The Ride to the Top (of the Capital of the Top) of the World

Since I landed on two wheels here in Nepal, I have been pouring over a trail map that was given to me. I’d look at rides I had already done, and fantasize about rides I could do. The first day with the map, my eyes immediately fell to a hill at the south end. The top of this hill is home to a small compound named Pulchoki, meaning something pleasant, like the meeting of flowers. However, to get to this hill top, you must climb up a winding dirt road with more than 20 switch backs, no so pleasant. The map depicted a steep hill by putting a black arrow pointing up the hill. The more arrows, the steeper the hill. The road to Pulchoki got four arrows, more than any other hill on the map. If this wasn’t enough to get my masochistic juices flowing, Pulchoki also has the accolade of being the highest point around the Kathmandu valley, rising 4700 feet (1.4 kilometers) above the valley floor. I was going back and forth in my mind weather I should do this ride. It would be hard. What if I wasn’t strong enough? How long would that take? Would anyone be willing to go along with me? How thin is the air up there? The self imposed pressure mounted as the time of our departure from Kathmandu to Tansen approached, until I finally proposed the ride to my riding group for the following Sunday. There were some half-hearted agreements. Nobody wanted to say they were chicken or tell me it was a bad idea.  It was as if I had offered to punch them in the face. Well, welcome to fight club.

I was more and more giddy as Sunday approached. I carefully laid out my gear and tuned up my bike 2 days before the ride. I was fearful that the ride would be called off when my wife came down with a GI bug, and was completely wiped out the Saturday before the ride. However, as any good husband would do, I reassured her she would be fine if she put the kids in front of the television and fed them ramen noodles. I would deal with any dirty diapers when I got home a few hours later.   I’m not sure if she agreed or not since I told her this as she was retching into a bucket. Game on!


The Himalayas crystal clear. Still 400M of to up go!

The following morning, at our usual cycling starting time and place, which is at 6AM, the sky was still black. Martin (the most dedicated and experienced of our Kathmandu cycling group) showed up a few minutes after. We waited for another 15 minutes, but no one else came. Apparently Martin and I were the only ones up for hour after hour of pain and suffering that morning. The sky was lightening, but the sun was not up by the time we reached the foot of the “hill,” which was a 7 mile ride from the center of Kathmandu. As we turned uphill, I wasn’t sure if I was nauseas or anxious. Oh no, had I come down with the GI bug too? That would only be fair retribution for leaving my poor wife at home in her current condition. The climb started steep, but on pavement. We were on the first switch back within half a mile. The stomach upset was subsiding a bit, I gained some confidence feeling stronger, so I led out. My hyper-competitive self felt a rush to see Martin falling back. However, my confidence would only last as far as the pavement, which was only a couple more miles. The tarmac gave way to loose dirt littered with rocks the size of large potatoes. With the pitch (which was to average 7.3% but was steeper than 20% at points) it was nearly impossible to keep traction. I tried to keep smooth pedal strokes, get on the nose of the saddle, and pull my chest as close to the handlebars as I could get, but it was no use. If my rear wheel wasn’t rolling, it was spinning in place, bouncing off rocks, and sliding into ruts. When my wheel would spin or slide, and I would oftensuddenly find my front wheel pointing over the edge of a cliff, which was the typical state of the edge of the road. Martin had better climbing technique than I did, and soon caught me and passed. After another 5 spinouts where I had to put my foot down, Martin disappeared around the next switchback. This climb had no glory in it. It was a slog the entire way. Packed sections where I had enough purchase to get out of the saddle were few and far between. It was the granny gear and largest cassette 95% of the time. I caught Martin half way up, where it was unclear if he was waiting up for me or recovering from the butt kicking we were both been suffering. I assumed it was the former. However, standing around wasn’t getting us any closer to ending the suffering. Up was the name of the game, so up we went. Soon, we came to the thickest frost I had seen since arriving in Nepal. At first I thought snow had IMG_0791fallen. It was surreal, because the switchbacks would go from the sun, where it was probably about 50 degrees Ferenheit, to the shade where it was well below freezing. Martin started to fall back a bit, and then we came to the first really good lookout. We were at the valley rim and above the smog of Kathmandu. The Himalayas were crystal clear. I felt a surge, not only for having made about 1000M climb at this point, but of being able to bike in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Present excitement aside, there was plenty more climbing to go, since Pulchoki sits 400M above the rim.

