Life on Mars
Skyler, Scott, and Rick set out to ride a 1300 kilometer route in the sublimely harsh Puna de Atacama desert along the Chile-Argentina border. Here’s Skyler’s tale of mental starvation, dizzying winds, mind-boggling scenery, and a harrowing river crossing.
I correctly identified Volcán Socompa on the horizon, three days before we rounded its base and crossed the border. The going was easy at first, though at the time it felt very hard.
Along a stretch of rough road, a beat-up Toyota pickup – the first car we’d seen in a day – caught us while we rested at the top of a rise. Leaning out, a man asked where we were headed on this empty road.
“We’re going to cross into Argentina.”
Looking us up and down, he laughed incredulously through his sparsely-toothed grin and made a series of exclamations that were beyond my Spanish comprehension. But the gist of his outburst was familiar:
“Well god damn!”
The BorderThe Chilean border guards shuffled around in the small entry room, reminding themselves how to process a passport, while we leaned against the inside of the metal door, wind whistling at our backs. They said that only three other people had crossed at that border before us this year, and only two in total the previous year. The outpost remains manned year round, so that a few times per month an empty train from the Chilean coast could meet an Argentine train full of raw lithium ore. Then the cargo could be leisurely transferred from one train to the next without any humans needing to cross. The Chilean sergeant insisted on having his photo taken with us, so he could remember the occasion.
Even though it’s remote and rarely used, this pass is relatively well known to cyclists and is rapidly gaining popularity as the confusion about it diffuses. On the Argentine side, we were casually stamped in by a man in sweatpants and white Crocs. He allowed us to sleep out of the wind in an empty building that reeked from a barrel of used motor oil.
It was not until a day later that we turned off the known route, perpendicular to the gales that had pushed us up to 4300m on that lumpy narrow-gauge railway. From there on the wind was a nuisance at best. At its worst, it was a heavy pack, a swarm of wasps inside our heads, driving us insane, a draining sickness. Our earliest nights were calmer, with the gale building by noon and lasting until nighttime. But even this pattern gave up as we moved higher, passing between salt-bottomed basins and lifeless passes. Then the noise rarely let up – in gusts it carried gravel to eye-height, in lulls just howled on in our ears, a deafening white noise. It wouldn’t let us forget… consciousness exists on the brink of insanity.
Ritual Morning Bonking
Each morning we got up with the sun, around 7:30. I somehow failed to plan breakfasts, so I’d sip on a mug of coffee – instant Nescafe with powdered milk, of course – and pack my things. We were rolling before nine, and by half past I was ravenous. Most mornings, I managed another half hour or 100m up the first climb before stopping to smear a spoonful of peanut butter on one of Chile’s ever-disappointing budget granola bars.
Excursions deep into deserts and other austere places are said to inspire philosophical contemplation and divine epiphanies. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the world’s largest religions all spawned out of desert civilizations. But not this time, and not for me. Even my crippling existential terror was unusually quiet behind the din of the Puna’s eternal wind and my own self-pity.
Nope. I only thought about food:
– how I could ration my food more sensibly,
– what I would eat next,
– all the things I really wish I’d bought a week earlier when there were stores,
– and how many cookies I could allow myself that day.
I’d been woefully casual and disorganized during our food shop back in Calama. Only through this constant food anxiety was I able to stretch my already lean ten-day supply to fourteen. The weight of the hunger slowed me down more than the weight of the food might have.
I don’t know what my companions Scott and Rick thought about all day. I don’t think it was food. Scott seems to run all day on last night’s dinner. Rick is too cool to worry about such animal needs, he operates at some higher, Nirvanic level. (He also lost 14 lbs on this trip.)
When I wasn’t worrying about food, I thought about water, incessantly peering down at the scratched screen of my GPS to estimate how far we were from the next suspected water source. Water scarcity was the real danger of our chosen route. Our route overlapped bits of Harriet and Neil Pike’s impressive and unparalleled ride through the region, when they climbed nine of the western hemisphere’s twenty-five highest peaks on a single pedal-powered journey. But, our routes were sufficiently different that, once in Argentina, only one of their water sources was of any use to us. Besides that, we depended on a vega, an oasis, spotted from Google Earth, snow, and carrying a lot of water.
