When you think of Mountain Biking, numerous iconic locations probably spring to mind: Fort William, Morzine, Champery, Cairns, Whistler… However, in over 30 years of riding, Dan Milner has never experienced anything quite like the Pindari Glacier trail in India: a Strava free zone, of lung-crushing climbs and brake-searing descents ,where showers are a luxury, milky tea is a necessity, and spiritual enlightenment is promised to those willing to work for it.
It’s almost dark when we first see the twinkle of lights from Khati village. It’s a welcome sight at the end of an excruciatingly long day. We have the 2940metre Dhakuri Pass and 1600metres of climbing now behind us, but with the twinkle of lights comes the promise of food, a bed and maybe a shower. The idea is enough to re-energise us and despite the diminishing light we sprint into the final descent as if it’s just another lap at Les Gets.
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Leading the charge is Pankaj, a local Indian mountain biker and our trip’s tail guide. For once, and despite his $2 tennis shoes and his clunking, heavy old Kona hardtail, he’s out front. Khati is his home village and if there’s one person who’s going to lead us in before a home crowd, it will be Pankaj. He’s grinning the widest grin I’ve ever seen and I struggle to keep him in sight, even with my Yeti’s six inches of travel. Tonight, Pankaj will take King of the Mountains. Or at least he would if anyone ever Strava’d these trails.
But there’s a reason you come mountain biking in places like this, and that is partly to escape the kind of Strava mentality. I’ve joined British-operated MountainBikeKerala.com for a guided trip on their Pindari Glacier trip. Tucked away in the north of India against a backdrop of some of the world’s mightiest peaks, the trip is delivering everything promised – from a taste of adventure to incredible singletrack riding. And it’s doing it every hour of every day of our 12-day epic. This is not a place for racing or KOMs, but is about good riding and amazing adventure. Strava has no place here.
The crowd that sees us arrive into Khati numbers two men, a barking dog and a donkey. I’m not surprised; it’s the same kind of no-fuss crowd that has greeted us in most of the villages we’ve stayed in so far. Tired and dirty, we’re ushered out of the evening chill and into the local shop-cum-café, where Indian beers are thrust into our hands and packets of salty snacks ripped open. It’s welcome sustenance that will keep us alive until the nightly spread of curries is laid out before us.
In an hour we’ll treat ourselves to ‘showers’ delivered by buckets of hot water poured over ourselves before changing into clean clothes. Then and only then, we’ll feel human again. The days are hard, the riding tough, the endurance factor real, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s shaping up to be one to the best mountain bike rides I’ve done in over 30 years of riding.
The trail we’re following winds its way through the mighty Himalayan foothills for miles. Starting in dense jungle it threads between ever steepening hills until it breaks out above treeline just below the Pindari glacier, the 3800 metre altitude end-point of our ride.
The trail itself, mostly paved with now crumbling stone blocks was built in 1830, when the ironically named G. W. Traill, the British Commissioner of Kumaon province, decided to have a trekking path laid so that he and his colonial elite could go gawp at the glacier.
As we make our way along the trail, climbing, traversing and descending steep mountainsides, we can’t help wonder at the enormous effort that must have been exerted to lay the countless flagstones. And all so a bloke could go for a walk. We’re not complaining of course; the riding is unique, full of steep, grip-assured climbs and broken, technical descents.
Along with me for the experience is World Champion Tracy Moseley her partner and mechanic James Richards, Verbier bike guides Phil and Lucy out on a busman’s holiday, and their friend Christer. Between us we make up a whirlwind of excitement, sharing the daily new experiences delivered by the trail and our mighty mountainous surroundings. We’ve also been joined by Indian mountain biker and filmer Vinay Menon, a rider who dusts us on the descents, but finishes each with a snakebite puncture.
By the time we reach Khati we already have five days of riding behind us, mostly spent winding through dense semi-tropical jungle, where moss-shrouded trees rustle with the noisy antics of troops of Langur monkeys. Right out of the gate on day one we climb, riding from the door of our idyllic but simple lakeside hotel in Nainital and through a tangle of traffic, meandering street cows and jay-walking dogs.
It takes forty minutes to reach the start of the trail proper, marked by a series of steep, challenging but just ridable steps and a solitary tea house. It’s the first of many tea houses that will punctuate our 12 days, and as with all of them we stop for a brew.
Here in India it only seems impolite not to and while this one, early in the day seems a little indulgent, there will be others that will loom mirage-like, exactly where we’ll need them: at the top of an enormous climb. We’re aware of the big climbs and the higher altitude riding ahead of us, and although these early days are tough, we’re thankful of the opportunity to acclimatise. Thankfully Nainital sits at a balmy 2000metres.
The rewards of these early lung-crushing climbs are brake-searing descents, flowing down through thick forest and across rock gardens, all of it coated in a carpet of green moss. Mike Mclean our guide and the name behind MountainBikeKerala.com has done his homework. He’s carefully calculated each day to deliver more descent than climbing; the kind of statistic nobody is going to complain about.
But despite his well-researched point-to-point route plan and use of rattling jeeps to shuttle us to hotels from the finish points, we still climb a vertical Kilometre daily. If you’re hoping the Pindari Glacier ride is an easy shuttle trip, think again. Here you earn your gravity rewards.
