With the stresses of our lengthy stop off in Santiago behind us we left the amazingly kind and extended hospitality of John and Mitzi Bell to slip back into our cycling and camping routine.
We were not however eased back in lightly to our days in the saddle. Before us lay one of the biggest physical challenges that we would surely encounter on the trip as a whole, not to say our lives! The Cristo Redentor pass bridges the Argentinian – Chilean border scaling 4000m of vertical ascent up and over the backbone of the Andes. Famed as one of the hardest cycling ascents in the world (By Red Bull see: http://www.redbull.com/en/adventure/stories/1331662831219/the-world-s-hardest-cycle-climbs), covering over 80 individual ‘switch backs’, an average slope of 10%, poor road quality in the upper stages and incredibly intimidating vertical drops, we were rather apprehensive of the 2 and a half days of solid uphill struggle that lay before us! The initial
gradual climb from Los Andes up to 2,200m provided a huge test as temperatures exceeding 40 degrees caused intense sweating and dehydration, made worse by the lack of apparent wind caused by a relentless slow speed. Fighting off armies of horse flies we pitched camp after a long day on the bike at the very bottom of the first set of switchbacks. Towering above us and disappearing into the clouds towards snow caped peaks the next part of the ascent looked formidable to say the least. An early start, fuelled up on a breakfast of stale bread and butter (fit for champions), we wished each other luck, got into our lowest gears and started turning those legs.
The Chilean road maintenance chaps had numbered each individual corner of the winding road, every time providing a painful reminder of how slow progress was and how many we had to push our laden selves up. On Corner 12 there had been a very severe accident shortly before our arrival where a cement lorry travelling in convoy had misjudged the turn and careered off the edge of the slope. Fairly shaken by what was a brutal crash site we crawled past the resultant queues of traffic with yet another reminder of the dangers on the roads. With such extreme climbing we had very little time to adjust to the effects of the high, and rapidly rising altitudes. It wasn’t long before the thinness of the air and dropping temperatures became added difficulties to contend with.
Roughly halfway through the upper ascent we made it to the tunnel that passes through the rest of the pass at 3105m. Cyclists not being allowed to use the tunnel, and not wanting to leave a job half done, we had a short rest to prepare ourselves for the much less used ripio mountain road to the top. With some 60 odd switchbacks still to count we continued the ascent up an even steeper and unpaved zigzag. With ever thinning air we kept pedalling, our progress slowing with each small rise in altitude. The relief and sense of achievement at the top was something very special and that we will all remember for many years to come. After a quick wave at the Christ the Redeemer statue, erected to symbolise the peace made between Argentina and Chile, we headed on our way welcoming the fact that gravity was now on our side!
Of course, in true Upping the Andes style, the descent was far from an easy cruise. Very poor road quality made the first section a real struggle on the hands and shoulders, and kept our pace down. Thereafter however, we had a beautiful ride down amazing rocky valleys all the way to Uspallata, though once again we were thwarted by the wind which on this occasion
unfortunately funnelled up the valley. Foiled by bad light, a very tired team, unable to think particularly straight camped in the very nice grounds of the local Gendarmeria. The next day saw the team power the remaining 175kms down against the wind to Mendoza. It is a measure of how far our fitness has come that we were able to do the longest day by mileage of our trip so far the day after such an epic climb.
In some contrast from the barren Andes we arrived in the spiritual home of Argentinian steak and wine with the one goal of finding the famous 800-gram ‘Baby Beef’ steak from St. Buque. Rolling into the Plaza Independencia, large swarms of people made it clear that something was going on. It turns out that we had crashed the National Grape Harvest Festival, complete with the annual Miss Argentina parade. Trying to enjoy our beautiful, tender, succulent, bleeding, wonderful, incredible, amazeballs steaky-steak, Miss Argentina herself was led off her float metres from our street-side table to be inundated by the local paps. Having said that, this Cheryl Cole lookalike was a sight for sore eyes and we couldn’t help ourselves from cornering the poor girl for a photo. After a night in a grim hostel but fed on some serious protein and a well-deserved glass of local Malbec, we made the decision to forego the planned rest-day in Mendoza having delayed in Santiago. So after the toughest physical challenge of our lives we now faced the 10-day cycle to Salta.
The last two and half weeks have really put our adaptability and stamina to the test! The ten-day stint between Mendoza and Salta could not have been more of a contrast to the Cristo Redentor pass. Skirting around the Atacama Desert has meant literally blistering heat which rises throughout the day to well over 40 degrees and frequently gives way to violent thunderstorms. One such night saw the team racing to take shelter in a public outdoor barbequing building. Thinking we were safe-ish from the elements we quickly got our tents up, only for the torrential rain to flood the floor even despite our heath-robinson efforts to dam the incoming water! Having put up with a set of particularly loud local children revved-up on fizzy drinks by their drunk parents, Tom found himself in the rather awkward and fairly farcical situation of being awoken by said parents ‘dogging’ in their car rather close by and having to tell them, in no uncertain terms, to finally leave us alone! We woke the next day recovering from a fairly graphic insight into the sexual nature of very provincial Argentinians.
