Two odd angle shafts of dim yellow head light cut through the predawn ink we were shrouded in. They bobbed and bounced, illuminating wisps of iridescent mist creeping out of the Gori Valley. Milky white vapor was spilling over the thin strip of mountain pass we were travailing along, like disembodied fingers of some horrific specter clawing its way out of the canyon. There was a protesting grunt from the four cylinder engine of our battered Bolero mini truck as we careened through a cavernous rut. It startled a grey Langur who had presumably been scrounging for his breakfast in the gully beside the road and he skirted across the hardened mud and broken tarmac track in front of us. I watched him disappear into the snow dusted jungle and clutched my chest as another shard of jagged glass seemed to rip open an internal organ.
The clock on the aftermarket radio was the only light in the cab of the truck. Rudely it was displaying the time of day in a lovely shade of digital green, just after 5:30 am. The truck springs squeaked and groaned as one of the front tires navigated itself over a basketball sized rock and the jolt of impact immediately slipped another cold shaft of Templar Knight steel through the left side of my body. An icy sweat broke on my brow. It felt hot in the minus four degree temperature of the truck cab. There were three of us crammed into the small compartment; the driver, his assistant and myself, making the cramped conditions of the vehicle just that little bit worse.
As we continued to pick our way forward at a blinding speed of 25kmph, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, filling my lungs with thin frigid oxygen until the expansion of them became unbearably painful. I was trying to mentally manage the searing burn in my chest and contemplate the long road ahead; it was to be a twelve hour journey from Munsiyari to Kathgodam. If we somehow managed not to slip off the narrow path and plummet to our deaths in the gorge below, surely to God, one of my fractured ribs would splinter further due to the incessant jarring and puncture a lung. How in God’s name was I going to make it through this day? I fingered the two strips of Brufen 600 I had stashed deep inside the pocket of my leather riding jacket. I knew it would hurt, but I chuckled to myself anyway, ‘With painkillers and prayers.’ I whispered.
Just a day earlier, I had been sitting on a cold and uncomfortable wooden chair in the canteen of a government rest-house in the Binsar wildlife sanctuary. I was staring at a paper cup of watery vegetable soup and plate of soggy chili potatoes. Just four days before that I had been eating lobster and steak on the sun soaked beaches of Langkawi. But that was then and this was now. Now I was in Uttarakahand. Sometimes my life takes very drastic rights and lefts, often without much warning. I have found it’s best to hang on tight. I’m not complaining mind you, so far it’s been one hell of a ride. Besides, I like chili potatoes.
I glanced at the clock on the wall above the kitchen door. Quarter after eight in the pm, fifteen minutes till lights out. The rest house was old, built by the British I would imagine, and was conveniently located next to absolutely nothing. Perched atop the Jhandi Dhar hills about 33 km north of Almora, this retreat offered very little to those stout enough to reach it. Very little, but a spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks of Kedarnath, Shivling, Trisul and Nanda Devi that is. Believe me, that was enough. It did explain however, why the electricity was generator supplied, and shut off promptly at 8:29.
I slammed down my soup like a shot of tequila and gobbled up my potatoes with far less etiquette than my mother would expect. I was anxious to rejoin my riding buddies out on the observation terrace. Of course, the only thing they were observing was each other devouring a bottle of Canadian whiskey and Indian rum. Night time comes early in the Himalayas and at 8:30, it may as well be midnight. There wasn't much to see. Still, the times were good, the laughs were plentiful, and I was looking forward to the frivolity.
I left the canteen and waddled along the flagstone path towards the terrace like a penguin. If I could have worn another article of clothing, I hadn't brought it. Basically I was layered in everything I had jammed into my saddlebags the day before. As my Indian compatriots are fond of pointing out, I am Canadian and the cold doesn't affect me as it does them, but the night air was seriously nippy. Himalayan nippy.
We stood and laughed, retelling old tales and recapping the day’s events. The eight of us had only set off from New Delhi that morning but had already amassed some very funny anecdotes. Classic Bollywood and Sufi music poured from the bluetooth speaker on the table as we carried on like we do, trying our best to disrupt and offend the other limited guests in the retreat; not really, but I think we may have just a little.
Leaning against the railing, I strained my eyes against the dark and could see the moonlit silhouette of the mountains in the distance. A teaser of the spectacular landscape we would see at sunrise. I lingered a while longer and then said my good nights trundling off to bed. As I don’t drink, my MC brothers have become accustomed to me retiring far earlier than they do. There is no shame in it and as it was my intent to view the sunrise spectacle the next morning, the time had come.
I woke with a start somewhere around 3:30, disoriented, panicked and gasping for air. It happens to me unfortunately while riding in the Himalayas. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) by definition is:
Altitude sickness, the mildest form being acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the negative health effect of high altitude, caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Symptoms may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness. Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) with associated shortness of breath or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) with associated confusion.
