Down The Kullu Valley On Day One
Day one of Expedition India served up a full variety of challenges and experiences as teams raced down the Kullu Valley.
The start in the snow was soon followed by a wild rush hour ride in Manali, then India’s longest and highest zip line, then a long guided raft down the Beas river, and for most of the teams a mountain trek to reach a high temple and lake after nightfall.
The first stage took teams down the main valley, then on a short steep climb up to the town of Naggar overlooking a side valley. This was busy on a holiday weekend with visitors to its castle and art gallery, but the teams were headed for another attraction, the WOLC zipline tour which spanned the valley a little further along. The leaders arrived here bunched together but all passed through with very little delay with two of each team taking the ride.
This crossed the valley both ways to bring the racers back to a point below their start location and it was long and it was high! Mark Lattanzi of Rootstock Racing was one of those who finished smiling, though his team mate Jen van Gorder didn’t look quite so thrilled. Lattanzi is something of a zipline connoisseur, having done the world’s longest at the World Champs in Costa Rica, and the fastest at ITERA in Wales. (He said the Welsh one was still the king of the zips.)
Some of the Indian teams bringing up the back of the field had long, weary pushes up to zip line and were clearly finding the riding ascent tough, and they were still very spread out. One of ITBP racers sat up there for well over half an hour and told me, “3 of my team are lost!”
The rest of the ride was along country roads and through busy villages to reach TA1 at the riverside resort of Neeralaya. Here they quickly prepared for the first of 3 rafting stages and collected one of the local guides to accompany them. (This was where I stayed the night with some of the other race media and it is a shame teams just passed through as it is very luxurious and welcoming resort set in riverside gardens.)
I saw Rootstock here again and they were telling the marshal CP9 was missing (as was an Indian Navy team). They felt confident enough to press on, sure they’d been to right place (95% sure according to Ryan Van Gorder), but no later teams said it was gone. They were to have more drama on river later on, having to rescue their guide when he went overboard in a rapid.
The raft was 26km on the fast flowing Beas River and went past the town of Kullu, which gives the valley its name. The rapids were frequent and exciting enough without being too alarming, which is why rafting is a major tourist attraction here, with raft stations all the way along the shore. Estonian ACE Adventure ‘lost’ their guide 3 times and others said they were jollied along like tourists rather than racers. It was probably a bit of a shock to the young guides to have determined and capable racers on board who wanted to paddle properly and fast!
Lars Bukkehave of the Bend Racing Team told me, “I was on the Danish national rafting squad and these guys (his team) could have got a place with the right passport! I think we gained some time.” His team were chasing race leaders Naturex and Agde Raid Adventure at the time and they’ll have two more rafting stages to show their paddling prowess.
I later saw his team mate Silver Eensaar filling four pouched meal bags with hot water, and it was noticeable they were 4 different brands. This is because the team is made up of Bukkehave, Eensaar of Estonia, Erik Sanders from the USA and Isla Smith of New Zealand and they’d all brought their own food. All are very experienced racers and they came together as a team when all were looking to come to India. So far they are racing very competitively as a new unit.
At the end of the raft the TA was in Cheers Cafe, who did a great job providing hot food and hot water for the teams as they came in. They were changing in the small garden where one bemused group of tourists was having some afternoon drinks!
I spoke to Philippe Chod here and he told me he’d fallen in. “I was glad I chose to bring a wetsuit,” he said, “as it was really cold. I grabbed the safety line and they pulled me in, and I kept my mouth shut so as not to swallow the river water!” (Wetsuits were not compulsory.) He added, “That was an excellent stage, some real rafting like some of the stages at Raid in France I’ve done.”
Not all the teams made it down to the transition before nightfall. At the back of the race Nth Adventure and the two Indian Navy teams had to pull off the water at 18.30 and take a long and chilly walk to the transition. This will put them well behind the rest of the field and may be a difficult extra challenge for these inexperienced teams to cope with
While they trekked along the valley roads the leaders were climbing up into the snow again on the first trek of the race. The 40km route took them to a famous beauty spot at the ridge top Parashar Lake and temple, where the snow was 3 feet deep and route finding was difficult in the dark. Naturex took a detour here and allowed Agde Raid Aventure into the lead and it looks like these two French teams are going to have a real contest in this race, with a cluster of teams chasing them hard.