We’d started the Annapurna circuit by bike three days previously, in crusty Besisahar. After a lost bike had set us back a few hours at the airport, we’d managed to climb 5.1 vertical kilometers over the course of 93 kms, and found ourselves approaching Manang - gateway to the high Annapurna passes, or “La’s” as they’re locally known. But as it turned out, that was the easy part.
Our party was 3 strong. Cuan Cronje, a tough-nut, ex rock-climber, adventurer and Nepal veteran. Dean Burscough, the wiry accountant with a deceptively youthful energy and a Cape Epic under his belt, and myself, a documentary cinematographer and director on leave. We were fit, we’d done our altitude training and the ride was going well. We were unsupported - no porters and no guides. We entered the Manang valley at 3600m above sea level - feeling strong and blasting the single-track reward of pushing up to Ngawal village. The track was firm and dusty, the weather was perfect October - the odd tree starting to turn and the air crisp at this altitude. The scenery was totally breath-taking. The only snow was on the high peaks above 6000m - Annapurna III and IV loomed above us.
Just before Ngawal we took a tea stop at Upper Pisang, prayer flags ripping in the wind, with plenty of tourists milling around the Gompa. Among them, only revealed in photos, was Matt Adams, a big Canadian on a lone mission on the trail. Our paths would cross in a big way over the next few days. We had no idea how this awesome trip would change.
Unlike the masses that plod up towards Thorung La pass at 5400m, we decided, in true vigilante fashion, to tackle a lesser used pass - Mesokanto La, which lies a few miles north west, around Tilicho lake, one of the highest tarns on earth. It was looking good for us, no snow up at 5500m, and we were feeling strong. It was Monday, and we left Manang for Tilicho Base camp, a rough stone “tea house” at 4700m above sea level. The pass to Tilicho is treacherous. Not just for need of drama, but the last 2/3rds of the way involves traversing steep scree slopes left by glacial deposits - a 45-degree wall of loose rock and dust with a one-foot bevel on which to walk, or ride. We could ride most of it, but steep switchbacks involved tiptoeing along rock ledges that plunged 200m into the river valley below. Speed was key, it carried the bike forward when the back wheel washed into the edge of the narrow trail, and kept things on the straight and narrow. After 3 hours of riding, we passed a metal sign that said “Landslide Area”. A little late and a somewhat obvious statement, but this little sign was to serve as a pivotal point in both our trip, and our lives.
As we ripped down the last piece of track to the low building of Tilicho base camp, I remember looking up, and noticing that Kangsar Kang, the imposing, black, angry-looking peak, was shrouded in a dense white mist. It was snowing above us, the first blemish in our stunning conditions. Cuan, Dean and myself secured the last room at base camp. We were among 80 odd others, but the only cyclists. We drew strange looks both on the incoming trail and in base camp. It was 2pm, and we were ready for the next day - our “big one” where we’d summit to the lake and cross Mesokanto, dropping 3000m down to Jomson in one hit. We needed perfect weather, but as it turned out, we weren’t going to get it.
By 5pm Monday it was snowing at Base camp. Nothing dramatic, just snow - innocent and moody in the dimming evening light. Throughout the night it continued - building in volume and intensity, and by midnight we knew our attempt on the pass was under threat. Since we had no guide, and no backup, we needed unobstructed views of the landscape and trail above us. This was not the well-trodden highway of Thorung La, it was a path, worn a little thin by far fewer feet.
Tuesday morning brought a shock. Half a meter of snow shrouded base camp, and it was dumping from the sky. Nowhere at any point on our trip up the Annapurna’s did we see any warning for bad weather. We’d stopped at every ACAP checkpoint, met many policemen and rangers on the way - no information. By 9am visibility had dropped to 40/50 meters and we were stuck - all 80 of us, and it was cold. A teahouse is a basic stone barrack with uninsulated rooms and a communal kitchen/eating area. At this altitude there are no trees, so there is little to burn for warmth. Food is prepared on fires fuelled by burning Yak ****, and there isn’t that much Yak **** around either. But the teahouse did afford protection - we were by no means fully exposed. We had cold weather gear and down sleeping bags, and we spent most of the day wrapped in everything we had. We considered leaving right then and there - back to Manang, but it’s a good thing we didn’t. Over at Thorung Pedi, the base camp for the Thorung La pass, a group of hikers were coaxed out of the teahouse by their host, in return for money. He was to guide them back down in return for 1000 Rupees each. As we lay in our bags on Tuesday morning, they had lost the trail, became disorientated; hypothermia had set in and some were already dead by midday.
