I had a sinking feeling that if we tried to sleep under this tree; we’d never get up in the morning. Certainly a grave thought, but one that signalled the flip from a bike expedition in Nepal to an unexpected fight for survival in the Himalayas most lethal autumn snowstorm in living memory.
We’d started the Annapurna circuit by bike three days previously, in crusty Besisahar. After a lost bike had set us back a few hours at the airport, we’d managed to climb 5.1 vertical kilometers over the course of 93 kms, and found ourselves approaching Manang - gateway to the high Annapurna passes, or “La’s” as they’re locally known. But as it turned out, that was the easy part...
Our party was 3 strong. Cuan Cronje, a tough-nut, ex rock-climber, adventurer and Nepal veteran. Dean Burscough, the wiry accountant with a deceptively youthful energy and a Cape Epic under his belt, and myself, a documentary cinematographer and director on leave. We were fit, we’d done our altitude training and the ride was going well. We were unsupported - no porters and no guides. We entered the Manang valley at 3600m above sea level - feeling strong and blasting the single-track reward of pushing up to Ngawal village. The track was firm and dusty, the weather was perfect October - the odd tree starting to turn and the air crisp at this altitude. The scenery was totally breath-taking. The only snow was on the high peaks above 6000m - Annapurna III and IV loomed above us.
Just before Ngawal we took a tea stop at Upper Pisang, prayer flags ripping in the wind, with plenty of tourists milling around the Gompa. Among them, only revealed in photos, was Matt Adams, a big Canadian on a lone mission on the trail. Our paths would cross in a big way. We had no idea how this trip would change in the coming days.
Unlike the masses that plod up towards Thorung La pass at 5400m, we decided, in true vigilante fashion, to tackle a lesser used pass - Mesokanto La, which lies a few miles North West, around Tilicho lake, one of the highest tarns on earth. It was looking good for us, no snow up at 5500m, and we were feeling strong. It was Monday, and we left Manang for Tilicho Base camp, a rough stone “tea house” at 4700m above sea level. The pass to Tilicho is treacherous. Not just for need of drama, but the last 2/3rds of the way involves traversing steep scree slopes left by glacial deposits - a 45-degree wall of loose rock and dust with a one-foot bevel on which to walk, or ride. We could ride most of it, but steep switchbacks involved tiptoeing along rock ledges that plunged 200m into the river valley below. Speed was key, it carried the bike forward when the back wheel washed into the edge of the narrow trail, and kept things on the straight and narrow. After 3 hours of riding, we passed a metal sign that said “Landslide Area”. A little late and a somewhat obvious statement, but this little sign was to serve as a pivotal point in both our trip, and our lives.
As we ripped down the last piece of track to the low building of Tilicho base camp, I remember looking up, and noticing that Kangsar Kang, the imposing, black, angry-looking peak, was shrouded in a dense white mist. It was snowing above us, the first blemish in our stunning conditions. Cuan, Dean and myself secured the last room at base camp. We were among 80 odd others, but the only cyclists. We drew strange looks both on the incoming trail and in base camp. It was 2pm, and we were ready for the next day - our “big one” where we’d summit to the lake and cross Mesokanto, dropping 3000m down to Jomson in one hit. We needed perfect weather, but as it turned out, we weren’t going to get it.
By 5pm Monday it was snowing at base camp. Nothing dramatic, just snow - innocent and moody in the dimming evening light. Throughout the night it continued - building in volume and intensity, and by midnight we knew our attempt on the pass was under threat. Since we had no guide, and no backup, we needed unobstructed views of the landscape and trail above us. This was not the well-trodden highway of Thorung La, it was a path, worn a little thin by far fewer feet.
Tuesday morning brought a shock. Half a meter of snow shrouded base camp, and it was dumping from the sky. Nowhere at any point on our trip up the Annapurna’s did we see any warning for bad weather. We’d stopped at every ACAP checkpoint, met many policemen and rangers on the way - no information. By 9am visibility had dropped to 40/50 meters and we were stuck - all 80 of us, and it was cold. A teahouse is a basic stone barrack with uninsulated rooms and a communal kitchen/eating area. At this altitude there are no trees, so there is little to burn for warmth. Food is prepared on fires fuelled by burning Yak shit, and there isn’t that much Yak shit around either. But the teahouse did afford protection - we were by no means fully exposed. We had cold weather gear and down sleeping bags, and we spent most of the day wrapped in everything we had. We considered leaving right then and there - back to Manang, but it’s a good thing we didn’t. Over at Thorung Pedi, the base camp for the Thorung La pass, a group of hikers were coaxed out of the teahouse by their host, in return for money. He was to guide them back down in return for 1000 Rupees each. As we lay in our bags on Tuesday morning, they had lost the trail, became disorientated; hypothermia had set in and some were already dead by midday.
