December 11, 2019
Wondering what it’s like to ride two wheels through the world’s highest peaks? Read author and photographer Bryan Cole’s experience on one leg of our mountain bike tour through Nepal, the 12-Day Treasures of the Himalaya Ride. (You can also check out Mandil Pradhan’s write-up of our tour on Pink Bike.)
Story & Photos by Bryan Cole @bcolective
A Tour Guided by the Top Rider in Nepal: The Mountain Bike Adventure Begins
Thanks to a loose thread of an email and a mind set on exploring the potential for legendary Himalayan mountain biking ahead, I introduced myself to Mandil Pradhan, long time Nepali pro rider, a thriving mountain bike guide and business owner. Fortunately, our paths came to cross through our mutual support of the recent film “RJ Ripper” by our friend in common and super ripper in his own right, Joey Schusler. Mandil was a key player in producing the film, but more importantly, Mandil is the one behind pioneering a lot of the mountain bike scene in Nepal and helping Rajesh Magar (commonly known as RJ) find his path to freedom and his career as today’s top rider in Nepal. Running all of the on-ground operations and guide services for Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Adventures, offering multi-day mountain bike trips and cultural immersions into the Himalayan highlands, Mandil hired RJ as a guide and has helped him over the past few years to connect with sponsors and refine his talents as a mountain biker ready to rip and race in a more global arena.
Soon after dropping into Kathmandu with my family, at the start of a six week exploration of all things adventure and advocacy, Mandil and I met up for a drink and quickly began to discuss the best way to get out riding together and sharing our passion for rolling through wild places. Mandil has been scouting trails and guiding rides throughout Nepal for the past two decades and has built an incredible network that brings people from all over the world to join Sacred Rides Nepal for unforgettable two wheeled experiences and cultural connections.
With a deep passion for full-blown adventure riding and over 20 years in the adventure tourism industry, Sacred Rides welcomed me to jump in on one leg of their Treasures of the Himalaya trip to ride along, snap some photos, and share a few words to capture the experiences that we shared along the way. The following is a portion of my personal account after a few days incredibly well spent with Mandil, RJ and a handful of strong riders from around the globe.
A mountain bike tour in Nepal is only for the most serious of adventurers (and earliest of risers)!
October 23rd, 1:00 am — I’m wide awake and the alarm is set for 4 hours from now. It’s not time yet, but there’s no way I’m going to miss my 20-minute flight out of Pokhara straight to the southern terminus of the Tibetan Plateau. My destination? The incredible Mustang region of Northern Nepal.
2:00 am comes and goes , then 3:00 am and 4:00 am.
Finally it’s time to get up. I grabbed my bags, kissed my family goodbye, and bolted for the sleepy Pokhara street and hailed the only cab I could find. “To the airport.” Gouged for the fare by normal standards, I pay the equivalent of a whopping $3 U.S. dollars for a 10-minute ride. A drowsy boarding, sunrise from the sky over the Annapurna massif and the iconic Machapuchare and a few short minutes later we are descending into Jomsom, altitude 8,976’ (2682m).
The rest of the crew is behind me on a slightly later flight, but I quickly found my way to the Om’s Home Hotel where I met up with our guides and Nepal’s finest riders, RJ Ripper and Nishant Shah. Manically building bikes to make the arrival of the frothing and ready to ride crew, I sat at the nearby café and fueled up on Dal Bhat and bottomless milk coffee.
Ramped up and ready to roll, the gang comes together, I introduced myself and before we know it, our gear is gathered and we are slowly rolling out of Oms Home heading higher into the Lower Mustang (the world’s deepest valley) en route to our first nights stop. As we roll out of town, we are in the shadow of what appears to be the equivalent of Mt. Everest from our perspective. It turns out the peak we can see is Nilgiri 23,166’ (7061m), the 99th highest peak in the Himalaya. Ho hum. Only number 99. But higher than any other non Asian peak on the planet.
Sucking wind on an extremely low angle uphill dirt road, everyone feels like a fish out of water. Wildly excited to finally be pedaling our way through this otherworldly landscape and way out of our comfort zones at the same time, I am beyond words excited for the days ahead, Mandil introduces the day as our “easiest”. A few miles of rough dirt road, which is the “highway”, and we regroup before the first of many skinny, swinging, suspension bridges across the Kali Gandaki river. Excited to leave the double track, I race ahead and cross the bridge, to reach the far side and fire off a few photos of the riders oncoming.
The author begins his tour by crossing through the mountain “semi-desert” by bike on the way to the Upper Mustang in Nepal.
