This feature originally ran in the May 2018 issue of Bike. Click here to watch the feature’s accompanying film.
My eyes burned as a salty stream of sweat flooded them. With a fully loaded bike on my back and DEET-laden insect repellent dripping onto my hands, I tried to squint through the deluge of lost fluids coursing down my face.
The frenzied nebula of mosquitoes buzzing around me was doing a stellar job of stymying my progress, landing on every inch of exposed flesh and piercing my skin with their needle-like proboscises.
"This is pure agony," I grumbled, resting my bike against a cluster of bamboo and swatting irritably at the shadowy veil of vectors. "At this rate, it's gonna take us ages to climb out of this mess."
"That's for sure," affirmed my teammate, Sam Seward, squashing his helmet against his forehead and sending a cascade of perspiration down his cheeks. "Maybe we should have started higher up."
We'd dragged our good buddy, filmmaker Joey Schusler, to this remote corner of southwest China to bikepack a high-altitude circuit around three extraordinary mountains considered sacred by the Tibetan people.
Known as the 'Yading Kora,' this multi-day pilgrimage beneath a triangle of snow-clad, 19,000-plus-foot peaks is a rite of passage for Tibetans. For these hardy plateau dwellers, a 'kora,'—or completed circumambulation of mountains historically ordained as holy by various Dalai Lamas—will purify a lifetime of negative karma.
At this point, though, it felt like all that negative karma was landing squarely on our shoulders. Not only were we hampered by heavy bags holding 10 days' worth of supplies, but the heat itself was smothering, with a humidity factor that made breathing feel like an act of desperation.
Add the deafening reverberation of a symphony of cicadas, rubbing their wings together until they reached an eardrum-splitting crescendo, and it seemed like the entire forest was collapsing on us.
Further compounding matters, I'd spent the previous week fighting a crippling bout of African tick bite fever that I'd unluckily brought with me from my temporary home in South Africa. After several days of sweating off the delirium in a stifling hotel room, I was starting this mission weak and malnourished. The cool majesty of the mountains taunted me. I was in hell.
There was no choice but to press on. Our transport into these thickly forested foothills had left us behind hours earlier; the trail we were following would eventually lead to a fire road we could pedal up to higher elevation. This was the price we'd have to pay for singletrack salvation.
It'd been more than a decade since I'd been to China's Sichuan Province, and I'd all but forgotten how sweltering its summers are—especially in August, the month in which we were undertaking this expedition. I'd also forgotten how much precipitation Sichuan gets in late summer.
It wasn't long before I got a reminder. As we emerged from the sticky, subtropical zone into an evergreen broadleaf forest, the clouds opened up and unleashed on us. Though the rain provided a welcome respite from the sultriness, I couldn't help but wonder what it would mean at serious elevation.
Our bags were waterproof, and we'd brought raingear, but we'd intentionally skimped on winter clothes to save weight. And the two-season, two-man tent the three of us were sharing would only go so far in freezing conditions. Setting up camp at the end of this balmy first day, I shuddered at the contrast of extremes we would have to endure.
We crawled out of our cramped sleeping quarters early the next morning, eager to flee to higher ground. After a short slog through wet undergrowth, we intersected the fire road that was our planned escape route.
Joey and Sam were more than ready to abandon the Chinese realm in favor of the Tibetan hinterlands. Heads down, they quickly began grinding upwards with the determination of a Tour de France peloton making its attack on the Alpe d'Huez.
"So much for altitude acclimatization," I muttered to myself as I struggled to keep the Colorao-based whippersnappers in sight. The brisk climb through a steady drizzle was refreshing, but I could feel the air getting thinner with each passing switchback. In a couple of hours, I rounded what seemed like the hundredth turn to see the lads standing amid a whirlwind of colorful prayer flags—surefire Tibetan symbols that a pass has topped out.
"Yeah boys, we're in the Himalaya!" Joey shouted, flashing his signature fist-horns.
Our exuberance was short-lived. The track ahead dipped sharply into a river valley, and after half an hour of a rain-soaked descent we'd lost almost all the elevation we'd ridden so hard to gain.
Bottoming out alongside a river, we followed its meandering course all the way to a hillside settlement of traditional stone houses. Known as 'Kasi Cun,' this historic Tibetan hamlet was our anticipated staging point to truly high elevation. Drenched to the bone, we made a beeline for the village in search of the yak-butter tea we could smell wafting through the air.
"Tashi deleg, tashi deleg!" an excited group of children shouted in Tibetan as they raced down the hill to greet us. "Kerang kaba phege?" asked one, eager to learn where we were going.
