R O A D T O B A S E C A M P
I was not so quietly freaking out about the altitude we’d be facing. It would easily be the highest altitude I’ve ever been to, well above the height at which Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a risk, which is at a ‘mere’ 2500m above sea level.
We’ll be landing at 3400m above sea level in Lhasa city to gradually ascend to Everest Base Camp (EBC) at an altitude of 5000m over 6 days.
The highest I (and most of the band of eight cyclists on this trip) had been to was 3200m, cycling up Wuling in Taiwan; an 80km climb from sea level. It was hard to determine if I was affected by altitude sickness on my previous rides up Wuling; the shortness of breath, absolute exhaustion and lack of power could have been altitude or that fact that we’d just climbed 3200m.
Either way, I was going to do everything to minimise the risks of AMS. The Tibet ride to EBC was a major ball ache to organise and it was probably the most expensive trip I’d been on.
Apparently AMS can affect anyone, regardless of fitness level and is pretty much impossible to determine beforehand who’d be affected. According to my amateur online research and some professional advice from the local doctor – taking Diamox and fitness training helps.
I loaded up on Diamox (which makes you piss a lot, makes food taste funny and gives you pins and needles in your face and hands) prior to the trip and I suppose the non-stop Strava PR hunting by me and my fellow cyclists counts as fitness training.
Still, apparently most (up to 85%) of unconditioned people will experience mild effects of AMS (laboured breathing, headaches, etc.) above 2500m, but up to 4% of people can suffer more acute effects, such as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE); whereby you must descend immediately or you basically die. With eight cyclists, the chance of at least one of us succumbing to the more severe effects of altitude was as high as 28%...
We land at Lhasa city on the Saturday afternoon, and have the rest of the day and Sunday to acclimatise before we start riding Monday. The effects seem mild in the beginning, a few experience headaches, but we were mainly OK at this point. However any sort of physical exertion, such as walking up a flight of stairs, leaves us gasping for air. You can certainly spot the non-locals in Tibet.
We had a two support vehicles for this trip; we couldn’t possibly do it otherwise in the short window of time we had; we were to acclimatise for only one and half days, cover 630 kms over 5 days of riding, and then get driven back to Lhasa over two days. We didn’t have time to properly acclimatise and we would need to descend to seek medical help quite urgently if we couldn’t deal with the altitude.
The tour guide normally operates by bringing tourists to EBC via a car ride only; he wasn’t used to chaperoning cyclists from A to B, to Z. For the guide and the drivers, a lot of the climbs aren’t really perceptible whilst being propelled up them via an internal combustion engine. For a cyclist, you can feel any slight increase in gradient, particularly when you’re deprived of oxygen. A couple of the days were supposedly flat, but our legs and lungs suggested otherwise.
L H A S A T O N Y E M O
3550m to 3700m
First day on the road. The guide shepherds us past one of the numerous security and permit checks inside the Tibet Autonomous Region and we set off alongside some heavy trucks on some potholed roads.
The first few kilometres of the ride didn’t fill us with much confidence for what was to come over the next few days. Dodging the minefield of potholes and patches of gravel meant skirting pretty close to some huge trucks. One handy thing we noticed was that the patches of gravel were good early indicators that we were about to approach a large pothole.
It was obvious there was lot of infrastructure work happening in this area; in fact, I felt that for the first three days of riding, industrial trucks seemed to make up most of the traffic. There were occasional scooters and three wheel motorcycles which we could briefly draft behind before we realised maintaining that speed at altitude was not pleasant.
We stopped off at a tiny strip of shops for lunch where we all bought the first of many souvenirs; I got a trinket to hang from my seat, similar to all the trinkets that hang off the trucks in Tibet.
It was also our first experience with the … not properly serviced toilets here. This is understandable, as some of these toilets are really in the middle of nowhere; the cost of providing plumbing to these tiny little toilets where there is no other infrastructure around would have been prohibitive.
A lot of the isolated toilets are essentially concrete bunkers with holes in the ground that lead outside. Most of the time, the waste doesn’t exactly fall outside. I didn’t take photos of the toilets. Warren did though.
N Y E M O T O S H I G A T S E
3700m to 3875m
A lot of places claim to have four seasons in a day. Usually bullshit. But God damn, Tibet really throws it at you over the course of a day. A couple of kilometres will have you sweating under a scorching sun (you only realise how brutal the sun is when you stop riding and lose the relief of the wind; everyone is scrambling for shade when not rolling on the bike) to shivering through gritted teeth as you're pelted with rain.
We knew August was the wet season in Tibet, so we were prepared; everyone had multiple layers of waterproof jackets ready. Still, the many hours of rolling climbs and descents in the wet at altitude eventually got to us. Some of us had to abandon for the day and took it easy in the car.
S H I G A T S E T O S A K Y A
3875m to 4100m
The first day with a decent climb (6kms at 4%) was the first real test of how the altitude impacted our performance. The climb started at just under 4300m and topped out at just over 4500m.
