High in the Himalayas – An epic road trip with Andi Wittmann and Guido Tschugg
By: Vineet Sharma
Location: Leh, Ladakh – INDIA
Also featured in Issue #17 | Sept 2013
How it started:
Andi Wittmann and I were having a general chat last year and the plan to ride the big mountains in the Indian Himalayas came up erratically. Who wouldn’t love to test their riding skills and have fun in the Great Himalayas which are extremely demanding at the same time. After months of conversations we decided to make this trip a reality in the Ladakh region located in the Indian state of “Jammu and Kashmir”. To make it interesting, it was later revealed that RedBull rider from Germany ‘Guido Tschugg’ would also accompany Andi Wittmann “The Host of the famous Suzuki Nine Knights” during this epic road trip.
After finalizing the locations and logistics, the riders and the crew from Europe lands at the New Delhi Airport on a hot sunny morning of June. I had to travel down to Delhi all the way from a small Himalayan town ‘Manali’ located in Himachal Pradesh. The fifteen hour bus journey was very annoying as I could not sleep at all because of the bad road conditions. My partner ‘Vinay Menon’ one of famous Indian mountain biking pioneer known for hucking was already with the crew. I finally located the group and was surprised to see that everybody was out so soon. Usually it takes more than an hour to check out with bike boxes. A gentle Hello by Andi and Guido started the greeting session and the introduction started with the crew members Arne and Carlos. A familiar face popped out and I was surprised to see Martin who met me during his last visit to India. After all the hellos and hugs we started loading the luggage and bike boxes in the shuttle bus which took us to the convoy waiting for us.
The journey starts:
The journey starts from New Delhi airport and we headed to the RedBull India office to pick our RedBull supplies for the next ten days. The RedBull India team was really excited to see us and the 15 minutes meeting stretched to good 2 hours and we were thinking about the long road journey ahead of us. After getting our lunch packed we charged to the next stop “Chandigarh”, my hometown 250Km North from Delhi. During a small stop mid-way I realized the vehicle with the other crew members were sweating and sitting without their shirts on. Later it was found that the driver was assuming that the fellows love hot weather and that’s the reason why he did not turn the air conditioner on! However everybody was relieved to know that their van atleast had Air-conditioning. Approximately 5 hours later we reached Chandigarh where we interacted with local riders Dhruv, Jeewan and Kabir. Unfortunately it got dark soon and we had another 9 hour journey ahead of us. After a quick dinner we were on the road again… Sleeping. I woke up after an hour when the driver opened the windows as we entered the mountains and I found Andi and Guido giggling because I was sleeping with my neck literally bending 90 degree left and drooling at the same time. Soon we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam (in the mountains) with lot of trucks! The drive later requested me to take over the wheels as he was sleepy. He woke up early morning when we were about to enter Manali. The boys were stoked to check out the mountains with the first sun light hitting on them. We were waiting eagerly to reach Solang Valley where we had our rooms booked. Not to mention another half-hour traffic jam we had to negotiate because of the peak tourist season. We finally reached Solang where our team member Naveen Baronpa was waiting for us eagerly. Everybody decided to rest for an hour or two which we really deserved.
Two Wheels finally:
We woke up and could not wait to assemble the bikes and start riding them. Arne, Martin and Carlos were busy shooting the epic scenery at 8,500 Feet while Andi and Guido were pulling their bikes out of the box to assemble them. After couple of minutes 8 mountain bikes, photo and video shooting gear were ready for some action with us and to acclimatize at the same time. We cranked to the Ski Himalayas – Solang Ropeway and Ski Centre which is the only ski resort in Himachal Pradesh with modern gondola and ski lift facilities. Ski Himalayas had already arranged our boarding passes so that we can shuttle the bikes to Mt. Phatru at 9,500 Ft. Hundreds of tourists at the ski resort were watching us with confusion as people in colourful clothes with bikes on a gondola is not a common sight in India. While they all were figuring out what we were upto, we were crossing the que with special access and soon we were on our way to Mt. Phatru.
After checking out the scenic snow-capped peaks, we start riding down with literally no trails in-front of us. The ride was pretty amazing and an eye opener for me as I never saw any one descending at high speeds on these kinds of slopes in Solang Valley. The ride continued all the way to Manali with a small hiking section, couple of cows and villages in between. All I could see was happy faces asking for more!
We shuttled our bikes back to Solang decided to hit the sack as we were required to wake up early at 3 AM to cross Rohtang Pass in order to avoid traffic jam situation. Surprisingly we were the only people who reached Rohtang Pass and it was quite chilly and windy as usual. Rohtang Pass literally means Pass of the dead people, as many people have died here due to bad weather, avalanche etc. After couple of photos, we carried on “Alive” to our lunch stop at Keylong. The 230 Km drive continued to our first camp at Sarchu located at 4253m. Everybody did feel the altitude playing with their body and we all decided to rest and fresh-n up after this super long journey in the mountains with some really beautiful views throughout.
