I look upon peaks beyond the Himalayas and they now feel less magnificence, unfairly judging their stature by comparison. As I flew back from Nepal over Southeast Asia, Alaska, British Columbia and Montana, I couldn’t help but notice that the mountains I viewed below no longer captivated my attention as they had before. My mind raced back to hardened images in my head of the Annapurna range in the Lower Mustang region. Most notably, I vividly remember my first view of Everest with my own eyes as my Korean Air flight leveled off not much higher than the top of the peak. Luckily, I had a window seat and snapped off a few pics with my iPad, but I also had to snap a few pictures for my fellow Korean passengers on their phones, which I was happy to do.
For some individuals, there are trips or adventures that can have a profound effect on their perspective, relationships, personality, habits or even their religion. It seems impossible to know the affect an adventure will have on you in advance because there are so many variables involved, and in our cynical world it is difficult in many cases to expect something to actually be better than expected. I had always wanted to see the Himalayas, mainly because I had line disease even before I even started “real” mountain biking in 2008.
To really understand what effect the Himalayas and Nepal would have on me it is important to understand where I came from first. I am a mountain person, even though I was born and raised in one of the lowest and flattest parts of North America, South Georgia USA. My old man was a crop duster and flight instructor so the first eight years of my life was all about aviation. Growing up in the flat rural coastal plains was torture. I rode my steel frame Huffy 10 speed down dirt roads, jumped culverts and anything else I could find with a natural ramp, often racking my nuts on the top tube and lying in the grass with fire ants writhing in pain. Somewhere around the age of 12, circa 1987-1988, I decided that I was going to live near the Flathead River in Montana someday. I studied terrain maps of the upper northwestern USA, looking for great mountain spots. I was always mesmerized by photographs of mountains I saw in magazines, no matter where they were, fantasizing of being a legendary bush pilot. I knew this was the landscape where my soul belonged, but had no idea of what real mountain biking was back then.
After enlisting in the US Air Force, my first duty assignment was Misawa Japan. Finally, I had arrived in mountain country and reveled in the terrain. Snowboarding, hiking and camping were staples of our days off from shift work, but I never really got into biking. I did buy a Giant Warp DS-1 and fitted it with a Stratos MX6 fork but medical issues sidelined me from really getting on trails, and in 1999 there were not many bike trails in northern Japan. The Japanese were starting to realize the demand for lift assisted downhill mountain biking at the local ski lifts, but it didn’t really materialize before I left. My wife and I both had looked into taking a trip to Nepal while in Japan to hike in the Himalayas, but we never bit the bullet. I felt a great opportunity was lost and I may never get a better chance to go.
To shorten this drama, I finally started real mountain biking in 2008 while I was unemployed in the US recession. I was fortunate enough to have a very generous relative who hooked me up with a big travel Kent Eriksen custom titanium bike. It was big, heavy and rode like a Cadillac in chunky gnar. Finally, at the end of 2014 I decided to get a bike built more for all mountain riding. I wanted a Santa Cruz Bronson, or so I thought. Many of the folks I have ridden with, that are much better riders than me, had Santa Cruz bikes and they all raved about them. I’ve never been a crowd follower so I decided to test some different things out. I rode a Pivot, Ibis, Santa Cruz and finally demoed a Yeti SB5C from my buddy Shawn “Peaches” Brunner at Fresh Bike Service.
Anyway, I took the SB5C up to Bear Creek near Ellijay, GA to give it a test run. I really wanted to know how it felt to climb on a bike that weighed 11lbs less than what I was accustomed to, but also how that felt doing down in some gnarliness. Climbing, it did not disappoint. I had no idea what the hell the Infinity Link accomplished or how it worked, honestly didn’t care and still not concerned with what does. The downhill left something to be desired however. I didn’t like the Fox 34 fork, at all. It didn’t feel stable, it was weeping oil and my buddy Scott Besst who was riding with me kept tuning it to no avail. Scott is one of the best suspension experts in the world, seriously. In retrospect, this was a 2015 Fox 34 which we all know had numerous issues and I had been riding a 36 Talas for the previous five years. I did like the frame a lot, the Guide brakes and how it handled in general, but it would require some personal preferences on components.
November 2014- While doing some research on the SB5C I learn about the first international Yeti Tribe Gathering trip in Nepal. It had just been announced and immediately thought this is my second chance to finally see the Himalayas, but even better I would get to ride them! I did some initial inquires with H+I Adventures, the contracted guide company for the trip and locked myself in with a deposit. I was finally going to Nepal, to the biggest mountains on the planet.
If you have read any of the previous blog posts on this site, you know how my SB5C was built out so I’m not going to waste space here rehashing it. Essentially, I built it for aggressive all mountain riding and specifically for Nepal. Peaches started ordering parts and working on building up the sled slowly over a couple of months. Finally, it was finished in January 2015 but unfortunately freeze thaw conditions, illness and travel for work prevented me from event riding it until February. I had great intentions of going on a strict training regimen to prepare myself, but I totally failed. It was totally work’s fault and I’m sticking to that excuse.