From here Martin began hurt, and I, although I wasn’t exactly feeling good, started finding the energy to up-shift when the pitch let up, and was glad to find more solid soil where I could get out of the saddle from time to time. A 4×4 full of tourists passed me, and they looked at me as if I were some sort of exotic zoo animal. “Who would ride a bicycle up this hill?” They all asked with their eyes. One of them cautiously waved to me. 2 miles and several hundred meters later they were the first to greet me to the top, with their telephoto lenses and tour guides. I can guarantee the view was much more sweet for me than it was for them. I had earned every foot, and not just hired a monster truck to drive me to the top.

Martin joined me 5 minutes later, and we congratulated each other over a cup of hot tea.   This was maybe Martin’s 5th time to the top.


Martin walking to the pinnacle under prayer flags.

Pulchoki, being the highest point around Kathmandu, naturally is home to a number of large antennas. During the Maoist insurgency 7 years ago, this high point was an obvious target. Because of this, a number of gates and a small military outpost are planted on the top of the hill. We walked the last 50 feet to the top past the gates. The crown of the hill featured a small Hindu temple, and of course plenty of prayer flags. Everest was clear on the horizon, nested among the other Himalayan peaks.

The ride down was not much fun due to the large rocks that were strewn across the road, so we decided to take an alternative route home. We turned off at the valley rim, and zipped down single track that followed the crest. It was a rush, and a welcome change of pace. We cruised through forests, exposed single track, over technical rock sections, through deep ruts where our pedals scraped on both sides, and over smooth hard packed dirt.


A section of scenic single track near where I wrecked.

After one exposed section, I was cooking at about 15mph when we came to a series of 3 drainage ditches. We were on a 15ft wide smooth road at this point, so these 20 inch wide obstacles seemed a simple enough problem. I hopped the first 2 without issue. I’m not sure if I misjudged my speed or was sluggish from the long climb, but I initiated my bunny-hop for the 3rd ditch too late. I had my full weight on my fork and buried my wheel in the ditch. My face hit the ground before I even knew I was going down. I remember thinking “this is not going to be good” as I slid face first through the dirt. I vaguely remember wondering where my bike had gone, and then saw it cartwheeling ahead of me. I finally came to a stop, and I saw my front reflector bouncing down the right side of the road, my bike coming to a stop on the left 20 feet ahead of me now, and myself somewhere in the middle.

I had a small gash on the left side of my face and a matching dent in my helmet. My left shoulder was bruised and oozing a little bit. I was happy to find that the cut on my face wasn’t bleeding much, which is quite unusual for cuts on the head. I was surprised to find that the only damage to my bike was the reflector and a crushed index shifter indicator. This was good, since bodies heal and bikes don’t. At least not without money.

The remainder of the descent was much more tedious since I was shaken, but fun none the less and down some gorgeous winding hard packed single track. I arrived home 5 1/2 hours after I left (1 1/2 hours later than expected) and was happy to find my wife feeling OK, although she wasn’t too happy to see me bleeding.

This ride was a notch in the belt, and probably one that I’ll never do again. My GPS calculated it to be an HC, or beyond category climb, which is as big as they get. And it wasn’t up one of tarmac roads the boys in the Tour get, it was up a nasty loose dirt road. So now, if anyone asks me if I’ve ever been to Pulchoki, I can stand a little straighter, walk a little taller, and stick out my chin, slightly to the right, and point out the scar.