Chennai based-Peter Van Geit is well-known in the field of ultra-running and outdoors, in India. In 2018, Peter completed an ultra-run (most of it solo) spanning 75 days, in Himachal Pradesh. Doing so, he covered roughly 1500 kilometers and crossed 40 mountain passes some of them frequented little by visitors from the outside. This was the first time Peter was running off-road in the Himalaya. While the seed of the project was a map on a Himachal Tourism board that he came across near Koksar during an earlier run, a lot of the initial information required for planning the project was sourced from a blog run by Satyanarayana (Satya), avid trekker from Bengaluru. In mid-2018 Satya was reported missing in the Himalaya. He was out on a solo trek. In February 2019, Peter was in Mumbai to deliver the annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture organized by the Himalayan Club. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:
How did you get to know Satyanarayana? What was it about his writing that attracted your attention?
When you talk about Himalaya, to go there on your own, self-supported without any groups – the challenge therein is one of not much clear information on the map. Generally speaking, there are very few good blogs available to go through. An exception is Satya’s blog. When you start searching for the names of mountain passes you will be directed to his blog. Satya has been to the Himalaya extensively. The surprising thing was that he was from Bengaluru and not from North India. He was extremely good with maps. He used to get Survey of India maps; they have a lot of terrain data. He used to take photos, digitise them. He used to geo-reference-index them. He used to explore a lot of trails that were documented on those maps. Satya was pretty good with technical details. He documented the passes he went to accurately with GPS logs and latitude-longitude of campsites. Even the maps that he used for navigation were available on the website. Somehow, I was able to contact him through an email id and he called me. We had a long chat on the phone. He was leaving before me on a one-month journey exploring more of Kinnaur and Ladakh. Listening to him on the phone – I never met him in person – he came across as a very caring person. He was very accurate in his blogs. He was going on a solo self-supported trip without guides and other hikers. That was my style of traveling too.
Was it your plan all along to do this solo or it happened so because of other reasons?
I got inspired seeing a board of Himachal Tourism. It showed a lot of passes. That board triggered it off for me. I had done some solo biking in Himachal but most of the time I was running with a small group of two-three friends. This time also one of my friends was planning to do a little bit of exploring in Pangi valley sometime in August. That was the initial plan for two weeks. I had a lot of friends at Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) who were making plans. Some were planning for July, some others for September. Then I said I will do two weeks with one set of friends and another two weeks with another group. But as it turned out, although they were ultra-runners some could not mentally sustain the strenuous environment with glaciers and cold temperatures, especially when it started raining. Some suffered altitude sickness.
Eventually, about 70 per cent of the time I ended up being solo. It is an experience. It was scary after the first group left. But once I got into the solo momentum it was fine. The terrain was quite complicated, weather was challenging. Going solo allowed me to go at my own pace, comfortably, without having to wait for people who were slow.
In addition to what you got from Satya, how much more homework did you have to do?
Satya’s blog had a lot of information. But he had grown over the years, meaning in some phases he was not that accurate and not that technical. It was in recent years that he became really proficient with maps and GPS. I also took a lot of data from street maps. They are the public equivalent of Google maps wherein if you go beyond the roads you can see trails. Then there were two to three blogs which were very useful. Based on all these inputs we started identifying the exact location of the passes I wished to attempt.
Was the master-map your individual work or was there a team from CTC that worked on it?
Mostly it was me and Maniraj. He is quite good with maps. Mani has done a lot of hikes; in fact he has hiked for more years than me. He has done hikes in parts of Uttarakhand and Ladakh. He is also technically sharp. He offered a lot of inputs on the maps. Both of us are good at looking at satellite images and finding trails that are one metre wide. In terrain like Ladakh which has very little vegetation it is easy to spot trails. The colours and contrasts of trails make them visible. Putting our skills together we made a beautiful map. Initially we planned some 21 passes but then we kept adding.
This was the first time you were going off-road in the Himalaya. Was it easy for you to do that with just maps for guide?
For many of the trails there were GPS logs which always gave a good feeling. They had been prepared by others after being on these trails; they were accurate, so chances of getting lost were remote. If you go off track you can always work your way back by looking at these logs. This is helpful especially in places featuring glaciers and moraine; they resemble a battlefield. Having GPS log was quite useful especially in places like Pin Parvati. In such places not having a GPS log would have been tough. You could cross over to the wrong side and make a fatal mistake. Having GPS logs and over ten years of experience roaming around in dense jungles gave me a lot of confidence. Further when you get above tree line in the mountains, you get a good view. But I was wary of crevasses in glaciers and thoughts of getting stuck; I was very cautious about these things. In some places the maps we used were old and features had either changed or grown over or landslides had altered the landscape completely. A couple of times I got totally stuck. On one pass there was a trail but there were too many bushes, thorns and it was too steep. Then I tried the same pass from the other side and I got the right trail. One good thing about the passes is that they are like saddles and on both side there are valleys. It not landscape with many sides. That helps. The problem I faced was – wild streams. You better be on the correct side of such streams as you don’t get a second chance to cross.
