Feet in the Snow, Head in the Stars: Bikepacking the Annapurna Circuit

 

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Breathlessness comes in numerous forms.  There’s the kind I’ve experienced hundreds of times on this trip, where something about the scenery saps the air out of my lungs and the power out of my legs; I stop pedalling and I just stand there, too entranced to dismount the bike, staring with mouth agawk at a particularly picturesque portion of our mother Earth.   In contradistinction to this breathlessness brought by beauty,  there’s also a variety brought on by the sight of, say, several hundred meters of nasty road up ahead, difficult for even jeeps to ascend, not because it’s obstructed by occasional head-sized rocks, but because it’s made of them.  This one deflates lungs and spirits equally.  Then there’s the more literal breathlessness encountered after shouldering 25kg of bike and gear – a reduced load, but a load nonetheless – and carrying it, step by precarious step, across an area where a month before a landslide had wiped away all traces of the road.  Equally physical, if less sudden, is “Acute Mountain Sickness,” an affliction at high altitudes where the air’s oxygen content dips below 50% of what we who live closer to sea level generally take for granted; breathlessness is among the most pleasant symptoms.   There’s also the gasp that burst forth from my mouth when the BBC news ticker announced, with infuriating lack of detail, that while I was spending my snow day mostly going back and forth between hot meals around the stove and sessions of reading under thick blankets, hundreds of trekkers 20km further up the trail were fighting for their lives against the elements.  Dozens of them lost.  Which brings me to the most literal breathlessness of all, that of the corpse; the one we passed by had been a Buddhist monk up until a few days earlier, but by the time we found him lying open-eyed in the snow, his body completely was motionless both with cold and rigor mortis.

I guess that’ll suffice as a summary of our two week stab at bikepacking the Annapurna trekking circuit. 

It was a time so varied that it’s hard to write about.  What’s the appropriate stance to take towards it?  My memories of the trek will be forever inseparable from the storm that hit us on day four, transforming Manang from a little town filled with beasts of burden and surrounded by verdureless terraces of culled buckwheat into one of the most awe-inspiring instances of natural beauty I’ve ever experienced.  Yet it was that same storm brought tragedy to individuals and families near and far.   

I suppose this interconnection between life and death, beauty and tragedy, good and evil, shouldn’t come as news.  It’s there in the mundane facts of biology, where individual cells slough away and are replaced continually; it’s there in nearly everything we eat which, with the exception of salt and water, used to have a life of its own; it’s there in our economy where the shoes that one kid receives with delight on his birthday took hours of sweatshop labor for another to put together; it’s there in every road I ride on, where the land has been stripped of plants and paved with asphalt so that they won’t grow back. It’s the Yin in the Yang, the Tao, The Way Things Are.  

 

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Such heady, heavy thoughts were most definitely not present in my head during the early stages of the trip; instead, I mostly kept on wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I had done zero research on the circuit, unless you count emailing my friend and future cycling partner Steve and asking him to do it for me.  Annapurna is one of those places I’d heard name-dropped from time to time – a couchsurfing host in China, a Russian backpacker in Myanmar, a Korean cyclist friend – but never really given much thought to.  It’s a 200km trek starting at Besisihar (150 or so km west of Kathmandu, elevation 800m), climbing steadily over the next 110km until Thorong La Pass at 5416m, then descending another 90 to some towns on the west side that we never made it to.  Travelers, over 20,000 of them, of all sorts do it each year.  Young Israelis fresh out of military service; retired Europeans with guides and porters in tow (or, more likely, several kilometers up ahead); adventurous New Zealanders who didn’t think to pack anything but running shorts; local Nepalis on a sort of rite-of-passage pilgrimage to the holy Hindu lake at Muktinath; and, of course, bicycle maniacs like myself and Steve who just don’t want to go anywhere if it’s not on two wheels.

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A crazy-ass Korean uncle/friend of mine who cycled the the route in February 2013 had given me a few pointers, so Steve and I didn’t go into the circuit totally unprepared.  This friend managed with full gear, but he was also the kind of cyclist that had a tent small enough to pitch in most closets and didn’t mind using his riding clothes as pajamas for several days on end.  He traveled without a computer or any clothes that could be considered “nice.”  His front panniers were half-Ortlieb half-duct tape hybrids, while his DIY back bags  cost about $5 to put together and prominently featured Winnie the Pooh.  They contained his food supplies but were light as feathers, filled as they were mostly with instant noodles and cigarettes.  The three main things that I took away from our email exchange were: 1) the temperature inside his tent dropped down to –18C when he pitched atop the pass; 2) it would be “pretty difficult” for me to make it up with full gear; and 3) whatever, he made it over.  

