Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cass – Lagoon Saddle: Epicness redefined

Ollie readies himself for the Cass saddle descent.
It had been a goal of mine to explore the backcountry terrain of the Cass - Lagoon Saddle route since I first sampled it's technical treats back in May this year.

Both Michi and I had heard tales of the steep descents and long valley flats, and with estimates for the round trip being made at around 9 hours it was never going to be a short ride.

While the gale force winds and rain forecast in the preceding week cast a shadow over the weekend plans, when Saturday dawned clear and fine it was Michi who made the call. Hastily assembling tents, snacks and all manner of ancillary items that our car camping approach allowed.

The plan was to ride Cragieburn Saturday, camp the night then mount a full blown assault on the Cass on Sunday morning.

Some trail newbies joined our Cragie’ jaunt, and despite the inevitable complaints about steepness and roughness on the ascent, it proved to be just these things that left them grinning on the descent. With the first loop out of the way, Josh, Michi and I set about a second climb to Camp saddle with the final hike to the highest point justly rewarded with some spectacular vistas.

Michi armors up
Recovering from the effort, we dropped saddles for the drop from the saddle and heart rates began to spike again, this time from the sheer exhilaration of skidding down 37 degree scree slopes rather than any aerobic exertion.

This was only my second ride on the El Chucho, Ventana’s unique approach to a trail riding weapon. Designed as a 69er, the big contact patch of 29 inch front tire seemed to float over the unstable scree, while firmly locked and skidding on the edge of control, the 26 inch rear wheel sunk deep into the scree and slackened the harrowing slope by a precious few degrees.

As if to test one’s bravado, the rocks on the slope grow bigger and bigger as you approach the end, till the final 20 metre stretch where they form a full blown rock garden that could surely become the pictorial definition for ‘nuggety’.

Blasting down the track for the second time, we arrived back at the tents and scooted down the road to bathe in the cooling eddies of Cave Stream, making it through the treacherous caverns with no cases of denim induced hypothermia.

In true townie camping style, dinner was at the Bealey Hotel, where a monstrous plate of vegetable curry and venison pot pies were washed down with ice-cream sundaes (complete with nuts). Hasty preparation had left me floundering for snack options for our mission the next day, but the Bealey came to the rescue with an impressive lunch box containing a coleslaw and ham sandwich, some caramel slice, a juice box, apple and a slice of bacon and egg pie. It proved to be a seemingly endless source of delicious treats during the next days ardours, and a source of green eyed jealousy from my ride companions. Unfortunately I had to dispense with the box itself, but managed to squeeze the entire degustation into my Cactus Zero in such a way that I wasn’t left with a sandwich/pie/slice hybrid after the bike-across-the-back carry, of which there would be plenty!


Ollie guardedly tucks into his B&E pie
Waking the next day to the tune of native fauna dropping some beats, we hastily packed up camp and headed to the trail head at Cass River, beginning with a river bed ride punctuated by dashes across the flow where the gorge narrowed. Once into the forest the track climbed steeply, but the bone dry beech surface made the odd rooty pinch surprisingly rideable, except in a few extreme cases. Out into the open past the Cass hut, tussock was reclaiming the narrow bench, also providing surreptitious cover for a wheel stopping rocks which proved too much even for the sheer rollability of the 29 inch tire.


Atop the saddle and ready to shred
From Cass saddle to Hamilton hut we were rewarded for our early labour. Insanely steep and criss crossed by thick mats of off-camber roots, we were thankful of the dry conditions as were struggling to stay on line and away from rapidly approaching trees as we shredded down the valley floor. Gradually leveling off we eked round switchbacks, which were again laden with roots. As the trail mellowed with lower altitudes the flow took hold, pumping rises and drifting the back wheel around turns. Again I was impressed by the 69er. Plenty of travel in the back to smooth out the big hits (of which there were plenty), but the drifting situation was where it came alive. With a front wheel so planted and secure, I could unweight the back and get it rowdy through corners with an ease and confidence I’d never felt on a 26” trail bike. Concerns over a threading the longer footprint through switchbacks were unfounded, and as we shredded down to the hut I was approaching a stoke double whammy, with bike stoke joining trail stoke for an off the charts reading.


Josh the roadie hooks into one of many sandwiches
Onward along the undulating trail, we traversed a swingbridge and some boggy swamps before passing West Harper Hut where we hopped onto another river bank. While this riding lacked the sheer thrills of the epic descents, the mellow trails, warm air and rugged mountainous surrounds kept me sure there was no place I’d rather be.