In April 2015 a massive earthquake hit the Kathmandu Valley region of Nepal and caused extensive devastation. This event coupled with political issues resulted in fuel issues, political unrest, killings and other violence. I began to get concerned about traveling to Nepal based on the environment and lack of fuel for transportation. H+I assured me there were no issues and travel was still good to go. I will admit, I came very close to backing out of the trip when the US State Department issued a travel warning, but I decided I wasn’t going to let this chance escape me, not to mention, what kind of adventure doesn’t have some political unrest involved?
“How much more do you have to buy?” This became a daily question from my wife regarding all the items I was buying to prepare for the trip. I really didn’t anticipate having to buy as much as I did, but it became apparent to me that my mountain bike support kit was significantly lacking. The last thing I wanted was to have a major drivetrain failure in a third world country and not have a backup because I decided to get cheap. I went all in and got a backup X1 rear derailleur, chain, powerlocks, brake pads, rear hangers, a section of shifter cable with ferules, tubes and Stan’s sealant. Our guide also recommended everyone bring a 20L backpack to hold enough water and supplies while on our rides. Ugh, this meant at least a 20lbs pack and another thing to buy. I went with the Camelbak K.U.D.U. while it seems almost everyone else had an Evoc or Dakine bag. The biggest expense I had was replacing the Cane Creek DBAir CS shock on my bike. I had already sent it in once for warranty repair due to an air leak, but now it was much worse. Whenever the shock was compressed you could hear oil being sucked past the seals. I was fed up with it so I took it off, ordered a Fox X2 with lots of adjustability and hoped I made the right decision. It is a lot of shock for this bike, but I like having the option to fine tune compression and rebound, both high and low. I finally finished buying supplies about four days before my departure date of Nov 14, 2015.
D-day finally arrived and I left on a ginormous Airbus A380-800 for Seoul Korea. I found it quite humorous that a Delta ticket agent was at the Korean Air check in desk and was shocked that Korean Air didn’t charge a ludicrous fee just for checking a bicycle.
I said yeah, that’s what common sense looks like and got the biggest foff look from the Delta agent. I just laughed and walked off into the TSA security sunset like a boss. The flight was pretty uneventful and I was fortunate enough to have an empty seat next to me. This is where my daughter’s favorite stuffed animal Piggy sat for a short while. She asked me to take the pig on my adventure and send her pictures of Piggy on the trail.
I slept most of the way to Korea, arriving at Incheon International Airport at 5:30pm on Nov 15th. I had a sixteen-hour layover at Incheon, but it is a great airport to have a long layover. They have a hotel inside the terminal so you don’t have to go through security or immigration and it is more like a shopping mall with an airport attached. The next morning while I was standing in line for a smoothie, I noticed another guy in line with a helmet secured to his Dakine backpack. I wondered if he was going on the trip too and he approached me and said “You must be going on the Yeti trip”. I was wearing a Yeti hoodie that I picked up from the US Yeti Tribe Gathering earlier in the year, so it was kind of a dead giveaway. His name was Jared Connell, sales director for Fox Racing Shox out of San Jose and the account owner for Yeti. We made our way to the gate for our final flight into Kathmandu and finally landed in country about 2pm on the 16th.
I had read online that baggage claim at KTM can be quite an adventure. Immigration was a piece of cake and getting a Visa took about two minutes and $35 USD. Jared, aka J-Rod, and I made our way to baggage claim and my suitcase and bike came out rather quick. Unfortunately, J-Rod’s bike took about 40 minutes to come out. We could see in the back loading area that everything is done manually at KTM with regards to baggage. I can only guess that my Skyteam Priority baggage tags were the catalyst for my items to get loaded out quickly. To summarize, we made it out unscathed and found the H+I shuttle drivers who whisked us off into the madness that is driving in Kathmandu.
Our first location was the Park City Resort in the northern part of Kathmandu. It was a nice little oasis in the middle of mass chaos, boasting gardens with small Buddhist and Hindu shrines. This is where we built our bikes up to get ready for our first ride the following morning. The staging area was a courtyard with a gazebo at the center. I met my roommate, Mike Sloman, for the first time here. We would all soon learn his last name did not match his riding speed, he was very must a “fast man”. Everyone was surprised how quiet it was inside the resort and the room accommodations were pretty nice as well.
I met Mandil Pradhan for the first time here, the lead guide and who would soon be known as the pseudo Prime Minister of Nepal, for good reason. I also met Euan Wilson, the owner of H+I Adventures. Euan and I have some common connections out of Western North Carolina, which is unbelievable and really shows it is a small world. One of the best things about Euan is he is like the big brother everyone wishes they had. High fives after epic rides, keeps you out of trouble and has a commanding, yet calming voice with a thick Glasgow accent. We were broken up into groups, A group and B group, more affectionately known as Team Asshole and Team Bastard. I was an asshole.
