Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rhotang Pass

We headed to the shop at 9, loaded for a go at Rhotang Pass. Bill rode two-up with Matt and we split his gear. Getting to the shop required a moderate water crossing with traffic that would serve as a prelude to the day. The part for Bill's bike arrived after eleven. Anu tore off the newspaper and said that it was the wrong wiring harness. So we turned to plan B.

Classic British bikes shift on the right with a one up, four down pattern. Phil took one of Anu's Enfields and after switching gear we got at rolling quarter to one. Phil realized by the second corner that if he pushed down on the right pedal going into a corner, he sped up because he was in neutral.

The road ran along the valley floor for a couple of kilometers before climbing. A rock slide closed the road just past the Rhotang Pass Avalance Center. The road was diverted onto the dry river bed. Volleyball size rocks jut out between the sand for a half km. before we got back onto the tarmac.

We drove through the village where one-piece ski suits go to die. The road rose quickly with a series of switchbacks on good pavement. We saw a road crew patching asphalt. Two women carried a couple of buckets of tar suspended from a stick between them down to some men that were chipping rocks and bricks to fill the hole. The women wore scarves over their faces and kerchiefs down low on the forehead so only the slits of their eyes were visible. The asphalt plant, a barrel set on bricks with a wood fire under it, was one switchback up.

The smooth tarmac gave way to the occasional hole over the next twenty km. The views up and down valley were spectacular. We caught glimpes of the climb on every switchback. Traffic was light with easy passing opportunities.

The pavement deteriorated to mud over the course of a couple of km. First you could string together a solid line if you only had two wheels to worry about. The tarmac disappeared when the switchbacks steepened. It had been paved at one time but the broken pieces of asphalt got pushed into the goo and vanished.

Sharp hunks of granite stuck out of deep holes. Hundred foot water crossings with trucks and buses on the right and thousand foot drops on your left became common place. We soon realized that those spots were the safest places for motorcycles to pass. The four-wheeled vehicles needed to stay in a track while we could piece a decent line together on either side of the "road."

Imagine taking a Harley Sportster up a muddy logging road with slick tires through deep water holes filled with helmet-sized rocks around blind corners in heavy traffic and you'll get the idea.
Rain fell and made anywhere but in the packed rut a dicey proposition. The front tire pushed the mud rather than cut through it because our bikes were loaded with all we'd need if we got weathered in. One had to stay on the gas or the peanut butter would get you.

The rain turned to sleet, then hail. Traffic increased because all the day-trip buses started going down. The temperature dropped and the road became gooier. The first wave of us reached the pass at 3:15.

We swung the blood back to our fingers and did jumping jacks while we waited for them. The wind blew a consistent 15 with the occasional gust to 25. The hail began to accumulate. Carl tried to raise them on the radio after a fire-roasted ear of corn. Mariska answered that his bike was down.

He lost the clutch some time ago but was able to speed shift and keep it going. Braking uphill without a clutch meant that he needed to maintain a speed much faster than traffic. Jason ran blocker for him, clearing passing lanes, forcing folks to wait, and the like.

Even with the help, Mariska had to kill the engine a few times. Eventually it refused to start or shift. We decided to go back as a group and get the bike down. Mariska's bike had the good graces to die in a widespot.

Kagen had a look at the gear box. The clutch accuator was sheared off. The problem doesn't have a roadside solution. Phil, Josh, and Anthony headed off to secure shelter in Manali while we set about flagging down a truck.

The second one stopped and said he would do it for 500 rupees. We agreed and pointed for him to pull over. He misunderstood our pointing for a finger shake and left. We couldn't believe it. Mariska said he would coast it down as far as he could.

After watching Mariska negotiate the first corner, Matt ripped off to catch the truck. We set up a tow rope from Kagen's bike. The slipknot kept sliding from under Mariska's boot so progress was slow. We sure were glad to see Matt had the truck pinned by his bike and was throwing ropes and a Ralph Lauren tarp out of the back.

We loaded the bike. Bill wanted to set it on the center stand. The driver signed that they would poke holes in his bed. I believe it because I could feel it flexing under my feet while we tied the bike down.

Mariska bounced off with the same three songs from the driver's mix tape playing all the way down. Every time he turned around he could see his bike shaking and rattling apart. The rack broke off in the first km.

We caught up and passed our tow truck once. He would manage to pass all of us again while smoking cigarettes and making cell phone calls. The holes and mud seemed easier on the way down because the traffic lightened. It didn't get slippery until we got back on the sleet covered pavement.

Several of us had brake issues on the way down. I didn't take it out of first gear for fear I might not be able to downshift. Pumping worked but I decided to save it for something really scary.

I turned on my headlight as dusk fell. The beam pointed at the sky so all it did was blind me. It worked better once it got dark.

Meanwhile Phil and company led the pack. They were able to get around a dead truck jack-knifed on a corner so they had smooth sailing down to the river bed.

Josh came to a stop on orders of a little kid waving a red flag tied to a stick. Ten minutes later an explosion to clear rocks went off and the kid waved them through.

We got to the shop and unloaded the bike, had chai, and learned that Enfield, along with all Indian manufactures, exports their quality goods and keeps the inferior products in country. That makes sense in a country that uses bamboo for both scaffolding and rebar.

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