While this disaster played out a few miles east, we knew we’d be in base camp for days. It would be madness to leave the teahouse. By 3pm the snow was a meter thick, and the local Nepalese couldn’t believe their eyes. Because of the loose glacial substrate, the steep scree and the fact that the snow was all new - fluffy and soft, Tilicho becomes avalanche central - the weight of snow pushing itself and the rock beneath down into the valleys. A group of European hikers attempted to leave, but 200 meters from base camp they were halted by a small avalanche that sent them running back to level ground. Weirdly, this hiccup probably saved their lives. One backpack was lost but later recovered. They would have probably ended up like the Thorung hikers did that morning. The fact that we were considering following them made it even more of a shock.
We now began to accept that our plan of crossing Mesokanto La was history, and our whole trip schedule was now under threat. I had business in the United Kingdom, and I had to make a Saturday flight. It was Tuesday and here we were, stuck at 4500m in what would be one of Nepal’s worst mountain disasters ever. We were even more unsettled by the fact that we’d come here as warm season cyclists, not hardcore, all-weather hikers. Unsupported, with 8kg packs and cycling shoes was hardly the way to tackle a Himalayan blizzard, but were getting antsy. Base camp was a disaster zone. There were too many people, food was running short and the pit-toilet had frozen. But the local Nepalese were content to have folk buying food and drink - after all, October is high season in the Annapurna’s - warm weather brings 5300 hikers through Manang in this month alone. By nightfall the snow was half way up to the roof, and we had to constantly dig our way out of our room. This must where the phrase “cabin fever” was coined.
That night I slept very little, trying to work out what would happen if the storm didn’t clear soon. We weren’t stupid enough to tackle the blizzard, so we resigned ourselves to wait for the storm to clear before we made a break back to Manang. We decided that we’d attempt an escape, somehow, but because we had bikes to carry, we needed a few people to break trail for us - hiking through waist deep snow is heavy going. With our Saturday flight looming, Wednesday morning broke. During the night I’d spotted stars between the mist, so I knew what the day would bring.
It was a bolt-clear morning. A meter and a half of snow smothered base camp and the high bowl in which it lay. We were surrounded by high slopes on all sides, save for the snow-laden river, which now charged into the valley below. It was a waiting game. The hardcore hikers all sat watching the trailhead for the first “bull” to break out. Everyone was jittery, all of us wanted to go. Adrian, the monarch of the Base camp dining room tried first, but turned back after going just 100 meters - the previous day’s avalanche stopping him - chest deep snow.
At 10am the Canadian, Matt Adam, and a mixed group of young American hikers set off down the Marsyangdi river. The Nepalese had told us that there was a trail along the low river to a bridge that lead up to Kanshar - a teahouse halfway back to Manang. As these young guns started to break through the snow, we got ourselves ready. We had no real waterproofs, gaiters or boots. I had light South African hiking trousers and synthetic long underwear. A cycling shirt, light windproof jacket, a good down jacket and 2 pairs of socks. But the biggest chink in our cold weather assault were cycling shoes. I had 5/10 flats, but both Cuan and Dean had cleats. Talk about punching above your weight.
We wrapped our socked feet in plastic bags, cable-tying and taping in various different ways. We’d be walking the whole day with our feet deep in snow, and the sun would start to shift and melt the blanket that surrounded us. And herein lay a problem.
We were afraid to tackle the high contour of the Tilicho trail. It was unstable enough without snow. If your foot slipped off the dry trail you’d just slide till you hit the riverbed. In some places you’d just fall - straight down. With snow hiding the exact route, and threatening to slump as the sun got to work, this route was a terrifying prospect. The Nepalese had told us to head for that first metal warning sign - “Landslide Area” and then to head down the river… Which would lead to the Kanshar bridge. South Africans see little snow, but this seemed logical to us - the lower you are the less snow should fall, and of course the suffocating effect of high altitude becomes less and less the lower you are. You get more breath and you can move faster.
