Powerfully Attractive Projects
I invite you to follow me on an adventure through South America: to the summit of its highest mountain and its loftiest active volcano, across the world's driest desert, the largest salt flat on Earth, and a luxuriant tropical rainforest—all by human muscle power. The theme of the four-month expedition is to minimize motor vehicle transport when in remarkable terrain, but using it to pass less interesting stretches.
Exhilarating freedom emerges from extreme independence. In these travels, there will be no guides, no porters, no mechanics, sponsors, doctors, translators, sociologists, photographers, reporters, navigators or scientists, for I assume all these roles. There wouldn't be much encouragement from friends or family back home either. In fact, they would be terribly worried about me. Independence also translates to a much lower financial expense, making this expedition, its preparations and subsequent assimilation possible without the distraction of having a job to pay for all this. I'd been saving and sacrificing for years for this freedom.
The expedition route started taking shape in 1990, when browsing though the world atlas and finding out that the highest peak in the Americas is in Argentina, on the border of San Juan and Mendoza provinces. I didn't even know how to pronounce the name of this 6960-meter peak, when I asked Peter Gernassinig at his "Base Camp" store for a guide book to A-CON-ca-gua. He was at a loss to produce this guide to A-con-CA-gua, as were all the mountain specialty stores I could think of, including the Colorado mail-order mountain book suppliers. This denial of information created a teasing aura of mystery.
I needed some serious mountaineering training before I could tackle the beast, so I hired experienced climber Geoff Creighton for training covering rope, ice climbing, crevasse rescue, self-arrest, and high-altitude mountaineering.
With only New England summits and Mount Elbert, Colorado (4399m) in my bag, I went back to the atlas to choose an intermediate goal both in altitude and distance from home: Citlaltépetl (or Pico de Orizaba) (5700m), Mexico. In 1991, that is where I put all my theories to the test: that it is possible to climb a high mountain from sea level to summit by hauling all the gear by bicycle to the mountain, then climb solo without a trail, camp at 5650 meters, and experience less suffering than your typical "organized expedition group" demands. The only thing that is not possible, is to meditate deeply trying to have an out-of-body experience because my mind kept intruding thoughts of barbecue potato chips! It was a withdrawal symptom. The magnificent Citlaltépetl volcano also fueled my passion for masterpieces of mineral splendor, with its grand and exquisite multi-hued crater.
In 1992, the information for Aconcagua came in bits and pieces after extensive research in Montreal bookstores, university and municipal libraries. A talk with climber Pierre Bergeron clarified several points. Aconcagua is quite a popular place, and quite vicious—40% of sea-level air pressure with winds of up 250 kilometers per hour at -35°C even during the most favorable months of January and February. Some maps came in from Argentina. They were latest topo maps—1946.
I posted ads requesting partners at La Cordée and L'aventurier climbing gear retailers. Of the six guys who applied, two declined after I told them the horrors of the mountain, another was a far cry from being qualified, and two more became unavailable because of work or school. So it turned out that I'd be going with Marc Dumarac, a forest restoration technician from Mont Saint-Hilaire, Québec. He has rock climbing experience, and has climbed three major British Columbian mountains, including Athabasca (3491m). We had little more than two meetings to organize our expedition. The third meeting was destined for Puente del Inca, Argentina.
One night, when I was not too sober, I picked up the atlas again and had a powerful flash to climb Nevado Ojos del Salado (6870m) in a remote region of the Chile-Argentina border (Copiapó province in Región III de Atacama, Chile and Catamarca province, Argentina). I told myself "you're crazy!," but the concept of having a second climb, solo on this world's highest active volcano survived the morning after the night before, and became part of the serious plan. Extensive research produced no information—very enticing! The list of powerfully attractive projects grew to include Bolivia: remote salt lakes among colorful volcanos, Uyuni salt flat, and the Yungas rainforest. To this was added various mines, museums, caves, lakes, salt flats, astronomical observatories, and a natural arch. I undertook frantic research to prepare the route, of which Aconcagua was now one project among many. This phase is actually gripping entertainment. The itinerary had already grown to three months, which seemed like an exceptionally long time, so some visits off the main route were put aside.