We were only at 8000 feet or so, I’ve been as high as 18,000 feet and felt fine; yet in Nepal, at 15,000 feet, I felt my head was going to split wide open. Depends on the day I’m afraid. In this case, it was nothing more than the weight of three yak wool blankets and a little shortness of breath convincing my blood starved mind our room had run out of oxygen. I calmed myself and tried to sleep a little more, but basically tossed and turned until 5:00.
Begrudgingly I surrendered to the facts; no more sleep tonight. I extricated myself from the fibrous cocoon I was ensnared in and shuffled into the washroom. I peered out of the large bay window into the early morning sky. There were faint tinges of onyx infused azure seeping around the tree boughs. I spied the dance of a lone flashlight beam in the window of the room next to ours. Nose pressed to the glass, I made out the silhouette of one of our ride captains. He was motioning for me to join him; on the terrace I presumed, not in his washroom. I was correct, and a few minutes later I joined him there.
The rest house was situated south of the range, giving us a spectacular west to east view. The sun was just making its grand ascent over the low laying peaks to our right. We stood in silence. As the sun rose, the mist in the valley absorbed the riot of colour spilling over the hilltops, transforming it from translucent grey into heaven made English Trifle. Layer after layer of shades and textures I simply cannot name, all the grandeur of an artist’s palette nestled in a bowl of lush green foliage. It wasn't long before the sun began to stain Kedarnath, Shivling, Trisul and Nanda Devi peaks all on their own unique hue of magnificent pastel blush. Spellbound, I began to shiver. Not from the cold, but from the realization I was but a frail human blemish, witnessing the bunyanesque creation the universe can manifest with a mere lilt of her head. I didn't know it yet, but later that morning, I was to be reminded of just how frail I actually was.
“Saddle Up!” came the call and one by one, eight Royal Enfield motorcycles ignited and did its share to dismantle the serenity that surrounded us. We rumbled through the gates of the rest-house, leaving the more devout nature loving guests shaking their heads behind us. What would possess us to ride such loud and obnoxious machines? If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand.
Gingerly we picked our way down the side of the foothill and within thirty minutes, were back on glorious smooth and twisty tarmac. For the next hour I was engulfed in pure motorcyclist euphoria. I was riding third in a mechanical column that quickly settled into a rhythmic meander winding its way through a panoramic mountain scape.
As bikers, we all have our talents and shortcomings, our preferences and dislikes, for me its twisties. I am seldom more content than when I am weaving my bike along a series of hairpin bends. The dip and flow of a winding road soothes me, I squeeze the tank with my knees, become one with my bike and we choreograph ourselves into a precise and balanced dance between man, machine and asphalt. That is how it was, right up until the music stopped.
It was a fairly aggressive left hand bend, about 120 degrees with maybe a 15 degree decline. I slowed and dipped into it just as I had done in the dozens of other corners that morning. Just I have done in thousands of similar bends in the past. Just before the apex, my rear tire decided to continue on its forward trajectory towards the cliff rather than subscribe the much more preferable option of following the front tire. I can offer no explanation. I didn't tap brake, I didn't blip throttle, I did nothing out of the ordinary. The speed was correct, the tilt was right; yet, despite it all, my rear end skated away and the cold hard blackness of an Uttarakahand mountain roadway rushed up and smacked me in the face.
If you ride long enough, you will have a fall. We have all had them in varying degrees. There are drops, falls, tips, crashes and wipeouts. I’ve had my share, but in each of them, there has always been an explanation. Whether it be terrain, rider error (I’m not above mistakes after all and I freely admit them) or mechanical failure, there is a reason. In this instance, God as my witness, there was none. None evident at the time at least. It was discovered (admitted) months after the incident, the rider behind me was following too close and nudged my rear wheel. Just enough to break it free....
You may have experienced in moments of duress the sensation of the world melting into a slow motion sports replay. I saw the sun glint in my mirror as I began my decline and had the time to hope it didn't snap off on impact. I felt the jar and bounce of my helmet snapping back off the ground cursing loudly as it’s brand new and knew there would be scars. The clearly audible shatter of my handlebar indicator and chalkboard/fingernail screech of my gear lever on pavement filled my helmet and lastly, I vividly endured the deep searing compression of my chest as I made contact with the dense road top and slid to a stop in the middle of the lane. Pop….
I didn't know it in that moment, but four ribs on my left side saw fit to fracture. I glanced up to see the rider behind me had also lost the corner and was laying on the road not three meters from me. A small miracle we hadn't collided. Unfortunately, ‘FUCK’ is the only utterance that will suffice in such situations, and I bellowed it like a messiah delivering the word of the divine.
I stood and made a feeble attempt to lift my bike. It was then I felt the grind and click deep inside my chest immediately followed by a torrid flash of fanatical agony. I recognized that pain; it was reminiscent of Nepal where only six months earlier I had broken three ribs on some desolate mountainside on the way to Manang. I pushed the thought from my mind and immersed myself in denial.
