BATTLING THE WINDS OF THE PASO SICO
We had spent the best of part of two weeks struggling with sickness and acclimatisation. Locals were pretty sure we had caught the stomach infection by drinking water from the streams. We had been using our Steripen every-time, but that apparantly isn't much defence against the toxins that leak in to the water from the mines further up in the mountains. We didn't have any antibiotics with us, and there weren’t any to be found in the two horse town of Santa Rosa de Tastil, so we decided to wait it out. Luckily there was a room full of beds in the town for tour-groups who come to see the nearby ruins, and we were given refuge. By the time a week had gone by, we were both in slightly better shape, but not ready to cycle. We put our bikes in the bottom of a bus and climbed the last 30 km to San Antonio de Los Cobres, gaining 600m in altitude to reach 3800m.
We had reached the beginning of the Paso Sico route. A six day ride along a dusty track, through a barren no-mans land in a remote part of the high Andes where Argentina and Chile meet. Logistically this was to be our most challenging route so far, with no chance to resupply food, and water-sources being up to two days apart, but we were more concerned about the wind. According to Harriet and Neil Pike, who uploaded the GPS track to the internet, the wind blows consistently from West to East (for us a headwind) and can be so strong that "if the wind decides you aren't going anywhere that day, you aren't going anywhere."
We knew that this was going to be a step up in difficulty for us, and we needed to be in good health to attempt it. We spent an extra five days in San Antonio de Los Cobres, riding out the tail end of our illness, and acclimatising to the altitude. The man whose guest-house we had been staying in was a soldier at the local army barracks, and he told us on arrival that he didn’t think we would be able to get through, that on the Chilean side of the pass there had been a snow-storm, which would mean meters of snow. He told me to check back in with him the day before we planned to leave, and he would call the checkpoint near the border for an update. On the afternoon before we left, he made the call, and was told that the Chilean army was clearing the snow with bull-dozers, and in all likeliness it would be clear before we got there.
We left the next morning.
Day one was an ordeal. We managed an early start, but from the word go the wind blasted us relentlessly from the front. There was no way to ride in each other's shadow, the dusty stoney track forcing us to move left and right in search of a good line.. It was the most exhausting riding on our trip so far, and after a couple of hours of stopping and starting to catch our breath, and with very few kilometres behind us, we took shelter behind an empty church.
We had a small lunch, trying to get in the mode of rationing our food sensibly, and pushed on.
Shortly afterwards we were hit by the first dust-cloud. We saw a wall of sand and dirt moving towards us, and instinctively turned our faces away from it. For the next few seconds we were pelted with sand and pebbles, feeling them bouncing off our jackets. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to give us a bit of a fright.
This was already significantly more difficult than anything yet, but bottling out would mean a detour of hundreds of kilometres, so we weren’t going to give in easily.
The road steepened, and the dust-clouds increased in frequency. The road began to climb up a narrow valley with steep slopes rising up to our left and right. I was starting to get headaches, sudden, short and strong, which I assumed were a mixture of dehydration, exhaustion and altitude. We needed to rest, but there was nowhere to hide from the wind. When a lonesome shrub appeared, about half a meter high and the same wide, Pia and cowered behind it.
I leaned backwards against it, and Pia leant on me, both of us facing back down the hill. I knew I didn’t have much energy left in me, and when the slope to our left opened up a few hundred meters further along, to show a track leading off to a nearby dwelling, I was more than relieved. The dwelling was locked and no-one was home, but the hills rising up around it offered some wind-protection. We squatted a vacant goat-pen made of piled up stones, which was protected on all sides. My headache was splitting by this point, which made me useless setting up camp. I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind roar outside, hammers working away at the inside of my skull, while Pia made us some food. I fell asleep worried that if my headache didn’t go away, we would have to head back to San Antonio de los Cobres the next day, defeated.
Much to my relief, the next morning my headache had gotten better. We ate porridge, packed our bikes and headed back out in to the wind. For the first kilometre or so things seemed to have calmed down since the day before, but as we we neared a series of hairpin turns leading up to the first pass on the journey, it picked up again. Within twenty minutes it had grown so strong, that it almost stopped us in our tracks.