 



Sequence on a particularly sick section of trail
A mixture of riding and scrambling took us up to the Cass Saddle shelter, where a final dart along a swamp traversing wooden boardwalk delivered us at the final highpoint. With the Waimakariri River visible ahead in all its alluvial glory we set course for the highway. The descent was not without its challenges, with our nemesis the tussock clump causing a number of amusing off-the-bikes. Once clear of the tussock the track entered a pine forest then natives again, where fast flowing bends gave way to tight switchbacks interspersed with the drops and root steps. Riding with a flow and pace at odds with 7 hours on the bike, the trail caught me out in a couple of places, one in particular where a gravelly drift got too rowdy and ended in a low side off a bank. Somehow no skin was lost and I was back on the bike and shredding the final run to the road.
View from the top of the Bealey to the Waimakariri
Finishing with 15km of sealed road wasn’t ideal, but ironically the weather which had threatened to put the kibosh on the whole weekend favored us with a mad tailwind. It provided a welcome push at our backs and also some attenuation for the horrendous tire noise that can only come from super tacky trail tires on chip seal.

A truly epic adventure and one that will be difficult to trump, even with the swath of mountain routes that we are fortunate enough to have surrounding us.

Mountain Pedaler out…

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Civil disobedience at the Festival of Cycling

Grinning after the Witches Hill traverse
Photo Rebekah Tregurtha
On a beautifully still Christchurch morning I made my way down from Mt Pleasant for what must be the shortest ever race commute, not more than a minute and a half to the race start at McCormack’s bay.

Living in such close proximity was a treat, as the tracks down Greenwood Park and Captain Thomas are personal favorites. I’ve a depth of familiarity that has been honed from countless runs down these nuggety gems, often on a rigid forked, one-geared steed.

Warming up it was clear the field was pretty stacked, with young local pinners and a few big names from the North Island all making the trip with the hope of grasping the generous purse on offer. From the gun it was a furious tailwind assisted smash, testing the spinning abilities of the few who chose a 1 x 9 gearing. As the road pinched up to the Bridle Path, it was immediately apparent that my legs we’re staging a protest at the very thought of exertion. A week of intensity training is the likely culprit, with fatigue making the grind up the farm track a disheartening experience. Battling on and loosing places faster than confused cartographer it wasn’t until the final stretch of the Rapaki climb when I finally regained some rhythm and could start to recover from a terrible start.

Riding the Witches Hill link was a welcome break, mindful of the throng of spectators I played it cool and cleared the tricky first section. This technical trail served to break the mental blockade, and rolling back onto the road I could start to push again.

Pulling back two riders by the bottom of Castle Rock, I set about reeling in three more and diving into John Britten I knew I’d be able to grab back some time on the extended descent.

Getting the stoke on down Greenwood Park
Photo Logan's olds 
A delightful combination of rockiness and flow carried me down to Evan’s Pass and with telltale puffs of dust on the trail it was clear a competitor was only seconds ahead.

Here is where the purpose of the race changed for me.

Save a precious few boundary pushing events, there has been a depressing trend towards dumbing down the cross country discipline. Whether it is by shortening event durations, removing technical sections or even cancelling events at first sign of adverse weather, I strongly believe that these actions are undermining the adventure and risk that makes XC such a rewarding pursuit. If this decline continues I can picture us riding flat paved trails, cocooned by layers of body armor made mandatory by knee deep stacks of waivers.

With this in mind I hit the compulsory dismount section of Captain Thomas resolved to make a stand. Sacrificing my result, I hoped my disobedient actions would provoke some discussion in the community, perhaps even raise some questions about whether this is the direction that XC racing should be heading.

Knowing the organiser well, I could understand her position and the implications of responsibility should someone hurt themselves on the course. The fact is mountainbiking is inherently dangerous, and as soon as we start removing self-responsibility from racing we will lose the ability to assess the risks and push boundaries in spite of them.

Bouyed by my stand, I proceeded to shred the reminder of Captain T, catching a rider at the bottom of the jarring step section.

From here a manic duel ensued, with the rider clawing back any small gaps I could make, and both of us dispatching roadies at the tail end of their Long Bay’s loop with an ease that belied our knobbly tires and hairy legs.

