Category Archives: Biking

Paso de las Damas

Paso de las Damas monuments

This is probably one of the most obscure “roads” between Argentina and Chile, crossing the Andes from Termas del Flaco to Las Leñas. I believe it is at least occasionally driven, and I saw a bike track here and there, but it sees far more goats than people, and is a seriously rugged endeavor. Though it is only 22 straight-line miles from where I camped at the Rio de las Damas to the ski resort at Las Leñas, and only a thousand-foot climb to the pass, the eastern side of the Andes has a high fractal dimension, so the actual road is 37 miles and several thousand feet of climbing. It also requires several river crossings ranging from calf- to thigh-deep. Crossing from Termas del Flaco to Las Leñas takes two full days by bike, while crossing between the closest major towns of San Fernando and Malargüe takes more like four.

Safe river crossing

I packed up, shuttled my bike across the footbridge in three pieces, then rode back down-valley on the correct side of the river to the base of the pass’s switchbacks. I knew they were steep, so I expected to mostly push my bike, but I did not realize just how steep they were, or how loose. Since the Chilean side of the pass is used mostly by goats, it is churned by hooves rather than packed by wheels. It took me something like three hours to cover the three kilometers to the pass, and I often had to plant my feet, push the bike forward a yard, then lock both brakes to hold it still while I stepped forward to plant my feet again. The goat-herds passed me on their horses and just sort of shook their heads. Gringo loco…

Creepy Argentinian mech

Given the pass’s evident disuse, I was surprised to find several monuments on top, including two metal statue-men holding Argentinian and Chilean flags. The Chilean man looked like a fairly normal vaquero, but the Argentinian one was more like some kind of creepy mech-soldier, with a fearsome expression and gears showing beneath his poncho. I rewarded myself with a snack under his creepy gaze, then waved goodbye to Chile and headed out down the unknown descent into Argentina.

Arroyo del Perdido

It started out easy, with a gradual rolling descent to the Arroyo del Perdido, mostly rideable with only a few sandy parts. Though the road still appeared to be used mostly by livestock, there were some old truck tracks and an occasional bit of bicycle track, which was encouraging. There were several river crossings, of both the Perdido and its side-streams, but I was becoming hardened to such things. I simply pushed my bike and trailer across, stopped to wring out my shoes and socks, then continued on my way. Most were knee-deep, though one had a thigh-deep section that floated my bike and trailer.

After a few hours of cows and horses, I passed some ranchers having lunch by their truck, the first humans I had seen on this side of the pass. They and a couple of motorcycle tourists were the only people I saw until I reached the main road along the Rio las Leñas. I had hoped for a steady, gentle descent, but the road climbs about 600 feet out of the Arroyo del Perdido, then another 1400 feet out of the Arroyo del Burro. Fortunately these climbs were much less severe than the one to the pass, and I was able to ride most of them, but they still added unexpected time and effort to my day.

Cerro Torrecillas

I finally reached the main road behind the impressive Cerro Torrecillas, but while there was a bit more traffic, the road surface was little better. Most of the 2,000-foot descent to Las Leñas was steep, rough dirt, and little fun to ride, though I suppose braking was good exercise for my forearms. When I finally reached pavement just outside Las Leñas, I actually stopped to kiss it. The resort was mostly closed for the summer, but I located a minimal grocery store that had eggs and fresh vegetables, then rode out of town a short distance to camp in a gravel pit away from the highway.

Las Leñas resort

The next day, I headed on down the valley to Ruta 40, then turned south for Malargüe. It felt good to be back in Argentina, where there was less traffic even on a main road like 40 than on some Chilean side-roads, and where many drivers would honk and wave encouragingly as they passed. I had hoped to immediately head north on a side-trip to Cerro Sosneado, but I was low on food, and had broken two more nipples on my rear wheel. I needed to visit a real town before heading back into the wilderness. Malargüe turned out to be a pleasant small city, with a nice municipal campground (only $1.60 per night!), plenty of good outdoor shops, two good supermarkets, and a gas station with solid WiFi.

The guy in the bike store I visited gave me a few replacement nipples for free, and I once again went through the nuisance of installing them on a tubeless wheel. I removed the tire, taking care not to spill any of the sealant, and removed the valve stem. Then I wiped off and carefully peeled back the tubeless rim strip, which was barely sticky to begin with, and even less so after being reapplied. I screwed in the nipples, then stretched the rim strip back into place, glued the end down when it refused to stick, reinserted the valve stem, and carefully put the tire back on. Now I just needed a compressor to reseat the bead. Unfortunately the gas station air hose would not work with a Schrader adapter on a Presta valve with no pressure, so I had to wait for the end of siesta, then wander around town looking for a suitable compressor. I eventually found one at a gomeria, and was back in business with a full larder and a mostly-true wheel.