While this disaster played out a few miles east, we knew we’d be in base camp for days. It would be madness to leave the teahouse. By 3pm the snow was a meter thick, and the local Nepalese couldn’t believe their eyes. Because of the loose glacial substrate, the steep scree and the fact that the snow was all new - fluffy and soft, Tilicho becomes avalanche central - the weight of snow pushing itself and the rock beneath down into the valleys. A group of European hikers attempted to leave, but 200 meters from base camp they were halted by a small avalanche that sent them running back to level ground. Weirdly, this hiccup probably saved their lives. One backpack was lost but later recovered. They would have probably ended up like the Thorung hikers did that morning. The fact that we were considering following them made it even more of a shock.
We now began to accept that our plan of crossing Mesokanto La was history, and our whole trip schedule was now under threat. I had business in the United Kingdom, and I had to make a Saturday flight. It was Tuesday and here we were, stuck at 4500m in what would be one of Nepal’s worst mountain disasters ever. We were even more unsettled by the fact that we’d come here as warm season cyclists, not hardcore, all-weather hikers. Unsupported, with 8kg packs and cycling shoes was hardly the way to tackle a Himalayan blizzard, but were getting antsy. Base camp was a disaster zone. There were too many people, food was running short and the pit-toilet had frozen. But the local Nepalese were content to have folk buying food and drink - after all, October is high season in the Annapurna’s - warm weather brings 5300 hikers through Manang in this month alone. By nightfall the snow was half way up to the roof, and we had to constantly dig our way out of our room. This must where the phrase “cabin fever” was coined.
That night I slept very little, trying to work out what would happen if the storm didn’t clear soon. We weren’t stupid enough to tackle the blizzard, so we resigned ourselves to wait for the storm to clear before we made a break back to Manang. We decided that we’d attempt an escape somehow, but because we had bikes to carry, we needed a few people to break trail for us - hiking through waist deep snow is heavy going. With our Saturday flight looming, Wednesday morning broke. During the night I’d spotted stars between the mist, so I knew what the day would bring.
It was a bolt-clear morning. A meter and a half of snow smothered base camp and the high bowl in which it lay. We were surrounded by high slopes on all sides, save for the snow-laden river, which now charged into the valley below. It was a waiting game. The hardcore hikers all sat watching the trailhead for the first “bull” to break out. Everyone was jittery, all of us wanted to go. Adrian, the monarch of the Base camp dining room tried first, but turned back after going just 100 meters - the previous day’s avalanche stopping him - chest deep snow.
At 10am the Canadian, Matt Adam, and a mixed group of young American hikers set off down the Marsyangdi river. The Nepalese had told us that there was a trail along the low river to a bridge that lead up to Kanshar - a teahouse halfway back to Manang. As these young guns started to break through the snow, we got ourselves ready. We had no real waterproofs, gaiters or boots. I had light South African hiking trousers and synthetic long underwear. A cycling shirt, light windproof jacket, a good down jacket and 2 pairs of socks. But the biggest chink in our cold weather assault were cycling shoes. I had 5/10 flats, but both Cuan and Dean had cleats. Talk about punching above your weight.
We wrapped our socked feet in plastic bags, cable-tying and taping in various different ways. We’d be walking the whole day with our feet deep in snow, and the sun would start to shift and melt the blanket that surrounded us. And herein lay a problem.
We were afraid to tackle the high contour of the Tilicho trail. It was unstable enough without snow. If your foot slipped off the dry trail you’d just slide till you hit the riverbed. In some places you’d just fall - straight down. With snow hiding the exact route, and threatening to slump as the sun got to work, this route was a terrifying prospect. The Nepalese had told us to head for that first metal warning sign - “Landslide Area” and then to head down the river… Which would lead to the Kanshar bridge. South Africans see little snow, but this seemed logical to us - the lower you are the less snow should fall, and of course the suffocating effect of high altitude becomes less and less the lower you are. You get more breath and you can move faster.
By the time we were ready it was 10am on Wednesday. The advance that had headed down the river had turned back at the top of a cliff, but they hadn’t given up. They’d changed direction - up the side of a steep ridge. On their original path they’d reached the edge of a treacherous waterfall that plunged half underground, half into a deep, icy slot. So we adjusted our track to meet their position on the ridge. This meant that we had to break our own trail anyway, which wasn’t our plan. Heading up a 20% incline at 4500m, in a meter and a half of fresh snow is bloody hard work. With a bicycle on your shoulders it’s much, much worse.
But it was great to get out of Base camp so we were happy. We’d been panting with the stress of high altitude for days now on the bikes, so it was normal. I’d bought a special hat online - a peak with a wrap-around hood, and we had good South African sunglasses and sunscreen - two things that turned out to be crucial. Despite the puffing and panting, and either carrying or hurling the bikes forward before ploughing away more snow, we honestly believed that the trail would get easier and easier as we descended. How wrong we were.