Andi spotted a prospective place to build a kicker and the next morning we all rode to the spot which was across the river. Our SUV driver tried his best to take the truck across but it was possible till mid-way only. Crossing the super cold river coming straight out of the glacier was bit of a task, especially with bikes, digging tools and other gear. We started digging the dirt to build the kicker and destroyed 2 shovels in this process. However the hard work paid and the kicker was ready and without wasting any time Andi and Guido started gaining air in no time followed by some sick drifts. I was really overwhelmed to see how these guys change the position in mid-air before landing.
The road construction labourers who saw us crossing the river came to that spot and were totally amazed to see Andi and Guido jumping in the middle of nowhere. They told us that they came to that spot for the first time ever and we were probably the first people to visit that side. Later we saw them rushing back and realized that the water level of the river had gone up! We packed up our stuff and started walking back. The line we selected to cross the river had completely disappeared because of the high water level. The current was so strong that it was pushing the bikes away and we had to carry them on our back. For me this was a very scary moment because the water level was rising almost till the waist when I reached in the middle and that’s when I lost my balance and got swept with my bike for apprx 150m!
To make this situation better… I don’t know how to swim and I did not want to lose my bike. While being swept in the scary grey colored river, I was thinking about my shoes which were tied to the handlebar, my camera which was in my hydration bag and my riding socks which I saw floating away while I was struggling and almost drowning. Carlos and Vinay caught hold of the front wheel of my bike which stopped me too and saved my life.
I found out that Vinay also took the plunge and was shivering like crazy as the temperature was also dropping down. Meanwhile I did couple of pushups to warm up my body and we rushed back to the campsite and changed quickly followed by nice dinner and a good sleep in minus temperature.
After spending another day in Sarchu and making few changes in our plan, we decided to drive straight to our final destination ‘Leh’. After couple of halts during this long drive we reached TangLang La; the 2nd highest pass in the world at 5328m. We could not resist to descend down from this pass… and so we did. This was probably my fastest ride with friends from that kind of altitude. I almost got my ass kicked when I tried to keep up with the group and got in a drain. Luckily I managed to get back on the trail and continued. After loading the bikes back on the truck we aimed directly to Leh without stopping in between. Me, Andi , Guido and Vinay reached the Leh border and waited for the crew to arrive. We slept for more than 40 min, had some snacks, Talked a lot, paid some bribe to the check post master as they always create trouble.
But the van with the crew never showed up. After waiting for almost 2 hours, another van driver who was on the same route informed us that the crew van had broken down 50 Km behind in the middle of nowhere. We decided to head back and help our comrades, but just couple of moments later the van showed up as they managed to fix the broken axle. Well.. it happens and the journey continues. We reached Leh pretty late at night when everything is closed. All the restaurants we checked were closed and after lot of scouting we found a restaurant which was about to close, but we requested the owner who understood and served us a good meal.
Our original plan was to check out the world’s highest motorable pass “Khardung La”. But we decided to change the plan and do something bigger and better. We drove 20 Km away from the town and found a really electrifying place full of elements that every mountain biker dreams. Drops, Chutes, rock sections and a lot more. This package was surrounded by an epic scenery and crisp blue sky with sun eating us out. After couple of fruits and sandwiches Andi and Guido located a very interesting line with a sweet drop section. They both executed this line so smoothly which pumped up Vinay who tried the same line and did it flawlessly. Naveen and Me were also pumped up and were trying some lines on our own. For me, it was the very first time I tried my hands on that kind of terrain. I was scared but I loved it and would definitely go back to try again. The ride back to town was even better. It was full of steep sections and switch-backs which took us all the way to the main town. I must confess here that I got so scared taking those switch-backs! Our fellow rider Naveen displayed his natural shredding skills. He was super stoked to find out his hidden talent.
The following day we drove all the way across the Leh border and went ahead of Karu where the local guide claimed a place with red soil. We reached the place, but the only thing missing was the red soil. It was bit funny moment when most of us were scratching our heads and wondering what to do. The best thing we spotted was this super big chute. Andi and Guido decided to give it a shot and geared up for this long hike which took half day. It was definitely not an easy hike with the sun burning us all at that altitude. While they both were on their way to the top, Vinay spotted a massive drop and started scouting the place which looked like an extra-terrestrial house. After few moments and without any information we saw him landing the drop gracefully.
By late afternoon Guido and Andi reached the top and started to descend down with style. However Andi crashed in the beginning but got up quick and started the descent. It was a very spectacular view to watch these two riders coming down and blowing the dirt. The joy of completing this stretch successfully was clearly visible on their faces and the only thing missing to celebrate this moment was a bottle of champagne. After a small photo shoot session the riding in the Himalayas was finished and we headed back to the town where our victorious team celebrated with a nice dinner which I missed unfortunately. The team from Europe had to leave early morning and Me, Naveen and Vinay drove all the way back to Manali where we rode some local trails again. With the memories of this epic road trip fresh in our mind we decided for another get-together in August.
As mentioned before, this trip definitely was an eye opener. Having riders like Andi and Guido in the Indian Himalayas made this trip even more epic and encouraging for riders to experiment more in the Himalayas. There are so many untouched trails, descents and extra-terrestrial looking mysterious structures here waiting for more riders around the world and I’m pretty sure The Indian Himalayas will be one of the most popular big mountain destinations in coming time.