Volcan Tinguiririca


Volcan Tinguiririca is not the highest peak in its area, nor is it particularly unique, so I am not sure why it made it into Biggar’s book. However, it looked like a convenient next stop on the way south and an easy side-trip, with its base town, Termas del Flaco, a comfortable 250 kilometers from San Jose de Maipo. I figured I could front-load the commute in two days, doing 150 the first day and 100 the second, do the peak in another two, and be on my way. Little did I know…

Things started out well enough. After dealing with a bit more Chilean traffic on route G-25, I turned off on G-27 and found it to be tree-lined and much quieter. The local roadies clearly knew that this was the right way to ride the Maipo Valley, as I saw several headed in both directions. (A note on Chilean road-naming and administrative divisions note: Chile is divided into 16 regions, and the roads are named alphabetically from north to south. Santiago is in the seventh region, so nearby roads are “G” roads. However, the roads in Tierra del Fuego are “Y” roads. Why? Well, it turns out that before 1974, Chile was divided into 25 provinces, and the roads were presumably named before then. There used to be 13 regions, numbered north to south, but in 2007 they added three more, so the numbers are no longer in order. They also skip “XIII,” because bad luck. And you think Fahrenheit temperatures are weird…)

One region down…

Chile would be a great country for traveling by car, as it is narrow east to west, with a single good highway, the Panamericana, stretching north to south through most of its inhabited parts. However, this highway is extremely unpleasant by bike, so one must find parallel side-roads. These can be pleasant, such as the winding foothill road I took through Chilean wine country in the O’Higgins region, but they are still more crowded than Argentinian roads. I stopped at a random empanada joint north of Rancagua and, now that I knew what to look for (al horno, not fried), got a really good one, which I ate sitting about twenty feet from said horno.

Unfortunately, the roads sometimes bottleneck at major cities, so I was forced through Rancagua. The north side was fast and easy, with a separate bike path next to the highway, but the city itself was full of traffic and one-way streets, and I had to get on the highway for about five kilometers to escape the south side. Unlike in Argentina, most towns in this part of Chile do not have city campgrounds, and there is not a lot of open space to camp. Toward the end of the day, I rode about five miles east of Rengo to a large and extremely crowded campground, with no WiFi or power. It had showers, but I was too tired to care.

I made good time to San Fernando the next day, so I stopped at a nice cafe to catch up with the rest of the world. I figured I could ride the last 70 kilometers to Termas del Flaco in a few hours. Unfortunately, the last 60 kilometers of that road are steadily uphill, dirt, and relentlessly washboarded. A man in a truck offered me a lift at about 20 kilometers in, warning that it would take eight hours to ride the rest; he wasn’t far off. I ended up camping along the Rio Tinguiririca near dusk, then riding the rest of the way in the morning.

Sketchy bridge

Termas del Flaco is a popular tourist town with numerous campgrounds and stores, but I had just shopped at the Totus in San Fernando, and still had plenty of daylight left, so I decided to put in some of the miles toward the Rio de las Damas. The glacial Rio Tinguiririca is too big to cross, especially in the afternoon. There is a vehicle bridge several miles short of town, but rather than suffering through the washboard again, I asked around town and was eventually pointed to a much closer footbridge. This turned out to be a shoulder-wide suspension bridge made of cables and what looked like spare lumber, more tacked together than engineered. I wrestled my bike down the steep cowpath to the bridge, then had to take the bike, trailer, and bag across in three separate, swaying trips. I ended up in someone’s yard on the other side, and the owner, who had been watching my cursing progress the whole time, pointed me to another cowpath leading back to the road. Finally on the correct side of the river, I put in a few more miles, then found a flat place to camp. I scrolled around the map a bit before I went to sleep, and discovered that my road led back into Argentina via the Paso de las Damas. I had put in a lot of work to reach this point, and was sick of Chilean traffic, so it seemed tempting.

