Slightly in shock, I was slowly trying to get up. I couldn’t quite believe I had just crashed my mountain bike for the fourth time on the way down from Thorong La Pass, the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit at 5,416 meters (17,769 ft).
“Where are your friends?”, the Russian hiker in his sixties asked me from above. Our group of four had bumped into him regularly over the previous days.
“They are down there,” I responded from about ten feet below his position, sitting off-trail on a pile of gravel, next to the bike, tipped on its side. I was pointing to a man-made shelter, made out of blue-colored corrugated sheet metal, about a five-minute walk down the mountain.
“Call them!” he urged me. “I don’t have a phone,” I responded, which wasn’t entirely accurate. I did have a phone, but no reception on this side of the pass. It would not have mattered anyway since I was the only person in our group with a Nepali SIM Card.
After a few more awkward moments which my new Russian friend tried to fill with stares at me and my sad situation, instead of, I don’t know, helping me up, I decided it was better for him to just move along. “It’s okay, I’ll figure something out,” I exclaimed in his general direction. As if disappointed in my incompetence, he eventually decided to shuffle along, further down the trail.
A few moments later, I located the first aid kit in my frame bag and covered my bleeding right index finger with a pretty solid band-aid I was confident would last at least a few days. I uprighted the bike and slowly walked down the trail towards the shelter. Apart from the bleeding finger and bruises on my right lower back (and my ego), I was, to my surprise, very much okay. Not counting sleep deprivation, the adrenaline rush from the crash, frostnip in my toes and headaches from exercising at an altitude of 17,000 feet.
“How’s it going?”, my friend Jürgen asked me when I arrived at the shelter where the three other members of my group decided to take a break. “I crashed,” was my response, not trying to sugarcoat anything. “Nothing broken,” I added, ”except my rear brake lever,” pointing to the lever on the right of the handlebar, which was dangling quite loosely in very much the wrong direction. “Not sure how I am going to get down. I might have to walk the rest of the way.”
It all started in Kathmandu. After eventually succeeding in our quest to find halfway decent mountain bikes for rent, the seven-hour ride in a private but way too small SUV we had hired turned out to be an adventure in it of itself. Rain combined with unbelievably lousy driving and terrible roads on the way to Besisahar. I was very much thankful for Dramamine.
Leaving from Besisahar on a dirt road, filled in parts with rocks the size of cannonballs, we promptly failed to stay on bike-able terrain. We ended the day in Lampata, a small hamlet where the dirt road ended, and the circuit trail began. As if to confirm this Sabi, the owner of the guesthouse we stayed at, positively assured us that this section of the Annapurna Circuit Trek (ACT) wasn’t suited for bikes. We should have taken a left further down the mountain, instead of a right. At least we had a pleasant place to sleep at and a gentle introduction into the tea/guesthouse scene along the ACT.
We slowly started to gain elevation over the following days, passing by Tal, nestled in a scenic valley, complete with waterfall and turquoise-colored river water, stopping in Dharapani (1860m, 6102 feet) and Lower Pisang (3250m, 10663 feet) before reaching Manang (3519m, 11545 feet), a typical spot to take a couple of days to acclimatize.
Those first few days, we continued to labor along the “road” which, again, was nothing more than a ten feet wide dirt path, filled with rocks and boulders, having to push our bikes quite a lot. Up until Thorong La Pass, I estimate that we pushed our bikes about 50 percent of the time. Given that we each carried our own gear, the additional weight made it impossible to ride specific segments of the trail.
A section of a few miles of quiet pine forest just before Lower Pisang transitioned us from the hot and humid climate at lower elevations to crisp alpine air. At the same time, the first signs of the effects of the higher altitude, like headaches and trouble breathing, surfaced.
The change of climate also had the added benefit of lifting the overcast conditions and revealing the majestic mountain views we, after all, came here to see. From Dharapani, we caught a glimpse of Manaslu and on the way to Manang got treated to glimpses of parts of the Annapurna Range. The cragginess and incredible steepness of their slopes made me question how anyone could attempt climbing those peaks, let alone succeed at it.
