I was a bike addicted fifteen year-old when I first saw pictures of Nepal. There, amongst an old stack of National Geographic magazines on my grandparent’s coffee table was a story about Mt Everest. I didn’t care much for the words, but in some of the pictures, people were hiking over little pieces of alpine singletrack. These particular trails happen to be in the biggest mountains on earth and that made it even more exciting. I am a mountain biker, after all, and it was only logical to my teenage brain that I must go there and ride. It was an epiphany for me. It was then that I realized there had to be trails all over the world. In countries and mountain ranges that I never heard of. They might be made for walking and they might be really hard or even unridable, but they are out there. This excited me to no end, and it has led to a life long obsession.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m lying on a wooden bunk in a pitch black and drafty stone room, high in the Annapurna Himal. I have been on the go for two weeks and the biggest day of my trip, and possibly the biggest day of my life, is only hours away. I can’t sleep and, for some reason, I’m crying. Overwhelmed with emotion, sobbing and talking to myself like a goddamn lunatic.
“I did it. I fucking did it. I’m here. I’m really here!”
I got up and went outside to walk it off. Everything was blue. Blue in that way things get at night when you are up that high. It’s going to be a cold start to the day. My eyes are heavy and they stung from the cold but sleep wasn’t an option. I might as well pack up my things and get this day started. I promised the caretaker of the lodge that I would have breakfast before I left at 6am. So I waited out the final two hours, sitting on an old wicker stool, alone with my emotions. Staring at the silhouettes of the mountains around me, I still couldn’t believe that I was actually going higher into the hills. Significantly higher. Four thousand feet higher. It’s already hard to breathe here, what is it going to feel like up there? What if I get altitude sick, what if it is too cold?
Breakfast took a little longer than I would have liked but, despite the language barrier, I think we both enjoyed the company. With my belly full of bread and tea, I rode on up the hill. Six hours of wheezing and pushing my bike later, I found myself staring at a beautiful turquoise lake. For months, I had been dreaming of what this lake would look like. It was like nothing I had ever seen and it didn’t even look real. It was like staring at a painting. A giant 3D mural at the end of the trail. But wait, something isn’t right. I looked at my map and looked out at the lake and then checked the map again.
No, this can’t be right. It was simple plan to go south of the lake and then over another pass to cross the range. Where I’ve heard rumors of an hour long downhill that would take me into a large village. An oasis for the weary traveler filled with cold beer and hot showers. Instead, there is an angry looking glacier directly in my way. To the north, a fair amount of snow and another pass to climb. I sat down on a small boulder and assessed my situation. I’m not going anywhere near that glacier and I just don’t have enough food or warm gear to spend a night above 16,000 feet in the snow. Summit fever is strong in a man alone in the high mountains. Two hours passed before I finally made the decision to turn around and go back the way I came. To this day, it is the hardest decision I have ever made.
The descent was steep and exposed and seemed to be over before it started. The squealing of brakes and chattering of my tires echoed through the entire valley. A downhill this fast and exciting should feel like a victory lap, but it only felt like defeat. I arrived back at the base camp building in the late afternoon, much to the surprise of the caretaker. I dropped my bike in a small grassy patch and sat with my back against the sunny side of the building. Completely shattered from the effort and the defeat. I took a deep breath and made myself take in the scenery. The valley was now filled with a large herd of Yak. The bells around their necks dinging as they slowly moved over the scree fields in search of vegetation. It is a mesmerizing sound when combined with the afternoon wind. To my left, about twenty feet away, two herdsmen were setting up their camp. Through a combination of charades, broken English and Nepali I told them what I had just been through. They shook their head in disbelief and offered me a cup of tea.
That evening, a few of us gathered for dinner. The caretaker, the Yak herders, a couple Nepali guides and myself. The guides spoke good English and helped translate the conversation for me. We huddled around a small wood stove in the kitchen and downed countless glasses of local moonshine, Raksi. One of the Yak herders asked me what it was like to ride a bicycle through the Himalayas. I said that is has been a dream come true for me. My favorite part has been when the village children run after me yelling “Cycle Man! Cycle Man!” as I ride by. We all laughed, clanked glasses, and toasted to Nepal. The caretaker, a small and quiet man, said something in Nepali and everyone laughed. I asked if they could translate it for me. But he kept talking and everyone kept laughing. Finally, one of the guides brought me up to speed.
“He said that you should not be called Cycle Man. Your name will be Yak Man. He has been watching you, and you move through the mountains like an old yak. You are big and strong and always keep moving. Even if it is not so fast”
There was a long pause and everyone smiled
“And , like a Yak, you are maybe not very smart”