Second crossing

There is some sort of hydroelectric project in the upper Tinguiririca valley, so the road is kept in good shape, yet sees little enough traffic that it is not washboarded. However it is steep, and includes one unlit tunnel, so I had a slow climb. It does not exactly correspond to any map I saw, as it crosses back to the north side of the river on a large culvert, then stays there up to the Rio de las Damas. The road builders had gotten lazy after the first culvert, so I had to cross one calf-deep side-stream along the way. I was new to the fording-with-bike game, so I stupidly tried to hop across with my bike while staying dry, then ended up fording the thing four times (two round-trips) to carry my trailer and bag over, each time putting some of the heavy stuff in the bag into my backpack to make it light enough for the final trip.

Not gonna cross that

I finally reached the base of the Paso de las Damas, but it was on the other side of the river, and the vehicle ford was way too fast and deep to be safe at this time of day. Frustrated, I continued up the road’s left fork, where I was rewarded by (1) a flat spot next to the river to camp, and (2) a footbridge associated with some sort of river monitoring dam. It was only early afternoon, but it would be more efficient to camp two nights at my bike than to backpack a few miles up-valley, so I called it a day.

Paso de las Damas

It seemed like a quiet, dead-end spot, but I had a surprising number of visitors. First, the two owners of the hundred or so goats I had seen came by on the other side of the river, tying their horses to the local excavator before crossing the bridge to chat. I envied their horses, which were a help rather than a hindrance in crossing the area’s rivers. Later, right as I was about to eat dinner, an official-looking truck drove up. Oh, crap… Fortunately this is South America, so while one guy crossed the bridge to the excavator, the other just told me I had to move my tent a bit because la machina would be coming through.

Poorly-chosen campsite

I had been listening to the rocks rolling beneath the river, and evidently it was time for one of the dam’s regular cleanings (hence the permanently-stationed excavator). It was impressive to watch: the guy drove the tracked vehicle straight into the river, then rapidly slung bucket after bucket of rocks and gravel out onto the bank, tipping the bucket slightly to empty out the water beforehand. He was clearly good at his job. Once enough rocks had been removed this way, he drove up onto the bank to pull out more from another spot. Finally he crossed the river, driving through my campsite a few feet from my recently-moved tent, and emptied sand out of some kind of catch, adding it to one of the nearby piles. Finally, around dusk, he parked la machina on the other side of the river and they left. Hoping this was not a daily occurrence, I moved my tent back in place and went to sleep.

Cerro Seler and glaciers NE

It was well past time to climb another peak. Since the Peakbagger app’s offline maps have stopped working, I had only a rough map of the area, and Tinguiririca is a large, complex thing whose summit is hidden from the surrounding valleys, but I had an adequate route description, and did not expect a mound-y volcano to give me any trouble. I boulder-hopped up to a flat plain on the Rio de las Damas, then took off up a side-valley toward where I thought the summit should be. I was feeling slower than expected for the altitude, but it was good to be off the bike for a change. While I had seen bits of faint trail and horse manure in the valley, there were no human signs farther up.

Summit glacier

I eventually reached a broad choss-ridge, which I followed to the summit plateau, passing a couple of small cliff bands to one side or the other. Tinguiririca’s summit is a vast plateau with a large, flat glacier surrounded by several bumps. Fortunately I had enough of a map to tell me which was the highest, because it is impossible to tell from below, and all of them are miserable piles of loose scree. The glacier was the expected penitente mess, but I was used to that, and its surface was gritty enough that I crossed easily in trail runners. I had a bit more trouble crossing the messed-up glacial remnant at the base of the summit, and no fun at all on the steep, loose stuff above, but it proved worth the effort.

Torres del Brujo (l) and Seler (r)

Tinguiririca’s current crater is northwest of the summit, and filled with penitentes. From a highpoint near the north end of the summit plateau, the large glacier drains to the south. Though it is mostly just a colorful mound, it is surrounded by more precipitous peaks, including the higher Cerro Seler to the northwest, and (I think) the Torres del Brujo to the north. I looked them up online later, and found that they are where Real Men go to climb when they visit the area. Weirdly for the Andes, they are made of good granite instead of volcanic choss. Unfortunately, I do not know whether they have any routes that I could climb.

Summit gawping complete, I retraced my route, reaching my tent in the late afternoon and happily not finding it crushed by la machina. I decided to head over the pass in the morning, then watched the sunset and settled in for the night.

