Mountain bikers conquer the epic Annapurna Circuit

Quartet to speak about their journey at Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival

Mountain Biking the Annapurna Circuit - Bikepacking the World’s Biggest Pass, a Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival presentation, Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Theatre. Tickets and info: vimff.org/mountain-bike-night.

Elladee Brown embodies a freewheeling spirit.

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Have mountain bike, will travel – that’s the North Vancouver resident and world champion medallist’s mantra.

Even if that means pushing a bike for three days straight at the tail end of a 17,769-foot trek to the top of a Nepalese mountain pass.

Brown and three female riding buddies, Kelli Sherbinin, Jaime Hill and Leslie Kehmeier, conquered the world’s highest pass – the Annapurna Circuit – on bike last April.

What they came home with is some “astounding footage” the foursome will share during a Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival talk at Centennial Theatre on Feb. 23.

Around every corner of the 230-kilometre mountainous journey in the shadows of Everest a breathtaking landscape would come into view.

“It’s otherworldly for sure,” says Brown, of Annapurna, defined by its six prominent peaks.

Freeze-dried foods weren’t on the menu for the 10-day adventure through the remote reaches of Nepal.

VIMFF
Kathmandu may be best described as organized chaos. The mashup of people, traffic and buildings does not make sense, but somehow seems to work. - Supplied, Leslie Kehmelerd

Brown and her biking posse would stay in tea houses along the route, which eliminated having to trek with a tent and stove on two wheels. The riders were fuelled by home-cooked meals – flavourful and rich curries, stews, and dal bhat – at the tea houses.

Pringles and Snickers also served as a fuel source, and a comfort from home.

“You definitely still have to eat well because you’ve got a lot of energy output but you have to be flexible too,” explains Brown.

The downhill parts of the unrelenting Annapurna Circuit are a short-lived relief. Most of the rough and rocky trek involves long paths that go up and then down.

No pain, no altitude gain is a lesson well earned.

“For eight days, you’re basically climbing, climbing, climbing,” attests Brown.

VIMFF
The people of Nepal are incredibly friendly and engaging. Riding from Manang to Letdar, the team found this man who was happy to put down his basket and pose for a group photo. - Supplied, Leslie Kehmelerd

Along the way, the rolling quartet would encounter people coming back down from the mountain pass.

Eyeing their bikes, many astonished hikers remarked: “What are you guys doing? How are you going to get your bikes up and over this thing?”

As the mountain bikers gained elevation, the terrain changed and the air became thin and dry.

“There was lots of terrain that was totally un-rideable – where you’re kind of taking your bike for a walk,” says Brown.

The last three days of the trip, their bikes were essentially rolling luggage.

Pouches attached to their bikes contained supplies to keep Brown and her crew prepared for disarming climate changes along the path – hot jungle temperatures to -10 C at the top. 

Kehmeier captured stills of the unparalleled scenery, while Brown took some video footage “from just pulling my iPhone out, anywhere and everywhere.”

The intrepid mountain bikers will each helm a segment of their talk at Centennial Theatre, as the photo slideshow and footage is narrated through four sets of eyes.

“I think really for us the goal of the festival is to expose (mountain biking treks) to people in the hopes that they’d want to take it on,” says Brown, who was an early adopter of the sport.

At the age of 14, when Brown moved to Whistler with her mom, she had no choice but to try mountain biking.

There was a fledgling scene up there in the mid-1980s and Brown was poised to make her mark.

“I met my tribe, so to speak,” recalls Brown, of falling in with the mountain biking crowd as a teenager.

Whistler was a ghost town in the summer, before shredding the trails became a far-reaching attraction.              

It was a newspaper ad for a local race that led to Brown’s career as professional mountain biker.

“My mom cut it out of the Whistler Question. She had seen me riding a lot that summer, so she cut that little ad out of the paper and said: ‘Hey, there’s this race coming to Whistler – you should enter it. You’ve been riding a lot – you might have fun.’ She was right.”

It was a grassroots mountain biking race, recalls Brown. Competitors wore T-shirts.

Brown finished last, but couldn’t be deterred. She took that summer to get in shape.

From there, Brown started putting up decent times against some well-known U.S. mountain biking pros.

She earned a spot on a specialized team based out of Colorado and made the high-altitude state her home base – training at 7,500 feet above sea level.

For a decade, Brown was a fixture on the UCI race circuit in the ’90s.

The former national champion and world championship medallist came away mostly unscathed from the pro side of the sport – just a separated shoulder Brown sustained while competing at the X Games in Colorado.

Her wife and fellow pro rider, Tara Llanes, wasn’t so lucky. Llanes was thrown over the handlebars, onto her head and then her back during a race in Colorado in 2007.

She is now paralyzed as a result of that accident but not dispirited. 

Seeing the rich lives that people with spinal cord injuries lead, including her wife who is now a Canadian wheelchair basketball player and Paralympian, has taken some of Brown’s fear away.

The couple has toured around Europe together on the train system. Llanes has even learned how to go down an escalator in her wheelchair.

Closer to home, Llanes is involved in adaptive mountain biking on the North Shore, including helping to create a purpose-built, wider-width trail on Seymour to accommodate the specialized bikes.

It’s no accident that Brown laid down roots in this outdoor recreation mecca shortly after laying eyes on Mount Fromme.

“It’s a mountain bike town essentially, and everybody kind of gets it,” she says. “So it’s cool to see how we have really integrated with it, whereas a lot of other places have had a lot of collision.”

Brown has been involved in the industry in all facets – including as racer, brand ambassador, and sales rep – for 30 years.

But it’s the adventure and exploration side of mountain biking that keeps her moving.

“Truthfully, I love to do these big epic adventures,” she says.

Brown’s next big mountain biking trip will be this spring in Croatia where she will ride for 650 kilometres along the Adriatic Crest trail and explore the rugged side of the country.

After eight days, Brown will board an all-inclusive mountain bike cruise and island hop in the Mediterranean for another eight days of unbridled adventure.

“It sounds really cool,” she says.

 

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