I’ve always admired people who develop lasting, inspiring and sometimes quirky traditions. I don’t mean the typical traditions surrounding commercial holidays; I’m talking about the wild, epic traditions that produce months of anticipation and in preparation, cause people to cock their heads sideways and wonder whether they should question your sanity or be jealous.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to plan and scheme what traditions I can create or hijack for my own life. I’m not entirely sure how many years it takes to establish a tradition, but after three years of bike trips with my dad and brother, I think it’s safe to say that the family Sufferfest is a tradition that will last our lifetime.
In 2019, we planned to spend Sufferfest III over an eight-day bikepacking trip in the upper Annapurna region of the Himalayas in Nepal. This is the part where you question our sanity for scheming up this truly wild and crazy itinerary, but it would also be a homecoming. I grew up in Nepal, spending the first 16 years of my life in Kathmandu, and learning to ride bikes in the Himalayas. We were all looking forward to both the homecoming and the adventure.
4,593ft: Suffer Fest Begins
Sufferfest III began with a few days in Kathmandu, visiting old friends, exploring old bike trails and eating lots of momos. We then set off by vehicle, 8 hours to the small town of Besisahar – the starting point for the Annapurna Circuit, one of the most well-known trekking routes in Nepal. The track begins in the deep humid jungle of Nepal, slowly climbing up through multiple alpine climates as the route circumnavigates the great Annapurna mountain range. The full circuit covers just under 130 miles of cycling, yet those meager 130 miles are close to 60,000 feet of climbing.
2,500 – 12,000ft: Onward and Upward
The first three days were slow going. Climbing up through the jungle, on a puddle filled dirt road, we competed against fleets of loud jeeps struggling their way up the track. While these first few days were less than glamorous, they were the hard-fought miles that paved the way for the majestic views we received in the days to come.
12,000 – 14,000ft: Acclimatization Day
On the fourth day, we took an acclimatization day in Manang, exploring the ancient town, chatting with locals and hiking up over 14,000 ft to aid our acclimatizing. The rest of the day was spent lounging in our Big Agnes Torchlight UL bags, drinking coffee and playing cards.
Every hour at elevation would help our chances of avoiding altitude sickness when we went up over the pass. That night I was wracked with intense headaches and slight dizziness. Lying there in my sleeping bag, my brain spun in circles – I was stressed that if I had altitude sickness we would have to turn around a day short of the pass. At the same time, I wondered if it was safe to push up another 4,000 ft. with this pounding headache. I finally fell asleep, still unsure if I would be ready to make the push the next morning.
17,769 ft: The Push to the Pass
At 5am we were up and moving. Thankfully, the few hours of sleep were enough to clear out my headache and push off any sign of altitude sickness. Through the night a small storm had rolled in, dusting the dark world with a few inches of snow and ensuring that most of the day we would be stuck in the clouds. For the first two hours, we were able to slowly bike up the long valley towards our climb to the pass. We crawled along, crossing an icy swing bridge to the other side of the valley which signaled the start of our main climb. It would be 95% pushing from here, up the final 3 miles to the pass at 17,769 feet. The three of us silently struggled upwards, exchanging few words, opting for silence in the place of labored conversation.
Surprisingly the push to the pass went more quickly than expected. With freezing temps and a fierce wind, we didn’t linger longer than this quick photo opportunity. With many miles ahead of us and a potential killer downhill to look forward to, we were stoked to begin our descent into the renowned Mustang Valley.
17,769 – 2,700ft: Back to Civilization
What we thought was going to be a flowy downhill turned into a loose rock covered, uber steep death ride down 6,000 feet to the town of Muktināth. We carefully picked our way down the steep path emerging from the cloud covered pass into the arid yet beautiful Mustang Valley. An ancient Tibetan-influenced town covered the floodplain at the base of the valley, surrounded by towering mountains and brightly colored fall trees.
The next day we began our march back to civilization. The remaining 50 miles was shared with jeeps, buses, and herds of sheep as we sped down the rugged road that drops through the world’s deepest gorge. The final 6 hours passed slowly, the endless dust and mud and bumps sending my mind wandering back through the trip.
Recovery and Reflection
Traditions are an odd social construct, they often start unintentionally with little significance, a random or whimsical decision that signals its start. Yet over the years, those seemingly insignificant events or activities grow into traditions that we come to cherish. In the past, I’ve always thought of traditions as something you build around the holidays, but for our family Sufferfest has helped me realize that traditions are the perfect way to build relational pillars in the form of adventure.
Now I’m tasked to plan SSFIV, which may be pushed out another year, depending how 2020 pans out. Maybe this year I’ll opt for a winter snow camping trip. Who knows! What I do know is that I want to structure all of my adventures, so that they grow into amazing traditions that will shape my future and prioritize the relationships with the people I love the most.
About the Author: Luke Webster is a commercial photographer, content strategist and producer based in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in telling unique stories through authentic imagery. Follow along more of his adventures @lukewebstr