Superstar fundraiser Steve Smith has recently returned from the top of the world, quite literally! He took a trusty Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike and rode it along some of the most challenging terrain in the high passes of the Himalayas in India. From tarmac to boulders, dust to snow and ice, he finally reached Khardung La – the highest driveable road in the world – at a whopping 5360 metres high!
Steve has completed many charity challenges for the Down’s Syndrome Association (DSA) and Cotswold Down Syndrome Group in the past and this time, he’s raised £9,000 and counting. The 49-year-old father from Stroud says he’s indebted to the charities that have helped him with his 6-year-old son Alfie so much.
Want to know all the details? Here’s a day-by-day account from Steve…
Epic is a word commonly used these days, often to describe mundane or mediocre events, but it is precisely the word to describe the Top of the World Challenge that I have just returned from.
This adventure was a challenge from start to finish. We rode in every kind of weather, from bright and sunny low 30c, to freezing conditions in a snow storm. We tackled on surfaces ranging from smooth tarmac, to bolder strewn rivers. Over the five days of riding, we covered only 400 miles, but these were the most intense miles, sharing the road with trucks, buses, crazy taxi drivers, cars, bikes, cows, yaks and goats.
On four occasions we rode over passes of 5000 metres plus, and twice over Khardung La, the highest driveable road in the world at a mighty 5360 metres, once in brilliant sunshine the other in a snow storm.
One of the hardest parts of any adventure is saying goodbye to the family and this time was no different. My wife and the children dropped me in Stroud to catch the coach up to Heathrow Airport and despite Alfie trying to hijack the bus, we were soon on our way to the plane and flying to Delhi and the start of our adventure.
We quickly passed through the passport and visa checks without issue and soon exited the airport to be hit by 40c temperatures as we waited for the transfer to our hotel. Despite little sleep on the plane, we decided to head into Delhi central for some sightseeing. After a stunning lunch we did as mad dogs and Englishmen are supposed to, and took a 30 minute stroll from Connaught Place up to India Gate in the heat of early afternoon. The local kids were keeping cool in the waters around which looked tempting, until we saw the colour of the water!
There was no time for a lie in on Sunday as we were collected at 3.45am to catch the flight into the hills to Kullu. It was worth the early start though as we enjoyed a spectacular flight and landed in the foothills of the Himalayas under clear blue skies. Soon we were heading up to Manali where we would meet Jeev, Vikas and Aman from OMG Himalaya, the guys that organised our adventure for us. After a quick shower, it was time to reacquaint myself with an Enfield Bullet and Indian traffic!
For the majority of the guys it was their first experience of both, and the test run didn’t go too well with the first ‘off’ occurring within 10 metres of the start! Within five miles of the start, four of us managed to get split from the rest of the group and rode in the wrong direction for 30 minutes! Eventually we were one group once more and had a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride through the orchards around Manali and by the end, we felt ready to head out on the Manali to Leh highway the following morning. That evening we enjoyed a beer or two, it had been a huge relief that after all of the planning and booking we had reached the start with barely a hitch and were ready for the challenge to begin…
Having retired to bed at a reasonable time on Sunday night in preparation for the first day of high Himalayan riding I’d actually spent most of the night in the bathroom! I could barely wake up on Monday morning but luckily we had a late start to the day as two of the group had to go back down to Kullu airport to collect baggage. Whilst we were waiting for the off, Dan handed out exclusive neck warmers that he’d made for our group, what a great and practical memento. Even better Dan, sold the neck tubes for £10 and donated the money to my two charities, thank you Dan!
I’m not sure if the Diamox altitude sickness pill had made me feel so bad, perhaps food poisoning, jet lag, exhaustion, or a combination of all of them, but I felt awful and was glad to get on the bike soon after noon. It’s amazing what a tonic riding a motorcycle can be and as long as we were moving, I felt okay. We climbed quickly out of Manali and soon the air was cooling off as we rode up to the summit of the Rhotang Pass, gaining 2000 metres in height over just 50km. The proximity of this pass to a major town meant that the summit was heaving with Indian tourists, many of whom were seeing snow for the first time! Although plenty of Westerners have ridden the Manali to Leh Highway in the past, white faces are still a bit of a novelty and Roger and James were particularly popular with the ladies in the café’s at the Rhotang summit.
