Two thousand meters of elevation drop sounds like a dream come true for downhill mtn biking, but not when the trail is so steep and loose and exposed that you can barely walk down parts of it. The first thousand meters or so of drop was scree of mixed sizes, some of which l could ‘ski’ down with both wheels locked up, sliding on the edge of complete loss of control. l was rather excited when l slid my way to a halt at the gradient change l had been slowly approaching, but my misguided enthusiasm quickly gave way to something akin to despair: a lot of it would have been rideable for short sections, but bashing over miles of densely scattered loose rocks the size of your head was just too much effort to sustain. Not to mention that the relatively flat sections were interspersed with switchbacks barely a horse long and 6-inch-wide outward sloping traverses carved into mud and sand. Needless to say l walked, or rather pushed, or rather struggled to keep my bike from barreling off the “trail” and into the abyss.
I finally limped into the Parang Chu river canyon about an hour after dark, battered and more exhausted than l have been in a long while. The mountain l had just finished descending was ludicrously steep right to the water’s edge, so l forded the stream and made camp on a sand bar. I wolfed down my standard dinner of cold bloatmeal augmented with some more of Lissa’s chocolate and passed out for the next 14 hours or so. When l did finally wake up my feet were so sore l could barely limp to the stream to get some water for breakfast. I decided l was taking a rest day. Thanks to my brother and sister my travel kit now includes an e-book reader loaded with several hundred books. So l rubbed ointment on my cuts, salve on my cracks, and proceeded to read three books. A day and a half of recuperation later l climbed gingerly on my bike and rode out of camp.
Sticking again to the river bed, preferring the cobbles and river crossings to switchbacks and ledges. An hour or two before sunset l arrived at a cross-roads of sorts, and something of a quandary. The trail veered abruptly and started climbing up a side canyon. I hiked up it far enough to be sure it was going all the way out: at least a thousand feet up to the rim, and to be sure that l didn’t want to drag my bike up there, so l decided to scout down-river to try to find out what exactly the horses were avoiding. About an hour down l found a sort of mini-gorge with a reasonably easy line through it. l’d have to carry my gear and bike separately (there was no way for a horse to get through). l kept hiking till l saw the canyon widen and flatten out and the falling dark forced me to turn around (l had forgotten to bring a head lamp). Made it back to my bike just as it got too dark to see; and fell asleep pondering my route.
As you can probably guess, despite lack of map or any real topographic info, l chose to stick with the river. The obstacle l had scouted the day before went as easily as predicted, the canyon opened up and l spent the next couple of hours cruising on relatively hard-packed gravel bars. Then, l got to a real constriction, complete with a little waterfall. Despite an hour or two of scouting, I couldn’t find anything like a way around, though going through didn’t look so bad. A little committal perhaps, but the only swimming would be at the base of the mini-fall, and surely this was the only obstacle of this caliber l would have to navigate… Besides it looked like fun. So l rigged some backpack straps on my bike, shouldered my steed and took the plunge.
The waterfall and pool were easier than expected, which may account for the fact that l didn’t even think about trying to turn back when l rounded the bend and realized that the river kept dropping.
And dropping. Fortunately my bike is pretty light, and surprisingly stable strapped to my back, because l did rather a lot of down climbing and tricky boulder hopping. The canyon maintained its steep gradient but never cliffed-out and became totally impassable. Just when l thought l’d have to keep boulder hopping all the way to the Spiti, l rounded a corner to groves of willows, and a little further on stacks of peeled poles drying. Someone was harvesting them for construction it seemed, and l took that as a sign that the rest of the way would be relatively passable. Left my bike and went back for my gear. I went to sleep fully expecting to be awakened by wood cutters. But the day dawned without any visitors. So l headed downstream, riding again; when suddenly the river disappeared into a slot canyon.
I scouted deeply enough to know that the wood cutters clearly weren’t going to carry their bundles of sticks through the canyon. Assuming theirs was the cleanest line, l separated bike and gear once again, loaded my bags on my back and started climbing their trail, which though nicely marked with cairns quickly devolved into a ladder of foot holds kicked into the cliff side. Straight up to a knife edge ridge, and straight down the other side, where the footholds ended in some nice loose scree. It was harrowing enough with my small load (difficult enough unloaded) and l certainly don’t envy those wood cutters their job. There was no way l was going to carry my bike over the ridge. My way had to be through the river canyon. Some bouldering and swimming later l was out of the slot, and riding again. Until, wonder of wonders l found myself at a bridge, and like that l was teleported back to civilization, ending the day in a hotel room, one with hot water no less.