Annapurna 24, Round #3.

A ride like doing the Annapurna Circuit in a day or a World 24hr mountain bike championships requires alot of pedalling and not too much thinking.  It’s all about one pedal stroke at a time so when I left Besisahar at 12:15 am on the morning of November 26th the only thing in my head was to enjoy the solitude of the Nepali night as I set out on what’s traditionally been considered one of the greatest trekking circuits in the World. Pedalling my way out of the jungles of Besisahar and up the tight Marshyangdi river gorge towards Manang, there was a stillness in the night as the usually bustling Nepali countryside was sound asleep.  There’s usually a million excuses to push the abort button before these big adventures and to live a more comfortable existence, but as long as I’m alive and healthy enough to do these adventures, I plan to be out there going for it.  I’m grateful to have these opportunities that so many don’t have and want to live life by the day, trying to soak up the beauty of it while I can.  Hopefully a few are inspired to go for it and follow there own dreams as life is too short to not be out there going after whatever makes you smile.  I’ve found the tougher something is, generally the bigger the rewards will be, thus pushing the limits can be well worth the challenges! 

This ride always heightens my senses as the effects the altitude has on my body going from 800 M-5416 M, in around 12 hours, has been fairly dramatic in the past and something I’m still trying to figure out.  The first concern was the cold, as this year I was going light, pushing for a new fastest known time (FKT).  I wanted to do the ride self supported, packing all the necessary gear and clothing, except for 2 food caches of Clif Bar products along the way.  50 km into the adventure, the temperature was dipping into the negatives as I cruised through the village of Timang at 2500 M.  Between permit check posts, food & water stops, clothing changes and bike maintenance there are a lot of stops which can eat up the time. I was focusing on reducing these as much as possible, thus waited till the body was starting to freeze thoroughly before increasing my riding attire with the 7mesh clothing in my backpack.  Jersey and shorts was getting a bit thin for the freezing night!  The coldest part of the ride was around 3000 m, cresting up from the narrow cliff side winding roads of the Marshyangdi river gorge and into the vast Manang valley.  The sky was starting to lighten from the black of the night, but the sun was still an hour from touching down as the temperature dipped to -7 celsius + whatever wind the speed of my bike was creating.  It was cold but once the sun hit me the temperature would rapidly increase +10 to 15 for the day.

Riding into Manang, one of the most idyllic villages on the circuit, near the boarder of Tibet and Nepal, signalled the first real stop of the ride. Dropping into the Alpine village teahouse to pick up a food cache, have a tea and change clothes, was a welcome intermission.  The most challenging part of the journey was ahead, the 1900 m, 22 km section up to the top of Thorong La Pass.  A nice surprise was meeting my Dutch friend Nienke  who was on a grand bike traverse of the Great Himalayan trail from Nepal’s Western border.  We had 15 minutes to visit as I prepared for the next part of the ride. It was inspiring to see someone else out their pushing there limits, chasing down a dream as the ride that she was on was something nobody had ever tried before by bike.  After the small break, I was soon mounting back up onto my Kona Hei Hei and off towards the looming Pass!

The 17 kms from Manang to Thorong Phedi is spectacular as the jeep road is left behind and replaced with flowing single track. It’s a gorgeous ride through the high alpine with the huge 8000 m Annapurna Massif looming in the background.  This is also when the ride gets punishing as the 4000 m + elevation means the 20.9 % of oxygen in the air which we experience at sea level, falls to around 12.7 % as the lower air pressure decreases the effective oxygen levels.  This means the riding starts to get really hard, especially after 9 hours on the trail. This was where I fell apart the last 2 years during the attempt, so this time there was extra focus to keep a steady rhythm as the body and mind both started to push back from the big effort of the day.  The other challenge was to not stop for photos around every corner as it was a bluebird day with the surrounding white Himalaya giants in all their beauty.  The Annapurna Circuit became one of the World’s greatest treks for a reason. There may be jeep roads scarring up the landscape nowadays, but the magnificence of the biggest mountains on earth sure hasn’t changed!