Despite Rhotang sitting at a mere 3980 metres above sea level, there was plenty of snow at the summit and as we passed over the top the temperature dropped and the rain came down making for a miserable and slippery descent. As we dropped altitude the weather got better, as did the weather conditions, but I was feeling really quite unwell with cold sweats and stomach cramps. I remember bits of the ride into our overnight stop at Jispa, such as the numerous flocks of goats that we passed as they were shepherded to safety for the night. I can’t recall anything of the hotel that night but remember the need to get to bed as quickly as possible and sleeping with all my clothes on as I felt so cold! I have vague recollections of someone offering me food, but that might have been another of the strange dreams that I had that night. If this was the effect that Diamox had on me, I decided I’d take a chance on altitude sickness!! The one positive in my mind was that I’d felt pretty awful all day and altitude hadn’t made it better or worse! With the biggest day of the Challenge happening the next day, I was really not in a good way to face four major passes, including two over 5000 metres, and most of the day spent over 4000 metres above sea level.
The second day was likely to be the toughest of the Challenge, with rough roads, river crossings and four high passes to conquer, two just under and two over 5000 metres. With this in mind, we got an early start and were on the road just after 7am – soon gaining altitude as we headed to Zingzing Bar for the first stop of the day and a cup of chai. I couldn’t face breakfast, but Rodda had forced me to eat a couple of energy bars which along with the cup of spicy, milky and sweet tea, gave me the energy I needed to ride over the Himalayas.
I still had no appetite for food, and suffered with stomach ache most of the day. The regular stops for food and drink did give me the opportunity to check some of the highest toilets in the world however, some better than others!!
The roads (tracks) over the passes were particularly rough and we had to ride through a lot of water as the melting snow caused waterfalls that crossed our path. These conditions made for a spectacular but perilous day of riding; we had more crashes on this day than any other, and plenty of wet socks. None of the crashes involved other vehicles and the riders concerned were able to continue but in some discomfort. Bouncing over such rough tracks was rather painful for me, like being punched in the stomach constantly. This meant that I was riding particularly slowly and this probably saved me from joining the casualty list!
From Zingzing Bar onwards we wouldn’t drop below 4000 metres until the end of the day, and soon we were topping 5000 metres with the crossing of Lachunglang La. We needed to refuel just short of the summit, but because there were no petrol stations on this stretch of road, we topped up from a jerry can of fuel carried in the truck. A lot of the bikes we saw coming in the opposite direction carried their own fuel as they didn’t have the luxury of a backup crew. In fact most of the bikes were also carrying a pillion and luggage for two on their Enfield Bullets, the amount of abuse these bikes take is truly impressive.
Dropping down a little from Lachunglang La, the landscape changed as we reached the Moore Plains and we rode through the most incredible scenery on beautiful smooth tarmac. Although we were riding at 4800 metres still, we were now in a desert and so the road didn’t suffer as much damage every winter from rain, snow and ice. The tarmac continued almost to the top of Taglang La, which at 5328 metres, is seriously high, but despite the altitude I was beginning to feel much better again and was enjoying riding at the top of the world. The bikes on the other hand were struggling as they wheezed to the top of the climb – as were some of the other riders in the group who were feeling the effects of the altitude. A visit to the support truck and a few minutes of pure oxygen seemed to have a miraculous effect however, and all of the group were able to continue as we dropped down to 4000 metres for our overnight stop in the little village of Lato. The hotel was basic but it had hot water, food and drink and for the first time in a few days, I did eat a little bit, although I’m not sure that egg curry would have been the Dr’s recommendation. It had been a long and tough day, but we’d made it and I was feeling a lot better at the end of it.
We woke to beautiful blue skies and dramatic scenery at the Lato Guest House. After a good night’s sleep I was hungry for the first time in days and after breakfast couldn’t wait to get on the road. With two hard days in the saddle, including the bruising 270km day before, we were ready for an easier day and the 70km ride into Leh was just what the Doctor ordered. We had to be in Leh by noon so that we could organise the permits that would allow us to cross the Khardung La Pass the following day.
The first 40km of the ride were stunning as we twisted and turned down the valley on smooth tarmac down to the town of Upshi, like riding the Cheddar Gorge for an hour. We had to wait a while in Upshi as the police check points were very thorough and it soon became obvious why, as we passed through army camp after army camp on our way to Leh. We would get used to seeing the Indian Army during the rest of our time in Northern India. With the Chinese and Pakistan borders so close in this part of the country, it was understandable. It was in the area just to the West of Leh 20 years earlier, almost to the day, that Pakistan soldiers had crossed the border into the Karghil region.