We finish each day winding between paddy fields and rolling though villages and dusty back yards full of chickens and tethered goats, – a unique experience that James calls ‘the Indian petting Zoo experience’. Each evening we unwind at a local hotel –the kind of authentic accommodation that comes with groaning plumbing and vibrant heavy blankets adorned with faces of tigers. And every night we consume our own body weights in assorted curries, learning favourite dishes while looking across views of the snow-capped Himalayas. We’re aware that these mountains are getting closer daily.
We’ve landed in India in October, post-monsoon season, or at least that’s the theory. This year the rainy season has lingered on, with some of the worst flooding the region has seen occurring only a month earlier. Months of rain take their toll on local roads and cause havoc to anyone trying to get from A-to-B.
Roads are washed away and buried under landslips and bulldozers are the only way to reopen them. We pass one as we plough along one of these recently ‘re-opened’ jeep tracks at dusk on day five, the same day that we’ll finish our ride in Khati. We’re heading out of Begashwar towards the start of the five-day high-mountain chapter of our tour, up into the Himalayas proper and into alpine singletrack terrain.
We have a two-hour jeep ride before we join the trail that will lead us deep among 7000metre peaks. We’re excited, but first we have to get there. The term ‘re-open’ is ambiguous when applied to the track we’re driving along. Our jeep wades through gushing muddy torrents and bumps its way across the debris of recent landslides. Far below a raging Pindari river delivers an incessant aural reminder of its existence.
We’re never far from the sound of cascading rivers on this trip. In Uttrakhand State the great drainage network of the Himalayas fan down, eventually pouring together to form the sacred Ganges, a focus for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. In a way, we are making our own pilgrimage, ours to the alternative source of the same river. But unlike the pilgrimage taking place a hundred miles to our south, we number only nine people.
The jeeps deposit us at another tea shop where we down endless cups of milky chai while waiting for our pack-animal support crew to arrive. They’re late, which means the five-hour, 1600 metre climb ahead, will put us in Khati in the dark.
Sitting between us and our destination is the 2940metre Dhakuri Pass, accessed by a steep paved trail that is too broken to ride – the only section in 12 days that is. It lacks appeal, but Mike has a secret up his sleeve: porters. It’s an alien concept to me, to pay someone to carry my bike, but I warm to the idea of redistributing my wealth to local villagers. And so for 7euros each, the tourists’ bikes are manhandled up to the Dhakuri pass. Only Mike, Vinay and Pankaj carry their own bikes.
Traill’s trail sees almost no bikes and Mike’s guiding outfit is the only reason riders pedal this track. So it’s with enthusiasm as much as surprise with which we’re greeted by locals we see on our ride. Kids walking to and from schools, villagers carrying ambitious hauls of hay, mule-trains delivering supplies and gas bottles: all pass us with a smile and a ‘namaste’ greeting. “There’s never a dull day here,” replies Mike, when I ask him why he started guiding in India.
Khati sits at the entrance to the steep-sided Pindari valley, up which Traill’s trail will lead us for the next two days to Zero Point, our glacial end point. We reach the village of Dwali –not much more than a cold government trekking bungalow and a smoky but welcome tea shack- before a storm rolls in. We shelter from the rain deciding to remain in Dwali for the night. It saves us from a soaking, but leaves us a big day to follow.
We start at 5am in the dark, aiming to reach the glacier and make our return before another monsoon remnant can turn our grippy, rocky trail into a slick ribbon of grease. We roll out of the bungalow and across ice-coated puddles with only the idea of breakfast in our stomachs. Two hours later we’ll reach the tiny two-house village of Phukiya, where they’ve already put the kettle on. Wrapped in duvet jackets we cradle hot bowls of porridge in our gloved hands. I smile. It’s 8am and I think of the commuter bustle and traffic jams taking place in my world back home.
Altitude slows our progress. At nearly 4000metres, our breathing becomes laboured. I continuously reach for a lower gear that isn’t there, pushing on my gear shifters in dismay. I’m already riding the lowest gear combination possible. We break out of the tree line and are dwarfed by the towering forms of 7861metre Nanda Devi and its sister, 6861metre Nada Kot. These are immense walls of snow-blasted rock that destroy any sense of scale we were previously clinging to. In this landscape we are truly lost; tiny, insignificant specks on the planet.
As the valley floor fans out into post-glacial carnage we reach our third and final tea-shop of the day; a remote, solitary stone building inhabited by an orange-robed spiritual pilgrim. The Baba pours our tea and chats enthusiastically through a long and matted beard. I’m guessing visitors are few and far between in this location, and Mike confides that his Pindari trip has a 50per cent hit rate. Half his clients don’t make it to Zero Point, occasionally because of snow, more often due to fitness – or lack of.
Now we’re within a half hour final hike-a-bike of Zero Point, the spot where the trail literally and unceremoniously crumbles into an abyss. We push on, six hours of climbing behind us, finally gathering at the top of our trail to gawp at the tumbling seracs of the Pindari Glacier. Far below, a river gurgles in its infancy.
This glacial-cold meltwater pours down the valley, churning under several ramshackle bridges we’ll cross again tomorrow, and over countless rapids on its way towards becoming part of the sacred Ganges.
For a moment longer we try to absorb our surroundings, before turning around and looking back down the valley instead. Ahead lies another four days of riding, starting with a two-hour, un-interrupted 25Km descent. We sling legs over our bikes and push off with a single pedal-stroke. It may lack the hoards of dreadlocked pilgrims of the official source of the Ganges, but Traill’s trail has brought its own spiritual enlightenment.