The only thing we could do to make headway, was push our bikes, facing the floor, leaning in to the wind with all our weight like a reverse tug of war. Pia pushed in my wind-shadow, and in order to deal with the thin air, we found a rhythm of walking thirty steps, then stopping and counting sixty breaths, then we would walk another thirty steps. When I would see a dust-cloud coming I would shout “Brace!” And the pebbles would bounce off us like rain. The only respite came when we reached the first hairpin turn, and suddenly had the wind behind us for 100m. We could suddenly ride uphill without peddling. This was however short-lived, and we only had two or three stretches like this on the climb.
At four in the afternoon, we had covered just five kilometres. We reached a crest, which meant at least a couple of kilometres downhill. The turns in the road meant that we were able to cycle part of the way down, but when we would turn a corner back in to the wind, it would either stop us in our tracks or take control of our bicycles, pushing us towards the edge the road, and the steep mountain-side. When this would happen, the only thing to do was drop the bike to the ground., and start pushing again. We struggled on for another three kilometres, until we finally found the windbreak we had been hoping for, the ruin of an old stable, protecting us on three sides from the elements.
We put up the tent, and made some food. The temperature dropped fast, to depths we hadn’t experienced yet in South America, but we had our trusty -25°c comfort rating sleeping-bags with us, and slept well, not leaving the tent the next morning until the sun was on us.
The wind had calmed on our third day, and we began a spectacular climb to the first pass. We hadn’t really been able to reflect on the the landscape around us until now, because for the last couple of days life had been reduced to breathing and fighting the wind. We were suddenly aware of the new and epic landscape around us. Layer upon layer of rocky sandy mountains stretched to the horizon, a pallette of worn earthy colours, beautiful in their barren and arid simplicity.
We reached the pass at 4500m, the highest either of us had ever been on a bicycle, and rode across a vast sandy plain, lined by red and yellow hills and dotted with small salt lakes. This lead us into a gorge lined by steep stone walls, with a half frozen stream flowing down the middle, with exotic looking geese resting on its banks. As the gorge opened up on to another vast plain, the wind picked up anew. The riding was arduous, but we were able to stay on our bikes, and arrived just before sunset at the only village on our route, the small mining settlement of Olacapato.
We were surprised to find a little guesthouse, albeit a super basic one, who had a bed for us and were happy to cook us a warm meal. They even turned on the hot water for Pia to have a hot shower. It was that cold that we still needed our sleeping bags, but we definitely rested well. The next morning we were able to take with us some bread, tomatoes, and even cheese! Which was good because we had realised that our rations were going to be a bit meagre, and this top up would take the edge off.
For the next two days the headwind bore down on us. Not as bad as on the first two days, but enough to make all our riding a physical challenge. We made very early starts, forcing ourselves out of our sleeping-bags at dawn, to catch the lesser headwind, which would pick up at about 10 or 11. We rode across wide plains of sand and shrub, with packs of Vicunas crossing our path regularly. The shy creatures looked elegant, with their fine features and smooth yellow coat, which rendered them almost invisible against the dusty landscapes.
We road along a sandy road across the middle of the vast plateu we had been on since the last pass, until the track climbed a hill, and brought us out on a hillside overlooking the Salar del Rincon, a vast expanse of patchy red and brown Salt, lined by extinct volcanos, looking like giant red sand-dunes in the evening sun. We could see the small Australian run lithium-mine at it’s centre, off in the distance, of which the Miners at Olacapato had told us.
We camped that night next to the road, with no wind-break, but tied our tent to both bikes and pegged it using all the guy-lines. The wind eased up that evening and sleep was deep. The next day we battled from morning till mid-afternoon in a stronger wind. The beauty of the landscape forgotten again, as we struggled to stay on our bikes. Eventually a dot appeared on the horizon. It was the army/customs checkpoint manned by Argentinian and Chilean soldiers. It didn’t seem to get any bigger no matter how hard we peddled, but eventually it succumbed to the laws of physics, and we stood exhausted, as a chilean soldier confiscated our two last onions. We asked whether the snow had cleared, and were told the road was open.
