A mini mountain expedition in the Alps

It has been two weeks since Karin and I went on a mini epic traversing through the Alps. Almost everything which could go wrong went wrong; starting with missing my bus from Geneva airport to Chamonix and Karin running out of fuel 100kms from Chamonix. Setting us both back a few hours whilst we were under time pressure to do the full 180km Tour de Mt Blanc loop already. Add a broken bike and last minute repairs at a busy bike shop (who were kind of us to prioritise us) in the mix and we set off at 6pm heading for the hills (aka mountains). Following an already eventful day, a less than ideal route choice meant that we ended up having to turn back down the mountain in the dark. Crashing at the first hotel we could find only 5 km’s further from where we started after 5 tough hike a bike hours.

Karin and I both have the ability to see humour in situations when no one else can, which is one of the big strengths of our friendship. Both being stubborn and opinionated we can have the most heated discussions but there is also a mutual unspoken trust and respect through which we can support each other during the toughest of times. Karin was therefore my first choice when I was getting a team together for the Saikalako Expedition. On top of our ability to work well together under pressure which we proved by unexpectedly jumping on the podium during the Grandraid Nisramont adventure race in Belgium, Karin also adds great navigation and problem solving skills to the team which will be detrimental to the success of our expedition having to face extreme circumstances in remote parts of Nepal not many people have crossed yet.

In our three day adventure in the Alps we learned a lot. Our fully loaded bikes felt a few kilo’s to heavy when we were pushing it up 40 degree gradients over technical terrain for hours on end. Pulling and pushing over tree roots, squeezing in between trees and navigating big rocks. It was simply madness. We had one day of pure weather bliss, with blue sky’s and endless mountain views which did make the suffering a little easier! After careful negotiation and local’s advise we redirected our route away from the col’s which were covered waist deep in snow and proved impossible for us to safely pass without ice axes and crampons. Even some of the lower slopes proved quite a challenge having to overcome dangerous sections covered in snow. At one point we were faced with a 300m traverse over 45 degree angled snowy slope with only room enough for one foot at a time. If we had to turn back it meant at least 6 more hours to civilisation when we probably had only 3 hours of daylight left. If we traversed we would have only two more hours to a bed and some chill time. (by this point we had been moving for 8 hours already) But a slip meant a hospital visit, or at best losing a bike. When I look back I find it quite amazing how very quickly we came up with a plan. Actually let me rephrase that, Karin came up with a plan and I completely agreed. We took all the kit of the bikes and brought that over to the other side first. Then we went back and brought the bikes over on our backs. I still struggled with proprioception in my left leg after my back injury. And although I knew both my legs were so much stronger, I still didn’t trust my stability to carry 10-12kg of wobbly load on my back over slippery narrow terrain. Without any hesitation Karin said she would do both bikes. I would meet her where the snow line stopped carrying the bike to the top from there, whilst she would go back for the second bike. We managed to turn quite a tricky situation in something reasonably simple by breaking it down in segments. And we felt quite impressed with our own problem solving skills and strength to make it happen.

The day was not smooth sailing from here though, having to climb up what seemed to be a river and negotiating fallen trees in the most inconvenient places. A little exhausted we arrived at a little village searching for a bed at the cheapest rate doing a full loop of the town, with our smelly clothes and sun burned faces, only to repeat that loop again to find a kitchen that would still serve us food!

Although our mini expedition was full with laughter and incredible moments it did create a fair amount of doubt and a small wobble for the Saikalako expedition. It also gave me the time to think about what the expedition meant to me. So often I get labelled “crazy” because of the adventures I choose to do and the dangerous situations I get myself into. The interesting thing is that the fear I feel when I am facing these situations is very different for me than the daily anxiety I feel from the pressures to try and fit into society. The fear I feel in the mountains turn me into a better version of myself, whilst the fear I feel in daily life turns me into someone I do not really want to be. That anxiety suffocates me, whilst the feeling I get whilst searching for my limits liberate me. 

I was asked by a friend what I would do if I would get a pain flare up during my time in Nepal. It is interesting that in my day to day life it is a continuous struggle to keep my chronic pain under control but I am very confident that I will not have that problem in the Himalayas. The dream of crossing the Himalayas by bike started after having to let go of racing due to injury. For me the project is about being in the mountains for days on end, facing challenges which will push us to our limits. Creating that feeling of not being able to go any further and then taking another step. A journey which will tell the story of three women who all are battling their own demons and have come together through a shared passion. And although a “world first” will attract sponsors, I realised during the days in the Alps that that wasn’t what it was about for me. I actually did not care about the attention it could attract. All I wanted to do was go to Nepal, start the project with Usha and Karin being as well prepared as possible to ride our bikes through the most beautiful and remote terrain the world could offer us. I wasn’t worried about the outcome, I did not want the pressures we put on ourselves to succeed, to not let others down. I did not want the fear of failure. I was interested in the process, the skills we needed to develop, the preparation, the team work during the expedition and if we managed to complete that to the best of our ability, it could never end up in a failure no matter what would happen.

There is something about the mountains which makes me feel instantly at peace. Life becomes so simple during these type of expeditions. My mind becomes quiet. I am more than ready to step up the training for Saikalako and put everything in place to be the strongest I can be at the end of October when we start our traverse from West to East Nepal by bike.  45 days, 1700km 70.000m ascend non stop and unsupported. Lets do this.

“It is impossible” said pride “It is risky,” said experience “It is pointless” said reason. “Give it a try” whispered the HEART” 

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