Reaching Throng Phedi, base camp for the Worlds highest commonly used pass, was a relief as I stopped in to see the kind teahouse owners , loading up on water and some treats before hitting the 5.5 km, 20% climb to the top of the pass at 5416m.  Year after year the owners of the teahouses along the trek have given me food and water during this effort and won’t accept any form of payment, a testament to the best part of Nepal, its people.  In year’s past I have taken a nap at Phedi before heading off to the pass, and it has crushed me. This year I opted to keep the momentum rolling and hit it right away.  This time being accompanied by the local legend of the Manang Valley, Snow Monkey.  Snow Monkey grew up in Manang, spending his life exploring every nook and cranny, chasing snow leopards around and guiding tourists throughout the region. Having been over the pass 130 times, there wasn’t any better company I could have.  He was on his sturdy mountain horse, with a video camera, documenting this part of the journey as I pushed towards the crux of the ride.  During the Yak Attack race, my time from Phedi to the top is around 1 hr 15 minutes, during the Annapurna 24 I’ve never been able to eclipse 3 hours.  The first year I probably should’ve turned around as a stiff blow of altitude sickness hit, leaving me dizzy, nauseated and using my bike as a crutch as I basically crawled over the pass, getting there just before sunset.  It was amazing but not something I wanted to repeat.

 This year things went well for the first 2 kms to high camp but then the dizziness, fatigue and the feeling of drunkness set in.  Snow monkey rode around on the ridges above, documenting the show as any ego I had from winning the Yak Attack race a week earlier was blown away.  Creeping towards the pass  I felt like a skid trying to stumble home after a big night out on the town. It was depressing not being able to ride my bike anymore, any attempts would quickly end with my front wheel veering off the trail as my vision was getting cross eyed.  It was a struggle but after 3 hrs and 5 minutes I reached the top of Thorongla Pass at 5416 m!  It was a stunning day, calm, warm and not a trekker in sight as they tend to get up around 4am to head over the pass.  I was on a FKT attempt but some moments in life you can’t pass up. This was one of those moments, being up in the heart of the Himalayas with my Nepali brother, Snow Monkey, on a pass people often spend over a week getting to.  Thus we soaked it in, ordered some tea, relaxed and forgot about everything else for a while. 15 to 20 minutes later it was time to roll, Snow Monkey had a ways to get back home before dark and I still had over 100 km of rough Himalayan trails and roads ahead!

Rolling off the pass their was a 2500 m vertical descent ahead, mostly on some brake burning single track. It’s an epic descent with the 7th highest mountain in the world, Dhaulagiri (8167M) in the distance. With daylight starting to fade it was full speed ahead to make the most of the easy travelling down the Mustang valley before hitting the dark of night for the 2nd time on the ride. Ripping past trekkers who probably started from Besisahar 7-10 days before put a grin on my face as I was getting to see in one day what was going to take them 2-3 weeks to experience!  Seeing the full Annapurna Circuit in one day is a sensory overload which seems like more of a day dream then reality.  I can thank my Kona Hei Hei bike for that as their isn’t any other way in the World to see this legendary trek in a day from the ground.  

Riding through the Mustang valley the energy was high as trekkers were stumbling around, temples dotted the landscape, and the geography of the mountains in the semi arid, often desert like landscape was simply mind blowing.  Stopping a bit more now to change clothes, load up on water, and to get my Radical lights ready for another dark night ahead was eating up the time quicker then I liked.   12-15 hours into an effort like this the body often starts to rebel a bit and looks for any excuse to pullover for a breather.  It can be a challenge to keep the wheels rolling but that’s the only way you’re ever going to get anywhere!

 This section through the Mustang is getting busier every year as the Nepali and Chinese governments are trying to build a bigger road between the countries.  More and more Indians and Nepalis are also visiting the area as there economies improve and more people have time and money for adventure.  For riding this means there are some dusty sections, but knowing the area well I was able to take some side trails and secondary routes which kept most of the ride away from the increasing traffic.  Stopping at the Dutch teahouse in Tukuche for a 2nd food cache also signalled the setting of the sun.  One year I would like to finish the ride before hitting dark for a 2nd time, but this year the ride needed to start a bit later so I could try and avoid the road closers in the Kali Gandaki gorge.