Mostly famous for the Annapurna Circuit, perhaps the most well-known mega trek in the world, we cannot wait to leave the well trodden superhighway and hammer into our first big climb of the trip. Off the circuit and up we go. Up and up and up into the town of Phalyak, 9,514’ (3200m). Mandil stops to gather the group and impart on us all how special this place truly is. The people of this small village still live in the old ways, mostly subsistence farmers and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Rarely visited by westerners, but thanks to Mandil’s long standing relations, we were warmly welcomed onto a rooftop for the customary hot tea and soon to be famous amongst our crew, Coconut Crunchies. If you ever get to meet Mandil in person, be sure to have him sing you the jingle. The locals could not have been more friendly. With the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen, they draw you in with their timeless eyes and opened their hearts to each of us through their silently welcoming ways.
After our casual refuel, the camaraderie of the group has begun to build and it’s time to turn tail and rip our way back down to the river side. We single file our way down and out of the narrow cobblestone alley ways. Before I know it we are mobbing full-speed down some sandy, loose and downright laughably good singletrack. I quickly have to remind myself to back off the gas. A fall here would be brutal. We are deep and any medical help is hours away at best. About 20-minutes later and we are back by the river’s edge, crossing the same swinging bridge. Only this time, the wind is whipping so hard it’s mostly unrideable, but way too fun to not try. Lungs and legs completely blown and we are back on the road and rambling our way further up our initial dirt road towards the village of Kagbeni, our first day’s destination. Hours later and proud of our first “easy” high altitude day, we wind into town paralleling flowing aqueducts of fresh water and make our way to the Red House, an ancient monastery turned travelers homestay. Little has changed there over time with the exception of the people who inhabit it and the layout of the individual rooms. Beers and cider served and the sweetness of single track already fading fast into memory, I shower up and feast on local fare ready to hit the sack and rally again. Tomorrow is going to be big!
Day 2: The Double Drop
Up early and into breakfast, Mandil sets the stage for what sounds like an incredible, but challenging day of riding ahead. First,we will get a shuttle up to the sacred town of Muktinath 12,171 ft (3,710 m) and then from there we will do a climb of 1,300 ft up and over Lubra pass 13,451’ (4,100 m), before we get to drop for what will feel like days down towards Lubra village and the deep valley below. Easier said than done. My legs are sore, my lungs smoked from yesterday and I’m getting winded while eating breakfast. Others complain of mild and typical symptoms of altitude sickness, headaches and some really rough nights of sleepless tossing and turning.
Despite the expected soreness though, spirits are high and everyone is chomping at the bit to get going. CamelBaks full and CLIF Bars and Bloks packed we load the bikes into a truck and hop onto a local bus to head for the higher country.
Forty-five minutes of winding up in the bus, and it feels like we are headed to the top of the world. Full blown views of Dhaulagiri 26,795’ (8,167 m), one of the most prominent and beautiful 8,000 meter peaks of the range, and the magnitude of this landscape begins to set in for what lies ahead. We park near Muktinath, which is the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage destination in the world and start our ride from there. A slow roll down a cruisey dirt road leads to the beginning of what turns into our most substantial climb yet. Not a huge climb by standards of vertical gain, but when you are starting at over 12,000 feet, every pedal stroke up feels more like a a hundred. Mostly easy uphill pedaling with the exception of a few switchbacks and steep pitches for the hammerheads to throw their competitive testosterone at and we reach the saddle which makes our high point for the day.
Dhaulaghiri looms way out across the valley perfectly framed in a bluebird sea of sky. Eager to drop in, the crew falls into our natural single file of stoke and it’s on! Downhill for days and what looks to be a never ending drop of single track leads us out onto the alpine plateau below. Sections of searing flow lead into steeper pitches of pucker and drift. Down, down and down we go. Hooting, hollering and truly having the mountain bike time of our lives. It goes on and on and on and seemingly dips into the realms of unbelievable before we finally bottom out back in the Kali Gandaki river valley. From there we hit the road from yesterday’s ramble and roll our way back to the Red House for lunch. Our riding day is only half way done!
Post lunch everyone is clearly feeling worked but keen to rally for another lap. We take the same shuttle and repeat the climb. Only this time, just off the top of Lubra pass we hook a right and hit the spiny ridge line featured in the RJ Ripper film. Mandil is giddy to share this gold, and it is absolute single track heaven! From pure flow up top, to steep techy rocks and high speed loose shaley run outs. I can’t believe the quality and caliber of what we are riding. Had the con-sequences of a fall not been so real, I surely would have stopped to pinch myself, take an extra breath, or simply take in the views of Dhaulagiri.
Day 3: The Pilgrimage
Our group has gotten into the groove on multiple levels and though most are feeling the rides so far, we cannot wait to mount up for the day ahead. After another bus ride up the pass to the same parking lot as yesterday, today’s ride promises to be an elevation doosey. Our highpoint sights are set on the western base of the Thorung La at over 14,108 (4300m), which is the high-est pass on the Annapurna Circuit. Sucker punched by a winding wander uphill through the roads of the ancient village of Muktinath, we pass throngs of believers and seekers bound for the temple and the final point of their sacred pilgrimage. People arrive on foot, by horseback, car, moto, jeep, local bus, and more to pay respects to their most holy temple.
