow-motion slide into 1,000ft of thin air. There was no way around it.
This was my first and most immediate thought. I don’t know why I thought it wasn’t a possibility. Maybe I was just overwhelmed. Since arriving in Nepal things hadn’t gone our way. Bad weather had delayed flights, narrowing our window. The plan was for Ryan and Ryno to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on a section of the Great Himalaya Trail – west to east, traversing Nepal through the Himalaya and its foothills, covering a distance of over 1,400km with an accumulated elevation gain of over 70,000m. That was the plan.
When Ryan first proposed the idea to me almost two years before, I had romanticised it. All I heard was ‘traverse’ and ‘Himalaya’ and almost immediately I agreed. Those two words alone conjure so many images and emotions. I have always been fascinated by humanity’s nomadic roots and the unrest many now feel in their sedentary lifestyles. For a decade this fascination has directly influenced the films I’ve made, and I doubt there is a better playground for this to play out than the Himalaya. I knew this project would be tough, but I always believed it was possible.
We were just over two days into our hike in. Just below us lay the village of Hilsa, situated in the far west of Nepal, on the Tibetan border. This was meant to be our start point. The stretch of glistening blue ice that lay directly in our path was not in itself a concern, rather its gentle slope leading to a slow-motion slide into 1,000ft of thin air. There was no way around it. In mountaineering terms, it was nothing – but we were in running shoes, we had no rope and no crampons, and one ice axe between eight of us. A late winter had caught us off guard and we had recently learned that no-one had crossed the pass this season. A fact that might have been good to know beforehand. But that’s the way things seem to work in Nepal – information is relayed in bite-sized pieces, often after the fact. Nepali people try so hard to please; they don’t want to burden others with problems or difficulties. They make decisions assuming they know what’s best for you. And sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t. It can be both endearing and infuriating.
I stumbled and slid over to Ryan and Ryno, trying to hide my irritation. Our guide and porters stood talking amongst themselves. Occasionally, one of them would walk precariously over the ice, hugging the rock wall and sprinkling dirt. The Karnali River snaked through its namesake valley thousands of feet below. A slip here and you were dead. It was undeniable. Make a mistake and die.
Maybe I was naive coming into this, but I didn’t think it would be life threatening. I don’t want to dramatise this into a death-defying adventure. It wasn’t like that. It was more an increased risk of death and I hadn’t prepared myself for that; I don’t think any of us had. I stood there, struggling to rationalise the choice facing us, thinking how stupid it would be if I died trying to make a film that no-one would even remember. The risk didn’t feel worth it. I could see from Ryan’s expression he wasn’t so sure either. But Ryno was far more determined. Unassailable, even. One look at his face and I knew we were crossing.
In other circumstances I would probably have turned around, but I was too exhausted and it was already early evening – far too late in the day to make it back to any form of shelter behind us. I was beat, my feet were destroyed, and my nerves were frayed. And Ryno’s demeanour, his long stare, was characterised by a deep defiance. I knew I didn’t really have a choice either way. I heard Ryan mutter: ‘Well, I’m the idiot that chose to be here,’ which had the effect of putting everything in perspective. The guides had by now sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the ice, creating a faint trail. It gave us just enough grip to step lightly and make our way over the ice. At one stage one of the porters slipped. He glided over the ice in a horrifying slow-motion slide. I thought that was it. But, somehow, he managed to gain control and stop himself while still standing upright. He didn’t even flinch and just carried on moving. I struggled to fathom how the porters rationalised this. For them this was just another job, and in that moment the whole idea must have seemed even more ridiculous to them. It was a sobering reality check for us.
The start of the attempt was quiet, understated even, after the intensity of the hike in. Just before dawn, Ryan and Ryno headed off from the bridge on the Nepal-Tibetan border. The goal was to head east towards the Indian border, crossing into Darjeeling in less than 28 days. In just a few minutes the glow from their head lamps had faded into the night. That first day would see them backtrack the same trail we hiked in on. Normally a five-day trekking route, Ryan and Ryno planned to run it in under 12 hours. It would take us another three days to retrace their steps. Their route would take them through the high, snow-laden summits of the western Himalaya and eventually drop into the foothills of the east, through farmland communities lying in the shadow of those mighty peaks. The Great Himalaya Trail, or GHT, is not a singular trail, like the United States’ Appalachian Trail for instance, but rather a patchwork of pre-existing footpaths that have existed for centuries. There isn’t just one route. Our job was to follow and document the attempt in order to communicate their experiences.
The start of the attempt was quiet, understated even, after the intensity of the hike in. Just before dawn, Ryan and Ryno headed off from the bridge on the Nepal-Tibetan border. The goal was to head east towards the Indian border, crossing into Darjeeling in less than 28 days.
Six days later we sat in the windswept village of Kagbeni in Upper Mustang. We’d had no contact with Ryan and Ryno for several days as they moved through the Upper Dolpa region, one of the most remote regions in the whole of Nepal. My last contact with Ryan had been a voice note telling me they were picking up some ice axes and rope as they were expecting even colder and worse conditions ahead. He had asked me not to tell his wife, Vanessa, so she wouldn’t worry; but later I saw he had uploaded photos of himself to Instagram, holding ice axes like he was John Wayne. It was obviously too good a social media opportunity to resist. But now there was no communication. All I could see was a black dot on-screen inching painfully slowly through a whole lot of nothing.
Then it stopped and didn’t move again. For hours.