"Women yao he cha," I responded in Mandarin Chinese, making a sipping gesture and feeling sheepish about speaking the language of their historic overlords. "You mei you cha?"
"Nimen xi huan suyou cha ma?" a man further up the hill asked, looking skeptical of whether we would drink yak-butter tea. He motioned for us to enter his home.
Spirituality of Stoicism
We ducked under the low-slung doorway and let our eyes adjust to the dim interior. It was a sanctuary, with a Tantric Buddhist shrine on one wall and a blazing woodstove on the other. A family spanning three generations was sitting on a woolen carpet near the stove, sharing a heaping bowl of tsampa (roasted barley flour), Tibet's ubiquitous staple food.
It was like stepping into a dream. And, judging by the looks on their faces, the family members couldn't believe their eyes, either. A goateed grandfather stared at us, wide-eyed, his mouth agape. His wife, her long, gray hair braided into two pigtails that rested on her shoulders, sat mesmerized, ceaselessly spinning a hand held prayer wheel in a clockwise direction as she watched us.
The unrelenting heat and insects of China suddenly seemed worlds away. We had entered an utterly new dimension, a place where the harshness of life is met with a spirituality of stoicism, where mountains and mysticism are one and the same. Our kora was underway.
Our host, however, was of a different mind. As soon as I told him the path we planned to take into the highlands—up a steep and treacherous canyon named the 'Kasi Hell Valley'—he vigorously shook his head.
"Qu bu liao!" he said in accented Mandarin, assuring us it would be impossible to take loaded bikes all the way to the top.
"We don't like that trail, and we're Tibetan," he added. "Besides, the only way up the Kasi Hell Valley is by foot or on horseback."
As we cruised out of the village to find a camping spot for the night, Joey whispered, "If horses can make it to the top, then so can we."
Horses or not, we were champing at the bit to start climbing the next morning. We set out at the crack of dawn in a mist so thick we could barely see what lay ahead. The narrow trail wound upwards through a hardwood forest, interspersed by logs laid across the rushing stream that bisected the valley. Crossing these makeshift bridges in such low visibility was unsettling; the rush of water underfoot created an intense vertigo in the absence of other visual cues.
Eventually the fog began to lift, unveiling an eerie landscape of gnarled tree trunks and drooping evergreen branches decorated with wispy strands of dangling, dew-christened lichens. It might as well have been the set of "The Hobbit," and I half expected to see dwarves peeking through the primordial-looking ferns that lined the footpath.
Suddenly, I stumbled upon a primitive shrine of stacked slate slabs, mimicking the shape of the more-developed meditation stupas found at votive sites throughout Tibet. Upon closer inspection, I found that each slab was engraved with highly stylized Tibetan script: Religious sutras, painstakingly carved into the rock.
We'd been surrounded by these mysterious cairns all along. Each of these miniature chortens served both a practical and devotional purpose, denoting the way for pilgrims while giving pause for reflection. Some were draped in colorful prayer-bead necklaces; others were curiously crowned with decomposing yak skulls.
I was awestruck. Though we were far from civilization, the signs of human passage were everywhere. We were alone in the wilderness, yet this ancient artery into the hallowed highlands was well-trodden. I was struck by a sense of peace and timelessness. The Kasi Hell Valley was a portal between the immeasurable past, the surreal present and the unknown future.
Progress = Purification
It was also a spectacular pain to negotiate, more than measuring up to the 'Hell Valley' portion of its moniker. The trail itself seemed hell bent on gaining elevation in the most expedient possible way, which often meant going straight uphill. Most of it was maddeningly steep, with slick rocks and roots making traction a rarity.
The ever-present mist and sporadic showers also ensured that every ounce of dirt was properly saturated. Mud was my middle name, as it dripped off my downtube and onto my neck and back. My shoulders ached from supporting the bike in such a fixed position, and the nasty undergrowth was doing a number on my lower legs. I was now in a state of purgatory, halfway between the steamy hell of China and what I hoped would be the heaven of the Himalaya.
Fortunately, this was a purgatory that required only one form of purification: forward progress. Joey and Sam were making damn sure this was happening, scampering up the most arduous sections with fervor. The ruthless pace served us well: By noon the next day, we had broken through the low-hanging fog into a grassy clearing. On one side was the sheer face of the canyon; on the other was nothing but mountains.
"We slayed that valley, dudes," Joey laughed, pointing down the cliff edge to the clouds billowing out of the gorge. "And the locals told us we wouldn't make it."
