Richard Bull is the organiser of Manaslu Mountain Trail challenge in Nepal, which is a seven-day race covering 212km and crossing a 5,100m+ pass. The Kathmandu-based Brit is an accomplished photographer, and an expert in mountain trekking in the region. GLUE ask him about the thrills and rewards of participating in trekking races, and swapping England (highest altitude 3,209 ft) for the Himalayas (highest altitude 29,029 ft).
Q. Tell me about Manaslu Mountain Trail Challenge. You know a lot about mountain trekking in Nepal, so why did you choose to organise a race on this particular trek?
Manaslu is a great upcoming area to trek in Nepal. Where the Everest region now has a chain of $150 per night hotels, Manaslu is just evolving above wooden bed frames with sheets for mattresses and straw-stuffed pillow cases. The number of people trekking there is also minimal and thus it is still possible to see life as it has been going on here for the past several hundred years. Additionally, the area is particularly important for Tibetan Buddhists with many notable, long-established monasteries. The circuit itself is a (little known) pilgrimage route.
Q. Sounds like the race involved a lot of logistical research and inside knowledge of the terrain. How did you prepare on the ground in order to organise this race?
It goes without saying we recce the area. I worked with a person from the area who knew village elders and tea-house owners along the trails by name which was very important. The race also raised money for both a micro-hydro project in Samdo and for simple, effective portable solar lights in several locations. This also garnered support. In addition to this we had 12 staff with radios who’d worked on a similar race before and so were ready for the long days. One thing we didn’t do so well was communicate how rough the course would be and the endurance it required. Apologies to all of those who suffered!
Q. How should a runner train for this particular race? And what is your advice for mountain trekking newbie who has never experienced high altitudes such as the Himalayas. What are the challenges faced by runners and how can they overcome them to get better?
Trekking and running are a little different. Most trek itineraries go nice and easily with time to enjoy the views, drink tea and stroke goats etc. Our running schedule was about twice the speed of a normal trek with a lot more out-and-back trips to checkpoints high up in side valleys. The main problem faced at this tempo was the combined wear and tear running between 20 and 40km on rough, endlessly undulating trails, with the steady increase in altitude. By the sixth stage the wheels were falling off here and there.
It is the kind of event you can’t just train for, like you can six months before a road marathon for instance. This kind of endurance and resilience is gained over years of self-punishment.
But with anything, doing a few core exercises daily, like simple planking, help no end.
Q. I have been following your work for several years. You are passionate about the outdoors and adventure. What took the man from a rolling English countryside to the far pavilions of Nepal? What attracts you to the mountains?
It’s not so much the mountains as the difference here. It is incredibly visually stimulating. What is particularly abnormal in Nepal is the diversity, the 90-odd ethnic groups, corresponding faces and dress, the roles and hierarchy, and with all of this, the fact that so much of life goes on outdoors so you can see it there in front of you. And then when you’ve stayed awhile, you start to get the smallest glimpse of how it all works, how people think, see each other and treat each other. There are great mountains in many countries, in Nepal it is more about the people who live in the hills and mountains that make it fascinating.
Q. What are your favourite adventures (or misadventures) so far?
Many years ago I went with a group of people to a mountain in West Nepal called Kanjiroba. It was before a complete map had been made of the area, involved chopping trees to make bridges, a tyrolean traverse over a 100m gorge, almost running out of food and getting lost in the snow. It was a perfect adventure.
Q. Are there any notable cycling activities near Kathmandu, such as triathlon or mountain biking?
Mountain biking has exploded here over the last three to four years. A regular lake, mountain bike, trail run triathlon is happening near Pokhara which is a lot of fun. Road biking has no chance. Potholes, dust and intoxicating traffic fumes (note: check out Himalayan Rush Triathlon here).
Q. I am a huge fan of your photography work on Nepal. Any tips for photographers on the best camera and lens to bring during a mountain trek, or while on the road documenting adventure races?
I guess normal rules apply! Personally I like taking simple portraits and “stuff happening” shots so 35mm and 50mm work well for that. In Nepal so much happens outdoors, in the streets, on the step of the house, in the fields, on the trails. Just getting a record of the way stuff happens is enough for me. I am less interested in landscapes and have no lens for it, but have that Canon 40mm pancake lens which lends itself very well to a stitch of 3 or so images. I learned from Alex Treadway that it is possible to stitch images to an ‘action’ shot or portrait. (See 3rd image of the bungy jumper which is a stitch).
Whatever you bring, dust is a common problem which is why the Canon Service Centre in Kathmandu does brisk trade.
Click on photos to see the full gallery below.