With his gloves iced over, Ryno was forced to remove them to use the GPS. It hadn’t been a decision taken lightly. Eight of Ryno’s fingers were soon frostbitten; two of them were black.
Panicked, Vanessa messaged frantically for an update. Although we were only 70km away from them, it would still take us days to reach them. I managed to zoom in on the satellite view and make out a handful of buildings. They were carrying a tracking device that they could use to signal in an emergency, but so far no-one had received anything. I woke up every hour that night checking the tracking site for updates. This was to become a nightly routine. I suddenly felt responsible for their safety. It wasn’t as though I could do anything to help, and we had a guiding company assisting with logistics and the drop bags; it was more the awareness that we were the only people in direct contact with them and who intimately understood what it was they were trying to do. Outside the bubble of our project, logic prevailed: setting an FKT and making a film mattered little to anyone beyond our small group, and it certainly wasn’t worth any overt risk. There was no particular reason for the attempt and certainly no larger purpose. In that sense, there was a degree of futility inherent in the project.
Record attempts, world firsts, expeditions; call them what you will, they are so often imbued with some larger cause or deeper meaning. Outside of climbing and mountaineering, I frequently find dishonesty in the explanations for why people undertake such projects. It’s not that there is insincerity in wanting to do good or in raising awareness of a cause. But underlying all of this must be personal ambition. A certain self-centredness and ego. I’ve spoken with Ryan about this; that we shouldn’t apologise for doing something just because we want to. The GHT was precisely that for them. An adventure. Using the guise and framework of a pre-existing FKT, Ryan and Ryno defined a set of parameters that forced them out of their comfort zones in order to experience something deeper within themselves.
But sitting watching that black dot move so slowly in the days that followed, hearing the wind howl and feeling the temperature plummet, I couldn’t help but think they were getting more than they bargained for. Suffering extreme, sub-zero temperatures, with barely any shelter or food, Ryan and Ryno eventually made it out of the Dolpa region. Deep into winter, almost all the villages had been abandoned, and snow and ice thickly layered all the trails in the region making navigation virtually impossible. With his gloves iced over, Ryno was forced to remove them to use the GPS. It hadn’t been a decision taken lightly. Eight of Ryno’s fingers were soon frostbitten; two of them were black.
We spent a few hours with them in Kagbeni and what was startling to me was Ryno’s acceptance of the situation. At the time, it seemed to border on complacency. Only now, weeks later, can I begin to understand the way in which he had balanced the situation in his mind and had accepted the loss of his fingers. If that was the sacrifice he had to make in order to be able to complete the attempt, then so be it. To anyone else, it might have seemed utterly ridiculous, but having committed so much time to an endeavour like this, it must have been incredibly difficult to simply quit. That thin line of contrasting choices, along which Ryan and Ryno ran, was becoming increasingly blurred.
Yet as the attempt progressed, I became increasingly concerned with Ryno’s health – and I’m not just referring to the frostbite. Two days after heading into the Annapurna region, Ryno slipped on the trail and heard a pop in his quad. For 30 minutes he couldn’t walk and was crying out in agony. Still he forced himself to start moving and, after an hour, he was running. Somehow he had managed to set aside the pain, but when I saw him again in the Manaslu region, a few days later, he looked terrible. He already wore a thousand-yard stare and they were only halfway in. I asked him how far he would take this: ‘At what point do you call it?’
His response was that quitting was not an option. It was a non-discussion.
A week later his chest seized up, he was dizzy, he laboured with a fever, and was having difficulty breathing. Ryan called me to ask what he should do. He didn’t want to force Ryno to stop, but he also didn’t want Ryno to die out there on the trail. Take a moment to comprehend that: Ryan was legitimately concerned that Ryno might die. Ryno had repeatedly said that he would not entertain any talk of quitting, so it was difficult to know if Ryno was being honest about his health or just too stubborn to know when to stop. He didn’t want to let Ryan down and Ryan didn’t want him to die or suffer some irreparable physical injury. But still Ryno refused to quit and, after a few hours’ sleep, they continued. Through all of it, Ryno struggled onward and eventually managed to finish alongside Ryan, setting an FKT in the process, and clocking the fastest traverse of Nepal on foot.
How do we measure what is worthwhile, and how important does something have to be for an individual in order for them to willingly risk their health and even their life? This wasn’t the first time I’ve asked myself that question but it has now taken on an extra significance.
Only in retrospect can I see that Ryno was in control – his grit and determination were unlike anything I had ever witnessed before – but I am still confused by it. How do we measure what is worthwhile, and how important does something have to be for an individual in order for them to willingly risk their health and even their life? This wasn’t the first time I’ve asked myself that question but it has now taken on an extra significance. For many of us, survival is no longer a part of our daily reality, yet our modern lives still seem overcomplicated and bereft of something intangible but important. We search endlessly for meaning, which can lead us to journey to remote areas or to embark on grand adventures. We seize opportunities to simplify our routine, to pare it down to the bare essentials, and connect to basic acts that reignite our sense of purpose. Can that be said to be ‘living’ in the truest sense of the word? Nowadays it seems, in order to feel most alive, we must take ourselves right to the very edge.
This article was first published in Sidetracked Magazine Volume 12
On March 25, 2018, shortly after sunrise local time, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel touched the border of Nepal and officially finished their Fastest Known Time (FKT) attempt of the Great Himalaya Trail – a total of 1435km in a total 24 days, 3 hours, 24 minutes. This is a new FKT record.