November 7, 2014 by Jordan Rouse
Trapped in our hotel room by a two day monsoon we sat waiting to start the Annapurna circuit, confused by the promise of dry season in Nepal. After the clouds disappeared we could see a new heavy layer of snow was visible on the high peaks of the Annapurna range. Little did we know the consequences of the snow storm higher up the trail.
The Annapurna circuit, as the name suggests, skirts around the Annapurna mountain range which is home to six major peaks above 7000m, Annapurna I being the highest at 8091m. The route is often described as the best long distance trekking route in the world (normally taking two/three weeks on foot) crossing the Thorung La pass at 5300m and passing through tropical jungle, pine forests, deep valleys and high altitude dry regions.
A jeep track now allows access to both sides of the high pass so it’s possible to cycle virtually the entire circuit. We were riding the trail in peak season (Oct-Nov), when the weather is generally clear and dry with pleasant daytime temperatures.
The route is peppered with traditional Nepali and Tibetan villages, with plenty of tea houses for food and accommodation along the way. There’s no need to carry a tent or supplies, which makes it a good intro to high altitude trekking (or biking in our case).
After a late start trying to find new bungee cords and chain oil, we were on our way. Within 10 minutes our feet were drenched from riding through mini rivers, which had broken out of the hillsides due to the recent heavy rain. We didn’t have dry shoes again for a week…
In the late afternoon we crossed the river onto the trekking route and after a steep climb, arrived in Bahundanda where we spent the night. In hindsight this wasn’t a great decision! We had spectacular views down the valley over terraced rice fields and a lovely dinner with our new pals Kyle and Louise, but a 4 hour push and carry adventure along the footpath the next morning was painful. Intersecting the jeep road again at Syange we had a slightly easier time of it to the village of Chamje for our second night’s stop.
That night we heard the first reports of the horrendous disaster further up the trail. The guest house had a TV with the news showing footage of helicopter rescues happening up in the high parts of the route, around Thorung La and the Manang valley. A local guide translated the news, and told us that many people had been killed in a freak snowstorm while crossing Thorung La. Needless to say, the news was shocking, even more so as the guides and porters in the teahouse had friends who were probably caught in the accident. We had also met trekkers at the permit office in Kathmandu who were likely to be up in the high areas, we could only hope they were OK.
We were still low down on the trail so decided to continue up and then turn back when conditions got too unpleasant. Leaving Chamje we had to cross a huge landslide that had happened a few months earlier. It was pretty scary, but not too difficult and a few locals who were repairing the area helped us with the bikes.
Already we began to meet trekkers who were making their way down from the Manang area. This turned into a flood of people taking the jeep track as the fastest way back down. Many of them were understandably shaken and unhappy, telling us we were crazy to carry on. A few cyclists coming down were more positive and said the snow was melting fast so we would probably make it to Manang ok.
Day 3 was a brutal ride of steep jeep track, 1300m of total ascent but with plenty of downhill thrown in to claw back. The track was getting pretty technical now, with many sections of loose rocky sections and impossibly steep climbs.
After negotiating the landslide around Tal, a huge waterfall was blocking the jeep track between Danakyu and Timang. The only way around was to carry the bikes up the trekking path. The path was incredibly steep and slippery after all the rain, made more difficult by having to shoulder the bikes and scramble up wet rocks. A few guides told us it was stupid to go this way with bikes but we had no choice; a cyclist we met was almost washed away trying to negotiate the waterfall so at least this way was safe!
Reaching Timang, it began to rain again so we stopped for the night. A group of Spanish trekkers who had been evacuated by helicopter from Tilicho lake turned up later, and all talk turned to the accident and conditions further up the trail. As we had no internet access, all the information we had about the accident and conditions up towards Manang were rumour and word of mouth from trekkers coming down. I was surprised at the different stories we were hearing, even from the ‘officials’ at the trekking permit checkpoints. All we could do was keep going and assess the situation as we went.
As we were writing this blog (over on the Lower Mustang side of Annapurna), we met a Canadian flying down the hill from Muktinath on a bike. He stopped to chat, and it turned out he’d been working for the Himalayan Rescue Association. He had first hand experience of what had happened during the accident; some of what he told us validated rumours we’d heard on the trail and stuff we’d read online, but he had lots of new information we hadn’t heard about. All of it was shocking.
Due to lack of communication equipment, the rescue efforts had taken days. Israeli embassy helicopters were first on the scene, and horrifically had refused to evacuate non-Israeli citizens from a life threatening situation. We were shocked that official organisations such as the Nepalese army hadn’t taken the lead in the rescue considering the huge numbers of people involved.