Coming into Redcliffs, traffic had stopped at a zebra crossing and at the front of a queue a bus was rolling away. Seeing the opportunity I jumped, and was treated to a 50 km/h motor pace all the way to the McCormack’s bay turnoff. This move could be considered by some as dangerous, and the sour look at the finish line on the rider who’d missed the jump meant he probably thought so. Perhaps he was just disappointed that he hadn’t taken the opportunity.

Finishing in 11th position, but dead last on time due to my ‘bad boy’ behavior, my first ever race disqualification gave substance to what would have otherwise been an average result. The grind up the hill to home did little to quash what had been an exciting race on fantastic trails, and I was smug in the knowledge that I’d made a stand on a subject I feel strongly about.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

3 Weeks in Nepal; the Annapurna Circuit by bike



With the dust and stomach ailments finally settled from Michi and my Nepalese off road touring trip, we decided that it would be unfair not to share our experiences of this amazing place with a wider audience.

The good people at the Christchurch Singletrack Club saw the opportunity to coordinate our talk with  their end of year celebrations, and the refreshing beverages and good company should make fine acocmpaniment to the tall tales from Michi and myself.

So if you have a free evening on Wednesday the 15th of December we encourage you to pop down to Elevate bar in Cashmere and enjoy the show.

The full details are:

3 Weeks in Nepal; the Annapurna Circuit by bike
Tales of Ollie and Michi's Nepalese adventures
7:00PM at Elevate Bar
2 Colombo Street
Cashmere

Hope to see you all there!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Petit Brevet 2010; the little monster

Riders ascend Rapaki for the first of many climbs. Photo John 'Sifter' Randall.
Dawning warm but overcast, I rode from home in Mt Pleasant to Hansen Park where a few keen beans were already gathered and fizzing at the bung. Chatting to seasoned Brevet veterans Simon, Jasper, Michi and Sifter (whose bung knee ruled the event out for him), all seemed pretty amazed at the behemoth that Tim had created, but any anxieties were largely hidden by the experiential learning that comes from similarly epic undertakings like this Brevet’s elder sibling.

Ollie and Michi discuss lead-out tactics for the sprint. Photo Dominic Blissett.
Outright excitement was palpable in newbies like Dom and Ross, the latter reporting shakes such was the level of his anticipation. Loaded to the gunnels with gear to house and feed an African nation, they were prepared for any eventuality. All that gear meant weight for the climbs, and their loaded mules cast a stark juxtaposition against the sleek, unburdened lines of my rigid hub-geared Ventana.

Their obvious adherence to the Boy Scouts ‘be prepared’ motto brought about a touch of anxiety in me. Should I have packed some extra layers or even a survival blanket? But with bikes rolling out across the freshly mown paddock at 8AM on the dot, it was clear that my bed had been made, and that now I’d have to sleep in it, or not sleep at all, as the case came to be.

Reserved smiles early on. Perhaps Ollie knew what lay in store. Photo Lance Griffin.
Cruising up Rapaki and onto familiar tracks of Vernon and the traverse, it was good to get in the groove, a small bunch of four forming which thinned to two as we shredded a favourite road descent to Gebbies Pass. Lance and I worked well together, and knowing these early roads well we dispatched Port Levy saddle then Pigeon Bay saddle in quick succession. Here Lance’s choice for minimal navigation bit him in the ass, dropping back then taking a wrong turn only to be seen at Hilltop much later on. He was fortunate to be guided through the fog stricken Double Fenceline Route by the navigationally talented Michi, perhaps the only man I know with a built in GPS function (complete with Google earth compatibility).

In actual fact Michi and I had lucked out, as this crucial section was the only part of the course we had chosen to pre-ride, so the minimal visibility proved to be no barrier. I heard some grim reports particularly from Ross and Dom who’d neglected to take a fog busting fan in their gear and spent six hours exploring the lower couloirs of Mt Fitzgerald.

An indulgent break at the Hilltop Cafe followed. Pie, cake and ginger beer were consumed in great quantities to the point where a coat of bloat had enveloped me like the mist outside. When David and Simon then Michi and Lance rolled in and ate their own pies, I held on for another 45 min, knowing full well that the company on this next stretch would help me keep sane through the long night ahead.

Mist envelops the course at Hilltop. Photo Lance Griffin.
Summit Rd rolled up and down the hill in a strangely enjoyable fashion before dropping down to Little Akaloa where some fantastic conversations ensued about whether the name was a typo that had been perpetuated by lazy cartographers.

Up and down again to Okain’s where I sadly parted company with Simon and Dave. Rather wisely they’d chosen to chill at the backpackers, and their evening of fish and chips, warm showers and soft pillows couldn’t be further from what lay in my immediate future.

