Sadly I said goodbye to Toby and closed the page on the chapter of a lifetime. I limped out of town in the late afternoon with a filthy sore throat, coughing up green phlegm. I had a thermos of ginger and lemon tea, two heads of garlic and soon, the clean crisp air of the mountains which I hoped would do the job. Somehow my bike managed to look more heavily loaded than both of the 16+ day Puna stretches, great timing, for before me lay a monster 2200m climb. Knees buckled and steering stiffened. A tailwind launched me to a sunset camp under Volcan Lairecabur, scratching castle walls of Bolivia.
Back at altitude it seemed that I’d retained some of my earnings from the Puna, although not as much as I’d liked. After lots of breaks and countless map checks, I arrived at the Chilean border at 4600m. The officials didn’t like my absence of a vehicle declaration. I tried to explain that the last 3 passes I’d taken had only been for walkers or bikes, no internet, no fancy machines to print out beurocratical toilet paper, but the man didn’t seem to understand. Neither did I. My Spanish, still appalling. Here’s a photo of me 7 months ago on Ushuaia, hopefully it will do. Ushuaia is in Argentina! Alright mate, ease up. I had my stamp and just wanted to embrace this sweet downhill into Bolivia. Suddenly, as if the wind changed direction, the commanding officer loosened his reigns, magically I was free to go.
The Bolivian officials were a little more laid back, although after begging and pleeding for a three month visa, they only gave me one. Apparently I could renew it in Uyuni, two or three weeks away. Leaving the office, I was hit by a wall of silence. One that would last most of the next week. Looking beyond I saw nothing, and no one but the mountains, long dusty tyre tracks and the occasional group of vicuña.
My tyres sank into the soft sand and the corrugations rattled my brain apart. I forgot how long riding in sand takes. In the distance I could see an old mine, 3km ahead, but the setting sun and the shadow of the mountains already cast their chill. Retreating to the depths of my tent, Bolivia defined its own cold. Everything in my tent froze, everything outside the tent froze faster. Thankfully, after my fair share of colder nights, I’d learned to pay attention to where the rising sun would wake. The difference between waking in a sauna or a freezer.
I passed an old abandoned military base with some very strange domes filled with patriotic artistic displays. The stench from the sulfur mine wafted over and I wafted past. The only water source tainted, destroyed, lifeless. Buildings, unoccupied, crumbling back to the earth. The irony of myself looking for beauty and remoteness, riding old mining trails, once made purely for profiting from the exploitation of natural resources.
I rode a little but pushed most of the way up the mornings 4850m pass, thankful for the mellow gradient. After a nice downhill I arrived at the beautiful, salty shore of Laguna Chalviri & Laguna Salada, which seem to have both moulded into one beautiful salaar lake expanse. Riding, now at a speedy 10km an hour I made quick ground to a small stream. Vicuñas, birds and rabbits with huge tails jumped over the rocks as I prepared dinner under the fading light of the afternoon. Complementing the wind, they were the only sounds I’d heard all day.
First light did wonders to my tent again. It was a cold night, the nearby stream had frozen over, cracking as the hours of early light apologised for its absence. Three jeeps passed, all going uncomfortably fast. An hour of riding revealed the tourist attraction, an abandoned salt mine on the banks of Laguna Kollpa. Resting the bike and looking beyond, there were at least 1000 flamingoes, dotting the blue laguna pink and white. I explored the old intriguing abandoned buildings, 120 curious eyes, of the vicuñas watched my every move, while the flamingoes took no notice.
Up a hill and past a lifeless Laguna I went, before veering off the “main road” towards the now visible, snow capped Volcan Uturuncu, 20km as the crow flies, standing at an impressive 6008m. My acclimatisation hadn’t all remained, so now in the undulating valley only a kilometre of riding at a time was sustainable. It was nice to stop and look back every once in a while and ponder how time had created such dramatic geological formations. I was so amazed that I decided to browse the satellite images of the area whilst catching my breath. The mesmerising mountains of orange, red, yellow, brown, white and black, contrasting the yellow, greens and blues of the sporadic vegas bursting out of ancient chasms. Rain didn’t fall here often. But you could see the Amazon basin only a few hundred kilometres away, the birthplace of the clouds and floating rivers, where it did.
After pushing up three 4750m passes that were absolutely rideable, I was pretty beat. I was looking for any excuse to call it a day. Rolling down a nice rocky road that threatened to rip my tyres apart. I found a nice little wind protected nook where the fortified fragile walls of ancient cushion pants captured the last of the days light. Chance would have it, out my window, a perfect view of Uturuncu, while the steam lifted the lid of my pot.
The following morning I found a beautiful spring magically surfacing from a few smaller mounds. The first water source I genuinely trusted in 3 days. Crystal clear, Fish and algae filled the ponds, vicuñas and birds even stopped by. Time slipped away so I decided to rest the day. I would need all the energy I could muster if I still planned to summit Uturuncu.