There is a refuge at the checkpoint, but by the time I asked where it was, the Chilean soldier had already stamped our passports. This meant that we couldn’t stay, because the refuge is officially in Argentina. The Chilean customs officer argued hard-facedly with the Argentinian officer who was making a case for letting us stay, until we had to leave.
We headed off in to the wind, and began a long and arduous climb, drawing energy from the loathing we felt for the Chilean customs officer, who had just sent us packing in a desert at 4000m even though he had empty warm-beds. Pia and I began to argue, as my pep talking and her expressions of exhaustions deteriorated into bickering.
We set up the tent in a sense of delirium. We didn’t have a wind-break, and didn’t care. If the wind took us tonight, so be it. Once we were fed and in our sleeping bags the world seemed like a friendlier place, and the wind did not carry us away that night.
Early the next day, we crossed the actual physical border between Argentina and Chile. Shortly after the Welcome/Goodbye sign, the road steepened as we began our climb to the next pass. For some reason it all seemed particularly hard. It may have been that accumulation of days of over-exertion, the thinning of the air as we gained altitude, or the ever persistent wind, but the stretches of riding were short, and the breaks were not a matter of choice.
Colour seemed to disappear from the mountains around us. Black pyramid shaped mounds protruded from the valley floor. As we reached the top, orange colour returned in the form of hardy brush, and investigating a loud squeak coming from the rocks below, we found a group of Viscachas (a type of chinchilla) sun-bathing on the rocks. When the pass itself finally arrived, we were overcome with relief. Even though there would be more, and significant climbing to come, from here to the Atacama desert, we would descending more than we would be climbing.
The Chilean side of the route was actually even more impressive. Our epic decent on a road lined with walls of snow, pushed aside by the bulldozer that had cleared the path days before. As the land sloped down out of the mountains, panoramic views opened up mourned us, of barren steep hills half covered in snow, glistening lakes and rock sprinkled across the sand like stars. The mountains rose behind us as we descended, until we reached a stoney plain, and for the first time our journey, the same wind that had been torturing us for days, suddenly launched us towards our goal like a 125cc engine. It was invigorating to be flying through a new and wonderful landscape. We turned in by a beautiful grey lake, beneath rolling hills covered in patchy snow. It was magnificent, and set up our tent.
The next morning the track lead us past a vast salt lake. The solid salt surfaces and the turquoise water interwove like a messy yin-yang, making a beautiful pattern stretching to the distant red hills on the horizon, as a group of vicunas fed themselves on shrubs at the waters edge.
We were so impressed by the scenery, and adjusting to the idea of being almost there, that the last climb caught us completely by surprise. For hours we fought in first gear up a hill in to headwind, and neither of us could summon the necessary optimism to justify the trial we were putting ourselves through. We were ready for it to be over now.. Furthermore, we were running out of water. Luckily we had fuel left over, and before setting camp used our last strength to fill the water-sacks with snow. We set up the tent almost at the top, and melted the snow in the cooker to fill our water bottles. Pia cooked us dinner while I lay there, so exhausted I could not think.
I awoke on my thirty-fourth birthday to ab incredible panorama. A volcano bathed in golden light, standing majestically before a blue sky. The occasion gave me cause to reflect, and realise how happy I was to be having this unforgettable larger than life experience, living life to the fullest, and pushing my boundaries. I felt like this was exactly where I wanted to be on my thirty-fourth, and hoped that many of my future birthdays would find me in similar places.
After a short climb, the road sloped downwards, and not long after the tarmac appeared. Our energy was waning, and we rode slowly until the road suddenly dropped away down the mountain-side to the plains below, in an endless string of curves. We flew down the mountain, and rolled in to the chilean town of socaire having finished the last of our provisions that morning. Our minds were blown. We had just upped the anti on life. We at some lunch in a tavern, found a room, and bought some beers to celebrate.