In Manang, we treated ourselves to half a rest day and an acclimatization hike, trekking up towards a temple area on the opposite slope of the valley with views of Gangapurna as well as Annapurna III. The town itself was the last major outpost with western amenities before the serious part of the trek towards and over the pass started. Bakeries, plenty of convenience stores and guesthouses advertising their “western-style toilets”. We enjoyed it while we could.
After Manang, what was legitimately a road before, at long last turned into a proper trail, which we finally were able to ride on. At least in parts. The altitude and the weight of our bikes still made any kind of riding challenging, but at least the views compensated for a lot and the weather pretty much held up fine.
At Thorung Phedi, the (almost) last settlement before the pass, we realized for the first time that we weren’t entirely alone on this trail. Providing housing for 250 trekkers, about 150 already seemed to be there by the time we arrived around 5 pm. Most of them looked to have settled into the lounge area of the Base Camp Lodge, in the proximity of a woodburning stove and consuming the ever so popular Dhal Bhat. In the end, we found some rooms, chatted with fellow travelers over dinner and hatched a plan for the next day: move up to high camp, the last spot to overnight before the pass, a mere 2 miles away, but at an elevation of 4900m (16,076 ft).
We tackled it the next day, pushing our bikes up switchbacks and around sheer cliff faces. The trekking crowd from the previous day followed us, seemingly on the same schedule. However, we seemed to be the only folks who had bothered to consult (multiple) weather forecasts. Snow had come in overnight, letting up a bit during the day, however with limited visibility. Far from ideal conditions for a bid for the top of the pass, let alone for sweeping vistas of any of the mountain ranges. The forecast called for better weather the next day, so we stretched our legs (or rather tried to keep them warm in the dining area), chatted with some German travelers and went to bed at 8 pm.
After a sleepless night, possibly due to the altitude, the weather had switched. Morning light falling on snow-covered peaks greeted us right after sunrise. That snow, however, proofed to be difficult to navigate through on the way up with our bikes. Again, we had to relegate ourselves to pushing with minimal actual bike riding. Besides a headache and exhaustion, my choice of light footwear in hopes of not having to contend with snow proofed foolishly. By the time I finally made it up to the pass, I had trouble feeling six of my ten toes. To my luck, a tiny teahouse at the top manned by a friendly Nepali guy would be my rescue. I used his gas stove to thaw my feet slowly and, after alternating between rubbing and heating them over the flames, finally regained sensation after about three-quarters of an hour. The altitude had already put visions of amputation in my head. My adrenaline was through the roof, despite me being dead tired from the slog up to 5400 meters (17,716 feet).
I was cold. I was tired. I was exhausted. All I wanted was to get down to lower elevation at this point. Instead of cruising smoothly down the mostly single track trails, I, however, found myself face down, the bike next to me, multiple times. I’d love to say that the terrain and the setup just made it impossible to ride down this mountain gracefully. The reality, however, was that after the first fall, I just got scared and timid, compounded by the physical state that I was in.
After the final fall, I walked most of the rest of the way down, until the terrain became flatter and somewhat tolerable for me to ride again. We finished the day in Muktinath, another small hamlet and sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Arguably the most challenging part behind us, the remaining two days slowly brought us back from alpine to tropic climates. We enjoyed burgers made with yak meat at a restaurant called Yac Donalds in Kagbeni, navigated through dried-out river beds due to road wash-outs, battling 50mph wind gusts.
Eventually, we experienced first hand the infamous road construction project, which is part of a more substantial building program, established in 2005, to further develop and connect regions in Nepal. While trekkers were able to escape the construction zones by using either the official trail or the newly established New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATT-Trails), we had to stick to the road-under-construction. Rain from previous days made it a muddy and dirty undertaking, trying to stay upright while evading construction vehicles, local buses, tourist SUVs, and foot traffic brought its own stress level with it.
In Tatopani, a small hamlet along the Gandaki River and very much geared towards the trekking community, with half a dozen guesthouses, souvenir shops, and a hot spring, we collectively decided to call it in and make this our ACT finish line. We caught a local bus to Pokhara the next morning, interrupted by a two-and-a-half-hour forced break due to a landslide. But it wasn’t the last taste of public transportation in Nepal we got.
The day after, we took a bus from Pokhara back to Kathmandu. The 125 miles took us 11 hours. We could have biked that. Maybe.