The next day was a mad dash to reduce our load, yet again, to make sure we could get everyone’s things through the final pass for our next night’s stay. The pass was closed to everything but local vehicles. We had a check gate up ahead, but figured we’d take a whack at getting the van through, with a little rubbing of elbows.
The start of the ride was a gentle downhill, about 7km, before curving into the day’s climb. The climb had a similar profile as the day before. Everyone, feeling a bit shattered by the enormity of the climb the day before, was feeling a little less than up for the challenge.
Immediately, just through the check gate, Abu flatted again. He called me back to help him patch it up. Our support van came grumbling past. Our Tibetan right-hand man offered a thumbs up out the window. “Okey dokey.” Our offering had worked. Within about 15 minutes we had a new tube in his tire, and began the climb in earnest.
I like climbs like this. Or, at least, the roadie in me has cultivated an appreciation for this type of climb. It’s long and challenging, with about 840m of climbing over 10km. You sit and you spin. You ignore the siren calls to give up, that your legs are tired, or that your lungs can’t find their rhythm. You sit, and like a dog going after a hare, you pick your target and chase it down. Or at least try to. Over about 20 minutes I caught one, then the next few, and finally made the back bunch.
It was about here I figured I’d just sit in. Altitude was working its fingers in me, and knowing Mitch was at the front, figured it’d be more fun, with company, to ease my way up the rest of the climb.
It was here we really saw how the heights were picking people to bits. One of the strongest riders had popped off the lead group and met each steep incline with a dismount, and tired, shuffling walk upwards. Despite my strong effort at the base, I was feeling pretty fresh and made the pass pretty breezily.
Again, there was another new road cut into the hillside, switchbacking its way to the adjacent summit. Yes, please. Before long we caught the top and were greeted with another head-on view of Gongga Shan, still shrouded in its silvery curtain.
In one brief moment we caught a glimpse of her. Surprisingly high amongst the clouds, her face appeared, as we watched the winds whip snow from her summit. Like that she was gone. There we were, surrounded by summits, soft and jagged, that all easily reached, 4, 5, 6000m, but nothing holds quite the same majesty in her presence. Myself and a few others opted riding the ridge line down to the pass. While taking a moment to snack and hydrate, I asked our Tibetan local about Gongga. Will we see her again, today? No, she’s resting, he said.
From there we descended partway down the heavily switch-backed road toward our night’s stay. A cloud sea had slipped in, and you could just make out the village that was our destination, glinting through a hole in the clouds. A rider, who’d made the trek before, had scouted out a nice piece of technical single track that cut its way down, taking a shortcut down about 500m of descent.
I hadn’t planned to ride it, but then saw Mitch, useless rear brake and all slip down at the end of the column. Just by the looks of it, the trail looked stubbornly difficult and I figured this coaxed the stubborn out of Mitch, so as a precaution I dropped in after.
The top of the trail was steep. The kind of steep that gives you vertigo if you steal a look the wrong way. The kind of steep that leaves your ass brummmping on the back tire. The kind of steep that leaves you cautiously counter-steering through switchbacks. The kind of steep you know you want a fucking back brake.
I timidly made my way down the off-camber upper reaches of the trail. Mitch had made it. I regrouped with him and a couple others at the mouth of the next stretch, a technical dance through a rock garden. I can safely say I don’t have the same gusto, trying to navigate these demanding stretches of trail, or maybe I was focused on absolute self-preservation, knowing the worst thing to do while guiding a ride, is either injure or disable oneself.
I hugged Mitch’s tire, shuddering with each scandalous corner, hoping there wouldn’t be a repeat of the day before. Finally we met the bunch at the next break in the trail. The last section was fast and flowy. It had been groomed by more regular use, was wider, and featured fewer obstacles.
The trail ended on the road, where everyone had stopped met by Abu, to share the stoke before bombing the last stretch into the valley.
We descended into a fog. We wound our way through several harsh switchbacks, before we emerged from beneath a cloud, our village just ahead. No electricity, but hey. Beers were then shared.