A Dangerous Road

©2011 by Dr. Joan Steidinger

The concept was simple: attend a sports conference in Hawaii, then – and most importantly – travel to Nepal to run a three-day stage race to raise funds for a small Nepali orphanage. Nobody had explained much about the race, but that part of the journey was destined to become a major adventure.

It began in Kathmandu at the Manaslu Hotel, a large, older hotel tucked quietly into a hillside on the outer reaches of the city. Along with the other runners, I checked in (with my husband, JP) and received instructions. We would be on our own for dinner, up at 5:00 am for breakfast, then off towards Tibet at 6:00 a.m. Quickly we located a place for massage, then spent the afternoon resting in our Tibetan-style room overlooking a large, verdant lawn and pale blue rectangle pool. Off to bed early.

Up before dawn, we ate an American-style breakfast and climbed aboard one of four buses decorated in mustard yellow, royal blue, and cherry red. Soon we were driving on the only road heading north out of Kathmandu. Wall to wall traffic moved at a crawl as we inched our way out of the city. In the countryside the vehicles thinned out, and we traveled on a paved, but horribly rutted road. After several hours we stopped at a small village for a traditional meal of dahl baht, lentils and rice – the staple diet of Nepal. This would be our last stop before the road to Tibet began to get interesting, which began when the pavement ended.

The route to the remote villages of Dunche and Shyaphru, where the race was staged, placed us on one of the most dangerous roads that I’ve ever been on in a bus. It was unpaved, rocky, rutted and muddy, with barely a lane for the buses and, at its edge, a thousand foot drop. The mud and rocks were especially loose due to periodic downpours, causing the busses to jostle considerably as we drove slowly northwards. We were heading toward the Langtang Valley and surrounding peaks, a region of Nepal that has remained poor due to its inaccessibility. Apparently, landslides are a common occurrence in this area.

The talk on the bus focused on possible landslides ahead when the bus crested a hill and we looked down to find our fears realized – a massive landslide had covered the road. The buses could go no further. The plan was for the racers and crew to take our belongings off the buses and engage local Nepalese to carry the heavier bags over the earthfall. Our instructions were to carry our smaller items over the slide and a few kilometers beyond.

LandslideWe began walking, individually and in small groups, picking our way through the unstable rock and mud. The mucky, rutted road kept going up and up and up. After a couple of kilometers, with hills rising endlessly before us, it started to rain. We weren’t dressed for rain. I wore only a black short-sleeved Skyline 50K polyester running top and khaki hiking shorts, and I was cold. I was carrying a cotton Vietnamese book bag for a purse and a well-used and dusty Kelty backpack, and when my back began to hurt from its weight I carried the backpack in front of me and upside down to keep the contents dry. The rain began to come down in buckets. Now everyone was shivering, but we continued doggedly uphill.

An hour later the rain subsided, but our scramble over rocks and mud continued. After 15 minutes, lulled into a false sense of security because the rain had stopped, I took off my shirt, pulled a warm, dry, polyester, black, hooded jacket from my backpack and put it on. Warmth, at last!

slideWithin 10 minutes, the rain started again, and once more I was cold.

As we crossed gigantic puddles and patches of mud, we slid around on the small rocky track, disconcerted by the 1,000-foot drop on our left side. Groups of people gathered beneath rock outcroppings and in the few forested areas that provided brief protection from the downpour. Finally after several hours of walking (five miles later), we arrived at a couple of local teahouses with seats and high tables made out of boards set out under green tarps. Everyone was shivering and cold, all vying to get a cup of hot tea. JP managed to grab a couple of mugs, which warmed us immediately.

When a few runners spotted a multi-colored bus and a royal blue truck, apparently waiting for us, a mad dash ensued as all sizes of runners quickly leapt for the bus. By the skin of our teeth, JP and I snagged spots in the bus’s standing room only area. The remaining group had to ride in the back of the truck with the luggage and blue tarps draped over them. We were happy to be out of the rain, but the precarious lurching of the vehicles on the narrow, rocky road did not inspire much confidence.

Still, our un-scheduled walk on this dangerous road had been good preparation for the steep up and down of the three-day stage Himalayan race, which we would be starting before dawn. We would rely on headlamps to illuminate the arduous trails in the first hours of the race.

The race itself posed other challenges. The racers were expected to arise every morning at 3:45 am for 5:00 am starts..…I am so not a morning person.

Food was not provided on the course unless you brought your own or paid for it…..I didn’t bring enough food or money.

Worst of all, I failed to allow enough time to overcome the impact of altitude and jet lag.  At the end of the second day, for the first time ever, I was pulled from the race. Suffering from hypothermia, I crawled onto the back of a small Japanese dirt motorcycle, and the seemingly endless ride down the rough terrain of a narrow fire road did not improve my condition. When JP and race personnel scooped me off the bike at the finishing area, my face was stark white, I was shivering uncontrollably, and my lips, cheeks and fingernails were indigo blue. The doctor who examined me discovered my normally low blood pressure to be sky high. His prescription, “No salt!”

What happened? I completely ran out of internal fuel. I only managed to run/hike for 18 hours for two days, plus the dangerous road walk. I was completely exhausted. I had never felt so physically weak at the end of a race (not even 100 milers). At age 56, I approached this event as my old self – a 40-year-old and active competitive ultra distance runner. It turned out that more pre-race preparation was needed for maybe the oldest woman in the race.

Immediately following the race we visited the Freedom Children’s Welfare Center orphanage. This is our friend, Pancha’s, orphanage, and we had raised enough funds to cover a year of educational costs for all 26 kids. Pancha is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the orphanage. We were greeted at the door by Kamala, the main caretaker, Passon, a former resident, and the child greeting committee, Angyil. Angyil, a five-year-old boy, immediately took my hand, showed me around, and wouldn’t let go for the longest time.joanfriend

When the book boxes that we brought were opened, Angyil dove right in and brought a picture book about mountain animals to show me. We met with Kamala and her staff over black tea to learn about the operation of the center. Each child had his or her own bed and attended private school to receive a thorough education.

JP flew home that night, but the next day I went back to the orphanage. Once again, Angyil waited by the front door and grabbed my hand immediately to show me around.  When he wanted my attention, he would call me ma’am. This day, Kamala had her assistants fix a wonderful lunch which Pancha, Kamala, a fellow trekking guide named Emmet, and I enjoyed. This was an example of the wonderful homespun hospitality of Nepal and most Asian countries. I knew we had chosen the perfect charity on which to focus our time and effort. JP and I have agreed that we will take on the center as our ongoing project. We plan to be actively involved in assisting with the educational needs of the children.

Our overall trip involved a dangerous road, but at the end of that road we were able to share our abundance with the orphaned children of Nepal.

SteidingerDr. Joan Steidinger is an AASP Certified sports psychologist, writer, and ardent traveler.  She wrote “Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk” for SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle Website. Her column “Blood, Sweat, and Cheers” which focuses on female athletes, sports performance, and relationships, currently runs in the online magazine Psychology Today. Joan has traveled the world over primarily participating in active vacations, such as climbing mountains, trekking, running, cycling, and scuba diving. She recently climbed a mountain in Ladakh, India and traveled to Nepal to run a three-day stage race raising funds for a small Nepali orphanage.