Meet the South African runners who have set a new record for Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail
Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel completed the Great Himalaya Trail, which is spread over a distance of 1,504 kilometres, in 25 days | #FirstCulture
In 2012 at the Salomon Skyrun—a 100 kilometre trail run in South Africa—Ryan Sandes finished at the top spot whilst also smashing the course record. By this time, he had built quite the reputation for himself in the world of ultra running, with many awards to his name.
In the third spot during the same race was Ryno Griesel, a chartered accountant by profession, who enjoyed running as much as he liked immersing himself in international taxation, mergers and acquisitions. After the congratulatory exchanges, the fanboy in Griesel motivated him to walk up to Sandes and get a cap autographed. In turn, Sandes told him, “Live your dreams.”
Though the two South Africans charted different paths there on—Sandes a regular on the running circuit, while Griesel pouring over the numbers and running a business most times—little did they know that six years later, they would be sharing the same dream in faraway Nepal. It takes like-minded allies with a common passion for the mountains to take on a challenge as gruelling as the Great Himalaya Trail.
The idea was to traverse Nepal via a network of mountain tracks — a total distance of roughly 1,400 kilometres with an altitude gain and loss of 70,000 metres. The previous fastest known time (FKT) of 28 days 13 hours 56 minutes was set by another South African, Andrew Porter, in 2016. The duo decided to chalk out a route following Porter’s 12 checkpoints, starting from the village of Hilsa at the Nepal-Tibet border in the west and finishing at the Nepal-India border at Pashupatinagar in the east. Understanding the course with the help of maps and Google Earth alone took some 350 hours, and the logistical and physical preparation for the run took additional time.
“We did the Drakensberg Grand Traverse in 2014 (209 kilometres, finished in a record time of 41 hours 49 minutes) and got to know each other better after pulling off something as crazy as that. Ryno started pacing and crewing me at a number of big races, including when I won the Western States 100 last year, where his role was really crucial. We are a team and have done some pretty cool runs in the mountains,” Sandes says. “For me, it was always a dream to run in the Himalaya and cross it on foot. Ryno had climbed in the Himalaya as a student and always wanted to go back. That’s where it all started,” he adds.
Several years of endurance racing served them well when it came to readying themselves physically, so a lot of time was spent on strength training before the run. For Sandes, the major concern was the altitude they would have to deal with, which rose to a maximum of 5,550 metres while crossing the Jungben La. “This region is really remote and mishaps at that altitude were a major concern. I did some training in an altitude machine at home, but one can never be completely prepared,” Sandes says.
Two weeks before leaving for Nepal, the duo returned to Drakensberg in Lesotho, running at a maximum altitude of 3,000 metres. After picking up a few handy tips from Porter on the route, they set off for their adventure.
“We had the route on a hand-held GPS device, as well as on my watch. We also had about 10 topographical maps that we hoped to use for navigation,” Griesel says. There was no time for acclimatisation in Nepal, apart from the walk-in of over 80 kilometres to the starting point that ran over a snowed-in pass. The night before their start on 1 March, sleep was hard to come by, especially for Sandes. “Crossing that pass was quite technical and left me feeling really nervous. I was tossing and turning until we started at 4 am. I began to wonder about what I had got myself into,” Sandes says.
The day to embark upon the ‘ultimate mountain adventure’, as Griesel put it, had finally arrived and he could hardly contain his childlike excitement. “The record was never the most important factor. It was rather about an adventure with a friend. However, we kept our eyes on the clock and chasing the record intensified the adventure on the whole,” Griesel says. “The experience outweighed the record — it was life changing; something that I will never forget,” Sandes adds.
The run was to be a self-supported one. Their compact packs stored waterproof gear and warm layers to protect them from the elements, besides emergency equipment and medical supplies. The ice axe, rope and alpine shoes to tackle the steep sections added extra weight. For nutrition, they relied on local food, especially dal-bhaat (rice and lentils), a decision in line with the Nepali saying, 'Dal-bhaat power, 24 hour’. “Besides that, it was omelettes and boiled eggs, coconut cookies, chocolate and a lot of tea. The excess sugar in the east over a prolonged period did cause us to have upset stomachs over the last few days,” Griesel says.
When they met locals along the way and told them about what they had set out to achieve, they were usually met with disbelief, especially when Sandes told them that it was his day job to run. “The smattering of Nepali we picked up on the walk-in really helped. The first question they had was who we were running from!” Sandes quips.
“I guess running is a foreign concept for them, when they use the same trails to go to work or to transports goods — it is essentially survival. It was bizarre for them to hear where we had come from and the fact that running was recreational for us,” he adds.
The days spent on the trail brought many surprises. There was a time when Griesel got knocked off his feet by an unaware donkey. Another time, they were lucky to have found shelter in a monastery in the remote Dolpha region. They were ambushed by a motorcycle gang with weapons and intent to harm, though they got away unscathed. Navigation too, got tricky at times, given the maze of trails that they had to link up and navigate.
“Big mistakes mean you lose days. At times, micro-navigation and dealing with steep sections were needed. Ryno was phenomenal at it, given his mountain experience, so we never really got lost. A lot of the trail was covered in ice and snow because Nepal had a late winter, which made it tricky and slow-moving at times,” Sandes says.
The two flourished in the environment and in each other’s company. Often, a silent conversation ensued during the run, as they revelled in the camaraderie they’ve shared over the years. Despite finding themselves in some very sticky situations, they handled challenges successfully together.
“The third and last day in the remote Dolpha region was the hardest, and we had few resources on hand. There was nowhere we could replenish our supplies, nor get help. We had been going non-stop for 21 hours and I got frostbitten. There was severe windchill and the temperature was around -15 to -20 degree Celsius. Then in the Annapurna region, I strained my quad muscle and could not move for an hour. In the last week, I got hyperventilation and fever as well,” Griesel recalls.
“I was really worried about Ryno, but I don’t think it was ever a concern for him. He’s headstrong and I don’t think quitting was really an option,” Sandes says. The nights and days soon blurred into one. There were times they would stop as early as 5 pm, and catch a few hours of sleep before starting off around midnight. Some of the course was run right through the night, fuelled by power naps in between. In the last two days, they logged a mileage of around 90 kilometres on mountain terrain. When they finally crossed the finish line, it was more of a sense of relief than ecstasy.
“For the last five to six days, we hardly slept — maybe one or two hours each night. From having dreamt about it to finally achieving it, the experience was really amazing,” Sandes says. “There was a feeling of gratefulness when we reached the end,” Griesel adds. By the end of it, they had logged in a total distance of 1,504 kilometres over 24 days, 3 hours, 24 minutes, bettering the previous mark and setting a new FKT for the Great Himalaya Trail. The fatigue soon took over, and it was a few days before they could process just what they had achieved.
“We started back for Kathmandu the moment we finished. It was a lot of travel, but we were so tired that we just kept falling asleep all the time. It’s all still sinking in,” Sandes says.
These days, Sandes is spending time cooling his heels with his family back home in Cape Town, while Griesel is back to accounting at his office in Pretoria. There’s little lined up in the next few months, though all that could change while at play in the Drakensberg mountains, in the weeks to come.
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