Passing by in a somewhat meditative roll into our mission of the day. And before we know it, we are beyond the masses and making a hard right turn up what is clearly going to be a brutal climb. I’m not sure I can go any slower and still stay upright, and at the same time, I want nothing more than to get this bear of a 500 m uphill battle over with before I am completely blown out. We are easily more than an hour into the up and our group is entirely spread out. Each rider has to manage their own challenges that can only be faced alone. And from there? We dive deeper and dig into another pedal stroke of painful but beautiful up. Seared lungs and screaming legs and I finally reach the refugio at the base of the pass.
This marks our high point. I’m around the middle of the pack and thankful for some rest time while we await the final few. Though we climbed what turned out to be a mostly double track road, the picture perfect descent quickly made itself obvious on topping out. Swooping single track revealed itself in plain view elegantly making its way down from the pass and into the abyss below. Given the scale, it was hard to asses the length of the drop to Muktinath, but after watching the first riders roll in, it was obvious that this was going to be another long one. No less than 20-minutes of sustained downhill dream track, and then we were only at the temple, with so much more riding to go.
From there we traversed across Muktinath and continued downhill linking a series of small mountainside villages with time-trodden trails of villager and livestock. Old stone walls, rocky ride through tunnels and water ways wound us down, around and through these fully functioning slices of ancient life. Rarely did we pass a soul along this wild path. We finally found ourselves peeling our hands off our bars to enjoy some tea and more Coconut Crunchies at the Nirvana Tea House in the village of Jharkot. Still another couple thousand feet of downhill to go.
Day 4: Cross Gandaki Deluxe
Spirits high and ready to ride another day, we packed our bags for transport and prepared to pedal our way down the Kali Gandaki Valley. Distance wise, this day was our biggest. 27+ miles (40 km) of cross country goodness, plus a bonus option for those who simply couldn’t get enough. We left Kagbeni on the dirt road that we had come to love and hate over the past three days and soon found ourselves back on the original Annapurna Circuit trail. Skirting past the bustling hub of Jomsom and high on the hill across the valley from the famous and breathtaking monastery village of Marpha, the pedaling and scenery could not have been more dream-like. The rolling village track turned to punchy uphills, sustained techy downhills and endless skinny swinging bridges bottom out in rambling river bed rolls as we continued our push towards the village of Kalopani. With today’s ride delivering nearly 3,000 ft of descent and another 1,500 ft of climbing, it’s guaranteed to be another good one.
Dumped out on the dirt road again just before lunch we arrived at the High Plains Inn. Known for it’s apple crumble and yep, you guessed it, arm wrestling. WTF? Out here in the middle of nowhere and there is a Dutch guy named Patrick Maas, who with his Nepali wife and passion for alpine climbing decided to make this place home. And not only does he make amazing apple cobbler, but he also welcomes anyone to challenge him in a arm wrestle after lunch. Just read the sign on the door. Smells like a sandbag to me? The prize you ask? A free night’s stay for two, a meal, drinks, and of course, bragging rights. Fat and happy on lunch, cobbler and coffee and all eyes were on one of our pedaling comrades to step up to the match.
Kristoff was not only the biggest of our clan, but also the most boisterous and keen to step up to the challenge and take one for the team. Rules explained, crowd gathered, arms locked and BOOM! It was over. Kristoff got smoked. Mostly all good and all laughs, except for some apparent elbow tendon damage. Looking back at the experience it doesn’t take long to learn the lesson that we already knew. Never accept the challenge of an arm wrestle match posted on the outside of a building by a yoked Dutch madman who was clearly a former professional and still training daily.
A little more than midway at midday and we were back on the bikes and continuing to bust a move down valley. Dirt road for a bit and a couple more little villages found us at the cross roads of decision time. To bonus section with a big climb or take the road more traveled down to our last lodge? Not sure when in the world I’d ever be back in these parts, I opted for the up, which is surely to be rewarded with a killer down. I figured I can always walk if need be, and I know I’ll still get to the same spot as the rest, eventually. Well that didn’t take long. We weren’t ten minutes into the uphill when a hard left turn ramped straight up into outer space. Time for a nice hike….with a bike.
Way up and off the river valley the high dessert landscape quickly turns to immaculate pine forest. We top out before too long and with the exception of the lurking 8,000 m peaks in the backdrop, the scene lends itself to the feeling that we could just as easily be in the High Sierra or parts of Colorado. We catch our breath and ready ourselves for what to me feels like the most familiar downhill of the trip yet. Narrow, winding and rocky down off the top into tight trees and steep roll overs through swooping big corners with even bigger vistas. Sections feel like home in Northern California and make me almost miss my old familiar trails.
