When was the last time you were scared? Not startled, like rounding a corner and someone is standing there. Or being cuddled up to your significant other while a Hollywood movie monster wreaks havoc on your TV screen. But scared? Let me rephrase, when was the last time you were terrified? I’m not sure we feel that level of intense fear too often in our lifetime, but when we do, it’s memorable and it can be an exhilarating experience. May 19, 2017 for me, coincidentally my mother’s birthday, fitting as I was thinking about her quite a bit that night. That night, I was huddled in a cheaply made tent on the side of a mountain. High in the Chanshal Pass to be exact, hovering above the Shimla district in Himachal Pradesh, India. At 14,830 ft above sea level, I was buried deep inside my sleeping bag and covered with a thick woolen blanket, beautifully woven in the style of the Himalayan Sherpas, and I was positive I was going to die.
I had set out from New Delhi two days prior with my motorcycle packed up and strapped up with all manner of adventure gear. There were twelve of us, heading for the first big excursion of 2017 spring by The India Bull Riders. It started out typical enough, weaving our way through the horrible drivers of Delhi NCR, then onto the Karnal Bypass highway heading north to the Himalayan foothills. The rain came, as expected, but after a quick stop to fill our bellies at Mickie Dee’s, the sun reappeared and we began the climb to Shimla. The sensory assault was beyond overwhelming. With every twist of the handlebars, a new and stunning landscape unfolded across my windscreen. Clear cobalt skies provided the ceiling over deep green valleys framed by the rugged burnt sienna rock face of the Himalayas. The constant chug and drone of the Royal Enfield engines straining against the steady ascent into the mountains was adding to the ambience of living a biker’s dream. Simply put, a biker’s paradise. Img Img Rest stop, more rain, chai stop,clear sky, naughty carburetor delay, the sun began to sink and on and on we rolled. The steadily deteriorating pavement slipping under my front tire as the miles were hungrily consumed. Now only eleven, after a disappointing call back to reality for one of us, hardcore brothers pressed forward on our mission to do nothing more than watch the sunset and rise over the peaks of Chanshal Pass. We arrived at our first check point and spent the rest of the night feasting like kings, partying like rock stars and sleeping like the dead. We awoke the next morning to view a sun drenched valley freely producing copious amounts of nature’s cure for everything. Smirks and chuckles were stowed away in our saddlebags as we did our final checks on the bikes. Today we climb into The Pass.
The ride through Chanshal Valley to the base of the pass was every bit exhilarating as had been imagined. Even a simple rest stop for tea and sweet fresh rolls was voyage into tranquility. We sat atop a low crumbling stone wall beside a frothing mountain stream surrounded by a garden of Eden and enjoyed our meager breakfast. Nothing here was mundane or ordinary. Colours were brighter, the air was candied, the bird’s songs more poignant, we were in Oz. The rain rejoined us as a companion, but no one cared. I honestly don’t believe there was anything that could be done, short of making us turn around for home, that could have dampened our spirits. We rode and rode, until the pleasurable aches of motorcycle travel were burning too strong to continue. It was only then we finally pulled over beside a gray icy cold river moving with a definite purpose in the opposite direction of us. Relaxing on the craggy riverbed of shale and stone, we grinned at each other and gobbled up shared oatmeal bars. We were getting close, and the expectations were high. With one last two hour push we found ourselves at the Dhaba that unofficially signals the begin of the climb. I was soaked. In Canada, slush is a mixture of wet snow and ice, here it means mud. A deep, thick, clay based adhesive that has the uncanny ability to bind itself to you like epoxy, yet somehow be as slippy as engine oil. Sloppy wet soup, Indian road stew, I have never seen the like. I had a spill the day before due to the almost unmanageable property of this riding surface, as well as one provided graciously by a patch of long wet grass. I was determined to stay upright today…at all costs. Alas it was not to be, and much to the delight of my brothers, I once again found myself face down in true essence of Indian soil. After a minimal amount of good natured ribbing, they nursed my fractured ego back to health with heartfelt encouragement and genuine love. The final ascent and test of our true motorcycling prowess and skill began.
