“This is grim,” I thought. We were taking shelter from the steady rain under a roadside lean-to tarp shelter and I had just added my last precious few layers of clothing, save one. Bob had nothing left to put on.
Just to come upon this shelter was a fortunate turn. “Bicycles?” As we climbed around another switchback, I saw ahead what appeared to be touring bikes, one laying in the rain, the other parked under the shelter our current refuge. According to these other tourists, we were a kilometer and a half from Rohtang La, or Dead Body Pass.
I’d had a bad feeling about this pass anyway and the weather had turned much worse than we’d hoped. Forecasts indicated showers with minor amounts of accumulation. We stood just out of reach of the gusty rain, dripping puddles and watching the fog banks blow over the pass above us.
Then we heard a rhythmic whistling coming up the slope behind us. It wasn’t a bird, was it an animal? Soon, our shelter was surrounded by goats and sheep, led by a whistling shepherd wearing only a soggy, woolen shawl against the weather. A few working dogs and other shepherds brought up the stragglers, one sheep hobbling on a bandaged leg. This is one of the same herds we saw down in the village of Koksar; they’d paced us up the mountain, going up straight-line, cutting through the long, sweeping switchbacks we were making. We would see them again, in even less pleasant circumstances.
Out of curiosity, I ducked through the flapping door of the small tent that the other cyclists had disappeared into. It was roomier and warmer than it looked from the outside and I finally encouraged Bob to park Zippy and come inside. The familiar, acrid fumes of the unvented kerosene stove burned our eyes and lungs, but at least here we could get warm before charging out again. The two other cyclists, Indians from Pune, made space for us among the crowded benches, their feet wrapped in bread bags; I remember we used to use bread bags too, before we chose to stop riding in rainy places.
The yellow tarp, fully enclosed, with no windows to see out, sucked in and billowed out as the wind blustered around outside. I watched the rope-joined, post frame shake and wondered if it would hold. So amazing to me that such a paltry little place could offer so much relative comfort.
In between bits of conversation, we listened to the rain, hoping to hear evidence of some easing. Instead we ordered tea, something to huddle our hands around and distract us. Next, a bag of chips. Could we sleep here? I wondered, picturing our sleeping bag on the hard, narrow benches. Time didn’t matter anymore, but eventually our clothes dried a bit and our bodies warmed. We were all restless and ready to try again and we imagined that the rain had eased up a bit.
It really was only a kilometer and a half to the top of Rohtang La, but today, it was a cold and lonely place. We needed to get down off this mountain as soon as possible and we had no idea how rough the road was below us.
To generate some heat, we had to pedal on the smooth parts, but soon the pitch steepened and we used all our braking power to slow for the muddy switchbacks. We rounded one bend to encounter the goats again, the full herd restricted to a single lane that cut across a cliff. Here, the road narrowed to two deep, mud ruts, one full of nervous animals, the other occupied by a spasmodic tandem trying to stay upright.
The traffic was light, but the heavy rain sent streams across each switchback. One truck-sized puddle that stretched across the road soaked us up to our ankles, but I remember noting that at least that water felt warm.
More switchbacks and more confused goats and sheep at each turn. I’m sure the herders were as exasperated as we were, but none of us ever stopped moving.
The other cyclists had advised us that the settlement of Mahri was only 14 kilometers down from the pass and that the Chamba Dhaba had a tandoori oven and served good food. We could see the cluster of shacks from 10 kilometers above, and it was still a soggy, high elevation outpost, but it would have to suffice for a night.
We arrived stiff with cold, dripping into the restaurant. Only after a cup of tea did my face warm to a smile and then we turned to the question of whether a room was available. Dank and moldy, a large room offered enough space to bring in Zippy and enough blankets for Bob to climb under while his clothes hung to dry by the tandoori oven. We stuffed our shoes with old pages from a magazine and lit a candle to hover around.
Come next morning, our clothes were still not dry, but damp and tolerable enough to get on. The long overnight rain abated and we could see blue sky far to the south. Manali, and the end of this part of our ride in India, was a 34 kilometers away.
The mind-boggling switchbacks continued precipitously down the steep green mountainside. The improved weather and the proximity to Manali meant increased traffic and though the greenery and waterfalls made for very scenic riding, we weren’t looking forward to higher population areas.
Our ride done now, we’re both a little blue, missing the beautiful, high, arid open spaces, but somehow aware that we may have dodged a serious cold weather front. As it turns out, we were pretty lucky in many ways.
Two days after arriving in Manali, we had lunch at a busy corner near a big hospital. I turned to see a woman I thought I recognized from a group of nine Indians riding toward Leh a few days ago. But, of course, it couldn’t be her because she and her friends should still be on their way.
They weren’t. They were back in Manali, some at the hospital. They’d run into trouble near Baralacha La; snow and hypothermia for some. They’d had to abandon their plans and catch a ride back. They’d heard from a southbound bike tourist that even the low points had snow further north.
The truck they’d hitched a ride in made it to five kilometers from Manali when it rolled off the road in a nasty construction zone. Several had cracked ribs and some had to have head stitches. We expressed our regrets for all their trouble and thanked them for all the guidance they offered us.
We were so glad it wasn’t more serious for this group and are now especially relieved to be done with this part of the ride. The bike has taken a real beating, the brakes are very worn down and the rear wheel took some very hard hits. Most of the drivers along the route had been very considerate, though we had one close call and we noticed much more aggressive driving as we approached Manali. It was time to be done.