Peebles mountain biker escapes unrest in Pakistan

A PEEBLESSHIRE teenage mountain biker had a lucky escape when unrest hit Pakistan last month.

Manor’s Katy Winton was part of a team about to undertake the gruelling three-day Tour of the Himalayas race for charity.

The 18-year-old told us: “We were at the top of a mountain in paradise surrounded by incredible scenery in the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan, completely oblivious to everything. The first we heard of this trouble was when the race opening ceremony turned into the race cancellation – you can imagine our surprise.”

The day the race was due to start, Muslim protests against French cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad – which came on the back of a video made in California – turned violent and six people were killed. Organisers The Kaghan Memorial Trust, a charity set up to help survivors of the devastating 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, cancelled the race in the interests of safety after extremists had threatened the riders.

Katy said: “Initially what was going to happen next was unknown to both us and the organisers. We went back to our rooms and watched a film hopeful that the next couple of days might be spent up in the mountains doing some more riding, just not racing. However, there was a lot going on in the background as the organisers were trying to sort out what was best for us, then, that night/next morning at about 1am, we were asked to pack our bags and our bikes as we were leaving, now. So we did as we were told and at 2.30am we left the mountains.”

They were rushed down the mountain with a police escort from Shogran above the Kaghan Valley on a six-hour journey to the capital Islamabad.

Katy continued: “Strangely enough, I didn’t feel frightened at any stage. I knew our safety was the trust’s highest priority, so I was confident that everything would be fine – which it was and I felt safe.”

She and the rest of her team were in the Islamabad hotel from Friday morning until Sunday morning when they and the rest of the 40 or so international competitors were evacuated in an armed convoy and flown out of the country.

“We were well looked after, eating well and spending time in the pool and the gym during the day. It was quite nice actually!”

The Tour of the Himalayas race has been held three times previously and attracts riders from across the world. Mountain bikers, competing in teams of five, face a tough route that takes them across harsh and beautiful terrain at altitudes of up to 4,200m.

Katy, for whom last month was her first visit to Asia, said: “If this race had happened it would easily be one of the hardest challenges I’d ever faced – not only the nature of the stages, but the altitude. It was going to be an adventure, but we ended up with a different kind of adventure.”

The young mountain biker is part of the Kinesis Morvelo Project (Kinesismorvelo.com) team and is on the Scottish Cycling Elite Support Programme, supported by The Scottish Institute of Sport and sportscotland.

Notable successes for the 2009 and 2010 British Cross Country champion this year include being second in British Cross Country Under-23 Championships, the Elite Scottish Downhill and the road race.

Earlier in the trip, Katy had seen some of the work the Kaghan Memorial Trust charity is doing for the children of the Kaghan Valley. She said: “We spent a day at the school and took part in their sports day, which was a wonderful experience. It was one of the highlights of the trip. The trust is doing a fantastic job giving these children the support and opportunities they deserve.

“The race was for the charity and I had wanted to support it. We knew about the charity being the reason for the race and I’d thought ‘that sounds great and I would like to be part of that’.”

Looking back now on what happened, she said: “It was crazy but one of the best trips I have ever been on and will probably ever go on! Pakistan is so different to the stereotypical image that is portrayed here in Britain – for one thing it is green! This country is so vast and different, and we only saw a very small part of it.

“I also feel privileged to have met the people involved in the Kaghan Memorial Trust, seen the great work they are doing for all the children of the valley, and have met the children themselves. They are doing an incredible job out there and I am proud to have been a part of it even though the race was cancelled this year!

“It was an unforgettable trip. I shared it with some awesome people that will be friends for life now and I just feel alive from everything I saw and experienced.

“Every day there was a completely new experience of something so different. It makes you realised that is what life is about; getting out and experiencing something different whether it is cultures, people, countries or just having an adventure – trying a new activity or finding a new place in your local area.

“The trip taught me to make the most of what life has to offer as there is so much out there and so many more adventures to come!”