Tri and Triumph
Cycling, Hiking, Rafting was the Triathlon challenge organized to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Army Training Command. 21 men, 2 women and a teenager made up the five teams that were tested for physical endurance, mental toughness and team spirit with rules that included every team carry its own nutrition and hydration supplies in their back packs along with strict compliance of safety instructions and leaving zero carbon footprints.
‘A triathlete is a person who doesn’t understand that one sport is enough’ it’s said and here were a group of 24 triathletes, ranging from the young at 60 to the raring to go at 19 out to prove the adage of age being just a number. D day was a clear summer morning for the flag off of 46 km of mountain biking from Shimla to Khatnol. A festive buzz prevailed in the magnificent setting of the Shimla Ridge where the triathletes high on josh lined up with their bikes shining like steeds ready to go into battle. The early hour did little to dampen the enthusiasm of family, friends, comrades in arms and touristy early birds who jostled for space with cameras to bid good luck and fair winds to the cyclists as they were flagged off amidst loud cheers.
The first 18 km was a breeze, quite literally too as the cool morning air was laced with a slight headwind, as we made great timing for the first check point at Koti Resorts. A quick and essential washroom break and we set off for a bone rattling 20 km of downhill on a broken track. The steep descent required complete focus and skill, giving us little chance to admire the forest and wild flowers that flew past us except for a brief halt at a beautiful waterfall where we just had to take a selfie and cool off with some splashing. The descent went smoothly as we pedaled into the second check point at Shaila Bridge. From here on was the challenging stretch, 8 km all uphill in the hot May afternoon. Carpe diem they say as we took off, and barely were we 2 km into the climb when a loud sound of snapping was heard as I struggled to keep my balance, realizing immediately my bike was having a breakdown. One look at the rear derailleur and I knew I would have to wait for the mechanic fetch up in the backup vehicle. Ever the one to make use of a photo op, I crouched with the phone to take a picture of my bike, failing to notice the bushes it was leaning against until I felt a sharp burning sensation along my left thigh. To my great horror, I discovered I was sitting next to a Bichu booti, as my team quickly fanned out to search for the antidote of palak leaves to ease my agony. It was an excruciating wait till the leaves were found as I desperately rubbed them on a fast spreading rash which was beginning to swell up. Just my luck I thought as the backup vehicle arrived and the mechanic confirmed my fears, my bike could not be repaired so I’d have to ride a spare bike.
Murphy’s Law at work I sighed, riding the oversized men’s bike up the steep incline as at the same time I invoked John Collin’s words, “You can quit if you want, and no one will care. But you will know the rest of your life”, to egg me on. The last few km were a nightmare with very little riding and mostly walking up our bikes on the steep hill. The heat was beginning to tell as we struggled to keep hydrated without any tree cover and having to douse our heads with water to keep cool being careful not to exhaust our water supplies. Down to the last 2 km stretch and my stamina was flagging with the heat making the rash worse, the bike seeming like it weighed a ton and a splitting headache coming on. It was my team who rallied around motivating and keeping me going at this juncture. Coming up a bend, we spotted a race volunteer and called out to confirm the distance to the finish point. His reply “bas 10 minutes” was sweet music to our ears as we laughed both in relief and disbelief at having made the cut off despite of the 30 min delay. The sight of the magical alphabets, F.P. marked on the road elicited a whoop of unmitigated joy as we rode in to bring Day 1 to a successful close and get ready for the next morning in the pastoral environs of the Khatnol campsite.
Day 2 of hiking 26 km consisted of climbing from the Khatnol campsite at 2450 m to Shali Peak at 2850 m and then descending to Jalog at 1500 m. The hike was flagged off at 6.30 am and this time the teams stocked their backpacks with bananas, biscuits and sandwiches while doubling their stock of water and Electral having learnt from their experience on the previous day. The initial 6 km were on a mule track, mostly through the forest, so we pushed ourselves to maximize on the cool early hours. The mood was light as we chatted and took selfies on the move, and before we knew it, we were at Shali Ghat. A quick hydration break and we resumed the climb to find the terrain had changed as now we were out of tree cover and the ascent for the remaining 1.5 km to Shali temple was a steep gradient. Slowing down our pace to conserve our energy for the 20 odd km remaining of the hike, the sight of the temple flags signaled our destination as we quickened our steps to the glorious vista of the Kinnaur and Dhauladhars ranges ringed around Shali Tibba. At 2850 m, the 360 degree breathtaking view of the snow capped mountain ranges greeted us as we were lucky to be there on a clear day. The patch of grass edging the temple was like a balm to our tired feet as the temple pries blessed us, plying us with extra mishri in the prasad to keep us going strong as he said.
