Two years ago we got into some serious trouble in the Himalayas. The full story is here, but in short, we found ourselves in the worst blizzard in Nepalese history... We were already at 15000 feet, dodging avalanches while hauling our bikes. Unbeknown to us, 48 people died of exposure on the trails around us and while we were underequipped, we did managed to get ourselves out of the high mountains after 3 days of trekking at full exposure. Having survived that trip, all be it with a lot of luck, we were faced by the failure of not having gotten over the mountains. The snow had forced us to back track, so we were keen to make another attempt as soon as we could. This is that story, and the forces of nature were yet again to play as big a part as ever...
This would be the second consecutive bike adventure to not only exceeded our expectations, but to also threaten our lives so tangibly, that Murphy himself would cringe and the laws of coincidence and bad luck would be rewritten for ever.
The Annapurna circuit is one of the Planet’s great hiking routes and is surprisingly seldom ridden, but with huge potential. Cuan had hiked it twice and his obsession with riding it rubbed off on me. On the last trip we’d had just enough to get a taste and realize that it’s one of the greatest original bike trails on earth. Extreme conditions and altitude conspire to make it incredibly tough, but there’s enough high and hard single-track to make your eyeballs dry up. It’s one of the most spectacular, rough and real places you can visit.
The riding starts at 2000 feet above sea level in the hot valleys of Besisahar, quickly rising to over 13000 feet within 2 days of riding and on into the glacier valleys of Manang. Then it rises again, sharply this time towards the high passes of the Himalayas where a selection of wind-swept, snowy saddles between 26000 foot peaks await. Then the fun begins... Riding down thousands of meters and over some of the rockiest, steepest, swoopiest tracks you can imagine. When you’re up there you feel totally alone and out of touch with the world, but then that’s part of the appeal, yet it’s also a drawback... If anything happens to you, you’re on your own.
|Friends now refuse to camp with us. No one wants to come on holiday with us and I have no explanation for our knack of ending up in these life-threatening natural disasters! - Graeme Duane.|
Spring in the Himalayas comes around in April, so we booked flights for another attempt. This time we had better gear - full Gore-Tex waterproofs and an emergency bivvy in case we had to sleep out in the snow again. Lightweight food supplies, which we all carried on our backs. This trip would turn out to be the real McCoy, but with a sting in the tail that would be totally in character with our previous trip. Friends now refuse to camp with us. No one wants to come on holiday with us and I have no explanation for our knack of ending up in these life-threatening natural disasters! In a nutshell, we went from being stuck in Nepal’s worst blizzard in living memory on one trip, to being right near the epicenter of Nepal’s worst earthquake in history on our next… It was a trip filled with both elation and fear, a memorable adventure, but with an added kick.
What was immediately apparent as we approached the high mountains above Besisahar for the second time was that there was a lot of snow. It may have been spring, but little had melted. As we left 2000 feet and cycled up towards Tal, we bumped into numerous hikers who’d turned back, freaked out by the volume of snow on the high passes. At this point, Thorung La, our planned route over the top was closed and it had been snowing for 2 days previously. This wasn't good news...
But we were buoyed by good weather reports as we put in 2 huge days to get to Manang, climbing 22400 feet in 60 miles over some gnarly trails. Headaches, nausea and a lack of appetite hit us - we then took a day off to acclimatize. Wandering around Manang helped. We did a short climb up to Praken Gompa, which was 3000 feet above town. This would also help our bodies deal with the effects of AMS or 'Acute Mountain Sickness'. Hike high, sleep low, that’s the trick apparently?
When we left Manang the following morning, the temperatures were near zero, but we were quickly climbing again and warmed up in no time, passing yaks emerging from homesteads along the way. The Nepalese seem to keep their favorite yaks indoors over night, chasing them outside at first light. As we left the smoky, stony huddle of Manang below us, we hit the high single-track that leads to Yak Karkha and found some of the finest high altitude single-track we’d ever seen. We’d climb a few hundred meters and then ease into long stretches of contour that dropped and rose along the edge of Himalayas. We ripped along this hard-packed ribbon, flying over crunchy drifts of ice with the steep snowy walls of the Annapurna range behind us.
As we worked our way further up the Jharsang Khola, the valley became narrower and narrower... The trail became more unstable, and before long we passed landslide warning signs before slipping and skidding across areas of thick shale scree. Sometimes the trail would be as little as a foot wide, with a proper drop under your right foot.