Cerro Union

Cerro Union

Biggar’s guidebook claims that the Morado Valley contains some of the most “alpine” climbing in the high Andes. This seems to be true in both positive and negative ways: the rock is a bit more solid, and there are large and interesting glaciers, but the glaciers are also in rapid retreat, leaving behind a mess of loose rock and lateral moraines. I went in hoping to climb Loma Larga, Cortaderas, and Punta Italia, three of the highest and most interesting peaks. However, I ended up sitting in my tent reading for a day, hiking the much lower and easier Cerro Union, then giving up on the approach to Loma Larga, a three-mile slog up loose rocks leading to a nasty-looking icefall. There may still be good summer climbing on these peaks, but I am coming to the conclusion that the high Andes are best in the Spring, when the worst of the debris is covered with snow, and before large penitentes have formed on the glaciers.

Hike up Estero Morado

Though it involved a bit of pushing on the way up, and foot-dragging on the way down, it was worth the effort to get my bike to around 2600 meters on the road up the Morado Valley. The upper part of this road, which leaves the current mine road just before the gate, is blocked off to cars, though some appear to reach it from another route within the mining area. I stashed my bike at the end of the drivable part, then continued on foot as the route gradually turned into a trail, ending at Laguna El Morado. Though only at 10,700 feet and 33 degrees south (the latitude of Los Angeles), the lake has a glacier at its far end, and is full of small icebergs in the morning. Though spectacular, it is unfortunately a disgusting brown rather than the expected glacial blue-green.

Laguna Morado icefall

I set up my tent in the space with the best wall and least horse manure, then read Farthest North on my phone while listening to the regular icefalls on the other side of the lake. My plan was to climb Cerro Morado the next day, supposedly a moderate scramble. However, looking at Biggar’s vague and terse route description, my photo of a map from the nearby Monumento Natural, and the mountain itself, I could not figure out a moderate line. Maybe the glacier had completely changed, or everything would make more sense in the morning.

Fresh ice cubes

I woke to find a fresh batch of ice cubes in my lake, but the route was no clearer than the previous afternoon. An unbelievable lassitude came over me, after breakfast, and I decided to sit in the tent and read for a bit instead of starting for the peak. “A bit” turned into a few hours, after which I decided I needed some hot chocolate. I thought about hiking the use trail up Cerro Union, but decided I would rather listen to the icefall and read about Nansen’s journey over the polar ice. Before long, it was time for dinner and bed, with nothing accomplished. At least the need to go and get more water for hot chocolate had forced me to put my pants on.

Morado, with route on this face?

I was little more motivated the next day, but at least managed to make the short hike up to Cerro Union. The summit had a good view of Morado nearby, and Cortaderas and Punta Italia across the way (Loma Larga is hidden). I though that I could see a possible route up Morado, though the lower part looked slabby and difficult, and the glacier crossing higher up seemed dubious. The route to the Loma Larga-Cortaderas col looked even more questionable, with several miles of glacial debris leading to a badly-broken icefall. I sat around for awhile taking pictures, then returned to camp, where I wasted the rest of the afternoon. Some cowboys or goat-herds came by, one with an ice axe and technical tool on his pack for some reason, but they left after a short time.

This sucked

The next day, I had enough motivation to at least pack up camp and start toward the Loma Larga-Cortaderas col, hoping to find a camp spot somewhere near where the glacier branches, then climb them both from the saddle the next day. I sketched my way down the old lateral moraine, then hiked up where the glacier used to be, finding an old tent spot, but no other signs of human passage. I admired the twenty-foot-high tunnel where the river emerges from the glacier, then made my way up onto the ice. The glacier is mostly covered in rock nearly to the point where it splits at the valley head. Since the rock is all sitting on moving, melting ice, it is permanently unstable. It is also uneven, with many ridges and small lakes. I hiked about a mile up the glacier with my overnight pack, then gave up. Not only did it look hard to find a tent spot, but the icefall looked like an enormous pain to climb. The best summer route up Loma Larga nowadays may be to follow the scree-ridge from the Loma Larga-Meson Alto col. Do locals still climb these peaks?

I hiked the trail back down to my bike, then camped for another night. I still had plenty of food, and it would have been a long day to return all the way to San Jose. This valley had been a disappointing bust, and I was looking forward to getting back on pavement and trying somewhere else.


SE glacier

Rather than spending about a week riding from Copiapo back to Santiago, I used that week’s food money (about $35) on an overnight sleeper bus. I was afraid that it would be a problem to take a bike, trailer, and dry-bag, but it turns out that they all fit in the bus’s cargo hold with room to spare. I had to pay another 10,000 pesos ($13) in cash to the bus’s baggage handler, a fee which he announced long after the bus had started moving. I could not tell if this was a standard 5000 pesos for each additional item, or just a bribe, but the whole thing still probably cost about what it would have to ride the distance. Like in Peru, and unlike in the States, more than just poor people take the bus, so it was much more clean and comfortable than coach on an airplane, and I got a good night’s sleep.

