To the roof of the world
I had previously travelled to Nepal to ride bikes. An invitation to make a return trip was not something I accepted straight away. I had visited the landlocked South Asian country twice before – to compete in a high-altitude, multi-stage XC race – the Yak Ru; as well as a quaint but relatively popular off-road triathlon there - the Himalayan Rush. This time, I would be going in not as a participant but as an organizational staff member of the former event.
An icy peak piercing a cloudless sky.
A vulture-eye view of the town of Manang.
This Yak Ru trip would be different, and yet, I would find comfort and familiarity in this chance to venture into the alpine. The destination: the Manang District, mid-western Nepal; specifically, a valley to the north of the Annapurna Range smack in the middle of the Annapurna Conservation Area. Our mission there: to put together and execute a new multi-day enduro route – quite possibly the world’s highest.
A place of serene natural beauty.
Trails line the slopes and ridges, as far as the eye can see.
Nepal is, of course, synonymous with the Himalayas. The name of the highest mountain range on Earth takes on an almost ethereal elocution as it rolls off the tongue of many a worldly traveller. This rugged and landlocked nation lies nestled between two of Asia’s most populous nations – India and China is home to 8 of the world’s 14 highest mountains and is the cradle of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is a way of life in this valley.
Manang on another brilliant morning.
Whatever I could have written below about Nepal may have read like a well-worn travel brochure: a bucket list destination for mountain bikers, its longstanding popularity with trekkers and mountaineers, its breathtaking scenery (and altitude), perhaps the plight of the country following the devastating earthquakes of 2015. The refrain of these familiar tropes certainly influenced my decision to get involved; but even when put together, the fairly serious business of trail scouting for a particular purpose meant that I had to put these thoughts aside for now.The real deal
Over the next day and a half, we travel from Kathmandu towards our staging base, the town of Manang. What passes for the main road that climbs from Besishahar to the heart of the Manang District is a rough-as-guts track – bumpy, narrow, and treacherous in parts. It is a tolerable ride as long as the vehicle – a Mahindra 4-wheel-drive, which is commonly driven in these parts – is heavily loaded to sufficiently counter the bouncing produced by an endless stream of potholes, rock gardens, and creek crossings. As far as this method to attain the alpine goes, a comfortable ride in a Mahindra is one where there are enough passengers squashed together in the cabin so that it resembles a can of sardines, and the rear tray-back is fully-packed with cargo (or more passengers).
One of the locals we met on the way to the alpine.
Locked and loaded (left); the hunt for trails like this begins (right).
Stunning views on the liaisons make the uphill efforts worthwhile.
I’m already looking forward to doing this same route, but in reverse, and on my mountain bike. But my friend and companion on this drive, ‘Snowmonkey’ Mukhiya Gurung, is already ahead of the curve, enthralling me with stories about the many trails that sprawl around Manang which he frequently explores on foot. Snowmonkey is a familiar face throughout the district, and is well known for his animal advocacy work, in particular the Himalayan Mutt Project. He’s also someone who is fond of mixing his trail exploration with wildlife photography, capturing images of the local fauna - from the local hounds to blue sheep, from vultures to the highly endangered snow leopard.
The Manang Valley: hemmed in from the north and the south by mountains.“Is it rideable?”
The build-up to escaping the vehicle cabin and hopping onto a mountain bike becomes an exercise in patience – but one that is ultimately rewarded upon reaching Manang.
I regard the landscape before us. The immediate terrain around us consists of crags and cliffs. Further away, terraced slopes reveal a patchwork of agricultural activity – now winding down as autumn takes hold. Higher up, jagged mountains boast creamy tufts of snow couloirs on their ridges, while slightly below them lay steep ravines and the occasional glaciers. Scattered about, dwarfed by the mountains, and almost resembling children’s playsets, are the villages: clusters of mud-brick and timber buildings adorned with streams of colourful prayer flags. Somewhere amongst all this are the trails we seek.
A chorten adorned with prayer flags (left); the only way of gaining altitude once the 4WD track ends (right).
Cabin-style accommodation in Manang.
For our first full day’s recce, Snowmonkey turns up to the accommodation wearing a handmade faux fur hat (a replica of the traditional red fox fur ensemble worn by local men during festivals) – which has become his trademark headwear over the years he has spent exploring and guiding in the valley. He also has with him a horse, which he will be riding today.
With Snowmonkey and me on our respective steeds, our advance party rides out of town to explore trails. We quickly leave the dust and annoyance of the main road behind a relief, as Snowmonkey’s horse is prone to getting spooked from the 4-wheel-drives and motorcycles that ply the route between these alpine towns. The novelty of our two different modes of non-motorized transport operating side-by-side is quickly replaced by a sense of purpose as we gain altitude and pull away from the valley floor. Our wandering hooves and wheels search for rideable singletrack along the hillsides just outside a tiny settlement named Julu, and we file away what we glean for future reference.
