June 2 – Bartang Valley

With considerable thought, and understanding the most challenging riding was yet to come, I decide to push forward up the remote river valley.

Many times when I’m on my bike, I relate this type of riding to extreme whitewater kayaking. There are different ratings for whitewater, class 1 through 6. Class 1 being without consequence (flat water) and class 6 being most likely death if a substantial error is made. I can draw many parallels with the two sports, mostly on choosing a “line” through a piece of water or trail. You need to scout the run/trail, look for the line that works for you and then start breaking it down on the individual moves that need to be made in order to make it through to the end of the section. These parallels of the sport are almost identical.

If every instance when pulling up to a section of trail, I am looking for the best flowing line through the section, consequences, as well as any safe zones. When the track is really challenging, there may not be any safe zones, once you commit, your committed to the end. If something goes really wrong in the boat, you pull your skirt and swim to safety- when something goes wrong in the boat, you look for the best route to abandon the bike and do your best to help guide it to safety as you’re coming off.

No two ways about it, swimming from a kayak is a confidence killer. When you decide to get back into the boat, your confidence is blown and every small wave becomes significant and every current feels like its going to send you over again. This makes even the easy water feel like class 5. This is no different on the bike; when I headed out in the morning, my grip on the bars was too tight, my positioning with my legs was too tense – my confidence was blown. I was overreacting to every small rock and undulation in the trail; I was all over the place for a good two hours and the whole time thinking, “there’s no way I’m going to be able to ride the tough sections like this”.

I did my best to work on calming my mind so my body would follow and sometime around midday, I was again flowing on the machine through the water crossings and rocky switchbacks. I clearly remember where the route turned difficult; it was just after the last herder village I went through. As I was slowly riding through the dusty, almost abandoned village; the few remaining inhabitants stood up and took note – it was a really weird feeling, their eyes all seemed to say “ what the “F” is this guy doing heading up there by himself”. All tire tracks had disappeared at this point and I was now following a sheepherder’s trail. The difficult riding had begun.

The section started with two switchbacks up a singletrack of loose rock and debris. A small group of herders pulled off the trail with their donkeys to watch the show begin. With my confidence back, I cleaned the section without any problems and even gave a confident head nod as I rode past spitting softball size rocks out the back as my rear tire spun looking for grip.

The route continued with this moderate level of difficulty for another hour or so with several deep water crossings, wash outs that were almost un-navigable, mud bogs and loose rocky sections. There are a couple of fairly long glacial run out areas that were nothing but extended boulder fields lasting no less than 1/4 mile wide each. I think these may have been the most challenging part of the ride as the route was almost non-existent and section after section that was completely washed out and unridable. I’d have to travers up and down the boulder field looking for a place to cross the washouts, many still will water flowing and questionable access up one side or the other. I was more focused than ever at this point and riding the sections perfectly and without error.

I had read somewhere the most difficult and consequential section was near the end where the trial went up the last mountain with wicked steep, tight and loose switchbacks with and “off” being certain loss of the bike and most likely death. I clearly know when this section began, because as I approached it, I think I said out loud “ no way, this is nothing but a single goat track – I must be on the wrong trail”. I dismounted my bike and walked in for a closer look at the approach. I picked my confidence back up and chose my line into the section. I decided not to scout the entire section as it was extremely long and I was riding well enough at this point and more focused than ever, I knew I’d be able to ride whatever lay ahead.
I started up the trail and it was all that I’d read. Talking to myself and my iron pony the whole way, I picked my way through the rocks and switchbacks and worked my up and around each bend without once stopping or looking down. A spinout or even stopping would put me in a massive tight spot, as I’d have to figure a way to turn the bike around, mount it and start over – this was not an option, I needed to ride the trail clean from bottom to top. I was 100% focused on the task at hand, which was safely navigating to the top. This was undoubtedly some of the finest and most focused riding I’ve ever done – a spectacular section of trail in one of the most accessibly remote places on our planet.

The switchback section was complete, but there was still another 75km to go before I hit the safety of tarmac and the Pamir Highway again. I was high enough on the mountain at this point, the next tricky sections consisted of snow and water crossings in the gully creek beds. I was again in the situation if the bike slipped in one of the gullies, it would be a quick 4000’ decent to the bottom. An error or a slip on the snow was not an option. I picked my way through the creek crossings and snow fields and finally onto the upper steppes of the range.

As I crested to top, I knew I had just completed what very few people had ever ridden on a fully loaded touring bike, and quite possibly the first to do it solo on this type of big bike. Unfortunately I took very few photos on the route – I was so focused and in the moment, stopping to snap photos seemed foolish at this time and a certain distraction of the task at had.

I coasted into the nearest village, Karakol, and scrounged up 5 liters of fuel from the locals, which was just enough to get me into Sary Tash for a re-fueling. I was now in Kyrgyzstan and looking for a place to camp and unwind from the day.

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