Trail riding in Annapurna - a saddle story

Trail riding in Annapurna - a saddle story

Nepal’s famous Annapurna Circuit takes anything from 19 to 22 days to trek. The 300km route circumnavigates the entire Annapurna massif, crossing over Thorung La pass at 5,416m

Zoe Beesley is a 25-year-old mountain biker from Britain. Riding since her university days, she loves travelling, especially in the mountains.When not on her saddle, she works as a school teacher back in the UK. Zoe took part in MTB Himalaya earlier this year, and that's when the idea of biking in the Annapurna region struck her.

Our goal (myself, Rob and Dawa) was to cycle it in nine days. We would be faced with the same altitude restrictions and long ascents with the added challenge of taking a mountain bike along an unchartered trail in Annapurna.

In search of the best singletrack, we decided to go against the flow of hikers and to cycle the circuit clockwise. This potentially hazardous decision meant that we would be tackling the harder ascent of the Thorung La from the west side. A costly verdict that took payment from us in the form of sweat and tears.

However, the reward on the other side was worth every painful step.

Standing on the streets of Pokhara – a total of 0 kilometres into our Annapurna trail riding trip and with our bikes laying in disassembled pieces - we encountered our first set back! We had missed our bus. Undeterred by the apparent hindrance, our guide Dawa started to strap three mountain bikes on top of a small taxi. I watched eagerly as men gathered around, their arms outstretched with the intrigue of children. Yet the modest, and entirely inappropriate, Suzuki Alto bore its burden well.

The taxi dropped us to Beni (830m), from where we would start our six day ascent to Thorung La. We assembled our bikes under the watchful eyes of bewildered locals and set off. Each of us had one small day sack and a dry bag strapped behind the saddle - a valuable, last minute decision. The distances that we would be covering each day meant that we were denied the luxury of a porter. So mascara and conditioner were abandoned in favour of a shock pump and two spare inner tubes.

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For the first day we cycled along a bumpy, undulating jeep track - a section of the circuit that has been dismissed by trekkers. The recent construction of the busy road persuading walkers to go by jeep or plane. However, determined to cycle the entire circuit, we took our chances against the dust clouds and jeep shuttles.

The supposedly simple start to our trip was more eventful than intended!

Without warning, my bike ground to a vicious, ear-splitting halt. Instantly I spun around to see the evidence hanging on the guilty face of a young boy. Protruding from my back wheel was a three foot long crowbar. My stomach burned with anger as I absorbed the situation. If I had been travelling at any speed my wheel would have been ripped off and our adventure would have been over before it even began. Luckily, there was no lasting damage, just one broken spoke. The child was long gone and I was left with a feeling of irritation – a foreign emotion in such an amiable country.

However tensions were soon calmed with a stop at Tatopani; a small village famous for its healing, sulphur hot springs.Part way through the second day we left the jeep track, taking a suspension bridge over a deep, bottomless gorge. Cupped in the powerful palm of the wild, we were blown sideways, as weightless as prayer flags. My head started to spin as I caught glimpses of the river far below, passing beneath our tyres like stills on an old movie reel.

Away from the conveyor belt of jeeps and buses we were able to enjoy our tranquil surroundings. The kilometres slipped away beneath us as we slalomed between roots and rocks, lost in our peaceful, solitary existence. A feeling of freedom that made me forget about my saddle sores and my red, peeling nose.

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With the dusty jeep track long behind us, the footpath became more challenging. Beautiful single track that undulated along the side of water, climbing up steep sections and dropping down to the water's edge. I almost forgot that we were ascending as we cycled along the technical forest trail, dancing over roots.

The days passed and we continued to climb, forever ascending. Even the flat sections were up! Nepali flat; a little bit up, a little bit down! Occasionally my body was gripped by sharp back pains, not accustomed to the heavily loaded bike. However such moments of discomfort were soon interrupted by the surroundings. A vast plain of glacier washout followed us up the valley and 8,000m peaks formed on the horizon.

Venturing out onto the glacier washout, especially on a trail like the one we were on in Annapurna, incited feelings of being on the moon. The endless sheet of pebbles forming a desolate, grey desert. On one particular excursion across the river we had to scale the length of a huge, partially erected bridge. In truth, 'partially erected', may be too kind a description for the structure missing ten meter sections! Twice we had to lower our bikes down rickety, wooden ladders and cross the washout.

Venturing into the Himalayas, with only the little equipment that we could carry, meant that we were left exposed to forces of Mother Nature. Our first battle with the elements occurred on the third day, with fierce winds chocking the air with sand. Following a ribbon of narrow, technical singletrack along the side of the river, we battled with tiredness and ferocious gusts of wind. Each powerful blast grabbed at my bike, threatening to pull me from the off-camber trail. It had taken all of my strength and concentration to stay up-right, desperately trying to stay away from the edge. Walkers coming the opposite way battled with strong headwinds and dust storms, their faces completely hidden beneath sunglasses and bandanas.

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That was the beginning of the ‘real’ climbing! No more gentle, undulating trails through the forests - our last tree was far behind us. From Kagbeni (2840m) we would be tested with steeper, more challenging ascents. As the altitude gradually increased over the three days the oxygen supplies would also decrease.

The steep climb towards Muktinath started on a loose and rocky tractor-track. Even the jeeps were defeated by the terrain, unable to gain purchase on the sandy scree. My wheels constantly spun out from beneath me, defeated by marooned rocks.

My lungs felt burdened by a gentle weight. Subtle at first, but it soon deepened my breaths and limited us to a slow, gentle plod.The reward at the top of the first climb was worth it. A deserted, plateau opened up in front of us and the trail extended endlessly across the desert - looking out over the Upper Mustang region. There was nothing and no-one, the desolate landscape was completely untouched, unscarred by mankind. Barren mountains enclosed us in a huge bowl, with tiers of rocky steps cut into their reddish slopes.

