Trip Diary – Bicycle Touring The Annapurna Circuit – Part 4

Missed the first three installments of my cycle tour around the Annapurna Circuit? No problem. Before reading Part 4, you can catch up with Parts 1, 2 and 3 here.

In Part 3, I’d made it to high camp, a single stone lodge nestled at 4,800m at the top of the steep, scree-filled gully that had taken so much out of me to ascend. It was also to be my last camp before I would attempt to cross the path at 5,416m, if I was feeling good enough the following morning. While the few other trekkers braved the route in winter sensibly choosing to stay in the lodge, I’d stuck to my plan and pitched the tent behind the walls of the stone building. With the temperature already down to -9°C by the time I crawled into bed at 8pm, I knew I was in for one of the coldest nights of my life.

My last and coldest camp at just below 5000m

Fighting the cold

I stayed awake for most of the night as I was unable to sleep because my mind raced at what lay above me and because of the cold. The cold air still found its way in despite being buried deep inside my sleeping bag on my thick camping mat, wearing all the clothes I had with me including a hat and gloves. I discovered that if I lied perfectly still with the hood of my sleeping bag pulled tight around my head, and arms crossed across my chest, then my body heat slowly warmed the air inside my little cacoon, so it became more bearable. But, the slightest movement caused the freezing air that filled my tent was to enter the small hole around my mouth and nose and I was sent back into an uncontrollable shiver. The extreme rating on the comfort scale for my sleeping bag was -16°C; when I when I awoke from an hour of fretful sleep by 5am, the little thermometer that hung from the ceiling of my tent was already at -17.2°C.

I didn’t sleep much more that night. As I lay transfixed on the mercury inside the thermometer wondering just how far down it would go, I thought back to the warnings locals had given me back in Pokhara. “It’ll be too cold for camping much above 4,000m,” and a local guide had told me, “This time of year, it can drop to below -20°C once your up high.” With the tent normally a good few degrees warmer than the outside temperature, this was one warning that was coming true. I’d already dispelled the numerous warnings about not getting this far on a loaded touring bike but I was beginning to wish I’d listened and taken a room in the lodge. To make things worse, my mouth was constantly dry, a side effect from the altitude, and when I was no longer able to stand it anymore, I reached out an arm and fumbled in the dark for my water bottle, causing the cold air to fill the sleeping bag. It was pointless anyway because all three of my water bottles had been frozen solid for two days now and just about managed to drain a couple of drops by banging the bottles against the tent floor. With the cold now penetrating me to the bone and my fingers and toes numb, I laid back down in the dark and prayed for the morning.

Shortly after leaving high camp the paths became very icy

Go time

When the first grey light of early morning hit my tent, I was ready to get up. I thought moving might warm me up. As I sat up, I was surprised to find just how out of breath I was. My head spun as I tried to control my breathing and I sat there, still wrapped in my sleeping bag with my head on my knees, thinking that if this is how I felt after such a small effort, today was going to be hell. As I began to breathe normally again, I started to assess how I felt. The effects of the altitude on me had been one of my main concerns as I cycled higher so was surprised and somewhat glad to find that I felt fine, as long as I remained still. No headache, no loss of appetite, no upset stomach, nothing. I was feeling about as good as I could hope for. Smiling to myself, I knew I had to at least try and go higher.

Already being fully dressed certainly saved time, but with nothing extra to put on, and already starting to violently shiver the moment I unzipped the sleeping bag, I regretted not bringing more. As I packed the tent away just before 8am I took a final glance at the thermometer: -13°C. The sun was up but the sheer walls of the mountains that surrounded high camp ensured I’d be in the shade for some time yet. I tried to make some food but thanks to the frozen water and my stove’s inability to work with the lack of oxygen, I didn’t get far. The cold also made standing still unbearable. I could see sunlight on the peaks of the mountains higher up and decided I’d make breakfast when I got there. At least I’d be slightly warmer and the stove would work.

First glimpse of what was to come

I left high camp just as the last of the trekkers we’re finishing their breakfast in the restaurant, wrapped in down jackets and wool hats hunkered over plates of steaming porridge or sipping coffee. I felt like Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ as he stares in from the cold to see everyone eating but consoled myself with the thought they’d probably paid a small fortune for their morning’s comfort. I continued on, pushing the bike up the steep slope that led out of the courtyard.

Just one of many steep sections on the final day to the pass

You can’t see the trail from high camp as the land rises just enough to hide it from view. Within a few minutes of setting off, I got my first glimpse of what was to come. The trail snakes to the left and follows an icy path before descending into a shallow gully and then climbing at what looked like a ridiculously steep angle. I watched as two trekkers, their bright green jackets starkly contrasting the brown earth, made their way up the steep bank on the other side with desperately slow progress. They stopped every few meters to lean heavily on their walking poles and I could see the anguish on their red faces.

