Annapurna 24

It wasn’t pretty but the attempt to ride Nepals legendary 215 km Annapurna Circuit in 24 hrs happened.  Rolling into the Beni bus park 23 hrs and 57 minutes after leaving Besishahar (The Gateway to the Himalayas) at midnight on December 3rd capped one of the toughest yet unforgettable days of my life on a bike.  The idea stemmed last season after the Yak Attack race, as the organizer Phil Evans, myself and a few of the Nepali riders were looking for a way to fundraise money to build a training centre in Nepal .  Timing was short so we opted to push it back until this year.  Unfortunately the other boys had to pull out last minute but I was still keen to give it a go as the opportunity was there and sometimes you can’t wait for others or else you might never do what you’re dreaming of.

Doing the ride solo and unsupported, seemed a bit daunting especially since December is when winter rolls into Nepal.  There were some road bumps in the planning and a few question marks but life is to short to wait for everything to line up perfectly so I did what I could with what I had and set off from Kathmandu on the morning of December 2nd.  Having a real dislike for riding buses on Nepals rough twisting roads, I opted to ride my Kona Hei Hei DL the 175 km to the start of the circuit in Besisahar.  My friend Rajan came along with his motorbike for support, hauling the gear and towing me up the hills to save my legs for the big ride.  The 3rd was all about rest and eating in Besi as the plan was to leave this evening.  Going to the TIMS(Trekkers Information Office) to buy the permits they refused to sell them for just 1 day as they laughed at the idea. “Haha, silly foreigner, you need 6 days minimum for the  circuit.”  I tried to convince them, but not wanting to waste much energy arguing, I eventually agreed on a 6 day permit. Then there was

the debate about leaving at night. They tried scaring me off by saying there were Maoist supporters blowing bombs off up the Annapurna Circuit due to the upcoming elections.  Having more reliable sources, I ignored this info, agreed to leave in the morning and went back to rest to prepare for a 12:05 am start on the 4th. 

A couple locals I met during the day agreed to come on the first 5km of the ride to see me off.  After a couple pictures, checking the InReach live tracker was working and fighting off a local drunk guy who wouldn’t let go of my bike, the journey up the Annapurna Circuit started, officially at 12:09 am on the Garmin.  My local friends on the scooter didn’t keep up long on the rough road so once saying goodbye I set off on my own into the Nepali night.  It was a tranquil evening with a nearly full moon above and just the sound of the rushing river below.  The first 2 hours were great before coming around a corner to see 30 people hanging out in the middle of the road.  “Shit, I thought, are these the Maoist bombers the Police told me about.?”  I rolled by them saying a quite “Namaste” and continued on my way with no trouble.  Next an aggressive black dog jumped out from under a tea house causing a near crash as I hopped off my bike to use it as a shield, picking up some rocks to pelt at the unfriendly beast.   A little later coming around a corner there was a road block, turning off my lights, silently cruising around it in the ditch continuing my way up one of the roughest roads in the World with huge cliffs on either side.  

Running out of water 4 hours in, I had forgotten all the tea houses would be closed.  Not wanting to risk the often polluted surface water I was running out of options.  Eventually finding an unlocked teahouse, I grabbed some bottles of water, left 200 rupees and continued onwards.  The darkness of the night started to lighten up as I entered the frigid mountain town of Chame around 6:30 am.  From here the travelling was easier in the daylight but the Police checkpoints were now open and were eating up some precious time.  Getting the permits checked was one thing but trying to convince them about where I was going was wasting time.  “Yes, I’m going to Beni.”  No sir, thats impossible, where are you going today?”  This conversation would go in circles so I eventually learned to say I was going to the next closest town.”  This kept the conversations to a minimum and the wheels rolling.  

Figuring this adventure would take around 18 hours I was hopeful to finish before darkness sunk in again on the 3rd.  Hitting Manang at 9am I was about 30 minutes behind the scheduled pace.   This was alright considering the time lost at the police checkpoints, stopping to change clothes as the temperature dropped to -7 C, and the fact I forgot what riding with a 5kg backpack was like.   After Manang was a 23 km climb from 3500 M – Thorong La Pass (5415M) before dropping down a rad singeltrack to the next major settlement, Muktinath, a sacred high mountain village for Hindus and Buddhists.  There wasn’t much for food along this stretch so I loaded up in Manang, ordering Buckwheat pancakes, buying snickers and a tub of sketchy peanut butter.  The race nutrition I normally use for such a long ride was a a pipe dream as I had long run out of this supplies from Canada having been on the road for over 2 months.  This was a concern before the trip started as I rely heavily on proper nutrition for riding fast and staying healthy.

  This is especially important for rides over 6 hours long as the body can get really depleted.  Ultimately the lack of good fuel would play a big roll in the struggles ahead.  The delay in Manang was longer then expeected, so I stopped to buy more batteries for the headlamp, and starting recharging the bike light as I could forsee some more night riding before this trip was over.  

Finally leaving Manang I started a great 18 km piece of climbing singeltrack to the small hotel in Thorong Phedi at the base of the pass.  Things started to unravel as the stomach went sideways and the energy seemed to be zapped in the higher altitude above 4000 meters.   What took 1 hr and 22 minutes in the Yak Attack race a few weeks earlier, took nearly 2.5 hours to get to Phedi on this day.  At Phedi I was starting to have a solid meltdown so stopped in for garlic soup, rice and ginger tea to try and resettle the stomach and recharge before the tough 5 km, 900M vertical push over the pass.  Nauseated, and with a bit of a headache I shut the eyes for 10 minutes and contemplated calling it a day as it was a struggle just staying awake.  

Daylight was fading fast so there was no more time to waste if I was to get over the pass before the sun set. This was key as once the sun drops, the temperature plummets 10-15 degrees and the steep backside descent would be gnarly in the dark.  The hotel owners generously sponsored my meal and the other trekkers gave a standing ovation as I headed out the door to tackle the pass.  The first half went alright but the 2nd 2.5 km was one of the toughest stretches of my biking career. From 5,000 m to the top at 5,416 m, the trail was deserted, daylight was dwindling and I was going a snails pase.   It was an amazing evening though with just myself and the peacefulness of the surrounding mountains.  

The farther up the more brutal it got as the heart was beating like a jack hammer and the legs were moving like broken chopsticks. The head was pounding and I was dizzy enough that I’d veer straight off the trail anytime I tried riding.  Clearly there was a bit of altitude sickness going on, which was a surprise as two weeks earlier I had no trouble racing like the wind over the pass. Maybe gaining 4,600 meters of elevation over the course of 13 hours was a bit more strenuous on the body then I imagined.  This was a new frontier, trying to ride 24 hrs through high altitude so I convinced myself to cowboy up and push through the challenges.  Feeling like a drunk with a really bad hangover I used my bike as a crutch, creeping towards the summit. Being down at 1500 M for the two weeks before this attempt likely didn’t make this effort any easier.  Next time it would be worth staying up a bit higher and seeing how that worked as this current attempt to get over the pass was depressing. 

Luckily, after a 15-minute break on top of Thorong La, most of the dizziness went away and I could rip down an amazing 12-km piece of singletrack to the village of Muktinath at 3,800 m. Coming around the corner of the valley to see the lights of Muktinath with the pink sky of the setting sun behind Dhaulagiri (8167 M) was unforgettable as darkness set in for the night .  It was a moment of peace in what was currently a raging war between myself and the Annapurna Circuit.  At this point, I had been on the trail for 17 hours, with still 100 km to go down a very rough jeep track.  Stopping for water in Muktinath I contemplated the options. The body seemed to be getting sicker and it would’ve taken 2 seconds to fall asleep in one of the comfy hotels in town.   After a 12 hour sleep I could get up in the daylight, hopefully be able to eat some food and then ride some nice trails and finish the ride in a comfortable two days.  Checking my phone there were a few nice messages, one from my friend Usha who had been very supportive in the lead up to this attempt.  It lifted the spirits as I decided to keep on it for a while longer.  After all I came here to ride the loop in 24 HRs not two days!

The last 100 km was one of the longest 100 km of my life as the nausea and headache from the pass didn’t go away and the stomach stayed inside out. In the last 5 hours since Phedi, I had managed to eat three Cliff blocks. Hitting  Jomsom, the Mustangs regional hub, was a low point.  Now I was really damn cracked. Only in some 24hr races had I ever cracked myself this good before but in those races you have support every 10-15 km.  Attempting to calm the sketchy poisoned feeling in my stomach I ordered a greasy buffalo sausage from a roadside stand. It was tough to swallow but somehow settled the stomach a bit.  Skeptical to try another sketchy sausage I took off out of town.  The body wasn’t getting much  better but it seemed stable which was a relief.  Too add another dimension to the ride, the front suspension locked itself out coming down the pass, likely due to the huge pressure changes from 5416-2700 M, or possibly from the frigid temperatures. This wasn’t ideal on the rough rocky roads but it this point there were bigger things to worry about.

