It's 4am and I'm winding up the highest motorable pass in the world. At more than 5 000m above sea-level, the twists, turns, and altitude gets the better of my colleague, the French journalist Laurent Houssin, and he asks to be left on the side of the road. We pull over into a truck stop and he disappears into total darkness and utter stillness. There are only stars and the sound of his feet stamping to keep warm.
The Tibetan driver and I continue up. We stop at the Pallu military checkpoint for 20 minutes. Shaukat Sikand, the race organiser, is meant to come down to help us through, but I see how easily the army lets others pass, so we chalo and continue up. And up.
At summit, it’s 5 600m and -9°C. The world is quiet, save for a Hindu chant blaring from the travellers’ hut. The wind catches the prayer flags opposite, and the snow is sluiced with the mountain rock. As the sun comes up, the range looks like a sleeping dragon’s lair.
We’re higher than Everest Base camp. My phone dies — the battery can’t handle the cold or the thin air.
An hour later the buses start arriving. Bicycles first. Hero — an Indian brand — is a race sponsor and it has provided a fleet of white bikes for the local teams. There’s a muffled chortle as the pro-organisers spy bike stands.
When the competitors arrive, the amusement turns to bewilderment and, shortly after, concern. The Indian teams are completely ill-equipped. A handful have completed triathlons, but none have done an adventure race, competing in extreme conditions with no assistance. This is virgin territory and it can go dangerously wrong.
Only the Navy Seals have helmets and pullovers and a few a pack with water. The remaining 10 teams are in shorts or gym pants, with sunglasses and headbands. No gloves. They find bikes and start practising balance, cycling around in small circles. It’s cold, very cold, but the race can’t begin until General JJ Singh, the president of the Indian Adventure Racing Federation, arrives. One of the Australian competitors falls out — her oxygen count is very low — and two of the French feel they too can’t compete.
It’s day two of the 2016 Adventure Racing Championship in Ladakh: a gruelling 343km race against the clock, across the vast and barren Himalayas.
Day one was an “easy” 43km trek up the mountains. Cobus van Zyl, captain of the South African team, says later: “On that first day, 12km up, my lungs started burning and my head felt as though it would explode.” He pushed on, as did his team, and 48 hours later they came in first, beating the Patagonians by four hours.
It’s the first time India is hosting an adventure race and, as well as learning the ropes, the organisers are doing it a bit differently. To be fair, altitude and military presence demand this. Instead of a flat-out, no-sleep race, they’ve initiated obligatory rest periods. “We want to provide a world-class race, but the health of our competitors is a number one priority,” says the general, who can be seen at all times gambolling across the terrain in his 4x4, keeping track of teams and especially encouraging the army competitors.