Avoiding the drop

I ventured out into the glassy ice that covered the narrow path. The large drop to the gully below loomed on my right. I decided to walk this part so I crept forward with the ice crunching below the weight of the bike. I shuffled my feet, toe to heel, as I went, desperately trying to seek out any rock or stone that protruded from the ice to give me something solid to stand on. The bike occasionally slid, its tyres unable to grip the ice. I tensed my whole body, letting it gently bump into my legs, hoping that my body weight would stop it and not push us both down into the gully below. My relief was palpable when I reached the other side. I hoped I wouldn’t encounter more sections like that farther up. Luckily, I rarely did.

That first climb out the gully was as steep as it had looked from the other side and took me around 45 minutes until I finally reached the top. It became so narrow in places that both me and the bike barely had room to stand side by side as I pushed. Keeping the bike on my right side (I figured if one of us should be sent free falling to the gully below it should be the bike), I watched nervously as the tyres balanced on the loose edge of the path, sending showers of small stones into the gully as I inched my way along. Things didn’t look much better when I could see farther along the trail either. A series of rolling brown hills, each separated by frozen rivers, ran as far as I could see. The sand-coloured trail formed from thousands of boots zigzagged its way over them like a giant scar.

Above 5,000m and the altitude starts to kick in

5,000m high and counting

I was now above the 5,000m mark and the altitude was beginning to take its toll. To make things worse, my fingers and toes still felt numb, my water was still frozen, and my mouth dry despite the sun. At no point in the day did the temperature rise above -2°, which was positively balmy compared to the previous night. On the whole, apart from being cold, I still felt good but the effort of cycling or pushing the bike was now really taking its toll. On the flatter sections, I could cycle around ten to twelve meters before my legs started complaining about the lack of oxygen and the lactic acid caused them to cramp up. If I was forced to push, I lasted no more than three or four steps. Each time I stood there trying to catch my breath, alone in the most beautiful but unforgiving environment I’d ever been in, hunched over the handlebars with the brakes pressed hard in an attempt to stop the bike rolling back. Eventually, my legs would allow me to advance a little more. This was how I made my way over the seemingly never-ending hills and crept closer to the final pass.

At around 5,300m, the terrain leveled out and I was able to ride more than I pushed. A moon-like landscape of rocks and scree rise up in a series of false summits and shallow gullies. Every 30 meters or so, a lonely marker of furiously flapping prayer flags signal the way, battered and torn by years of harsh weather. The trail snakes off in many directions here as previous trekkers have picked their own way through the labyrinth of stone but all converge together again just below 5,400m. Time and time again, I reached the top of one of these little summits convinced it had to be the end, only to see the trail continue upwards. Surely I was almost there?

Beating the odds

Finally, five and half hours after leaving high camp, more than twice the guidebook time, the mass of prayer flags and offerings from those who passed before me finally came into view. For a minute, I couldn’t quite believe it. There it was, just 20 or so meters ahead of me, just one final gentle slope left to ascend and I’d be on top of the pass with nothing but glorious descent in front of me. I took a moment to glance back at the trail that now zigzagged its way back down the mountain and could see my lonely tyre tracks in the ground for some way. The snow-capped mountains that encircle the pass and rise above 7,000m glistened brightly in the early afternoon sun. Tibet lies just beyond. All the other trekkers who had left high camp that day had long passed me and had either turned back or were heading down the other side. I was all alone. Suddenly I felt very small. With the wind tugging at the hood of my jacket and my eyes sore from the dust that swirled around me, I convinced my legs it would all soon be over if they’d just keep going for a few more meters and set off.

5,416m up in the Himalayas and finally at the pass

It’s hard to describe just how I felt huddled behind the thousands of prayer flags and carved stones that unquestionably signal the top of the pass in an attempt to hide from the bitter wind. I felt elated. With no one around to hear, I shouted and screamed at my success, punching the air as I jumped. I quickly fell silent as the altitude strained my lungs leaving me gasping for air. I felt immensely grateful that the mountains had allowed me through – so many I met on the trail had not been so lucky and I felt a glow of pride at having proved so many people wrong. I would never meet any of them again, but I felt a little desire to seek them out just so I could say, “Told you so!” But, what really mattered was that I’d proved to myself I could do it. After all, we are our own biggest critics. No more than 15 minutes after arriving, I could bear the cold no longer and was beginning to dream about the warmer climate of the valley far below and of food other than instant noodles. With one last look around and a whispered thank you to the mountain gods, I started my descent down the other side.

