My 8 year old son Asher and I (Ryan Phillips – Director of ECTA International) just cycled in tandem over the Himalayas via the infamous Manali – Leh Highway. As far as we know, Asher is the youngest person to ever complete the route. Many people have wondered why.
“Why travel a route so dangerous?”
“Why go through a land so lacking in the essentials of life… food, water, emergency care and even air?” “Why push and grind over so many passes? Just take him fishing for goodness sake!”
And most of all… “Why with a child so young? Doesn’t he have asthma? What are you trying to prove anyways?”
I would answer these questions straight away but perhaps you wouldn’t believe me. First, let me tell you a little bit about our journey so as to lend credence to my words…
In two weeks we traveled 525kms. The actual distance between Manali and Leh is 490kms (including our side trip to Tsokar). The extra 35kms came from the fact that we had to slalom through the broken pavement and loose stones to find a smooth path. We climbed a total elevation well over the height of Mt. Everest (if startingfrom sea level) and crossed the second highest pass in the world at 17,582ft. The route not only led through the mountains but also deserts, rivers and vast stretches of uninhabited land. I picked this journey precisely because it would impossible for us to complete by sheer force or determination. There are two types of cycling groups which travel this route “supported” and “unsupported”. Supported groups have back up vehicles, guides, bike mechanics, tents and cook staff. Unsupported individuals carry all the gear they need to survive. Asher and I went ‘unsupported’ knowing full well that without kindness, generosity and ample helpings of providence… we would never reach our destination.
Our first pass was called the Rotang La, which admittedly translates “Pile of Corpses Pass”. It was a stiff start. In the first of fifteen days, we rode only 36kms but climbed from 6,300ft to 11,000ft hauling 270 lbs of bodies, 50 lbs of bike and 75 lbs of gear. We were completely exhausted by the relentless switchbacks. There were literally vultures circling us and I wondered if we would be the next on top of the “pile of corpses”. But as we rolled in to Marhi the cook staff of a supported group began frantically waving to us. A group of 10 Indian cyclist happened to have stayed at the same hotel as us and had departed that same morning. They had already graciously agreed to transport our bike boxes and unnecessary gear to Leh for us (a huge logistical nightmare otherwise). Before we knew it we were offered a tent, tea and dinner. That night we sat under the stars together, told stories, laughed and ate a feast of rice, chapatti, curried chicken, a sundry of side dishes and more. The group had only recently taken up cycling and had never been at altitude before. Many wondered how they would ever make it. The next morning we all set off together to cross the Rotang La. Asher an I were fueled by the hearty dinner, subsequent breakfast and a good night’s sleep. The team was spurred on by looking up at Asher pedaling his little heart out at the head of the pack. And he was pedaling. If he let up for a second… I knew it. Despite my intense training, I was not strong enough to pull my son and our load over even the lowest of the passes. We had to work together to gain every single hard earned kilometer of the trip. At the top of the Rotang La (13,010ft), we all celebrated together. We had all contributed to each other’s success in some small way.
Over the next two weeks the elevations and roads became more and more extreme. Every night of the trip was above 10,000ft, eight of those nights were above 14,000ft and 4 of those nights were above 15,000ft. But a pattern of kindness, generosity and providence kept us going over the Baralacha La (16,044ft) and beyond. Shopkeepers gifted us with fresh apricots, apples, chocolate bars and candy along the way. Other supported groups we happened to camp near invited us over to feast. We had been carrying a stove, food stocks and an emergency tent for a particularly remote section of road ahead. In Sarchu, we found out that seasonal camps called ‘dhabas’ had sprung up in that area. An older American couple just finishing a trek materialized immediately after this revelation and relieved us of our heavy unnecessary gear (and delivered it to Leh for us). This came just hours before we had to tackle the dreaded Gata Loops, a series of 21 switchbacks leading towards the Naki La.
It would be our hardest day and even with the lightened load we very nearly gave up. Eventually we rolled into “Whiskey Nallah” completely exhausted well after the sun had dipped behind the ridge. Asher and I crawled into a traditional herder’s tent bound with yak hair ropes. We sat, chatted and laughed with a French couple and American couple (both on tandems) and warmed next to a dung fire burning in the tin stove. Despite the elevation of 15,600ft and rough ground… we slept like babies. The next day mounting clouds brought snow flurries as we crossed the Lachalung La (16,616ft). The snow chased us for the rest of the trip ultimately closing the passes behind us. Just ahead of the storm, we rode in sunshine with a steady tailwind. The first group we dined with reportedly abandoned their trip due to difficulty. The French couple (who had biked there… from France) got way laid by altitude sickness and the other group we dined with decided to skip the final pass due to rough road conditions. Somehow Asher and I kept pushing on at our slow steady pace.
But as we approached the final pass, we realized that there was a technical problem. On the extremely rough descent of the Lachalung La, two of the spokes in my rear wheel had snapped and it had developed a serious wobble. The extra spokes we were carrying weren’t the right length. I worked on tightening the remaining spokes to straighten the wheel… but it was far from perfect. The climb up the final and highest pass was reportedly under construction and quite rough. Would the wheel hold up? We decided to try anyways despite the slim prospects. Our daily prayer had been, “Lord be the strength in our legs and the air in our lungs. Please use this trip to bring awareness to our cause so that we can send our 5 students to medical school.” To this we now added, “and please keep our wheel in one piece as we cross the second highest pass in the world.”
