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Posts tagged ‘difficulty’

Lonely Road

When_we_look at a map it is natural to see the highlights.  Bigger cities get bigger names on the page.  Country borders rise up to delineate an otherwise unbroken horizon.  To see great cities by bicycle and to check another country off of our list is a tremendous thrill.  Yet often the best riding in life is unexpected, and the most exciting roads are those that have no names and no signs and few people.  Just a few days from Chile in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, we set out on some lonely roads to Lago Salinas and beyond.  It felt like a ride around another world.

Climbing away from Arequipa, Volcano Misti in the background

Looking back at our road through the clouds

Dreamscapes

We found respite from the hail and rain in this tunnel.

Lakeside exhaustion

We climbed from the moment we left Arequipa and didn’t stop till we found winter.  Starting in the hot sun at 7600 ft, we climbed a grueling dirt road for a day and a half until we arrived at Lago Salinas, a mountain-stream-fed lagoon in an eternally frigid, windy, Peruvian drizzle that can only be found above 13,500 ft.  The road was deserted and alternatively bumpy, sandy, muddy, or inundated with water at the top.  We were hungry and under-prepared.  We arrived to a small cluster of buildings on the southeast corner of the lake, a small pueblito known as Moche before nightfall.  There was a single small tienda run out of the front room of a woman’s home.  No simple restaurant or hostel existed, and the prospect of tenting in rain and sub-freezing temperatures was disheartening.  I had had one of the worst days of my life on the bike, bonking in the cold and struggling to turn the pedals over for the last few hours of the ride.  We begged for the storeowner’s help, and in short time we had a place to stay in the spare room of her friend’s home, as well as hot plates of rice, eggs, and potatoes.

Mountain sunset from Moche

Our ribbon of road over the tundra

Snow blanketed our path over this 15,000 ft. pass

Thick mud and a lake of water forced us up and around the adjacent hill in this section.

Patching a pinch flat on the descent from Lago Salinas - moss covered rocks for seating

We hardly slept due to altitude sickness.  Piercing headaches kept us up unwillingly while we craved the sleep we needed to recover and heal from the past day of riding.  We were in the middle of nowhere, and despite our tremendous blessings and good fortune, we felt very alone and somewhat daunted.  The next morning we woke to snow.  Pressing on that next day we took the old road south of the lake, determined to descend out of the high altitude Peruvian winter we had stumbled upon at Lago Salinas.  “Road” is such a strong word sometimes.  Perhaps “trail” or “pathetic vestige of mistaken vehicular activity” would have been more appropriate on this occasion.  We struggled to climb the sandy path that slowed our wheels to walking pace.  At times the road would simply disappear or become submerged under a lake or stream.  This gave us the rather fun opportunity to simply ride out into the tundra-like snow and rock fields at nearly 15,000 feet of elevation and make our own trail.  We are confident that vehicles do not pass that way for days at a time.  It’s entirely likely that if the rain and snow were to stop, our tire tracks would be there waiting for the next set of bicycle adventurers to find.

Climbing once again, from Puquina this time

Terraced fields covered the valley floors and walls near Puquina; years of incredible physical labor were visible here.

Cliffside roads became the norm.

So did sweeping descents.

And sand.

It’s tremendously humbling to struggle all day against slow, sandy roads and steep climbs and only manage a walking-pace accomplishment of fifty kilometers.  It can be disheartening to ride through empty places with no towns or tiendas to buy a simple Coke and sit in the shade to rest.  These lonely places don’t have names or even the recognition of existence on Google Maps.  This is flyover country, the space between where travelers find themselves and where they’d like to be.  We relish that solitude, the intoxicating sense that we might be one of the few people to ride a bike here, ever.  And though we might only see a handful of people, our interactions with them are that much more meaningful.  Simply seeing another face on these roads is reassuring; for the Peruvians who see gringos riding these terrible, random, Andean dirt roads…we must be terribly peculiar.  We descended goat paths out of the wintry mountains and after braving some tooth-rattling descents into the desert valleys below, began our many sandy, steep mountain passes on the road to Moquegua.  We ran out of water and discovered that in over a hundred kilometers of consecutive 4000+ meter passes, there are no towns and we were lucky to see three vehicles…and even more lucky when those vehicles donated their half-consumed bottles of Inca-Kola and bags of bread to us so we could survive.