Wheels of Fortune
We turned toward the mountains, gaping as the sun seared through the haze. A family of Tibetans appeared from the gloom, spinning prayer wheels and chanting in unison, their voices echoing off the canyon wall. Just a few hundred feet above us was the trail we'd suffered the last four days to join.
"Looks like it levels out up there," Sam said. "It's time to ride!"
Having the bikes back underneath us was a novel affair—and one we didn't take for granted. We sprinted along the slender corridor, popping over rocks and plowing past the shrubs that plucked at our pedals. The Tibetans stopped in their tracks, motionless apart from the continuous revolution of their prayer wheels. They were clearly stunned to see three mud-covered foreigners on mountain bikes.
"Nimen gan shenme?" the grizzled father asked in Mandarin. "What are you doing on those bicycles?"
"We're riding the kora," I said matter-of-factly, eliciting a chorus of howls from the ragtag group of devotees.
"It's hard enough to walk," the old man laughed, giving us the thumbs up as we rode away.
Three Minutes of Glory
His laughter made light of a heavy truth: The trail was tricky, with sharp, sidewall-slashing rocks at inconvenient intervals, often concealed by low-lying foliage. We were so happy to be covering ground, though, we didn't care. Joey and Sam sped ahead, shouting warnings about the worst obstacles, and we spent the next few hours gradually muscling our way to higher elevation.
By late afternoon, we caught sight of a kaleidoscopic collection of prayer flags on the ridge above, beckoning us to the top of our first major pass. We collapsed in a heap, chortling over how hard it was to breathe at an elevation just shy of 15,000 feet above sea level.
It was all downhill to where we would camp, but I was apprehensive about the terrain we would face. Joey and Sam didn't share my apprehension: They lit out like kindergarteners dashing for the playground, flagrantly ignoring my fatherly request to "ride conservatively."
I'd never seen them go so fast. I watched, disconcerted, as they tore through a menacing patch of off-camber rocks with callous disregard for the consequences. "They are definitely going to destroy those tires," I wearily muttered as I rolled in behind them, picking a much more prudent line.
My spirits were quickly lifted, however, when I realized just how superb the trail actually was. Burly as a downhill racecourse, it was nonetheless eminently ridable, and after several minutes of joyous descending, I skidded into a gravel-filled basin overlooking a sprawling lake.
"We bombed that whole thing in three minutes!" Joey blurted. "That was some of the most insane riding I've ever done!"
Face of Compassion
As if the day couldn't get better, we turned to see a dark storm front moving across the horizon, revealing an absolute monster of a mountain. It was Chenrezig, one of the kora's three sanctified peaks. Crowned with fresh snow, its charcoal-colored torso plummeted dramatically into a massive glacier, which emptied itself into a sprawling sea of gray shale. My spine tingled with exhilaration and wonder.
The Tibetans believe Chenrezig is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas—and staring up at this imposing yet solemn monolith, I intuitively understood why. Despite its undeniable greatness, it emanated elegance and dignity, benignly overlooking the vast floodplain its runoff had created.
Pitching camp and preparing dinner, I could hardly pry my eyes from Chenrezig's grandeur. The setting sun mingled with hovering cloudbanks, igniting a lightshow of psychedelic proportions against the stark backdrop. As darkness settled, a nearly full moon rose from behind the behemoth, casting a circular glow around its frozen crest—a halo of holiness illuminating Chenrezig's mighty head. I was humbled.
Pass the Ibuprofen
What we faced the next morning was even more humbling: an exasperatingly steep slog through an expansive rockslide that had buried the trail. Pushing our bikes was out of the question. I returned the two-wheeled albatross to its familiar resting place around my neck.
In the absence of a defined path, multiple ledges had to be scrambled up, requiring balance and a dose of rock-climbing skill. The exertion needed to scale these, coupled with the extreme altitude, was even getting the best of the boys.
"This is one of the hardest hike-a-bikes I've ever done," Sam uttered between heavily labored breaths. "Hopefully this will get us to the pass more quickly."
Three hours later, we crawled around a craggy outcrop to see another sodden tangle of prayer flags flailing forlornly in the breeze. It was a welcome sight, but one that did nothing to relieve the altitude headaches that afflicted us.
"I need a couple of those ibuprofen," Joey said, his brow furrowed in Saturday hangover fashion. "And we still have that Diamox, too."
Payback for Pain
"What's better than Diamox is a descent," I said. "Let's just get down the other side of this."
