Mountain Biking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal: Part 3
Words by Elladee Brown
Photography by Leslie Kehmeier
On the morning of day seven we left Letdar for High Camp. The trail started with a lot of sidehill single track cut into massive, open face rocky scree bowls. One of the traverses crossed a slide path where the advice was to spread out and keep moving forward. Rocks fall down this slope on a regular basis and the meandering mountain goats above did not instill confidence.
Alas we made it to the lunch stop! We took a long-relaxed break at Thorong Phedi and chatted to some of the trekkers we’d come to know along the way; the Aussie family, the Taiwanese crew, the Israeli’s, Vince from Ottawa and the porters. The restaurant was rocking with people, food and enthusiasm. It’s advised to take your time going up and clearly everyone was following orders; lounge around and have tea, play board games, visit, sit or just marvel at the mind-blowing views. It’s all acceptable.
Once the blissful rest stop was over it was another two-hour push up to High Camp – the last place for food, lodging and toilets before Thorong La. As I slogged up the trail I’d watch the porters ahead of me as they carried massive loads on their backs…sometimes upwards of three large backpacks or dry bags, all roped together into one giant bundle. Slowly but surely they shuffled up the mountain taking small breaks along the way. I watched them closely, because one thing I’ve learned about travelling to foreign places - do as the locals do, they know what the deal is.
High Camp was high, 4850 meters / 16,000 ft, but we finally got there! Our accommodation was a small single-story rock building with an angled tin roof…all you’d ever need and a billion-dollar view out the front door. When the sun is setting in the Annapurnas it feels like the second coming – huge beams of sun through the extensive valley networks surrounded by 8000-meter / 26,400 peaks. If mountains are your thing, this place has to be visited!
Our rooms were clean and simple, but really cold. There’s limited use of heat here as most fuel has to be brought in by human or horseback…with the exception of yak dung. This is where the puffy jacket rules supreme – if you don’t have down, you’re going down - but seriously, the evening temps were dipping below freezing and we had an early start the next day, a 3:30am wake-up call.
A person rarely gets a full night of restful sleep at high altitude. It’s a lot of tossing and turning, up to pee (usually outside) then back to bed…cough, cough, sniff, sniff, back up to pee and on it goes. Piecing a few precious hours together can be difficult between the biological wake-up calls, sounds, smells and general malaise.
The one main guesthouse at High Camp was packed, barely a place to sit for dinner. People from everywhere of all ethnicities mingling and literally rubbing shoulders. The body heat alone was producing noticeable warmth in the building and the smell of curries and dal bhat sets were hanging heavy in the space.
One of the most amazing sights for me that night was the European couple with their 6 and 8-year old daughters. Clearly Mom and Dad were well versed mountain people but I could see almost everyone double take these cute unassuming little blonde girls that seemed totally unaffected at 4850 meters / 16,000ft. They were by far the youngest trekkers we’d seen at that altitude.
We all had some kind of noodle soup that night and ordered extra hard-boiled eggs for the breakfast we’d miss in the morning. Our goal was to get up earlier than the trekkers and miss ‘rush hour’ on the start of the narrow dark trail to the top of the pass.
After dinner we made a plan for our morning departure and heated up by the stoves one last time before heading back to our bunkhouse outside. Kelli and I decided the best idea was to sleep in the clothes we’d be riding in the next morning. Temperatures were well below zero and our small room was freezing. When Om knocked on our door at 3:15am we were glad to already be dressed and warm.
The trail from High Camp to Thorong La is about 98% hike-a-bike. It’s steep and loose and difficult to maintain foot traction. For the most part the trail is quite simple and well established. We fortunately lucked out with excellent visibility and weather. We left in the dark with headlamps but the sky was clear and the stars were out. The beginning of the trail is quite narrow with some potentially consequential exposure. In October of 2014 a series of snowstorms and avalanches killed at least 43 people on their way to the pass. Trekkers were lost, unprepared and uninformed - all communication was down and the proper weather warning systems were not in place. Since that disaster better weather reporting and communication strategies have been implemented.
