I left my bike outside the lodge and went inside to escape the biting cold wind. An eerie feeling came over me as I noticed the plaque hanging over the kitchen-serving hatch. It read “Richard James Allen (BA) “Ric”, Totnes UK, Died from altitude sickness near the top of Thorung La Pass 24th February 1991 aged 27 years, TRAVELLER BEWARE!”
This was the final lodge before the mighty Thorung La Pass in the Annapurna region of the Nepalese Himalaya. Thorung Phedi is at an altitude of fifteen thousand seven hundred and forty eight feet. So far my journey had taken eight days to carry, push and cycle.
As the sun slipped away the chill of the night crept inside the lodge. I went into the dormitory and escaped into my sleeping bag. I felt good about reaching the lodge and restless in anticipation over tomorrow’s challenge. I put on my personal stereo and escaped into a realm where I visualised myself reaching the summit of Thorung La Pass.
At four in the morning the sound of watch alarms echoed around the dormitory. An early start was needed, the aim being to cross the frozen streams and snowfields before midday as the heat of the sun makes them unstable and prone to avalanches. Reluctantly I climbed out of my warm cocoon and put on every piece of clothing I had. I was still cold! With my rucksack packed I moved my gear into the main dinning hall. Breakfast was slow as everyone and everything was cold. I enjoyed the sweat warmth of the porridge as it trickled down my throat.
Pushing my bike, I joined the trail of trekker’s torch lights snaking up the mountain. The route soon became too steep to push so I lifted my bike over my head. I adjusted the frame so it was balanced and I therefore didn’t need to use my hands to hold onto the freezing tubing. After an hour the first glimmer of sunlight broke into the distant valley. The trail went right into a small gorge. The floor was a slippery frozen stream. It was hard to keep upright under the combined weight of my rucksack and mountain bike.
The route now followed the contours on a huge band of moraine. I could cycle some of the time but had to push my bike over three large snowfields. The trail seamed to go on forever, just when I had climbed over a summit another came to view in the distance.
As I gained altitude my body started to slow down, my breathing became deeper and deeper due to the lack of oxygen. I became aware of every precious breath, not knowing if there would be another. I could feel the cold air as it entered my mouth and filled my lungs, then passing out my mouth again this time warm. I went passed the natural unconscious reaction of breathing and was now consciously aware that I was breathing. Like a mantra I started to count my breaths to find a natural rhythm. With every count I moved one step nearer my goal. With every step, shudders of pain shot throughout my body. I started to question my motives for pushing myself to mental and physical extremes. I was now directly experiencing the continuous cycle of existence called samsara, a world of eternal suffering. A Buddhist Monk once told me “suffering is sustained due to our Ignorance, Desire, Anger, Pride and Jealously”. I had an ignorant desire to mountain bike over the Thorung La pass. I knew that if I didn’t complete this desire I would be angry with myself, my pride would be heart and I would be jealous of anyone who had succeeded where I had failed. I started to fight these negative thoughts and emotions, turning them into positive ones by encouraging myself with internal dialogue “Yes you can do it, It is possible, just one more step, keep going”.
Finally, after over four hours the summit cairn of the Thorung La Pass came into view. I lifted my bike over my head for a summit photograph at an altitude of seventeen thousand seven hundred and seventy feet. This was total elation. I had made it! I sat on the summit cairn among the vast mountain wilderness. My breathing rate slowed down, I was in total silence with magnificent views all around. My mind was calm. In the grandeur of my surroundings I realised that I was but a speck of this whole subjective – objective reality.
The day was no way over, I had to descend the other side of the pass. I climbed onto my bike and set off freewheeling down the scree ridge. It was an amazing feeling as I had completed the hardest challenge on the route and was now mountain biking at high altitude with the world’s highest mountains all around.
After a few kilometres the trail disappeared leaving me to navigate through a bolder field. The way had become too uneven to cycle and I continued pushing my bike. The broken trail then headed off to the right hand side of the valley towards a huge shale slope. Just before I reached the slope the track took a sharp left and disappeared down a narrow snow gully. I cursed as I descended down the two and half thousand-foot gully. The snow was three feet deep and very soft. With every step I disappeared down to my waist. This made the going very slow and dangerous, as I couldn’t tell what was under the snow. If I had broken my legs I would be stranded totally on my own with little chance of rescue.
I was glad to escape the snow gully and rested for a while drinking much needed water in the midday sun. I now cycled down the wide trail and after four kilometres reached the village of Muktinath. I passed the wall that surrounds the beautiful water garden and checked into a lodge. I drank as much tea and hot lemon as I could and ate chips and fried rice to replenish my energy.
A large American woman who had just walked up from Jomson after her aeroplane flight spotted my mountain bike and told me “you’ll never get over the pass with your bike”. I smiled at her replying “If you say so”. I thought to myself, “It’s strange how westerners always need to voice their opinions even when they haven’t been requested.”
Muktinath is at an altitude of three thousand eight hundred meters and has magnificent views of summits of Dhaulagiri [the worlds six highest mountain], Annapurna [the eighth highest mountain], Tukuche Peak and Nilgiri North. I always love being in the mountains, especially the Himalaya. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain, in my diary I simply wrote “In the mountains I feel alive”.
I woke early packed my rucksack, ate and set off. I passed through a small village named Khingar and then it was downhill all the way. This was pure heaven, the pack trail is made for mountain biking. It followed a line traversing a great rocky spur of moraine. My speed increased as I tucked into a streamline position. My hands griped the handlebars with my two fingers resting on the break levers. They twitched the breaks whenever they were needed. My rucksack felt as if it was empty and my body weight was centred over my saddle. The slightest movement of my body was transferred to the bike.
All my senses were sharper. It was an ecstatic feeling, I was in dreamland but wide-awake. I was aware of everything around me and yet I was absorbed with the trail ahead. I didn’t need to direct my bike or jump rocks, it just happened. I had become part of my bike and the mountains, my bike and the mountains had become part of me, we were one. Buddhists call this state nirvana. It is the transition from the state of samsara and at the same time it is the awareness that samsara and Nirvana are one and the same. It’s only our perceptive awareness that really changes.
As I overtook a trail of donkeys I lost my concentration for a split second. My front wheel hit a large bolder, slamming on the breaks I managed to keep control. I looked over the damage. There was a large dent on the left-hand side of my front rim and my inner tube had punctured. I stripped and repaired the tube and adjusted the break blocks so as not to wear the wall of the tyre.
From now on whenever I applied my front break the bike would shake as the break block rubbed against the dent. I was lucky as the damage could have been worse and I might have had to carry my bike all the way down the mountainside. I jumped back on my bike and shot off again eager to experience the same elation, but with a little more caution. The path ahead split into two, I chose to descend towards the village of Kagbeni. The scree splayed in all gravity determined directions as I carefully manoeuvred my bike.
The path then went onto the riverbed and the cycling became harder due to soft sand and sprinkling of rounded boulders. The wind whipped up blowing sand everywhere and I ended up pushing my bike again. An hour or so later and I arrived at Jomson. Children ran at me from everywhere as they spotted the crazy stranger with a bicycle. I booked into a lodge for the night. During the following days I made my way down the valley and back to Pokhara, content with my achievements.
Copyright Doug Blane 1994
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