Climbing out of the picturesque Okains bay along the seemingly endless but well named Big Hill Road alone, I caught up to Charles who had trooped all the way through without a stop. His first Brevet and he was well prepared, having ridden the whole course the week prior but pulling the pin at Barry’s Bay at 3AM only last week, he was determined that they’d be a different outcome this time.

Dropping again to Le Bons Bay for another climb back to Summit Road, the sealed surface carrying us steeply into the mist. Michi and Lance appeared through the fog on one of the undulations, having missed the Le Bons ballbreaker. I joined them for a final pinch to the Stoney Creek track which descended into Akaroa. Here the afternoon rain conspired with clumps of poop and my tire’s skimpy knobs to make this grassy descent a hair raising experience. With relief we made it into Akaroa, even catching the 4 Square’s closing special ($1.09 Pam’s mince and cheese) a few minutes before closing time.

Already shivering despite wearing all my layers on, I was determined to hit the road and keep the wheels rolling. The mild warmth of all the exertion I could muster was all I could call upon to fight the cold on this long night.

A pleasant ride around Onawae Flat then Duvachelle to Wainui and the rain began to worsen. As if in cahoots with the altitude, a grovel up the indomitable Bossu Road accompanied ever increasing waves of rain till on the exposed tops I was soaked and shivering in the bone chilling squalls.

Rather than any competitive instinct which had driven me this far, my sole motivation to continue now came from a need to get home and out of the dreadful cold. The descent to Little River was steep and corrugated. Rigid forks and shivering limbs made it even more testing, and it was with relief that I made it finally to Little River, where ironically the road that defines the settlement had the look of a monsoon fed torrent. Turning left onto the now swampy rail trail, I was safe in the knowledge that only the flat latter part of the course remained. There was however still a long way to go and a long night ahead.

The seemingly endless sandy stretch out to Ellesmere outlet was where I first experienced what has been described to me by adventure racers as the sleep monsters. Grinding away with only the gusting headwind and driving rain for company the featureless night time landscape lulled my eyes to a sleepy state, and for the first time of many I’d find myself waking with a start, with bike heading acutely off course. Fortunately the rustle of long grass or sticks woke me before I struck ditch, power pole, sea or oncoming vehicle, and I was lucky that the roads and trails where it happened were as straight as an arrow.

The sandy surface dashed any hope of riding, so plugging through the sand I took to opportunity to eat a chocolate bar and crank my IPod, anything and everything to try and keep eyes from involuntarily closing. With relief I made it through the outlet section where the 2 hour’s previous toils were rewarded with a profoundly comforting tail wind. Cranking through the miles free of twist or turn, monsters returned and the regular glances at my bicycle’s speedo proved to be dull company. Even it gave up eventually, succumbing to the road crud and becoming locked as my mind was on the average speed.

Hope had begun to grow now with the lights of Lincoln appearing through the mist. Street light are often bagged for the light pollution cast by their buzzing sodium bulbs, but on this day, very early on a Saturday morning they were a most welcome sight.

Kennedy’s Bush Road is a tough climb at the best of times, and in my sleep deprived state I am embarrassed to report walking some sections, unable to muster enough traction from sodden surface, tires and legs, let alone a line to follow in the darkness from my fatigue addled brain.

Normally the feeling of elation at cresting a final climb would be difficult to contain, and friends will report me regularly whooping in delight when cresting a final climb. No such celebration in this growing light, the easy tarmac kilometres to Rapaki passed in a haze, the final descent I enjoyed safe in the knowledge that it was almost over.

Stopping at Hansen Park to note my finishing time of 5:55AM. No dancing girls.

Ride home and a walk up the hill where a shower of plentiful warmth ensued. Bed.

In all, the estimated 5800m of climbing turned out to be closer to 7500m, the latter being measured on a bike mounted altimeter of one of the 13 to finish (from 28 starters). 21 hours and 55 minutes made for my longest day on a bike ever. At points I was pushing the boundaries of fun into the realms of misery but on reflection it is an experience I’m glad I’ve had.

It may be some time before the memories of this Petit monster fade.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Le Petit Brevet 2010 – what lies in store?


