19 Jan Trip Diary – Bicycle Touring The Annapurna Circuit – Part 3
Missed the first two blog posts on my cycle tour around the Annapurna Circuit? No problem. Before reading Part 3 you can catch up with Part 1 and 2 here.
Having spent the past two days in the village of Manang and completed a series of acclimatisation treks to above 4,000m, I was feeling good and ready to at least attempt the 21km of steeper ground that lay between me and the final pass at 5,416m. The odds of making it over the other side, as the locals constantly reminded me, weren’t great but the thought of having to cover such a short distance over the next three days was rather reassuring (at sea level I’d cover 21km in under an hour). I remembered that since I started the circuit, my daily average was little more than 12km, despite riding six hours per day. “That was at a much lower altitude too,” I muttered as I packed the tent away from my camp spot under the gaze of the mighty Gangapurna. How was I gonna find the cycling once the altitude really kicked in?
The Plan Of Attack
The temperature rapidly fell into the minus figures, so I set up my tent pouring over a torn and battered map I’d found back at the hostel until I had a plan. From Manang, at 3,500m, I got to the small community of Letdar at 4,200m, some 10km away, by the end of the first day. The next morning, I aimed to cover the 7.5km to reach the single building that forms a high camp at 4,850m, a day that would, according to the map, include the steepest part of the circuit. From here, if I wasn’t suffering from any severe altitude effects, I planned to cycle the final 3.5km to the top pass at 5,416m. I hoped that spreading my attempt over three days would give me the best chance at acclimatising and finding a place to camp each night before nightfall. Switching off my head torch and lying in the dark listening to the deep rumbles from the avalanches that occasionally poured down from Annapurna III and IV, I felt confident that my plan would give me a good shot at making the pass.
Almost immediately on leaving Manang the next morning, the trail began to climb. The makeshift road that now links the lower villages to the rest of Nepal terminates here in the village. The trail is continued as narrow paths dotted with suspension bridges. Within twenty minutes of setting off, I came across my first test, a long and uneven set of roughly cut stairs that wound through the small and extremely pretty village of Tanki. I encountered many of these steps on my way to Manang, each set requiring a large amount of time and effort to pass due to the weight of the bike. On smaller sets, I carried the bike without unloading the bags but was often forced to rest because 35kgs occasionally proved too heavy to carry in one go and I had to climb the steps twice, once with the bike and once with the panniers. Now, with the increase in altitude quickly draining my energy even with the briefest of exertion, I had little choice but to take two painstakingly slow trips to the top. Once I got up, after another short steep climb, I was surprised to find a pleasant reward awaited my efforts.
Maybe, just maybe
For the next three kilometres, past the small group of guest houses collectively known as Yak Kharka, the trail was largely flat. I occasionally rounded a bend to find a short, steep climb but for the large part, the cycling was easy and enjoyable. Going much faster than 7/8km an hour wasn’t really an option as there was a constant threat the large rocks and potholes that litter the trail could damage my 26” wheels. As the bike was not really suitable for this terrain, I spent more time on this section staring at the approaching two meters of ground in front of me than I did admiring the breathtaking surroundings of rocky peaks and snow-covered mountains that I now found myself in. I even began to think I’d overestimated how hard the trail was and that the warnings of extremely steep ground and the guarantee I’d spend more time pushing the bike than cycling had been exaggerated. As I passed through Yak Kharka, I quickly realised I might be wrong.
