Today will be all about going uphill, we know that much. We must drag both bodies and bikes from 650m above sea level and up to 3,200m.
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve been that high and we’re both eager to get some altitude burn back in our lungs, which (having spent 2 weeks at below 1,000m) have now been dubbed: ‘Lungs of luxury.
After leaving Mendoza last night we found a stellar camp spot just a few kilometres into Route 13. This morning we leave that camp spot in high spirits, and with good reason. We are now less than a week from making it across the Chilean border, and to Santiago. In Santiago there will be two very special people waiting for us. So long as the BA strikes don’t scupper plans, Jamie (aka the most wonderous boy on the planet) is flying in, as is Faye’s mum (one of the two most wonderous mums on the planet. My mum is the other, naturally). When they arrive, we’ll both be be taking two weeks off the bikes, apart, and catching up with those we love. Something that’s definitely worth cycling over a few more mountains for, I’d say.
We roll out of camp and I’m three pedal strokes into the day when I notice my flat rear tyre. It’s a bugger, but it’s no biggy. I let Faye know and we get that puncture fixed right on up. Off we go again, on a track that starts out as mildly rocky and descends into full on bump n’ hustle. ‘Awesome!’ Faye yells as the track gets more gnarly and the surrounding landscape ever more green and spectacular.
It soon becomes clear that no cars come this way, or rather very few. But just then, we come across a 4×4 – moving very slowly up ahead. It reaches a steep section and spins out on the gravel. The driver revs the engine and tries again, but without luck. His wheels can’t get any purchase, and I feel for the guy. He has a girlfriend in the passenger seat and she is looking less than impressed. We pedal up to the car and offer to help push from behind, but he declines and says we should go on ahead – he’s going to turn back.
As we continue on up the track, I can’t help but think how superb this all is. That we’re now going where the cars cannot. Radical.
A small stream begins to trickle down the trail, and before long it’s turned into a full blown river. I’ve never before had the pleasure of cycling up a river, but as it turns out it’s a great workout for the abs, and a novel way way to clean my increasingly feral smelling shoes. Alas we cannot ride up the slippery river rocks for long, and are soon reduced to the familiar motion of pushing.
A few kilometres later, the river disappears as swiftly as it arrived, and we resume riding on a more gradual slope. For some reason I’m really starting to struggle. Faye is streaking ahead and I seem to be sinking more than usual into the shingle and sand beneath me. And then I realise. ‘Faye!’ ‘I moan. ‘I’ve got another puncture.’ I lay the bike on on the ground, take all the bags off (again) and we set about repairing the flat. I’m getting a bit nervous about my decreasing stash of inner tubes, so we patch the punctured tube up to keep a fresh one quite literally ‘in the bag.’ We do all the usuals, check the tyre for debris but can’t find anything, nor can we locate the actual puncture. ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ I say, and off we go again.
Optimism is clearly a poor repair strategy, because a few hours later, I’m slipping and sliding around on the gravel with a third flat. Poor Faye. Her wee face is the epitome of tolerance when I break the news. This time we go full mechanic on its ass. I can’t afford to get any more flats and so no stone is being left unturned. We sit in the middle of the road, pump up all the old tubes and at last discover that two of the holes are in the same place. ‘Ah!! It must be the tyre then.’ Faye says. And yet we still can’t find anything in the tyre.
At a loss, I decide to swap on an old tyre – just to be sure it won’t puncture again. Only, this tyre has a deep gash in it (which is the reason I took it off in the first place). I summon my inner Girl Guide, and think about what I have in my possession that will plug the tyre gash. I proceed to empty out my toothpaste tube, open it up with scissors, clean it, cut it to size and fashion a makeshift new lining for the inside of the tyre. I accessorise with electrical tape and sit back to admire my handiwork. Closing the tyre back up, we fit the tube and load the bike up again.
It’s now 4.30pm and we have made it just 20km since leaving at 9.30am. ‘Oh you’ve got to laugh!’ says Faye. ‘I think we’re gunning for a new record. Least miles and the longest day.’ I reply. ‘Shall we?’ She offers, motioning down the trail. And off we go again, determined to make the top of the climb before nightfall.
We’ve now been pedalling, or rather pushing, uphill for 11 hours. We’ve ascended 2,550 metres over a painstakingly slow 25km, and we’re not quite done yet.
The final section truly is the gift that keeps on giving. The incline steepens, and steepens, and steepens until both of us are wedged into the hillside, like odd frozen statues, feet slowly sliding downward in the loose gravel, doing all we can just to stop our bikes from rolling backwards down the slope. I’m trying a new strategy to make progress – this involves resting for ten seconds, before pushing for three steps and trying my best not to wee myself under the strain. Alas, that soon becomes futile. The bike skids sideways, I slip and land in a heap with bike and bags on top of me. ‘Arrrrrggghhhhh!!!’ I scream, lying on my back and staring at the sky.
‘You alright?’ comes a distant call from Faye, who is now above me on the slope. I don’t move, I just sigh and lay there wondering what the heck I am doing here. I seriously consider investing some time in creating gravel angels in the dirt instead. ‘Yeah.’ I shout back to Faye. ‘Grand thanks, just loosing my sh*t down here. Business as usual.’
In the end I accept I cannot push the fully loaded bike any further. My arms and back are screaming at me and in the words of Scotty ‘I Just doooont have the pooowwer!!’ So I settle for an extreme version of PE lesson shuttle runs. I take my bags off the pannier racks, and ferry bags and bike up the hill separately in stages. At one point Faye (who had managed to push her bike all the way up because she is strong like a BULL) comes back down to help me with my bags. Why? Because she’s bloody lovely that’s why. And because we are a team.
We reach a small plateau and both flop on the floor to rest a while, as we prepare to take on the final, equally steep, section of climb. Faye looks at me, and does a double take. ‘Oh god… mate.’
‘Whaaat? Whasss up?’ I slur in reply.
‘You look ruined. I’ve never seen you so white!!’ Which is funny because I was just beginning to think the same thing about Faye.
‘Well, if I look even half as bad as you do, we’re in big trouble.’ I retort.
We laugh. All we can do is laugh, delirious, exhausted sweet delicious laughter. For the final ascent we hatch a cunning plan, which involves both of us pushing just one fully loaded bike up the slope between us at a time. Bernard (my bike) goes up first, followed by Gustavo (Faye’s bike). And they now feel floaty light with four arms on them as opposed to two.
We reach the crest of the hill with the second bike and are greeted by the most majestic scene. We are 3,200 metres high. The sun hangs low in a pale blue sky – its rays shooting off in a hundred different directions like a recently exploded firework. Mountains upon mountains are silhouetted against the warm evening glow. Some nearby and intimidating, others just ghostly outlines in the distance. And then there they are: two gigantic condors, black bodied, huge wings – just floating, right above our heads.
Our jaws drop to the floor, and we take a moment to look at one another, before returning our gaze to the birds. There is no point in speaking as the wind is so strong we wouldn’t hear one another anyway, but we don’t need words. There are no words for this. There is no one here – goodness knows the last time when there was someone here. And it is as if the condors know. As if they’ve been watching all day and they’ve popped out for an evening flight, especially for us.
‘G’wan now, girls.’ They say (they’re northern, of course). ‘Ger on down that hill and get yourself some tea in yer bellies. You’ve earned it.’
Metres ascended on bikes so far: 44,370m
Live track us as we head for chile here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure