“I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes- enjoy, that is, in the ordinary sense of the word.”
I just cycled over the highest motorable pass in the world. I never imagined that someday I would cycle up to 5,602m, and I definitely never imagined I would actually enjoy it. I started out late in the morning and had planned to camp at a village about 15km from the top in order to summit the next day. When I arrived, I realized it was a military base with a few tents of soldiers, and a few other tents with Indian men. After sitting in the “village” reading for an hour I realized I did not feel comfortable sleeping there. The guys stared rudely, and the military men kept coming up and taking my picture. Lucky for me, earlier in the day I had met an English fellow who was biking up the pass as well so I decided to ride down with him. Though I turned around before the top that time, it had been an amazing day. The cycling up had been surprisingly fun, and cycling down at 50km an hour while the sun was setting was absolutely unbelievable.
To give you an idea about how high that pass really was, the Everest base camp in Tibet is situated at 5,100m, and the one in Nepal is at 5,300m. In both cases, the pass I just cycled over, at 5,600m, is higher (though my GPS only read 5,400m, not 5,600m, while standing on the top). For those of you who have never been above 4,000m it is hard to really describe just how different life is up here. The most notable difficulty is, obviously, the lack of oxygen. Just walking a few meters can leave you breathless, and it is all too common to have a constant pounding headache. The worst though, is sleeping at high altitudes. You wake up feeling hungover and unrested because your body has had to compensate for the lack of oxygen for the past eight or more hours, and you wonder why in the world you have decided to climb so high. I had been acclimatizing for the last week at relatively high altitudes so I fared better than I did when I cycled to Pagong lake. Though it still felt like someone was sitting on my chest crushing my lungs half the time, it was not as debilitating as it had been a few days earlier.
Here is a quote, written by a climber, about life at high altitudes, which I feel sums it up quite nicely.
“Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain…. Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall – it’s great when you stop.”
A few days after trying the pass for the first time I set out again, with the same English lad, to continue up and over into the other side. Once again the climb up was enjoyable, and not nearly as hard as I had feared. It took between 6-7h of climbing (40km) to reach the top, and though the last fifteen kilometers weren’t paved, it never really felt like a struggle. Overall it was quite an enjoyable experience, enhanced by watching the tourists on their rented bikes who would cruise down the hill after taking a jeep up, and realizing how much more I was getting out of the whole experience by actually pedaling up the hill, and not just down.