We were still unaware of the deaths to the east, and as we hiked more were struggling exposure on Thorung La. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the Americans on the ridge. By then we were crawling up the scree, and they helped us with the bikes so we didn’t slip into the stream below. We found the initial part of the original trail, but if we stepped carefully we could move slowly towards the critical signpost that we were looking for.
The one thing that we didn’t appreciate on the way in was how many ridges and turns there are on this trail. Riding in on a bike, you’re whipping around them at speed, but walking out it’s a very different story. After struggling around the second of these, the American party began to get cold feet. It had taken 3 and a half hours to walk about 1.5kms. Most of the guys wanted to bail, but Matt Adams had forged ahead. After shouting across a snowy void, with phrases like “Don’t mess with the big mountains” and “I don’t want to lose any toes”… Even, “Your unborn child needs a father” to Matt, who is expecting his first. Maybe they were right, but in our understated South African terms this was just unnecessary drama. In the end, all of the Americans turned back - except big Matt, who agreed to continue, because we said we’d go with him. Maybe that was a critical point, who knows? If either of us had chickened out, the other would probably have backed down too.
We’d drive each foot down into the snow, seeking to compact a solid foundation for our full weight. A slip here would end badly, but in the end we found moving forward possible. If we stopped to rest, our soaked legs and feet would begin to get very cold, very quickly, and soon enough it was clear that to maintain feeling in our feet, we had to keep moving. After another half an hour we rounded the third ridge and there it was - a thin black sign with yellow writing, “Landslide Area”, surround by a wall of white. There was a feeling of joy having reached this point, because a fairly clear way down to the river could be seen. We’d rounded the awful cliff and waterfall, and all we had to do was find the path. But we couldn’t. The show was too thick. Some of the snow had already slumped off the scree, and what remained was damp gravel, which was a lot firmer than the dry ground from two days before. We found that if we ferried across the slope we could make good distance down river, dropping in altitude and even able to push the bikes for a while. That’s when the helicopters started flying overhead. The rescue of stranded, lost and dead hikers had started, but no one had any idea that we were fighting our way down the valley, way off any commercial hiking route.
Matt had gone ahead, because our progress with the bikes was slow. We saw him reach the river, and disappear over a small knoll next to a bend. When we got the river itself we were mortified. What we thought would be shallow snow and a clear trail turned out to be the opposite. The snow was still feet deep, and had formed large moguls over the riverine rocks that littered the valley. The going was incredibly tough. There were stands of low trees through which we had to duck and crawl. We began to seriously worry, but having dropped down into the valley, there was no turning back now. We had to push forward. It was around 3:30pm on Wednesday.
Each bend in the river brought a new ridge to cross, some shrouded in dense undergrowth that we would plunge into beneath the snow. It was like torture. With a pack and a bike we were heavy, and snow collected around the hubs and spokes, and stuck to the tyres - stopping rotation. We’d removed the pedals to streamline the form, but still, it was backbreaking work. At one point we passed a huge cave, and after 12 odd mountain goats emerged and fled, we considered sleeping there for the on-coming night. But it was still too early, and we still thought we could make the bridge by nightfall.
At 4:45pm we were faced with a river crossing. From a hundred meters off we could see that there was no other way down. Sheer cliff on the left, broad flat bank on the other side. As we made our way down to the river’s edge we heard a yell from above. Matt had headed uphill, trying to change tack to reach the high path, but all he was faced with was a wall of slumping snow and scree. It was getting dark now and he was visibly rattled, probably as a result of wandering around alone for the last hour. He headed down to join us, but we didn’t wait for him. I stepped into the river first. In our mission forward, we didn’t consider the crossing point very wisely. Because of the snow, and the sunny day, the melt had begun in earnest, so the river was charging. It was also freezing and as soon as my left shoe submerged, I knew that this late in the day, with no shelter in immediate sight, falling in would mean that I wouldn’t see sunrise.
A bike can be a handy stabilizer, and I picked my way across to the final channel. This was tough, but I managed to cross. Wedging myself between two rocks, up to my crotch, I waited to help Dean across this last, worst channel. He made it, but Cuan almost went in. We were so exhausted from the crossing that we struggled to scale the snow on the bank. But we were 30 meters from the river when Matt entered the water. He almost went in too, losing his hiking pole in a panicked balancing act. He was white as a sheet when he caught up to us; he also realized the gravity of putting a foot wrong in that river.
As we reached the opposite slope, darkness was setting in. It was a terrible feeling. Our bike trip was officially on hold. The battle to survive had begun. We’d eaten two boiled eggs each that morning, but we had little food. A bag of nuts and 3 energy bars. But it was warmth that we really needed. The sun had set and that blue/grey dusk had taken over the valley. Matt moved ahead, moving snow for us, and he came across a Pine tree with low branches. The branches had stopped the high volume of snow from settling beneath, and we felt that we could shift the foot that lay around the trunk. Looking at the chosen spot, I wasn’t convinced. We’d stopped moving, and the sunshine had gone. When it snows it has to be above zero, but with a clear sky, the temperature plunged. We began to get really cold.