By the time we were ready it was Wednesday 10am. The advance that had headed down the river had turned back at the top of a cliff, but they hadn’t given up. They’d changed direction - up the side of a steep ridge. On their original path they’d reached the edge of a treacherous waterfall that plunged half underground, half into a deep, icy slot. So we adjusted our track to meet their position on the ridge. This meant that we had to break our own trail anyway, which wasn’t our plan. Heading up a 20% incline at 4500m, in a meter and a half of fresh snow is bloody hard work. With a bicycle on your shoulders it’s much, much worse.
But it was great to get out of Base camp so we were happy. We’d been panting with the stress of high altitude for days now on the bikes, so it was normal. I’d bought a special hat online - a peak with a wrap-around hood, and we had good South African sunglasses and sunscreen - two things that turned out to be crucial. Despite the puffing and panting, and either carrying or hurling the bikes forward before ploughing away more snow, we honestly believed that the trail would get easier and easier as we descended. How wrong we were.
We were still unaware of the deaths to the east, and as we hiked more were struggling exposure on Thorung La. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the Americans on the ridge. By then we were crawling up the scree, and they helped us with the bikes so we didn’t slip into the stream below. We found the initial part of the original trail, but if we stepped carefully we could move slowly towards the critical signpost that we were looking for.
The one thing that we didn’t appreciate on the way in was how many ridges and turns there are on this trail. Riding in on a bike, you’re whipping around them at speed, but walking out it’s a very different story. After struggling around the second of these, the American party began to get cold feet. It had taken 3 and a half hours to walk about 1.5kms. Most of the guys wanted to bail, but Matt Adams had forged ahead. After shouting across a snowy void, with phrases like “Don’t mess with the big mountains” and “I don’t want to lose any toes”… Even, “Your unborn child needs a father” to Matt, who is expecting his first. Maybe they were right, but in our understated South African terms this was just unnecessary drama. In the end, all of the Americans turned back - except big Matt, who agreed to continue, because we said we’d go with him. Maybe that was a critical point, who knows? If either of us had chickened out, the other would probably have backed down too.
We’d drive each foot down into the snow, seeking to compact a solid foundation for our full weight. A slip here would end badly, but in the end we found moving forward possible. If we stopped to rest, our soaked legs and feet would begin to get very cold, very quickly, and soon enough it was clear that to maintain feeling in our feet, we had to keep moving. After another half an hour we rounded the third ridge and there it was - a thin black sign with yellow writing, “Landslide Area”, surround by a wall of white. There was a feeling of joy having reached this point, because a fairly clear way down to the river could be seen. We’d rounded the awful cliff and waterfall, and all we had to do was find the path. But we couldn’t. The show was too thick. Some of the snow had already slumped off the scree, and what remained was damp gravel, which was a lot firmer than the dry ground from two days before. We found that if we ferried across the slope we could make good distance down river, dropping in altitude and even able to push the bikes for a while. That’s when the helicopters started flying overhead. The rescue of stranded, lost and dead hikers had started, but no one had any idea that we were fighting our way down the valley, way off any commercial hiking route.
Matt had gone ahead, because our progress with the bikes was slow. We saw him reach the river, and disappear over a small knoll next to a bend. When we got the river itself we were mortified. What we thought would be shallow snow and a clear trail turned out to be the opposite. The snow was still feet deep, and had formed large moguls over the riverine rocks that littered the valley. The going was incredibly tough. There were stands of low trees through which we had to duck and crawl. We began to seriously worry, but having dropped down into the valley, there was no turning back now. We had to push forward. It was around 3:30pm on Wednesday.
Each bend in the river brought a new ridge to cross, some shrouded in dense undergrowth that we would plunge into beneath the snow. It was like torture. With a pack and a bike we were heavy, and snow collected around the hubs and spokes, and stuck to the tyres - stopping rotation. We’d removed the pedals to streamline the form, but still, it was backbreaking work. At one point we passed a huge cave, and after 12 odd mountain goats emerged and fled, we considered sleeping there for the on-coming night. But it was still too early, and we still thought we could make the bridge by nightfall.
