It comes to something when you start grading trails according to the likelihood of death; a system we had devised by the end of this long adventure. ‘Extremely likely’, ‘quite likely’, ‘likely’ and ‘should be ok’, made up our rudimentary categorisation and though this was, of course, our cheap humour, there’s no smoke without fire and at times over the past few weeks’ recces, the fire had been raging strong.
This was an unusual project. Though mountain bikers of many travels and trail building projects, we had little information about exactly what the 19-day trip would entail. We knew only that we were carrying out a reconnaissance study for a local government department of India in a remote, barely accessible part of the Indian Himalayas. The Vision For MTB in India
In Delhi, we met Michael, the man who was responsible for this plan coming to fruition on the Indian side. He was passionate about the tourism benefits of mountain biking for rural economies. For part of his master's thesis, he presented the idea to the chief minister of Uttarakhand province, who assigned the project to Vineet Pangtey of the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation (India’s Forestry Commission). Mr Pangtey’s bloodlines are from the tiny mountain station Munsyari, an area deemed ideal for our particular joint endeavour.
There was no local scene or passionate mountain bikers driving the project, or indeed any real Indian mountain bike scene to pitch the concept to. The vision was dreamed up on the basis of the area providing the sort of riding terrain in the Himalayas that overseas travellers would travel to come and experience; the opportunity to grow an internal mountain bike scene from scratch. This theory needed to be tested and verified: none of the Indian project team rode a mountain bike and no-one had ever set tyre in dirt in the Munsyari area on a mountain bike. Any riding taking place here during our study was a genuine first, pioneering a way for a potential future involving two wheels. The meaning of remote
After landing at Dehradun regional airport we were lucky enough to have a faster passage through the Himalayan foothills in the form of a 90-minute helicopter flight to our destination, while our kit took the scenic and bumpy 16-hour road route from Delhi. Munsyari, a remote hill station town and the last place accessible by tarmac road, was the perfect antidote to Delhi; the landscape was incredibly lush and green and the five peaks of Panchchuli, the highest of which was just short of 7000 metres, provided a breathtakingly beautiful and instantly humbling backdrop which was to be our base for the following weeks.
We were met at the town’s helipad by an unexpectedly large welcoming committee and a group of excitable local children who had arrived in tow to come and greet us into town, watch us build our bikes and of course, test these colourful, giant and alien bikes out - this was all the more impressive when you consider the hillside is way too steep for bikes, we didn’t see a single push bike during our time here.
It was at this point and during the welcoming meeting later that day that it began to dawn on us just how much of a big deal our presence was to the local community. As mountain bikers who travel a lot, we were all used to slipping by unnoticed by the general public and authorities alike. Here we were front and centre alongside local dignitaries with a banner proclaiming our arrival and intentions stretched from one side of the town all to the other. Expectations were high and the outcome of our studies here could mean a lot to the local community.
Sitting and discussing the scope and scale of the study which was relatively simple at its basic level: to test whether the paths and trails in the area surrounding Munsyari could support mountain biking and what remedial works, if any, would be necessary, we became aware of our biggest challenge: there were no maps of the trails in the area. We would have to rely on local walking guides, intuition when on the hill and good old Google Earth to help us plan our exploration each day in this vast area.Trail Reconnaissance
We initially sought out paths and trails that descended from the town through the network of villages towards the valley floor. These were paved with a mixture of deceptively greasy cobbles and challenging steps; an unforgiving and technical ride down that left us slightly concerned. While the adventure element was certainly there – we were beginning to get a feel for the mountain culture – the riding itself was quite harsh and lacked the desired singletrack flow.
We needed to stretch our legs a little further. Michael arranged for some porters to help access the heights of the mountain behind Munsyari, Khalia Top. We shuttled as high as we could by road and then set off on a long hike. Climbing through the magnificent ancient forest with beautiful mosses, ferns and boulders strewn across the hill, the terrain looked ripe for trails and it was no surprise to hear that leopards, bears and musk deer roam these forests and mountains.
