It was in early June 2020 that Kieren D’Souza approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manali with a request, strange for the times in which it was being tabled.
An ultra-runner with affinity for the mountains, it is now some years since Kieren made the tourist town in Himachal Pradesh, his base to train and live. The local mountaineering institute had been where he did his Basic Mountaineering Course years ago; the course had proceeded for training in the direction of Friendship Peak (17,352 feet). A non-technical peak, it is generally recognized as an easy climb. However a mountaineering course unfolds accommodating the wishes and abilities of a large number of students. Kieren’s batch completed their training successfully but did not climb Friendship. The desire to summit it, stayed in his head.
In the years that followed, the young man was acknowledged as a promising ultra-runner. A lover of the outdoors, it wasn’t long before he veered off the distance runs of the cities and embraced trail running and the ultramarathons of altitude. Besides polishing off a clutch of such runs in India, he completed Spartathlon and races within the UTMB fold. All this exposed him to emerging trends in the sport, one of which was the gradual but steady ascent of the mountain athlete – an athlete at the confluence of diverse disciplines like running, hiking and mountaineering. It was this fancy that Kieren indulged, training and living in Manali, a town at 6725 feet offering quick access to several peaks of modestly high elevation in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to climb them in the regular expedition way or the comparatively lighter alpine style. Instead what fascinated him was the paradigm of fast ascents where the skills of running, hiking and mountaineering blended. Plus, he wondered about the possibility of commencing the walk or run, right from Manali and ending it there with no car or hired transport in between. Away from the minimalist format, he also thought of attempting peaks in winter.
Challenging as these parameters may seem, fact is – dedication to the task at hand can prepare a person for the demands of aforesaid light, quick raids at altitude. A midnight in August 2016, this writer had seen Kieren running up Khardung La (17,582 feet) in shorts and T-shirt as part of the 111km-race of La Ultra The High. It was quite cold but he managed well. Roughly three years later, Peter Van Geit, hailing from Belgium and based in Chennai, would run across many passes in the Himalaya of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, often clad in nothing but shorts and T-shirt; a small daypack bearing essentials slung from his shoulders. Manali afforded views of several peaks ideal for the minimalist style. None attracted Kieren as much as Friendship, playground of the local mountaineering institute and climbed by many during tourist season. The peak located close to Beas Kund is part of a handful of peaks in the area regularly visited by climbers; other prominent ones in the vicinity of Friendship include Shitidhar (17,224 feet), Ladakhi (17,536 feet) and across the valley – Hanuman Tibba (19,625 feet). Kieren’s first attempt on Friendship was a winter climb. In January 2018, he and Aditya Pandey tried a fast ascent seeking to polish off the peak in under-two days. “ We failed, we didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the right gear for climbing in winter,’’ Kieren said over the telephone from Manali. A winter ascent is still on the agenda. It’s a different ball game entailing not just physical fitness but also investment in right gear.
Two years later, by February 2020, Kieren was resolved that a run to the summit of Friendship and back should be attempted. Then COVID-19 brought everything to a grinding halt. By late March, all of India had slipped into a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of infection. Sporting activity came to a halt; even the morning jog disappeared as people withdrew indoors. In Manali, Kieren was reduced to working out at home and cycling on his home trainer. This he did, diligently. From late April, the town started allowing two and a half hours of morning exercise. “ I ran as much as I could in that duration,’’ Kieren said. Friendship Peak returned to focus. A young man trying to make ends meet through career in sports, Kieren’s fast ascent project was cast as a mix of athletic performance and media; there would be a film crew to document his journey.
Given lockdown, he needed permission from the authorities. That was how in early June, amid lockdown now relaxed a bit, he ended up at the SDM’s office talking about trail running and a shot at Friendship. He was asked to provide a window of choice for the attempt. It wasn’t hard to zero in on one. The effects of the approaching monsoon would begin to manifest in the region by around June 20. It would be best to wrap up the attempt before that. “ We asked for June 14, 15, 16 and 17,’’ Kieren said. While the process of obtaining approval was underway, on June 4, he essayed a foray up to an elevation of 4000 meters (13,123 feet) on Khanpri Tibba, a nearby mountain, to acclimatize. Once permission was sanctioned by the SDM, on June 14, Kieren did a recce of the trail to Friendship. That too would have contributed some bit to acclimatization.