Thorung Phedi, at 14500 feet, is essentially base camp for anyone attempting the Thorung La pass. From this ramshackle teahouse we’d climb straight up for almost a whole vertical kilometer to 18000 feet, but that would be tomorrow’s job. For the rest of the day we’d try to refuel and prepare for the highest day of our trip.
|I felt like I'd been shot between the eyes and I was nauseous. I didn't want to throw up because I was afraid of dehydrating, so I held it down a few times. If I looked up, all distant objects were double and I struggled to walk in a straight line. - Graeme Duane.|
It soon became obvious that the trip over Thorung La would be a major undertaking. News dropped that the snow was 3 feet deep all the way up and the groups that had guides were all planning to leave before 4am in the morning, hiking up the sheer scree with their head-torches. We received some very strange looks as bicycles are not common on this route, before being handed back to the rider at the top of the pass.
Because of our bikes we decided to opt for a daylight start and while we slept, all the other groups mobilized and headed up. By the time we awoke, 3 members of the Japanese party had already aborted and had come back down, suffering from bad AMS. We ate some oats and set off at about 6am. It was -10 degrees C... Hauling a 22lbs pack and a 30lbs trail bike up a 45% grade means that you crawl. At 16500 feet, in snow, this task is made even more difficult. We suddenly realized why people left so early. It was 3 miles to the top, but this is the longest you’ll ever take to cover that distance. Even if you don’t have AMS, which I did!
The higher I went the worse I felt. I figured that I needed to just get the hell up, and then get the hell down… As fast as possible. But our speed equated to 1 mile/h. I felt like I’d been shot between the eyes
and I was nauseous. I didn’t want to throw up because I was afraid of dehydrating, so I held it down a few times. If I looked up, all distant objects were double and I struggled to walk in a straight line. Cuan was stronger I guess, most probably because he’d hit these altitudes before. I hadn’t, and I was paying for it...
We hauled the bikes up through the bleak white landscape. Every time I rested, which was every 30 feet as we approached the top, I looked about and even in my broken state, I registered that the scenery was jaw-dropping. It started off clear and crisp with white peaks littering the horizon, all the way into the distance. But as time ticked by, the clouds closed in and it got colder. By the time we reached the last porters hut it was snowing, and it was -12...
Cuan was about 500 yards ahead of me, but I had to stop to put more clothing on - a down jacket, a Gore-Tex jacket with thermal longs and waterproof trousers kept the wind out. Windproof gloves stopped my hands from freezing, but I could see the prayer flags at the top of the pass and I was now about 300 yards away.
I was not well when I reached the top. But I knew this was the only chance to get as many photos of our feat as possible. Still, it was a great feeling to be here. We couldn’t see into the next valley as the snowstorm had closed down visibility to a hundred yards, but we took our pics and then headed off, over flat snow, which gradually tilted downwards as we pushed our bikes along.
Soon the gradient became radical - slippery, slushy snow dropping off into the thick mist. This is the exact area where the first 24 hikers lost their lives last year and we could see why. Snow and thick mist conspired to form a white sheet where you can’t see the sky or the ground, let alone the way ahead. We passed the small valley that they mistakenly walked down, thinking they were on track.
It was still freezing, and getting darker. We needed to get down faster. We slammed our seats down and sledded through the snow with our feet out like skis. This worked, although it was exhausting, and Cuan had some spectacular tumbles.
All of a sudden we popped out below the cloud. Simultaneously the snow thinned and all of a sudden I was looking down into the Mustang valley. I’ll never forget that view... Cuan was waiting on the top of a rise that dropped into oblivion and the dry Mustang mountains were laid out behind us. I’d begun to feel better now that we’d dropped a full vertical kilometer and my AMS was thankfully easing...
The trail was still tricky, but soon it turned into a gnarly rockfest, twisting down towards Muktinath, which was the first town 6000 feet below the pass that we’d just crossed. The (Ibis) Mojo and Pyga came into their own here, taking the full brunt of the rock gardens as we careered down the trails towards the village.
We felt physically beaten with almost flu-like symptoms. All I wanted to do was eat and then sleep. We found a good teahouse and did just that. The next morning the cloud had gone and the valley was bolt clear and totally spectacular. We set off on a dry, dusty jeep-track, twisting around natural rocky berms and ramping through little stone villages. The pace was crazy - over the course of the day we dropped almost 10000 feet over 71-km's and over some crazy square edged rock-gardens, flying over was the path of least resistance.
This epic decent took us past the apple pie capital of the world, Marpha, and eventually into Tatopani, a little stone village nestled deep in the Khali Ghandaki valley. It’s famous for its natural hot springs and we figured we needed a good soak. We thought our epic trip was drawing to a close, so we’d planned a rest day in Tatopani… But again, Nepal is full of surprises. We should have known something crazy was about to happen!
|The quake quickly triggered radical movement and the ground shook violently and a heavy rockslide released a huge shard of mountain into the river 300 yards downstream from us. Another alarming factor was the length of the tremor - it didn't subside! It went on and on and on. After a minute or two the buildings began to lurch - waggling a foot each way as the rhythm of the quake kept growing. - Graeme Duane.|
We slept in late, did some washing and then walked down to the hot springs. Our trip was drawing to a close and we had that sleepy feeling you get when you know something’s over and you’re processing it in your mind, trying to milk every bit of worth out of it.