November 17 was our first ride. One mistake I made was forgetting to change out my 34T chain ring to 30T before I left home. I nearly killed myself trying to climb 300m right out of the resort up to Shivapuri National Forest. Thankfully, our guide Mandil had a SRAM 28T for me to use the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, my lack of fitness was still apparent on the climbs. I wish I could say I enjoyed the first day, but it was pretty intense for me and my legs were totally shot. We rode back to the resort for a much needed rest and drink!
The next day involved a shuttle up the mountains and through a military compound to our starting point. The climbing was much easier with the 28T chain ring and it involved some pretty killer downhill activity through rain forest areas and the infamous heli-pad area.
There were gnarly sections of trail hill with pretty steep descents and chunky terrain. We blasted through sandy pine forest regions and jittery cobblestone roads which gave our suspensions a hellacious workout and great feedback for J-Rod. We finally spilled out into a flat urban area where shuttles picked us up for a ride to a rooftop cafe overlooking Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest Stupas in the world. After a great meal we walked around the stupa spinning the prayer wheels and visiting shrines onsite.
The final day in the Kathmandu valley was probably one of the most memorable rides of my life to date or in the future. We took a long shuttle up narrow mountain roads to the town of Nagarkot. The bike route took us through many villages right up to the doorstep of many homes. As we made our way through one particular village, we were greeted by three small Nepali children who shouted “Namaste” to our group as we pedaled past.
I don’t know why, but this particular interaction was very influential and emotional for our group. For me personally, it was recognizing the innocence of these children and their excitement in seeing outsiders on cool bikes come by their house, despite the deplorable conditions they lived in. The people of Nepal live hard lives for the most part. They struggle to find fuel for warmth and cooking on a daily basis and if they don’t carry out their daily chores it can quickly become a matter of survival. It is very dissimilar to what we experience in modern western culture where you have 15 to 30 days before they cut off your utilities if you don’t pay your bill. Our day ended in Bhaktapur, an ancient city with a lot of history and hit very hard by the earthquake. This was the Nepal foreigners see on TV and the images they have in their heads of what Nepal is “supposed” to look like. The ornate hand carved features of the shrines and buildings were incredible and literally works of art. There was noticeable devastation from the earthquake. Numerous buildings were literally held up by wood braces and you could see them leaning, and not in a good way. I’m all about preservation of historical buildings, but I’m also all about not getting crushed to death by building.
Following our epic final day in Kathmandu, we made our way to Pokhara via Yeti Airways for a spectacular night at the Temple Tree Resort. This was our first opportunity to have laundry done, because no one wants to run out of clean underwear and chamois. The Annapurna mountains towered over the city. Fishtail was the most notable for me, being known for its 100% mortality rate. No one has ever made it to the top and it’s not hard to see why when you look at it. The next day we flew out for the world’s most exciting flight to Jomsom in the Lower Mustang Region of the Annapurna Range. This is the deepest valley in the world and some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine. The flight was quite smooth and as we banked left for approach you could sense there was an epic adventure ahead. I found it amusing that I was literally sitting right behind the pilots with no doorway into the cockpit. One of the other riders, Al, and I were sticking our cameras up into the cockpit and taking pictures out the front. You would never see this in the USA and I totally loved it. This felt like freedom.
In Jomsom we changed into riding gear, got our bikes in order after they made a 20-hour drive on trucks from Kathmandu to Jomsom, navigating a hellacious road we would become very familiar with in the near future. The group also met action photographer Dan Milner for the first time. Yeti Cycles hired him to document part of the trip and it’s a good bet you have seen his work in Bike Magazine, Dirt Rag or Transworld Snowboarding. Great character with loads of great stories shooting legends like Hans Rey all over the world. We struck out to the north headed for the village of Phalyak. This was a very different landscape from what we saw in the Kathmandu valley. I was reminded of scenes from the movie Martian. Alien, fine dust, arid, rocky and desolate. We slowly ascended in elevation from 9,000ft in Jomsom to just over 10,000 feet in Phalyak. One of the most exciting features of the trip was crossing a long suspension bridge, our first of many, over the Kali Ganadaki River to reach the village of Pangling. Personally, I thought the bridge was quite fun and like a high risk game of Operation given my wide handlebars. I learned afterwards that some folks were not fond of the bridge crossings. The bridge was maybe a meter wide, if that, and the wind was a factor. I was really struggling with the altitude at this point. In typical fashion for me, I was lagging behind the main group on the climbs. I was thinking, where the hell are the downhills?!
To say the wind from Pangling to Phalyak was strong would be a damn understatement. I distinctly recall trying to make my way to a small building outside the walls of Phalyak to take a break and be shielded from the beat down. Unfortunately, it felt like I was caught in a wind tunnel once I stopped to seek refuge so I said screw it and just kept pedaling. In that moment, I looked around and thought to myself this is what adventure is supposed to be like. It’s not supposed to be easy, not everyone can do it or wants to do it. However, it’s not like I was blazing a new path or going where no one else had gone before, but I was somewhere no one else I knew I had been. None of us had any idea what awaited us in Phalyak and I’m proud to say it is something very few outsiders get to experience. Phalyak is off the trekking path for hikers so it sees little to no outsiders. Luckily, the Prime Minister (Mandil) has a good relationship with some of the villagers and was able to secure rooftop tea time for us with spectacular views of the Annapurna range. Team Asshole took one rooftop and Team Bastard took one next door. As we sat on there looking up at the 20,000ft plus peaks, I had an overwhelming sense of peace and freedom. There were no jet contrails, no vehicle noise, no sirens, just the howl of the relentless wind and the bluest sky you have ever seen.