Joey didn't need to be asked twice. If there was one thing he liked more than a hellacious hike-a-bike, it was reaping the gravity-fed rewards. He tightened his helmet and dropped into another minefield of shale slabs, with Sam hot on his heels.
I followed the sound of smashing plates through the fog, hooting as I bulldozed over the debris. It was payback for the pain we'd withstood on the way up, and we were getting our retribution in spades. By the time we'd blasted down to the meadow where we'd camp for the night, we felt completely avenged.
In light of our triumph, we agreed to celebrate by pitching camp early and enjoying another spectacular sunset. Gazing at a serrated ridgeline silhouetted by the glimmer of dusk, we were surprised to see two Tibetans—a woman and her son—strolling up the hill toward us.
They sat on a boulder and watched as we boiled water for our freeze-dried victory feast. I asked if they lived nearby, and the boy motioned down the valley to a simple stone dwelling surrounded by a small herd of goats.
"That's our home," he said in broken Mandarin. "We live here during the summer, so the goats can eat."
It is a hardscrabble existence. The soil at such elevation is not arable, so the family was relying on the herd and a ration of tsampa they'd carried into this harsh, unforgiving landscape. They were entirely self-sufficient.
As if to illustrate this fact, the boy's father suddenly appeared, carrying an enormous, flowering thistle he'd harvested. I handed him a cigarette and asked what he was doing with the plant.
"My son has a bad cold," he explained. "This will make it better."
Gods of Granite
Our shared need for self-sufficiency—and the dramatic differences between our version and the Tibetans'—haunted me the next morning, as we forged up and over a series of smaller passes. I chuckled at the bourgeois nature of our exploits; the irony of first-world adventurism in a place whose inhabitants struggle to eke out an ascetic subsistence.
Yet the Tibetans we'd encountered seemed genuinely happy in their remote kingdom, surrounded by the granite titans they worship as gods. Despite the difficulty of their everyday toil, they remain largely free of modern consumer concerns, left to coexist with nature at its most rugged. It's no wonder their veneration of these mountains runs so deep.
As if to affirm my thoughts, the pointed tip of an incisor-shaped skyscraper came into view. It was Jampayang, the second of our kora's triumvirate of divine peaks, revered as the emanation of Buddha's wisdom. Chasing Sam along an extended escarpment in the shadow of this hulking deity, liberated from worldly concerns, Jampayang's simple truth was revealed: We too, in our own way, worshiped these mountains.
We hadn't undertaken this journey for religious reasons, but it was, in essence, a profoundly spiritual one. And if the Tibetans' spinning of prayer wheels conveyed their mantras to the heavens, the act of self-propulsion on our rubber-encased wheels paid homage to our other worldly surroundings.
This day was a tribute to the free and feral. The riding was sublime, with long stretches of shred-worthy singletrack sprinkled with bead-laced chortens. We followed them with devotional fervor, accepting the rough with the smooth, as they guided us up to a natural platform shrouded in prayer flags.
The wind was furious, violently whipping the flags and forcing us to crouch for cover. To the east, we could see for hundreds of miles over the jagged peaks of minor ranges. And snaking around the barren flanks of Jampayang to the northeast was our trail. It was another chunky descent, with fat babyheads and forceful gusts conspiring to repeatedly blow us off our lines.
After a rowdy couple of miles, the trail leveled out, bisecting another monumental rockslide that had inundated the hillside's entire lower half. It looked alarmingly exposed, but we picked our way along the precipice until Joey wedged his front wheel between two slabs that body-slammed him straight into an unyielding jumble.
The gouges on his knee and shin were tough to look at, so we taped them in gauze and carried on to a switchback-choked downhill into a soggy marsh, where we set up camp for the night. To spite the injuries, Joey and Sam insisted on charging until the bitter end, leaving me alone for an unpleasant evening jaunt.
Tears and Trench Foot
We woke to the familiar pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent, signaling a continuation of daily discomfort. Every day so far, the skies had anointed us with their tears, and every item of gear—including down jackets and sleeping bags—was damp. Trench foot was now another thing the three of us had in common, and we took perverse pleasure in placing wagers over who would be the first to lose a toenail.
Weighing my odds as we trudged up the morning climb, I reminded myself that the ecstasy of our endeavor was made all the sweeter by the misery. The firmament continued to reinforce this point, gushing down like a cow pissing on a pile of rocks. Seeking shelter under an auspiciously located overhang, we marveled at the waterfall that had formed before us and calmly waited for it to subside.