To our relief, and in another critical event, Matt produced a lighter and a paperback novel from his pack. We quickly collected wood and proceeded to dry as much kindling as we could by burning page after page. Eventually we had a small fire. By adding wood, we’d dry it and it would light. After an hour we had a good fire going. We were back in the tree line in this valley, so there was wood to burn, albeit wet. We spent the next 2/3 hours drying soaked trousers and shoes, and eating peanuts. Our mood lifted a little, but none of us moved to bed down. There was still snow everywhere and we had no tent or groundsheet, so we’d get wet in the bags on the ground. As we sat and mulled this over, a torchlight emerged from the darkness upstream.
It was a Nepalese porter whose client had been rescued by helicopter from Base camp. He too was on his way down, trying to get to the next teahouse at Kanshar. He warmed himself at the fire, and asked why we were sleeping in this particular spot. He said that the bridge was only an hours walk away, and that the tea house was not much further, on a better trail on the opposite bank. It was uncanny how often the advice of the local Nepalese always failed us on this trip. Any words of wisdom seemed to revolve around impressing a client, or was an attempt to get us to spend more money in a local teahouse. We were skeptical, but even if the bridge was two hours off, it was still worth a try. We convinced Matt to stick with the porter, since he didn’t have a bike, and could get ahead and get help if necessary. He agreed, but among ourselves, we were undecided. Part of us wanted to stay and sleep at the fire; part of us knew we had to keep moving. It was 8:30pm, and that’s when we’d agreed on the opening statement of this piece. “If we sleep here, we’re all going to die”. There was little doubt in my mind. Greeting the sub-zero dawn in a wet sleeping bag is a one-way ticket and we knew it.
So we started walking again. Being the gadget guru, Cuan had a great head torch, so he led the way. By now the porter had left with Matt, so we had a trail to follow, and we figured that his local knowledge would steer us down a more direct route. Dean and I taped torches to our cycling helmets and off we went. But the local knowledge was no advantage. The trail twisted, doubled back and headed through dense thickets of thorns, some nearly impossible to penetrate with a bicycle. It was quite clear that the porter had no better idea of where to go than we did.
We’d walked for another 2 hours before a half moon rose. This helped immensely, because it enabled us to see the valley and get a vague idea of the topography. If we kept walking, our feet were fine, warmed by the motion, and our core temperatures were maintained by the physical work that bodies and lungs were doing. I could have walked until dawn, but we came across a narrow patch of dry, snowless earth along the base of a high cliff. it was still exposed, but it was fairly dry. There was a light breeze blowing down the valley, but this wasn’t the worst scenario, so we decide to try and sleep for a few hours. I was nervous, because my trousers and thermal underwear were soaked, and I had no others, nor did I have dry socks. Getting into that bag could have gone horribly wrong, but since it was only 5/6hours till dawn I was willing to try. If hypothermia got hold of me, at least it wouldn’t have me for too long, and the sky was clear, so the sun may save us.
That night was freezing. The little breeze slowly sucked the warmth out of me. I had 4 layers and a down jacket on, 2 woolen hats, but nothing on my legs. I wrapped a pair of cycling shorts around my feet, but that made little difference. I lay there staring out at the moonlit landscape - like a huge open freezer as I got colder and colder. 2 hours later my feet were killing me. I could just maintain the temperature of my upper body by doing light sit-ups, but I was losing heat through my legs. I was soon shivering. I was worried and I began to realize that we hadn’t been in contact with our wives - Tessa, Noleen and Lucy, for days now. The plan was to check in when we crossed the pass, but that was two days ago. Now I worried that my family was worried, but we had no idea that this snowstorm had hit the international news. By that stage 24 people were missing, and bodies were being found around Thorung La and Thorung Pedi - the sister base camp of our own the east. The deaths were going out on the news and our families were understandably in a state of panic. Even without this knowledge, lying exposed in the Himalayas not knowing what’s going to happen next, and thinking of your wife and family back home is a terrible feeling. You feel so far away, and you realize that you’re in a situation like you’ve seen in the movies, but that this is real, and that’s not a comforting thought.
But lying there and leaving your immediate future to chance is pointless. I had laid down an emergency reflective blanket to seal me from the freezing ground, but I then wrapped this around my bag from the waist down, tucking it tightly underneath. This made a massive difference, and I even managed to doze for about an hour until the cold woke me. It was bitter, later read at -5 C. But the sky was getting light, and I knew the sun was coming. I knew that we’d beaten the cold that night, even if it meant one more hour of chattering. That was a good feeling, like we had another chance - another day’s grace.