Ollie in the big Brevet. Photo Caleb Smith.
The wildly successful Kiwi Brevet had its inaugural running at Waitangi weekend this year. In running this mammoth 1100km self-sufficient bike-a-thon, MTB legend Simon Kennett unwittingly started a wave of popularity for the randonneuring genre. Participants must combine riding fitness (durability rather than speed) with mental fortitude and a gigantic quantity of food. Success is not achieved by reaching the finish line first, but by completing the epic undertaking, and while saddle sores fade, the memories of long days in exciting and beautiful places live on.

With pleasant memories still strong, it was with no hesitation that I jumped at the opportunity to partake in Tim Mulliner’s take on the theme; Le Petit Brevet. Famous for his bestselling touring book ‘Long ride for a Pie’, Tim had dreamed up a thrillingly difficult course on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsular. In squeezing 5,800m of climbing into only 320km, he’d set a route that would challenge the most die-hard pedal freaks, while still proving achievable for the less obsessed looking to dabble in an epic weekend-long adventure.

And now with preparations for the very long ride almost complete, I can only speculate what will lie ahead on the mixture of singletrack, gravel and sealed roads of this beautiful part of the world.

In the interests of keeping weight down (especially important given the sheer climbing involved), I’ve decided not to take any bedding, and am resigned to ride through the darkness and into the morning’s small hours, hopefully arriving back at Hansen Park at 4AM on Sunday morning.

Proven in the Kiwi Brevet and a recent high altitude touring circuit around Nepal’s Annapurna circuit, I’ll be riding my grinch green Ventana El Padrino, complete with Rohloff hub, carbon rigid fork and Stans Raven semi-slicks. Setup wise I’m passing on the Freeload rack and dry bag, instead paring gear back to a minimum and carrying it in a Cactus pack. All going to plan I’ll be able to get away with the 15L Zero, but if sanity prevails it’ll likely be the 29L Henry. Illumination will be from a borrowed set of Ay-Ups, their 12 hr runtime surpassing any other light setups in my box of tricks.

Ollie's Padrino gets some lovin' before its big outing
The relatively short distance has left me a lot less conservative than for the Brevet, with only essential tools, spares and duct tape, not to mention cash and cellphone finding a place in the pack. I’ll also be rocking a hydration bladder instead of the bottles I used in the Brevet. A Steri-pen will mean I can top up from rivers and dodgy taps without fear of gut rot.

Assorted gear.
Food wise I’ll be munching on One Square Meals (cranberry as I have yet to overcome my psychological allergy to apricot after the Brevet), stopping for a sit down meal at Hilltop and Akaroa if they are open and willing to accommodate a sweaty cyclist.

Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most, is the camaraderie that grows between randonneurs. With almost 40 souls lining up, the mixture of anticipation, excitement and anxiety on the start line will be electric. As these feelings fade with the growing miles, the simple task of covering a great distance in the company of like-minded individuals will forge a sense of community that beats any extrinsic reward.

While the forecast is for light rain and light winds, I’ve convinced myself that it’ll be no more than a cooling mist, which would be innumerably better than the midday roastings we’ve been experiencing recently in Canterbury.

MetVUW's predictions for the first five hours.
Check-in again for a full report of my Petit Brevet experience, assuming I make it through Tim’s pick of the peninsula’s unrelenting climbs!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 20: Chillin’ in Kathmandu

A monkey cleaning a companion at Swambuktah temple
Today’s goal was to visit the Swambuktah temple, the Buddhist shrine renowned for its hyperactive monkey monks.

A delicious (steaming fresh) apple strudel breakfast and we were off on foot at 7AM, in an attempt to beat the heat of the day. Shorts were at the cleaners so I was wearing my only other pair of trousers which happened to be my waterproof Cactus Lifty ski pants. They are pretty breathable but brisk walks around a 30 degree Kathmandu were probably pushing the limits of their design.

Continuing a theme of navigational creativity we left the map at the hotel and took the scenic route past the banks of the river, sickeningly plastered with household garbage.

Walking past the Bajaj industrial district with its asphyxiating smoke stacks we finally made it to Swambuktah with the guidance of a friendly policeman.

More monkey preening action
We knew we were on the money when we spied a large surly primate snacking on rice. First attempts at photos with the monkeys were cautious as I noted a rabid glint in their eyes.

Yawning monkey
Climbing a marathon set of stair to the temple, the monkey show began in earnest. It seemed as if picking seeds from a companion’s fur was the preferable way to spend the day with dual benefits of clean fur for one monkey and a nutty snack for the other.