Fairly scarred by the whole debacle, we made a quick exit early the next morning heading north on what can only be described as ‘mind-numbingly’ long and straight roads that disappear well over the horizon. The physical challenge we had set ourselves quickly became surpassed by a psychological one (trying to keep your mind off sore bums, back, hands etc… very hard). We had heard about the beauty of northern Argentina as far south as the Carretera Austral, and it hasn’t disappointed. The lack of civilisation and therefore short availability of food and water, though making life tougher for us by adding excess weight to our load, was so worth it! Rolling with the wind at your back through a desert with the sun setting over distant hills was certainly a highlight of the trip so far.
As we neared Salta the landscape began to change incredibly quickly. Desert gave way to fertile valleys carpeted with vines around Cafayate which in turn changed to stormy mountains and amazingly steep Martian valleys with incredible dark red rock formations. Mendoza, La Rioja, and Cafayate all remain firmly on our list of ‘things we have to come back for’.
Our tight schedule which has seen us average between 120 - 130kms per day for the last two weeks, and stretches of up to 100kms without so much as a bus-stop, has meant camping in some quite exposed places. The constant warnings of locals as to the dangers of the road has therefore come as a surprise considering the kindness we have experienced from so many. One such example of Argentinian kindness was in Aimogasta where we were chased and hailed down in the dark by one of the kindest families we will meet on the trip. Stranded, and tired with little prospects of a comfy camping spot, a 10 year old boy (Carlito) and his father (Marcelo) provided us with a place to camp with running water, and a nice warm meal.
The steaming heat, terrifyingly straight roads, return of strong winds, and the relentless distance over two weeks has been incredibly tough. Run-down immune systems have led to a few days of illness and frequent road-side stops that we will be quick to forget. Similarly, arriving late into unknown towns has not always been simple. In Belen, the team split into pairs to make best use time. Physical and mental fatigue upset the decision making process somewhere and a mix-up ended up with Archie and Toby sitting in the central plaza in a power cut whilst Guthrie and Tom were in a campsite, both pairs considering when to call the police or the nearest hospital.
Our noble steeds (Paula, Guinevere, Maria, and Shirley the Surly) have had a tough time of it too! Carrying everything but the kitchen sink and coconut cloppers has taken it’s toll on the Ridgebacks’ wheels and so our first port of call in Salta was the bicicleteria to change three cracked rims and water-damaged lights. So we’ve been enjoying a much needed single day off the bike with a cerveza in hand and a bed to rest our heads. Getting the maps out to survey the
rest of our route has been a stark reminder of the distance left to cover and the dangers and hardships that lie ahead, but it has also got us excited again to take on the altitude of Bolivia, the roads-less-travelled in mountainous Peru, and the exotic, colourful Ecuador and Colombia. Over the next week we will be making the ascent onto the Bolivian Altiplano reaching heights of over 4600 metres in Potosi. It is hard to mentally prepare oneself for so many unknown quantities, but what we can be sure of is a serious amount of climbing and shortness of breath. One can’t help but feel that two months of calve-sculpting has all been in preparation for this, but this is where we earn the UTA name, and forge our bold path firmly into the history books of cycle-touring.
‘Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.’ Bethany Hamilton.
As ever – massive, massive thanks to everyone who has donated – without wanting to sound like a stuck record, it does always give us a huge lift to get back on the back and keep going when the scale of the task ahead seems too overwhelming. Donations can be made online right here on our website, or directly through Virgin Money Giving (you have to type in one of the team members’ names not Upping the Andes!!). Equally cheques can be made out either to Upping the Andes or to one of the charities and sent to Manor Hall, Moulton St. Mary, Norwich, Norfolk, NR13 3NW. Of course, if you have any questions regarding the challenge or how to donate, please don’t hesitate to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the best and huge loving from us all. We will be in touch soon. x x x x
We just wanted to take this opportunity to say a massive thanks to one of our sponsors Ruta 40. Ruta 40 is the leading purveyor of Argentinian boutique wine in the UK all sourced from small, independent bodegas. Ruta 40 has spent more than 10,000 kilometres on the road in Argentina with the aim of unearthing the best producers the country has to offer. In the end they whittled it down to 12 carefully selected family owned boutique wineries producing a total of 77 different wines.
For all you wine lovers, check out there website at: http://www.ruta40.com