Making my way up to my Uturuncu basecamp, I crossed an almost frozen river and found a rocky outcrop to dump unnecessary gear and food. Shaving about 7kg made the days pushing and riding much easier. A motorbike passed as I stashed the gear, but I don’t think he saw me as his brain rattled with the corrugations. Instead, the onlookers seemed to be a herd of 50 beautifully decorated, curious llamas. The first I’d ever seen. Points pinned on my map indicated a satellite image trail, zig zagging up a mountain pass, intersecting the world’s highest road. Most people approach this road from a small town in the north, I however, was coming from the south. It would save a pointless 20km of riding and another 600m elevation gain.
Sure enough, some ancient double track scarred the landscape, a beautiful trail where nature had started its reoccupation, throwing up mounds of spike grass and stone fields, where tyre tracks were none. Switch backs made their way to the top, where a straight trail connected with the junction of the old mining road. Originally this road was used for sulphur mining, reaching the lofty altitude of 5800m, only 208m shy of the summit of Uturuncu. Now days, it’s a tourist attraction for people wanting to “climb” a 6000m+ mountain, after being dropped at roughly 5700m by 4wd.
With nowhere to hide from the wind, I made a rock wall and pitched up at 4800m. It was a cold night, I slept in most of my clothes and rain gear, a good sign it was probably close to -10C. I did sleep though. I slept well, a sign that my body is adapting. Waking for the sunrise, a total of 5 Landcruisers passed whilst sipping my morning tea. Some stopping to inspect the strange tent nestled on the side of the mountain.
A small rock crevice was jammed with anything I didn’t need, before proceeding to ride/push 10km over 3 hours to the top. Even with an unloaded bike, I’m lead to believe that it’d be impossible to ride all the way to the top. The thin air, steeper sections and rocky surfaces hit me for six even being at altitude for the past month. The views beyond this mountain, spectacular. Unique colours, wafts of snow in the distance, ranges that extend beyond the eyes squintiest reach, and a single thin gravel scar leading back to civilisation.
Although beautiful, I was at a cracking point. The most cracked, cracking point of the journey. I was exhausted, everything hurt, and the looming grey clouds didn’t help. It was cold and I was wrapped up in the most layers I’d ever ridden in, a wind jacket, mid layer, thermal top, and gloves. Still, after hours of physical exertion I didn’t sweat. I was cold.
The emotional rollercoaster wanted me to take the easy route down. The deeper desires of my spirit and soul reminded me what i’d been through to get here. The hours of riding, the hours of pushing and most importantly, the diminished cookie rations for the sake of a summit attempt.
I breathed a deep breath and a couple hundred more, before lugging my way to narrow shelf where the 4wds parked up at 5650m. Their journey to the top, interrupted by a small ice-field.
One Bolivian man wound down his window and asked if everything was okay. With a big smile he asked about the trip, excitement in his eyes. Although a trivial conversation, ladden with warnings of cold and wind, his infectious smile shattered any doubts. The 5 tourists in the car with their cameras and open mouths did similar things. Far from the comforts of the tourist trail, to them, I was an absolute lunatic. A lunatic, with boogers on my gloves, dirt on my face, and a cheek ripping smile. A lunatic, who if he thought about it for a few minutes, didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Devouring biscuits and a lukewarm coca tea, I watched the 4wds crawl their way down the mountain like little ants. The wind picked up, I soon realised why they arrived so early in the morning. The bike was left at 5800m, the new highpoint of our relationship. Alone, with my thoughts we proceeded to hobble up the final 200m to the summit. Intoxicated by the thin air, breathing and foot work required rhythmic coordination. The easiest 6000m mountain in the books, undeniably still a challenge.
The wind was the most brutal I’d ever felt. It ate through every layer, anything uncovered went numb. Stopping multiple times to catch my breath, I devoured countless biscuits. I’d done things that’d tested myself before, but at the time Uturuncu seemed to take the crown.
Upon reaching the pillars of rock near the top, my progress revealed 200m to go. Turning back almost took precedence as the cold crippling wind launched out of a 300m ice quarter pipe into my face. Clouds would soon engulf the mountain. All I could think about was turning around, until the spectacular views to the east, and the small rock bivvy wall at the top came into view. Like a clingy hopeless lover, I needed to be there. Stumbling over a small ice-field with a renewed sense of purpose, I found a gravel trail to the top.
The wind didn’t stop for my arrival. Instead it seemed to speed up, clouds passed above like speeding cars. I studied the landscape beyond for as long as physically possible, before cowering behind the small rock wall, looking to the east at more snow capped peaks, wondering where my next 7 days would take me. I thought about my family and everything in life that matters. These arduous days, seem to do a good job of putting things into perspective.
My summit time expired as a grey monolyth, talons of white beckoned nearer. A quick sliding lead me down to the safety of thicker thin air, where my iron horse stood, proudly perched aside the mountain. It was the highest bicycle on planet earth. A mechanical marvel, a freedom machine, nurturing the ultimate capacity for ultimate adventure and personal growth.
The clouds of doubt left my mind, now engulfing the summit of Uturuncu. Like a small ant, I too made my way down the scar of the ant mound, kicking up dust and leaving behind only a thin tyre trail. Silence, only interrupted by the wind and a rattling chain. The sun warmed my face, and the cheek ripping smile returned again. A few hard hours forging memories, that’d last infinitely longer.