Getting going that morning was a struggle. My trousers and socks had frozen into rigid planks, and our shoes were solid ice - the laces stiff like daggers. I tried hitting everything against the rock face, but it didn’t help. I was literally caught with my pants down, and without shoes, and the sun chose the opposite bank, so we’d be in shadow for another few hours. Cuan dressed first, and took my clothing to soak in the freezing river. Using a snowmelt river to thaw frozen garments so that you can get dressed seems crazy, but it worked. I dressed, but I was unbelievably cold. We set off, charging for the sunlight that flooded the riverbank around the corner.
When we hit the sunlight I soon warmed. Hurling the bike across snowdrifts, it soon occurred to us that this was no ordinary snowfall. We moved down the valley quickly that morning, but the snow didn’t thin, it was still feet deep. The strange thing about walking through all this snow is dehydration. South Africans are no polar adventurers, but we soon realized that you can die of thirst quickly in snow. It doesn’t melt fast, and it fuels clear streams into muddy torrents. It was difficult to find drinking water. We could stop and filter, but we were against the clock. It was Thursday morning. The day after tomorrow we were due to fly out of Kathmandu - a 6-hour drive from Besisahar… which lay over 100kms away. And we were still stuck in this cursed little valley, and we still hadn’t found the dreaded bridge.
Rescue helicopters continued to shuttle overhead, and as we stumbled onwards, we didn’t know that hikers were also fighting for their lives up at Tilicho. We hadn’t eaten more than a handful of peanuts for over 24 hours, but the sun was out and we were moving. We kept warm, and so we just ploughed on. We were still following Matt and the porter’s footprints, and I came to know that huge print of Matt’s Hitec boots so well I can still see it in my mind. We came across a fire where they’d slept - their own prediction of the “hour away” bridge not bearing fruit. Matt had left us a note etched in the snow “Matt - 8:30”, with an arrow, and a few yards later we looked up and saw the suspension bridge about a mile down the valley. It was a massive relief, the scenery became awesome again, we started to joke, and we forged on.
But that bridge seemed to move as we moved. Matt’s huge prints were shallow on the snow. They’d moved in the early morning, and the cold night had provided an icy crust that supported his weight. Not so for us a few hours later. We tiptoed over his boot-prints, but we plunged into the cursed snow like bison. It was heartbreaking. Eventually we made it up the bank, and to the bridge, but when we looked up we knew our day was far from done. For some reason the Nepalese don’t seem concerned about elevation. They don’t see it as a hindrance, and Kanshar was high above, perched on a ridge a kilometer above us, with a sloppy, melting blanket of snow waiting to welcome us upwards. By now we were spent. The same shallow footprints gave way to deep plunges, and this was the only part of the trip where all photography and humor ceased.
We eventually reached the teahouse at Kanshar where we’d stopped three days before, with a huge feeling of relief. We were back in the mix, plugged back into life and out of that wild valley that had held us for 36 hours. We ate - soup and homemade pizza. drank a coke and plenty of water. We made it over the last few kilometers to Manang, dropping the bike seats and push biking down the melting snow. We managed to find Matt, so happy that he’d made it OK, we ate and slept. Over the course of that evening, the extent of the disaster was revealed. We’d been fighting our own private battle in the valley, sealed off from the mayhem around us. 39 hikers were dead or missing. The Nepalese bring their yaks into the villages in winter, and a herd 100 strong at Yak Karka had been wiped out by an avalanche. We bumped into Max and Daniel, two hikers who were stuck at Thorung Pedi, and Max had terrible snow blindness. Walking into all this was dizzying and we began to realize that the array of critical decisions that we’d made over the last 3 days had been key to our survival.
On Friday morning we were still exhausted. Our feet were numb; we had lost skin to the snow. Our backs were aching but we had made it back to Manang. After saying our goodbyes to Matt Adams, we headed back down towards our starting point by trusty bicycle. This was the only way out since Manang airport was closed. It was like leaving a war zone. Hikers trudged in lines over the slushy Pisang flats. The survival exercise was over, and the ride had begun again! Soon we were flying down the passes past Dharapani and Tal, pumping the bikes over rocks and boosting airs over root drops.
Despite the context, this day’s riding was the single most memorable day that I’ve ever spent on a bike. We rode 93kms in one hit. We dropped 5.1 vertical kilometers – literally balling down the down the side of the Himalaya range. The bike suspension was working overtime, but it was just awesome. A real ride with a vivid purpose, not some over-priced stage race. We rode late into the night, and arrived in back in Besisahar around 9:30pm, totally shattered.
As we bounced around the back of the jeep on our midnight commute to Pokhara, it suddenly occurred to us that we’d never considered leaving our bikes behind. We just hauled them forward as part of our being. That makes me happy, because we came to the Annapurna to ride, and in the end we got away with a lot more than many of the hikers that died up on the mountains. It’s a guilty feeling, and I haven’t quite processed it yet. Don’t get me wrong, riding the Annapurna isn’t easy, but getting away with our lives and then reaching Besisahar, 93kms away in one day must rate as one of the biggest achievements of our lives.