At 4:45pm we were faced with a river crossing. From a hundred meters off we could see that there was no other way down. Sheer cliff on the left, broad flat bank on the other side. As we made our way down to the river’s edge we heard a yell from above. Matt had headed uphill, trying to change tack to reach the high path, but all he was faced with was a wall of slumping snow and scree. It was getting dark now and he was visibly rattled, probably as a result of wandering around alone for the last hour. He headed down to join us, but we didn’t wait for him. I stepped into the river first. In our mission forward, we didn’t consider the crossing point very wisely. Because of the snow, and the sunny day, the melt had begun in earnest, so the river was charging. It was also freezing and as soon as my left shoe submerged, I knew that this late in the day, with no shelter in immediate sight, falling in would mean that I wouldn’t see sunrise.
A bike can be a handy stabilizer, and I picked my way across to the final channel. This was tough, but I managed to cross. Wedging myself between two rocks, up to my crotch, I waited to help Dean across this last, worst channel. He made it, but Cuan almost went in. We were so exhausted from the crossing that we struggled to scale the snow on the bank. But we were 30 meters from the river when Matt entered the water. He almost went in too, losing his hiking pole in a panicked balancing act. He was white as a sheet when he caught up to us; he also realized the gravity of putting a foot wrong in that river.
As we reached the opposite slope, darkness was setting in. It was a terrible feeling. Our bike trip was officially on hold. The battle to survive had begun. We’d eaten two boiled eggs each that morning, but we had little food. A bag of nuts and 3 energy bars. But it was warmth that we really needed. The sun had set and that blue/grey dusk had taken over the valley. Matt moved ahead, moving snow for us, and he came across a Pine tree with low branches. The branches had stopped the high volume of snow from settling beneath, and we felt that we could shift the foot that lay around the trunk. Looking at the chosen spot, I wasn’t convinced. We’d stopped moving, and the sunshine had gone. When it snows it has to be above zero, but with a clear sky, the temperature plunged. We began to get really cold.
To our relief, and in another critical event, Matt produced a lighter and a paperback novel from his pack. We quickly collected wood and proceeded to dry as much kindling as we could by burning page after page. Eventually we had a small fire. By adding wood, we’d dry it and it would light. After an hour we had a good fire going. We were back in the tree line in this valley, so there was wood to burn, albeit wet. We spent the next 2/3 hours drying soaked trousers and shoes, and eating peanuts. Our mood lifted a little, but none of us moved to bed down. There was still snow everywhere and we had no tent or groundsheet, so we’d get wet in the bags on the ground. As we sat and mulled this over, a torchlight emerged from the darkness upstream.
It was a Nepalese porter whose client had been rescued by helicopter from Base camp. He too was on his way down, trying to get to the next teahouse at Kanshar. He warmed himself at the fire, and asked why we were sleeping in this particular spot. He said that the bridge was only an hours walk away, and that the tea house was not much further, on a better trail on the opposite bank. It was uncanny how often the advice of the local Nepalese always failed us on this trip. Any words of wisdom seemed to revolve around impressing a client, or was an attempt to get us to spend more money in a local teahouse. We were skeptical, but even if the bridge was two hours off, it was still worth a try. We convinced Matt to stick with the porter, since he didn’t have a bike, and could get ahead and get help if necessary. He agreed, but among ourselves, we were undecided. Part of us wanted to stay and sleep at the fire; part of us knew we had to keep moving. It was 8:30pm, and that’s when we’d agreed on the opening statement of this piece. “If we sleep here, we’re all going to die”. There was little doubt in my mind. Greeting the sub-zero dawn in a wet sleeping bag is a one-way ticket and we knew it.
So we started walking again. Being the gadget guru, Cuan had a great head torch, so he led the way. By now the porter had left with Matt, so we had a trail to follow, and we figured that his local knowledge would steer us down a more direct route. Dean and I taped torches to our cycling helmets and off we went. But the local knowledge was no advantage. The trail twisted, doubled back and headed through dense thickets of thorns, some nearly impossible to penetrate with a bicycle. It was quite clear that the porter had no better idea of where to go than we did.
We’d walked for another 2 hours before a half moon rose. This helped immensely, because it enabled us to see the valley and get a vague idea of the topography. If we kept walking, our feet were fine, warmed by the motion, and our core temperatures were maintained by the physical work that bodies and lungs were doing. I could have walked until dawn, but we came across a narrow patch of dry, snowless earth along the base of a high cliff. it was still exposed, but it was fairly dry. There was a light breeze blowing down the valley, but this wasn’t the worst scenario, so we decide to try and sleep for a few hours. I was nervous, because my trousers and thermal underwear were soaked, and I had no others, nor did I have dry socks. Getting into that bag could have gone horribly wrong, but since it was only 5/6hours till dawn I was willing to try. If hypothermia got hold of me, at least it wouldn’t have me for too long, and the sky was clear, so the sun may save us.