The road steepened dramatically, then became more of a path. It alternated between jagged crushed rock to gravel covered in wet pine needles to deep pockets of muddy slush. Each change came without warning, no gradual switch, just one extreme surface condition to the next, forcing our winding snake of Enfields to slow. A maximum of 30km per hour was all any of us dared to stomach. It had already been an exhausting day’s ride, and now faced with the final 18 km of the most challenging conditions, yet a new obstacle presented itself. Altitude. As we rose, the air thinned, my vision blurred and a dull throb began in my head. I noticed my decision making was indecisive and slow. I rolled the throttle back again, creeping now between 15 – 20 km. I focused only on the bike in front of me, following his tail light, sticking to the path he was following from the bike in front of him. It occurred to me, if the lead bike messed up, we would all unwittingly follow him over the edge like lemmings to the sea and tumble to our deaths. I am only being a little flamboyant here. Truthfully, a mistake here could easily spell your end. Almost without warning, the towering pines fell away and we burst into open air. Like an airplane breaking through the rain clouds into the sunshine. But it wasn’t sun. It was dark and threatening, hostile and unwelcoming. Sparse tufts of grass sprouting through a sea of sombre ashen rock. The wind picked up, it was cold even by a Canadian’s standards and the distant mountain peaks swirled with snow. Unceremoniously we stopped. We had arrived. After an almost two hour crawl, our little band of brothers stood on the highest point of Chanshal Pass and celebrated.
The first order of business was to make camp. The weather was already hostile, and darker clouds were already rolling in. It is a surreal experience to walk in the clouds. A shadowy vapor passed over us, around us…through us, causing moist droplets to form and bead on my rain jacket. As I untied my bedroll from the bike, I resigned myself to the fact it would be a wet cold night. With saddlebags over my shoulder and tent and bedroll tucked under one arm, I started down the rocky goat path towards the small plain we had chosen to camp on. The storm clouds continued to envelop us, and after no more than a dozen steps, I lost sight of where we had parked the bikes. After a couple dozen more, I lost sight of everything and something very unexpected happened.
Now, by way of explanation, let me say I have never done any trekking or hiking at altitude and most of my skiing has been done on very modest mountains. I’m from Ontario, Canada, not exactly the rooftop of the world. So, when I began to feel dizzy and faint, it took me by surprise. This was two-fold of what I had felt on the bike. That, I had attributed to being tired and hungry; but this was something very different. I have never fainted in my life, and I am very sure that is what was about to happen. I was steadied and lead to an outcrop of craggy rock to sit on by one of my brothers. ‘ In through the nose and out through the mouth’ he said, then further explained I was suffering from the early stages of AMS. Acute Mountain Sickness. Another comrade arrived on the scene and told me to slow my breathing, slow my whole attitude, nice and easy does it. Eventually I felt somewhat normal again, and the group made camp; but for now that was the end of my heavy lifting.
We endured little light rain and suppered on biscuits and granola bars. Shortly after the hidden sunset, the clouds dispersed and left us standing quite literally in the heavens. The only way I can reconcile it in my mind is by comparing it to a school trip as a kid. Laying in the pitch black of the planetarium in Toronto while the show operator displayed the graphics of constellations on the domed roof. But this, this was altogether different. This was live. We were not looking at the stars, we were in the stars. I felt like Neil Armstrong. There was a strange and alien discomfort to it all. First off, there were twenty or thirty times more stars than I was used to seeing. Second, they were so close it was as if you could reach out and touch them, snatch a tiny diamond off the pure black velvet blanket and put it in your pocket. Third, and most disturbing, was nothing was where it was supposed to be. I have viewed stars my whole life from Canada, a different hemisphere. Everything was displaced; I couldn’t even find the little dipper! The absence of any man made light around us, and the dead silence created a very strong illusion I was floating in space…that started to put the zap on my head and I was exhausted. I crawled into my little tent and fell instantly asleep.
I awoke pretty damp as the rain had returned through the night. Crawling from my nylon cave, I found the rest of the group huddled on a ridge just beside our camp staring at the sunrise and the Himalayan mountains. I joined them and fell instantly in awe. Someone handed me a coffee and I stood there trying to comprehend what my eyes were telling me. My head was aching and I still felt disjointed from the AMS, but that did nothing to diminish the pure beauty that faced us. I was humbled in the face of nature. The sheer enormity of the rage made me feel small and insignificant; the majesty of the peaks stirred something deep inside. After some time, I regained my composure and dragged my bed roll from the tent to dry, along with assorted bits of clothing, riding boots, gloves etc. Once again, I performed this menial task with a wee bit too much vigor and ended up on my ass in the grass. I was still not accustomed to mountain living. We have a real live MD in the group, thank God; and he positioned me on an air mattress with my head slightly down grade, took my blood pressure and told me to chill. Hey! Who am I to disobey a doctor? So that is how I spent my morning, gazing out at the nobility of the mountains and basking in the sun like an alligator with a full belly on a south Florida river bank.