The terrain begins to rise again just outside the village. It didn’t appear that steep, but it was enough to hide my intended destination of Letdar for the day, less than one kilometre away. Here, the trail works it’s way through a labyrinth of pathways and boulders, over rocky steps and past disused stone huts. These final few hundred meters were really hard work, possibly because it was near the end of the day and I was feeling tired or maybe because it was actually steeper than it appeared. It took me over an hour before the roofs of Letdar’s guest house came into view. All that remained between me and my camp for the night was a long suspension bridge that hung 100ft off the ground, spanning a gorge that carved its way down from the right and joined the main one I’d been following since I began. Four or five concrete steps barred access to the bridge. The way I was feeling, it might as well have been a hundred. I propped the bike up against them and sat on the ground, head resting on my arms, staring at this final obstacle in the way I imagine a mountaineer attempting Everest looks up at the peak from base camp. I sat until I regained my regular breathing pattern and the small thumping in my head, a sure sign the altitude was beginning to affect me, had subsided. Eventually, buoyed by the fact I had less than 100m to go until I could stop for the day and make some food, I began to bounce the bike, step by step, up this final obstacle, pausing at each new to calm my breathing before moving on. As I rolled across the bridge, with the weight of the bike bouncing the steel cables that held it up, I felt exhausted and somewhat dismayed when I discovered yet more steps on the far side. It was a brutal end to the day.
You can’t be serious!
That night as I sat outside my tent I was approached by two Nepalese guides out for a walk, as their clients tucked up in one of Letdar’s guesthouses. I quizzed them on the route ahead and was rather stunned when one of them pointed out what appeared to be a vertical wall on the opposite side of the river. From where I sat, I couldn’t see any way up. No paths appeared to go that way but both guides were adamant that was my route for the morning. As they left me, I continued to stare at the sheer wall, desperately trying to spot the line of weakness that the path must follow until the light faded and hid it from view. Lying in my tent, the image of what they’d shown me filled my mind and kept me from sleeping. If they were right, then I was pretty sure this was as far as I’d get. I knew that I was due to encounter the steepest part of the circuit the following day, but I wasn’t expecting it to be insurmountable. Realising that I wasn’t going to get any answers tonight and hoping that their advice was wrong due to a translation issue, I buried myself in my sleeping bag to fight off the cold and tried to sleep.
That was my first real cold night. The small thermometer I have hanging from the roof of my tent dipping to -12°C shortly before dawn. So far, I had been lucky with the weather since I started the circuit; the days had been clear and, even up here, the sun had a lot of warmth to it. Today the clouds rolled in, hiding the sun and keeping daytime temperatures below freezing. The world around me looked different to the previous evening. The sheer wall that I was told would lead me up to high camp was hidden in a mass of low, churning cloud, sparing me any further examination of what possibly lay ahead. Continuing on would be the only way to find out now.
Honestly, I’m fine
The trail was relatively flat for the first hour as it snaked its way high above the river below. The odd uphill section was steep enough that the exertion warmed me up but didn’t tire me out. All that soon changed. After a ridiculously steep and narrow switchbacking track that descends down to the river and crosses a wooden bridge, the trail climbs sharply up the mountainside for a little more than 400m. At its base, with the sound of the river rushing past me, I looked upwards and saw what looked like vertical sections. For the next 45 minutes, I pushed the bike over the gravel and rocks and sometimes each short burst of movement resulted in gaining just a few inches of height. On two occasions, a small group of hardy trekkers passed me by as I slumped on the handlebars, heels digging in the dirt in an attempt to not roll back, and would cheerily offer up a hello, followed by an “are you okay?” with their expressions of concern. I did my best, through attempts to catch my breath, to exchange greetings and to ensure them, possibly unconvincingly, that I was here by choice and was actually enjoying myself. Watching them almost effortlessly bound upwards under the weight of just a small backpack brought on a brief wave of jealousy. Releasing the straining brakes, I continued after them.
Taken for a fool
I pushed the bike over the last few rocky meters before the trail flattened out. I was surprised to see a solitary stone hut perched on the hillside. Outside, the trekkers who had passed me sat drinking tea along with two Nepalese porters, as their huge loads balanced precariously on a stone wall. The last hour had taken everything out of me and if the guides from last night were right, I was convinced more now than ever before that the locals were right that taking a loaded touring bike over the pass wasn’t possible. The vertical wall they pointed out was now directly on my left. A small goat trail led behind the hut up to its base. Knackered and certain I was about to turn around, I approached the porters to confirm the direction. Immediately and simultaneously, they broke out into a deep laugh. I’d been fooled, apparently the victim of a popular guide joke. The route didn’t go that way at all. At first, I was angry, partly because their joke had cost me a good night’s sleep and partly because it had almost caused me to turn around, My mood instantly changed when I realised I might now be able to carry on. Turning to follow the direction the porters had pointed in, I was even more certain I’d keep going. The correct trail looked much flatter and although it carved its way along a steep slope, it seemed far more doable than the cliff on my left.
