07/01/2020 Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward is nomadonanomad
My new cycle touring and mountaineering friend Sean gave me lots of invaluable advice regarding my attempt to cross the Andes on Muffin the pushbike. His main reasoning was that it’s important to acclimatise slowly and given the gradient I would be climbing, the weight of my bike and all my baggage and my age, I would be going so slowly that my body would cope with the reduction in oxygen as I went. Not sure I was too keen on the reference to my age either but he was a great help. Top bloke. (I had done some research into the effects of altitude while I was in Embalse, and as a result had purchased some Ibuprofen which apparently works really well)
Morning came and I went quickly into the centre of small town Las Flores to get some last-minute supplies and fill all my water bottles. I calculated I would need enough food for 3 and a half days and my water filter would be getting used for the first time in anger, so to speak. I arrived at the border feeling confident that no-one would be aware that I’d overstayed my 90-day visa by about 6 weeks. Well the letter with my new passport and credit/debit cards had been held up by customs in Buenos Aires for 2/3 weeks and in Cordoba for 7 weeks, so it wasn’t my fault really, was it? It quickly became apparent that they did know I’d overstayed and I still don’t know how as I am 100% sure that my passport was on stamped on re-entry but not swiped through a computer. So the delay started there and altogether it took about 2 hours before they could tell me that I was a very naughty boy and although I could leave without paying a fine, if and when I re-entered the country it would cost me 10,000 pesos (about £140 or $175) No problem sunshine, I’m going to Chile and when it’s time to return to Europe I can fly from Santiago, Lima, La Paz or Quito, not an issue.
I was eventually allowed to set off at around noon and although I would have liked to have a couple of hours under my belt by then I reminded myself of Sean’s main piece of advice for me which was to pace myself. I soon came to the sign telling me I had 89 kms to go before arriving at the Chilean border but this was different in that I wouldn’t be counting the linear distance so much as how much I had climbed, (the figures are given on my gps/bike computer) and my target was about 800m a day for 3 days leaving just 400m more to the border and then downhill all the way to the Pacific Ocean for a nice dip in the waves. (NB. I had checked my brakes for that part of the journey) On each of the 2 previous days I had climbed 950m or thereabouts and although it was very tough it had served to show me that I could climb, the big difference would be doing it much higher up in the mountains.
Photos. Road sign with distance to the border and La Serena on the Pacific coast. It looks flat but the gradient was constant and very tough. The Andes mountains getting ever closer.
The climb was just relentless. It seemed to be always around 3 per cent which isn’t much on a road bike weighing around 8kgs, but on my rig it was a real effort, and my stops to snack, drink and get my breath back were regular to say the least. By 5.30pm I had entered the canyon and the peaks, some snow-capped and over 5,000m, loomed large over me and gave me a sense of getting down to the nitty gritty. It was every bit as tough as I’d expected but I was happy to put in a third consecutive day of more than 900m of climbing, and was very much looking forward to setting up the stove and cooking a shed load of rice and tomato sauce with a tin of tuna to top it off. The place I found to camp was about the only place with any shelter in the form of a culvert under the road. Although I’d used these during the last week in the flat areas of San Juan province I was not keen on camping inside as there could be a risk of flooding up here in the mountains. However, I was pleased to see that inside there was a platform made out of solid concrete measuring about 4m x 1m x ½ metre high. It was also obvious that when it rained the water ran to the side of this platform and it was easy to see the marks going about 20/30cms up the wall. I decided it would do if I didn’t want to sleep outside but no way would I allow myself to nod off if sheltering from any rain, just in case.
Photos. Getting close to the canyon. First sight of the Rio Agua Negra, although it’s brown not black. Finished for the day and dinner on the go. Little did I know what was about to happen!