We also learned that contrary to the Nepali Tourism Board’s statement that ‘cheap tourists’ who refused to pay for guides were to blame for putting themselves in danger, the opposite was in fact true. Guides had in fact led the way off Thorung La in the middle of a snow storm which soon turned into a total white-out. Trekkers without the ability to cope in such situations were lost off the back of the group without survival equipment. Others were left in the teahouse on top of the pass, while their porters took their chance on descending.
There’s a lot to learn from such a tragic accident, but the Nepali government’s knee jerk reaction of forcing tourists to take guides to Annapurna and wear GPS tracking devices doesn’t seem to make sense to me. I’m sure the debate will rage for a while…
But to continue with our own story….
Day 4 started with a beautiful clear blue sky in Timang and views of the Manaslu mountain range to the east. Now we were approaching 3000m in altitude, things were getting chilly. The nights became very cold from Timang onwards, and out of direct sunlight even daytime temperatures were pretty frosty.
We had a long day climbing steep jeep tracks towards the village of Lower Pisang. Pedalling steep hills was now becoming perceptibly more difficult with the thinning air. This part of the route had a very alpine feel as we ascended through beautiful autumnal pine forests. The road climbed steeply upwards from the river in places, where the route had been blasted out of the sheer cliffs. The sheer drops off the side of the track had us keeping well away from the edges.
Our friend SK from Tree In Lodge in Singapore (www.treeinlodge.com) told us he had a few friends also cycling the AC. Before we got to Pisang we saw two cyclists bombing down the trail. I flagged them down as they looked like SK’s description and sure enough it was them. Chia and Tobi had retreated from Manang after the bad weather and were heading back to Pokhara. We had a good chat about the conditions further up and they warned us of an avalanche we would have to cross. They reckoned conditions were improving as the snow melted so we pushed on. The big avalanche came right across the track a few miles further on, but it was stable enough to climb up and over with bikes shouldered.
The terrain had eased out into a wide pine valley as we rolled into Lower Pisang for the night. And it was a cold night too. We huddled around the wood stove at the tea house to keep warm, thankful we had bought insulated jackets in Kathmandu. We slept in all our clothes, sleeping bags and extra blankets that night.
The following morning we continued to follow the valley which climbed steadily towards Manang. Pedalling over a small tree lined ridge, we fell down into the Manang valley by a series of snowy switchbacks. The remaining snow was a bit tricky to negotiate, but rapidly melted into muddy tracks as we emerged from the cover of the pine forest.
Suddenly we were really in the Himalaya. Soaring peaks surrounded the valley, encased in permanent blankets of snow and ice. The sheer scale was hard to grasp, even with the hulking Annapurna range gleaming in the morning light right in front of us. We were now approaching 4000m altitude, but Annapurna II was still another seemingly impossible 4000m higher. Like everyone else, we’ve spent many Sunday evenings watching David Attenborough documentaries about the Himalaya, but to actually be there was overwhelming. Words and photos just cannot convey the reality of these mythical mountains, neither of us have ever been anywhere which instills such awe. I don’t often insist that a place is a ‘must visit’, because everyone appreciates places differently, but I’ll make an exception for the mountains of Nepal. Just go.
Arriving in Humde we were treated to hot Cinammon rolls at a bakery, the first of many around Manang (the locals have long since cottoned on to the needs of western tourists!).
Tibetan influences were becoming much more obvious now, with prayer walls and stone stupas becoming prominent features in the villages. Coloured prayer flags streamed in the wind, tied to the walls of tiny monasteries perched on the top of almost inaccessible ridges. People had a distinctly Tibetan look, wearing yak wool clothing with prayer beads clinking between weathered fingers while humming Buddhist mantras.
A barely noticeable 300m steady climb up the valley brought us to Manang, much faster than we thought. By 11am we were in a hotel with a hot solar shower and bakery, everything we needed! Unfortunately we had to stay there two nights as a recommended acclimatisation stop ;)…we were now at 3540m, the highest we’d ever cycled but still almost 2000m short of Thorung La pass.
Manang sits on a small cliff, perched above the Marsyangdi river. Traditional stone houses cluster together, linked by narrow winding alleys. In the cold morning, smoke from yak-dung fires hangs in the air above the village refracting the early sunlight. Old ladies walk around the prayer wall in the village centre, spinning every prayer wheel to chants of ‘Om mane padme hum’. Even though we were still on the tourist trail it really felt like we were in another, older world.
Snow was melting fast in the Manang valley, and we heard the path was accessible as far as Ledar at 4200m. The trail wardens had sketchy information at best. It was all ‘one guide told me another guide took a group over the pass’. Compared to the mountain information available in the European alps, you’re practically on your own in the Himalaya. It seemed to us this can lead to a dangerous situation, where people who have virtually never been trekking in their life can be led into a false sense of security because of the sheer number of other trekkers and facilities on the route.