That night was freezing. The little breeze slowly sucked the warmth out of me. I had 4 layers and a down jacket on, 2 woolen hats, but nothing on my legs. I wrapped a pair of cycling shorts around my feet, but that made little difference. I lay there staring out at the moonlit landscape - like a huge open freezer as I got colder and colder. 2 hours later my feet were killing me. I could just maintain the temperature of my upper body by doing light sit-ups, but I was losing heat through my legs. I was soon shivering. I was worried and I began to realize that we hadn’t been in contact with our wives - Tessa, Noleen and Lucy, for days now. The plan was to check in when we crossed the pass, but that was two days ago. Now I worried that my family was worried, but we had no idea that this snowstorm had hit the international news. By that stage 24 were missing, and bodies were being found around Thorung La and Thorung Pedi - the sister base camp of our own the east. The deaths were going out on the news and our families were understandably in a state of panic. Even without this knowledge, lying exposed in the Himalayas not knowing what’s going to happen next, and thinking of your wife and family back home is a terrible feeling. You feel so far away, and you realize that you’re in a situation like you’ve seen in the movies, but that this is real, and that’s not a comforting thought.
But lying there and leaving your immediate future to chance is pointless. I had laid down an emergency reflective blanket to seal me from the freezing ground, but I then wrapped this around my bag from the waist down, tucking it tightly underneath. This made a massive difference, and I even managed to doze for about an hour until the cold woke me. It was bitter, later read at -5 C. But the sky was getting light, and I knew the sun was coming. I knew that we’d beaten the cold that night, even if it meant one more hour of chattering. That was a good feeling, like we had another chance - another day’s grace.
Getting going that morning was a struggle. My trousers and socks had frozen into rigid planks, and our shoes were solid ice - the laces stiff like daggers. I tried hitting everything against the rock face, but it didn’t help. I was literally caught with my pants down, and without shoes, and the sun chose the opposite bank, so we’d be in shadow for another few hours. Cuan dressed first, and took my clothing to soak in the freezing river. Using a snowmelt river to thaw frozen garments so that you can get dressed seems crazy, but it worked. I dressed, but I was unbelievably cold. We set off, charging for the sunlight that flooded the riverbank around the corner.
When we hit the sunlight I soon warmed. Hurling the bike across snowdrifts, it soon occurred to us that this was no ordinary snowfall. We moved down the valley quickly that morning, but the snow didn’t thin, it was still feet deep. The strange thing about walking through all this snow is dehydration. South Africans are no polar adventurers, but we soon realized that you can die of thirst quickly in snow. It doesn’t melt fast, and it fuels clear streams into muddy torrents. It was difficult to find drinking water. We could stop and filter, but we were against the clock. It was Thursday morning. The day after tomorrow we were due to fly out of Kathmandu - a 6-hour drive from Besisahar… which lay over 100kms away. And we were still stuck in this cursed little valley, and we still hadn’t found the dreaded bridge.
Rescue helicopters continued to shuttle overhead, and as we stumbled onwards, we didn’t know that hikers were also fighting for their lives up at Tilicho. We hadn’t eaten more than a handful of peanuts for over 24 hours, but the sun was out and we were moving. We kept warm, and so we just ploughed on. We were still following Matt and the porter’s footprints, and I came to know that huge print of Matt’s Hitec boots so well I can still see it in my mind. We came across a fire where they’d slept - their own prediction of the “hour away” bridge not bearing fruit. Matt had left us a note etched in the snow “Matt - 8:30”, with an arrow, and a few yards later we looked up and saw the suspension bridge about a mile down the valley. It was a massive relief, the scenery became awesome again, we started to joke, and we forged on.
