World First: Cycling the Great Himalayan Trail

I found myself lost at the foot of the Nepalese Himalayas about 7 hours from Kathmandu by bike. Laxmi, Karen Hill and myself, the three females from the highest MTB stage race in the world, the Yak Attack 2018, had decided to ride back from Pokhara to Kathmandu. However, where organised trips would take eight days and local elite riders took four days, we only had three; we had flights home to catch.

The morning of the third day I felt pretty empty and couldn’t quite keep up with the pace set by the girls. In an attempt to ride with them I had lost my friend Laxmi who was supposed to stay with me. My first emotion was pure panic, my phone wasn’t working and I didn’t really know where to go. Once I calmed down I remembered Laxmi telling me the road was flat for 2-3 hours before it started to climb for 3-4 hours over the main road to the top. From there you could see and drop into the (enormous) valley of Kathmandu. I really had no choice but to keep cycling.

It became all about moving forward, fuelling my body and keeping my focus on one pedal stroke after the other whilst chasing disappearing daylight. In this process my mind became incredibly quiet; I suddenly felt extremely at ease with where I was, what I was doing and what I had to do for the next 5-7 hours. Life had become very simple. The way my body responded to my mind being so peaceful was incredible. Suddenly, the power in my legs, which had been lacking in the morning, returned and I started to feel really strong. I had been battling with chronic injury for the last 4 years and with a body that simply did not let me race or train at high intensity, but this kind of adventuring, for whatever reason, it did let me do. As I was climbing higher and higher, enjoying the most incredible views and feeling intensely happy, a dream started to develop.

When I got back to Scotland I bounced my idea off a couple of people who knew the Nepalese Himalayas quite well, but I did not get the reaction I wanted. So I started to search every corner of the internet to find more information. Was my idea actually achievable? Early December, a few weeks after my return from Nepal, I had a meeting with my coach, James who was going to suggest to me to not plan any racing for 2019 to give my central nervous system the time it needed to desensitise in order to get my chronic pain under control. Instead, I was going to ambush James with another one of my crazy plans. Slightly nervous, I had brought a map of Nepal with me. Excited and a little anxious I told him what I was planning for 2019: a traverse of the Great Himalaya Trail High route from West to East Nepal by bike. It entailed 1700km of technical terrain, 70.000m of ascent and around 10-12 passes between 4000-5500m altitude. “And no one has ever done it before on a bike” I added. “Are you going alone?” he asked me without batting an eyelid. “No with Karin Sloove” I answered. “But she doesn’t know it yet” I looked into James huge smiling face.

Karin is my adventure buddy and my best friend – someone I can count on to always be honest. She is positive when I need her to be, but also realistic and practical at times my “it will be alright” attitude can lead me into dangerous waters. Karin was my one and only choice to attempt this mildly crazy adventure with.

To my surprise James was very excited. He knew that my diesel engine was made for something like this. I had proven my stubbornness and resilience time and again over the last few years, refusing to give up even when my body was fighting me in every possible way. With the help of chronic pain specialist, Rob Friel and James I knew now how I could manage my injury to get in the best possible shape to attempt this. We called the expedition ‘Saikalako’, Nepali for ‘cycles’.

Right to left: Nienke and Karin.

Of course planning an expedition of this magnitude comes with its hurdles and at one point I was thinking about putting a stop to it all. It felt like the timing was all wrong, pushing a wedge between my friendship with Karin and ultimately she was more important to me than the expedition. Nevertheless, over the years I have learnt that timing is never really perfect and having lost a couple of friends recently I had a real sense that life did not wait for anyone. The saying “there is always next year” is simply not true. I wanted to do this even if I had to go it alone.

Saikalako had become my dream, my ticket out of living a life I didn’t really want to live. The expedition had given me courage to turn my back on my veterinary profession and quit my job a few months before heading to Nepal. The whole Saikalako journey had triggered conversations between Karin and I which had only made our bond stronger. It had given me the strength to choose uncertainty and adventure with the freedom to chase my own dreams. Although this felt scary as hell, it also made feel more excited about my future than I had for a long time.

With three weeks left to go before our departure, Karin and I could not be more proud of what our expedition had turned into. Through social media we got in touch with incredible talented people: Katie Jane L’Herpiniere designed our website and gave us lots of invaluable advice; Ryan Sandes, a legendary Salomon runner who’s film about running the fastest known time over the Great Himalaya trail I had watched repeatedly for inspiration. Ryan helped us so much with all his knowledge and gave us all his contacts in Nepal.

We decided not to actively chase sponsorship, but instead use the contacts we had already made through our athletic careers. We ended up with kit support from people who were just as excited about our project as we were. We decided not to raise money as it felt fake to do this in the name of charity because of the amount of money we had to invest ourselves to make it happen in the first place. We also decided to not raise awareness for any one specific topic but instead raise awareness for any issues life had thrown at us in the past. More than anything we wanted to raise awareness for the beauty of Nepal and its life hidden away high in the Himalayas. We would like this expedition to be about all the incredible stories behind the people who have crossed our paths and will cross our path on the road to Saikalako.

Here is a big thanks to all the sponsors who are helping us turn our dream into a reality and an even bigger thanks to the two men who love us and applaud our strength, independence and crazy adventures, (I don’t think there are many who would), our partners in crime, Michael and Onno.

You can find out more about Nienke and Karin’s expedition here and follow them on Instagram here.

Written by Nienke Oostra: Nienke found the love for adventures a bit later in life after having followed her career around the world. After racing triathlon, adventure races and MTB events for a few years injury forced her to step away from high-level racing and move towards adventurous expeditions. Her love for the mountains drew her to the Himalayas and the dream to ride the length of it in an all-female team. Nienke is also a level 2 MBLA guide.