Unfortunately for us all, it’s over before we know it, and we are rolling back through farmlands towards the road. A final spin out of the legs for a couple km and we’ve made our way to our lodge for the night in the village of Kalopani. Beer, cider and amigos reunited as we watch the sun drop with dusted faces and memories of yet another magical mountain ramble.
Post ride family style dinner of bottomless dal bhat and other local delicacies again and we are officially worked…and properly stuffed. Full of stoke from another fine day and Mandil sets up a random and rare treat in these parts; a big screen viewing of RJ Ripper on the only screen any of us have seen since we set out. Though by now everyone had witnessed RJ’s talented riding, few had seen the recently released film about him. Boosted to instant hero status and all eyes turned to the ever humble and silent giant. RJ tried his best to shrug it all off, but when a smile is as big and infectious as his, it’s hard for him to play it totally cool despite his best intentions.
Day 5: Dropped
Bags packed and that bitter sweet feeling of an incredible time soon come to an end, we circle up after breakfast and rally on for our final ride of the trip. Day 5 of 5 in this region. Out through the pine forest single track of Kalopani for an hour or so and soon we pop out onto the main track out of the valley. This day is all about the drop as we will mostly be riding the multi use dirt down hill. And while at first it didn’t sound that appetizing to ride a dirt road downhill, I’m pretty sure that none of us had ever ridden a double track this good! Entirely scenic all the while, we found rhythm in a blistering pace due to the nearly perfect sustained downhill pitches. From open mountain sections, to cool forested drops, to river crossings and more. It felt like it would never stop. And with enough momentum, the few uphills blew by like downs and before we knew it we had arrived in the village of Tatopani. Tatopani means hot water in Nepali because of it’s naturally occurring hot springs. But there was no time for us to soak, for at the end of to-day’s ride we had a solid 4+hours of crazy bus back to Pokhara.
Another great lunch, followed by giant pieces of chocolate cake and cappuccinos of all things. Espresso machines are not exactly the norm in these parts, but holy smokes did these coffees hit the spot. Stiff legs, sore bodies, and everyone plastered with dust and dirt, we rallied our-selves to roll on and put this ride behind us. Battered from doing the first half of the day’s battle we looked like bunch of road warriors. And with a couple more hours of down into the valley ter-rain, the more water, mud and vehicles we encountered. More occasional cars, trucks, motor bikes and busses were fully on the gas up the dirt and rock hills and somehow managed to ap-pear mostly on blind corners. Talk about adding some serious spice to the last leg of journey! Spread out and mostly hammering down hill, the heat had officially set into the lower elevations and everyone was cooked.
One by one we rounded the final bend in the track and crossed the raging river into the town of Beni. There we were met by the slowly gathering group, our gear bags and our transport. We ditched our bikes, grabbed our clean clothes and made our way to the waters edge for the obligatory glacier melt river dunk. Though I was challenged to remember colder water in my life to this point, there was no way I was not getting in. And as any rider knows, there’s absolutely nothing better than freezing cold water to rinse off the wild after an adventure of this magnitude. Cleaned up and feeling entirely refreshed and accomplished, we packed our bikes and bags and prepared to settle into the ride back to Pokhara. On the return road I turned around and looked back out the window of the jeep and up the valley. Off in the far distance, I spied a familiar looking peak from a place I was still unsure I had ever visited. What was on our first day a looming megalith towering down over us as we rode in it’s early morning shadow, was now the high point on the farthest horizon I could see. Nilgiri. The 99th highest peak in the Himalaya. Ho hum.
About the Author/Photographer
Bryan Cole has over 20 years of leadership experience in the outdoor and environmental industry, and spent a good chunk of his career building the Adventure Sports Marketing program at CLIF Bar. Working closely throughout his life at the intersection of adventure sport, travel lifestyle, and environmental advocacy, Bryan is a Free Agent for Change running his own one man marketing agency (B.COLECTIVE LLC) and holds advisory board roles for Wheels for Life (a Hans Rey non profit), Protect Our Winters (founded by Jeremy Jones) and All Good, an organic skin care company. Bryan is presently calling Hood River home after hitting the road for the past year with his wife Allison and adventure world schooling their son Fisher, age 7. Amidst the end-less outdoor pursuits and world learning opportunities, Bryan continues to seek and capturing immersive experiential, cultural, and advocacy oriented opportunities along his path into the future.
Follow @bcolective to see what Bryan is up to now. Want to connect for potential professional projects or collaborations to come? Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on our mountain bike tour through Nepal, check out our 12-Day Treasures of the Himalaya.