Kieren started his run on June 16 at 1.02AM from Mall Road, Manali. He ran from Manali to Solang and onward to Dhundi, from where he took the true left of the Beas River and proceeded upstream. That is the path hikers take to reach Beas Kund. However Kieren didn’t require reaching this alpine lake. Much ahead of it is the deviation to the base of Friendship. The mountain’s real ascent starts at a long ridge called Lady Leg. From here onward there was snow. Kieren continued in running gear with one addition for this stage on, being micro-spikes fitted to his shoes. Some ways up, is a col. Members of the film crew were already in place at these points. At the col, he changed to slightly warm attire and traded his running shoes for proper mountaineering boots and crampons. He also left the small backpack he had been running with, there. Roughly three and a half hours later, he was on the summit of Friendship. Altogether, it had taken him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach there from Mall Road, Manali. The film of the climb shows him running on the return too, all the way to Manali. Kieren told this blog that the GPS data from the trip has been submitted to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to be officially ratified. The IMF is the apex body for mountaineering in India.
A July 2 report in the South China Morning Post quoting Kieren, positioned the run up Friendship as an exercise in Fastest Known Time (FKT). It is a culture that is quite strong overseas but is yet to catch on in a big way in India. Compared to the institutional scrutiny characterizing records in mainstream outdoor disciplines like mountaineering, FKTs started in the comparatively diffuse regions of outdoor sports – like the overlapping zones of running, hiking and mountaineering. They are actually loved for their informality as regards verification and the organic evolution of new quests. Perhaps you could call them the paradigm adopted till given activity becomes mainstream and formal. “ With a dwindling number of outdoor milestones to be achieved first, top adventurers are trying to achieve them fastest. Trails of every length and mountains of every size are increasingly becoming racecourses for those lured by the challenge of the F.K.T,’’ an article by John Branch, in the New York Times of August 5, 2015, said. Commissioners in the space are unofficial. In the US, the article said, that position belonged to ultra-runner and former atmospheric physicist Peter Bakwin and the website he commenced. Claims of record timing are naturally accompanied by questions from competition. Bakwin has stepped in occasionally to settle some such disputes. It is a dynamic world in which quests crop up; records are claimed, some record holders specify rules and others question it. “ Trickier questions surround the degree of support the athlete receives: unsupported (carrying all supplies from the beginning), self-supported (collecting additional supplies along the way) and supported (having a team that provides everything from pacesetters to nightly shelter and food). Bakwin lists them all. It is left for readers to decide which is most impressive,’’ the article said. According to it, FKTs have no governing body. On the other hand, as Bakwin points out, the existence of questions and suspicion, indicate how passionately people in the field track FKTs. One of the best known FKT pursuits in the US is trying to be the fastest on the roughly 3500km-long Appalachian Trail (for more on this please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/28/the-pursuit-of-endurance/).
In his earlier mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post, Mark Agnew wrote, “ D’Souza hopes that other runners will be inspired to set their own FKT and he has already received messages from other interested mountaineers or runners. But more importantly, he wants to show those who are apprehensive about starting mountaineering that it is not all-consuming. “ I’m not saying they will do it in one day, that’s not the point, but definitely over a shorter time,” D’Souza said.’’ There hasn’t been a culture of documenting FKTs in India. In the past, for instance, a speculated FKT would surface periodically around Stok Kangri (20,190 feet), the popular trekking peak in Ladakh. Outdoor clubs in Maharashtra harbor stories of people who did fast hikes in the Sahyadri. Same holds true for Friendship Peak as well. Kieren told this blog that he was aware of earlier attempts by some of his friends to climb the peak fast but a precedent on Friendship essayed in the specific style he did was unknown to him.
With COVID-19 causing cancellation of major events in running worldwide, Kieren has all of 2020 and likely a chunk of 2021, to focus on projects similar to the one he accomplished on Friendship. There is also the chance to sample the virtual versions of some iconic trail races. UTMB for instance, has said it will be informing of developments in this regard. Kieren can do such runs from Manali.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The heights of peaks and elevation of towns quoted in the article are as available on multiple websites on the Internet.)