A monkey with no friends has to clean himself
The younger and more energetic leapt from tree to tree with dazzling displays of gymnasticry. Some even attacked a string of prayer flags, double teaming the fabric till it was threadbare.

video

We sat for a good hour, taking photos and observing the monkey’s remarkably human like behaviour. A truly awesome close encounter with none of the cages or crowds of zoos.

Walking back to Thamel, we set about our final task of spotlessly cleaning our bikes to the high standard of New Zealand Customs. A greasy rag, brush and sample sized bottle of shampoo did the trick and we were all boxed up in time for an afternoon nap.

Our final ceremonial dinner at an authentic Tibetan restaurant came served in dish with an oven of glowing coals at the centre, heating a delicious broth containing all manner of delicacies including our favourite momos.

A relaxing last day in Kathmandu and we are all prepared for our midday flight tomorrow.

It is sad to be leaving this amazing land but both Michi and I are excited to be heading home to New Zealand.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Day 19: Pokhara to Kathmandu

What a day of contrasts. A slow start while we waited for our Rainbow tourist bus was proceeded by a frantic rush to the correct bike stop to load bikes on the roof before it left without us.

Then, defying our expectations of a 2PM arrival time, we were subjected to traffic congestion from hell coupled with the best spine jarring ride that Nepal’s decrepit roads could muster.

Ollie smiling after failing the bottle drink on bumpy bus challenge
At almost 12 hours long for a 200km journey, we are confident we could have ridden our bikes faster (and probably in more comfort) although heat may have been an issue as we were sweltering inside the bus. Boredom was the word of the day, and not even a book I’d picked up from our hotel could keep the itch to jump up and do something at bay.

Roof mounted goat heading for Pokhara
View from the bus in an epic queue
When what seemed like an eternity of start-stop driving had passed and we had crested the final hill into Kathmandu at the pace of a one legged Cheetah we decided to cut our losses and mount bikes for the ride into town.
Bumper to bumper congestion stretching across a distant hill
Immediately our boredom switched to excitement as we readied packs and lights for a daring assault on the bus roof. If stationary this wouldn’t have been a problem, but with the bus still crawling Michi clambered onto the roof, throwing down bikes and bags in the smoggy haze.

With only our fading headlamps for illumination it was a thrilling ride into Thamel, arguably the most nerve racking of the trip. Our senses were flooded with smells, smog, honking and the jarring road but not the sight that would have made the journey less of a hazard.

We dodged speeding buses swerving on the wrong side of the road, and throngs of pedestrians who jumped clear as we burst from the night. Safe to say pulses were racing and hearts were in our mouths.

With luck and some navigational kill on Michi’s part we chanced upon our hotel, relieved beyond belief that we’d made it through the dangerous but thrilling experience of a Kathmandu rush-hour night ride.

It took more than a few lemon teas to settle our nerves but looking back I’m proud of how we handled to situation. Plus, if we hadn’t bailed on the bus we’d probably be still sitting in the traffic queue outside Kathmandu.

Day 18: Hangin’ in Pokhara

Starting the day with a breakfast burrito from Mike’s restaurant (a Pokhara institution) we enjoyed delicious freshly squeezed OJ while watching the locals board row boats for work on the other side of the lake. Picturesque wouldn’t begin to describe the scene.

Sunrise over colourful boats on Lake Pokhara
Then it was off to do mundane things like picking up laundry, catching up on e-mails and a few last minute bargains (sunglasses and a jacket) from an authentic Nepalese fake goods merchant.

Once sorted we decided to head off on a cruisy recovery ride to explore the Pokhara that is so popular with tourists. Clearly we were suckers for punishment, as the ride quickly distorted into a granny gear sweat- fest timed to coincide with the worst mid-day heat.

Climbing the road to the World Peace Pagoda proved more strenuous than initially anticipated, but once finally at the sacred Buddhist site the breathtaking and strangely peaceful views helped quell spiking heart rates.
World Peace Pagoda above Pokhara
The Annapurna range which we had been so close to only days prior was peeking through the clouds and made a dazzling backdrop. Yet again we were reminded of the sheer scale of these mountains.
Gigantic mountains peeking through the clouds
Leaving for some well earned downhill the trail took us down a step laden descent to a dead end. It seems that even on our day off we were destined to carry our bikes, and 15 minutes of toil brought us back up the hill to where we had started the descent.

View down to Lake Pokhara from the peace Pagoda
To save more hard work in the oppressive heat we descended the scary fast access road which was nuggety enough to fulfil the need for sketchy speed.

