From Flying ‘Bullets’ to Himalayan Rockets

A story of how two landslides lead to an ecological heater for the Himalayas and beyond

It seems like the journey of a lifetime, this rocket stove thing. Various threads from over 25 years of travel in India and the Himalayas have been weaving together a story about a Himalayan heater that started its life as an impulse to save trees. That impulse led to a hobby, which lead to an invention, which lead to a project which is now a company with staff and production and distribution and sales and, importantly, heating stoves that save trees.

Let me tell you a little about how we got here.

In 1992 I came to India and was fortunate to travel through Kinnaur to Spiti Valley as one of the first non-locals to visit in a very long time. The region had been closed to all non-local residents due to its proximity to Chinese occupied Tibet.

That same year, HH Dalai Lama gave Kalachakra Teachings and Empowerments in Kinnaur Valley and I was co-leading a group of 24 Americans and 12 Australians on a pilgrimage journey that was destined to change a few lives, certainly mine. As a follow-up to the teachings, some of us ventured further into Spiti Valley, which began for me a lifelong love affair with the high desert regions of the Indian Himalayas. I began sponsoring a monk at Tabo Monastery which lead to an ongoing connection that continues to this day.

Fast forward to 2003, and I’m riding a 350 Royal Enfield ‘Bullet from Manali through Kinnaur into Spiti. It was meant to be a quick trip, but I was having such an amazing experience I kept extending. Without a fixed deadline, I found myself exploring side roads that would end in remote villages where I would spend a few days at a homestay, soaking in the atmosphere of mountain life and a sense of the sustainable lifestyle amongst forests and farms that was a pre-curser to modern influences. The people were hospitable and the landscapes spectacular, so I was enjoying to get lost more often than found as I meandered through the mountains. The only agenda I had was to eventually get back to Tabo where I was due to help raise funding for a new and culturally appropriate school.

After several weeks of slow travel… finding little places to hide out and walk amongst trees and wildflowers, my money was getting low and I knew it was time to get back to Tabo where I could recharge my wallet and get into my tasks. I applied for a permit to travel through the inner line zone next to the Indo-Tibetan border and set off for the last few days of this part of the trip.

My approach to self-directed travel is that whatever happens is the right thing to be happening. With that in mind, I found myself surrendering to the flow of each day as it unfolded.

A few hours into the ride from Kalpa to Nako, the last stop before Tabo, I came around a bend in a roar of enthusiastic motorcycling bliss to be met with a queue of traffic backed up a kilometre or more. I rode to the front of the queue to find out what was going on… landslide. Not unusual in this part of the world, so I pulled over, found some shade from the intense glare of the high-altitude sun, and settled in for the wait.

At some point in this waiting period of around 7 hours, during which the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) boys alternated between blowing up rocks and bulldozing rocks, I met a guy named Neil who was with a group on a bicycle tour. They were as stuck as the rest of us, so Neil and I found ourselves enjoying a conversation and exchanged email addresses to stay in touch.

Eventually the road was clear enough to move on, and I roared away hoping to make it to Nako before sunset, as I was not keen on riding far in the dark on roads that have no lines, no lights, and a long way down to nowhere on one side or the other.

I made it to Nako that evening, a spectacular Buddhist village wrapped around a lake at 3600m. Padmasambhava, a wild Indian yogi from the 8th century is reputed to have passed this way on his travels through the mountains and left a footprint in stone now preserved in the small and ancient gompa (temple). I had been here several times before and knew Nako well, and loved exploring the ancient lanes and climbing the hills overlooking the village. It’s a landscape of vast barren spaciousness where every stone of significance is carved with Buddhist mantras and the outlook is a never-ending vista of jagged peaks covered in snow.

After several days enjoying the isolation, I felt the urge to push on. With only one more day of riding to Tabo, I would be back to my home base in the Himalayas where I had work and friends waiting for me. Bags packed, I loaded the bike and set off early, not knowing yet the conditions of the road. As it turned out, conditions were interesting. Landslides were threatening to collapse the mountain above the road, and I had to ride through a zone of slippery mud and shooting stones bouncing around me at great velocity to get to a point where, finally, the road simply ceased to be.

Mulling Nalla is well known to everyone who lives in Spiti and anyone who visits often. It is the key to year-round access for the whole valley, with the other option being a high pass at the other end of the valley open only in the summer months. If the road across the stream at Mulling is open, then so is the valley.

This year, there was no road. Instead of a road, there was a gaping chasm at least 1 km across, where boulders the size of buses were tumbling idly downhill in a kinetic display that inspired both terror and awe at the magnificence of mountains in motion. These mountains are still climbing and in their growth spurts, parts of them fall back down, often spectacularly. Rising and falling constantly, our attempts to tame them with horizontal trails suitable for wheeled machination seem curiously futile, temporary at best.

Certainly Mulling was having nothing to do with roads this year. Instead, some enterprising lads (presumably with the support of the afore-mention BRO) had erected a set of steel cables that stretched out from the edge and across the abyss. Suspended from these cables was a metal cage with bars spaced about 20cm apart. It was rudimentary and designed for transporting luggage while the buses on either side offloaded their occupants who were required to walk several hours down the gorge and up the other side, dodging the bouncing boulders on the way.