Leaving Vega La Brea we were loaded up, not with spring water as we’d expected, but with bottled water from the mineral exploration camp that we encountered beside the spring. The spring water flowed warm and stinky, and we heeded the miners’ advice to avoid it. But, with the politeness demanded of the encounter, we accepted less water than we wanted and departed with only 10L each. We hoped we’d arrive at the paved highway at Paso San Francisco, some 130km away, the next day. From there, we’d leave our high desert route and hitch hike down to Fiambalá for a rest and resupply.
Two nights later we found ourselves halfway up a climb past the perfect cone of Volcán Peinado. We wandered between dunes and old lava flows, looking for a sheltered place to set up camp, eventually settling for the bottom sand-filled trough where the wind was imperceptibly lighter – so, still a full gale. In the forty-five minutes it took to pitch our tents, we lost a few stakes that were catapulted by a flying tent. One gust threw Scott’s tent into his bike, tearing a hole in the side.
Finally, cocooned inside our tents, I looked over at my remaining water- one half of a bike bottle that I desperately wanted to drink, and, through an itchy throat, said, “I hope we don’t die.”
After a long pause, Scott replied, “I’m going to kill you if we do.”
We finally found snow the next afternoon. Wrecked from dehydration, we made another windy camp at 4950m, having only traveled 25km in a full day. The next day, our fourth out of Vega La Brea, we were already two days behind schedule when reached the paved road at Paso San Francisco. We found no cars, however. The border crossing to Chile was still closed for winter, and our hopes of hitching a lift to Fiambalá, some 200km away, were dashed.
Easy LivingWithin an hour of arriving in Fiambalá, we were stationed in the town square with cold lager and ham sandwiches. And so it went for the next two days – eating, drinking, coffee, fruit, beer, ice cream, finding wifi in the square, and resting out of the wind. The town seemed to empty between the hours of 2-5PM. An ancient Peugeot rolled past the plaza on bald tires and crooked axles, it’s paint long gone but its body not yet taken by the desert. At the sight of our fat bikes, a boy leaned his upper body out the passenger window and, reaching above his head, shook his hand like he’d just touched something hot. Rick understood.
“So tough,” he nodded, with that uniquely Californian intonation.
On one corner of Fiambalá’s town square sits the tourist information office and municipal building. On the next corner is the region’s police station. On a third corner of the square you’ll find the unmarked office of Jonson Reynoso. You’ll know he’s in when there’s a battered champagne Toyota Hilux parked nearby.
Jonson has several obscure official titles, as well as running his own guiding outfit, but he is more or less the mayor of the Argentine Puna. His wealth of knowledge of the region is sought by mountaineers, the planners of the Dakar rally, government, mining companies, and, on occasion, cyclists. He’s the only person we spoke to who knew all the place names from the start of our trip, 700km north of Fiambalá, and all the names until its end, continuing south over the mountains to places that were several days away by 4×4.
His office is stacked with mountaineering supplies and binders of documents. The walls are hung with summit photos, gifts from the world over, and signed foreign flags. Amid the stacks, Jonson, dressed in unlaced work boots and an equally unlaced lumbar belt, sat down to give me a flyover on Google Earth. He had the rare generosity to patiently and politely correct my Spanish. But rarest of all, as I’ve found in my travels, he didn’t conflate that which is difficult, with that which is impossible. He didn’t try to talk us out of anything.
“Take this pass, east of Mt Pissis,” he said. “I walked it in 1986, and it’s less steep than what you had in mind.” Pointing at the screen, “The Pikes went here. It’s much higher, about 5650m. Take the lower pass. It will be very hard, but you will do it.”
After those first fourteen days, I was ready to quit the trip, get on a bus, and get away from the pPuna region. None of us were prepared to repeat what we’d already done. The combination of tough riding, heavily loaded bikes, high altitude, hunger, thirst, and constant wind added up to something demanding more mettle than I possess. But, after a bit of rest down in warm, thick air, we felt ready to head back into the mountains, this time prepared for shorter days with food to spare. So we left Fiambalá in Jonson’s pick-up truck and were dropped off 3000m higher, at 4600m, cutting off a few days of climbing and 100km of our intended route.
The corridor that extends from Paso San Francisco southward to the next road at Paso Pircas Negras is home to a concentration of high peaks. On top lies Ojos del Salado, at 6892m it’s the world’s highest volcano and second highest peak outside the Himalayas. Pissis, Bonete Chico, Tres Cruces, Cazadero, Incahuasi are all above 6600m.