All downhill from here

I was going to end the post here as I had a lot of fun in Pokhara. But, it is part of the story and an equal part of the adventure so I’ll tell you about it in a few paragraphs. The descent didn’t prove as easy as I’d hoped. Right from the top and until I reached the town of Beni, which traditionally marks the end of the circuit, some four days and 4,000m of descent later, I bumped and crashed my way down the mountain. The trail was just as bad for riding as it had been on the other side. To be honest, I have no idea why I thought it would be any different. Day after day, large rocks and deep potholes threatened to buckle a wheel or break a spoke and throw me clean off the bike. Descending took almost as much time as ascending, as I constantly squeezed the brakes in an attempt to gain some control on sections so steep I thought I’d fly over the handlebars at any minute. I literally crept back down. By the time I made camp on that first day just outside the town of Muktinath, I’d descended more than 1,800m from the top pass and was absolutely shattered.

Looking down from the pass at the 4,000m+ of descent

The following day, I rode past the beautiful town of Kagbeni early in the morning with its stone buildings and crazy moon-like landscape. Gone now were the deep narrow gorges and twisting paths. Instead, I found myself riding through a wide valley surrounded by the most fascinating rock formations. I was still following a river, only now it flowed lazily and shallow with a number of smaller tributaries crisscrossing the wide stone river bed – a big change from the narrow fast flowing rivers I was used to seeing. Like before, I alternated between the road and the trail, crossing suspension bridges or cycling over dry river beds. Ten or so kilometres from the large town of Jomsom at 2,743m where the valley is at its widest, the wind picked up and made progress even harder. I’d heard about the strong headwinds that blow through this area nearly every afternoon (Jomsom is known at the windy town) from fellow trekkers, but was unprepared for its ferocity. I could have dealt with the headwind and the slow riding, but the dry air soon became thick with dust that painfully blasted against any bare skin. At times, visibility was down to just a few meters and the world turned a murky brown colour, just adding to the feeling of being on another planet.

Get me to Pokhara

By now, I’d become frustrated at the constant bumping and crashing from riding over uneven terrain and my brakes almost worn themselves down to the metal – only a thin whisper of rubber remained on two of them. Stopping became more effective with my feet than with the brakes themselves. The last 48 hours of my time on the that made me want to get Pokhara as fast as I could. During the last day of 2017 and the first of 2018, after having spent a beautiful New Year’s Eve camped next to the river, the roadworks appeared and I struggled to gain access to the trail on the opposite side of the river. I was forced to stay on the road, so my last few days were spent stuck in traffic jams as diggers hacked away at the mountainside, blocking the road. If anything, the road was worse here than anywhere else. The constant dust cloud that hung over it from the movement of heavy machinery soon became suffocating, the noise deafening. Waterfalls that once flowed under the road were now exposed and their flow was diverted, causing the road to turn into a slush of dirt and rocks. By the time I reached Beni late on the 1st January, I was exhausted, covered in dirt and dust and smelled just about as good as someone who hasn’t showered in 13 days would do. I pitched my tent for the last time before Pokhara and fell asleep with the relief I’d be back in the city in the morning, back to clean water and a hot shower. For once, city life felt very appealing.

Brakes destroyed and covered in mud, the last few days weren’t much fun

There was one last treat in store though that brightened my final few days. Dhaulagiri, at 8,167m and known for its almost year-round cloud cover offered a quick glimpse of its beautifully shaped summit and huge glacier. Through dust filled eyes, I stared at the snowfields that hung from its peak and streamed down its flanks until it became wrapped in clouds once again. It felt like a fitting end to what had been an incredible adventure.

The next evening, I was back amongst the throngs of tourists and neon signs of downtown Pokhara. I rode past the tour operator shop that had dismissed my plans to cycle the circuit and considered popping in to tell them I had made it over the pass, but thought better of it. Anyway, I had an urgent date with warm water and a bar of soap.

Worth the effort? 

So was it all worth it? Yes! Many people will ask why I didn’t just walk it like most people and I don’t really have a good reply other than I liked the challenge of taking the bike. The repeated lack of enthusiasm and warnings I’d received only fuelled my desire to try. Sure, I couldn’t ride the full circuit, steep terrain, stairs, and deal with the altitude,  but I reckon I was able to cycle approximately 75% of the circuit. I’d left with the thought of getting as high as I could just to get away from it all and experience the Himalayas in a unique way and ended up making it to the top. I didn’t do it to prove anyone wrong but to prove I could do it to myself. Though I often came close to turning around as the unbelievable cold, altitude, and calf-destroying terrain took its toll, I’m so very glad I didn’t.

As part of a drive to bring you better content throughout 2018, has launched a brand new YouTube Channel. Sam filmed much of his time on the Annapurna Circuit and the resulting film is now available. You can find it here. Don’t forget to subscribe to the new channel so you don’t miss future videos.

This blog post entry covers trip dates from 29th December 2017 – 2nd January 2018

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