On a work assignment in India in 1998, Peter Van Geit was instantly struck by the natural beauty on offer. He spent most of his week dealing with the challenges at work and the Chennai heat. But every weekend, he would head out to the hills nearby, to leave behind the daily grind and get his fix of adventure.
When the time permitted, he would ride his motorcycle to explore different parts of the country. Such was this Belgian’s affair with India, that he simply never went back home. Over time, the jaunts turned into journeys. Soon enough, he realised that the slower he went, the better the chances would be to appreciate the landscape around him. The wheels made way for a sturdy pair of shoes.
This wanderlust culminated in his most testing trip yet in July last year. By the end of the 75-day trip, Van Geit had traversed 40 passes in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. What made it an enlightening journey, fraught with challenges en route, was the fact that it had been undertaken self-supported and solo, and was concluded only due to an early winter in the high mountains.
FROM WHEEL TO FOOT
He grew up on a farm in Lokeren, Belgium, where the backyard was flat, countryside land. He recalls taking long walks with his parents and going for jogs with his dogs, though “never indulging in anything hardcore” as such. It wasn’t until he got to India that he had the opportunity to run in the hills and mountains and take on the adventures they offered.
“I got myself a Royal Enfield and used it to ride around the country. After about 10 years of solo exploration on lesser known roads, I got into hiking with a few work friends. So essentially, I stepped off the road and into the forests. And that caught up with me real soon,” Van Geit says during The Himalayan Club’s annual seminar last month.
But when those friends changed jobs and no longer joined him on his adventures, Van Geit decided to set up an online platform in 2008 to get like-minded folks together. Through the Chennai Trekking Club, he got more than he had bargained for. “Within a month, we were going out with groups of 20-30 people. We had folks with all kinds of interests, so from trekking we slowly got into photography, mountain biking, running and triathlons. Today, the community has nearly 40,000 members,” he says.
The motorcycle soon made way for a bicycle, and Van Geit soaked in the sights and sounds of Himachal Pradesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. But what really caught his fancy in the last five years was running.
Ever since his first bike ride in Himachal Pradesh in 2000, Van Geit developed an instant liking for the Himalayas. Another hike to Goecha La give him the experience of walking the trails. Once running took centerstage, Van Geit starting treading on mountain routes such as Shimla to Manali, Srinagar to Manali, and Dalhousie to Padum.
“During one of these runs in July 2017, I came across a board that showed all the main valleys of Himachal Pradesh. I saw all kinds of passes that led from one valley to another. It got me thinking — why not try short-cutting across these valleys, instead of navigating the road?” he says.
It was reason enough for him to get back home and quit his job. “I was making the money, but just buying a lot of stuff didn’t give me the satisfaction. Besides, if I didn’t do it now, it wasn’t really going to happen as I got older. So I made the tough decision to focus on my passion,” Van Geit says.
A 50-day run in North East Vietnam in April-May 2018 geared him for the project. On his return, he started looking at physical and open street maps, as well as reading blogs to figure out where the trails led to, in order to arrive at a general plan of action, for starters.
As the monsoon set in, Van Geit made his way up to Manali to prepare for the big run. With a five kilo backpack filled with the bare essentials, he made his way towards the Hampta Pass with a few friends. “It was only when I was alone after a few days that I realised what I had set out to do. Initially, it was a little scary when you see the magnitude of the landscape — glaciers that are the size of areas in Chennai. Only after a few days do you get over that initial fear and start growing in confidence,” he says.
“Being on my own gave me this internal peace. There are few things that compare with sitting on top of a pass, with no sounds around you except the wind. Or going at my own pace to eventually pitch a tent in the middle of nowhere,” he adds.
When Van Geit encountered routes with no logs available, he would have to locate trails used by shepherds. At times, it would lead him to a steep drop by the side of a mountain or disappear into the jungle, forcing him to retrace his steps and start again. On a certain day while climbing to the Chobia Pass, Van Geit forgot to pick up his tent after a snack break. The following evening, he landed up getting lost in the cover of a dense fog, eventually surviving the night under the stars with multiple layers of clothing.
“You’re quite literally looking for sheep poop or horse poop to find your way. Then in some places, you find cairns to help you navigate. Besides, I’ve used quite a lot of maps with contour lines to find my way through valleys and ridges. So it’s actually a combination of a lot of things. I can never forget the day I crossed Kugti Pass with over 500 sheep,” he recalls.
There wasn’t a pre-planned route that Van Geit had in mind. Most times, he was happy to simply avoid the rains that had set in. Over the course of the run, he visited valleys in the districts of Spiti, Lahaul, Chamba, Zanskar, Pangi, Kangra and Shimla, climbing up to a maximum altitude of 5,560 metres.
“You’re actually climbing quite fast, power hiking close to the passes and running wherever possible to get to a safe spot by night time. Crossing 80 percent of the passes in a single day means you are burning a lot of calories,” he says.
MAKING FRIENDS EN ROUTE
Van Geit didn't take a single day off to cool his heels and recover from the daily mileage of 40-50 kilometres. On most days, it was a staple diet of chapattis, pickles and jam, until he reached the first big town to gorge on some crispy, fried momos, relish a chilled beer and recover the lost calories. There were also days when he ran out of food, only to bump into a shepherd, who would invite him to his camp for a bite.
At times, Van Geit bumped into trekkers, who had a guide, cook, porters and horses in tow. He would be met with curious stares when they realised that there was nobody actually following him, that he was hiking solo. What struck him most was the warmth of the people who lived in relative isolation, high up in the mountains. “There were hamlets such as Shade that were two days away from the nearest road head. But I was amazed at the hospitality of these remote communities, who didn’t have much but cared for me and shared almost everything they had. Some wouldn’t even allow me to pitch my tent and instead asked me to stay with them,” he says.
It took three pairs of shoes to run the entire course. Van Geit even encountered a time when it was impossible to find size 10 shoes in the odd shop of a distant hamlet. The terrain consisted of everything from rolling meadows to jungles, glaciers with crevasses, snowfields and moraines, and tricky crossings across streams and nullahs en route.
By the time he reached the Indrahar Pass towards the end of September, he realised the fresh snow was too deep, far beyond 4,000 metres. The weather was turning, with an early winter on the horizon and it was way beyond the risk he was willing to take, especially since he was going solo. He retraced his steps in the snow for the last time and geared up for the long ride home. “Numbers are not that important for me; I think it is more about the experience, the beauty of nature, the amazing hospitality you come across,” he says.
The luxuries on offer in a metro overwhelmed Van Geit during the initial days. But it didn’t take him long to tire of the routine in a concrete jungle.
These days, Van Geit is busy poring over maps yet again.
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 09:53:52 IST