A HIMALAYAN ODYSSEY
This outdoor festival in Nepal lets you chase an adrenaline rush in the lap of nature’s bounty.
An article for INDIA TODAY (Spice supplement)
Published March 11, 2020
Images and Text by JOEL KOECHLIN
The little girl couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old. Fearless, she was expertly climbing the rock face, approaching the top of the cliff, belayed with attention by a local Instructor. Each of her moves was well thought and natural. Spreading wide her right leg and grabbing a minuscule rock protrusion with the fingertips of her right hand, she pushed hard on her left knee and, in a last effort that looked far too easy to be real, heaved herself onto the final ledge. There, standing bold and proud, she turned back facing the void and threw a beaming smile at her dad watching far down below.
When I asked her dad where he was from, his answer surprised me.
"... From Mumbai. I come here every year for a week or so, with my two children. The pure high altitude air and physical exercise are good for them."
The reason I was so surprised was because I was standing among tall pine trees at Haatiban Hills, Pharping, some 30 kilometers north-east of Kathmandu, Nepal, at the 9th edition of the Himalayan Outdoor Festival.
An hour's drive away from the capital, the imposing Neido Tashi Buddhist Monastery signals the spot where one leaves the highway to climb a scenic, steep untarred road, winding up through tight hair pins among a thick forest of pine trees. In the morning light, golden rays filter through the branches, giving that eerie feeling of moving around the Disney set of a fairy tale. Many curvy bends later, one reaches a flat, pine-shaded area bordering the edge of the mountain — the Haatiban Himalayan Height Resort, commanding an impressive view of the plain, and Kathmandu in the distance.
The festival covers three days over a weekend. Each active participant is charged a flat fee of 2000 Nepali rupees, which includes climbing equipment and free camping space for the entire duration of the event. As for casual visitors, they have to buy a day pass for 500 Nepali rupees to access the location and watch, or even take part into the various activities and competitions. In the latter case, they will have to pay a registration fee for this specific experience. Lodging options include a stay on top of the mountain in a cosy room or bungalow at the luxurious Haatiban Resort. (US$ 140 for a double room).
As the festival’s name reflects, mountain outdoor activities are on the menu: mountain biking, mountain running (up and down over distances ranging from five to 20 km — by day or night), bouldering (the subtle art of climbing rocks almost devoid of holds), dyno climbing (the dynamic aspect of bouldering, which involves daring jump-and-grab moves), and natural rock climbing. It’s all about fierce competition between motivated participants, watched and encouraged by cheerful onlookers; with great sportsman spirit. In the cold dusk, prizes are distributed to the winners, following which joyous groups gather around campfires, eating delicious dumplings prepared in a field canteen.
With a diffused demographic that is multi-ethnic and international, it is not overly crowded, but attended by nature lovers and sporting enthusiasts. In its ninth iteration, it is fairly well known in the West, and enjoys a high attendance from foreigners from across the globe. Mountain biking is a real treat to watch with daredevils hurtling down steep, narrow dirt tracks, zigzagging through the pine trees at phenomenal speeds. As if the natural terrain was not rugged enough, humps have been created at intervals to send them flying high like strange wingless mechanical birds flashing by in a whoosh!
The second day is given to endurance running competitions along steep trails in the mountain. A 20 km run across such terrain is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the untrained. On the same day, bouldering competitions are held on an artificial climbing wall erected specially for the event. It’s wonderful to note that this activity is no longer dominated by men. Saturday night is given to appreciating a different kind of rock with a concert by a local band, and roaring campfires.
The highlight for the final day is natural rock climbing; the entire group of participants sets across on foot, toward a natural cliff about 30 minutes away, halfway down a mountain. This prime location offers a stunning view on the New Azom Monastery below, and high mountains in the background. As for the cliff, it is superbly equipped, with strong and healthy belay points, and anchorages allowing lead climbing too. Climbers of all ages, nationalities and gender launch themselves along routes of varied difficulty. Even children — like miniature Spiderman — climb alongside seasoned veterans. This is where I spotted the little Mumbai girl, a tiny colourful speck delineated on this orange tinted rock wall in the sunlight.
February 19, 2020
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