It was in 2018 that Chennai-based ultrarunner, Peter Van Geit, first stitched together several passes in the Himalaya, doing an extended spate of fast-hiking. In 2019, he took that up another notch, journeying across 120 passes in about as many days. Then he shifted his attention to the state of Maharashtra and ran or cycled to some 200 forts. In January 2019, Peter was in Mumbai for a talk. He spared time to speak to this blog. Excerpts:
How was your trip of 2019 to the Himalaya different from the one of 2018?
This was longer. I was there for almost four months – from May until September – covering about 120 passes in four months, almost doing one pass a day. This time I had to plan more carefully because in the month of May you still have snow in areas above 4000 meters. I started from the Kumaon-Nepal border and worked my way towards Himachal Pradesh. During the whole of May I was traversing from east to west in Uttarakhand. In the beginning of June the snowline started retreating. At that time I was in Himachal, where I spent some time in the Great Himalayan National Park; very dramatic landscape with steep slopes. From there I proceeded to the Dhauladhar and the entire range from Dharamshala to Palampur, which separates Kangra plains from Chamba valley. By the end of June, monsoon kicked in. I had to retreat and cross the Pir Panjal range towards Lahaul. I crossed over to Zanskar, Ladakh and Lahaul where I spent all of July and August. I went to Hemis National Park, where I covered many passes. I had to plan it carefully as there was lot of snowfall last winter and much meltwater in the summer that followed. In peak summer there were strong currents in the streams, it was very difficult to cross these streams. In 2019 too, probably due to climate change, sometime in mid-August there was flooding in parts of the Himalaya – Chamba, Manali. Manali-Leh Highway saw heavy landslides. At that time I was somewhere in Zanskar and got stuck. I managed to come down and for another couple of weeks explored a lot of valleys around Bada Bhangal and places like Kalihani Pass. I explored the Chamba valley fully. It was an amazing journey.
In the first phase you had been minimalist traveler with little gear. This time did you make any alternations to your gear?
Actually this year I reduced my gear further. I did not carry any tent, just a small bivy sack. Also, I had a light weight sub-zero sleeping bag, which was very comfortable. My ration plan was minimalist and optimum. I would just carry enough food to get to the next village. First few days I mostly carried fresh food. But then in Ladakh-Zanskar where you have 5-6 days trek, I had to cook some food. I carried a very minimalist stove. But I decided to give up that stove. Instead, I would collect dry cow dung and yak dung and horse dung and sprinkle that with kerosene and make a cooking fire. I would cook white oats which is easy to prepare with some water. That way I only carried a 4-5 kilogram backpack.
You mentioned taking an ice axe in 2019. Was that only for a portion of the trip?
Snow and ice were new to me. Previously, I had only gone in the months of July and August. In Uttarakhand I did not carry an ice axe. I just had some light carbon hiking poles, which were very useful. Snow is easy to tackle if it is on a flat surface but when it’s on a gradient, then you need poles. Poles are also essential for stream crossing especially over uneven river bed. Stream currents in some of the canyons in Ladakh can be dangerous. In July I was near the Dhauladhar. There I was lucky I met a person who had an ice axe. We trekked together for a week. It was a light weight Black Diamond axe. That became my main tool. By mid-August the ice axe was not required. But I continued to carry it because I was going to new places.
Are you going back again this year?
In addition to the May-September period, I am planning a new mission. I am planning a winter mission from February till April not to the passes but some remote valleys. Some of the valleys have beautiful hamlets. I want to go in winter and experience how it is. But I will have to be careful. I know snow can be dangerous. I will have to see how I can optimize my luggage. I will have to carry warmer stuff.
Will you be attempting a higher elevation this year than what you have done so far?
More than elevation, I would say traversing shepherd routes across Pir Panjal, Waru and the Kali-Cho Pass. In 2019, many passes opened late because of the heavy winter. Across many of the lesser known passes I was able to follow the shepherds; otherwise it is impossible to know these places. These are not regular hiking routes.
Is east of Nepal on your cards?
Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are there on my mind.
When you chose places do you prefer to go to places which are not frequented by people?
The contrast between commercial versus unknown is striking. Visiting an unknown place is so much more enriching, both in terms of natural beauty and the absence of plastic waste and garbage. You don’t meet visitors there and the shepherds who are there – they also don’t see many people. They are surprised to run into me, a solo traveler. They receive you with such heart-warming hospitality. In commercial places you are treated as a customer and in other places they see you as a guest.
What took you to the Sahyadri?