All too soon we reached the outskirts of Leh and we found ourselves riding in traffic again, something we hadn’t really done since Manali, and had to get used to cars performing kamikaze moves to overtake. The outskirts of Leh were busy, built up and not very pleasing to the eye and then all of a sudden we arrived at the Hotel Khanglhachen which was a haven of calm. I was feeling much better and wanted to ride all day, but I think most of the group were ready for an early finish to rest aching bones. Having arrived so early we had the afternoon to look around the town, do some gift and pain killer shopping as well as making contact with home for the first time since leaving Manali.
Leh is a fascinating mix of ancient and modern with the palace looking over the town centre which is geared up for tourism, with pedestrianised streets and shops full of souvenirs. Leh sits at 3500 metres, which is lower than we’d been for a few days but still very high, so it was reassuring that the hotel had a supply of oxygen behind the reception desk!
The local unions insisted that if we were to ride over Khardung La, we would do it on locally hired Enfield Bullets. OG Himalaya had therefore arranged for 11 locally hired bikes be ready for us to set off the next morning, for a while our hotel car park had Enfield Bullets parked as far as the eye could see! The bikes that we’d ridden from Manali had taken quite a beating over the last two-and-a-half days, but hadn’t let us down at all. The ‘new’ bikes were fuel injected rather than the ‘old’, bikes which were carburetted. It was going to be interesting to see if these bikes handled the altitude better, but I was concerned that I’d have to ride the last two days on whatever tyres were fitted to the ‘new’ bike. A quick word with our star mechanic Abid, and he was soon busy swapping the wheels over so that I could continue on Avon rubber!
I woke feeling hungry and ready for another tough day in the saddle, this was the day that we would ride over the big one. Breakfast was fairly quiet as we contemplated what lay ahead. Two of our group had already decided that they would attempt the summit of Khardung La but then head back down to Leh almost straight away as they were already struggling with altitude sickness, but were determined to the ride to the top.
It was warm as we set off from Leh, but soon cooled as we climbed to the police check point where our permits to ride Khardung La were checked. The views were already stunning, but looking up to the snow line and seeing the road winding through it was a bit daunting. The road surface was good until 5km or so from the summit, and then it was pretty rough. The fuel injected bikes seemed to handle the altitude better but at the top, it was hard to tell as we were going so slowly anyway due to the rough road. The weather was kind to us though, the road was mostly dry and we arrived at the top under blue skies. I didn’t really notice the effects of the high altitude at the time, but we were aware that we shouldn’t stay long at this height. We stayed at the summit for 10 minutes or so to get the photos before bidding farewell to the two people that were heading back to Leh.
It was an unreal feeling as we dropped down from the summit; we had actually ridden over the Highest Motorable Road in the World, 5602 metres or 18379 feet, higher than Everest base camp!
We had no time to relax though as we dropped down the pass, the road was rougher for 10 km or so but the local truckers were driving it like a race circuit and must have been travelling at twice our speed. Soon we were back onto a good surface again and soon we were in Khardung village where we stopped for a superb lunch surrounded by stunning scenery.
The landscape changed dramatically as we entered the Nubra valley, with wide open spaces and an oasis of greenery surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This part of India was only opened up to tourists in 1994 and you still need to purchase a seven-day permit to allow you into this stunning area. The village of Hundar is as far as you’re allowed to go, and this was our destination for the night. This area was on the Trans Karakoram trade route in the past, and this is probably why there are Bactrian camels native here, they have now become a reason for Indian tourists to visit to take a camel ride. Having ridden a camel in the past, I passed on the opportunity to ride one again but the braver members of the group took a 20 minute stroll on camel back and seemed to enjoy it!
We arrived at the hotel just as the sun set, dusty from a hard day on the road, only to be told that there wouldn’t be hot water until 5am the next morning!! We decided instead to wash the dust of the day down with a few tins of Kingfisher beer and celebrated our achievement; all 10 of us had made it to the Top of the World and 8 of us on to Hundar!
The last day of biking promised to be one of the most exciting in a week of incredible riding. At just over 100 miles it wasn’t going to be a long day distance wise, but we were heading away from the main route and would follow the Shyock River for 20 miles before heading over the Wari La Pass. Although we wouldn’t be riding as high as the previous day, just a mere 5250 metres, the condition of the pass could be more difficult than anything we’d experienced so far as Wari La wasn’t maintained by the army to the same extent as the other passes. I was feeling good again and was really looking forward to the challenge of riding off the beaten track.