We left Phalyak after our tea time and headed for Kagbeni, another village up the river near the border of the Upper and Lower Mustang region. A tea house in Kagbeni would be our base camp for the next couple of days as we explored higher elevations. The ride wasn’t too bad but there was a hike a bike section due to a rock slide that covered the trail. The main gathering room at the tea house felt like something out of a movie. It had large exposed beams giving the room character and a lot of windows that presented a spectacular view of the mountain range. This was our first location where hot shower water was a lucrative commodity and there was no heat or air. Honestly, it wasn’t bad at all with the large duvet they had on the bed and my fancy sleeping bag liner. I know some folks who had to take an ice cold shower would disagree that it wasn’t that bad, sorry Chris Gibbs! There was a bit of anxiety in the air the first night in Kagbeni because of the ride we would face the next day. It would be a 1,000m climb to Muktinath, going from ~3,000m to ~4,000m. This would be the biggest single climb I’ve ever done on a mountain bike, by far. My legs had felt pretty good at the higher elevations, but my lungs were struggling to gather oxygen so I knew I would be one of the last to finish.
The death march climb followed the main road from Kagbeni to Muktinath, but it’s important to understand a road in the Lower Mustang region is more like a really wide gnarly singletrack in many sections. There is also a lot of loose rock, unstable and similar to riding a loose gravel road. It’s very difficult to maintain any rolling momentum as the loose rock sucks the life out of your wheels and forward motion. I pushed the pedals for the first half with agony, feeling like I was suffocating. I took many breaks to catch my breath and struggled mightily to find a good pedal rhythm. The entire team stopped at plateau for a break and photo session. I called out “Where is Mandil?” J-Rod, who was standing nearby, pointed to Mandil and got his attention. When he looked at me I gave him the finger and said “Damn you for picking this trail!” At the half way point we stopped in small village, I think it was Jharkot, to have some tea and buy some locally made items. A young woman made scarves, hats and gloves by hand on the side of the road with an archaic wooden weaving machine. The quality is incredible and it was good for a group of foreigners to contribute directly to a small vendor in a remote village.
The group departed again, headed for our final destination of Muktinath. I told Chris, one of the H+I guides at the rear of the pack, I hope I don’t see you again today. The air was getting thinner as we climbed higher and the scenery became even more surreal. I was beginning to find a pedal rhythm and really focused on active meditation to keep my mind clear. I still had to take occasional breaks to catch my breath and to snap photos, but I kept a steady pace and never let the back of the pack catch me. As I made my way up to the tea house that overlooked the valley we just climbed, I could see my faster trail mates sitting on a large patio relaxing. The biggest climb of my life, and the trip, was in the books.
We had lunch at the Muktinath tea house, but I think we were all anticipating the downhill run that awaited us afterwards. It was finally go time on a 12km downhill back to Kagbeni, using part of the route we used to climb up. I had been at the back nearly the entire time so now it was time to move up the ladder towards the front. The Prime Minister was leading Team Asshole on this descent followed by Big Sexy out of Loveland, CO and some guy who was a bit timid on the downward facing angles. I followed in third and we started out blasting through the lower section on Muktinath and it felt spectacular. It all ended very soon when we hit a stumpy little climb in town and I had to stop and let everyone pass me. What the hell man!?
The group reconvened at the top of the climb, thank Lord Buddha, and we wove our way through another section of town through a tunnel under a building and then started descending on the road we climbed up, blasting past the scarf dealer we had visiting earlier, giving them a couple of rings on my trusty bike bell. We fell into a pack as we pedaled in our lowest gears for the next drop in, which would be a precarious 15 footer that had very loose gravel and sand. We only had one incident there and it was only a slight flesh wound. The section that followed was high speed and lead out onto the plateau we stopped at earlier. The right side drop off was angled, but you would roll for a long time if you ate it. I concentrated on the trail ahead and pinned it. I think my max speed was 33 mph and I felt like a golden eagle hauling ass through the Himalayan atmosphere. We popped up on the plateau and kept our momentum going until we stopped for a group count. I did a big long power slide and gave a big loud Hak hell yeah, which amused the Prime Minister! It’s a WNC thing.