At some point I rejoined the living and we did what Motorcycle Clubs do when out of the public eye, we enjoyed ourselves. The day slowly gave way to dusk and again we marveled at the views offered us by her exalted queen, Mother Nature. Wood was chopped, a fire was lit, a supper was cooked and the merriment ensued far into the night. Right up until 2:38 am. I know exactly because I looked at my phone in order to note the precise time of my death. I have mentioned we were in the stars, in the clouds. Well, by extension, when there is lightning, you are in that too! So close I could taste the electrical charge, and the crack of the thunder was louder than anything I have heard to date. I was a little nervous to be sure…and then the hail started. We hunkered down like a couple of WWI soldiers in a trench on a French battlefield, but the battering on our little tent was relentless. The other occupant and I joked about it as best we could, but both our voices were shaky. The truth was, if this tent was ruined, there was nowhere for us to go. We were so far from shelter or humanity, we may as well have been on the moon. The only option available was to somehow slither in to one of the other already overloaded tents. Already overloaded due to the untimely death of a comrade’s tent the night before. The hail pounded the thin nylon without mercy and I wriggled as deep into my sleeping bag as I could. Then after an hour? Two? Just like that, as if a switch had been flicked, it stopped. Lightning, rain and hail, gone. I sat up, flipped on the flashlight and chuckled. Taking a few deep breaths, I rearranged my sleeping bag and attire, took stock of the internal damage to the tent and with a smile, laid back down. I had no idea the worst was yet to come.
It started with a gentle flutter. Then a gust of wind like a pop caused the walls of the tent to collapse in towards us. I knew this even in the total blackness because the tent wall hit me in the face with a slap. That got my attention. The wind in an instant was like the breath of God. The hail storm had been a child tossing pebbles compared to this. The severe vibration of the buffeting wind was causing all the condensation from the walls of the tent to fall. That is to say it began to rain inside the tent. It increased. There was not a steady wind, it came in gusts, violent and irregular. The tent would implode, then expand. I could feel the pressure change in my ears. It was rapidly gaining in violence and vibration. Faster and faster. There was no way my little tent could survive. I could hear the seams ripping above the roaring tempest. ‘Are we okay?’ I screamed trying to hold the frame of the tent against the push of the gale. ‘You can’t fight it’ was the reply from deep within the pile of blankets beside me. I gave up and let go, burrowing back into my own cocoon. I heard the tie rip clean off the tent and it collapsed on us. There was nothing to be done but ride it out. We were less than 200 yards from the cliff face and I was sure at any moment we would be flung into space to spiral down to the valley below. My breathing shallowed and I am not ashamed to say I felt the onset of outright panic. I calmed myself down to sheer terror by reminding myself I was a very big man, as was my tent mate, and the fact that our saddlebags and all our other gear was in here with us rendered us quite a load. Not easily lifted from mother earth. But somehow, every time I squeezed my eyes shut, my mind was flooded with images of cars being effortlessly tossed through the air by tornadoes and hurricanes. ‘Shit man!’ I thought ‘Mama Nature can move whatever the hell she wants to!’. I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die and decided being flung off a cliff from a Himalayan mountain peak was a pretty cool way to go. So, with the tent walls flapping like a kite, the roaring wind literally plugging my ears like two blunt sticks and the dogged onslaught of internal tent rain, exhaustion mercifully took hold and I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes; but it was still pitch black, as if I had not opened them at all. Someone was shouting in the dark. The air was still, and apart from the shouting, silent. It was in Hindi, so it took me a few moments to work it out, although I was sure he was screaming ‘ They are gone! They are all dead!’. As it turned out, it was a brother from a more southern part of India who had joined us for the ride running about and screaming, ‘ Snow! I am in snow!’. He continued his antics until laughter came from each of the tents and we all joined in the frivolity. I heard the crunch of his boots in the hail as he approached our tent. ‘Holy shit! What did you do?’ he laughed. ‘Let me see…’. Suddenly the collapsed portion of our tent popped out. ‘That will hold for now’ he said and crunched away. I thanked him and drifted back out until daylight woke me several hours later. Thankful to be alive, I unzipped the door of the tent and peeked out.
Carnage. Our little camp was in tatters. One by one we all emerged from our hovels and laughed and high five’d each other. We had survived. The morning however, did not seem too pleased to see us. It was cold, and once again we were wrapped in a blanket of black and gray clouds. After a hasty breakfast of coffee and cup noodles we broke camp as quickly as possible and prepared to descend the mountain back to civilization. I was feeling rather despondent. We had come to Chanshal pass with appreciation and in awe. Yes, while it seems silly now, at that moment I was feeling that the pass had rejected us, that we were unwelcome. It was at that very moment of downcast melancholy, a horse emerged from the mist. Soundless and bashful. She just stood there, watching us go about our tasks. It was then I realized that we were not unwelcome. Far from it; we were very welcome. But as is the case when invited into anyone’s home, you take things as they are and accept them the way it is. Graciously and with respect, do not judge or impose. That horse lifted my spirits to immeasurable gratitude and we saddled up for the long ride ahead back to Delhi.
The two day ride home I will keep as memories for me and my brothers, that’s not to say it was without incident! There were plenty, but those are just for us. Stay tuned and see you soon!