I quickly finished my billy can full of rice, tomato and tuna and was halfway through a large bag of chocolate peanuts when a spot of rain landed. This was followed by a rumble of thunder and as quickly as I could, I started to pack. Suddenly it started to hail, and large hailstones, much bigger than grapes, were beating down and I became concerned about some of my gear getting damaged, not to mention me. The platform inside the culvert seemed to be the place and so I took everything inside while I continued shoving the stuff I’d unpacked back into my panniers. A gentle trickle water was now coming into the culvert as rain started to mix with hail, but very quickly the trickle became much more. In no time at all it was 6 inches or so deep and I hastily put on my wellington boots that I have for when I work on farms. The hail stopped as suddenly as it started and I thought it would be good to get stuff outside and onto higher ground. I closed up my first two panniers and took them out and hurled them up a slope to safety. I turned around and was just in time to grab my bike which was being swept past me. In just seconds the water had become a torrent and was over the height of my gumboots. For the second time in 3 months I was fighting to keep my bike and if given the choice I’d fight the gutless bastard with the gun in Rosario any day. Just as I thought the bike, was going to be swept over a 10 metre drop off, possibly with me still holding on, I summoned up my last ounce of strength and managed to drag it up the slope next to my two panniers. Then I realised that all my remaining gear had been washed away along with the approx. two cubic metres of concrete that made up the platform. All this happened in less than a minute and I was absolutely devastated and totally exhausted.
What do I do now? I am extremely cold and soaked to the skin. The rain has stopped, the storm only lasted a total of about 15 minutes but in that time, I’ve lost almost all my food, my stove, my tent, my sleeping gear, about half my clothes and even my shoes! It was then I spotted my bright red dry sack which contained my sleeping gear, stuck behind a bush about 300 metres from where I was. It has been washed there by the torrent but got stuck. First, I emptied my wellies of about a litre of water each and worked my way down to where the dry bag was, hoping against hope that inside it was in fact dry. I fished it out of the water and then spotted my tent, still in its bag as I hadn’t got around to setting up camp. I retrieved that and then, working my way along where the torrent of water had washed stuff I found some more of my gear. Clothes stuck on bushes, a glove, a shoe, neither much good as single items but I’ll keep looking. Then I saw my two panniers, both half-buried, and full to the brim with rocks, pebbles and sand as I hadn’t had time to close them. It was now getting late and I had about 15 minutes of daylight left. I got everything back to where I had been and started thinking about how I was going to get through the night. The border closes at 5.00pm and I knew that no traffic would be going past and effectively I was on my own. I did check my phone, which I still had but it was no surprise to find there was no signal. I opened up my two panniers that hadn’t been washed away and pulled out all the dry clothing I had, stripped off at the side of the road and put on about 7 layers of clothes that would have to keep me alive overnight.
By this time the rain had started again but it was very light and I decided I should take shelter inside the culvert as I needed to stay as dry and warm as possible. Inside my boots my feet and socks were sodden but I needed to keep the rest of me warm and hope it wouldn’t get too cold up there at over 9,000 feet. I hunkered down, sitting on my dry sack and put my speaker and light on to listen to some music to both keep my spirits up, and keep me awake. By now it was pitch black outside and then I realised it was New Year’s Eve. I wished myself a great 2020 with as much irony as possible and started the long, cold wait until morning. It was in the early hours of 2020 that I got the feeling that luckily it was not going to get so cold that I would have issues with hypothermia and a slight sense of relief came over me. What was hammering around in my head was that with all the stuff I hadn’t recovered there was no way I could continue to Chile and in the morning I would just have to bite the bullet and get a lift back to the Argentinian border to face the fact that I was going to have to pay 10,000 pesos ‘very naughty boy’ money as well as trying to work out what to do, and where to go next.
Photos. My gear laid out at the side of the road. One shoe recovered but not much use. One ‘Thinsulate’ glove recovered and like the shoe, crammed with rocks, pebbles and sand. Everything else covered in mud and sand. A last rueful look towards Chile which is only about 35 kms away as the crow flies. Bugger!
Night turned into day and two cars went past but in the wrong direction, heading towards Chile. 10 minutes later the first one returned and I waved it down to ask for help. It turned out it was one of the border guards who was checking for landslides after the previous night’s storm and there was a considerable amount of debris over the road in many different places. He helped me put all my remaining things in the back of the pick-up and took me back to the border post to face the music and the 10,000 pesos fine. I still had no idea what I could do as to get anywhere I would have to ride the bike in wellies and I knew that was a no-no. Las Flores wasn’t big enough to have a shoe shop and it was New Year’s Day so even if it had one it would probably be closed. My problems continued to mount up and I was right at the bottom of the barrel emotionally.
What happened? Well, that’s for another blog. As always thank you for reading this far and may the Flying Spaghetti Monster go with you.
Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward.