I set out at sunrise, making sure to eat enough to get me going without having to puke. Today was going to be big. I’ve done climbing before and I’ve done distance. But this was different. The route showed 135km roughly to the pass, increasingly steep as the road wound higher up the mountain.
I made decent time until a town called 水晶 where I blindly navigated my way straight and up a dead end climb. Dammit. The last thing you want to do when faced with 135kms of climbing is add any more to it.
Back in 水晶 I corrected course and continued, up up up. Pushing to cover over half the climb before taking pause, I bonked at around the 70km mark as I was rolling into another little village. There’s no room to run on empty on this kind of climb.
Sitting there an old man hobbled up and offered me a cigarette. I declined but he went into casually asking what I was doing. I told him my route and my aim to crest the pass. He, like the ladies at the hotel the day before me, warned that heavy rains had wreaked havoc on the road the week before. “It’s open now though and you’re making good speed so you should be fine.”
He offered a drink straight from the tap, a proposition I’m usually leery of. “It’s mountain spring water, we all drink it.” I washed my face, thanked him and was on my way.
The road eventually enters a nature reserve. The canyon narrows, and the rush of water grows deafening. The road twists and turns more, or in some straights for lack of room to wiggle just jets straight up.
It looked like a war had been fought here. At regular intervals the road was washed out or buried from the week before. There were steep steady climbs through rock and mud followed by river crossings that required counter-steering into the current. This was tough and a little terrifying. Having made good time in the morning I slowed to a crawl.
I needed to make the pass. It wasn’t a physical necessity: You can always find your way out of the shit when you’re in the mountains of West Sichuan. It was mental and I had an absolute need to appease my ego.
Higher up and the weather turned. It cooled and clouds condensed. It started to rain. With about a 1300m vertical to go I’d reached the last 30km. I’ve done altitude and it always seems to be around the 3000m mark that you feel it. You redline quick and recover slow. For each 100m up you lose pep from your step. Your ears ring, your legs scream and the low oxygen makes you wildly emotional.
And so it went, into the clouds. I took each bend after each bend expecting it to be the last but knowing The Climb didn’t owe me such a courtesy. But finally, with a strong gust of wind at my back I crested. Not half bad.
On the descent into town, maybe it was the altitude, my ego collapsed inward. I took pause and found a nice vista to take in the mountains and to soak in the enjoyment: All my planning and effort, anguish and triumph were nothing to this giant rock.