An hour later, after crossing many sections that had been affected by landslides, the warning signs to tread lightly did not bring much comfort. I cycled into Thorang Phedi, the last stop before high camp 400m higher up. If I’d thought the morning had been tough then what I was looking at now seemed impossible. From Thorang Phedi at 4,450m, the trail turns to the left and follows a steep gully of scree and rocks. From where I was standing, it was clear I wasn’t going to cycle this section-to walk up looked hard enough. I felt surprisingly good. The headache from the previous day had gone when I woke up and so far, apart from feeling very tired, I believed I was doing okay. Around me, pockets of snow dotted the ground and became increasingly larger as I gazed upwards. The wind had now picked up making the air feel much colder than it was. Putting on the last of my clothing, I set off with the reassuring thought that at the top of the gully lay high camp and the end of my day.
Why oh why am I here
I can only really describe the next two hours as a kind of self-inflicted torture. At times, the trail became so steep that upwards movement became virtually impossible. Countless times, I pushed the bike a meter or so forward only to slide two meters backward on the loose scree, unable to do anything but hold on for the ride and try and stay standing upright. On the slightly easier sections, I pushed forward in short bursts of energy for maybe eight to ten meters at a time, only to be forced to a stop by screaming calf muscles that would constantly complain they weren’t getting enough oxygen for this type of abuse; the lactic acid was winning its fight against the thin air to shut them down. Never had I been so close to giving up on anything in my life. It all seemed impossible and rather stupid to carry on. After all, I still wasn’t above 5,000m and this was beginning to hurt.
Down or up?
Meter by meter, inch by inch, I crept further up the slope. Other trekkers passed me by, also looking like they were struggling. I took some comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one considering turning around as every few minutes I was passed by someone heading back the other way. The look on their faces said it all-they’d had enough of the altitude and bitter cold. I felt sorry for each one of them at having made it this far only to be forced to turn around but, I understood their decision more than ever. I almost cried when the roof of the lodge of high camp finally came into view. I was beyond tired, my legs had long stopped their small complaints and now refused to work, my arms ached from holding the bike steady, and my fingers cramped from constantly squeezing the brakes to stop from rolling backward. My lungs hurt from being overworked in the thin air. I rolled up the last few meters into high camp in a daze, a down and Goretex covered zombie. It took some time, sitting on the stone steps of the lodge, to feel something like normal again. Compared to others around me complaining of headaches and upset stomachs, I reckoned I was in fairly good shape, if not completely knackered. My slow approach appeared to be working.
Beating the odds
Within an hour of arriving, darkness began to creep in and with it, a big drop in temperatures. I shook violently as I began to set up the tent despite wearing all I had with me. The cold aluminum poles bit into my hands, even through thick gloves. By the time I got into bed around 8pm, it had already dropped to -9°C. The wind had gone and as I lay fully clothed inside my sleeping bag, it’s hood pulled tight around my face so only the smallest hole remained to allow me to breathe, I reflected on what I’d achieved so far. I was approximately 600m from the top pass and had got much farther than most locals said I would. If I felt good in the morning, I was convinced I could make it. Surely, after today, the steepest terrain was behind me. The map flashed up in my mind and I remembered the contour lines being slightly wider apart for the way above me, signalling a drop in steepness. I just had to hope the altitude didn’t bite me in the night and that I’d feel strong enough to continue in the morning. But, the day hadn’t finished with me yet.
The final installment of this four-part series on my Annapurna Circuit cycle trip will available soon on the blog. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here. Until then, why not check out the rest of Trip Diary Blogs or visit the gallery page for a visual tour of the 17 countries I’ve cycled through so far.
Better still, head on over to Pedaling The Globe’s new YouTube channel to watch the short video from my time on the circuit. You can find it here.
This blog post entry covers trip dates from 27th-29th of December 2017