Pt. 2 – Switchbacks & thundersnow

Day two was a beastie. We needed to shuttle to the start, a drive roughly 2 hours long. This put us up over the pass at Zheduo Shan, down into the valley that houses Xinduqiao, before making a right turn to begin the slow climb back up to Tagong.

It’s this stretch of road that sports the start and finish of this roughly 26km day. Setting out off the highway along a sleepy little farm road, the road gradually climbs it’s way up into a canyon. This is where you really begin to feel the elevation. Starting out around 3600m this climb ultimately puts you up around 4200m.

As you slowly get to the head of the canyon, your line up the mountain appears, a windy switchback-riddled fire road that carved a harsh zigzag in the hill side. The day had started out with cloud cover so the approach seemed all the more dramatic, as you could only see the road snaking its way into clouds, a peek of its summit shrouded in silver wisps.

I had the day’s honored roll of sweep, prepared to inspire, motivate and repair as necessary for those dropping off the back. This meant that myself and another guide could afford a lazy pace upward, with an excess of stops for getting primo photos of us getting shreddy in controlled settings. Nice!

As we gradually wound our way up, trees gave way to shorter shrubbery, fresh snowpack and thinner air. It’s above 3500m that the unacclimated lungs really take notice of the body’s grim situation: There’s very little wiggle room if you redline. Going over your threshold comes on quick, hangs around, and prohibits recovery. There’s a constant discord between how you feel your body ought to respond to exertion, and the lame efforts it produces.

None of this matters a damn bit though, as you climb on and on and the world below unveils itself. Fortunately for us, as we gained altitude the cloud cover began to lift. At the top the whole thing blew open, and the high altitude Eden that is the Tibetan plateau bears itself with the entirety of its splendor: a landscape of rolling 14,000 footers, broken by glorious, white-capped peaks that scratch at the sky, dancing between puffy white clouds. These mountains are considered holy by the Tibetans of the region, and for good reason.

At the summit we paused for lunch. At about 4200m (14,000 ft) the clock begins ticking. Not only is effort at this altitude trying, but the body gradually eats away at itself, struggling to preserve a baseline of oxygen saturation. Slowly, a headache sets in. The stomach feels grumpy. An appetite forms or dissolves. You feel lightheaded and stoned. Emotions arrive and evaporate. Controlling a group of people under this influence can be a test of patience and positivity.

After lunch we embarked on a tough set of rolling “hills”, lesser peaks in a range of unassuming monsters. There was a set of 3 more hills, with steep, trail-less, hike-a-bike ascents. On the hillside of the final climb, a worn-down stone house lays in silent ruin, overlooking the peaks and valleys beyond. Not a bad place to build a home. The final descent followed a rolling ridge line, along a high-altitude grassland, before dipping down into a basin below. There wasn’t much of a trail, and the technical descent was made all-the-more so by a mean storm blowing in from the rear.

By the time we made the valley, it had begun snowing lightly. Big thick flakes flew from behind us as we began the slog downhill. Having been soaked the day before, the order of business was to remain as dry as possible. Trying to dance across a creek, I fucked this up pretty early on, and ended up ankle-deep wading a stream. Bummer.

It came in handy further down the trail. The snow and wind came on harder and faster, as I eventually caught up with the tail end of the bunch trying to cross a stream. Soaked, I decided it best to take the situation by the wet socks. I began wading bikes across and gave an extra hand to a few folks looking to stone hop across and avoid a fate similar to mine.

The further we got down the trail, the harder the snow came. Wind whipped at our faces. We caught the front bunch, huddled beneath an awning protecting a pair of prayer wheels. Met by a local Tibetan, I struck up a quick conversation while we waited for the others to arrive for a full regroup. Thunder clapped as the man invited us to his home for tea: Not this time unfortunately. As the snow came on we said our goodbyes, and ripped the final leg down a concrete road back to the bus. Soaked but not extinguished, enthusiasm for the wild drama of the day’s ride was strong.

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