The next half would involve the steepest trail side drop off sections I have ever ridden. I’ve seen videos of some of the trail side drop offs in Moab, and this was right up there with them. I always contemplated if I would be able to ride them, but once you hit it and you know you have good bike control with laser focus it becomes a non-issue. My wife however, freaked out when I showed here some video samples and with good reason. There is no room for error on these sections. If you are going to fall you better fall left. I believe I was running third in line on this section, until we got to a very chunky section of climbing. Big Sexy slipped off a pedal which brought me to a halt in the chunder, and then I had to let the strong climbers pass by, again. There is a leap frog pattern here that would repeat itself for the rest of the trip.
As we made our way to the end of the downhill, I had my one and only wipe out on the trip. It really wasn’t that bad and my GoPro housing got the worst of it. I navigated a very steep technical section and then washed out the first wheel in some loose rock once it started to level out. We made our way back to Kagbeni on a well-traveled road and it was really a race to get back for a hot shower! The evening was filled with laughs and stories of the day’s adventures, but everyone was already stoked about the next day’s ride.
Nov 23 brought on an epic downhill ride that started with us taking shuttles up the road we had climbed the previous day to Muktinath. From here we would ride out headed for the Lupra Pass, another 400m (~1300ft) higher in elevation. One section of this climb was incredibly grueling with gradients so steep I think everyone in the group had to hike a bike it. The guides and maybe a handful of folks might have ridden the entire section, but I’m going with not to make myself feel better! This was the most remote part of the entire trip, I think. We were surrounded by peaks reaching an additional 10,000-12,000 foot higher than we were at the Lupra Pass. The lack of air was suffocating; to the point I think I actually tried to take bites of air to increase my intake. We finally made it to the pass where Dan Milner took individual shots of everyone with an incredible backdrop of mountains. I had obtained some prayer flags the day before in Muktinath and there was a spot at the pass to place one around some previously placed flags. Chris Gibbs helped me place the flag with the others. Each flag has a prayer written on it and the purpose is to place it in a high spot where the wind can carry the prayers to others. Mission complete.
After our little group gathering in the pass we began an epic 4,800ft descent back to Jomsom. Our first section involved hauling ass across the top of the pass with a high penalty right side drop off. We reconvened on a small plateau before descending on some precarious singletrack that included tight switchbacks with loose rock and dirt. The back brake became the life line to help navigate the turns here, although I must confess there was a lot of switchback walking by yours truly and others. We eventually made our way down to a riverbed, but first had to get off the bikes to navigate a very technical switchback and ledge that had a dangerous drop off, probably 50m down to the riverbed. It was a mandatory walk due to the remoteness and danger involved. If you ate here not even global rescue would be of any use. We crossed another suspension bridge and dropped into the riverbed near the village of Lupra.
The riverbed was like nothing I had ever seen or ridden before. Silt had washed down from the mountains over many years which covered the riverbed and rocks like a blanket of concrete. The best I can describe it is a lunar landscape. Massive walls of rock towered over us on each side as we made our way to the road leading back to Jomsom. It would prove to be another epic test of suspension components and bike handling skills. It was so perilous that one of our downhill experts (self-proclaimed) was endo’d by a massive two-inch lip on a stream crossing, but fortunately they were not injured. I told myself at some point I would ride up front with the pack leaders and this was the section I would do it. It wasn’t a steep descent, mostly flat with large rocks to navigate and the small loose rocks on the “road”. I started out in fifth, but soon passed our downhill expert Elmo after he took the wrong line and shot off into a rock mine field. I set my sights on Perth man in fourth position. I dropped gears and started pedaling like a pack of wolves were chasing me, which kinda was the case with the crew of Big Sexy, Al, Trevor, Darwin Dave and other behind me. I don’t know how close they were and didn’t care because all I wanted was to get on the back tire of Mike “fastman” Sloman and our guide Rai. I finally closed the gap when they stopped for a deep stream crossing. Soon after we spun back up to speed on the other side Perth Man took a line off to the left and I kicked in the body nitrous. I shot up to Mike and Rai and rode their line the rest of the way to our stopping point. Mike commented on how I was flying through the riverbed and startled him a bit when I came right up on his back tire, and even Big Sexy who was riding behind said I did awesome through the section. Anyone who really knows me is well aware that recognition is not in my hierarchy of needs, but it was a confidence builder get compliments from stronger riders.
We formed a peloton and started pedaling towards Jomsom on the same road that we used to leave the town a few days prior. We were back in the Kali Ganadaki riverbed and the wind was getting pretty strong. After a rest and food in Jomsom we headed south for Marpha, the apple capital of Nepal. The wind became so intense we had to walk a suspension bridge over the river in Syang. Eventually, we reached Marpha after the sun had dropped below the mountain ridges and it seemed much later than it really was. Pearly white teeth showed through dirt covered faces with the echos of DH giggles sounding through the valley. Everyone raced for the showers, again, to have hot water. After getting cleaned up I decided to take a solo walk to get some photographs of locals and the surrounding area. I had no clue where I was going, but it wasn’t a huge town to get lost in. When a town is sandwiched between steep mountain sides and a river you have to be very navigation challenged to get lost. I headed south and spotted a Buddhist shrine on top of hill and assumed there would be a spectacular view of Marpha and the river. It was indeed a dramatic overlook with the Marpha Buddhist Temple perched on a mountainside across town. We had a candlelight dinner that evening due to rolling blackouts, and it was the first time I had Nepali Rum. It was actually pretty good and others agreed, although I was stingy with the bottle since they all had beer and this was my mostly gluten free vice.