grabbed the best deal on Santiago return at CAN$1250 plus a
La Paz-Santiago one way at $250. That kind of commitment does
wonders to motivation. I brushed up on basic Spanish at the
Saint-Laurent library using cassettes and exercise books. I bought a
Raleigh mountain bike with 26-millimeter Alesa Belgian aluminum alloy
concave rims stronger than on any new bicycle. I had vaccines
administered at a travelers' clinic. The pace increased to frenetic
proportions in November and December, 1992. It was 16 hours per day
to cover 45 items on the "jobs to do & things to get" list plus
implementing 25 ways to reduce the weight of gear, not to mention 18
more jobs concerning the bicycle and its accessories. How many
vitamins, iodine tablets, ball bearings, maps; how much cash, contact
lens solution, grease, etc... Everything had to be thought out,
refined, calculated and optimized. I felt dazed out and depressed in
last few days, mainly from being paranoid of freezing my feet, because
that is what nearly happened when I went winter cyclo-camping in
Sainte-Dorothée (Laval) to try everything out. It wasn't even
Wow!... The Andes
Jan. 4, 1993: Good thing it wasn't too cold that morning—my friend Luc's old Ford Thunderbird started. The down side was the pouring rain that threatened the cardboard bicycle box, crammed with loose items. Fast thinking elected my pedalboat vinyl cover to protect the box. Half the roof rack didn't fit so we tied ropes and elastics—not very reassuring. Fridge emptied, everything switched off, ready to go down south, but first, a little bit north to Mirabel.
"You are coming back, are you?," Luc asks after unloading.
"Standing and in one piece?"
"Well that's another story!"
Argentinas took the bicycle box grudgingly but at no
excess charge, being sports equipment, whereas the guy with the small
TV had to pay US$120. They would, however, be hitting me with a
$45 excess fee on the connecting flight. From the big bird 747's
window, the moon's reflection raced across New York snowy fields. I
awoke to the sun's reflection racing across Brazilian rainforest
Stopover in warm and humid Río de Janeiro, then transfer in
Aires, both oceans of civilization. Now going west, 1000 kilometers of
farmland prairies, then the land wrinkled and wow!... the Andes. I had
a mental orgasm as Cerro Aconcagua eased by.
I asked the taxi driver for a cheap hotel, but I got suckered in to staying at his "friend's" hotel, Parlamento, which cost a painful US$56. Once I bent the bike's derailleur back into shape, I cycled among insane downtown traffic in the hot summer evening. People stared at me—the gringo with the helmet.
Jan. 6: Sr. Fernando Rojas at the Federación de Andinismo kindly accepted to store the climbing gear in the tiny closet while I would do a dash to the Pacific. You see, Santiago is at 540 meters, so I must put my toe in the Pacific and cycle back to climb Cerro Aconcagua completely, sea level to summit, without cheating. Sr. Ivan filled me in about Nevado Ojos del Salado, in French thank you, while I marveled at its photo on the wall.
I weaved my way out of the city. It gives way abruptly to a dry landscape of thorny bushes and giant blue thistles over a maze of hills. Surprisingly, the good paved road winding through them is flat. They flagged me around the toll, then a public works truck drove me through the three-kilometer Lo Prado tunnel.
A ranch owner
cheerfully allowed me to go up a cart track to
camp in the hills. I only asked permission because the house was right
beside the gate. I enjoy trespassing, so this would be the only camp
obliging permission of the entire expedition. In some humid spots, the
track had grown in with lush vines hanging from trees. Elsewhere, I
dodged thorny bushes. First camp, and I was in bliss.
Jan. 7: A thorn was the culprit of the first flat. Instead of taking the tunnel through another range of hills, I took the old road that goes 300 meters up Paso de Zapata, and enjoyed a speedy descent. The vegetation became more lush as I approached the coast.
I branched off the highway to Quintay village for a secluded coastal experience. Four steep 150-meter ups and downs on a dusty road rewarded me with a spectacular coast of cliffs and crashing waves on jagged rocks. I sneaked past a "No Pasar" sign, then through deserted ruins, and found a cozy and secluded stretch of beach amid handsome jagged rocks, some of which are just offshore. I dipped my toe below sea level in the Pacific, and it was so refreshing that the rest of me followed. The full moon that night added to the great camp setting. It wasn't so peaceful on March 3, 1985 when an earthquake hit, killing 176 people over hundreds of kilometers. The epicenter was 10 kilometers offshore directly in front of this beach, but like the eye of a hurricane, this town suffered relatively little damage.