I first visited this area in 2011, when I traveled around South America with a bag of mountaineering equipment. I hitchhiked to climb Ojos del Salado alone from the less-traveled Argentinian side. Arriving at the trailhead, I stared across the 80km void of wind-battered desert that lay between me and the peak. My pack was loaded with nine days of food, though I suspected a trip to the summit and back might take me ten. The next morning, I hitchhiked back to town, wondering if I lacked the courage or simply lacked the desire to keep suffering. I never stopped thinking “if I only had a mountain bike, it might be fun.”
Over the next six years, I periodically returned to gazing at Los Seismiles, this chain of six-thousand meter peaks, on Google Earth. In time, I mapped out many scraps of what looked like rideable 4×4 track. These pieces were eventually incorporated into this month-long route across, hugging the Chile-Argentina border across the Puna.
The next section, from Pissis’ basecamp southward, was the longest stretch that followed no road or track at all. We simply chose the lowest pass – first to 5250m, then along the edge of the glacier-filled crater Corona del Inca to a height of 5530m (18,100′). Of course, we mostly pushed our bikes up to that height, while pedaling over flatter alluvial fields.
A general rule of high-altitude mountaineering is to climb high and sleep low. But, we found ourselves setting up camp a few meters below the highest point of our trip at the day’s end, hammering tent stakes into rock hard permafrost while the wind wailed as usual. Or, perhaps we were on a sand-topped glacier.
I got up to water the wind at some point after dark. It probably wasn’t late, the sun sets quickly at lower latitudes. There was no moon, but I could see clearly for the unfiltered light of the stars. I looked for the Southern Cross in vain. The stars were too bright, in fact, to make out constellations. An uncountable number filled the sky in a near solid mass – only our own galaxy painted a distinguishable shape across the sky, in a great glowing streak. Perhaps I would have spotted our neighbour Andromeda had I dallied in the bitter cold wind. But after casting a quick glance at Rick’s flapping tent, pitched to half its usual height, I hurried back into my sleeping bag. We were so alone. We are so alone, chained to a star with a finite life, trapped by uncrossable expanses in a universe destined to go dark. Rick must have been freezing in his 3-season sleeping bag on a thin foam pad.
Falling off the MapThe Puna de Atacama is a high-altitude desert plateau shared by Chile and Argentina, punctuated by high volcanoes, with low, salt-filled basins that rarely sit below 3500m. We climbed up into these heights near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, when we followed the tracks of an antique railway away from the lower Atacama. And now, after three weeks of riding, we were dropping off the southern end of the plateau. Monte Pissis and Cerro Bonete Chico are some of the highest points in the Puna, and indeed anywhere in the world outside of Asia. Once we passed these two peaks we dropped down an ice-choked canyon, wrapped in all our layers, toward Laguna Brava and beyond. We were falling off the Puna.
More than two vertical kilometers below that frigid night, we reached the Rio Blanco, where we planned to enter Parque Nacional San Guillermo and continue south. Unexpectedly, we found a park gate. In a typically perplexing display of Argentinian bureaucracy, we were informed that we needed official authorization to enter the park, and the authorities at the gate lacked the authority to authorize our entry. They could only do so at the southern end of the park. After a half-hour long stand-off, I finally accepted the futility of reasoning with a crew who were more interested in asserting the hierarchy amongst themselves than with the fact that they were leaving three cyclists in a bit of a pickle. Instead, we leveraged our finite food supply to ask for a ride back up the massive climb we’d bombed down that morning.
I’ve long argued that the speed of a bicycle is a perfect pace for travel – it’s a human pace, yet not so slow that you can’t still cover some ground and see many places. But, while ripping up that washboard climb with our bikes clattering in the back of a pickup, it occurred to me that the Puna was an exception to this rule. The Puna is far beyond a human scale, and I suspect its greatest treasures, the most otherworldly landscapes, remain out of reach to those exploring without the aid of a motor. Even relatively short detours cost too much on a bike.