The next morning, we headed out on the longest ride of the trip, 49km from Marpha to Tatopani. Thank God it was mostly downhill. For me, the best thing about this section was the numerous landscapes we rode through. It started in the arid high country (about 9k ft elevation) transitioned to a pine forest and ended in a pseudo jungle region (around 4k ft elevation). Our first stop out of Marpha was in a very small Tibetan camp called Chhairo Gompa. Our lead guide Mandil gave us a history lesson on this camp. When the Tibetan people were fleeing Tibet to escape Communist persecution, they filtered down into the Mustang Region. The Nepali government didn’t want to stir up trouble with China so they went looking for the refugees to return them back to Tibet. The town people and mayor of Marpha hid the Tibetans who arrived in their town across the river in Chhairo. The camp is still there and you can see the ruins of the original structures.
The landscape was rocky through pine thickets and brush and we crossed two suspension bridges, ending back up on Beni Jomsom road and headed to Larjung. This is where we had a short punchy climb up to Naurikot and it seemed to last FOREVER! Everyone rallied around what I think was a shrine where some local construction workers stopped to watch us. There was a very steep downhill through some pine forest which dumped us out into fields which were separated from each other by stone walls. We had to make our way between two very narrow walls which were covered with thorn bushes. Everyone huddled up for a group picture with the dazzling mountain of Dhaulagiri is the background. It is the seventh highest mountain in the world at 8,192m and is 34km from Annapurna I, forming Kaligandaki Gorge which is said to be the deepest in the world. It was at this point that Euan informed me that we were standing in the middle of a marijuana field, which they grow legally there. Sorry, I don’t smoke hippie lettuce so I can’t tell you the quality. We rode into another pine forest downhill section with some killer switchbacks. We thought we had lost Berne Broudy at this point, but didn’t know if she had wrecked or gone all the way to the bottom. Berne was on assignment with the group to write an article for Bike Magazine. You can read her articles on the trip here, they are on point and provide a professional summary of the story compared to the grammatical pukefest I’m doing here. Berne had ridden all the way to the bottom and was waiting on the men.
We had a short ride to Kalopani, where we had the most picturesque lunch you could possibly hope for as an outdoor lover. We were still in the heart of the Kaligandaki Gorge and Annapurna I was so magnificent it looked as if it was painted in the sky. The sky was brilliant blue and the air temp was very cool and crisp. The sun blazed so intense it kept you warm enough to keep from feeling cold. After a great lunch several of us laid down on the ground next to our bikes and took a nap, while some folks went out back behind the hotel and shot bow and arrow with the locals. Once sleepy time was over we rode a trail through some fields with large rock outcroppings and finally arrived at “The Road”. This is where shit was ‘bout to get real. The guides briefed us before we started and stressed we needed to ride at 75% because of the condition of the road and the traffic. This is the main road into the Mustang region, so it is traveled by tractors, buses and SUVs. This section is where most of the mechanical failures occur, like derailleur strikes, flat tires and damaged wheels. Personally, this is what I had been waiting for and so had my Fox X2 shock and 36 fork. The point where we started on the road was just under 8k feet in elevation and we were headed for Tatopani. One of the guide’s radio flew off his body just as we started so there was a mass diversion to keep from running it over. There would be more of this type of diversion action to come, especially for me personally.
Strava indicates my max speed on the road was 33.4 mph. To say it was intense would not do it justice because this road was gnarlier than a lot of trails I have ridden back in the US. Long rock gardens spanning up to 10m at a time, where the locals armored the road, gave our suspensions a hearty workout. There were no guardrails here and some of the turns gave way to drop-offs hundreds of meters down. The dust was suffocating, especially with 30+ riders blasting their way down at high speed. I started to play my own little game to push myself a little harder. I would focus in on the riders ahead of me and see how many I could catch and pass on the downhill sections, singing “Move Bitch, Get out the Way” by Ludicrous. It became a game of leap frog because I passed a lot of people going down and then they all passed me climbing back up, probably singing “Move Bitch, Get out the Way”.
Some of the best parts of this section were the turns because it reminded me of road racing motorcycles, except much rougher, and much like motorcycle racing the turns are where you can make up ground and/or pass. One particular turn threw me a curve ball, or rock as it were. I had just past one of my mates from the UK, Darren, when I hit this right hander pretty fast. Right at the apex of the turn there was a big pothole surrounded by some rather large baby head rocks. Honestly, I think it was my road moto racing experience that got me through it because I didn’t fixate on the hole or rocks and just looked through the turn loosening my grip so the bike could do what it needed to shred it. I was just along for the ride at that point and had a big shit eatin’ grin on my face afterwards.