We’d spent the night in the village of Hunder and our hotel had been without hot water. In the morning we did have hot water but no electricity, but they managed to provide a good breakfast never the less. Over breakfast Aman mentioned that he’d checked with the locals about the conditions of Wari La and the word was that it was passable. The skies were overcast as we set off to retrace our route from the day before until we got to the junction where we followed the river rather than head to Khardung La again. Immediately the road became narrower and the next 20 miles were fantastic, on a roller coaster road that included numerous water crossings.
The overcast skies got darker and soon we were riding through drizzle which got heavier until we were riding in heavy rain until we stopped for a cup of chai in a small shack where we sheltered under a tar palling canopy. There was much conversation between our Indian guides and the locals and some concerned looks, whilst it was raining at our present location it was reported that it was snowing on the Pass and there was a good chance that we wouldn’t get through. As we had to fly back to Delhi the following day we had to make it back to Leh that day, and so we had to take the “sensible” option, to retrace our steps and ride the highest motorable road in the world… again!
There was a good chance that it would be snowing on Khardung La but if conditions got too bad the army would rescue us, eventually, that was our theory any way! So we set off back along Shyock valley and picked up the road to Khardung La, as we gained altitude the landscape looked quite different from the day before though, with plenty of snow around which meant tricky conditions on the road.
As we were in sight of the summit of the pass, well over 5000 metres high, the road was blocked where snow had fallen across the road and an army truck was stuck. After much shovelling the truck was freed and cars and bikes were just about able to pass, after about an hour we were able to skid our way over the blockage and up to the summit. This time we didn’t stop for photos, having spent such a long time at high altitude we needed to descend quickly, but as soon as we crossed the top we were riding in sleety snow which made conditions difficult. As we reached the police check we were told to go back and after some confusion we realised we were being directed to a hut for a hot and welcome cup of chai!
After our tea break the worst of the weather had passed and we were back on tarmac as we returned to Leh, we’d made it in some pretty extreme conditions. As we reached the hotel my emotions were mixed, a sense of relief having survived such an extreme day of riding and a deep sadness that we wouldn’t be riding again. The last day had promised to be an exciting one but I don’t think any of us had expected such a day; thank goodness I had Avon Roadriders on my bike in such conditions.
That evening we celebrated our achievements with a few beers and some Indian gin! And we had good cause to celebrate as all 10 of us had made it to the top of the Khardung La Pass despite altitude sickness, bruised and broken ribs as well as plenty of aching muscles.
The following morning there were a few sore heads as we said our goodbye’s to the fantastic OMG Himalaya team and headed to the airport to catch our flight back down to the heat of Delhi for an overnight stop. The following morning it was time to head home to Stroud via Dubai and Heathrow, back to the family in one piece. It was great to be back at home and share the experience with the kids, Nancy has already asked if she can ride pillion on the next adventure! I’m sure there will be another adventure, but not for a year or two as the family deserve a proper holiday in 2020.
If/when I’ve saved enough energy to organise another challenge it will certainly be with Jeev and the OMG Himalaya team again. They were brilliant and thought of everything from the moment we were met at Delhi Airport until we were dropped off there again eight days later. We put our lives in their hands and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again or recommend them to anyone who enjoys motorcycles and adventure. The crew looked after everything and nothing was too much trouble for them, looking at this photo (below right), I think Aman was relieved to get all of us and the bikes to Leh in one piece, quite an achievement!
I must say a huge thank you to Mathews Mani of Speed Mottorad for sending a set of Avon Roadriders for my bike(s). They gave me a huge advantage over the other riders in the group, not that I let on. Over the five days I didn’t have any issues whilst the others were slipping and sliding over the Himalayan passes.
I’d also like to thank James Fenton (below right), who joined me on the trip and to my surprise, decided to raise money for the DSA. He’s raised more than £400, and I’m so grateful to him.
Thank you to all of you that have taken the time to read about this challenge and have helped me raise such a lot of money for charity. Thanks also to the Down’s Syndrome Association and The Cotswold Downs Syndrome Group that do so much good work, helping to improve the lives of people with Down’s syndrome and inspire them to challenge expectations. Raising money for these charities is an honour and worth all the effort and pain.
Read more about Steve’s reasons for taking on charity challenges here
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