We were dropped at a faint junction, back at the top of our morning’s descent. To our left, a wide gravel road would take us quickly to the end of our trip – a day’s descent until we reached a paved highway in a populated valley. To our right was a faint machine track that didn’t show on any map. It looked as though a bulldozer had cut a road there once, in a single pass many years ago, and it had not been touched since. The park rangers had told us they knew where it came out – right back on track to our destination, Rodeo – but none of them knew anyone who’d ever traveled it.
The dozer track was in worse shape than we’d expected. After hours of descent peppered with constant washouts, runnels, and thorn shrubs, we arrived at the river. Despite the fear of riding down an unmapped road, I felt relief at the sight of vegetation and the sound of rushing water. It was warm, the air was rich below 3000m, the wind came in short-lived gusts, and I was suddenly reminded that bike touring could be fun. I had enough energy to enjoy myself. Our trail remained faintly visible even as we oscillated between ankle-deep marshes and exuberant off-trail mountain biking in the bottom of this monumental canyon.
Though I’ve forded many rivers on bike trips, I’d never considered how one might cross a river too deep to wade. After two days of following the river, we’d already waded across the river several times, but since hitting a graded, named road, we assumed that we had this trip in the bag.
The road entered the river on a paved ford that formed a head-height weir on its downriver side. This far downstream, a confluence of valleys had more than doubled the size of the river. Though less than knee-deep until midstream, the water was moving fast. Another footstep would put me into deeper and faster water, and a slip would have sent me over the weir into a churning froth of river and rock. Scott and Rick hiked up and down the river, searching for a place to cross. I waited with the bikes, hoping a truck would come. One of Argentina’s ubiquitous 4-cylinder pickups wouldn’t suffice though, it would have to be a dump truck to avoid being washed off the weir.
An hour later, Rick and Scott were back, having found nothing. But there remained an option worth pursuing, if we only had enough rope – swimming. I traced out the play in the sand, drawn here on paper for posterity:To begin, we tied together all the webbing straps and bits of rope Rick had hiding on his bike. This added up to nearly fifteen meters (45′), which just spanned the deepest part of the river. Scott, the strongest swimmer among us, dove into the current, easily crossing without gear. Then, Rick and I waded as deep as we could and hurled bags across, paying special attention to those that carried passports and electronics.
“SWIM FOR IT RICK!” I yelled over the current, as his tent and sleeping pad floated down the river in a neat roll.
Rick hesitated, grabbing his hair in fists. “Ahhhhhh, shit……it’s gone!”
But I was already running. It’s one thing to lose a tent, it’s another to lose the one and only tent ever made by Scott, a project I’d been told would never be repeated. Slowed by the hole below the weir, I caught up after a short sprint and rescued the roll.
Scott stretched his arm over the current, leaving Rick just enough slack to tie one end of our rope around the head tube of a bike. When Rick pushed the bike into the current, it would pendulum downstream, with Scott as its axis, moving toward the far riverbank. Each time, as the bike reached the apex of the arc, the front wheel flopped into the current, and Scott started cussing as the force on the bike multiplied. Meanwhile, I jumped into the stream, up to my navel, grabbing at the bike to help it into shore. Rick followed the third bike and emerged from the current grinning, reaching for a hug. Home free.
We reached a small village at 10am on our last day of pedaling.
“Is it OK to drink beer in the plaza?” Rick asked the woman behind the counter of a dimly lit, low-roofed store.
“Yes, but maybe only one. The Police don’t like it when people get drunk in the plaza.”
Laughing, we filled our mugs with cold, pale lager, and sat in the shade of big eucalyptus trees. We ate ham sandwiches for lunch.
Skyler Des Roches is a full-time troublemaker at Porcelain Rocket, and occasional contributor here at Bikepacking.com. For this trip, he assembled a Fatback Rhino FLT with support from Fatback Bikes. He was stoked to also be decked out in Canadian-made Westcomb Outerwear clothing, and Only What’s Necessary riding shoes. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Scott Felter is the owner and supreme leader of Porcelain Rocket. He’s into cats, home renovations, mountain biking, and big fatbike expeditions. His previous cycling trips of note include a self-supported completion of the Canning Stock route, and trips in Tasmania and Newfoundland. He lives in Calgary.
Rick Hunter is the mind and maker behind Hunter Cycles. He started making custom bicycle frames 25 years ago. He obviously built the frame and racks he used in Argentina. This was the longest “vacation” he’s ever been on. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.