I felt so small and insignificant, humbled by the desert and the towering white peaks.

After a morning spent in near isolation it came as quite a shock when we arrived in the bustling village of Muktinath (3,710m). The fateful village where the cold first hit! The cold seemed to burn from the inside out, like a frost trapped inside me. Throughout the night I shivered in my bed, any exposed areas of skin falling victim to the icy drafts.

To acclimatise we spent a morning in Muktinath exploring the local temple. The walled complex encircled a long staircase with monasteries and temples branching off to the sides. Our weary legs, unaccustomed to walking, carried us up the stairs to a pool of holy water. To my great surprise, we witnessed a shivering, near naked figure emerging from the water. Not what I had expected!

That afternoon, to shorten the climb to the pass, we pushed the bikes up to Chabarbu (4,190m) - a small collection of simple lodges rarely used by walkers. For as far as the eye could see there was nothing - no visible signs of civilisation. The small teahouse was dwarfed by the mountain. Alone, but for the thousands of stars that floated in the dark sky, like white water lilies lost in the open sea.

It was not a pleasant night however! My near frozen body had refused to sleep. And the bitter cold washed over me like buckets of water, seeping into my clothes and denying me any rest. Not the best preparation for the day ahead.
At 4am we positioned the bikes on our backs, ready to ascend. Our head-torches battled against the impenetrable darkness, producing a faint bubble of light that saved us from drowning in a black sea. Nonetheless, it remained impossible to see further than a few feet ahead. The steep ground below our feet and the weight on our lungs were the only indicators that we were on a mountain.

As the air grew thinner and the temperature dropped below -12Oc my mind was held captive by two unremitting thoughts. Primarily, putting one heavy foot in front of the other. Secondly, the burning chilblains biting at my fingers and toes. Surprisingly, the concentration required to retain my balance on the narrow, slippery scree had offered a welcome distraction from the intense pain.

After two hours of unrelenting climbing my body started to fail, exhausted from the weight of my bike and unable to generate warmth at the slow, steady pace. Dehydration had also started to settle in as we were unable to suck any liquid from our frozen water bottles. I felt like I was drowning in the cold and, as a faint light ebbed into the sky, my spirits sunk lower. The sun was rising on the other side of the pass - we were in the shade. The realisation drained the last of my energy and I wanted to cry. We were still two and a half hours from the pass.

We had been told that is was impossible to carry our bikes up the steeper side of the pass and at that moment I truly believed it.

A bitter cold spread through me like venom. My body ached - the frozen steel burned my neck and chilblains devoured my fingers. My legs had willed me to stop and I blinked back tears. Then, as if by magic, I felt the weight lifting from my back. Rob was there, rubbing my arms and offering warm words of encouragement. Taking my bike he instructed me to walk towards the sun. For the next hour, Dawa and Rob shuttled my bike up the mountain, an act of memorable kindness that burned deeply into their energy reserves.

At 8am we reached the sun. I stood soaking up the warmth as life ebbed back into me and I smiled at the sky. However, the smile soon fell from between my cheeks when I caught a glimpse of the rotting horse carcass on my left. I couldn't shake the feeling that, without my gallant helpers, that may have been me! 

Four and a half hours after leaving Chabarbu, we finally reached Thorung La Pass (5,416m). The sky was bright blue, completely absent of clouds and the air was still, disturbed only by a whisper of wind.

Hundreds of colourful prayer flags signified that we had made it.

The views were breathtaking, reaching over the long, Great Barrier ridge, separating Manang from the rest of Nepal. We were surrounded by the Annapurnas, Gangapurna and the glaciated peak of Khatung Kang.

All memories of the cold and exhaustion faded away and I was left speechless, in complete awe of my surroundings. The trail disappeared into the distance, carving a thin, rocky path through the light snow - the start of an incredible three-day descent. We would descend on glorious, uninterrupted singletrack from 5,416m to 860m.

Huge, snow capped mountains rose up to the heavens and the earth fell away, cascading down thousands of feet mere inches from my wheels. For hours my heart would migrate to my throat as we floated along exposed singletrack, covering kilometres at a time without the luxury of making a mistake. A single slip or a miscalculated line choice would have sent me down the side of the mountain, tumbling down the scree, as insignificant and helpless as a faceless boulder.

For two whole days my heart pumped against my chest and I felt drunk on the adrenaline. On the long treacherous sections my face would remain fixed in an expression of deep concentration, never once losing respect for the mountain.

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As we lost altitude the scree slopes became steeper. Tight, slippery switchbacks navigated their way down the moraine, making for a challenging, technical trail. Walkers looked on nervously as our bikes skidded down the glacier debris, unable to grip the loose covering of rocks and soil. On more than one occasion my bike slipped away from beneath me and I was left seated in a cloud of dust. Unaccustomed to the dry terrain, I watched as Dawa gracefully carved his way down the steep washout, power sliding his back wheel around the tight corners.

Dusty, bloodied and with ripped tights I made my way down the scree, wearing a smile. The trail continued to surpass all possible expectations.

Hour after hour we were presented with incredible trail in the Annapurna. Everything from terrifying ribbons of exposed singletrack to narrow suspension bridges and steep switch backs. Further down the valley the trail would open up, diving back into the forest. Then, without the constant fear of impeding death, we sailed over the rocks and roots, enjoying every minute.

The Himalayas were our playground and the torturous climb was worth every glorious second of it!

Images © Rob RankinPlace: Pokhara, Nepal