We spent almost an hour at Shali temple, soaking in its tranquillity and beauty while sharing the contents of our backpacks. We talked, took pictures and lay down on the grass gazing at the mountains circling us. Rejuvenated, we set off for the hike down and it couldn’t have been a more picturesque trail through the thickly wooded Pine forest, its floor littered with pine cones, wild flowers lining the paths and ferns in myriad shades of green along the rock faces. That the fallen pine needles were like slippery Eels underfoot making it hard for us to keep our balance through the descent was another matter! 7 km of descent and we were at the base from where we headed towards Himri village at 2450 m. At this point, we thought the tough part of the trek was over and we had to just hike through the village and head down to Jalog at 1500 m. Well, we couldn’t have been more mistaken because after Himri, the track turned into what at best can be called a goat track through a steep downhill, which could only be negotiated by placing one foot before the next and even on all fours at times to keep from slipping on the gravel and loose stones. It required singular focus to keep our balance, leaving us little time to stop to smell the proverbial roses on a scenic route littered with stray shepherd’s huts and flowering apple orchards.
We had been walking for an hour on the trail when we realized something was amiss as we could no longer see the road below. It looked like we had gone off the route as we looped back to find we had overshot a barely visible fork in the track. Reorienting ourselves, we set off, a little dispirited though undeterred by the knowledge our mistake having cost us close to an hour. At this point, the morale was starting to get a bit low as it seemed like we had been walking forever on an unending track, not getting any closer to our destination. The Sun beating down on us, we slowly plodded on as the mind stepped in to take charge over the body, which by then was beginning to send out signals of fatigue. The mind knew, however, that any break in momentum at this point would be disastrous so we kept going, slowly placing one foot before the next, down steep slopes and sharp bends, never giving up. It was a grueling hike and we had been walking for more than 8 hours when we spotted the Finish Point at a distance. The relief is best described by the last half hour of the hike where our numbed feet suddenly grew wings as we glided down to the finish point. A round of congratulatory hugs for a successful end of Day 2 at the Pandoa campsite accompanied the resuscitation of our weary feet in the icy cold Satluj waters.
Day 3 was 23 km of white water rafting from Pandoa to Chaba, which apart from being an eagerly awaited challenge in the Satluj river also meant that our weary feet and aching calves would be rested after the intense workout from the previous two days. As we were taken through the safety instructions, kitted up in life jackets and helmets, we noticed the color of the river water was a muddy brown. It’s then we were told that the dam had released water on the previous day, thereby providing us with additional incentive to keep our rafts afloat to avoid the prospect of a dunking in the swirling muddy waters. Life jacket fastenings rechecked, armed with oars, we set out to ride the waves.
At the start, the river seemed calm as it meandered lazily along the bends and curves, but not having forgotten the lessons from the past two days, we knew better than to get taken in by appearances. Sure enough, 20 minutes into the rafting, we hit the first set of rapids. The swirling waters on the horizon got everyone pushing hard as the shout went out…right forward, left back…left forward, right back…like a river song. And that was how it went from there on, the sections of calm water broken by the oncoming rapids. Rowing in unison, the sight of an oncoming rapid was eagerly awaited as the challenge of riding the crest and troughs also meant that we would get a generous splashing of the river’s icy cold waters. With the Sun’s rays faithfully reflected in the open waters under a cloudless sky, generous doses of splashing were the only relief from getting roasted. The calmer sections gave us a chance to enjoy the experience of floating on the Satluj, flanked by towering green hillsides, its river bank littered with speckled stones as we passed rock faces and cliff sides festooned with ferns and trees, and even some caves known to be home to bears. It was the sighting of the Chaba Pump House which signaled the finish point as we took a few moments to admire its beautiful heritage structure built over a century ago and maneuvered our raft towards the landing site. Loud cheers of hip hip hurrays reverberated through the hills as we disembarked the raft, marking our triumph of the triathlon and the euphoria we felt validated Ironman World Champion Mark Allen’s words, “Until you face your fears, you don’t move to the other side, where you find the power.”