On a motorcycle at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas

Alec Loftus had been thinking about doing some adventure travel writing.

He had the writing part down, having worked as deputy press secretary for former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick along with other communications jobs since graduating from University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2003.

What Loftus, 39, needed was an adventure.

Last month, halfway around the world, on a mountain pass more than 17,000 feet above sea level, he got it.

“I never thought I would do something like this,” Loftus said last week from India.

What he did — with little prior experience on a bike — was join a motorcycle club in the Indian region of Ladakh that was leaving on a six-day ride through the Zanskar Range of the Himalayan Mountains.

Loftus met the club director, a man named Cheetah, on Sept. 14 at a cafe called Coffee Culture in Leh, Ladakh’s capital city. They were embarking in two days, Cheetah said. A dozen or so locals on bikes, with support vehicles carrying camping equipment and cooking supplies.

They would traverse high altitude passes — up to 17,500 feet — much of it off-road.

Loftus had no off-road experience. He looked at Cheetah.

Pixlr Alec Loftus At Shinku La Pass

Loftus stops on his motorcycle at Shinku La pass in India at an elevation of 16,850 feet. (Photo courtesy of Alec Loftus.)

“I’m in,” he said.

Loftus grew up in Sun Prairie, moving at age 12 to Oslo when his dad, former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, was named U.S. Ambassador to Norway, the country where Alec spent his teenage years.

“I think it planted the seed for what I’m doing now,” Loftus says. “I got the chance to go around Europe. I got the travel bug.”

After graduating from UW–Madison, Loftus worked in communications for some state agencies as well as the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

He moved to Massachusetts with a girlfriend in 2009. When the relationship ended, “she left and I stayed,” Loftus says. He eventually signed on with Patrick: “A great governor. Good friend of Barack Obama. Leader on universal health care.”

Loftus then joined another Patrick administration alumnus who had launched a marketing firm. Loftus’ title was vice-president of communication and business development.

Loftus is blunt about what happened in December 2019.

“I burned out, quit, and decided now I’m going to travel.”

He’d saved his money, perhaps for just such an eventuality. But where to go? One of his college roommates in Madison was from India.

“He was telling me about this place, Goa; the parties on the beach,” Loftus says. “I remembered that. I also didn’t have any friends or family members who had ever been to India. I thought it would be a cool place to start.”

He arrived in Goa on Feb. 9, planning to spend a month or so in India, then travel on to Vietnam and points east.

In March, Loftus had checked into a hostel in Manali called the Orchard House when mask-wearing police entered and told the residents they had 24 hours to leave.

“It was lockdown due to coronavirus,” Loftus says. “But we had nowhere to go.”

He called the U.S. embassy, and it was arranged for the eight residents to stay at the hostel, under quarantine.

Loftus remained there for 72 days.

As the lockdown eased, he learned to ride a motorcycle and began biking with friends. Someone who knew the country mentioned that Ladakh was a motorcycle haven, adding that the virus would keep the crowds away.

Loftus flew to Leh, rented a motorcycle — a Royal Enfield Bullet 500 — met Cheetah and signed on for the high-altitude Himalayan expedition.

“It just sounded so amazing,” Loftus says. “I didn’t have the right experience or the right equipment, but I came here for adventure.”

What he discovered can be found in detail on his blog.

The club Loftus rode with is called LA Riders — “LA” being the local word for pass.

“They ride through the highest altitude passes,” he says. “I was the only foreigner crazy enough to sign on.”

Loftus lacked the proper waterproof gear and took a couple of days to get used to riding off-road, falling early while descending a sandy mountainside.

He was unhurt, and a biker named Captain Naveen gave him an off-road tutorial. “He said get out of first gear, use a higher gear and don’t use your brakes.”

Surf the sand, Captain Naveen said.

“They’re bikers but they’re also Tibetan Buddhists,” Loftus says of his companions. “Very warm. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

They ended up back in Leh — after reaching 17,582 feet — where Loftus looked to take a shower and start thinking about the next adventure.

It might be Vietnam. “Everyone says that’s the place to go.” Any plan won’t be rigid, Loftus says. He wants to stay nimble, open to experience.

“That’s what adventure should be,” he says.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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