Jan. 8: Riding through the busy shipping port and military city of Valparaiso, I was amazed to see that people commute up steep cliffs by funiculars (cable cars on rails). Soldiers with machine guns stood guard around their base. From this port in 1835, Charles Darwin and his crew of the Beagle had been very impressed at seeing Aconcagua, but I wasn't so lucky now, the Andes being obscured by summer haze. Past Viña del Mar (vine of the sea), where real tourists hang out, I admired the creative architecture poised on the edge of the built stone wall above the sea. There's money in Chile all right.
Near Concón, a Venezuelan jogger invited me to camp in "his" yard, but the real owner didn't like the idea. Good, because that forced me to find another spot, and I ended up in an incomparably more pleasant environment among sand dunes above the road overlooking the Pacific.
Jan. 9: Four-wheel-drive pickups played dune climbing, requiring several reverses and gaining momentum to get over the steep sections. One guy had to get out and deflate his tires to follow his buddies.
At the mouth of Río Aconcagua, I envisioned its icy meltwaters soon to be touched. The return to Santiago began through intensive farming lands. In Olmue, I treated my thirst to a watermelon. It was impossible to eat more than half of it, and the other half made a sticky mess in the cycle bags.
I wondered where the black streaks of dust on my jacket came from; bush leaves had brushed me while erecting the tent, and it looks as if it hasn't rained all summer up this hill.
Jan. 10: Continuing up the hill, I met two guys also joyriding on nice mountain bikes, but they were just day tripping in the area. Cuesta de la Dormida (sleep hill) culminated at 1145 meters, where the view of distant snowy Andes finally opens up. It was a terribly rough descent on continuous brakes. One of the stretch cords whipped off and jammed in the gears. Back down, the sad shacks revealed the poor side of Chile.
I couldn't find any place I would be comfortable camping, so I decided to do the nervewracking entry into Santiago at night. After 112 kilometers and with aching arms from the vibration, I made it downtown. What a pleasure it was to wash up in Hotel Ritz while listening to the TV playing USA music videos.
Jan. 11: I retrieved my gear at the Federación de Andinismo. Next, I headed for the frontier office to obtain a permit for Ojos del Salado. They informed me that the "road" I planned to take is just a mule trail, but I insisted to attempt it by bike. This being a nonstandard route had them all confused, and eventually the whole office got involved. One man took delight in horrifying me with stories of beetles that drop from hut ceilings, sting you, giving you a disease 10 to 20 years later. He went on about the sharp volcanic rocks that destroy tires, the sulfur contaminated streams, and that several mountains in the area have names about death: Cerro Mulas Muertas, Nevado Negro Muerto and bluntly Nevado El Muerto. He led me to the next room, where to my surprise, a three-meter by two-meter model of the region with Ojos del Salado 10 centimeters high was on display. He gave me a photocopy of a better topo map than the old ones I'd copied at McGill University. The bad news was that it would take days to process my special request, so I risked them to mail it to general delivery in La Rioja, Argentina rather than wait around.
Biking in downtown Santiago is akin to a fast video game. Buses and Lada taxis to dodge, as pedestrians dash in front of you. The concentration of people is so high that even walking is a task! I was shopping for stove naphtha at a paint store, when another customer fearfully asked "Do you have to climb Aconcagua? It is a very dangerous mountain." He also warned me, "The Argentine police are shit."
So far, I have strictly adhered to a diet of canned, packaged or washable foods, and used iodine tablets to treat all my drinking water to be in good shape for Aconcagua. I packed to 2:00 a.m. and slept restlessly, hardly believing to be off to the Andes in the morning.
Jan. 12: Out of the city along a rough brick street, then through cactus hills, but with occasional streams crossing. I spotted an unusually thin overpass above the highway. Intrigued, I scrambled up the slope to investigate. It was a stream crossing over the road. A public works truck provided safe passage through the Chacabuco tunnel, no tip expected, courtesy of Chile.
Intimidating barbed wire impeded access up the hills, so I ended up with a terrible campsite in roadside bushes. People use them as a place to crap and the highway noise was infernal all night.
Jan. 13: Just before Los Andes, the last sizable town before heading up the Andes, I stopped in a plaza and extracted an enormous thorn from my flat tire. I patched the inner tube, but after I reassembled everything, another puncture from a sneaky small thorn had me starting all over again. With all this, I was caught by the siesta, meaning a wait until 4:00 p.m. when the supermarket reopens. In another appealing plaza, with patterned tiles and irrigated trees, a popsicle salesman went around yelling in a raspy voice. I bought one to have him shut up for a few seconds. Back at the supermercado, I took the bike right inside, which is customary because they claim that theft is rampant. I shopped my complicated list, then proceeded to discard the boxes, transfer food to Ziplocs and crush the cereals into compact powder before the bewildered staff. To complete the scenario, I packed everything into a huge backpack and replaced it on the trailer.