We rolled into Tatopani and there was an excitement, albeit exhausted, and elation among the group that I have never experienced before. Everyone was covered in dust except where their sunglasses and mask covered their faces. We gathered in the courtyard of the inn, grabbed a drink and reminisced about what we had just done while our bags were delivered to our rooms. There was a hot spring nearby and everyone headed there after getting cleaned up. It reminded me of the natural hot springs in Japan, except everyone was clothed here! There were several other groups of foreigners there and a large number of locals. It felt great to relax in the hot water, even though the mountain air was pretty chilly after getting out. I hung out in the Yeti section for a while, but moved to a different pool with Rai and some of the other guides. I decided to head back before the rest of the group and made my way back up a treacherous stone step path with two local women and a small child. Wearing flip flops made the climb a bit more challenging but it was all good. They used their cell phones to light the path for all of us, which made me chuckle at how the cell phone has changed the world, even remote regions of the Himalayas. Another rolling blackout hit the town and we had dinner by candlelight, again. It was actually quite nice and relaxing, but I was ready for bed after this day and said goodnight to Tatopani.
The last day of riding arrived the next morning and the group pedaled out of town headed for Beni. My GoPro camera batteries were drained and my memory cards were full so I didn’t get any trail footage from the last day of riding. The environment became more lush with vegetation as we descended back down to sub 4k ft levels. The road was a mix of undulating hills with more descents, although not as steep or gnarly as what the trail gods blessed us with the previous day. Beni is a lot more hustle and bustle than we had experienced the past few days. We made our way to another inn where we prepped our bikes for transportation back to Kathmandu. The next phase of the trip involved a three-hour bus ride back to Pokhara. The road was a mix of asphalt and dirt with the navigation of some mountain passes on sometimes very narrow road, again with no guard rails, and I wasn’t in control of the bus so my pucker factor increased a few levels.
It was a nice relaxing ride, for the most part, and some of the group bought beers in Beni to drink on the ride. About half way to Pokhara we stopped at a small market to reload beers and use the bathroom. For some reason, a drunken Nepali man took issue with a certain individual of importance on our trip. Everyone on the trip knows who I’m talking about. This drunk picked up a rock and make gestures as if he was going to throw the rock at them. We loaded up the truck and struck out before we had an international incident on our hands, laughing about it once we left the parking lot.
I took a lot of pictures and videos out the window of the van. The driver let me ride shotgun so I had an unobstructed view and could hang out the window as needed. I noticed more of the same as we drove through the countryside, extreme poverty. The work involved just to survive in Nepal for most people is something many westerners would die from. I saw people pedaling bikes up the mountain roads with what looked like two 50lb bags of rice strapped to the bike. Community wells were pervasive and it seemed there were always people walking to and from them with buckets. There were children playing in squalor with little to no clothes on. The structures where people ran their business or houses where they lived were built of scrap wood, tin roofs and stones set on top to hold it down. It may sound horrid or that I was disturbed by this, but there is a simplistic rawness about Nepal that can romanticize someone. Seeing how hard the people had to work to provide the basics reminded me of the hard life my Grandparents endured along with my Mom, aunts and uncle. Maybe this part of the spiritual draw Nepal has, it provides clarity around your insignificance when you look up the peaks touching the sky and it can provide humbling reminders about yourself that may have been forgotten. Thank you Nepal.
Enough spirit talk. We arrived at our favorite resort, the Temple Tree after riding in the bus for three hours. The race was on to schedule a massage and get laundry to the cleaners! I still had gifts to purchase so my afternoon was going to be packed. Let me just say the massages in Nepal are like nothing you will get in the US. Forget all that happy ending bullshit and get your mind out of the gutter. They do give you this black mesh underwear to put on and I think it is sorta see through, but honestly I didn’t give a shit. I signed up for the trekker massage for two hours for a whopping total price of $60 USD. Hell, you can’t get a shitty 50-minute massage in the US for that. I’m not gonna lie, some of the work they do on your body is not comfortable. My masseuse literally stood on my back, walked on it and then pulled me up by my arms backwards. I thought she was going to snap my spine in half a couple of times, but in the end I never felt so relaxed and tension free.
After a great dinner at the Temple Tree most of the group walked to a club called the Busy Bee in downtown Pokhara. The Prime Minister, Mandil, worked his magic again in this packed joint and had a group of women move to a different table so we could all sit together. He bought them a round of drinks to sooth the emotions and keep the karma on our side. We got a hookah to share, although I think I puffed most of it. Did not feel good the next day! We had a great time and even got into a mosh pit by the stage where the live band was playing popular hard rock songs. I lost my flip flops jumping around to Everlong by Foo Fighters, but luckily Chris Gibbs grabbed them for me before they got lost in the madness. One of our group legends, Big Sexy, did some pole dancing up on a balcony for the crowd and Mandil had to coax the security team out of throwing us all out. We stumbled back to the Temple Tree and several of us actually went swimming in the pool at 1am. It was pretty chilly but felt good and topped off an epic day.
