BATTLING THE WINDS OF THE PASO SICO

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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 dilligently to sterilize any water that didn't come from a bottle, but that apparantly isn't much defence against the toxins that leak in to the rivers 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 apparantly no chance to resupply food, and water-sources being up to two days apart. We had enough capacity to deal with food and water, what we were more worried 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 we needed to be in good health to attempt this route, so 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.

We pedalled out of town on a sunny, windy morning.

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We managed an early start, but from the word go we were made painfully aware of what we were getting ourselves in to. The wind blasted us relentlessly. There was no way to ride in each other's shadow, because the sandy stoney track forced us to move left and right in search of a solid 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 ten seconds sand and pebbles bounced off us like rain.

Of all the obstacles we faced on our seven month journey across South America, the wind was the only thing that genuinely frightened Pia, and I could see the shock on her face after that first dust-cloud. Common sense overcame my stubborn resolve to push forward, and I told her that it would be fine with me if we turned back. After brief reflection she told me that she wanted to push on. She knew as well as I did, that retreating to follow the easier route accross the border on asphalt roads would mean a detour of hundreds of kilometers.

So on we rode.

The dust-clouds increased in frequency, as 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 I 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 hut, 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, 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 in a reverse tug of war with the elements. Pia pushed in my wind-shadow, and in order to deal with the scarce oxygen, we found a rhythm of pushing for thirty steps, then stopping and counting sixty breaths, then we would push for another thirty steps. When I would see a dust-cloud coming I would shout “Brace!” And we would stand firm until the pelting was over. The only respite came when we reached the first hairpin turn, and had the wind behind us for a hundred or so meters. 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.

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We reached a crest at the top of the hill at four in the afternoon, exhausted, and having covered just five kilometres. We now had some downhill in front of us, but the blasting was far from over. Some stretches of road were now hidden from the wind, which gave us some respite, but at any given corner, it would return with full force, take control of our bicycles, and push us towards the the steep drop to the valley floor below. When this would happen, the only thing to do was drop the bike to the ground and then 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.  

We awoke to a calm breeze, and began a spectacular climb to the first pass. We hadn’t really been able to reflect on the landscape around us until now, because life had been reduced to counting breaths and staying upright. We were suddenly aware of the epic beauty surrounding 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 climbed along a snake like road to the first pass at 4500m, where the valley opened up on to a vast sandy plain. Low red and yellow hills lined the horizon, as we rode on the flat passed small salt lakes. After an hour or so the hills closed in on both sides, leading us into a gorge lined by steep stone walls. A half-frozen stream meandered down its center with the occasional exotic looking goose resting on its banks. As the gorge opened up on to another vast plain, the wind picked up anew. The riding was arduous, but compared to the day before it was hardly worth mentioning. We arrived just before sunset at the only village on our route, the small mining settlement of Olacapato. 

It's funny when I think about it. The first two days of the journey were a relentless battle, pushing us to the limits of our endurance with almost no respite. While it was happening, we couldn't wait for it to be over, but with less than twenty-four hours seperating us from that humbling gale, the memmory was taking on a euphoric sheen. It was the most intense encounter with nature either of us had ever experienced, something the likes of which we only new from stories... and now here we were, seemingly the only two people in this incredible hidden landscape. It was exhilerating to contemplate. We rolled into Olacapato feeling like seasoned explorers, looking forward to the challenges ahead.

We were surprised to find a little guesthouse in the village, albeit a super basic one, who had a bed for us and were happy to cook us a warm meal. The building wasn't well insulated, so we slept in our sleeping bags, but we definitely rested well. The next morning we were able to take with us some bread, tomatoes, and even cheese! Knowing that we now had a surplus in our rations, we gorged on an epic brunch by the side of the sandy road. 

For that day and the next, the headwind bore down on us once again with greater intensity, and even though we could now stay on the bikes, every push of the pedals was a physical challenge. We made very early starts, forcing ourselves out of our sleeping-bags and into the forzen dawn, to catch the lesser headwind, which would pick up at about ten or eleven o'clock.

We continued along the vast dusty plateu we had been riding on since the pass, our solitude only occassionally broken only occassionally by packs of Vicunas crossing the road in the distance. The shy creatures looked elegant with their dainty features, their smooth yellow coats rendering them almost invisible against the desert backdrop.

Eventually the road began to climb again, and we found ourselves on a hillside overlooking the Salar del Rincon, a vast expanse of patchy red and brown salt. Extinct volcanos lined the horizon, looking like giant red sand-dunes in the evening sun. 

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With no wind-break to be found, we camped next to the road. We tied our tent to both bikes and pegged it using all the guy-lines. Luckily for us, when the sun dissappeared, so did the wind, and we slept a deep and undisturbed sleep.

By noon the following day the beauty of the landscape was once again forgotten, as we struggled to stay on our bikes in crecendoing headwind. Eventually a dot appeared on the horizon. It was the 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 looked on exhaustedly, as a chilean customs officer confiscated our two last onions.

There is a refuge at the checkpoint, but by the time I asked where it was, the Chilean officer had already stamped our passports. This meant that we couldn’t stay, because the refuge is officially in Argentina. The Argentinian officer tried to persuade the Chilean to make an exception, but he would not budge.

We headed off in to the wind, and began the long and arduous climb to the Paso Sico, 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. It had been an exhausting day. 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 though, the world seemed like a friendlier place again, and the wind did not carry us away that night.  

Early the next morning, we crossed the physical border between Argentina and Chile. Shortly after the Welcome/Goodbye sign, the road steepened. We climbed for two hours through a landscape of grey and black hills, reminiscent of the moon. Everything seemed particularly difficult. It may have been the 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 spent leaning limply against our overturned bicycles. We were beginning to feel significantly weaker than at the beginning of our journey, and our fatigue was making us oblivious to our epic surroundings.

As we reached the final meters leading up to the pass, the colour returned to landscape in the form of spikey orange bushes. We reached the top and let out a huge sigh of relief. From where we stood to the Atacama desert, we would be dropping 2000 meters in altitude.

Investigating a loud squeak coming from the rocks below, we found a group of Viscachas (a type of chinchilla) sun-bathing on the rocks.

 

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As the Andes dropped away in front of us, to the desert below, we were treated to panoramic views of barren steep hills half covered in snow, glistening lakes and boulders 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, 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, and set up our tent. It was magnificent.

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. We rolled up to the lake's edge to find as a pack of vicunas feeding.

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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 an 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, 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 that the tarmac appeared. Our energy was waning, and we pottered along until the road suddenly dropped away down the mountain-side to the plains below, in an endless string of hairpin turns. We flew down the mountain, and rolled in to the chilean town of Socaire. 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.

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