Down to the desert canyon

Roadside donations.

Climbing out of the canyon

Looking back at our road on the canyon floor.

Late afternoon shadows.

No water or food meant a hitch with a couple guys and their fruit truck to the nearest town.

Now we leave Peru and all its goodness behind us.  As you read this, we’ll be setting our tires on Chilean soil for the first time.  The finish in Ushuaia has never seemed closer.  Yet for all of the highlights ahead and behind us, our minds still flock to the solitude of the empty, unremarkable, and yet still extraordinary worlds we are privileged to explore by bicycle.

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Cañón del Pato

Every_so_often, Bound South embraces its wild side.  We leave the ease and surety of pavement for the uncertainty and doubt that coincides with the road less traveled.  When we do, we get lost, fall off of our bikes, and endure steep climbs and rotten roads.  Adventure is always available in the Andes.  Leaving Trujillo and the north coast of Peru, we surrounded ourselves with it, wall to wall.

Oatmeal on the plain

Winding our way to the Santa River

Cañón del Pato, translated “Duck Canyon”, is the product of two Andean ridges in Peru, the Cordillera Negra (Black Range) without snow to the west and the Cordillera Blanca (White Range) with snow to the east.  The valley between contains the Santa River, which winds its way to the coast through the canyon.  These two ridges parallel each other from Huaraz to Caraz, where they converge to form the canyon.  Near the canyon’s narrowest gap, a mere six meters across with walls rising up to Cordilleras’ crests, the raging waters of the Santa River power the turbines of a Duke Energy hydro electricity plant.  The Cordillera Blanca consists of hundreds of glaciers, lagoons, and hot springs.  Eight of its peaks rest over 6000 meters, with its highest, Huascarán Sur, sitting at 6768 meters.  Its nature is colossal which gives reason for the canyon’s grandeur.

Part of the hydro electricity plant

The beginnings of the canyon

Incredible rock formations were common on each canyon wall.

Even more impressive is the road that winds its way through the canyon.  Carved into the cliff walls, at times hundreds of meters above the river through tunnels and under overhangs, the road climbs gradually from barren desert at sea level to green mountain valleys above 3000 meters.  Beautiful, yes.  Easy, no.  To this day, the inverse rule has held true.  Established in Alaska, the rule reads: “The difficulty of the ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.”

Rocky road

Mud and water substituted rock in some sections.

Isaiah in action

And challenging it was.  Mango-sized stones and mud holes covered the single-lane canyon road.  Dust coated our sweaty skin as drivers passed by.  Shade was in short supply.  Simply pedaling wasn’t easy; maintaining contact with each pedal over the bed of rocks was an unexpected challenge. It wasn’t the grade of the road that slowed our pace to 80 kilometers a day; it was exhaustion from riding through a bone-jarring sea of loose rock day after day in the heat.  The conditions were tough.  A different approach to riding was absolutely necessary.

Canyon walls of contrast

Switchbacks led us away from the canyon momentarily

Goliath, equipped with fat and knobby Kenda tires, was put to the test on this road.

Three in a row

Each watt of energy we apply to our pedals is work.  Slick tires and smooth surfaces allow us to easily build speed and maintain momentum.  On rough roads like the one described above, however, each rock or imperfection resembles a hill we must climb, which significantly slows our progress.  Pedaling from Alaska to Argentina isn’t easy.  I sometimes wish that there was only one  mountain pass between Alaska and Argentina (unfortunately, the road south of the equator does not gradually descend to Tierra del Fuego) or that it could be done with a single pedal-stroke.  These are impossible, though; I know that.

Tunnels were a great place to sing.

At the heart of Duck Canyon

We were all exhausted after this day

Spilled fuel meant no cooking for a few days.

And I know the realities of the road.  Challenges and pitfalls are everywhere.  Jagged rocks will puncture your tires and give you a sore butt.  Caps will come loose leaving you with no cooking fuel.  Tunnel darkness will surround you.  The road isn’t perfect.  Yet I have learned to embrace all that shapes this experience – both the discomforts and joys – and ride with purpose knowing that what we ride for is good and just.

Mango celebrations were to be had after reaching pavement once again.

The snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in sight.