There was one icy sidehill section that tested my psyche on the way up. I had trouble getting good footing to move past it and if I screwed up it was one hell of a long slide down into who knows what. It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do – I got past it finally and kept putting one foot in front of the other and feeling better and better as the top got closer.
Some of the trekkers who started after us were now passing us on the last third of the climb. We met a keen kid from Australia several times along the way named Henry. He was trekking the route with his parents, and for a 16-year old he was incredibly fit, and definitely not shy. As an avid mountain biker himself with dreams of one day riding the Whistler Bike Park he hiked alongside us the final section of the climb. He was asking tons of questions and it was getting harder and harder to answer with the reduced oxygen levels. Finally, in one beautiful moment, we all gathered at the top of the pass; exhilarated, invigorated and emotional. Eight days of climbing and eye-widening experiences. After lots of hugs and group photos it was time for the downhill of our lives.
The backside of Thorang La was huge and open, ribbons of trails threaded through the rocks let you pick your own line almost the entire way down. Dropping altitude quickly we’d stop every ten minutes to peel off a layer as the temperature started warming the lower we got. Toques, booties, gloves, extra layers…it had to come off. We were working hard to hold on in the loose steep corners but these were problems we wanted and it just felt so good to descend for so long.
After what seemed like hours of going downhill we pulled into the sacred town of Muktinath for breakfast at the Bob Marley Café. It was time for omelets, toast, coffee, beer and a relaxing break before we continued on to Jomsom, our final destination of the day and still another 20+km away. This part of the ride was fascinating, after 8 days of bumpy, dusty roads, we found ourselves on a 10 k stretch of perfect asphalt. We learned why…when 80 + km winds hit the dusty roads almost daily, it makes some of the towns along the way almost unlivable because of the sandstorms. The paved road cuts down on the dust eating but it’s another story staying upright and confident with wind gusts blowing you three feet into the next lane.
The wind and pavement went on for a good hour before we finally hit the Kali Gandaki gorge, the deepest in the world sitting 5,571 meters / 18,278 ft lower than Annapurna I. This gorge was used as a trade route for centuries between India and Tibet and the sheer massive width of it gives you many options for route picking. There were busses, jeeps and trekkers in various places all along the gorge. We took a breather at a teahouse and had a Snickers bar while we waited for the wind to die down a little. It didn’t so we forged on and powered through the wind to Jomsom.
Our day ended around 5pm, and after a 3:30am start, it was for us, the biggest most dramatic day we ever had on a mountain bike. Our guesthouse that night had a beautiful upper floor where we celebrated with more beer and popcorn and yet another fabulously delicious inexpensive Nepali meal.
We rolled out of Jomsom first thing in the morning with a plan to have breakfast with some friends of Oms. Oms had a network of Canadian friends after meeting some folks from Revelstoke in a hostel in Kathmandu years prior. It was a few degrees of separation and years later that I was introduced to Om through friends of friends of friends. Serendipity is the ultimate in flow and it’s hard to believe that meetings like this are simply chance.
Shortly after breakfast we rode through the town of Marfa. Hundreds of years of history and a cobbled main street that took you way back in time. As we got lower the landscape got greener and the subtropical zone and heat was reappearing.
It was Leslie’s birthday today so we took a lot of group photos and broke out into random birthday songs at pretty much any opportunity. Portions of our ride were along roads in heavy construction mode, many of which we could not have ridden through without Om’s incredible negotiating skills. Some of the best single track we rode was on this day. Beautiful sections of trail along the gorge and plenty of ups in order to get down again. There were long sustained downhill sections on rough roads where we easily passed vehicles. And when it looked like some nasty weather might hamper our day we stopped at a tea house for cover and snacks.
The rain started coming on hard so we went inside the tiny teahouse for cover. The owners in the back were distilling a homemade alcoholic brew called Roxy, of which we all had a small sip. I was expecting a gasoline-type tasting beverage but it was actually quite mild and smooth. The smoke from the distillation process was flooding the teahouse making it difficult to stay inside so we took it as a sign to get our asses in gear for the final pull to Tatopani.