Amongst all the battles of the ride, it was turning into a glorious night in the Himalayas.  The full moon was now high above the wide Mustang valley with stellar cloud configurations. Huge snow covered mountains loomed overhead like giants as I was just one small figure in the grand scene of the picture.  It was rumoured  snow was in the forecast and this seemed like the calm before the storm.  A couple times I stopped to sink into the beauty of the night, before reengaging the mind to finish off what I had started oh so long ago in Besi.  It was interesting to notice the changes in the mental outlook during the ride as what started out as a deep focus for the first 8 hours slowly faded into a “I don’t give a damn” mentality. One that I had to fight off as I was slowly losing vision of the bigger picture, starting to focus on the small ailments that were building up and not caring about the outcome anymore.  This adventure was not going as planned and I was being tough on myself for being so slow. I guess some days you just have to deal with whatever cards your delivered and make the best of it.

The other challenge was a good portion of the road down to Beni was on a riverbed with multiple options causing confusion in which way to go. Often I’d ride 10 minutes down one spur and come to a missing bridge or a high river crossing and have to turn around to try another option. It was late so there were limited vehicles on route to try and follow and my lighting system was rather weak.  Eventually hitting the end of the gravel beds, there was just one 45 km undulating descent down the Worlds deepest gorge with a 8000 M mountain on either side to the finish.  A slow leaking tire caused a few more delays.  Trying to safely manoeuvre the rough river like road with a lighting system which I didn’t know how long would last was a bit nerve wrecking.  What should’ve taken four hours from Muktinath to Beni, took more than six and pushed the 24 hour attempt to the brink. The last 20 km to Beni, I really had to shut the mind off and turn the legs on to come in under 24 hours at 23:57 minutes! Success 🙂 

In Beni there wasn’t a sole in sight as all the accommodation was closed for the night.  My friend Rajan was going to come to Beni from Pokhara in support but in my bad state after the pass I told him I likely wouldn’t make it. I didn’t want him to waste his time so told him to stay in Pokhara for the night.

Cruising around town looking for a place to pass out, A local cop approached and asked what I was doing and where I came from? “I’m coming Besisahar  sir and am looking for a bed.”  “No, today, where did you come from.”  “Besi”.  ” No, you came from Jomsom, why are you here so late.”  “I came from Besi.”  “No.”  “Okay sure, whatever, you guys really need to start being more open minded.  Can I sleep in the cop shop?”  This wasn’t an option but he called one of his friends and I was lead to a small dark dirty room to sleep for the night.  It had a mattress which was all that mattered as I passed out for 4 hours before getting up to a racket at 6am.  

It was a rough morning, so after riding 10km towards Pokhara I started hitch hiking.  A group of 4 guys picked me up and decided to take me on a tour of some of the highest suspension bridges in Nepal, and then onwards for a Dhal Bhat lunch.  Even in my cracked state it was a pretty cool day.  The locals here are unbelievably friendly and treat us foreigners like royalty.  Eventually they dropped me off at the highpoint on the highway, 25 km form Pokhara, so I could cruise in on a beautiful ridge ride before dropping into Pokhara lakeside for a couple days of sleeping and eating. 

Here I found out the fundraiser for the Nepal Cycling Centre had over doubled our goal with $2300 USD being raised.  This made all the tough peddling worth while!  I would like to send out a huge thanks to all those that generously donated as this money will go a long ways.

Also a big thanks to the crew at Himalayan Singletrack for the support and home base in Nepal.  Richard Ball at Trail Running Nepal for the loan of the Inreach tracker.  Phil Evans at MTB World Wide, and Corinne Smith at CJ Physiotherapy for helping set up the fundraiser and for helping with the planning and execution of this project.   Rajan for dropping me off in Besi and taking my extra luggage to Pokhara. And of course Kona bikes for standing behind me and giving me the support and freedom to pursue such bike rides around the World.

The door is wide open for the Nepali boys or someone else to step up and crush this current FKT on the Annapurna Circuit as this effort was far from being a smooth operation!  

Now it’s off-season mode for real as I’ll head off to Everest Base Camp with my friend Usha for a couple weeks of regeneration high up in the Himalayas 🙂

Over and Out!

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