01 2015

When you begin riding bikes you are constantly bombarded with new challenges – your first mountain, your first puncture or even the first time you get lost. Like anything though, after a certain period of time these challenges become less stimulating. You can always push yourself harder or ride further but nothing will ever compare to that feeling when you first reached the summit of that illusive mountain. For us, this adventure was about chasing that feeling. We wanted to do something so far out of our comfort zone that there was a possibility that we wouldn’t even make it. To find a challenge befitting this criterion we travelled half way across the world to the northern most pocket of India to ride from Manali to Khardung La; a Himalayan road made famous by it’s altitude and it’s precarious nature. 

Claimed by many to be the highest and most dangerous motorable road in the world, the 515km stretch of road traverses numerous peaks above 5,000 metres and rarely dips below 3,800 metres making it one of the World’s most challenging cycling adventures. Built over 100 years ago by the Indian Army, the road is only open during the summer months, yet even in this period is prone to constant landslides and motor vehicle accidents. During the remaining 8 months of the year the road is blocked by snow and subject to constant avalanches. Admittedly, it doesn’t come across as the perfect cycling destination but that was all part of the allure. Like all cyclists, there is something hardwired into our brain that seeks out risk and adventure. For two mediocre cyclists nearly carrying our own weight in filming equipment this was easily the most difficult ride either of us had ever undertaken – and to make things more interesting we had only 8 days to do it. 

For two mediocre cyclists nearly carrying our own weight in filming equipment this was easily the most difficult ride either of us had ever undertaken


Road to the Himalayas

 Early last year Dave showed me a film about a couple of motorcyclists on their epic journey through India to the highest road in the world. “We have to do this on mountain bikes” he told me with that crazy tone in his voice that I have come to know all too well. It’s somewhere between sarcasm and complete seriousness – as if he’s tempting you to take it seriously, but well aware of the absurdity of the idea. I watched the film and immediately became absorbed by the imagery. I had never seen anything like it. Giant mountains as far as the eye can see and cliff-side paths that make the best roads back home look benign in comparison. It quickly became an obsession for both of us. While it looked like a beautiful (and challenging) journey on a motorbike, the idea of attempting this same passage on a bicycle without any mechanical assistance seemed so much more appealing and somewhat fitting in this part of the world. 

While it looked like a beautiful journey on a motorbike, the idea of attempting this same passage on a bicycle without any mechanical assistance seemed so much more appealing and somewhat fitting in this part of the world


I had soon mapped out the proposed route from Manali to Khardung La on my laptop to see if it was even possible. 515 kilometres over what looked like 5 distinguishable mountain passes didn’t seem completely out of the question. My eyes then fell upon the elevation numbers. Some of these climbs were more than 40 kilometres long but what I saw next was much worse. Most of the climbs didn’t begin until 3,500 metres above sea level. To put this into context neither Dave, nor myself had ever ridden above 2,000 metres and now we were considering climbing mountains that didn’t even begin until we were at approximately twice this altitude. It soon became obvious that this was going to be a huge commitment that would only be possible after months of planning and some serious kilometres on the bike. 

 A couple of months later I stumbled across an article about a local airline launching flights to India at prices that even we could afford. I had almost forgotten about our optimistic plan to ride and film the highest road in the world but this article got me thinking once again. The only problem was that the flights were in 5 weeks’ time and we hadn’t touched our bikes for the last two months. I jumped straight on the phone to Dave and after 2-3 minutes of convincing each other that it would be a fantastic idea our flights were booked. In a matter of weeks, we would be lugging our totally unprepared and out of shape bodies over some of the highest mountain passes in the world. 


Foolishly neither of us had really considered the intricacies of cycling and filming in India before booking our flights. We calculated the weight of all of our gear and discovered that even without bikes, our luggage would come to a combined total of 45 kilograms. Having already blown the majority of our budget on unanticipated costs like vaccines, visas, insurance and clothing for sub-zero temperatures, there was no way we could afford to pay the exorbitant excess luggage charges for all of our gear. The film equipment or the bikes would have to go. After much deliberation we decided that we would be better off leaving the bikes at home and instead, buying some very basic mountain bikes once we arrived in India. We convinced ourselves that it would add to the adventure but in reality we knew that this decision could come back to haunt us if they broke down in the middle of the Himalayas. As for carrying all of that weight on our bikes, that’s something we would have to worry about when we got there.




After rushing through a course of 8 vaccinations and finally receiving our Indian visas just days before we were due to depart, we were off to the Himalayas – in a round about kind of way. The flights were cheap but this also meant that there were lengthy stopovers and our point of arrival wasn’t necessarily close to our final destination at the base of the Himalayas. We were actually flying into Kolkata, which is essentially on the opposite side of the subcontinent to the mountains of Northern India.


 If we had been organised enough to write down an itinerary it would have looked pretty stupid. In the space of just 4 days we would fly from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, spend a night trying to sleep on the floor of the airport, get on a ‘connecting’ flight to Kolkata, spend 27 hours on the overnight train to New Delhi, buy two mountain bikes for $500, find a local doctor to get Dave’s final rabies shot and finally catch the overnight bus all the way to Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas. I would not recommend this journey to anyone unless you had a week or two to do it comfortably.

 I would not recommend this journey to anyone unless you had a week or two to do it comfortably




Welcome to India


By the time we arrived in New Delhi we hadn’t slept properly for 3 days straight so we were totally unprepared for the chaos that ensued. The famous Poorva Express reached the capital 5 hours late, leaving us with only a couple of hours to buy bikes and get Dave the last of his rabies shots. I thought I had prepared my senses for New Delhi but the city really takes everything to a new level. The aroma of exotic spices and decomposing waste fuses with the fumes of the traffic infested city to create a pungent smell that is completely unique to Delhi. But whilst it’s confronting, the bizarre smells and the general disorder of the city is also strangely exciting. 


After negating the garbage-strewn streets of old Delhi with our friendly, yet homicidal rickshaw driver, we eventually arrived at a dubious looking bike shop on the outskirts of the city. It wasn’t the friendly local bike shop that I had envisioned, but given the circumstances, we didn’t have any other options. After a series of failed attempts to get two bikes for 25 thousand rupee, I convinced Dave that we should pretend to walk out in the hope that the manager would chase after us and accept the offer. To his credit he stood his ground and 10 minutes later we awkwardly re-entered the shop and accepted his original deal of 30 thousand rupee for two of the cheapest mountain bikes in the shop. 


The man laughed when we told him that we were going to ride them through the Himalayas. He obviously thought it was a joke and to be honest, I kind of wished that it were. The bikes had a bright red frame, reasonable front-end suspension and big heavy tires that certainly weren’t built for speed or climbing. They were made by a local company called Montra  – who according to the shop owner were the ‘number one bike brand in India!’ I doubted the validity of his claim, but given our budget I was happy to ride anything that slightly resembled a mountain bike.



  The next morning we were awoken by another flurry of angry beeps from the front of the bus. The sun was starting to rise, so for the first time since we left Delhi, we could actually make out our surroundings. There was a giant canyon to the right of the bus and beautiful sunlit peaks concealing the horizon in every direction. The bus barrelled down the single lane road on the side of canyon, madly tooting the horn to warn oncoming traffic. It was a scary introduction to the Himalayas but we were relieved to have finally arrived. 



If my expectations for India had been slightly dashed in New Delhi, then the lush and mountainous town of Manali definitely made up for my initial disappointments. As soon as we got off the bus, we knew that the last 4 days of non-stop travel had all been worth it. In stark contrast to the pollution filled air of Delhi, in Manali it was crisp and clean and immediately lifted our spirits. We would spend the day in Manali making our final preparations, before heading into the mountains first thing the following morning. We somehow attached all of our luggage to the bikes, filled our tubes with a superfluous amount of anti-puncture gunk and set off for our hotel on top of one of the nearby hills. After so many days being couped up in planes, trains, buses and taxis, it felt incredible to finally be outside, rolling along the mountain roads of Manali. 



 The climb to the hotel wasn’t anything serious but with 20 kilograms of baggage each it felt like we were hopelessly pedalling a single speed city bike up Mont Ventoux. If we weren’t struggling to breathe, I’m sure we would have started laughing at the hopelessness of our situation. There was no way we were going to make it through the mountains with that amount of weight so we spent the rest of the morning trying to cut it down to a more manageable 12kg each. By the end of the cull, all we had left were sleeping bags, cameras, memory cards, energy bars, a tent, a drone, diamox (altitude meds) and a basic first aid kit.

 All the other non-essentials like spare clothes, hard drives and a bunch of other film equipment would be sent ahead to Leh with one of the jeeps that ferries tourists between the two destinations. We made the most of the buffet dinner at the hotel that night, as we didn’t know when or where food would be available between Manali and Leh. There are no permanent settlements on the 475 kilometre stretch of road – just makeshift towns that appear every summer to capitalise on the constant stream of motorbike tourists.



 The Ride  


It is always difficult to write accurately about something in the past, especially travelling. Your mind has a tendency to ignore the unpleasant memories and to embellish everything else. Luckily for me I had hours and hours of raw video footage to remind myself of what I was really thinking. After going through the footage it would be safe to say that the first day of the journey probably wasn’t our most enjoyable. We woke up at 5am on the morning of our departure to the sound of constant rain on the roof of the hotel. We reluctantly put on our waterproof garments and set off in the rain to attempt our first climb of the trip, Rohtang Pass. There are 5 passes between Manali and Leh that are all higher in altitude than Mont Blanc but none quite as tall as Khardung La; our final destination on the other side of Leh. Our plan was to take 6-7 days to cover the 475 kilometres and 5 passes between Manali and Leh before making our final assault on Khardung La the day before we were due to fly home to Australia. 




 Rohtang Pass was the easiest climb on paper but it was still a 50km ascent with a 2,000 metre elevation gain and it was our first encounter with the extreme altitudes of the Himalayas. Apparently the Bhoti word ‘Rohtang’ literally translates to ‘pile of corpses,’ so we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence. Despite the rain it was difficult not to enjoy the first part of the climb. The thick greenery lining the roads around Manali eventually gave way to giant rock faces and rushing waterfalls, both formed by the rapidly melting snow on higher ground. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were riding somewhere in the European Alps with the perfectly paved winding roads and tall conifer trees covering the hills. 

 Apparently the Bhoti word ‘Rohtang’ literally translates to ‘pile of corpses,’ so we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence


By the time we reached the first village three quarters of the way to the summit, we were starting to question whether this adventure was going to be nearly as challenging as we had anticipated. The man at the roadside stall in Marhi sternly advised us to seek refuge at the village but we proudly assured him that we were doing it easy and would have no problems with the final 15 kilometres to the summit. 




 A couple of hundred metres later it all made sense. The road had dissolved into sludge and the mist had set in so that we couldn’t see more than 5 metres in front us. Before we knew it we were riding along the precarious cliff-side paths that we had seen in the photos and films that inspired our journey. To make matters worse, a truck had broken down somewhere near the summit so there were tourist jeeps and lorries banked up for the final 10 kilometres, leaving us with only 1 to 2 metres of mud right next to the escarpment. We toyed with the idea of descending back down to Marhi but the further we went, the more committed we became to our original goal. The only problem was that we couldn’t navigate through the convoy of vehicles fast enough and we were already beginning to struggle with the thinning atmosphere.

 It’s incredible how quickly your mood can change in the Himalayas. In the space of an hour, we went from betting on what we’d be having for dinner to cursing our stupidly heavy bikes and wishing that we were just about anywhere else in the world. It was only 15 kilometres but it took us almost 3 hours to ride, walk and push our bikes through the mud to the icy summit at 4,000 metres above sea level. By this point we were soaked from head to toe, beyond freezing and seriously questioning why we were even doing it. As if it was on cue, the mist suddenly evaporated as we rolled across the summit and for the first time since we arrived in Manali, we could see the Himalayas in all of its sun-drenched beauty. The clouds and the hoards of tourists were behind us – from here on it would just be blue skies and open roads.




As the trip continued the green vegetation lining the roads slowly morphed into the arid moonscapes of the Himalayan high country and the rain-soaked days of Manali became a distant memory. The mountains gradually became taller and the villages more remote but apart from this, each day on our journey between Manali and Leh was remarkably similar.


Every day would begin at 6am with a hearty home-cooked breakfast that would usually entail 2 omelettes, chapati and 2-3 boiling hot black teas to offset the wintry air that awaited us outside. We would say goodbye to our kind hosts from the night before and begin our ride along the valley floor, admiring the boundless outcrop of mountains surrounding us but praying that we wouldn’t have to cross them.








 Before long, the road would start to rise and we would commence the long slog to another peak at yet another ungodly altitude. The chatter would gradually decrease until the mountain sapped all of our energy, leaving us to struggle on towards the summit in a zombie like state. I’m not going to lie – it wasn’t remotely enjoyable. It’s hard to recall how I felt exactly but judging by the constant profanities and disturbing gasps for air that can be heard in the footage, I think it’s safe to say that we weren’t in great spirits on top of these passes. 

Before long, the road would start to rise and we would commence the long slog to another peak at yet another ungodly altitude 


Normally we would stop to soak up the moment at the end of an epic climb but when you’re at 5,000 metres above sea level, all you want to do is get back to an altitude where it doesn’t feel like you’re breathing through a straw. It’s a shame because the views and the landscapes on top of these mountains were like nothing I had ever seen.





 If the climbs were our enemies then the descents were what kept us going. Usually the worst thing about descending is that it’s over so quickly and you have to spend so much time and energy to get back to the top. These descents were so long that by the time you reached the bottom, your arms would be aching from the constant cornering and bunny hopping over potholes on the weather-beaten road. With the jagged rock faces on one side and giant drop offs on the other, there was never room for distraction – it was all about the ride. It was exhilarating and it quickly made us forget the pain we were going through on the other side of the mountain. That’s how cycling works though – you convince yourself that it wasn’t that bad and then you do it all again tomorrow.

That’s how cycling works though – you convince yourself that it wasn’t that bad and then you do it all again tomorrow 



After 10-12 hours on the bike we would eventually make it to another one of the make shift settlements where we would find a food house and happily devour as much dal curry and chapati bread as was humanly possible.





All of the climbs between Manali and Leh were brutal to say the least but it was Baralacha La that really made an impression. From our homestay in Jispa to the summit, it was 50 kilometres of non-stop climbing with a 2,000-metre gain in altitude. It was the perfect dress rehearsal for Khardung La so we were both looking forward to testing ourselves. The morning of the climb our host asked us to join him at the temple for a quick prayer to Shiva. I usually wouldn’t bother with prayer but after seeing the mountain that lay ahead I was open to anything. There’s no wonder religion is such an integral part of life in these extreme corners of the earth. It would be almost impossible to not believe in anything when you’re surrounded by such beauty and peril.


As soon as we began the climb it was obvious that we were in for a long day. It took well over an hour to cover the first 10 kilometres so the thought of another 40 seemed unfathomable. Motorcyclists waved eagerly as they roared passed– as if to acknowledge the sense of adventure inherent in all those who travel on two wheels. I envied their wise choice of transport and found myself becoming angry in response to their energetic gestures. Surely they couldn’t understand what we were going through. As we struggled to stay upright, these guys came humming past with giant grins on their faces like they were having the time of their lives. The higher we got, the more frustrated I became with the constant blaring of the motors and the effortless way in which they disregarded gravity. If only I took up motorbike riding instead of cycling I thought to myself.





By mid afternoon we had made it to Zing Zing Bar – the last settlement before the summit and our last chance to abandon our attempt of Baralacha. Dave had been starting to feel dizzy and was suffering from mild headaches but he seemed to be feeling better after lunch so we set-off for the final 20 kilometre ascent to the summit. The roadside tea stalls that had been cleverly positioned along the route were a lifesaver. Every time Dave’s altitude sickness would become too much we would stop at one of the stalls where we would receive numerous local remedies – namely ginger tea and entire cloves of garlic. 


Even if it was just Placebo, it seemed to have a positive effect. His symptoms started to return again as we passed 4,800 metres but with only a couple of kilometres to go until the top, he decided that it would be worth the risk. Just after we sighted the top of the pass for the first time all day, a soldier from the Indian army flagged us down and alerted us to a landside ahead. Sure enough as we rounded the next bend, we found dozens of cars and motorbikes at a standstill and a massive pile of rubble blocking the one road to the summit.



We walked up to the front of the queue and learned from one of the jeep drivers that it could be up to an hour before the road is cleared. “Every 4 hours there is landslide” he told me excitedly, almost as if he was extremely proud of this statistic. As I was talking to the driver, Dave had grabbed my bike and started riding back through the traffic. “Where are you going?” I yelled after him. The next thing I knew Dave was flying back down the mountain, slowly getting smaller on the horizon until I couldn’t even make him out. By the time I made it back down to Zing Zing Bar, Dave was already being attended to in the army hospital and although his oxygen levels were back to normal, the doctor advised us return to lower ground. We reassessed our plan that night and decided to give it one last go in the morning – if we weren’t successful we would have to return to Manali and give up on our plan to ride the highest road in the World. Fortunately there were no landslides the following morning, so we were able to quickly make the pass and continue on our journey towards Leh and Khardung La.


Even with a few bouts of altitude sickness we somehow managed to keep to our schedule and reach Leh within our 6-day deadline. After 6 days without showers or beds and nothing to eat except lentil curries, the civilised streets of Leh were a sight for sore eyes. Don’t get me wrong –  I loved being out in the Himalayas without any of the modern day luxuries but after 6 days of gruelling riding, I was dying for a hot shower and a substantial meal. Leh is the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh and a mecca for adventure tourists from around the World. 

 Bustling bazaars, crumbling mud-brick houses and elevated Buddhist monasteries fill the mountain-framed city whilst a plethora of new age hotels and restaurants occupy everywhere in between. At 130 kilometres, it was our longest day on the bike so by the time we rolled into the narrow streets of Leh we were just about ready to collapse. After checking in and enjoying my much-anticipated shower, we found a rooftop pizzeria next door where we celebrated our arrival with pizzas and beers until we could no longer keep our eyes open. We would now have one day to rest up before tackling Khardung La the following day.






We knew that neither of us would ever have the opportunity to return to this part of the world so instead of just spending the day with our feet up in the air (which would have been wise) we decided to hire a couple of mopeds and ride towards Kashmir. We could finally keep up with all of those cheats on motorbikes! The engines definitely weren’t built for speed but we quickly discovered that we could still get them above 100km/hr if we got into an uncomfortable aero tuck position behind the handlebars. As someone who loves the challenges of travelling via bicycle, I’ve never been a fan of motorbikes but after a day flying through the mountains of Kashmir without even breaking a sweat, I can definitely understand the attraction.





It was late by the time we got back to Leh so we quickly prepared our motorless bikes for the morning and revised the route to Khardung La with our hotel manager. He didn’t seem overly confident about our chances but he was helpful nonetheless. “Once you arrive in South Pullu you must show your tourist pass before you can ride to Khardung La” he told us. I looked at Dave and could immediately see the panic in his eyes. “What passes?” Dave asked. It turned out that every foreign tourist who wants to travel to the summit of Khardung La must purchase an Inner Line Permit from the Deputy Commissioners office. This would have been fine if it was any other day of the week but it was Sunday and the DC’s office wouldn’t be reopening until midday the following day. We were flying out at 7.30am on the Tuesday so Monday was our only option. I began to feel physically ill as we came to the realisation that although we were only 40 kilometres away from the highest road in the world, a bureaucratic piece of paper would prevent us from ever making it. We had travelled half way across India to ride Khardung La and now that we were finally here, all we could do is admire it from the valley below.


Our hotel manager did everything in his power to obtain a couple of permits but his attempts were futile. Our only hope was to put all of our faith in Indian bureaucracy and it’s receptiveness towards bribery. We woke at 4.30am the following morning to the heartening sounds of the Islamic call to prayer emanating through the city. With or without permits we were going to try to climb to Khardung La. For the first time during the trip I detached all of my luggage from the bikes and set-off with just a camera, snacks and a couple of litres of water. Despite feeling anxious about the upcoming army checkpoint at South Pullu, the lower slopes of Khardung La were absolute bliss. The sun was beating down on the Himalayas, the music was blaring from Dave’s on-board speakers and in comparison to the previous week, we felt like we were floating towards the summit. 

 Like so many of the climbs that we already done, the road twisted and turned so much that I had soon lost any sense of direction – the upward trajectory was our only constant bearing. The road to Khardung La is only 40 kilometres long but it somehow gains 2,000 metres in elevation over this relatively short ditance. At nearly 5,500 metres above sea level, Khardung La is [one of – delete] the highest place on the planet that you can actually reach on your bike. As we neared the checkpoint at the halfway point, the familiar feeling of light-headedness had set in – a reassuring sign that we were entering the oxygen deprived environment of the high Himalayas.



Our first plan was to ride straight through the checkpoint in the hope that the officers wouldn’t be bothered chasing after us. It was a risky plan but we could always just pretend that we didn’t know about the permits. Unfortunately there was a soldier standing in the middle of the road so as soon as we continued riding past the checkpoint he started shouting and carrying on like we had committed a serious crime. We explained to the officer in charge that we weren’t aware of the permits and that we just wanted to ride to the summit and back. We weren’t making much progress so we discreetly offered him twice the amount of the permit price and promised that would be back before the end of the day. Although we couldn’t understand each other very well, I think he could hear the desperation in our voices because he eventually gave in and allowed us to continue on our way.


Shortly after leaving South Pullu, the mist that was shrouding the high peaks of Khardung La suddenly cleared and we could finally make out the summit of the climb. With our target in sight, we hungrily surged onwards, knowing that the torture would all be over in a matter of hours. As we finally made the last corner to the summit, to a part of the world that couldn’t be further away from home, I spotted a small group of Indian soldiers playing cricket in the middle of the road. The familiarity of the scene brought a grin to my face as we painlessly covered the last couple of metres to the highest road in the world. 

With our target in sight, we hungrily surged onwards, knowing that the torture would all be over in a matter of hours 







Mountain Biking
515 km
Max Elevation
5,359 m
Elevation Gain
12,369 m

More Journal Entries