 

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Steve and I decided to travel with only the essentials: a single set of riding tights, some reading and writing materials, a few extra sets of brake pads, minimal bike cleaning and bodily hygiene kids (toothbrushes carefully kept separate), every piece of warm clothing in our possession, and as many snacks as would fit into the leftover space.   I think that I got my gear weight down to about 8kg, plus 17kg for the bike and 2kg more for water.  Many trekkers carry (or hire porters to carry) backpacks heavier than that. 

 

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Packing light turned out to be a prudent decision. 

 

 

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We spent our first afternoon wheeling past rice paddies and tiny villages, with few trekkers in sight despite it being the beginning of high season.  20,000 trekkers visit Annapurna each year, nearly 5,000 of them going in October.  Still, the trail is about 200km long and almost everybody walks in the same direction, so it feels pretty untouched. 

 

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The roads were just the right kind of rough – dirty and bumpy enough to give a sense of exhilaration and adventure, but not quite dangerous enough to make us regret coming. 

 

 

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The feeling of regret wouldn’t really come until the second day, when we found ourselves confronted with several kilometers of roads only intermittently rideable, topped off with a total doozy of a landslide.  Jeeps crowded both sides of it – those on the south unloaded potatoes, chocolate bars, live chickens, and 30kg canisters of compressed cooking gas, while those on the north loaded up.  In between, a stream of porters ferried it all back and forth. 

 

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The porters had seemingly endless energy.  Some of them carried two seventy-liter backpacks strapped together.  Others carried heavy-duty tents and kitchen sets complete with gallon-capacity pressure cookers. Still others carried bamboo baskets stuffed with fifty pounds of potatoes.  I’ve even heard stories of some carrying hundred-pound telephone poles. 

 

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Up until three years ago, there wasn’t any sort of road access at all, meaning that everything that couldn’t be grown locally had to be carried in.  The Manangis and other local groups were self-sufficient in terms of water, barley,potatoes, and yak-derived products (which may well number in the thousands), but not much else.  Rice had to come from the terraces to the south, salt from the Tibetan plateau to the north. 

 

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We weren’t the only cyclists on the trail – we met a New Zealander, an English couple, a German couple, a small pack of Russians, and 9-strong Swiss tour group, and we heard tell of a trio of South Africans.  We were, however, the only ones doing it on touring bikes.  No suspension, no disc-brakes, no low center of gravity, no fat wheels with deep tread, just the same cycles that had been getting the job done for us for the previous 26,000km.  Or 60,000, in Steve’s case. 

So, when an occasional trekker shouted out “You’re crazy!” as we zipped by, they didn’t know how right they were.  I don’t think I did, either, until looking at photos like this one afterwards. 

 

 

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Look at the look of total concentration on Steve’s face here.  I tried hard not to think too much about how it would only take one slightly above-average-sized rock to send one of us tumbling into the abyss below. 

 

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Relative road rating: near-excellent. 

 

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Sometime around the morning of the third full day, we wheeled out of the danger zone and into a wonderland. 

 

 

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The valley widened up, the air cooled down, and our first snow-capped peaks came into view in the distance. 

 

 

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By lunchtime, we had found flat ground.  Smooth rides through pine forests, the scent of downed needles in the crisp air, finally riding in high gear for the first time in ages…

 

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… this was the moment when I thought to myself “Alright, it’s been worth it.”

 

 

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By the end of our third full day, we had covered 90km and gained 3,000 meters in altitude.  Slow progress by normal cycling standards, but it takes most trekkers a week to do the same.  This would be something to be proud of, if not for the fact that the severity of altitude sickness is directly related to how quickly you ascend.  The last couple hours had already seen the two of us huffing and puffing after ten-minute climbs that we would normally finish without even so much as an elevated heart rate.  Just wanting to be prepared, I asked Steve asked what I ought to do if he happened to collapse.  His answer: “Nothing.  Whatever you do, don’t lift me up.  Collapsing is your body’s ay of making sure that your head stays on the same level as your lungs.”   

 

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This is the scene I awoke to on the fourth morning: Grandma outside, gloveless, heaving cubic foot after cubic foot of of snow off the roof with a shovel.  I had felt the chill all day the day before long, but assumed it was just due to our progressing further and further up and into the mountains.  I had also discounted the dark fog that seemed to have been following us and the few, scattered snowflakes that started falling just as I nodded off the night before. 