We were in no doubt about the potential danger of crossing Thorung La after the accident. The snow on the pass would be there to stay for the winter now. So we decided to trek up past Manang and leave the bikes behind. We’d then return to Manang and ride back the way we came.
The trail out of Manang was patchy with snow, and we made good progress all the while commenting on how the trail was probably rideable.
Approaching the settlement of Yak Kharka a few hours walk up from Manang the snow was quite deep. However, a few bikers with a guide caught us up. Immediately a competitive streak flared up out of nowhere, and when they said they were going to try for the pass I resolved that so would we….
The biker’s guide got chatting to a Nepali mountaineer coming down from Thorung La, and he relayed to us that the path up to the pass was clear and that people were already crossing the pass again. They headed back to Manang for the rest of their kit. That sealed the deal for us, so we had lunch in Yak Kharka then set off back towards Manang for the bikes.
We stayed in Gunsang at 4050m for the night to savour the epic views of the Annapurna range, then headed back down to Manang early next morning. The early morning walk was a real treat with the sun rising over the valley. Picking up the bikes and a chocolate croissant we set off back uphill, planning on making Ledar at 4200m. Strangely there was no sign of the Dutch cyclists we had met the day before….
Just 24 hours had made a huge difference on the trail, and the way was almost entirely rideable to Ledar. We spent a cold night in a tea house wondering if we could make it to Thorung Phedi the next day, before attempting the pass the day after.
Leaving Ledar around 7am, it quickly became clear we wouldn’t be crossing the pass this time. Now at 4500m elevation, the temperatures just hadn’t been high enough to melt the snow, even in direct sunlight. We figured the North facing, higher altitude descent off Thorung La would be even worse. In the end, we carried the bikes through waist deep snow almost to Thorung Phedi, 800m below the pass. It was proving immensely difficult and probably unsafe to continue. Our lopsided weight from carrying the bikes was making us slip a lot, collapsing the snow paths that trekkers had already made; and this is not the sort of place you want to fall. We got to a particularly unstable scree slope, and the thawing snow was already causing visible rock fall. We called it a day.
I can’t explain the disappointment I felt at having to turn back, after so many days of working towards a goal that was so close. But safety was certainly being pushed to the limits here, and thoughts of Katie’s safety were first in my mind.
Turning back, we trudged, lifted, pushed and carried the bikes back to Ledar for a well earned brew. A few trekkers were now coming up the other way and were impressed with us getting the bikes so far, but it was no consolation.
However, the effort was repaid with an epic downhill ride back to Manang. There were very few trekkers on the route now, so we pretty much had free run downhill. We arrived back in Manang exhausted, still disappointed but sure we’d made the right choice.
The next day we began the 3000m descent back to Besisahar. We took some trekker’s advice and headed off the jeep track onto the trekking route to take in the villages of Nawal and Ghyaru. This turned out to be a great decision, with the best riding of the trip so far.
Leaving the jeep track the path turned into an awesome single track route through a pine forest passing the traditional village of Julu. A short steep carrying section dropped us onto the high plateau at Nawal, with epic views from a hill top Monastery down the Manang valley. A high level traverse then took us into Nawal village where we spent the night to enjoy the views.
The morning ride was another high level traverse, hugging the steep cliffs hanging over the Manang valley. Packs of gigantic vultures soared above our heads in the early morning thermals as we sped along the empty trails.
A brew stop at Ghyaru gave us a brilliant view of the North face of Annapurna II, before a brake-burning switchback descent back into the Manang valley. Another cruise through pine forest and we were back in Lower Pisang. Hitting the jeep track again we flew down to Chame before an afternoon downpour forced us to stop for the night. By now the avalanche had a JCB-shaped hole through the middle and we rode straight through.
We arrived back into Besisahar after another day and a morning of jolting our way down the boulder strewn jeep track. The workers on the landslide at Tal had made good progress also, so we managed to get ourselves and bikes across without help. Expecting an easy morning ride back into Besi, we had forgotten that this part of the road had almost as much climbing as descending so were exhausted by the time we got there. Note for future; there are no easy rides in the Himalayas!
We stayed one night in Besisahar before taking a bus to Pokhara for a well earned rest before tackling the other side of the Annapurna Circuit! More blog to follow on our ride up and down the other side of the circuit….
(Sorry about the image quality on some of the photos! we’re travelling light at the minute, and having to use our smartphones to upload photos…high res versions to follow in future!)