That trailer is the freedom factor. I designed and built it from scratch, since the commercial ones for dragging kids cannot be dismantled for airline transport. It weighs 5 kilos and carries 16.
The road up the Andes follows the rushing Río Aconcagua over which span several foot bridges. It became a spectacular gorge that I approached right up to the edge for the thrill of the height. I had an entire riverside estate to myself for camp, because its house was abandoned.
Jan. 14: I
plucked delicious apples before leaving the
up, I stopped at the town of Río Blanco, for the last load of
exhausted the entire town's stock of chips to make up a kilo from
dozens of tiny bags, and subjected them to the crushing treatment. Now
fully loaded with 25 days of supplies, I had 69 kilos of gear to haul
but the road was excellent.
A steady stream of
circulated, including massive quantities of oil tankers. This is the
link between Argentina and Chile. The scenery became more
spectacular as trees dwindled away and snow patches appeared.
Hundreds cheered me, on my quest of cyclo-alpinism, or should I say,
cyclo-andinism. The highway climbs 1500 meters up a sheer wall by an
astounding 30 switchbacks, but the abandoned railroad
passes through multitudes of tunnels.
Only the Himalayas
grand scale of this rugged scenery. Camp was on a plateau halfway up
the switchbacks, where the river cascades down cliffs of the majestic
Three identically outfitted cyclists came speeding
down, so I
was not the only nut on the pass. Rocks tumble down the mountainside
so frequently that concrete roofs were built to shield sections of the
road. I passed cars whose engines had surrendered to the atrocious
climb. At the top, set between high slopes, lies lovely azure Laguna
Inca, which I had previously spotted from the flight over it.
It is adjacent to
the famous Portillo ski resort, which is quite
now being summer. Soon after, the Chilean customs is reached. In the
large crowded building, I made a wild guess for which counter I should
wait in line. Sorry, try again. Just a bit more uphill and I arrived at
the Cristo Redentor tunnel under the pass called
Bermejo, Uspallata or simply la Cumbre
The highway has taken over the tunnel from the defunct transandean railway. The alternative was a long ride up the pass on a dirt road. I would have seen the Cristo Redentor (Christ of the Andes) statue, erected as a promise of peace between Chile and Argentina, but my mind was hell-bent on getting to Aconcagua. No public works truck here, but the tunnel was brightly lit. OK, go! Soon the lights tapered out and it became pitch dark. I scrambled for the Petzl headlamp, and switched on the bike's LED strobe tail light. Every time a truck or bus speeded by, I stopped and hugged the wall of this carbon monoxide passage under the Andes. I reached the light at the end of the tunnel (3175m) in a different country.
The mountains are
exquisitely colorful here, and it is downhill all
the way to Puente del Inca (2725m). It must have been at 65 kilometers
per hour that I heard boom Boom BOOM BOOM BOOM!
the brakes on, pieces passed me, and I heard a scraping sound until
stop. The trailer had flipped because its tires, that need to be soft
shock absorbing, had become five pounds per square inch harder
because the altitude. The damage was minimal thanks to all those hours
I spent back home developing a hitch that allows rotation. Continuing
down, the Horcones valley suddenly revealed awesome Cerro
Aconcagua 30 kilometers away.
I stopped and scampered up the roadside slope for a better look. I was entranced. Aconcagua is Quechua indian for "Vantage point from which to contemplate God," and it seemed very credible.
People in the town
of Puente del Inca (Inca bridge) knew about
me even before I arrived. A guy didn't even ask my name and told me
my friend is waiting. A short search and there's Marc Dumarac.
Jan. 16: Would we have to go all the way down 250 kilometers to Mendoza and back to obtain the climbing permits? We were indeed relieved when we were advised that the officials also issued permits only a few buildings away. We had run around back home for ECG's, doctors' reports, and photographs for nothing because those requirements either no longer applied or were only required at the Mendoza office. The Aconcagua park warden was only interested in proof of insurance and a US$80 fee. We validated the permits as we signed our lives away: the liability release clause. To curb rampant littering, he handed us a numbered garbage sack, in which we must return our trash. I paid for safekeeping of my cycling gear in the other, safer-looking hotel.