With so much time off the bikes we decided, in true fashion, to ease us ourselves back into things with the toughest route to date; 5 days bikepacking across the Andes from Chile to Argentina via a little used trekking route and two 4000m+ passes. Lovely.
Armed with minimal intel this was a classic tale of high adventure; limits were neared, a raging river almost claimed Sam’s bike, food supplies were exhausted and countless hours were spent carrying the bikes on our backs. The term ‘gluttons for punishment’ probably springs to mind, but amidst the suffering there was truly incredible scenery, cracking stretches of single-track and that unique sense of accomplishment that comes only from doing ‘something hard’…
Coffee and empanada; our last taste of civilisation before rolling out of San Gabriel and hitting the dirt
Past Laguna El Yeso a winding dirt road takes us up to 3000m
Chilly nighttime temperatures come as a bit of change from balmy Santiago
The following morning marks the start of the serious stuff; with the dirt road having petered out we’re left following vague trails up the valley side to the first pass, Paso Piuquenes.
Luring us in with some surprisingly rideable sections set amidst dramatic, multicoloured rock walls.
Before the slapping us in the face with this beast of an ascent up to the pass….
Seriously steep trails called for ‘bike on back’ mode to be adopted; basically like carrying a backpack, only infinitely more uncomfortable.
Quite a while later we made our exhausted, oxygen deprived arrival at the pass
Cresting passed can be like blind dating, you never really know what’s going to greet you on the other side, but fortunately this one turned out to be a stunner…
A slightly delayed 6pm lunch, was followed by a rip roaring descent
All brilliantly rideable, a race against the setting sun ensued to get low enough to camp
I’ve yet to see a cloud in Central Chile, which made for some stunning night skies…
Back on the bikes, for the most part it was rideable trails down the valley en route to the next pass
Not bad at all
Shredded SPD shoes, probably not everyone’s footwear of choice for bikepacking escapades
The River Episode: By late morning we’d arrived at a river, one of many we’d already crossed, but this one proved to be a little trickier… A seriously fast flowing torrent which made it all but impossible to stand upright in. We’d read about a challenging crossing, but given that all those who’d gone before us had been on horseback things were a little easier for them. This was not looking good. Hours spent exploring upstream and downstream in search of a safer crossing point proved fruitless; we were either going to have to give it a try or turn back, both pretty unappealing propositions. Having satisfied myself that was possible to cross without any gear, although this was a pretty hairy exercise in itself, we decided to try it with the bikes. Sam went first, but things didn’t go particularly smoothly; shortly after taking the shot below he reached the deeper, faster section and lost control of the bike, resulting in both of us wrestling to stop it from being dragged downstream. A near miss and it was now painfully clear we weren’t getting across on our own. Having not seen a soul since leaving the road things looked bleak, but by late afternoon we spotted two men with horses coming down the valleyside in the distance. Realising this miracle signalled our way out, I splashed across the river and bounded in their general direction like a castaway who’s just spotted a boat. Given the less than ideal negotiating position I was in, the haggling went surprisingly well and before long the cavalry had arrived, loading our bikes onto the poor horse. An absolute stoke of luck and despite losing the best part of day we were soon safely over the side counting our lucky stars. Another tale for the grandkids…
Now a whole day behind schedule, an early start was called for the following day to make it over the final pass; Portillo Argentino 4350ish m.
1500m of ascending lay ahead of us and as feared it was a total bitch. Stunning scenery though…
By late afternoon the pass was in sight but we were so fatigued from carrying the bikes for so long we couldn’t muster the energy to continue. A demoralising blow, made worse by the fact we were now at 4000m, well above any water sources and food was running desperately low.
There was nothing for it but to pitch the tents, conserve what little food and water we had left and get some rest.
Having burnt god knows how many calories that day, this humble burrito was all we could muster for dinner. Rationing was now very much in place.
Communicating mostly in nods, grunts and shrugs, we packed up the next morning, summoned what little strength we had left and made our final push to the top.
A definite ‘love hate’ experience, alternating between desperate moments and ones of complete awe. Physically we were on the edge, but really this, like most things in life, was all a mind game.
Sam taking advantage of a cheeky little descent…
…before the final steep slog up to the top. Finally we’d broken the back of this thing (fortunately before breaking our own).
All that now remained was a blinding dirt road descent down the other side to the bemused Argentinian border guard.
The Beast; shaken but not stirred
Reaching the tiny village of El Manzano, we proceeded to raid the small convenience store, emerging with a mountain of Salami and cheese. Not quite the juicy Argentinian steak I’d been dreaming of, but a fitting feast nonetheless…
Route info to follow in case anyone else is daft enough to take it on…
Absolutely spectacular. You continue to amaze me in your ability to find increasingly ridiculous routes.
Thanks Dominic, I’ll admit this one was a little ridiculous…
Blinding all round. Good to hear of your latest adventures.
Cheers Hannah, catch you in the summer!
Love the photography, commentary & philosophy. Keep strong, my friend.
Thanks Max, hope all’s well
Haha, another few months on the road and you’ll be doing the same thing tom!
my friends and I tried to cross that Pass, but I got sick of of mountain sickness, so we look for an easierpass, 250 km south
Hi Pablo, thanks for the message, I’ve had altitude sickness in the past, I know how bad it can be, it sounds like you made the right decision, although probably difficult at the time having done all that work..!
The bomb. Love it. shared it.
Hi Paul, i dont speak spanish but i want to say you contratulations!
I live in argentina and in 2014 i do the travel Tunuyan – San Gabriel in bike like you.
you can see the photos in this link http://www.btt.com.ar/nota/610/610268.shtml
Hola Martin, gracias por el mensaje, yo no sabia que otras personas lo han hecho en bici, buen trabajo! Una ruta muy dificil…! Suerte, Paul
Looks awesome, made even more epic by your setup. How do you find having a backpack? I’ve managed to pack everything except food and cooking kit as a bikepacking setup and deciding what to do with my panniers. Was considering keeping just the two small ones on the back rack to avoid having a backpack.
Hey nick, the backpack is a lightweight foldaway affair that only really comes out for bikepacking forays, normally it’s stashed away as it’s not particularly comfy and I’m not a fan of ‘sweaty back’… The large fork leg bags really in squeezing everything onto the bike, as well as the large rear bag obviously. By the time you get to huaraz we’ll have you off panniers…! Cheers
Glad to see that you finished the crossing OK. I am the guy that was coming down with a friend in the opposite direction…but with a lot less gear. Well done!
Hey llan, great to hear from you, we made it but it wasn´t easy! Hope all´s well
Pingback: More Criss Crossing: Paso Copahue | THE RIDE SOUTH·
Wow, awesome, you guys crossed over the paso de los piuquenes and the portillo argentino! We crossed the cordillera that way in january. A love/hate- affair with the puna. I suspect you had the same. Absolutely stunning but incredibly tough route! (i’ll send you the link to our post if you feel like seeing it thorugh somebody elses lens again.) 😉
Well done! (felicidades, as the would say down there!)
Hey Robin, great to hear of some other nutters who crossed that way! I’ll check out your site now. Safe travels, Paul
Amazing, what an epic adventure!
I would really like to do this cycle route.
Hey Paul! Just FB messaged you about this route but just in case you only see this: How do you think it’d go doing this route backwards and solo? I’m in Mendoza right now and needing to cross to santiago… would much rather cross on dirt… But looks like a ton of hikeabike…