0600 came pretty damn early and all I wanted to do was puke, but I couldn’t. We had to head out for the airport to make our flight back to Kathmandu. Everyone looked a bit jaded from the night before and we spent more time in the airport than expected due to heavy fog in Pokhara. The flight back to KTM was pretty uneventful, except we could see Mt. Everest in the distance, although I was on the wrong side of the plane for this viewing. Once we landed there was a very long delay at the airport while we waited on our shuttle trucks. They took us to Hotel Tibet, which would be our final destination in country. The guides washed everyone’s bike and we broke them down to pack up for the bittersweet journey home. That afternoon, Mandil took Chris Conroy (President of Yeti Cycles), J-Rod, Darren and myself out for a shopping trip. We hit the Sherpa store to buy some Nepali made outdoor clothing. I actually bought a pair of Keen boots there because my Five Tens were still soaking wet from the riding and I didn’t have another pair of closed toe shoes with me. I did buy a woven and fleece winter hat, which my wife hates, but it is probably the warmest head cover I’ve ever owned.
The next place we hit sold what I really wanted to get in country, an authentic Gurkha knife. Mandil of course knew the owner and knife maker. Conroy, Darren and I bought knives and when I say this is a knife, it’s a damn knife. The blade is tempered steel and 5/16 of an inch thick with a length of 10 inches. They had a picture in the store of a sacrificial knife cleanly beheading an ox in one strike. It was both disturbing and impressive at the same time. J-rod, being the sales director for Fox Racing Shocks N. America, wanted to visit the authorized Fox dealer and service center in Kathmandu. We actually visited several bike shops and it was really cool to see the bike culture there. We got to meet the Nepal cross country mountain bike champion, and I didn’t mention earlier that Rajesh Magar, the current Nepal DH champion, was one of our guides on the trip.
On our final night we all gathered at the aptly named Yeti Bar on the roof of the Hotel Tibet. We had our last evening briefing, led by the Prime Minister. Chris Conroy, Euan and Mandil had a surprise for us though. We filed into a conference room where we were presented handmade Tibetan Art paintings, made by the students of Sonamgyal Iama. Before they handed out the paintings, Chris Conroy addressed the group and thanked us all for being there. He got choked up, which got me choked up. I deal with a lot of executives in some of the largest organizations in the world and I’ve been in a lot of business environments. I’ve never observed such a sense of gratitude for their clients like I did in that moment. Hell, I would even go further and say it’s more like a partnership or friendship between Conroy and The Tribe. This truly was an epic moment. Our final dinner in Nepal was at a very posh place called Mulchowk. The food was incredible and the weather was perfect for us to sit under tents in a big courtyard. I was so wiped out from the previous night I left early with my Atlanta co-rider Bobby Woolridge and Chris Gibbs before I fell asleep with my head on the table. I did get one my favorite pictures from the trip that, even though it is horribly out of focus.
The reality was beginning to set in at this point that the trip was almost over. We all missed our family and friends, but I think if we didn’t have any obligations back home we would have gone rogue and stayed longer. The next day arrived and the group began to dwindle as their flight times arrived. I checked in for my flight and dropped off my bags, suddenly realizing I didn’t have my phone. J-Rod was checking in with me on the same flight and emailed the Prime Minister who discovered it had fallen out of my pocket in the shuttle van. Luckily, Bobby had not left yet and brought the phone back with him to the US. I had one last group gathering in the airline lounge in Kathmandu with Conroy, J-Rod, Mike Fastman Sloman, Darren and Mark. After a round of drinks, J-Rod and I boarded our flight for Seoul with a stopover in Hanoi to refuel. Once we arrived at Incheon, J-Rod and I checked into the Transit Hotel in the airport and parted ways.
I was solo once again and because of our required fuel stop in Hanoi I only had about five hours until my A380 left for Atlanta. My room overlooked the Dunkin Donuts in the airport and I think it was the only thing open at 0300 hours. I decided I should stay awake in order to get back on schedule for home, so I wandered down to DD and ordered a coffee. I sat at an empty gate nearby and looked over pictures I had taken on the trip. Strangely, the adventure already seemed like a distant memory. I’m not sure if it’s father time that has that effect on my 40-year-old noodle, or maybe it’s the uber busy lifestyles we live that creates a black hole warping time and our sense of place. I wondered back up to my hotel room where I laid in bed watching Terminator Salvation for the tenth time, wondering where my other Nepal Tribe mates were. I also thought about the Lower Mustang trails and who was riding them. Were they appreciating it in the moment like we did? Did they take a moment to notice how insignificant they were? Was their adventure turning out as good as ours? Hell no!
I arrived in Atlanta on a Saturday morning, about 9am EST. As I sat on a bench outside the pickup area of the international terminal waiting on my wife, I couldn’t help but smile thinking back on what I had just experienced. And to think I had almost backed out of it because of some political squabbling. My concluding statement is, go visit Nepal. The people there depend on tourism and you will be overwhelmed with the people, the culture and the landscape. Visit www.visitnepal.com for more details. If you are interested in a mountain bike trip, consider H+I Adventures.