What happened next, I remember this clearly... I was sitting on a broken plastic chair under a tin roof next to the spring. Just starting to think of work... The real world was seeping back in. I felt a slight vibration, and immediately looked up, waiting for the heavy truck to come thundering around the rough track that led up towards Jomson. It never came, but the shaking got stronger. Within 15 seconds I realized that an earthquake was hitting us.
A couple of things were really terrifying. We were deep in a valley with sheer peaks on all sides, towering 8 or 9000 feet above us. The quake quickly triggered radical movement and the ground shook violently and a heavy rockslide released a huge shard of mountain into the river 300 yards downstream from us. Another alarming factor was the length of the tremor - it didn't subside! It went on and on and on. After a minute or two the buildings began to lurch - waggling a foot each way as the rhythm of the quake kept growing.
Cuan and I were standing with our feet spread, in a kind of surfer’s stance, riding out the movement. I
remember saying, “please stop… please stop…”
I started to wonder if I needed to run somewhere, but the rocks continued to pour into the river from hundreds of feet up, and when I looked behind us there were massive boulders flying down the peaks high above – crashing into stands of pine trees and bouncing over lower cliffs. I figured that lying below the retaining wall that lay beside us was the best idea, but as I moved to jump over the wall the tremors began to subside. Buildings were still moving like putty, and that cordite smell, when you strike rocks together, was thick in the air.
What seemed like an age was probably only 3-minutes - we were both incredibly relieved when it was over. I knew exactly what Cuan was thinking - we were right back in the s**t again! Worst blizzard in history last time and then hectic earthquake this time. We knew that we had to get on the phone immediately to let our families know that we were OK. Somewhere, we knew this quake would have caused mayhem. All that snow on the high peaks - avalanches, rockslides, so many potential disasters in this steep, high and extremely wild place.
Again, we had little idea what was unfolding. We also didn’t know that we were just 30 miles from the epicenter of a 8ms quake. And we also didn’t know that at that moment, thousands of people were dead and dying in Katmandu, but we figured Everest would be in trouble. The cell network was down. That night we had the aftershocks and the next morning we decided to take a detour up to Gorephani - staying out on the trail, away from buildings and towns.
It was a welcome break from the mayhem as we climbed back up to 12000 feet, hiked up Poon hill and watched the sun rise over Dhaulagiri. Then we carried the bikes down 6 miles of steps and rode back into Pokhara to complete our trip. By the time we rode along the lakeshore into town we’d almost forgotten about the quake.
It was only when we approached Katmandu a day later that we saw the destruction first hand. Parts of the city had been leveled and everyone was terrified and trying to get the hell out of town. Busses were packed with people on the roof. We passed many collapsed buildings. Some multistory blocks simply leant against the neighboring block. People were living on the street, too afraid to go back under cover. The aftershocks had caused chaos with teetering buildings collapsed and this toyed with people’s minds. The lasting image of Katmandu that I have in my own mind are the bonfires along the river, where the recovered bodies were being burnt. The orange glow rising high in the evening sky and that smell of burning hair...
It was a sobering end to an epic adventure. In a selfish way witnessing the quake and its aftermath is enriching because it sorts out your priorities in life. You figure out very quickly what matters and what doesn’t. The Nepalese are dealing with so much, casting a light on how pointless and frivolous much of our lives are. So our memories of this Himalaya ride are wildly mixed. Adrenaline, exhaustion, elation and wonder exist alongside terror, sorrow and revulsion. It’s a great setup for chronic post-adventure depression. The knowledge that you’ve experienced something so real and profound that you adjust the basis by which you deal with daily life.
After we escaped the blizzard, people asked why we didn’t ditch the bikes in the snow, and to be honest, that never occurred to us. At the end of the day it’s the bikes that enabled these great adventures. They’ve been the vehicle for these cherished experiences, both good and bad. It’s a strange relationship, but it only makes you love riding them more...So who is Graeme Duane?"I'm 46, I shoot wildlife documentaries for Nat Geo Wild and I now run a production company here in South Africa where I live. I'm out in the field less and less these days, so the adventure has to come from somewhere. Recently discovered that getting on a plane with a bike is much more fun than racing. Here in SA we don't have much to really push your riding, so we generally have to travel. I'm in the US 4 times a year, so I have ridden a bit in the Tetons and Colarado.
I'm not a fancy rider, I'm not a bike expert, but I love the adventure of riding - even if it's just around home. We're lucky, we can ride year round here, and I'm out almost every day.