The Sahyadri was unknown to me. This place is unique; almost 300 ancient forts, many of these are in ruins now. That; combined with the unique geography. Last February when I was this side for a talk at the Himalayan Club, I stayed with a couple of guys in Pune and they took me on a trek. That’s how I got a feel of it. I did about 20 forts. After my 2019 Himalaya trip, I was looking for a place where I could spend a couple of months. I considered the southern states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. But access to places here is restricted by the forest department. Both the Himalaya and the Sahyadri are like paradise, you are not restricted by anyone. I was already following a couple of people on Instagram who would post beautiful pictures of the Sahyadri. I started searching for names of forts and checking with Google maps, GPS logs. There were some specific websites which gave detailed information. I was able to get proper routes for almost 200 forts. For other forts I started studying satellite maps, finding the trails myself. Then I started to work on how I could do this in the quickest way. I was in that ultra-running mode – light and fast. I visited many of the hill forts, running or fast-hiking. The forts of the Konkan coast – those I visited on my bicycle.
That way I was able to wrap it up within two months. I used to put up photos on Instagram and within no time my followers grew from 6000 to 20000. For many people, I was not visiting forts but temples of Chhatrapathi Shivaji who fought invaders.
What do you hope to do with all the information you have gathered?
I am a little bit privileged in the sense that people can hardly take a week or a weekend off. For somebody like me who has quit his full-time job I feel privileged to spend an entire month out. In the Himalaya, I acclimatise once and then go very fast. Those 120 passes were done in four months, which is roughly 120 days. Planning these long journeys is not simple because you have to spend quite a few weeks to put together a 3500 kilometer-route with so many passes which in my case includes many non-touristy places that are remote.
There was a lot of study. All the data I collect and the maps I create by studying the terrain are compiled in my blog www.ultrajourneys.org to make it easy for people to follow in my footsteps.
So, is it possible for those who want to do a few passes to just download the digital information and proceed with GPS co-ordinates?
Yes. I have documented all the passes; I rate them on the basis of elevation, distances, duration and scale of difficulty. Novices can start with easy passes. I also have a column for dangers. Some passes are risky in terms of stream crossing. People can start with conservative, safer options.
The same digital information is available for the Sahyadri too?
You had a full-time job at Cisco and now you are a full-time explorer, runner etc. How do you sustain this activity monetarily?
I have a home in Chennai. When I am not in Chennai I do an Airbnb with it. Financial is one aspect. If you live in cities you end up spending a lot of money. When I get to a remote place, I cannot spend money anymore. I carry my tent, I don’t stay in hotels, don’t use private transport, always commute in buses. In the end I eat two meals a day which is like Rs 60 per plate of momos in the Himalaya, Rs 50 per plate of bhakris in the Sahyadri.
Are your social media accounts fetching you anything monetarily?
I am not looking at that. Now I have some 22,000 people following me. I am giving talks and doing some workshops. I am not looking at monetizing them. I feel very uncomfortable charging people for it. This is my passion and I want to inspire as many young people as possible. In every talk I am able to reach out to 200-300 people.
While you were doing the passes you were burning a significant amount of calories. Is it possible for you to match the two – significant burn of calories and frugal lifestyle?
I have done it now for two years. In the Himalaya, the elevation gain and very challenging terrain can be exhausting and you can easily burn 6000-8000 calories a day. These need to be replenished. Many times you end up with members of the Gujjar community and other mountain people. They cook fresh food. They typically source local organically grown stuff. You get a lot of nutrition from their food. High altitude cereals are high in nutrition. Also, living in these remote places is like detoxing your body because the air and water are unpolluted. All of these keep you in good shape. Also in the mountains your sleeping pattern gets aligned with the solar cycle. You will always settle down by sunset. You get up automatically when sun hits your face. That rest makes you mentally and physically fit to do the next day’s traverse. Further when you are exploring new places you are mentally engaged.
At the start of the season when you have drawn out plans to do a certain number of passes, it is a task sustaining yourself that long. Does the goal feel formidable at the start of the season?
I never think of the numbers, I just take one day at a time. Although you plan your journey the actual journey can be different because you could get stuck somewhere due to some unexpected snowfall. Of the 120 passes, 2-3 of them were quite dangerous to traverse and I have had to take a mature decision and make a U-turn. Some of them are quite technical. Sometimes you get on top of the pass and then you realise that it is impossibly steep to get down on the other side. You don’t want to take unwanted risk. Sometimes it is like trial and error. You have to take a call.
Why do you do this?
People ask that question. I don’t have an answer for that. It is more like an internal drive. I have always been very excited and feel very alive when I go there. Even when I was working I used to go to such places and feel the freshness of nature, waterfalls, streams, jungles, birds and wildlife. The forest gives you so much of positivity, both physically and mentally. Also, it gives you internal peace. Climbing up 3000 meters and not seeing anybody for two days, there is total peace all around you. It makes you feel alive, completely opposite of daily routine. Probably that connection is what drives me.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used with this interview were downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page; they have been used here with his permission. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)