But that bridge seemed to move as we moved. Matt’s huge prints were shallow on the snow. They’d moved in the early morning, and the cold night had provided an icy crust that supported his weight. Not so for us a few hours later. We tiptoed over his boot-prints, but we plunged into the cursed snow like bison. It was heartbreaking. Eventually we made it up the bank, and to the bridge, but when we looked up we knew our day was far, far from done. For some reason the Nepalese don’t seem concerned about elevation. They don’t see it as a hindrance, and Kanshar was high above, perched on a ridge a kilometer above us, with a sloppy, melting blanket of snow waiting to welcome us upwards. By now we were spent. The same shallow footprints gave way to deep plunges, and this was the only part of the trip where all photography and humor ceased.
We eventually reached the teahouse at Kanshar where we’d stopped three days before, with a huge feeling of relief. We were back in the mix, plugged back into life and out of that wild valley that had held us for 36 hours. We ate - soup and homemade pizza. drank a coke and plenty of water. We made it over the last few kilometers to Manang, dropping the bike seats and push biking down the melting snow. We managed to find Matt, so happy that he’d made it OK, we ate and slept. Over the course of that evening, the extent of the disaster was revealed. We’d been fighting our own private battle in the valley, sealed off from the mayhem around us. 39 hikers were dead or missing. The Nepalese bring their yaks into the villages in winter, and a herd 100 strong at Yak Karka had been wiped out by an avalanche. We bumped into Max and Daniel, two hikers who were stuck at Thorung Pedi, and Max had terrible snow blindness. Walking into all this was dizzying and we began to realize that the array of critical decisions that we’d made over the last 3 days had been key to our survival.
On Friday morning we were still exhausted. Our feet were numb; we had lost skin to the snow. Our backs were aching but we had made it back to Manang. After saying our goodbyes to Matt Adams, we headed back down towards our starting point by trusty bicycle. This was the only way out since Manang airport was closed. It was like leaving a war zone. Hikers trudged in lines over the slushy Pisang flats. The survival exercise was over, and the ride had begun again! Soon we were flying down the passes past Dharapani and Tal, pumping the bikes over rocks and boosting airs over root drops.
Despite the context, this day’s riding was the single most memorable day that I’ve ever spent on a bike. We rode 93kms in one hit. We dropped 5.1 vertical kilometers – literally balling down the down the side of the Himalaya range. The bike suspension was working overtime, but it was just awesome. A real ride with a vivid purpose, not some over-priced stage race. We rode late into the night, and arrived in back in Besisahar around 9:30pm, totally shattered.
As we bounced around the back of the jeep on our midnight commute to Pokhara, it suddenly occurred to us that we’d never considered leaving our bikes behind. We just hauled them forward as part of our being. That makes me happy, because we came to the Annapurna to ride, and in the end we got away with a lot more than many of the hikers that died up on the mountains. It’s a guilty feeling, and I haven’t quite processed it yet. Don’t get me wrong, riding the Annapurna isn’t easy, but getting away with our lives and then reaching Besisahar, 93kms away in one day must rate as one of the biggest achievements of our lives.
Flying back out of Nepal now, there’s the usual blame game going on. Why were hikers not warned of oncoming weather? Has the Annapurna become the Disneyland of Nepalese mountaineering? Does it attract an unqualified crowd of hikers? Nepal is wild, it’s “warm” and it’s friendly. Money is money and this county is poor - it’s the third world and they take what they can get. But paying $65 to access this trail gets you no back up, no safety, no information. That may have to change. Not one lodge had weather info; ACAP had no way of knowing where each hiker is at any given time. In short they don’t know who’s on the trail, but to me that’s part of the appeal. The Annapurna is so accessible, but it’s so wild… And that’s a rare thing these days. A snowstorm in October caught many “summer” hikers out, and many made the mistake of taking advice, where perhaps they should have relied on their own instinct.
As far as our experience goes. Our mission failed. We didn’t cross the high pass. But we had the best riding of our lives on either side of a detour into authentic human survival. This was our first trip together, but we knuckled down and got through it. It says much about how how my 2 friends approached the problems that we faced. Even with numerous mistakes, we never gave up or lost focus. A series of critical events floated us through a nightmare, and our private struggle in the snowy Marsyangdi valley went by largely unknown. To a select few in Manang we were known as the “crazy bikers”, and on Saturday we bumped into two Slovakians who shared Tilicho base camp with us. They were almost in tears. They’d heard that one of us was killed in an avalanche during our escape, so they were relieved to see us together, and well.