Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Andes revisited: memories

I've returned to Mendoza in Argentina. Those who followed my long cycle ride may recall that it was here in Mendoza in 2013 after over 2 years and 3 months on the road my journey ended abruptly and I had to fly home. More about that another time..

As usual I was chasing winter when I was here last and I've just started reading a few of the drafts I never posted. Some are amusing. Some I think I was verging on delirium. So here are a few snippets of those days. There may come more
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Imagine a highway whose southern start point is reached only by crossing two lakes, hiking up a steep, muddy narrow trail, barely wide enough for a person never mind a bicycle and panniers, crossing through streams and boggy ground and over a tangle of tree roots, rocks and ferns. A gravel highway stretching for 1200km that winds it way through fjords, lakes and mountains, the sharp  bends as capricious as the weather where humidity and still air is cut through with an icy chill, where clouds caress the lowers slopes of steep verdure hills, or lenticularly hover over jagged peaks.  where limestone cliffs and bluffs erupt with water, trickling, pouring, bubbling, gushing from every crack in the rock. Where glaciers hang from towering peaks. 

Imagine arriving at the beginning of the first lake crossing on a blustery day leaving behind the rime mushroomed peak of cerre Torre in El Chalten dipped in fire at sunset and later cooled under a full moon sky



Imagine heaving your bicycle on to a small ferry after a panicked 40km clattering of a ride on an undulating track  and smiling with relief that you've made it just in time and you cross the lake as the sun lowers and the wind strengthens and at the other side you pitch your tent with 2 hitch-hikers who are to accompany you on one of the most adventurous and vertically challenged border crossings of your journey so far and the three of you sit there on plump grass and look out in silence, breathing in the view of Fitz Roy across Lake Desierto


As I sit between the two of them, camera in my hands and examine the photo of the 3 of us I've just taken on self-timer, Fabien leans towards me "they are not the hands of a typical lady". The 3 of us peer at my hands: scorched, wrinkled and dehydrated skin, creased knuckles with a purple tinge, a recent cut stretches from a ragged cuticle deepening and raw before petering out, each nail though different in length wears the same uniform of embedded grime, the side of my right thumb calloused from 2 years of changing Rohloff gears. I sigh and bury my hands into my jacket. "I think they look great" whispers Michi.
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I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (Macbeth. Act 3, Scene 4)
I am in snow/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (Sherlocktales. Year 2, Month 3)

The woman at the information kiosk who has first hand information from the Argentinian Automobile Association told me the road over the mountain pass was closed due to heavy snowfall and under no circumstances should be attempted BUT then I'd spoken to a man who owned a brewery who told me it was open. As any normal human being would I trusted the advice of the man who knows his beer. As it turned out he knew an awful lot about beer but tiddly squat about mountain passes, closed roads and deep snow.

Macbeth of course was mulling over his current dilemma with blood without the intervention of the brewery man nor the  info kiosk AAA informed lady yet as I stood there, knee deep in snow with a heavily laden bicycle I'd managed to drag approximately one km after the car tracks disappeared, I faced the same issue: paved road had turned to gravel, then to sand, then to snow yet a deep tyre track from a vehicle had enabled me to at least push my bicycle for a few kilometres yet the tracks had disappeared and now a few feet snow and a mountain pass lay ahead. The pass was too steep, the snow too deep and my bike too heavy to make any progress. WHat to do.."should I wade no more" yet to return the way I'd just come would be as Macbeth eloquently pointed out "as friggin tedious as go o'er". Back tracking would also mean a 130km detour to reach my destination but the last 1km had taken me so long.

 I was also confused as 2 cars had passed me earlier that day, one heading the same direction as me and then later on another one the opposite way. Maybe I'd missed an alternative route over this mountain pass. I dropped my bike in the snow and began to hike up a hill to my right to see if the top of it offered a view of a detour. In the shade of the monkey puzzle trees the snow held firm yet soon I found myself up to my thighs as I sank and stumbled through north facing soft snow. 300m of ascent brought nothing just cold feet and apathy. But the cars must have got through somehow..unless.. ah bugger..unless..it was the same car. I slid back down the hill to my bike.. what to do, what to do..

I like snow, I like all things cold and hilly and difficult. The last time I'd faced a situation like this had been in Tajikistan where with 3 other cyclists, we'd found ourselves stranded at over 4000m altitude during the worst early winter snowfall in Tajikistan for 20 years. Yet this time it wad half the altitude and I had no visa that was to expire the next day, I had food, water and shelter and only had to cover some 80km to the next town so this was doable. It just may take some time.

I unloaded my bicycle and began the slow process of carrying my gear in relay. Walk /stumble for 15mins with first load, dump on snow, return for second load, dump on snow, return for bike, drag through snow. Time consuming and exhausting but I checked my altitude, just 500m more of ascent over 8km. By nightfall I'd eventually reached the top of the pass, pitched my tent and consumed 300g of pasta!

As I watched the sunset over the mountains and thawed out frozen fingers over my stove I felt exhilarated. These last few weeks had been some of my toughest but also some of my most enjoyable. Lessons had been learned of course: always listen to the man who owns a brewery.
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