I was on a motorcycle that weighed around 250kg, plus luggage. I had left Nako with just enough rupees left in my pocket to get me to Tabo without any stops. I had just ridden up a mud slide with shooting stones to get to this point and I was only 2 hours ride away from Tabo… IF I could get across the void. The only other way to get to Tabo was 10 days of intense mountain riding back the way I had already come.

My mind was made up, I was going to cross this void with the Bullet, even if I had to fly it across myself!

For some reason, the young lad who operated the floating cage on a cable had other ideas. He’d decided that today was the day he was having a break. I offered him the going rate (and more) to get me and the bike across the void, but no, he was not having it. He wanted me to go back to Nako and stay in his Uncle’s guesthouse. I was not having that, so it was a standoff. I found a comfortable rock nearby, sat down and decided to wait until I got my way.

It was an interesting moment for me. Up to that point, my ride and indeed most of my travels had been an exercise in ‘going with the flow’. I had learnt how to find my way around obstacles like water around rocks… finding the gaps and flowing through. It was a practice of allowing and accepting. In this case, there was nothing to allow and accept. I had decided what I was going to do, and there were no other options I was willing to accept. I was going across that void and the motorbike was coming with me. I just had to convince the recalcitrant operator to see things the way I did.

In the end, having spent nearly the whole day staring him down, he relented. I’m not sure why, perhaps the hard look of steely determination on my face unsettled him. Perhaps he didn’t want me cluttering up his patch of rocky oblivion anymore… I don’t know. I had only one outcome in mind, and I was not moving until it was done. Around 4 in the afternoon, with about 2 hours to sunset, he beckoned me over and got me to sit in the cage with my luggage. We had worked out the price, which was everything left in my pocket, except for 2 rupees (it was my lucky coin, lurking in the bottom of my pocket to remind me I always had something). I had to trust that once I was on the other side, he would put the bike on and send it over. I wouldn’t stop until I reached Tabo. No roadside chai from this point on!

Sure enough, it was the ride of my life, across the vast expanse with a drop straight down of 500m or more. I was peering down through the gaps in the steel bars as I floated in the cage with my backpack between my legs. One strand of steel cable held us afloat and an old diesel engine powered the pulley that tugged the cage across. Once on the other side, I waited as the cage disappeared back into the mist across the void until sometime later I finally saw her… my beautiful purple motorcycle floating across the mountains like a vision from a strange dream. He had removed the cage and used 2 steel cables around the frame so the Bullet really DID seem to be flying through the mountains!

All was well and I arrived in Tabo that evening just after sunset, riding like the wind on roads without traffic, twisting through the mountains with the roar of the Bullet in my ears and 2 rupees in my pocket.

It’s a story that seemingly has little to do with rocket stoves… but here’s how these threads weave together.

That year I started a travel company called Yak Trak and proceeded to spend a lot of time in the Himalayas running tours and getting involved with various ecological projects. Thirteen years after meeting Neil at that landslide, I wrote an email to my list of travel friends and followers detailing the upcoming tours. In the last paragraph, I mentioned I had been working on an idea to develop high efficiency combustion heaters for the Himalayas.

The next day, I had an email from Neil, a man who is invariably to the point. “How much do you need?” he asked, seemingly without reference to limit or context. It was an interesting question that could have been answered in any number of ways. I detailed an ambitious but achievable plan to finish the early development in Australia and take the prototype to India for testing and production assessment in the Himalayas.

He agreed and just like that, I began the Himalayan Rocket Stove project. That was in 2016. I set up a small factory in Ladakh, made enough stoves to prove the concept, advanced the design several generations and with the help of Chetana and Tanzin, came up with a formula for making smokeless cooking fires that formed the basis of the Smokeless Cookstove Revolution.

Many people have contributed in various ways to both these projects, which seem to have lives of their own. Each has developed into something more than I could have imagined and are the natural consequences of all the factors that came before.

The Himalayan Rocket Stove company was registered in Chandigarh in March 2017 and went into mass production last September and is operating as a Social Enterprise making high efficiency combustion heaters. These heating stoves are now reaching across the Himalayan belt from Ladakh to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North East states of India. We are in the process now of scaling to meet interest from other parts of the world.

The Smokeless Cookstove Foundation is registered as a Section 8 not-for-profit company in Mumbai with its own board headed up by Nitisha as director. It is in the process of rolling out training workshops in various parts of the country, teaching people the magic of smokeless fire for no cost and is currently in the process of seeking funding to scale to meet the ever increasing demand.

So, you may be wondering… what is the connection to a series of landslides in the Himalayas?

The first landslide lead to a conversation which, thirteen years later, opened the door to seed funding that took an idea from a backyard project into a company and a foundation.

The second landslide was more personal… it showed me that with clear intention and focussed determination, almost anything is possible… even flying a Bullet through the mountains if that’s what it takes.

It has taken a lot of determination to get the Himalayan Rocket Stove to where it is now, along with a healthy measure of good fortune and the amazing support of wonderful people.

We are just beginning with many more adventures yet to unfold. If you are interested to stay in touch with the Himalayan Rocket Stove story and the Smokeless Cookstove Revolution, join our email list and be part of the journey.

Cheers, Russell

Learn more about the Himalayan Rocket Stove project here: