Those who know me well are aware of my deep passion for mountains. Whilst perched high up in Shimla of the Himalayan foothills, the capital of the Himachal Pradesh state, I contemplated this notion as I sat gazing out at the distant, majestic, snow peaked summits of the Himalayan range proper. The seed of this passion perhaps rooted itself in my early years. I cast my mind back to fond memories of hiking to the summit of Walla Crag and Catbells in the Lake District with my Nan and Grandad. It should perhaps be said that at the time I was likely to have been moaning about my aching legs, the cold wind and the drizzle. During these times I was unaware of the lure that the mountains had to my being, yet despite the nugatory discomforts, through my teenage years and my twenties I returned time and time again. Impromptu camping weekend with friends with very little regard for the inclement weather forecast to then be caught out in snow storms on mountain tops. Family cottage retreats spending cosy evenings by the fire, playing games, though these usually resulted in me taking on the roll of mountain guide or more suitably, mountain goat, leading my clients (my mother, siblings and an assortment of family friends) blindly up the ‘path less trodden‘ that turns out to be no path at all, strambling on all fours until finally cresting a ridge to be reunited with a more family friendly ascent. Father and son ‘ale and trail‘ weekends (that have now evolved into father, sons and daughter weekends as my sister, who also shares a passion for the outdoors, managed to swindle an annual invitation through a benign guilt trip that, in hind sight, my father and I completely empathise with and, as a matter of fact, her inclusion does nothing but enhance the experience), where I push the boundaries in an attempt to entice my father into climbing grander and more perilous routes (in a hope that he will relent and succumb to my plans to scramble to the summit of Pavey Arc via Jack’s Rake). Rock climbing weekends, roadtrips to France, Scottish winter mountaineering trips and solo camping and scrambling trips have all took precedence in my adventuring.
I nostalgically digressed…
I have a passion for the mountains in all senses: the still fresh mountain air; the natural sounds of wildlife; mountains are pure, timeless, serene and tranquil; the feel of bare rock as I scramble to the peak; the rythmic beat of my hiking boots as I trek to the summit; the sensation of being up high with a feeling that you are closer to, and could perhaps touch, the sky than you are from the ground. There is no doubt that the lure of mountains, in fact, the lure of the tallest and most illustrious mountain range on the planet, was a pivotal aspect of the decision making when finalising our desired route for this cycle tour.
The problem with such a passion and with such an insatiable hunger to find oneself casting an eye downwards, be it a few hundred feet from a local hilltop or thousands of feet to the valley floor from a mountain peak, is that it is often no easy feat to reach such a precipice. Jacob and I could have planned a relatively flat, easy, but perhaps monotonous route across the plains of northern India, but we were instead drawn to the mountains, the climbs, the steep ascents. We could have decided to cycle via New Delhi and Agra to witness and experience the busy, city life of the Indian capital or the splendour of the Taj Mahal, but no, we decided that we would ride in and out of the Himalayan foot hills; painstakingly grinding through gears, or as a matter of fact, relentlessly pedalling in first gear, head down, sweat dripping of the tip of my nose, tackling steep switchbacks as the twisting and turning roads hug desparately to valley walls. It is these sinuous roads that, to the majority, sound like a torturous nightmare, yet it is these days that make the cycle tour. This realisation, perhaps instilled over time since starting out in Kyrgyzstan, struck me on the day we reached Shimla.
To avoid a miserable soaking, we decided to spend an extra two extra days in McLeod Ganj at 2,082 metres, until the poor weather had passed. A thrilling descent dropped us to a mere 500 metres above sea level, the heavens opened once again and as we took cover in a small village we were invited into the family household of a young man, Akshansh. We were kindly offered pakora and a cup of chai. Akshansh’s mother asked if we would like to stay for lunch. Deciding we were by no means in a hurry and excited by the prospect of home Indian cooking, we gladly accepted her offer. The bottomless bowl of daal and curry was a taste sensation, we were fed as if we had been starved for three days. After meeting Grandma and a tour of the vegetable garden, sincerely grateful for the shelter and good food we waved goodbye, bellies full.
Over the next three days we climbed back up into the mountains to Shimla, at 2,276 metres. To put it simply; these were three, tough days. Each morning we woke to a cold blanket of low lying mist. Donning jackets and gloves we would cycle to warm ourselves until the sun rose high into the sky and above the neighbouring ridgelines. Throughout each day we battled perpetuously up what what felt like endless ascents. The evenings were spent filling ourselves with nutrient rich, vegetable curry usually cooked with our MSR multifuel stove on the floor or coffee table of the hotel room. We would then crash out on the bed. One evening we were so exhausted, we had both slipped into a deep slumber whilst listening to an audio book at about 19:00. I started to become nutritionally obsessed and refined our diet plan ensuring we ate sufficient carbohydrates for energy consumption during the cycling and post workout protein to repair our tired muscles.
As the consecutive arduous cycling days accumulated our legs grew weary, the calorie deficit was becoming apparent, evident by our stainless steel lunch time Thali plates, wiped exceptionally clean with the last price of roti.