I felt that the altitude affected my riding ability in two ways: firstly, my maximum FTP was lower and secondly there was no way I could even get close to that sort of maximum effort level for more than a couple of minutes.
After a couple of fool hardly attempts, I quickly learnt not to push myself into the red zone; if my effort level got close to the point where I needed to breathe heavily, I would be spending the next short while struggling for oxygen to recover. You sprint for 10 seconds and you’re recovering for a minute.
At the top of the mountain, Tibet prayer flags were strung across the road, making a welcoming and colourful finishing line. The prayer flags are typically hung in high, open areas so the blessings are dispersed over a great expanse as the wind blows over the flags and reads the prayers.
S A K Y A T O T I N G J I E
4000m to 4250m
Short day; we were told that due to a recent earthquake, part of the original road was damaged and closed. We’d have to take a different route, which would eventually bring us onto 80kms of rough gravel in the middle of a desert.
Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be sufficient time to complete the whole 160km ride in the day (where half of the ride was on gravel) and we would have to be satisfied with the first 80km, which fortunately included a big climb.
Today was the day I noticed how flat and open certain parts of Tibet were; particularly the parts where roads wound through. Riding through this open landscape, boxed in by mountains, the scenery reminded me of the open plains of American Wild West movies. Of course, what this meant was bullshit headwinds. The chatting and leisurely riding quickly gave way to riding in a grimly quite paceline.
We had eaten at some questionable restaurants over the last few days and the altitude probably wasn’t helping, but a number of the group acquired some mild food poisoning. And as noted above, the middle of nowhere toilets were not welcoming. This meant many instances of Dumoulin’ing on the side of the road. I didn’t have to go, but I imagine it would have been one of the more peaceful shits, surrounded by goats, desert and mountains.
The headwind did not let up on the climb. In fact, it seemed to get worse as we neared the top. We could deal with the climbing (in fact, most of us enjoyed it), we were prepared for the altitude, but the headwind was an absolute ball ache. The last 100m dragged on as we rode up the 9% pinch through a wind tunnel.
After regrouping at the top, we descending and stopped as the paving of the road did. Beyond was 80kms of gravel, and the headwind and surprisingly high amount of vehicular traffic meant the continuous cloud of dust kicked up in our faces was too much to bear. We all mounted the support van and slowly crunched our way to the next pit stop.
T I N G R I T O E V E R E S T B A S E C A M P
4250m to 5000m
The final day, which included the incredible Gyatso La. This road lifted us from 4,300 to 5,100m, along a route which looked like a piece of spaghetti draped up the side of the mountain. This was hands down one of the most beautiful roads I have ever ridden up. It looked as if the road designer threw in some extra switchbacks just to make it look cooler.
The descent was just as sublime. Winding gradually through some beautiful switchbacks, with glacial mountains and Tibetan villages as the backdrop was only made difficult because you feel obliged to stop and take photos. It probably took just as long to descend as it did to climb.
After a quick meal at the foot of the climb with some stray dogs, we were to make our final ascent to Base Camp. The incline was slight; so slight the tour didn’t mention that this was a climb. But the headwind came back with what felt like greater intensity. It was tough, but at least this made for a fitting finale as we rolled into Base Camp.
As we crested the final climb towards Base Camp, Mount Everest came into view. By this point I had put my DSLR into the support car to make the climbing slightly more bearable, so I pulled out my phone to take a snap of Everest; I had deliberately turned off my phone prior to conserve some power. Unfortunately, it was too cold and my phone just wouldn't stay on. I rode to Base Camp and didn't even get a picture of Mount Everest...
After arriving at EBC, I succumbed to the altitude sickness. I was now struggling to breathe even whilst sitting down not doing anything. I had an incessant cough, which I think was brought on from my continuous big open-mouth gasps of cold, dry Tibetan air as I was struggling for fuel climbing over the previous days. The oxygen cans provided temporary relief, but I was looking forward to descending back to more habitable surrounds.
R E T U R N T O L H A S A
We started our return journey via the support vans the very next morning. The temperature had dropped and the rain had started, dusting the tops of some nearby mountains with fresh snow.
As we drove back over Gyatso La pass, it was completely in a fresh layer of snow. The difference in conditions over 24 hours was astounding. It was beautiful, but we realised how lucky we were to get the weather we did on the previous day. I would have climbed the mountain regardless, but descending in snow is another story.
On the final day of drive back to Lhasa, we took the scenic route past Yamdrok Lake, one of the four Holy Lakes in Tibet. The views were stunning, but the roads were perhaps more captivating. Had we had an extra day of cycling, this would have been the route we would have ridden; a beautiful climb on some winding roads next to a sacred lake.
After a huge meal of roast lamb in Lhasa City, we packed and got ready to ready to fly back towards the joy of an oxygen rich environment.