Beyond Trails Atacama
A short film following Lorraine Blancher as she explores the lesser known mountain bike trails on the border of Argentina and Chile, plus a quick Q&A on the route and the gear she brought along with her.
Film and photos by Wildland Media / Robin Munshaw.
Every new trail you travel on or off the beaten path brings uncertainty. Riding bikes in a place like this forces you to pay attention to the terrain, listen closely to suggestions on how to move through it. Instead of success and failure you became to think in terms of adaptation and forward motion. – Lorraine Blancher
I happened to be leading an introduction to digital navigation course through my work in Kelowna, BC and ran into Lorraine a few minutes before I started. She ended up joining in on the clinic and afterwards we chatted about her Atacama adventure. Afterwards, I shot over some more questions on the trip to learn about the route and her gear.
What led you to the Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert had been a dream destination for many years. It’s barren landscape, starry nights and impressive volcanoes intrigued my curiosity. The fact that very few have adventured off the beaten path made it even more appealing. It was the perfect mix of stunning landscape with the right amount of unknown to make it an adventure.
The route looks like it follows some pretty rugged and beautiful trails, how did you discover it?
The route was a blend of established trail and unknown terrain. We had a trail to start on, a trail to finish on, and everything in-between was a blank canvas. About 60% of our route was on unknown terrain. Before we started our trip, we looked at Google Earth to get an idea of the main ridges we wanted to ride and to know where our water sources would be. We relied on GAIA GPS to more accurately navigate the terrain once we were there. As we thought – The vicuña, the smallest cousin of the alpaca, also want to travel as efficiently as possible. Over many years, their tiny hooves had etched in paths along the route as they too travelled along the main ridges in search of water, food and shelter from the winds.
Do you and Robin regularly seek out unknown routes like this?
Seeking out unknown terrain to efficiently ride my bike is something that I love to do. In British Columbia I have a few notable routes and areas that I have done this using the same recipe we used in the Atacama. There is usually an established trail or FSR that I will start and end my ride on, with a vast amount of barren ridges in-between. I know the elevation band I like to ride – where it is high enough to be alpine bedrock, or bedrock covered with grass. I also choose the ridge and terrain that is not too rugged as I do not like to suffer! I have not done too many bike packing trips yet, but I am doing more and more. I am hooked!
What was your pack list like?
Since there was only the two of us to carry all of our gear, we ensured everything was uber compactable and light! Robin carried the film equipment and I carried our shelter, cooking gear, first aid kit, communication devices and most of the food.
See contents of a pack pics – In my seat bag was the Western Mountaineering Antelope -15 sleeping bag and MEC Spark 2 tent, both in compression bags. Our food rations were low as it was at the end of the trip that we took these pictures! Our meals were all – just add water to our foldable bowls – saving space and grey water clean as we would lick our bowls clean! No dishes! (I like to leave no trace.)
Tell us a bit more about your bike setup.
We took our traditional mountain bikes as our goal was to ride singletrack. They worked great – we just added a little more pressure to our suspension to accommodate our heavy packs! The bike and tires held up great – we had no punctures/flats and no major mechanicals – which we were both grateful for considering the rocky terrain. I was on a Scott Genius (150mm front travel) with Vittoria Goma TnT (beefy sidewall) 27.5 x 2.4 tires setup tubeless.
Any tips for seeking out and riding remote and relatively unknown routes like this?
Navigation and route finding is an art – constantly observe the terrain and look for subtle clues on how to move through it. Animals have likely walked the path many times before you as they are looking for the most efficient route as well.
Lorraine is a professional mountain biker, ACMG Hiking Guide, and a PMBIA Mountain Bike Skills Instructor. You can follow her on Instagram @lb_bikes.