You mentioned about the board you saw near Koksar past Rohtang Pass, which was the start of the whole project. Was that the reason why you picked Himachal? Did you have the option of going to any other state?
I am quite familiar with this region. For three to four years I had been running in Pangi and Chamba. Rohtang Pass, Spiti-Zanskar all that was quite familiar. Given I used to stick to the road, I was not familiar with the ranges. I was also familiar with the terrain from a biking point of view. I had gone there in 2000-2001 and also a few times more recently. That’s why I picked Himachal. Uttarakhand is on my plans for 2019.
In terms of number of passes were you comfortable with the number of passes you chose? It is an ambitious number of passes that you tackled at one go….
Whenever you go to the Himalaya, typically you go for one pass. You need three-four days for acclimatization. The thing is – from the second pass onward I don’t need to acclimatize. I have been hiking up to an elevation 2500 meters in South India. We knew forests, alpine meadows – this was known terrain. Once you stepped above 3000 meters you were in rocky areas, moraine, glaciers, passes which – for me – was unknown terrain. I didn’t know what to expect there. I did not know the rate of progress, how long it will take. But my history of being a hiker and ultra-runner – I had run over 2000 kilometers in Vietnam – that helped in terms of strength and lung capacity. I have been able to go at a good pace even at high altitude. Also having mental endurance helped. What I saw with those who kept me company on my wilderness trips was that they were not intimidated by the terrain or the physical difficulties. They found it tough mentally. Going solo is easier than taking a group of 20 people along.
With respect to gear, you whittled everything down to five kilograms. Was this something you developed as a standard from your runs or was it something that you arrived at specifically for this project?
On most of the occasions that we ran from town to town we didn’t have to carry food. Stay was easy. Also, we were running with a mix of runners and cyclists. We had the luxury of dumping all the camping gear on the cyclists. That meant we were running completely free with zero luggage, no food, no camping gear – that was so until I went to Vietnam where I did a solo run and had to carry some basic stuff. I didn’t have to carry too much. I went in winter when temperatures (including at elevation) go down to five degrees and it is around 30 degrees during the day. I had to carry some amount of shelter and warm clothes for the night. There I was running with a four kilo bag, not as heavy as the one that would be needed in the Himalaya. In Vietnam I ran 50 marathons with that four kilo bag though not at high altitude with low oxygen. There I felt quite comfortable. From the beginning itself a group of cyclists came along. It was a good experience.
In Himachal was the run originally planned for 75 days or it turned out to be so?
I had planned for less number of days, may be one and a half months or two months covering 21 passes. But as days went by Mani kept adding passes! In Kinnaur, I did not want to go by bus to Leh. He said try this pass. Like this we kept adding and adding till the start of winter.
Was Mani adding passes even as you were out in the mountains?
Yes. Whenever I reached town and had access to 3G I would download. He was a good guy to have at base camp and kept supplying me with useful options.
Peter, do you still have your job?
July 2017 I quit my job. Financially I was independent. I had to scale down. I was making good money at Cisco as a project manager. Because you make a lot of money, you buy a lot of things. You earn money; you spend money. You sit in traffic every day. You waste a lot of your life sitting in a cubicle attending to work. My work was interesting but I am 46 now. I should think about my life too. When you have a job, whenever you want to go on a trip like this one you are stuck with just two weeks of leave. That kind of time does not give you freedom. From day one you start counting the days and you always get the feeling that time is running out. So quitting that job and scaling back a little financially – it really felt as though you could go on for months and be able to decide from day to day. You could look at a valley you found yourself in and say: now I am going to spend some time here. This time I could enjoy my trip without being too stressed for time.
Was this project designed with limited capital in the frame?
This was one of the cheapest trips I ever did. Both in Vietnam and in Himachal I spent Rs 200 a day apart from the expenditure incurred to travel to the place. The major cost in such travel is transportation and stay. I was always traveling by state transport buses and staying in a tent or in somebody’s home or shelter. The only expenditure was food and food in extremely remote places is quite cheap – like Rs 60 for a nice plate of ten momos and five rupees for tea. I must have spent some Rs 5000-6000 for a whole month.
You however need to spend on gear. I spent around Rs 2500 on my first pair of shoes. I wore down some three pairs of shoes on this run.
This particular project is the culmination of how many years of experience?
First of all you need to have physical fitness. I also mentioned about mental endurance. Then, if you really want to do these things self-supported you need experience in navigation plus you need enough time to spare. That kind of combination makes it unique. There are quite a few things involved. So you won’t find too many people doing this even though they may be physically fit or mentally fit. But just looking at the physical aspect, I have been running very consistently for the last five years since I started running in 2013. Running is all about consistency. I have been doing weekday runs and during weekends, my long runs are trail runs. Running long distance so, gets your legs used to rocky trails. I have seen a number of runners struggling to balance on rocks. Also, the elevation practice – you need to go up and down. In Chennai, I run at least twice a week on nearby hills which also give an elevation gain of 500 meters. Running on trails and tackling elevation makes you stronger than running on flat roads.
You would encourage people to start small before scaling up?
Yes, two factors are essential – regularity in running and patience in scaling up distances. Running has to start slowly with easy pace; else, you risk injury. It is also about enjoying your run, not just about speed. But young people are very impatient, they want to see results. There is too much running to prove to other people. City runs are more about competition, medals and timings. Once you step into nature running becomes a different thing. It is about enjoying your surroundings, mentally engaging by looking at the beauty of nature. That way you can continue to run from morning till evening. At the end of the day you actually feel refreshed because you ran through so much beauty. Ultra-running is a totally different experience.
In the outdoors did you move continuously through a given day or you chose your hours; when to be active and when to rest?
In the south, we used to definitely have a break from 12 noon to 3 pm. It is too hot and humid. But in the Himalaya I kept going from sunrise till sunset because there it was not very sunny. Weather was always pleasant, never hot. The sun was intense but not hot. So, it was comfortable to keep going but you can’t have a constant pace. When you ascend you have to switch to walking. After you cross a pass initially it is quite steep and then when it flattens out you can start running.
What next for you?
The Himalaya is endless, so I think I will keep going. In summer I will be going back to Himachal, Uttarakhand and Ladakh and trying to cover 100 passes. I took these 100 passes from another blog. I will be referring Satya’s blog too. He has traveled so much and gone to areas which are so remote. I would like to walk in his footsteps. And then you have the backup security of meeting some shepherds. That will be the summer plan. In winters I am planning to run in different countries. I am planning to go to Laos. I don’t want to go to touristy places. I want to make my own route and go running where people don’t go.
You are designing your own trips. Are you also attempting international ultramarathon races?
Yes, I have been doing that. In 2017 I did so. But the point is – once you become self-sufficient and make your own route, carry your own gear; you don’t depend on aid stations, you also navigate by yourself. Organized events will always be competitive. You can’t enjoy them because they will say you have to finish it in specified time. You end up running day and night. By the second night you are sleep deprived and you start hallucinating. The enjoyment of running is not there. It also feels artificial that people stand in the middle of nowhere with food, pasta, biscuits and Coca Cola for you. Someone who is serious should go on their own with food in their bag and explore the outdoors. Once you go to that level, there is no stepping back to doing events. Not to mention the expense incurred for participating in these organized events. Many of these races are quite expensive. Add to that flight tickets and stay. With that kind of money I would rather spend a month in the Himalaya.
At 46 you left your job and now you are full-time in the outdoors. How do you imagine your life ahead?
I now know that you can do this in a very cost-effective way. If I had known this I would have done this much earlier instead of spending 25 years in a cubicle. I met two cyclists from Belgium; they had been on the cycle for over two and half years. They pedaled all the way from Belgium through Middle East and Kazakhstan to India. They were just 21 and 29; a couple. I have seen a lot of people like that, touring. They earn for six months and then disappear somewhere for six months. I had studied hard and then, worked hard. Looking back, I feel the quality of life is not in making money and buying fancy gadgets. In the remote areas I visited, I met real people; I woke up every day in a different place to a different sunrise. Each of those 75 days was amazing. The most important thing is to be healthy.
In Chennai, you are also associated with open water swimming. Are you contemplating anything in open water swimming?
Once in Chennai we did a 15 kilometer-swim from one town to another. Swimming is good; you can keep swimming and not feel tired but swimming in the sea can be boring. It’s akin to running on the roads as opposed to running in the mountains. It was possible to keep running day after day during my 75 day-run because I was mentally excited. Every day was unique. Every pass was unique, the approach, the challenges. Every one of those 40 passes was a completely different experience. You go from forests to meadows to rocks to glaciers. Mountains give you the mental stimulation to keep going as opposed to the plains.
(Interviewed by Shyam G Menon; transcribed by Latha Venkatraman. Both are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The photos downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page and featured here include pictures from the Himalaya and Vietnam. For more on Peter Van Geit please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)