The final day ride when we ultimately arrived at Shimla was not only a physical challenge but more of a mental triathlon. To quote my diary entry on this particular day “It was an emotional rollercoaster, a fight between negativity and elation“. The ascents were almost too steep for my little legs to propel the combined weight of my bike and myself forward, our progress was slow and our final destination felt almost beyond our reach. I clung desparately onto the edge of an emotional cliff in an attempt to avoid plummeting into the depths of frenzied animosity as the hot midday sun beat down. Though, perseverance prevailed, the road relented and miraculously, I stepped up to 5th gear as a seemingly effortless stretch of smooth, pleasant undulations gifted incredible views. For the first time during this incapacitating stage from McLeod Ganj to Shimla, we looked out from a high vantage, to the south we gazed across the rolling hills and to the North our eyes were united once again with the snowcapped Himalayas. In complete contrast to the morning’s ascent I was ecstatic. I emerged from my state of silent monotony and felt alive, I emphatically expressed my sudden inverted mood, quoting “This is the best stretch of road we have cycled since entering India!“, and despite my delirium at the time, I believe it was. We rode along side each other gleefully chatting away, morning woes had dissipated and fortuitously, the road wound through alpine forests, shading us from the sun.
The 30 joyous minutes of cycling was simply divine however, we still had a fair distance to Shimla and before long we found ourselves pedalling again in rock bottom gear. The gradient increased and my legs screamed once again as my quadriceps, hamstrings and calves ached in unison. It was another two and a half, of what felt like dark and oppressive hours until at 15:30, after enduring a gruelling total of eight hours on the road, our tyres rolled into Shimla.
Shimla is situated atop a ridge at 2,276 metres above sea level. The precarious perch of the city makes navigating it’s narrow roads and alleyways no easy task. Jacob and I had replaced a lunch time meal with a series of high calorie snacks to reduce the risk of an early afternoon crash and had our sights set on a gluttonous meal once we arrived. Somehow we arrived at a part of the city hosting literally no restaurants. Asking local hotel owners we were directed up a ludicrously steep road. Painstakingly pushing our bikes up to the lower bazaar, a series of busy, narrow streets with vendors selling anything and everything except for a hot meal, we took turns to guard the bikes while the other set out in search of a meal of any sorts. We settled for a series of dishes from a Chinese fast food vendor, collapsed on the only available seat, a roadside bench and each devoured a portion of vegetarian fried spicy sausage, a plate of momos (steamed dumplings) and a bowl of chowmein. Not quite the gargantuan portion of curry, rice and chapati that we had hoped for, but extremely tasty on the less.
Daylight hours faded as we pushed our bikes back down the steep road in search of accommodation. Having learned that we much prefer a more isolated base of operations we skirted around the city to the Annadale View Guest House. We were spoiled with a luxurious, modern room, a private bathroom, hot shower, portable heater, crisp clean bed linen, white towels and as the name suggests, a spectacular view out across the Annadale Valley.
Our arrival day at Shimla happened to be Diwali, after an indulgently hot shower we hiked back into Shimla along the Mall Road dodging blasts from ear piercingly loud bangers and fire crackers as they were launched wildly into the streets from hotel balconies. Fireworks soared through the air in all directions as we walked transfixed on finding a restaurant for supper. It almost felt as though we had walked into World War Three. Most restaurants were closed due to the Hindu festivities, the only place we could find serving hot food was the Hide Out Cafe. We joined an English couple, Lyn and Leon, at a table in the small dining area and enjoyed conversing and sharing travel stories over an epic meal of a “Mega Aloo Veg Burger“, a side dish of vegetable rice followed by a rich chocolate brownie. We were both full to bursting though felt that we had earned the right to sate our rapacious appetites, something we yearn for when arriving at a planned destination. We hobbled on sore legs back down Mall Road to our bachelor pad. We stopped and leaned on the railings and admired the twinkling lights of Shimla as rockets exploded throughout the valley. We had made it, triumphant.
During self-induced, punishing ventures I sometimes question why on earth I voluntarily put myself through such torment. Yet despite the gruelling, relentless undertaking necessary to arrive at destinations such as Shimla and McLeod Ganj nestled high in the Himalayan foot hills, or be it climbing to the summit of a mountain, I can wholeheartedly say that every bead of sweat, every heart beat and every grinding revolution of the pedals or step taken is worth the effort. The sheer elation and sense of accomplishment washes away the stress and the preceding woes. Overcoming the struggle, and hardships endured, emphasises the state of euphoria. It’s this addictive, intoxicating euphoria, the sense of achievement, reinforced companionship, the unforgettable views and a heightened state of awareness that is the reason why I put myself through such arduous endeavours.
Over the last 20 years this ‘ideology‘ has ingrained itself into my being. If I am not training towards something, be it a timed mountain hiking challenge such as the Welsh 3000s or a marathon, I feel an uncomfortable sense of emptiness that sets my brain in gear, seeking out the next challenge. Experiencing these rapturous moments is what makes me feel truly alive; that I am pushing my boundaries and living my life in a way that I feel it should be lived. This is perhaps what lead me to set out on this cycling tour.
Ultimately, I must express sincere gratitude to my Nan, who is sadly no longer with us and Grandad, the patriarch of the Woods family, for, not only bringing my parents and therefore, myself, into this world, but for planting that adventurous seed. Without their influence I may not have flourished into the ambitious, efficacious and positive individual and as contentedly satisfied with life as I am today. Despite being midway through a long-term adventure, I long for those special weekends spent in the mountains with friends and family that I cherish so dearly.