An idea turned to adventure, Jonathan Mutch conquered passes twice the height of your average French Alp on his way through the Himalayas. Here are his photos and words from his high altitude trip.
As with most of my ideas this one was born from too much coffee. This idea was special, in that 90% don’t pass the sanity test, nor the limited resources of our family coffers. For some reason this one was deemed ‘do-able’ with only limited chances of abject failure and humiliation.
I needed a challenge and remembered an obscure high altitude route in the Himalayas that I’d hitch hiked 25 years ago and I set my mind on cycling from Manali to Leh in India, crossing the Greater Himalayan Range over 600 Km and high passes in excess of 5000 m.
As with all of my schemes, well before I am in any way prepared and before having considered the practicalities, I start by telling as many people as possible to create an expectation that I’m obliged to fulfill.
My greatest motivation come from the reaction of friends and family, who universally doubted my ability to cope after a disastrous attempt to complete the Route des Grandes Alpes from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean during a heatwave that brought France to a standstill.
I completed only a third of the route, loaded with expedition equipment for the Himalayas on my touring bike. With far too much kit I could barely lift the bike and panniers that weighed in excess of 55 kg.
Cycling in maximum temperatures of 42°C up ‘Hors Categorie’ climbs, I learned how it was to suffer. At 4 Kph on climbs of 20 Km, simple mental arithmetic gave 5 hours to the next ‘col’ as I was repeatedly overtaken by irritatingly lithe athletes on carbon frames with expensively whirring gear sets.
Driven by my failure in the Alps, I continued preparations. I had a lot of kit to buy and I started an internet shopping spree. My strategy to ‘trickle feed’ purchases and keep them ‘under the radar’ from my increasingly skeptical family failed, as deliveries arrived daily to hoots of derision … ‘Dad…more frippery!’
The last three weeks were spent in ‘Spinning’ classes in an attempt to increase my cardiovascular fitness before setting off to the Himalayas. Two flights and a 15 hour bus journey and I was at the start point at a mere 1800 m altitude and I could already feel the effects of reduced oxygen.
I set off after two days of acclimatisation. It was early September and the Monsoon was nearly over, promising clear skies en route and a reduced risk of landslides, road closures and delays spent shivering at the roadside caked in mud under torrential rains.
The first two days were always going to be ‘emotional’ with a 2200 m climb to 4000 m altitude in just 50 Km. During this miserable ascent I doubted my ability to complete the journey and blanked the prospect of the later passes at 5300 m. On passing the first col my confidence grew and I knew that if I listened to my body, took frequent rests and ticked over like a labouring diesel, then I could make it. I’d break no records, but I’d make it.
I climbed very slowly from the foothills that were wreathed in the last clouds of the retreating Monsoon and entered the high altitude desert of Ladakh that is culturally and geographically more akin to Tibet than India. Strangely the higher and more remote I was, the stronger I felt. I spend my life seeking peace in remote and beautiful places and I was thriving.
My kit was behaving impeccably, the bike was strong and sure, the dehydrated expedition food was surprisingly tasty and despite having condemned my smelly polyester club cycling gear to a zip-lock plastic bag after two days, my Vulpine merino was proving comfortable and versatile.
I used a Vulpine Long Sleeve Merino T-shirt and Short Merino Race Socks for the next 10 days. I am ashamed to say that I wore the same T-shirt for the rest of the trip. The Merino wool was very high quality, did not stretch or smell and was very comfortable and forgiving, even in my sleeping bag during some very cold nights.
With my bike becoming lighter as I consumed my supplies, I made great progress. Despite the mental challenge of the Gata Loops, a series of 21 hairpins en route to 5070 m altitude, I really started to enjoy the isolation, the cold winds and the mesmerising scenery. My life was contained in just four panniers and I wanted for nothing…with the exception perhaps of a hot bath and homemade lasagne!
On cresting the final pass at 5300 m where the oxygen levels are 47% of that at sea level, I freewheeled for 150 Km down to the Indus Valley and civilisation. In the mountains I was hailed as a heroic and was cheered and welcomed. As I approached the town of Leh I progressively disappeared, becoming invisible as the traffic intensified. The cheerful and warm regard of the mountains was replaced with blankness as my bike was absorbed by the traffic.
I had arrived in Leh, but it wasn’t about arriving, it was the journey. Invisible yes, but I felt taller and braver, stronger and calmer.
I’m now back in the office and considering a third cup of coffee…Vulpine don’t make clothing for rowers, shame, as the Atlantic is calling, I just haven’t got the courage to tell anyone just yet, so don’t tell!