Bike-Packing: Summiting the Beast
Breakfast this morning is a sparse affair – coffee with honey and powdered milk plus a couple of small chocolate chip cookies, then off we set in good spirits to conquer Kegeti Pass. The first 9 km are almost entirely rideable and the surface rough in parts, but largely negotiable. Apart from the ever-present horses and sheep with their herdsmen, we are basically alone in a pristine expanse of wilderness with snow-capped peaks all around and the temperature drops steadily as we climb higher. My stomach is starting to growl, which is not surprising, considering our sparse breakfast and the continuous climbing, and thoughts start running to lunch. I mentally scan our provisions- stale bread, tomatoes, tuna – we could make toasted sarmies in the pot using a little of the precious olive oil I’ve stashed. I feel out the waters with the picnic police. “If it’s warm enough before we start the final climb, we’ll look for a nice spot to stop”, declares Kati ( she’s big on finding perfect picnic spots and gets quite peeved when Steve or I suggest random eating places).The prospect fuels me for the meantime ( along with a Far Bar from my emergency stash, that I surreptitiously cram into my mouth on the fly…)
As we come within sight of the summit way up in the distance, we become aware of a large herd of sheep making their way, with much complaining, up a VERY STEEP shale slope towards the neck. Their loud, mutinous maa-s & baa-s travel back down to us and draw our attention to the hive of activity bustling above. “Why are they taking that crazy route?”, we wonder – we look closer, squinting our eyes against the sun and snow… the pass is blocked by large snow-drifts. They are forced to take a detour. “Oh dread, does that mean we’ll have to do the same?”
Let’s worry about that when we get there…so we keep on trundling and with each pedal stroke, the dilemma becomes clearer. Finally, we run out of road and a large expanse of snow lies ahead of us, as well as to the left and to the right. There is no way around this one. There are 2 choices: wade through the snow ahead to re-join the road and continue up a series of switchbacks or go left through the snow and take a tiger line up a steep slope to re-join the road (shorter, but much harder with the heavy bikes).
There are about 30 horses already being reluctantly herded by 2 riders up the tiger line, some sinking into snow up to their flanks and another 50 milling about where we are. They are not keen to go anywhere. The herder indicates for us to go straight. We mill about a bit as well, then Kati takes a few tentative steps into the snow and sinks in about knee deep, the bike does the same. Eventually, despite Steve’s loud protestations of madness, we all wade across. The horses, however, stay firmly put. The herdsman is clearly going to need some help…
Once back on the road, which is partially covered, we push/cycle along the edge of the snow along a number of switchbacks until we encounter a fat horseman sitting Buddha-like next to his horse. He is blocking the road, while observing all the commotion down below. Still more horses have joined the throng and with the help of additional herders they are now stumbling through the deep snow towards the tiger line. We look past him to where we want to go, but alas, not far beyond, the road leading to the neck disappears completely under a great wall of snow. He points directly up the mountain, indicating a practically vertical shale ascent. “Up there? “we indicate back in disbelief, “where else?”, he shrugs. It takes a while for this to sink in and meantime 2 other herders have joined him, one notably all in camouflage kit, complete with natty peak cap.
We jump into action, unhook the bags, decide Steve should stay with the bikes and other bags, while Kati and I negotiate the steep climb with panniers slung one over each shoulder. It’s about 300m to the summit, but feels like forever as we slip and slide along, sometimes straight up, other times on narrow, off-camber paths, with just enough room to put one foot in front of the other.
We arrive, breathing heavily, place the bags on top and turn to make our way back for the next load- it’s almost trickier going down, as the shale below our feet is so loose and volatile.
Steve is chatting away amiably with Cammo and co, using the translating app. Seems he has landed in the pound seats, as he informs us that, given the raunchy nature of the conversation, it’s not a good idea for either of us to stay back with the bikes – how convenient!