As we climbed higher, the forest thinned and we were soon exiting the leafy canopy and scrambling up a steeper trail to a plateau and the upper slopes of the mountain. It was up here that you really started to get a sense of scale as you looked down into the deep valleys below and ahead at the high Himalayan peaks. Nanda Devi, the highest mountain situated entirely in India at 7,816m, came into view to the north and the Panchuchuli range loomed majestically to the east. We lay amongst the alpine meadow flowers simply soaking up the whole experience.
From the top, we selected a path that headed due south traversing the slopes, that from a distance, had looked quite inviting. If you had to call it from our vantage point you’d say it was flowing, easy even. When we got down onto the trail it was a slightly different perspective that we were facing: there was a huge amount of exposure that made it extremely challenging. Some sections rode well, fun descents were interrupted with punchy climbs that were on the physical limit at this altitude, other sections required walking up or down.
It was clear that with some significant works the trail had the potential to be largely rideable by experienced riders, but we had to remind ourselves where we were and that the implication of a fall here was severe. If you didn’t plummet off the edge of a sheer cliff and you were fortunate enough to suffer a straight forward trail injury, extraction was going to be an issue, a real issue. This was a place for playing the percentages game and keeping things firmly under control. But this had lifted our spirits and hopes that other existing trails make them suitable to travel by mountain bike.
Our reconnaissance continued using a range of techniques; flying a drone to record aerial images that we could later study to see if there looked to be a viable route to explore, using physical lookouts to try to link together points of interest and mountain villages and speaking to local villagers to try and piece together a suitable route.
Surprisingly to us, the local knowledge of routes and trails was so narrow; villagers knew necessary routes from their villages to school, the nearest dirt road, and routes to adjoining villages but little beyond. This meant it was very difficult to piece together routes over any distance and a lot of time was spent exploring to see if it was in fact even possible to pass by bike. Some days we split into groups and hiked on foot, some we rode and many we intended to ride, but ended up hiking due to the terrain being too difficult to ride.
For each dead end, wrong turn and discounted track, we would find a route that could be used by bike or that would work well with some remedial works undertaken. But the scope of the study never got less daunting; you could spend a lifetime exploring this one valley and its surroundings but we had only a few short days.
Since arriving there was one ridge we had been eying with interest which would start from the Khalia Top and head off north from the trail we had already explored. It was less obvious if there was a trail on this side but Narendra, our local guide, thought that there was and the topography and landforms that we could see from a distance meant it was worth pursuing.
We hiked to camp at 3500 metres and woke at 5am to witness first the incredible stars and then the sunrise. The thin atmosphere and cold air left a crystal-clear window into the solar system and beyond; we gazed at the sky till the sun rose above the snow-capped mountains to the east and began to warm our cold and aching bodies.
Soon after, we began to follow the path that we’d plotted on the satellite imagery. After hiking along the first part of the ridge we dropped down and the going was tougher than we could have imagined – with no trail to follow, we were off-piste and the going was slow, compounded by the altitude and the lack of sustenance. Eventually, we reached a small clearing and collapsed in relief for some much-needed rest and water; we were forced to make the difficult call to abort the recce and head back into town.
In 6 hours, we had managed to travel just 7km. Fortunately, the next day we hit gold, heading across the river at the bottom of the valley and exploring a route on the opposite side that we had spotted from the helicopter – this was the sort of day that you never forget.The accident
Throughout the week, we had been giving Michael a few lessons in how to ride an MTB, so he decided that day that he would attempt to ride the entire route with us. The group had split into two with Michael in the latter group and our plan was to converge at the river bridge. Thirty minutes passed after the rendezvous time and it was clear something was up. Eventually, they rolled down to the bridge but without Michael. His unshakeable confidence kept him biting at the heels of the others riders but the dirt road down to the bridge was fast, loose and rough in places. His wheels washed out on the loose surface of the road and he’d gone down pretty hard suffering a dislocated shoulder and a gash in his leg that required stitching.
Our first local rider had already been injured and the team felt responsible for not reigning in his enthusiasm and confidence. Michael had sent down a message that he wished for us to push on with the study, so we loaded up the bikes into what was perhaps the wildest journey of the whole trip – stood in the back of a pickup truck on this fresh-cut dirt track that appeared to be exactly the same width as the truck. With a sheer drop along its entire length, the truck hugged the cliffs with no room for error. From the highest point that this track reached, it was a further three-hour hike-a-bike to the pass where the trail that we hoped to test started.
We reached the summit, hot and quite tired from the hike, the descent that followed was the best trail that we discovered in our time there: flowing, fast, remote feeling and with a completely different aspect on the other side of the Gori Ganga river. This descent had us whooping all the way down and the day combined the perfect cultural adventure with a killer descent that was one of the few routes that just worked as it was from start to finish.
Our day trip concluded with a return via the manual cableway over the river that the locals had constructed to transport goods, so, one at a time, we sat in the small container with our bikes hanging off the side and were winched over the fast-flowing river below each one of us secretly imagining ourselves to be Indiana Jones.Bikes for the children of Munsyari
Early on in the study the ministers overseeing the project had thought it would be a great idea for the local children to experience some mountain biking for themselves. Apart from our own bikes (which were great for a 6 feet tall adult, but not really practical for an eleven-year-old child), there were no other cycles to be found in the remote town. Despite this, the powers that be with amazing organisation asked for our suggestions on what sort of bikes would be ideal, then went about sourcing some.
Sure enough five days later six of the best bikes available in quite possibly the whole of India rolled into town on the back of a truck. Greeted by some now even more excited children we set about building them up and were tasked with giving an impromptu lesson in basic mountain biking to about 50 local children on the town’s helipad and a small off-road skills area we had created. To say this session was chaotic is an understatement, but the sheer eagerness of the kids to get on the bikes and learn a new skill was amazing to behold, and hopefully sowed the seeds of a burgeoning mountain bike scene in the town.The Legacy
Later that week we took time out of our mapping and getting lost duties to work with some of the key people from the town and surrounding villages, teaching them how to build and maintain a mountain bike trail. A skill that if the project was going to expand after our initial investigation would be invaluable in making the area more attractive to the currently illusive foreign riders. We took an existing path that had been formed by people walking and demonstrated how they would adapt the trail to make it suitable for mountain bikes.
Again the enthusiasm of the local population astounded us, within minutes of starting a crowd had gathered, tools had been sought and they were carefully following our lead and getting stuck in. The guys who had been our porters earlier in the week had now turned trail builders and were going at it hammer and tongs with pick axes, spades and mattocks. In many cases toes were at great risk due to the definitely not health and safety preferred footwear choice of sandals. In just a short space of time working with the villagers, we reshaped around 300 metres of trail which served as a good singletrack route for the kids to continue their riding development.
Since our visit, a local group have continued to dig and extend this trail along the lines that we mapped in the study and have now created a 3km singletrack descent. Since our adventures in India, Munsyari hosted its first mountain bike race thanks to the UKFDC and Indian Cycling Federation, using this very trail and a road climb to form a 6km loop.
As our time in Munsyari drew to an end we attended a closing ceremony of this study at the public school in the town. Joined by local village heads, elders, politicians and interested parties we were again taken aback at just how hospitable and enthusiastic everybody was. Despite the bureaucracy, the locals had collectively embraced the study and all the village elders left wearing Munsyari MTB caps but hopefully, we left the community with more than just some headwear.
This is a story with a beginning but without an ending; Munsyari, yet to be touched by the western tourism or commercialisation could, with the right people, the right investment and some momentum to help create the infrastructure, be able to welcome adventurous, confident and ethically minded riders.
So, of course, in three weeks we hadn’t managed to map the entire region or create a network of new trails but we had set the wheels in motion for this mountain bike scene. With the drive of the local population and backing of Indian authorities, this project will only grow and in the not too distant future we hope to return to see just what they have accomplished.http://back-on-track.co.ukhttps://andylloyd.photographyhttp://www.1628films.com