Our curtain call came soon enough. We hustled over the next pass, keen to reach lower elevation before the next act started. The descent that followed was as dangerous as they come, slicing through a no-fall section of sidehill that could easily spell the difference between life and death.
True to form, Joey and Sam chose to gamble against the latter. They tore down the paltry contact patch, skimming the outer edge of the first turn as a group of Tibetans hugged the inside bank. The pilgrims cheered in disbelief as the lads blazed past them.
"That was crazy," one of them said in Mandarin as I walked by. "If you fall off, you'll die."
Cramps for Crab apples
Things were about to get even more crazy. The midday monsoon blew in just as we troughed out in a raging riverbed, meaning another torturous climb in a downpour. With visibility at an all-time low, we missed our turn and had to whack our way up a sliver of goat trail.
Adding insult to injury, my intestines had become decidedly dodgy, and the miserable hike-a-bike was punctuated with repeated pit stops. My stomach cramps were excruciating, with spasms that left me doubled over every few minutes. By the time we reconnected with the main trail near a seasonal settlement of yak herders, I was about to crack.
We pitched the tent and I slid into my dank, down lifeline, shivering and spent. Within minutes, we heard a kid yelling outside, and we opened the fly to see a young Tibetan boy and his sister peering at us.
"Come down to our house," he chirped in Mandarin, streaks of rain streaming down his weather-beaten cheeks. "We have a fire and it's warm."
Confused over why we politely turned down his charitable offer, he passed me a handful of crab apples. "Eat these," he said. "They're sweet."
Black and White
We set out early the next morning, riding through horizontal sheets of rain, restless to cross our final pass. The kora's third peak, Chanadorje, sulked ominously in the distance, all but its icy summit obscured by a tremendous thunderhead.
Its presence was disquieting. In Tibetan, the word 'Chanadorje' means 'thunderbolt in hand,' and the protector deity is considered a wrathful bodhisattva. In my depleted state, I was not sure whether it was with us, or against us.
Either way, it was certainly stirring up the tempest. As we plodded closer to the pass, the wind whipped up and the precipitation began to alternate between sleet and hail. With several inches of snow already on the ground, our way forward was guided only by the stacked cairns that were rapidly collecting drifts. We were in a dreary world of black and white; an austere domain in which right and wrong were instantly made clear.
By the time we reached the top, the wind was furious, and our fingers and toes were completely numb. At 16,100 feet above sea level, the air was shockingly thin. There was little time for ceremony. Hugs and high-fives were quickly exchanged, and the boys began splashing down the stream-soaked trail.
I turned for one last look at the flag-adorned stupa marking the apex. Perched atop it was a lone, black raven, glaring at me with a steely, omniscient focus, informing me it was time to go.
Within an hour, we'd lost more than a thousand feet of elevation, and we found ourselves coasting into a wildflower-filled pasture dotted with dozens of yaks and horses. Content in the knowledge that our last day would be mostly downhill, we whiled away the afternoon in our tent, playing cards and prematurely celebrating our success.
Ripping through the dense evergreen forest the next morning, our saddlebags emptied of the food we'd devoured, we thought we were home free. The trail widened, with broad turns that almost seemed purpose-built for mountain bikes. We made short order of it, with plenty of daylight left when the path deposited us on a road that would lead back to civilization.
To avoid boredom, we decided to take the 'bonus route': Another trail we'd mapped out on Google Earth that ran straight through the heart of a yawning river gorge. Completely forgetting the age-old axiom that one should never enter a Chinese river gorge during monsoon season, we plunged headlong into it, descending several miles until it began crisscrossing a river that was rapidly rising.
I was worried. Each wooden bridge was in a worsening state of disrepair, and wading through swift, waist-high currents quickly became the norm. Eventually our luck ran out: A bridge over some intimidating rapids was completely destroyed, and we opted to march along the riverbank in the hope we could rejoin the trail once it crossed back to our side.
It didn't. The underbrush was so concentrated that Sam started clambering up a ravine, leading us into an increasingly technical free climb. We didn't have ropes, and the rain was pounding down ever-harder. I stopped, yelling to Joey that we should backtrack and take the road out before the river got too swollen to retrace our steps.
As we waited for Sam to slide back down for a powwow, I noticed another raven watching us from its roost on a tree limb. The black raven—a bird Tibetans consider magical. It let out a grating caw and flew upstream, circling back above us once before continuing its aerial arc up and out of the gorge. It was our sentinel. We had to follow it to the end of our kora.