STAIRWAY TO KATHMANDU
TEXT BY INES SCHNEIDER
Impressive, supersized majestic mountains, rocky passes, snow-covered peaks and green valleys, the adventurous Nepal inspires the fantasy of mountaineers, adventurers and those in search of purpose since the dawn of time. Earlier this year, Tom Oehler, Harald Philipp and Stefan Voitl traveled to the land of the “Eight-Thousanders” to ride their bikes where no one has ridden before, to document their adventure with photographs and for support of a worthy cause.
Arriving in Nepal almost always means arriving in Kathmandu. The cross-cultural capital is the first place every tourist will see upon arrival and this first impression is easily burned into ones mind. Kathmandu is where you are hit with a sense of madness; it hits you hard with its noise and clutter that leads to sensory overload. Every moment is filled with sound, the streets littered with garbage, dirt and dust all mingled in with the bustling chaos. With 1.7 million living in uncomfortably close quarters make it no surprise that the city feels so overwhelmingly busy.
Located at 1,300 metres, Kathmandu is situated in the bowl shaped and densely populated Katmandu valley. Only as recent as the mid 1950’s was the area opened to western tourists and during the 70’s the first flood of westerner outcasts arrived in search of the highest mountains in the world. Today, however the city has lost much of it’s allure and is simply a jumping off point for adventurers, expeditions and for the bike adventure Stefan, Tom and Harald set out on.
Harald Philipp: "Mountaineering with a bike in the Himalaya is definitely different. You cannot ascend a summit and ride down like you would do in the Alps. The mountains are incredibly large and you have to plan your line meticulously. Biking in Nepal is summed up as a mountain biking expedition."
2 Guides, 5 Porters, 3 Adventure-Seekers
To keep it safe it is always advised to entrust oneself to a local guides care when travelling in Nepal especially when leaving the beaten path. One cannot simply go for a quick hike up the mountain. In a land that boasts the highest mountains in the world you have to adjust your perception as at first glance the magnitude can be greatly underestimated. Reliance on your guide is needed especially when exploring beyond the planned tourist routes. Careful planning is required and the correct passes for mountains and national parks are needed or your trip can come to a halt very quickly.
Mandil Pradhan was born in Nepal, but influenced from the Western world because of numerous travels abroad. For many years, the passionate mountain biker has worked as a mountain bike guide and has accompanied many tourists on bike trips along the classic routes of Annapurna or the Mustang region. Mandil along with the support of a second guide and five porters took Stefan, Tom and Harald beyond the borders of a typical Nepal bike tour.
Stefan Voitl: "As a photographer I am used to working in harsh conditions like wind, rain, snow or heat. In Nepal you have to deal with the added element of elevation. You are forced to work slower, ascending quickly is not an option and a real struggle due to the inability at times to catch ones breath. The altitude quickly puts your abilities in perspective."
4 Altitudinal Ranges, 5 Climate Zones, 5 Seasons
A journey to Nepal demands adaptability and versatility. It’s fact, that Nepal’s altitude varies greatly and in part has many climate zones that give way to the likelihood of experiencing various seasons in a single day. 4 seasons is standard, but monsoon season in Nepal is the 5th season and it makes for heavy rainfall and brings travel through the country to a slow. From subtropical jungle to hilly countryside with moderate climate up to alpine-arctic zones, the landscape and the climate is varied with deep green treed areas giving way to rugged and rocky wastelands and upward to snow covered peaks. The sun beats down on blue bird days and then the temperature drops significantly in the evenings and when bad weather moves in. During the summer months it is not uncommon for days to drop below zero and snowfall to accumulate at higher elevations. Once you are wet from rain or snow you can end up staying that way due to the lack of heat in lodges, leading one to only dream of a hot shower and a warm bed.
When exploring Nepal the high altitude along with the moisture and cold put strain strain on ones body. At 2,500 meters a thinning of the air is noticeable and you must keep a cautious eye on the likelihood of developing altitude sickness. Even with good physical conditioning and medications, high altitudes from 2,500 meters upwards place strain on the physical and mental body. If you do not take altitude seriously your body is quick to remind you, through breathlessness or worse. As soon as symptoms start to show it is best to ease up and slow yourself down. Patience is key and as a rule of thumb, expect things to take three times as long.
Tom Öhler: "It was surprisingly hard to push myself to the limit. As an athlete, I usually love to put my own limits to the test, but in Nepal, you quickly learn to ease up. You have to think long term and give your body enough reserves for the changes in altitude."
9 Days, 105 Kilometres, 7,700 Metre Ascent, 8,600 Metre Descent
Tom, Harald and Stefan started out with a five-hour shuttle from the capital of Kathmandu to the Langtang region, which is the least visited of the three big Nepalese high mountain regions. The plan was to ride their bikes over nine days looping back to Kathmandu, this made for 105 kilometers, 7,700 metres of vertical climb and 8,600 metres of descent. At first glance, the typical highlights such as Mount Everest were void on this route, instead a beautiful landscape of deep green jungle, blooming plateaus, rocky passes and mountain lakes. Under good visibility the panorama is magnificent with four of the eight thousands to be seen including the view to Annapurna. Last, but not least the main attractions are trails that had never been ridden before.
The first ascent was on a well-maintained trail through lightly forested single track, which set the mood just right for biking. The mood changes with the landscape as the path quickly morphs into a rugged stone riddled wasteland. At 4,400 metres they reach their first camp at Gosaikunda. The crew ends up staying in the lodge for four nights to explore the region around the holy mountain lakes of Gosaikunda and on the sixth day venture onward towards Kathmandu.
As they venture onward the trail steadily climbs higher and higher leaving them breathless as they reach the summit of Laurebina pass at 4,665 meters.
Tom Oehler: “Mountain biking in Nepal is different. The trails work in a different way. The trail never really gets into a flow or offers the opportunity for playing around. Usually a surprise hard corner or a drop with a dead end run out is what greets you. At these altitudes you are also tiring fast on the downhill’s and you have to take more rests than you are used to, otherwise you will loose your concentration very quickly."
Reaching an altitude of 4,665 metres with your bike is an absolutely fantastic experience. At times however it does not feel all that impressive. Even though you are at an elevation equivalent to Mont Blancs, the highest mountain in Europe, you do not have the same level of scope due to the sheer size of the scenery around you. If you look to either side, mountains tower your elevation and they continue to rise a thousand or many more thousands of metres skyward and at 4.665 metres you are left with the feeling being quite small. The Nepalese mountains simply break all records. The summit of the Mount Everest (8,848 metres) is not only the highest point of the earth but it is situated in Nepal, accompanying Everest are seven of the ten highest mountains of the world. Nepal on average is the highest country in the world, with over 40 % of its territory lying over 3,000 metres. Nepalese refer to a mountain as a "hill” when the elevation is less than 5,000 metres; they talk about "peaks" at heights between 5,000 and 7,000 metres and with 7,000+ metres they talk about "mountains".
From the Laurebina pass the route continues on in stages with one a day, over four days from Ghopte (3,430 m) to Kutumsang (2,471 m), Chisapani (2,150 m), Sundarijal (1.395 m) leading back to the starting point of the adventure, Kathmandu. Although the map promises plenty of single track down the mountain, the crew still has to climb with many short ascents in the way. Blocked, dangerous and exposed terrain challenge the riders skills as well as a large number of steps – high steps, low steps, wide steps, narrow steps and all sorts of steps. With an average of three steps per meter on an 8,600 metre descent the riders have to navigate 28,500 steps. Off the tourist paths you only meet the occasional passerby, so one is left to wonder, why the hell are there so many steps?
Initially the stairs caused a lot of frustration for Harald, but for Tom his trial skills came into good use. When you go mountain biking in this terrain, you have to change your view and ask yourself some questions. What comes next? How can I slow down in time to make it past the next obstacle?
The playfulness and real joy only appears occasionally. Steps alternate with trails, which lead along deep hillsides, blocked terrain limits the speed and no mistakes are allowed. This far away from civilization a serious fall could be devastating.
Harald Philipp: "I have never ridden such uncanny trails before. The Nepalese seem to have designed stairs in such a way that they block your front wheel from rolling naturally…"
The downhill sections bring with them shortness of breath. It becomes a challenge to film a section or shoot a photo when you have to keep going back for another take. The trails are challenging and will be remembered for the good times and the hard times. In retrospective a wise choice would have been to take the routes well traveled especially on a bike in this land of unforgiving rock and mountains of legend. Mandil knows this and thus the reason he does not normally offer tours off the well-ridden trails.
The final descent down to Kathmandu is filled with flow thanks to the eroded state of the trails, here Tom, Harald and Stefan finally had the chance to let up on the brakes and enjoy some speed. The descent comes to an abrupt end as the silence and peaceful atmosphere of the mountains is replaced by the noise and mayhem of the big city. In the end Kathmandu feels a bit like coming home again, but the images and memories of a great adventure in the mountains of Nepal will stay with us forever.
Stefan Voitl: "The mountains and being in nature has always fascinated me and this fascination reached new heights in Nepal. You are standing at the height of the highest mountain in Europe and all around you endless peaks, all at higher elevations than you own."
27 BIKES - 27 CHANCES AT HOPE
Maybe a bicycle does not change the world, but it can change a life. That is why Stefan Voitl, Tom Oehler and Harald Philipp not only traveled to Nepal for a bike adventure, but also for another purpose.
In April 2015, a huge earthquake hit Nepal. Thousands of people lost their lives or were made homeless, especially in the rural areas around the epicentre, which was located about 77 kilometres north-west of Kathmandu. Today, the country is still recovering and collapsed houses still wait to get rebuilt. Due to this catastrophe tourism has come to a crawl, leaving the once thriving industry greatly depressed and those that relied on it for their livelihood without an ability to provide a living for them or loved ones.
The devastating earthquake moved our team to present the proceeds from a previous Guatemala photo project, that photographer Stefan Voitl in collaboration with Tom Oehler and Hans Rey, to the charity organization "Wheels 4 Life". The photo exhibition raised enough funds to see 27 bicycles donated to the "Wheels 4 Life" project in Nepal. The bikes were personally delivered by Stefan, Tom and Harald to a select group of people who directly benefit by having a bike as a mode of transportation in their everyday life.
Stefan Voitl: “Delivering the bikes was definitely a highlight from the trip to Nepal. In the previous exhibition project I invested a lot of time, passion and unpaid work to get the highest possible donation amount. Once you see how people in need are delighted with a simple bike you know the project was worth the effort."
Wheels 4 Life: www.wheels4life.org
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Facebook: Harald Philipp
Facebook: Voitl Photography