First Himalayan Mt Everest Bike Rally, 1993
In the early morning, after a breakfast of soupy oatmeal, toast, jam, scrambled eggs and Darjeeling tea, our group was hauled by bus across the valley to Manebhanjang where a Nepalese hospitality committee greeted us in traditional garb.
They placed white silk scarves around our necks as a greeting and good-luck gesture. Three men sang and danced to the beat of their hand drums. Men and women with weathered faces served fried sweetbreads and hot tea with milk and sugar. About three hundred spectators were present to see us off. Here, at 7,045 feet, we didn’t have so much as a vague idea of what the next 5,000 feet and 23 miles up had in store for us.
Adrenaline and Terror
Each new ride fills me with a terror, one notch above a simple adrenaline rush. And this feeling is not quelled until maybe a mile into the ride when I know that the trail is within my ability. By then I’m committed to finishing it.
Looking up from the grounds of the Welcome Ceremony to the switchback trail that would take us 5,000 feet and 23 miles up to Sandakphu, my heart stuttered. It looked incredibly steep!
The foot racers gathered, a gun cracked, and they were off.
We mountain bikers then lined up. The soft life of high tea and pampering fell away as soon as the starting gun sounded and seven of us crawled up the trail, followed by the “video jeep” containing our equipment.
Marco planned to ride in the Jeep as far as it could go and capture Mark and me on video during this climb. Then he and the Jeep would take another route to meet us where the ride would end (at Sandakphu).
It was late October, the dry season, which happens to be the most photogenic, with the kind of blue skies many photographers use a camera filter to simulate. The sun rose, spreading warmth as we rode. The track was tough, a combination of hand-placed cobblestones and steep, hard-packed, rutted-dirt. As I fell into last position I knew this was the toughest road I had ever been on.
Mark, Marco and I stopped to get video shots of us riding up the switchbacks then up on a ridge with the Himalayas in the background. Professional mountain bike racers, Julia Ingersoll and John Weissenrider agreed to be in a few of the shots, then, when their patience stretched past its limit, they raced on ahead.
New Plateaus of Pain
I had been weary in the beginning. Now I was reaching a new plateau of pain. But I knew I had to continue. We stopped at a few more locations for footage, then as the day wore on, and the ascent continued, we all began to wonder just how many miles we had covered. And even more alarming, how many did we have left to go?! It was impossible to tell, since nobody had a bike computer, and we had fallen hours behind both the main group and all the guides.
The higher we went, the colder it got. A frigid wind swept across my sweaty Lycra. I kept wondering how much longer to Sandakphu, the “top,” mentally calculating distance elapsed. Just when I had reached a level of exhaustion that rivaled all others (ever), we reached a town.
“The” town? No. Only a halfway point.
We leaned our bikes against a wall and bent to enter a building where we sat down on pillows and drank Darjeeling tea, with cream and sugar, and ate hot chapattis – small hand-pressed flour and herb “tortillas” fresh out of the oven. I thought of this as a holy place, where I could replenish the cells on my batteries.
Too soon it was time to go. I put on my tights and jacket. It was really getting cold now. At this point our jeep had to go back down the mountain with Marco and the equipment, to reach Sandakphu by another, more passable road.
I felt sorry for Marco having to ride in the jeep back on the same trail that had just brutalized us. He would not be rewarded for the dues he’d paid in climbing that day. A mountain biker lives for the downhill run!
At this point, Mark and I didn’t realize that we were only about a quarter of the way up. From here on, clouds hemmed in the sun, dispensing a fine mist. The cobblestones fell away leaving crusty, thinly rutted jeep track. The fauna changed, too, from stark yellow brush to forest-clad slopes. We climbed all afternoon with infrequent downhill relief. We passed a few small villages with their colorfully clothed populace, but mostly we were “way out there,” far from humanity.
It was the best of rides; it was the worst of rides. But this was natural, since we were in India, a land known for its extremes. Before arriving I could only piece together tales of India like a patchwork quilt with the scent of patchouli. Now as I struggled uphill on my mountain bike, surrounded by the uncommon beauty of Himalayan alpine terrain, awake and alive, I smiled to think that I was one of the first ever to mountain-bike this infinite, yak- and rain-rutted trail.
We pressed on, over a series of deep, crusty yak ruts. The ground was the color of the bikes, a muted gold. It turned steep. At the bottom of the yak ruts lay a desert-like singletrack across a field, then came a small town where I rode past a woman brushing the hair of a girl. As soon as they saw me, their eyes widened when they spotted me, a woman on a bicycle.
Further down the trail, Mark and I came upon a 4X jeep that had been picking up the runner-stragglers. We strapped my bike to the hood, and stuck me inside the back on the spare tire, sandwiched between exhausted striders. My mountain bike and I took up every inch of remaining available space. There was no room for Mark.
“Well, it can’t be much further from here,” I thought, as a veteran of many 20- and 30-mile rides. But I was wrong. The jeep sucked up many more miles that I would have had to endure like a bed of nails, walking on coals, getting bitten by a Cobra. Poor Mark. I clung to the framing of the jeep as it clattered and skated up the treacherous track.
When the jeep came to a rest, the dust settling around us, there was a pause, as though for a sigh, then people began to clamber out.
Here we were in Sandakphu, a Himalayan base camp with a community dining room, kitchen and bunkhouse.
I knew that since I was here before Mark and Marco, it would be my job to find us some good bunks. I located three together, the only ones left, next to a broken window and six feet away from the putrid toilet. The boys weren’t going to like this. Who would? There would no doubt be people heading to the bathroom like a parade of ghosts all night. Also, Mark had some altitude problems in Crested Butte the prior year, which gave cause for concern here at 12,000 feet. Plus there was an underlying scent of kerosene. Maybe there were some cans outside the window with a breeze blowing the fumes in.
Curry, Rice and Dahl
Mark arrived sooner than I thought he would, on another 4X jeep that had made a run for the last of the stragglers. And Marco made it to the base camp, too, just in time for a lantern-lit dinner of curry, rice and dahl.
Just as I’d thought, neither Marco nor Mark were crazy about the sleeping arrangements. But they knew that the pickings had been slim since I’d been among the last arrival to select cots. Both of them caught the whiff of kerosene too but none of us could track down the source.
Later, the cherry-colored sunset at the “top of the world” gave way to a full moon, which was the last thing we saw before we collapsed into our allotted cots.
Poor Mark was awakened every time someone crept over the creaky floorboards past our cots to get to the bathroom. A wind seemed to whip through the broken window, which was just as well, since the kerosene stench seemed stronger than ever. At about three in the morning, Mark woke up having difficulty breathing.
“I’m going to try and sleep again. Will you keep an eye on me and make sure I’m breathing?” he asked.
“I’ll try,” I said, having been privy to every occasion something had awakened him.
It was a relief when the sky turned light and it was time to greet the new day.
“These freakin’ kerosene cans were under the bed the whole time,” he said, dragging them out.
They looked like a pair of Molotov cocktails – two cans whose spouts were stuffed with rags.
Unbelievable? Yup, but as we would soon continue to discover on our Indian journey, entirely typical.
To discover some of the sights and sounds of India back in 1993, check out my music video below.