Grabbing a dry bag in each hand filled with sleeping bags and bedrolls and shoving her tent, also in a dry bag, into a small fold-up backpack, Kati heads off with her second load. I grab Steve’s panniers and start to follow suit, when Cammo calls me back. “You can’t go now, the horses are coming! You need to move these bikes! The horses will cause landslides, which will damage them! Quickly, quickly!” – all this communicated with much noise and gesticulating. In a panic I scramble back down, drop the panniers and grab the bikes, dragging them further along the path. At this point I hear Kati scream from above and look up to see a bright yellow dry bag bouncing down the slope. My heart stops as I expect to see her follow, but luckily, it’s just the tent, fallen out of the backpack. We manage to retrieve it before it plummets all the way down the mountain. Phew, what a relief! Cammo then indicates an alternative, more direct, but somewhat trickier route that I can take up, but I must hurry, as the paths merge at the top. Steve straps the panniers together with rope and I sling them around my neck and with shouted, unintelligible instructions from Cammo below, I attempt the tiger line of the tiger line.
Oh my God, I think this was a bad idea! I am struggling to find any footing and grabbing onto rocks is not an option, as they tend to pop straight out of the ground. I am crab- walking, bending my knees deep to gain stability. For just a moment I feel a flicker of Real Fear. If I slip now, I am toast. Thank goodness the panniers are dangling round my neck or I would have lost them by now for sure. I am making slow progress, but unbelievably I am still upright and I am moving closer and closer to the neck – “keep calm, focus, just keep putting one foot firmly in front of the other “, I tell myself. Then Steve yells from down below: “You need to move faster! The horses are coming! They’re nearly there! YOU MUST GET OUT THE WAY!!
“OH SHIT! Ok, don’t panic. Just one last narrow path. It’s easy. Don’t look down, don’t think, 1…2…3, Go! Go! Go! I dash across the final stretch, dive over the neck and roll towards the pile of panniers, just in time to hear the first horses summitting hot on my heals. As I hunker down on the edge of the mountain, crouching behind the bags, they come pouring over the neck.
I am glued to the spot, as more horses than I have ever seen keep coming and coming. They mill around briefly in confusion (“please don’t come my way!”), then are herded through the narrow, snow-covered neck and down around the corner, out of sight. Having left the phone with Steve, I have no way of taking photos of this incredible scene! Thank goodness I have my panniers though, as I suddenly become aware that I am shivering with intense cold. I am at 3778m and the wind is howling. I dig out my Seal Skinz gloves, buff, jacket, etc and crouch down lower behind the bags to watch the spectacle. This is going to take a while…
Clearly Kati got caught and was forced off the path. I discover later that she was co-opted by the herders to help keep the horses moving along by employing the stone throwing method. She assures me that she didn’t have her heart in it though and that her throwing technique was pathetic.
It seems to take forever, but finally the last horse clears the neck and Kati is able to make it up with the last of the bags. Now to make the journey down again and get 3 partially laden bikes up!!
Somewhere in the midst of all this Kati hands me a chunk of something cake-like. I shove the entire thing it in my mouth, chewing like a chipmunk and vaguely register marzipan (I can’t stand marzipan), then try to generate some saliva to wash it down, as I became aware that my mouth is dry as a bone. Water bottles are still on the bikes down below…
It takes all 3 of us – one steering, one pushing, one pulling with a rope, to get each bike up. Back breaking stuff!
Having left our campsite at 09h00, we summit at 16h00. The final 300m takes us 3 hours. Lunch is needless to say, long forgotten…
It’s way too early to celebrate though, as we still have the small matter of the descent to contend with and given all the snow about, we are under no illusions that this will be easy.
Indeed, our fears are justified as we painstakingly work our way around snowy obstacles, following the horse shit and guiding the bikes down steep, rocky gorges for a good 2 hours until we reach rideable terrain. It is sheer Heaven at this point to get back on the bikes and fly down into the valley below, where we come across “our” horses grazing peacefully alongside the river. Cries of “Steven, Steven” reach our ears and we wave and feel a sense of belonging and super -privileged to have been a part of this unique annual migration.
In a land of 6 000 000 people and 10 000 000 horses, we have surely experienced the very essence of Kyrgyzstan!