Flying back out of Nepal now, there’s the usual blame game going on. Why were hikers not warned of oncoming weather? Has the Annapurna become the Disneyland of Nepalese mountaineering? Does it attract an unqualified crowd of hikers? Nepal is wild, it’s “warm” and it’s friendly. Money is money and this county is poor - it’s the third world and they take what they can get. But paying $65 to access this trail gets you no back up, no safety, no information. That may have to change. Not one lodge had weather info; ACAP had no way of knowing where each hiker is at any given time. In short they don’t know who’s on the trail, but to me that’s part of the appeal. The Annapurna is so accessible, but it’s so wild… And that’s a rare thing these days. A snowstorm in October caught many “summer” hikers out, and many made the mistake of taking advice, where perhaps they should have relied on their own instinct.
As far as our experience goes. Our mission failed. We didn’t cross the high pass. But we had the best riding of our lives on either side of a detour into authentic human survival. This was our first trip together, but we knuckled down and got through it. It says much about how how my 2 friends approached the problems that we faced. Even with numerous mistakes, we never gave up or lost focus. A series of critical events floated us through a nightmare, and our private struggle in the snowy Marsyangdi valley went by largely unknown. To a select few in Manang we were known as the “crazy bikers”, and on Saturday we bumped into two Slovakians who shared Tilicho base camp with us. They were almost in tears. They’d heard that one of us was killed in an avalanche during our escape, so they were relieved to see us together, and well.
Don't celebrate stupidity people... it only breeds more.
Careful, you don't know what think bike has and hasn't seen. I've been in a few situations where Mother Nature has turned bitter. Everybody has a different mentality, but I found that, exactly as think bike said, it is the trivial stuff that weighs on your mind and drives you forward. It has only ever been after the fact that I've had the time to reflect on the life threatening nature of encounters with flash floods, unseasonal storms, pace killing injuries and more.
6th November: breaking News - a white, catholic middle upper class journalist of Daily Mournal beheaded by a bicycle part in Karachi.
7th November Fox News poll: should we bomb Karachi?
One other thing bothers me though, like a lot. Was it really a lucky coincidence that Matt Adams happened to have a lighter? I mean, is that to imply that you guys didn't, at altitude, in October, in Nepal?
Regardless, it's a hell of a story. I'd love to do a ride like that, minus the massive snowstorm.
So is this story here. If those three guys went there and nothing happened people would be writing things like "spirituality", "I have to go there" and other bladi bla, if all of them were dead: people would write tons of super emotional stuff like: "irresponsible idiots". In each situation they'd have same equipment and preparation. Hence I encourage everyone to not get over excited because your mind plays tricks on you - expose it to ANY opinionating Media like TV or bigger News portals and your mind will get fkd, and those people in the story will lose all dignity.
8000m just in thin thermal underwear.
It lies way south and at super high altitude therefore changes in temperature conditions get extreme. Comparing Nepal to Scotland and most parts of Alps is just far fetched. Just is insinuating that you can be prepared for anything. It's a delusion and known tendency of a man that he wants to control everything. The reality is: learning from your own mistakes is the true lesson. Get own experience by making small steps of your own and be ready to make mistakes.
Another example frommy own experience: I had all the clothing to go to a 2300m peak in Poland on a very difficult hiking route, one that would make many people accustomed to via Ferrata sht themselves. It was July and There was a chance of light rainfall and so it came. Slight drizzle and then the wind picked up aaand then the clouds came. I was soaking wet and had no chance to move as the rock became super slippery. I had to wait 3h getting super cold until it cleared a bit and rocks started drying a bit. Same story on Madeira: going from parking lot at 1800 on 2,5h hike to 2050m. T-shirt, waterproof Jacket in case. Two days later we came to same place for sunset. It was beatiful sun at 1600m and cloud and sht loads of wind at 1800. We were freezing. If clouds would go down on our hike, we'd be freaking hypothermic.
You can never be prepared for all situations, or you can't hike or bike anymore.
Do i need floaties when the next Noah's flood comes?
If they'd been caught out in the open and were struggling towards shelter, or if their need to get out of the mountains was something more pressing than catching a flight because " I had business in the United Kingdom" I could probably see this story in a different light, but to me this story seems to try and make a really dumb decision into the "adventure of a lifetime". Which in the end results in even more people disrespecting the awesome power that are the high mountains. While beautiful, these places kill, and they easily do it in milder conditions.
And don't think I'm just commentating from the couch. A few years ago, in an attempt to photograph the sunrise over the Teton Range I too got caught in a freak snow storm at midnight and had to pack up and hike out. I generally don't tell people this story because when I think on it the majority of the danger I was in came about from me not respecting those potential dangers. Like I said, I'm glad everyone made it out alive, but I've got serious issues with the publication and spreading of this kind of event as an "adventure story."
All of a sudden we're a bunch of morons with no respect for nature, who don't deserve a voice? For the record, we have the utmost respect for what exists around us. We were not messed up by the altitude at all, we'd trained and done our acclimatisation properly. We were travelling light, but we were not grossly unequipped. We had a great time, before and after our "detour".