Some of the weaving in and out of forest single tracks would not have been possible without the guidance and knowledge of Om. We spent some incredible time on back routes and trails that finally spit us out into Tatopani, a colorful town in the middle of the jungle. Being lower down the supplies and beer were aplenty and our guesthouse was also lodging for many of the porters we’d come to know along the way – they were already into the food and beer by the time we got there.
There were hot springs just minutes from us and this time a dedicated pool for actual soaking. Dinner and beers and so many cheers. The night started off with a celebration of accomplishment, friendships, and of course Leslie’s birthday! After birthday cake we headed down to the huge pool of mostly men and jumped right in to continue the party. You can be loud here – good times don’t get tamped down. It was our final night before heading off to Beni tomorrow and there was much to celebrate.
We had a lot of riding to do today, nothing paved but plenty of winding steep mountainside roads, mostly down but always some up. Monsoon season hits around June/July and there’s signs everywhere of the fragility of these crazy cut roads through the mountains. Washouts are a regular occurrence and happen almost daily, rain induced or not. When we came upon our first road block I figured we’d be in the line-up with the rest of the vehicles and trekkers for hours. There was a 100-meter strip of road being repaired by multiple diggers and loaders and people on the ground. There was clearly a washout and no one was going anywhere in either direction. Om was studying the situation and then made a move for the guy that looked like the foreman. Before our eyes he negotiated our safe passage and for about one minute every machine on the site stopped so we could walk through with our bikes. This happened about three more times and with each blockade Om worked his magic and we snuck through what would otherwise be hours upon hours of waiting.
We landed in Beni around noon and the plan from here was to have lunch and then rent a jeep to bypass some of the treacherous pavement riding we’d otherwise have to do amongst the traffic. It took us a good hour to properly load the bikes onto the roof rack and once we were satisfied with the rope work and padding we loaded ourselves into the Jeep for the five-hour journey to the mountain above Pokhara, where we’d unload bikes and make our final descent into Nepal’s second largest city.
It was strange being in a vehicle again and quickly being reminded of the meaning of ‘close call’. There are so many variables on the roads here that it’s pointless to have any expectations around arrival times. An hour or so into our drive we were halted on the highway again. A large transport truck tried to pass another large transport truck on a hill and they ended up getting stuck together. Traffic in both directions was stopped and there was a crowd of about 50 + people accessing the situation. After trying to pry and pull them apart the driver of one of the trucks backed up and ripped off the bumper of the other truck. It opened up a single lane and from there traffic crept through and we continued on. It delayed us by a couple of hours but we finally got to the top of the hill above Pokhara by dusk.
It turned out to be a beautiful entry into Pokhara and we were excited to celebrate with dinner and a much needed warm shower. Pokhara is a beautiful subtropical lush city on the edge of Phewa Lake. There’s hundreds of options for accommodation and food and we quickly found a hotel that would work for us, in the heart of the city - close to restaurants and good coffee.
The next day was mixed emotions and the end of our trip. We rode our bikes to the airport from the hotel and boarded our 30-minute flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu…the last leg of our trip before heading back to North America.
This was a life changing trip for all of us. Not in the sense that we were travelling to far away lands in search of ourselves…we were all of age to know that no matter where you go, there you are. It was more a trip of realizations. The realization of how few possessions and ‘things’ we truly need. The realization that spiritual poverty is much worse than material poverty. The realization that time with friends is precious and sacred. The realization that we are all so much more connected than we think.
Nepal has a culture and a landscape that cannot be compared to anywhere else in the world, and like most things in life, it has to be personally experienced to be fully appreciated. It would be impossible to replicate this trip, so many of our best moments just happened, completely unplanned and unexpected. I know we all came back home with a deeper connection to each other. Riding mountain bikes is a pathway to so much more than just trails, and tapping into the mountains of Nepal brought this statement to life in more ways than we ever could have imagined.
Leslie Kehmeier is a Colorado-born outdoor adventure photographer and mountain bike nerd who does not currently call anywhere home. Always on the go, Leslie is most comfortable running through airports to catch a flight or steering the wheel of her Sprinter van (Henry) in search of good food, amazing coffee and marking another place off the list in her quest to tell yet another story about life outdoors. Follow Leslie’s travels via Instagram @thewideeyedworld or through her website: thewideeyedworld.com.