 

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They fell all night and all through the next day, which Steve and I had already set aside for “altitude acclimatization,” which in actuality refers to finishing up the last hundred pages of Thomas Stevens’ “Around the World on a Bicycle, Vol. 1” (1895) and investigating the relative merits of Hotel Yeti’s apple crumble and Hotel Mountain View’s apple pie. 

 

 

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By the second day after the storm, it was clear that we wouldn’t be taking our bikes anywhere.  Snow at least a foot deep blanketed everything in sight except for the river.  The culled, brown barley fields which had been a bit of an eyesore just a few days back had been transformed into a lengthy sheet of pristine white bubble wrap just begging to be traipsed upon. 

 

 

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We decided to take one more day to acclimate to the altitude and to check out a nearby lake and viewpoint. 

 

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What a delight it was to spend the morning wracking my brain, wondering if I had ever been anywhere or seen anything more beautiful than this. 

 

 

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It wasn’t until that evening that we heard – not from our hotel owners, not from the police, not even from the Annapurna Conservation Association office, but from the thin red ticker on the BBC news – that nine trekkers, and possibly more, had lost their lives while trying to make it over Thorong La pass that morning. 

 

 

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Information was sparse and sporadic there in Manang.  The authorities wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t, verify the number; they couldn’t say whether the pass was still safe; they couldn’t even say what was happening at the next town up, hardly 8km away.  Rumors began to circulate.  The death toll is up into the double digits.  Now up to 40.  Now down again.  200 people made it over.  No, that was wrong.  200 people were still stranded at high camp.  The pass would be open tomorrow.  Or shut for a week.  The Israeli government had footed the bill to airlift out its own citizens stranded up top, but left everyone else behind.  Or not.  For the next two days (and perhaps even now?) nobody knew a thing.  

Steve and I decided to wait it out.  There was no way for us to ascend now that the paths were obscured, first by snowfall and subsequently by avalanches, but the way down was also snowed in.  Not to mention that Thorong La pass, now only 20km away, was still exerting its pull.  Could we really turn back so easily after having come so far?

 

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After two more days of waiting and waffling, we came to a decision: we would leave the bikes there in Manang and walk as far as we could.  The best information we could get was that the pass itself was closed but that the way to High Camp, 4km away and 600m below, was mostly ok.  We lightened our loads one more time and set out into the majesty and the mush. 

 

 

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In a way, it was nice to have our plans upset, to be forced to make the transition from cyclist to trekker.  We got a taste of what the Annapurna experience is like for most visitors: long, slow days, plodding steadily forward, total freedom to stop in your tracks and spin in circles trying to take in the panoramas.  Feeling yourself totally dwarfed by and miniscule before the immensity of the mountains and rivers around you.  Total stillness. 

 

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This is about as high as we got.  4900 meters or so.  In good conditions, it would have only taken another two hours to make it to the pass.  As it was, I doubt we could have made it at all.  My legs sank knee-deep into the snow with each step, and each time I tried to drive one of my walking sticks into the ground it would either glance off a solid chunk of snow that had thawed and then frozen even more solid, or it would plunge several feet into the snow, the wasted momentum nearly pulling me off my feet.  Armed only with a few layers of warm clothing and shoes in tatters from two years of pedalling, I was hardly in a position to test my luck.

A few minutes after this, while I was collecting myself and warming up one last time before beginning to descend, a Chinese trekker in full gear came back down; he had gone on a bit of a scouting mission, trying to ascertain whether he might be able to make the pass the following day.  I understood his gestures more than his speech: he had gone that way and then come back down when he ran into snow waist-high. 

 

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So it was that our ten days of ascending came to an end.  We hiked down in one day what we had hiked up in two, then rode down in just over two days what we had ridden up in three and a half. 

 

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It was a bit of a shame having to turn back, but we found some consolation in the words of other trekkers who, having made it over a few days later, emailed us saying that we had seen the best parts.  Given the surrounding scenery, t didn’t find it too hard to believe them. 

 

 

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By now it had been a week since the storm.  The snow had begun to melt away to reveal buckwheat terraces and cliff faces, the contrast between their earthy browns and the snow’s evanescent white rendering them even more beautiful than before. 

 

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The ride down had some rough patches, but it only took us one day in the saddle before we reached a town where actual hot showers were available. 

 

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Big thanks to Steve for arranging our permits in Kathmandu and for being just unhinged enough to do this with me. 

 

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If you want to check out his version of events – much more artfully written than this one, I must admit – have a look.

http://www.cyclingthe6.com/2014/10/annapurna-cycling-circuit-in-crisis.html

 

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As for me, I think I’ll stop punishing the cycle for a little while and spend a month or so kicking back at the farm.  

 

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