My approach to our situation has always been one of honesty, and we tried to solve the problems that we faced with simple practicality. Maybe we didn't follow the mountain code (whatever that may be) but we got through what was, as you guys say, a dangerous situation. I'm really thankful for that, and I hope this story is an interesting read. I'm not looking for your sanction or approval.
The next thing, some idiot will want to regulate the Annapurna trek, which will be a disaster because it's one of the few places where you can go and just get lost on this planet - on your own terms... Not under some set of rules that someone miles away implements because they think they know what's good for everyone.
Still, people are only equipped for the situation they expect, even the best and most experienced guide can get lost in a freak storm…
PS. Some people really need a mandatory guide… Even after a catastrophe like this and if they know the weather could be changing the just don't give a F*** directionkathmandu.com/information/tourists-throng-annapurna-region-despite-nilofar-warning
I'm also sure that you're tired of reading all of these negative comments, and are probably ready to just be done with this whole affair. But, if you want to share more about your experience I would love to hear it. I'm sure there is lots I could learn, and I would do my best to not pass judgement. Best of luck with everything.
Though, I had two thoughts:
1, I'm pretty sure I would ditch the bike and be unconcerned about my flight home when it came to a life and death situation.
2. Unfortunately, mountain bikes are not always the best way to travel in the high mountains. They could have travelled much quicker and been able to carry far more of the gear they really needed if they were on foot.
I did have 5/10s and flats, the other guys had cleats, which was a mistake... And everyone asks why we didn't ditch the bikes. Remember that we had no idea of the onset of the storm, how severe it was and we honestly believed that we'd walk out of the snow on that first day. It seems that everyone on the planet knew this storm was coming, except those on the Annapurna. No warnings, no info, nothing. Some people were hiking in flip flops. So we wanted to ride, but we had to walk for almost 3 days before we could. That's why we didn't ditch the bikes.
Then there's the timeline. A very stupid and shallow reason to put ourselves in danger - to catch a flight. I'm embarrassed. But then again, we were going crazy sitting stuck in that teahouse....
We did many things wrong, there'll be many things we do differently when we go back in 2015. On either side of our "detour", what a ride!
That said, the advice I always give people is to go experience that stuff under more controlled conditions first. People always want to climb the big, tough routes, and it's especially bad when you've laid out thousands on a vacation to go achieve an objective in a finite window of time.... judgement can really suffer under those conditions. There's no shame at all in cutting your teeth on something easier, or with more reliable weather, or closer to civilization. I've been turned back from a summit or ski route more than once, and as much as it sucks when you've paid for the flight out there and prepared so much for it, the most important lesson to learn is that the mountain will still be there when you're ready to go at it again. If Annapurna is something you really want to do, and you don't want to hire a guide, you might want to take a trip or two to places where the stakes aren't as high to get a feel for things. Like I said, Annapurna will still be there when you're ready.
Anyway, good luck in 2015 and beyond, wherever you end up going. Read some mountaineering books, and remember what you learned. Glad you made it out okay!
Total respect Bro's
But one thing is sure - when I first heard of the news, of how popular this area is with the "ordinary tourists" I knew there was something wrong with the way these "adventures" are being portrayed and sold. That kind of altitude - and mountains in general - can be lethal and unforgiving.
Here in Switzerland the news received plenty of coverage BTW, because a group of swiss hikers survived the ordeal. They had tents, a modicum of experience AND respect for the mountains that IMHO comes from living in the Alps. Big contrast to e.g. the israeli hikers who were up there expecting something "easy but exciting, the adventure of a lifetime" (probably not the exact words). At 4k altitude? In a remote corner of the planet?
To put this in perspective: on lake Como a middle age couple was killed in a small snow-slide just above picture perfect Bellagio. WTF. Are.You.Kidding.Me? Someone dying whilst taking a walk in a postcard? Yes. A lesser hill when compared to the Annapurna turned lethal overnight.
So there we have it. Biking in Nepal? My mental image was: mountain shoe(s) (you need spares), plenty of merino woolies, etc, Tons of down coverage. Plus usual bike spares, bla, bla. Call me old school boy scout. So from my standpoint a definite no-go. Just too much hassle and kit to carry around. I'll stick to my un-adventurous surroundings...Liguria, Dolomites, the italian, swiss and french alpine region, thank you (and probably still risk being killed anyway).
I've never been to Nepal, but I've done some pretty brutal solo hikes across 14er land in Colorado, in winter. Snowshoes, 45lb ruck, etc.
It can snow at 12,000ft+ in Colorado during any month of the year. I imagine this is not a meteorological phenomenon, nor is it remotely unique to this "high" altitude location. At a couple thousand feet higher, I imagine the odds are even better/worse.
