ISB Alumni - Travel Tales: An Arduous Ascent, Manali to Leh

 An Arduous Ascent

At ISB, we often talk about transformative journeys. Even in the figurative sense, these are not for the faint of heart, but Rohit Kapoor of the Class of 2006 takes this metaphor to another level altogether, making it real. Below, he tells us about his experience cycling from Manali to Leh this summer.

One and a half months ago, I rode a bicycle from Manali to Leh.

Sports, travel, and photography are my three passions. I am the type of person who has enrolled at a gym maybe 50 times and quit 50 times, whereas if it’s anything to do with the outdoors – be it cycling, cricket, football or golf  –  I’m there. Over the past couple of years, due to work and the demands of life in general, my level of fitness was not to my liking. This troubled me and I was looking for ways to get active and get back in shape.  Around May, GRR, a group I’m associated with, began speaking about a cycling trip from Manali to Leh. This was a circuit I had often considered traversing by car, so I was intrigued though it seemed utterly impossible (at least for me) to bicycle the length of that picturesque and tough terrain.

I bought a bicycle and a bunch of other equipment, and started practising, guided and motivated by Team GRR. My morning training routine was rigorous: 5 km a day at first, then 30-40 km within a few weeks, and eventually 50-60 km every day, four days a week. I had to be at the office by 8.30 am, so we would wake up at 2:30 am and be on the streets at 3 am. This made sense also because the mornings were cooler we could avoid rush hour traffic. We would ride until 7 am, and cover up to 200-300 km every week. The training had three goals in mind – the first was sheer endurance, the ability to ride 60-80 km at a stretch; the second was simply to get used to sitting on the cycle seat for extended periods of time; and the third was to become familiar with riding through mountainous terrain. I have been a resident of Gurgaon for 11 years and only this summer did I discover the innards of the Aravali range. What is not obvious to us is that there are beautiful trails inside the Aravalis, known only to regular cyclers bikers. Veterans recommended routes and the Manali group would go do ‘hill repeats’ together to mimic long distances. (i.e., cycling up and down a hill up to 10 times).

Finally, 14 of us arrived in Manali by bus. I was with a group far more capable of endurance sports than myself. Some were ultra-marathon runners. The leader of the group, Siddharth Choudhary,  a neighbour of mine, had once run from Delhi to Mumbai! The distance from Manali to Leh is approximately 500 km. With the training I’d completed, the thought of covering that distance was not as daunting as it might have been a few months ago. Having said that, nothing could have prepared us for the incessant inclines. There were parts of the route where you climbed consistently for 6 to 8 hours at a stretch, where your speed fell to 3 km an hour. The oxygen levels were another challenge. There were times during the trip you would realise that you were passing through heights that were 50-60% of the height of Mt. Everest. The highest altitude at which we cycled was approximately 5,500 metres (Mt. Everest is 8,848 metres high). You might spend 6-7 hours ascending, but because of the lack of oxygen, you couldn’t stay at that point longer than, say, five minutes. Our guide would advise us to descend to avoid getting sick.

We cycled for eight days, up to 80 km a day. After the first day, you are cut off from civilisation. There is no mobile signal whatsoever and not a single hotel. A car carrying a cook would follow us to supply us with tents and food. Our typical schedule involved waking up at 5:30 am, warming up a bit, having breakfast, and starting out as a group at 8 am. We would cycle every day until 7:30-8pm in the evening. Temperatures can range from -5 to 40 degrees Celsius in a single day, so one is constantly shedding or adding layers of clothes while cycling.

On the second day, I was struck with AMS (acute mountain sickness), for which oxygen cylinders are the only remedy. I missed half a day of cycling that day. You do fall on treacherous roads now and then, but you just treat your wound and keep going. Every night, I would reach camp convinced I couldn’t go any further. Inevitably, we would begin cycling again the next morning. The physical exhaustion was immense, but it was fun because of the terrific team. At our campsites, we would sing and play music. There was a certain energy that the place and the experience brought with it.

The most amazing part of the experience was the terrain. The colour of the landscape keeps changing. In some parts, it’s like the Grand Canyon, in others, you feel like you’re on the Indiana Jones movie set. There are beautiful trails where you are following a river up or downstream, and there is a red river running alongside you for long stretches. The terrain is such that in Himachal, it is green; when you hit Jammu and Kashmir, it has changed to different shades of brown and red due to the minerals in the soil there. At a certain point, on the sixth or seventh day, you hit the More plain, which is a plateau at a significant height, ending at Lake Tsokar. From a scenic perspective, it is absolute bliss.

The trip was a tremendous test of endurance. Since then, I have become highly disciplined in terms of my waking hours, etc., and I realise the value of that. I have also become very frugal with food, as I realise just how difficult it is to burn. Overall, I would say it took only 30% physical effort. The other 70% is about the mind. Every day, after the third hour, your body has already given up and it’s only the mind that carries you through. The experience led me to believe that if one is determined enough about something, and you have a good group supporting you, one can attempt anything in the world.

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