Rolling back into town, a bakery lunch and nap prepared us for a night on the town, Pokhara style. We were joined by some Swiss-Australian friends we’d serendipitously met in Pokhara after initially meeting on the trail at Thorong Phedi.

Beginning with a return to the steakhouse for half a cow worth of steak, we then attempted to hire a boat but were refused, the proprietor of the rental service citing fading light. Undeterred we danced up a storm to a local DJ’s beats, cutting shapes to a terrific light show complete with lazers and smoke machines. A fitting end to our time in Pokhara.

Up early tomorrow for 6 hour bus to Kathmandu.

Page 17: Jhinu to Pokhara

The view down the valley as we roll out of the Annapurna sanctuary
Leaving the awesome Green View Guest Lodge after now standard issue Tibetan bread, lemon tea and porridge breakfast it was off down some more insanely steep stairs to a bridge, then up some even steeper stairs till we reached some wicked rideable singletrack. I had the overwhelming feeling that we were descending into the energy sapping mug of the tropical jungle and not since Besi Sahar or Tatopani had the overwhelming sensation of sweat drenched exertion been felt.

Looking back to the mountains we are saying goodbye to
Thankfully the singletrack portions were off the scale, striking an excellent balance between gnar and rideability. Rocky with the odd climbing pinch and a smattering of features like waterfalls, steps and exposed edges to keep the fun factor high.

Michi on the trail
Today we saw some ingenious water powered contraptions, utilising a resource the Nepalese obviously have no shortage of. A hydro pipeline with a solid 100m head and a more primitive grain grinding mill were both perched on the track edge so begged for a sneaky inspection.

A hydro-powered grain mill on the trail
Stopping for a pizza and momo lunch (our last Annapurnan indulgence) made the final leg a gut wrenching battle, every acceleration met with a puff of half digested momo gas. Riding out from Nyapul and the culture shock hit us, honking taxis and buses and all manner of traders hocking wares shattered the alpine tranquillity of the last two weeks.

The solid 15km climb was a welcome reprieve, its gradual gradient and sweeping switchbacks making for an enjoyable final hurdle. I even got to test my new set of altitude enhanced lungs with some uphill motorpacing from one of the dirty local buses.

The view down to Lake Pokhara from the top of the hill
An equally epic 15km descent and Pokhara began to take shape, the odd house becoming an apartment block until we were in a hectic haze reminiscent of Kathmandu all those days ago.

For dinner we fulfilled a long held desire for animal protein, demolishing what must have been a 500g steak at the Everest Steak house. Ice-cream sundaes capped off a fine meal, and now having retired to our soft hotel beds (with working hot showers) we can begin to reflect on the experiences we’ve had.

Day 16: Annapurna Base Camp to Jhinu

Sun rising over the Annapurna range
After a rough night sleep in the storeroom at the Base Camp lodge where we were periodically woken by clanging pots and the manager describing the blanket distribution process we awoke to catch the sunrise over the most amazing mountain scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. Wall to wall 7000m+ peaks all glowing in the light of the fresh day. Again my efforts to capture the scene on film won’t do the scene any sort of justice.
The sacred mountain of Machapuchre in the morning light
On beginning our descent it struck me how here in Nepal the land doesn’t really seem to rise up to the mountains as in New Zealand. Already insanely high at 4100m, peaks still tower above us as if the impossibly high ridges were invented as a joke, the near vertical slopes of ice clinging to rock left to match the 3000m step the valleys below.

An actual Himilayan  mountain goat
Fresh as it was, we set off briskly stopping only to take snaps of the sacred Machapuchre from new angles. We were on fine form as we half skipped, jumped and ran from village to village. Stopping only to pass pole flailing trekkers or to mock the travel times listed at guest house murals.

In short we managed the ten hour trek in under six, albeit with some aching calves for our troubles.
Michi was blisteringly fast in the morning, but faded by lunch, still managing to ascend the countless stairs up to Chhomrong with typical pluck. One porter described my climbing style as ‘like a goat’ during a daring rock move to pass the porter’s train. I’m taking it as a compliment.

Michi doing his best mountain goat impersonation
Pizza lunch at Chhomrong was followed by bike collection then a blat down the hill (steep unrideable stairs) to Jhinu. Hot pools failed to live up to the high standard set by Tatopani but were still heaven on fatigued muscles. All that is left is an epic dinner of momos, chocolate cake for desert, then to bed for our final day in the Annapurna sanctuary. The ride out to Pokhara shouldn’t be too strenuous and we plan to take heed advice to seek the most rideable western route.