8kg packs? In Nepal, when the seasons are about to change? That's asking for trouble. There are many cases where "Light is Right", but in this case, it's either ignorant or intentionally negligent. I probably wouldn't overnight in the Front Range in September with that, let alone October in Nepal.
I've gone bikepacking and hiking in what I'll call "blizzard zones"; at the very least I'd have a pair of GTX shoes, gaiters, heavy wool socks, GTX/eVent jacket and pants, waffle top, silk bottom. I can survive quite a bit in that, and that's about 8lbs of gear.
It's the old boy scout motto - be prepared. When sh*t happens that high up in impervious mountains you *will* want to have a crapload of extra stuff around, just in case. "Freak" stuff is only such because we can't model it well enough and because it ruins our expensive holidays (unfortunately). Ciao from down south
All my experience is in the Australian outback so I'm not even going to start on the weather, but UncleGroOve's comments seem sensible.
These guys are at 14,000-15,000ft (No, they were not at 20k, or anywhere close to that. That's the "death zone"). These guys were all on bikes that cost several thousand dollars, have international business meetings to attend, and flew halfway around the world to ride their bikes. You can buy a GPS communicator for $300 that links to your smart phone. It weighs 6oz. Less than half a pound. It provides to-the-minute weather forecasts for your location, anywhere in the world, independent of non-existent cell phone coverage...much like good portions of the interior of CO.
Now, maybe it's just my background (US Army Ranger) but I don't think it's ridiculous to be oh-so-inconvenienced to stop every couple of hours, break out the ol' GPS communicator, and ask, "Hey, am I going to die out here today?". I'd be willing to bet that over half of the people out there had a) no map b) no compass c) no form of REAL GPS and d) no actual land navigation skills. A trail can disappear; how will you know where you are if and when that happens? Contrary to what Americans would like to believe, your smart phone doesn't pick up any form of signal on 90% of the land on the planet.
For Noram, there are private Noram services too which can send messages via Sat Phone or communication device if you're on a trip somewhere where wx information is useful - I've used them for ski touring for example.
The services are pay-as-you-go. A sat phone rental is ~ 60./ week. Not really that much especially split among a group for wx information or other essentials; for example like telling people not to worry about you because you're holed up in Thorong Pass for a week weather-bound in an unexpected storm event/
I can't believe they didn't ditch their bikes or at least burnt the rubber and any plastic when they had that fire though.
How about a PB article on what to do when the shiz hits the fan above the snowline? Here in Nz a summer scree camping mission could turn into a survival story with the help of a powerful out of season southerly storm.
This alone shows that they had no idea what they were doing. I would take about that on a hike in the UK. But days in the wilderness??? Indefensible.
You guys need to get your bikes out and go for a ride, rather than stew over this article.
Lets turn this constructive... When we go back in 2015, what should we pack to be prepared? Bearing in mind that we have to climb 5 vertical kms over 240:
Down jacket x 1
Wool thermals x 2
Goretex top & trousers x 1
Good down sleeping bag
Lightweight waterproof bivvy
Waterproof socks x 1
Woolen socks x 2
Flat pedal with hiking boots
Sunhat with neck protection
Light windproof jacket
Long sleeve cycling top
Lighter & paper/starter fluid
2 x emrgency blankets
Head-torch & sp batts
GPS with preloaded routes & base map, sp batts
Waterproof cycling gloves
But if anyone does want to add to/change this list, please feel free.
- this was an unseasonal storm that rose out of a cyclone (Hudhud) and was the worst seen in a decade. Yes you could have been better prepared but you did go in, and plan for, Oct weather.
- reports put the total deaths around 43. That is not an indication that the mountain is covered in idiots, but rather how severe and unseasonal the storm was.
- international assistance was required with the rescue efforts
- the Nepalese government has admitted that they were not adequately prepared and has committed to improvements for future
All in I think you were extremely lucky, especially considering your lack of experience, but I am glad that you are planning to go back to complete your trip - hopefully a little wiser.
@Kakeochi , packing actual waterproofs is something everyone should do. And your first sentence is mere insult, with no basis, and renders your entire argument null as far as anyone with a half a brain is concerned.
(And reaffirms my opinion about riding in 5-10 flat shoes, not silly clipless shoes that are worthless off the bike.)
Good article though ... yeesh
Dear pinkbike: MORE OF THIS!
btw, Killamanjaro looks like it would be a perfect mountain for someone to bike down. On the way down I kept wishing I had a bike with me
As for not ditching the bikes etc, I guess they didn't know just how much of a freak event the snowstorm was, and when you're under pressure and tired out in the open your mind can do funny things, but the end result was that they all made it out of there and were able to ride the 93kms on the way back.
Wonder if they've any plans of a return trip??
Read my account of Tilicho-Thorong Pass Recce trip at the end of Sept 2014 at www.tripcaptcha.com/Home/TrailDetail?result=Day%209%20and%2010%20-%20Tilicho%20lake,384
I'm happy you are ok.
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