I woke near Santiago’s outskirts, watching the sun rise over the high Andes, and illuminate a Walmart (a.k.a. “Lider”) with a built-in McDonalds (a.k.a. “McDonalds”). Ah, welcome back to Chile… sorry for inflicting Milton Friedman upon you at gunpoint. I spent a couple of nights at a cheaper, more amateur hostel than last time, resupplied with big-city stuff (e.g. white gas, spare tire, Walmart food), then took off for the Maipo Valley, where I hoped to use my lingering acclimatization to tag some high peaks. Accustomed to Argentina’s sparsity, I packed a week of food, quickly realizing that this was completely unnecessary in dense Chile.

With a late start, I spent most of the morning escaping Santiago. I had hoped that the road up the Maipo would be pleasant and quiet, but it was instead crowded with vacation traffic, as the area is a playground for nearby, wealthy Santiago. After so much quiet riding in rural Argentina and the Puna de Atacama, I found that I had developed a strong dislike for traffic. Things fortunately got much quieter once I turned onto the side road up the Rio Colorado toward Tupungato. I hoped that I would be able to ride to base camp that day, but unfortunately the man guarding the gate was insistent that I needed written permission (from Difrol, which I sort of knew to be the case) and, in any case, bikes were not allowed. Annoyed at having wasted so much time and effort climbing the valley, I turned back to continue up the Maipo. The descent was slow with a full trailer, and even slower because I had to repeatedly stop and pump up my slowly-leaking rear tire. Ugh.

Limping into San Jose de Maipo, I decided to call it a day. This being a Chilean tourist town, the campground cost about $9, and offered no power outlets, crappy picnic tables, and no hot water. To compensate for this highway robbery, I met a German bike tourist named Jürgen, who spoke good English and had cycled extensively in Southeast Asia. Among other things, I learned that the Chilean coast near Santiago is actually pleasant. I had been avoiding it, assuming it was a desert hellscape like the Peruvian cost near Lima, but it might offer a viable north-south route on a future trip.

Lots of bike-pushing

I continued up-valley late the next morning, thinking it would not take long to reach the end of the road past. The road is now paved all the way to Baños Morales, so most of the climb went easily. Unfortunately, the remaining climb to the Marmolejo trailhead at El Cabrerio is bumpy dirt, 1.5 lanes wide, crowded with large mining trucks, and averages a 10% grade. With a full trailer, I ended up pushing my bike most of the time, seething a bit each time a deafeningly-loud truck passed. I located the trail, then found a nice campsite a bit farther up the valley and filtered some silty water for dinner. I was about to set up my tent when a mine truck pulled up next to me, and the driver told me I had to move because they would be blasting soon.

I found a safe spot to watch the blast equidistant between the two goat pens, noting that the debris came nowhere close to where I had wanted to camp. The miners drove by again to tell me it was all clear, but I had already set up my tent by then, and it didn’t smell too badly of goat, so I stayed where I was. The goat-herds left me alone, but one of their dogs peed on my tent the next morning while I was eating breakfast. Joy. I loaded up my pack with tent, crampons, boots, ice axe, and several days’ food, hid my bike in the rocks, and took off up the maze of goat trails. Having biked to 7,750′, I hoped to climb the remaining 12,300′ in three days round-trip.

Andes improvement project

The trails are easy to follow up to the Estero la Engorda, a field of spiny plants where the goats disperse and feed. I did not want to wade across the Estero Colina, so I stayed to the right on the way up, hoping to find a place to hop across in broad, boulder-strewn mess leading up to a headwall. However, the stream always remained just a bit too wide and fierce, and the going got worse as the valley steepened. I knew I would ultimately want to be on this side of the stream higher up, but the terrain remained loose and miserable, and I saw a well-defined trail on the other side. I eventually found a sketchy crossing that involved a jump and one wet foot, but it was worth it to have a trail again. Along the way, I watched a massive rockslide on one of the unnamed peaks left of the stream. Maybe in another ten million years, the Andes will be less chossy.

11,000′ camp

The trail crosses the stream again at another flat area around 11,000′, where there are some campsites. I managed to cross most of the braided channels with dry feet, but could not find a way to avoid wading the last. It was barely calf-deep and no more than twenty feet wide, but I waded it in shoes and socks, then wrung them out on the other side. Experience has taught me that this is the best way to cross mountain streams, in terms of both safety and speed. