Cold stoke and mysterious skeletons on a high-altitude bike pilgrimage in India
This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
words :: Feet Banks photos :: Bruno Long
The hailstones were the size of grapefruit, easily large enough to cave in a human skull—and they did. Creeping through a Himalayan mountain pass at 4,800m/15,700ft, the surprised pilgrims were far above treeline, with no shelter to be found. Within minutes the freak hailstorm had pummeled all 300 of them to death, pounding their broken bodies into the valley floor and a shallow glacial lake that would later be known as Junargali or Roopkund Lake. More than 1,000 years later, National Geographic scientists investigating the preserved bones and flesh in and around “Skeleton Lake” discovered that while the remains all suffered the same blunt trauma, they actually died in two separate events—the original hailstorm occurred around 800 CE, but some of the remains appeared to be from another hailstorm that took place sometime around 1800, prompting many to start calling the watery graveyard “Mystery Lake.” By any name, it’s a strange place for a mountain bike trip.
“I was excited to do something different and out of the blue,” says mountain biker Geoff Gulevich, who organized a Skeleton Lake expedition to Northern India after a random conversation with friend KC Deane. “Our goal was to go up there and pay our respects to those adventurers of the past. It sounded interesting… and it got more interesting once we landed in New Delhi.”
“Busy is a relative term when you get to India,” says photographer Bruno Long, who accompanied Gulevich, Deane and pro rider Mitch Chubey on the mission. “Whistler on a powder day is busy to me, but the craziest busiest moment I can think of in my life is nothing compared to over there.”
After navigating the cramped, hectic streets of Delhi in 48-degree Celsius heat, the riders connected with Nishant Shah and Rohit Niroula, friends from Nepal with knowledge of the Indian language, customs, and landscape. After a bit of rest and a lot of delays, the group embarked on a white-knuckle ten-hour drive northeast into the foothills of the Himalaya.
“Traffic of all types,” Gulevich recalls. “Cars, scooters, buses, bicycles, people and cattle covered the road at all times. But in this beautiful chaos everything seemed to flow together seamlessly. It was like our driver had a guardian angel, he found every tiny gap and made every ridiculous corner. Needless to say, none of us slept a wink the entire drive.” After a warm-up bike descent near the Kosi Valley Retreat (aka: basecamp) was interrupted by large, clever and hungry monkeys chasing the pick-up truck at top speed, the crew spent a day resting, gathering their porters, and prepping camping, riding and medical gear for the Roopkund trek. After that it was just a simple ten hours of bouncy, narrow, eroded, blind-passing, and highly dangerous single-lane mountain roads teetering on the precipice of multiple 1,500-foot cliffs.
“No one spoke for six hours,” Gulevich says. “Arm pump set in from gripping the seats so tightly. But we made it.” At Wan (2,439m/8,002ft), the Roopkund trek began. “We were super late getting there,” Long says, “but the guides mentioned the first camp was close, just a couple kilometres away. It was 5:00 p.m. but hey, two kilometres is nothing and we were stoked to be alive and finally on the trail, so we took our time. Then we hit a junction, then another. ‘Not much further,’ the guides said. And what you come to realize is that in India, they don’t want to disappoint you in any way, so they sugar-coat everything.
We rode for three to four hours, completely out of water, no food, full hike-a-bike, carrying our bikes for ‘not too far.’ But it was actually two and a half hours of shoulder hiking and pushing. It was supposed to be a one-hour ride and next thing you know we’re walking uphill in the dark, hungry; some of us didn’t even have headlamps because our gear was on the donkey train. That was our intro to the culture, everyone is so nice they are almost too nice, and even when we asked for the real facts or the bad news, it was always, ‘oh, it’s only an hour away’ and four hours later it would be ‘20 more minutes.’”
After finally arriving at midnight, the crew fell into a much-deserved sleep and woke up at 10,500 feet above sea level, the only foreigners on (judging by the scores of people) a very popular pilgrimage. Sharing the trails with dozens, if not hundreds of people from across India, the next three days were a mix of long hike-a-bike stints punctuated by incredibly scenic plateau rides. Trailside stops at “convenience stores” selling noodles and salted nuts never failed to draw a crowd of curious onlookers: “Where are you from? How are you doing this? And why?”