During our final ascent we bounced over and up 15km of washboard dirt and gravel. By the time Asher and I reached the final 6kms of ascent (which were in good condition) we were nearly spent. After crossing 17,000 ft, there is approximately 50% of the oxygen as at sea level. Every 500 meters or so, we had to stop to catch our breath and to snuff the burning in our legs. The relief would last for around 15 seconds of pedaling. There was no choice but to push on through the pain. The only way to forget the sheer exhaustion was to focus on the mind blowing vistas.
Finally, at the top we dismounted our bikes grappled each other and had a good cry. The only significant tears of the entire journey were tears of joy. We were standing next to a sign which read, “You are crossing the second highest pass of the world. Tanglang La, 17,582ft. Unbelievable, is not it?” and yes it was unbelievable.
Having earned our reward, for the next three days we sailed down alpine ridges, through painted valleys, past blissful villages and by towering temples to our final destination of Leh. The air at 11,000 felt absolutely luxurious and a hot shower like paradise. “Why travel a route so dangerous?” My family has spent most of the last 12 years in South Asia and I’ve been asked this question many times. There are many inherent risks with the life we have chosen. We are vividly aware of what ‘could happen’. But the fear of what ‘could happen’ has never robbed us of hope of what could be. In our short time in India, we’ve helped start a school, a health clinic, an ambulance service and a health worker training program. Each of these journeys seemed impossible at the outset. We feared what each of these endeavors might cost us. I’ve never been so intimidated or scared as in the days leading up to A Mountain to Pass. Even though Asher and I decided to travel one of the “world’s deadliest highways” here we sit in Leh safe and sound. We suffered no illness despite dining in dirty roadside dhabas. Our worse injury was a mild scrape on the back. We didn’t have a single accident or flat tire. Even the notoriously aggressive Tata truck drivers gave us a wide berth and thumbs up as they passed. How did Asher cope with the altitude considering his condition? He got a short headache on the second pass and was rarely as breathless as I.
“Why go through a land so lacking in the essentials of life… food, water, medical care and even air?” Millions of villages the world over still struggle daily to acquire food, to access drinking water and have no available medical care. While living in one of those villages my son Asher experienced his first asthma attack which was nearly fatal. I strapped him to my back and carried him across the mountains to save his life. Since, my family and now ECTA International has worked tirelessly to ensure access to these essentials in our remote corner of the Himalayas. Oxygen equipped ambulances now run in areas formerly cut off from emergency care.
“Why with a child so young?” Across the years working in the Himalayas, we’ve come to realize what children are capable of. We’ve seen young students carry 80lb bags of potatoes to market to pay for their education. We’ve seen kids walk hours across rugged mountains simply to get to school. I know 5 year olds who can start the evening fire, 6 year olds who can care for cattle, 7 year olds who can work the fields and now an 8 year old who can cross the Himalayas on a bicycle. I wanted to teach my son that he is smart, capable and strong. That many of the things the world says are impossible can be done. I wanted to share the story of my son Asher with you so that you might also believe in something seemingly ‘impossible’.
We at ECTA believe that sending 5 smart, capable and strong village students to Medical School, could spark a transformation in rural healthcare in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India. We believe that those same kids who carried the potatoes, cut the firewood and tended the herd can become excellent doctors who will return to provide consistent, competent and compassionate care to their neglected villages. All they need is the chance. Just as Asher and I had to climb five passes together, Himalayan parents and children must work in tandem to access education. They must work fields, carry loads, milk cows, break rocks and sell their sweat together just for the tuition and fees. Their five passes are primary school, middle school, high school, the Class X exam and finally Class 11/12. These may not seem like mountains to you… but for Himalayan families they are much higher than the Tanglang La. These students do not need to be taught the need for access to food, water and medical care in remote villages… they’ve lived it. They know it. If given the chance, these students will return to do the ‘impossible’ for the villages which need it most. Asher and I did not set out to prove that we were strong. We did not set out to do the extreme for an adrenaline rush. We did not set out to earn bragging rights or set a record. “So what is it you’re trying to prove?” It is this.
Ordinary people with extraordinary visions in their hearts can achieve the seemingly impossible when supported with kindness, generosity and providence. The journey is long, difficult and possibly dangerous but the fear of what could happen should never be allowed to rob us of what can be. I’m trying to prove that life is stronger than death, that in the end… love wins.
Lay aside the cynicism, distraction and doubt. Join us in this journey. Start by giving whatever you can to help these students get to Medical School. But don’t settle for just that. Don’t tell yourself that is enough. Give your time, give your talents, give your life. There is someone or something half a world away or halfway down the block that is waiting. Waiting for you to make the decision that this life has a purpose greater than your own safety, success, stability, pleasure or comfort. I warn you that such journeys may cost you everything but there is nothing more exciting than embarking on endeavor where even that seems a pittance to pay. You may ask, “But come on, really? What do we get in exchange for all this?” I don’t know if you’ll get anything tangible in return. But when you have to work for so long, this hard and at such heights something amazing happens. It makes your blood thicker and your heart that much stronger. That is why we journey. Give, live, love… today. ECTA INTERNATIONAL