The Kali Gandaki sinks to 800 M above sea level, and is the deepest gorge in the World, being flanked by Dhaulagiri (8167 m) to the west and Annapurna (8091m) to the east.  It’s also the last 45 km of the Annapurna Circuit ride as the road descends down from the hanging Mustang valley at Kalopani (2500m) to Beni (800 m).  They’ve been working on this road ever since I came to Nepal for the first time in 2014. You would never know it as the surface often resembles a river bed more then a road.  With a ride time of 18 hours, and just 45 km to go, the sights were set on trying to eclipse 20 hours this year.  Stopping to take some clothes off, setting the lights and refuelling, it was time for one last push.  Unfortunately this late push was thwarted by Nepali time, rounding one corner shortly into the descent and encountering a roadblock with nearly 30 cars and 40 + motorbikes jammed up.   The roadblocks were suppose to be from 2:30 to 6:30 everyday, but it was nearing 7!  It was tempting to blow the blockade but they were knocking big rocks down off the embankment onto the road which made me decide to obey the traffic control.

Around 15-20 minutes was lost before the ride could continue.  The motorbike guys asked where I was going, and they laughed when I said Beni.  “That’s too far for a cycle!”.  I asked where they were going and they also replied “Beni”.      What they didn’t understand is that my mountain bike would be much faster on the rough decent then there motorbikes.  As the road opened a bunch of them blasted by me, but soon I was weaving between them as they got bounced all over the road.  A couple of there egos seemed damaged by being passed by a cyclists as they tried to race me for a bit but there was no hope as there bikes got rocked by the horrific road conditions.  “Adios fellers!, I’ll be eating Dhal Bhat in Beni by the time you suckers arrive!”  From there it was one of the longest 2 hours of cycling I’ve had all year as the road conditions were dusty and muddy with a fair bit of traffic coming up. A good portion of the ride is on the edge of a giant cliffside which just appeared as a black hole in the dark.  Caution had to be taken as I rattled my brains on what is for sure one of the worst roads in the World.  It is also a bike destroyer as there is no way to keep any oil on the chain with the wet and dusty conditions wreaking havoc on the drivetrain and pivots.  The sounds coming from the bike were depressing but I could pay little attention to it as full focus was needed to avoid the boulders, holes, animals, cars and everything else imaginable on the road.

Passing through the trekker haven of Tatopani is always tough as it would be a comfortable place to end the ride. Unfortunately the Annapurna Circuit doesn’t end until Beni, a further 22 km down the gorge, so the pedals kept turning over.  Usually this part of the road improves a bit but this the construction has been focusing on widening the road and they have left a huge mess.  The last 10 km ride basically looked like a pig sty as they’ve been flooding the road, and tearing it up at the same time, leaving ruts, puddles and mud everywhere.  Over the 6 years I’ve been riding down this gorge, the conditions have gotten worse!  Eventually one day they plan on paving it all the way to China, but with the unstable slopes above, geographical challenges of Nepal and there questionable road building skills it will be a miracle.

Rolling into Beni bus park at 8:48 pm signalled the end of my 3rd Annapurna 24 hr attempt, and also the setting of a knew FKT of 20 hours and 33 minutes! The crowd went wild at the finish line, fireworks went off and champagne sprayed everywhere!  Or, in reality one dog barked and a kid asked me for a chocolate and was wondering where I was headed.  I stopped my garmin to document the ride then looked up to see Usha coming down from the village above.  What a treat it was to have her there after a long day out in the mountains.  The first year a cop stopped me in Beni and threatened to arrest me for coming in so late after we argued for a few minutes about where I came from. You came from Jomsom, “no sir, I came from Besi”.  No you didn’t, you came from Jomsom and left way to late!  Eventually I agreed so the conversation could end and then he found a dungeon for me to stay in at his friends house.  Having Usha there with a hotel arranged, Chicken Dhal Bhat on order and a giant hug made things a 1000 time better.

This year the fundraiser brought in $5110 CAD for the Nepali Cycling training centre in Kathmandu.  This is enough to keep the centre going for another year and hopefully some is left over to arrange another training camp with the Balance Point Racing coaches from Canada or a high altitude camp for the riders.  It will be up to the Nepal Cyclists Ride to Rescue team to decide how they best want to use the money as they have proven time and time again to be very diligent with the funds, making the most of whatever help people give them.  I’d like to send out a huge thank you to everyone that supported this fundraiser again this year!  The generosity of people during the past few years  has been amazing. The plan is to keep this fundraiser or something similar going in the years to come to make sure what has been started in Nepal is carried through as long as the Nepali cyclists can use the support.

For now it’s time for some time away from the bike.  Whether that is beaches in Thailand or trekking in the Himalays is yet to be determined 🙂   

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