Lonquimay is the half way point on the Monkey Puzzle Bikepacking route we had downloaded from bikepacking.com. It is an old frontier town, and has the feel of a place where someone lives, who once beat a bear in a fight. We arrived there after our epic ride through the Monkey Puzzle trees, on a sugar low and with no food left. After gorging on cookies, bread and cheese at the first kiosk, we stzmbled upon a hostel called Rustiko, which it just so happened had a local craft porter on tap :) Then we gorged on that.
We knew a couple of days of rain were coming, and thought this would be the perfect place to sit it out. Craft beer on tap, wifi, and a cosy heated room. In the morning the predicted downpour began, and by afternoon it began to snow. We watched helplessly as the pretty white powder made our chances of finishing the monkey puzzle route dwindle.
The next day the snow stopped, but Hector, the helpful owner of the hostel assured me that there would be at least a foot of snow on the track we planned to cycle, and that it would stay there for a week. Being from Lonquimay, he said it was not impossible that we might pass the snowed-in twelve kilometres of track at the pass, but it would involve carrying our bikes and luggage. Riding his optimism and keen to test our low temperature gear, we decided to give it a go.
We had prepared for cold temperatures on this bicycle tour. We knew that the temperature on the Altiplano in Bolivia could drop to -15 c and below, so we had brought snowboarding jackets, merino thermals and down sleeping bags with a comfort rating of -25 c, and an extreme rating of -42 c. I had badass thick Keen Targhee boots, which were made for the job. Pia’s shoes however were only ankle high, so on Hector’s advice we went and bought some gumboots, slightly too big, so that we could squeeze her feet in with all her socks on.
After a slightly painful parting from awesome Hector, his lovely wife Lorena, their cosy hostel and craft porter, we headed out in to the snow.
The views were beautiful and the roads nice and empty as we climbed steeply out of Lonquimay. As the sun was setting we set our tent up on snow for the first time, physically exhausted from the long climb. After wasting half of our stove fuel trying to set light to wet wood, l I gave up. Nonetheless, we cooked a warm meal on the cooker, and slept well, truly appreciating the full capabilities of our down sleeping bags for the first time.
Waking up in a sunny, snowy landscape and making yourself a cup of joe is truly something special, and that morning we mounted our trusty steeds in good spirits. The riding kept us warm, and the views enthusiastic as we continued to climb, and by mid afternoon the road began to slope downwards. Having just begun our hard earned descent, we turned a corner and found ourselves staring across a valley, awestruck, at the humbling might of volcano Lonquimay.
What a sight! Of all the volcanoes we saw in Chile, Lonquimay is clearly the most impressive, and makes me wonder why I had never heard of it before. How many other natural wonders there must be out there, as impressive as this one, that don’t make the school books!
We knew that the path we were meant to take ran along the eastern slope of the Volcano, and from our vantage point on the adjascent mountain, it looked like a blizzard had buried it under 10 meters of snow… at that moment, I felt positive that there was no way on earth we were going to get through. Somehow this didn’t deter us, or dampen our spirits. We knew we were going to have fun giving it a try, and that this would surely be a memorable experience. We collect those.
After standing there with drooping jaws for a while we got on our bikes, rolled to the bottom of the valley, pedalled almost to the foot of the volcano, and set our up tent beneath a tree.
The next morning we drank another few cups of joe, and braced ourselves for the decisive 12 kms Hector had been talking about. We could see the road, highlighted by a thin shadow, falling against the blanket of deep snow. It looked a steady but gentle incline curving around the hills and out of view around a bend a few kilometres from where we stood. My optimism returned as I realised that things were not as dire as the had looked from our viewpoint the day before. We began to climb.
After about two hundred metres we could no longer balance on the bikes, and continued on foot. The snow became deeper the further we progressed, and the bikes harder to push. We changed to a system of both pushing the same bike, and then going back for the other, and after about two hours, we had put three kilometres behind us, and stopped for lunch.
After recovering our strength somewhat, we had a chat about whether it made sense to continue. I was expecting Pia to say that she had had enough, and was delighted when she told me she thought we should push on. She was right, at this rate, doing one bike at a time, we could camp for one night in this white dreamscape, put the twelve kilometres behind us by the next evening, and camp on the other side of the deep snow the next night. With renewed resolve we set out again, one bike at a time.
After another kilometre, the snow deepened, and we began to struggle with every metre. Eventually, we realised this was costing too much energy to be sustainable. I noticed that to the left of the path, at the point where the mountain dropped away, there was a narrow stretch of earth maybe ten centimetres wide, which was not covered in snow. We manoeuvred the bike over to it, I walked on the outside pushing the bike through the shallow snow, and Pia pushed from behind. It was a precarious undertaking. Either I could fall down the drop, which wasn’t life threatening, but could have definitely done me some damage, and would have been hard to climb back up.. And if the bike were to fall, I wasn’t sure we could recover it in such deep snow.
We continued in this manner for a while longer, but at some point, when I could see around the next corner, I realised that the drop to my left was going to become steeper and higher the further we continued. I turned around and realised that Pia was absolutely exhausted.
We were on the edge of a steep drop, exhausted, forced to manoeuvre our bikes along a ledge, it was getting dark and we still had eight kilometres in front of us. I was going to run out of strength, Pia was done in, and to be frank, pushing the bike along that ledge was plain dangerous.
I’m not sure whether we gave up, or were rejected by the mountain. We definitely did not have the strength between us to finish the job. We did the smart thing.
We sat disappointed on the snow for a bit, before setting up camp one last time on the snow. We cooked an exhausted meal in the vestibule of the tent, and as the wind began to howl. We climbed in to our awesome sleeping bags, and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain, and made our way to an alternative lower lying route north.