The temperatures dropped steadily and by day five, the riders reached an elevation of 15,750 feet. “We entered snow leopard territory,” Gulevich says. “Everyone told us, ‘you won’t see them but they are watching you.’ At that altitude, every ten pounds of gear feels like 25 and steep climbs are exhausting. When we asked about medical needs the porters laughed. We had duct tape and zip ties though, we figured that would solve most issues.”
Then the snow began, slowing progress even more. Carrying a mountain bike through fresh pow in clip-in cycling shoes is never a lot of fun, but at 16,000 feet it’s downright painful. The rideable sections offered little relief.
“Imagine hiking for a week up to an alpine lake with 300 other people, making friends along the way, and suddenly frozen softball start falling from the sky and there is nowhere to hide. It was intense just to be there.”—Bruno Long
“You think you are in decent shape but it doesn’t matter,” Long admits. “Climbing on the bike in the snow, we’d need a break after just a few minutes, even on a mellow-ish trail. It was cold too, at least ten below. We had good gear but still, you’re camping in minus ten.”
“Sleeping at altitude is a different experience,” Gulevich says. “Several times I woke up in the night gasping for air, or the lack thereof. Your body recovers slower and your rest isn’t as deep as it should be, especially for that level of exertion. It was good we were going to push for the lake the next morning.”
When the morning sun cracked on day eight, the fish-out-of-water freeriders took their time getting going (the Indian pilgrims like to be at the lake for sunrise and can’t understand why anyone would go at any other time).
“An uneven, rock-plated path was our only gateway to the lake,” Gulevich says. “We climbed with our bikes on our back then ditched them for the final 800 feet of icy, steep scrambling. Traction was minimal, no crampons just cycling shoes, and I was terrified of sliding out of control off the edge. KC and Bruno are winter sports guys and they laughed as they passed me with ease.”
Eventually Gulevich and Chubey climbed over the crest to join Deane and Long at Junargali/Roopkund Lake. They found themselves completely alone, except for the bones and the immeasurable aura of tragedy, history and the unknown.
“For me, this trip was a way to pay respect to those lost souls and to carry on the legacy of being explorers.”—Geoff Gulevich
“There was an eerie energy in the air,” Gulevich says. “Unsettling, but also calming. Human bones poked up through the snow around the frozen lake—vertebrae, ribs, we saw what for sure was a femur. This place of tragedy, where so many had lost their lives.”
“It was cold, grey and snowy,” Long recalls. “And to think of all these people, caught in a hailstorm over a thousand years ago—why were they here in such an inhospitable place? Imagine hiking for a week up to an alpine lake with 300 other people, making friends along the way, and suddenly frozen softballs start falling from the sky and there is nowhere to hide. It was intense just to be there.”
It was also the end of the uphill. What lay ahead was more than 8,000 vertical feet of descent—snow-covered, plate-rocked, exposed icy stone staircases, a high line across an avalanche chute and then kilometre after kilometre of steep and sketchy Sherpa trails. After eight days of climbing, it was pure bliss.
“It was raw,” says Long, the lone non-professional rider of the crew, “it had that epic backcountry feel of trails that aren’t groomed for biking but you can make it work. High-speed cobblestone sections, little airs over water bars. You could tell the boys loved it.”
Resting at camps and shops along the descent, the foreigners and their fancy bikes once again became instant favourites with locals and pilgrims.
“People were stoked to try them and stoked to see us ride,” Long says. “I didn’t expect them to understand mountain biking—people in North America don’t even understand it half the time—but they know bikes, and they could see we were having fun, people would cheer and clap for anything the guys did. It was just so different for them.”
After sharing rides, laughter and the sense of connection that transcends language and culture, the North Americans pedalled away as the sun faded into a wash of beautiful mountain colours—rolling back to the delays and the misjudged timelines, the crazy driving and close calls, the smells and sounds and endless smiles of India.
“That is why we do these trips,” Gulevich says. “There is so much we don’t know about the world, and so many people with stories that you won’t find in movies or magazines. And that feeling after you’ve reached the high point of your journey, that sense of accomplishment and of having nowhere to be and all day to get there—it’s bonus time. Why do we feel the need to explore places like this? I don’t know. Maybe the same reason those people hiked up to Roopkund Lake over a thousand years ago. For me, this trip was a way to pay respect to those lost souls and to carry on the legacy of being explorers. The bikes are just our own twist on the adventure but the important thing is to go, however you can, wherever you want, just go.” — ML