 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day 15: Chhomrong to Annapurna Base Camp

Ditching our bikes proved to be one of our smarter moves as much of the trail was composed of flight after flight of steep stairs that would have reduced us to a grovelling carry.

Perilously steep steps on the way to Annapurna Base Camp
Michi and I were infact quite the speed trekkers, ditching 15kg of bikes and gear left us with a spring in our steps, and we typically took half the expected time posted on map boards in villages along the way. We half powered through Bamboo, Himalaya, Deurali to Machapuchre Base Camp, then finally Annapurna Base Camp, 2000m above our starting point of Chhomrong.

A waterfall crossing the trail

Lunch in Deurali heralded a delicious cheese and tomato pizza. Plenty of cheese and some herbs made for a delicious treat, here on the southern side of the Annapurnas they don’t seem to hold back on the cheese as they do on the North side. Whilst descending to a river crossing and attempting a hot line I slipped on some steep scree and diced my hand and elbow, but both seem to be healing well already. Funny that after two weeks of the arguably more dangerous act of mountain biking, it took a casual walk for me to lose some skin.

Hiker Ollie looks up the valley to Machapuchre

It seems we are both well acclimatised as I felt no effects like shortness of breath and could smash it up the hill.

The final stretch was in light rain then hail, but through the mist we spotted herds of black and white sheep, the odd struggling trekker and finally the bright blue corrugated iron of the Base Camp guest houses. Apparently the place is booked out so we are double bunking in a storeroom (head to tail). Prices here are ridiculous (500 Rupee Coke) but this is obviously the price of luxury at 4130m.

Prayer flag covered climbers memorial at Annapurna Base Camp
At base camp itself the air is chilly but once clouds had cleared we braved the wind to take photos galore. When the cool proved too much to bear we ducked inside for a game of chess, and even a sneaky chapter or two from a book I found in the restaurant called ‘Hullabaloo on the Guava Orchard’ – Seems good. A book is something that I wish I’d brought along, as a few chapters of reading is a great way to pass the downtime between dinner and napping.

Clouds roll over the south face of Annapurna
Bracing for the cold night we are glad to have brought our winter sleeping bags and have layered up with a couple of polypro layers just to be safe. A light breakfast of porridge (all we can afford on our tight high altitude budget) and then we’ll be off to pick up our bikes in Chhomrong. There is even talk of hot pools at Jhinu. Nice!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 14: Ghorepani to Chhomrong

Himalayan sunrise over Poon Hill
Ignoring a kerfuffle downstairs at 4AM we maximised all important sleep time and woke at 5:30AM for a 20 minute dash to the peak of nearby Poon Hill, just in time to watch the sun rise over endless ranges of the most beautiful mountains one could imagine. What seemed like 500 people had all awoken before us and crowded the peak, all trying desperately to capture the moment in stunning digital clarity. It is moments like this when I wonder if it isn’t better to just live the moment rather than trying to capture the uncapturable. Quite simply no photo could do this Himalayan sunrise scene justice.

Photographers capturing their own portion of the sunrise's slendour
Back down to our lodge for a round of porridge and Tibetan bread and we were off again, this time with bikes in tow for what would turn out to be an awesome day of jungle singletrack on steeply undulating terrain.

Michi on morning's the climb from Ghorepani

Parts of today’s ride reminded me of sections of Nelson’s Black Diamond ridge. Root strewn sections with soil eroded away made for plenty of chain ring-obstacle interaction. A big squishy bike would have been the ticket but our short travel 29er hardtails still fared surprisingly well. Anything too steep to ride usually had a raggedy set of stairs with a death cliff at the end which gave ample motivation for playing it safe.

Michi on the descent to Chhomrong
Flight after flight of stairs with a sprinkling of perfect singletrack was the order of the day.

After one section I noted a leg of my Freeload buzzing the tire, so stopped to realign it. A rare lapse in an otherwise commendable performance by the rack so far. Michi opted to tighten his straps only he cranked the webbing so hard it tore. Some ingenious use of a belt and we were rolling again.

Lunch was a delicious potato, vegetable and cheese number, and afterwards I entertained our hosts (at their request) with a daring display of trials riding. He recorded it on his camera phone but made no promises to make me the next You-tube hit.

Ollie carves a corn field turn
More descent and more climbing and we’d made our goal of Chhomrong. Tomorrow we plan to drop bikes for a speed trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, as all reports are that this out and back section would be a nightmare on wheels.