Almost instantly my brothers were there, righted my bike and had me walking it off. It was all so farcical; I was almost embarrassed. After determining I was whole, I received the usual round of smiles and encouragement, the teasing would come later. They are good lads. Very quickly repairs were made (my mirror survived, but my clutch lever suffered a terminal case of splitage), medication was administered and we were back on course to Munsiyari.
The rest of the day was pleasant enough, despite the constant and nagging ache in my ribs. I decided to assume the identity of my alter ego, Painkiller Papi, and finished out the rest of the journey comfortably numb. I became consumed with the breathtaking landscape and after some time, even tentatively began to enjoy the twisties again. If there is one trait bikers don’t have any shortage of, it’s confidence. Still, as the sun began to sink, and snow began to appear on the side of the road, cold and weariness took its toll. Nagging ache became irritating burn, then bothersome stabs and by the time we descended the rutted path into Munsiyari, I was in full blown distress. The lead bike, as it was mounted by a very good and experienced rider, had slowed to forty kmph or so. Night had descended black as pitch and the broken pavement was littered with rocks, ruts, loose gravel and snow. The turn into the parking lot of the resort brought a wave of relief I can’t fully describe.
After an exceedingly uncomfortable night’s sleep, I found myself in the parking lot of the hotel, once again completely overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of the Himalayas. We gathered there drinking coffee and chai, speaking in hushed tones as not to disrupt the reticent elegance of it all. The Panchachuli range stood like sentinels wrapped in deep blue velvet; the five snow-capped Himalayan peaks, watchful as we huddled safely in the lap of Munsiyari, gazing up at their nobility.
The group decided to trek to a nearby lake. I myself bowed out of this adventure and chose to spend my time warming in the morning sun and becoming acquainted with the local and abundantly affectionate canine residence of the hotel. My injury was all but forgotten.
I decided to get some rest as tomorrow morning we were to set out for Almora, then back to Delhi the day after. It was then I came to the horrific realization my roommate had left on the trek with the door key in his pocket. It wasn't a travesty as others had left their room open and in such times, I’m not overly fussy where I lay my head. What this had done however, was to separate me from my painkillers. I cursed him silently, but as it turned out, he had done me a favor. A huge one! When I awoke several hours later, the level of pain clearly suggested this was not a bruised rib situation. Something far more serious and sinister was afoot. I decided very quickly, bahut jaldee, there was no way I could make the return journey. There was no way I could ride. Had he not taken that key, in all probability, numbed by Brufen 600, I would have attempted that trip. That had the potential to be disastrous. Another fall with a herd of already broken ribs could have very dire results. He felt bad when he came back from the walk, but in all seriousness, thank you Papa Bear.
Once the decision was made, things moved quickly. There was a brief interlude when Vinny T suggested I get an X-Ray to confirm the situation. If they were in fact just bruised ribs, I could ride home. Damn fine idea, we all agreed! The small snag was that the nearest X-Ray was 140 km away and the best way there was by helicopter. There was really no option; I had to abandon the ride. Now for those of you who are not bikers, this may sound like an easy enough move, it’s obvious…you can’t ride a motorcycle off a mountain with four broken ribs, right? That’s irresponsible and dangerous.
The truth of it is a little more complex. It has nothing to do with “manhood” or “ego” or “toughing it out”. It has everything to do with turning your back on a passion. Your passion!
I rode from Pokhara through Mustang Valley and back to Delhi, over 1,100 km in hideous terrain and through Indian traffic (worse than hideous terrain) with three broken ribs. Not to prove anything or due to any testosterone fueled egomaniac power trip. I wasn't trying to gain any notoriety or infamy. It was just in that moment, the concept of not riding Mustang Valley was far more painful than any bodily injury. Biker passion, wanderlust, free spirit, call it what you will, abandoning a ride permanently scars your soul. I have enough soul scars as it is.
It was a done deal. I was going home. My chariot was booked. Believe me, I could write another complete article on “How To Take Advantage Of People In Need” regarding that sleezeball truck driver, but the boys did a collection, paid the prick and loaded my bike. I called my princess bride and in the most delicate way possible explained how I had managed to smash myself up. That was a long, tearful conversation, and she arranged train tickets from Kathgodam to Delhi. As luck would have it, a longstanding IBRMC (India Bull Riders Motorcycle Club) member lived in Kathgodam and staying true to our “anytime, anywhere” brotherhood creed, he reached out to me. His hospitality was staggering. I have to say that all of my brothers on that ride were, as you would expect. Rock solid and supportive and despite them telling me saying so was completely unnecessary,…Thank You. So that was that.
At 4:30 the next morning, with the Five Peaks of Panchachuli glinting in the moonlight, laden in blankets and layers of clothing, I excruciatingly (mentally and physically) labored myself into the cab of a Bolero Mini Truck and began the twelve hour road-trip rescue of a life time. Yes, it was disconcerting; yes, it was depressing, disheartening, discouraging and distasteful. But over the next thirty six hours, I made it home; and the truth of it all is, in three months I’ll be ready to ride again. Anyway…I’ll always have the memories...
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Travelogues of IBR Rides (whether official or not).
3 posts • Page 1 of 1
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