Having logged some promising descents, we end our day within a teahouse at the village of Munji, sipping hot black tea and nibbling on cookies, wiping the dust off our gear, and debating the pros and cons of various route choices as the shadows grow longer outside.
The road to Manang - dry, and dusty this time of the year.Thriving in thin air
The next morning marks the beginning of what can be described as a frenzied few days of activity. It’s a dawn scramble for Snowmonkey and me up the Gangapurna trail with trail-building tools (basically, a small scythe, a hand shovel, and a gardening hoe borrowed from Snowmonkey’s family) to prep this particular route for the following day’s descending. Looking up from our work, it is apparent that there are scant few places more epic to be digging bench cuts, trimming shrubs, and moving rocks: we are over 3700m in altitude, with a turquoise glacial lake below us and a sunlit Gangapurna peak looming in the background.
Low clouds hang about the slopes as dusk sets in.
Event briefing after dinner.
Setting off from the hotel.
The following day, this enduro adventure in the alpine takes on a twinge of urgency as we find ourselves back on the Gangapurna trail with the full complement of participants in tow. The liaison to attain the start of the day’s opening stage is a proper uphill mission; but the banter is light, as is the mood. #lightbro
- riders awaiting the signal to commence the first liaison.
Raring to get some shred on.
Shyam Limbu and Wilson Low figure out the finishing touches of the warm-up descent.
Ready to drop in from the ridge.
Waiting for that first rider to drop into the first timed stage has everyone chomping at the bit with anticipation – from the support staff to the safety crews, and certainly the riders themselves. But once the wheels start rolling, a state of flow establishes itself – down sweeping switchbacks, rowdy rock gardens, and dusty chutes – for all involved.
Eventual race winner Suman Tamang staying pinned on the Gangapurna steeps.
Singletrack heaven: the Gangapurna trail delivered the goods in spades.
Front seat views from the hotel entrance of the Braken Gompa descent.
Alpine shralping at its best.
The line-up as another day of racing begins.
And so the show goes on for the next three days. From Gangapurna, on the first day; to the highest point of the trip, Shiree Kharka (at almost 4300m altitude), on the second day; to the mystical Milarepa Cave trail on the third day. I’m not always there to send the riders off on each stage, nor am I always present at the end of a stage to welcome them, but I’m glad that – like them - I’m riding a bike. Under the gaze of curious groups of hikers and nonchalant herds of mules, across windswept mountainsides and rickety suspension bridges, and past religious monuments and crumbling ruins – the paths our knobby tires take incise a landscape rich in culture, history, and natural beauty.
Suspension bridge riding gets interesting once the winds pick up.
Dry conditions made for some fast and sketchy racing.
Walking for the uphills becomes an easy choice due to the thin air.
Rock gardens and loam - a perfect combo found on Day 3 near Julu village.
Epic flow and even more epic views while descending the Milarepa Cave trail.
Julu village: about to kick off the penultimate stage to bring 3 days of racing to a close.
Remote, high, and pristine - prior to the recon trip in May, this particular trail high above Shiree Kharka had not seen a mountain bike before.
Gaurav Shrestha shows us he's all right just before dropping into the day's first stage (left). The end of another satisfying day on the trails (right).
Traversing the steeps.
Loose and throwing up the roost.
It is heartening to note the abundant encouragement amongst this small band of participants. Competition aside, it turns out everyone is keen to look out for and help each other with various bike-related things – from the mundaneness of securing bikes to shuttle vehicles, to the exertion of hike-a-bikes on the most brutal liaison stages. The spirit of enduro does not only survive in this oxygen-thin air – it thrives!
Forest rest: a quiet moment for these riders having a break in-between stages.
The way to enlightenment: Milarepa Cave trail and its two stages was voted the most enjoyable section by the riders.
Not Lake Tahoe: loamy, leaf-strewn goodness on the amazing Milarepa Cave trail.Return, reflection
Leaving Manang, I made good on my intent to descend that 4-wheel-drive track, escorting a couple of the participants who, despite the three prior days of ‘blind’ enduro racing, were not ready to pack their bikes back into their EVOC soft cases quite yet.
Rallying around cliff-side corners, splashing past waterfalls, and stopping occasionally to catch our breath at the top of the roughest rock-strewn climbs, we enjoyed the drop in altitude, leaving our support staff and their motor convoy more than two hours behind on just the first of two days of descending. And so we traverse, exhilarated and re-energized, through the changing scenery: from the now-familiar alpine landscape and its crisp autumnal air… back to the low-lands with its jungles, muggy temperatures, and humidity.
Leaving the alpine wonderland was just as fun as the racing - especially on the mountain bikes (much preferable to being passengers on a 4WD).
When we finally board the bus for the remaining leg of our journey back to Kathmandu, we do so with lingering memories of our experience in the rarified air, riding the sublime trails of the Manang high country.
Enter the 2018 edition of the Yak Ru Enduro (29/9 - 9/10) or book a slot on the Yak Ru Tour (26/4 - 10/5, no racing involved) at http://www.yakru.com
A longer version of this article was first published in Medium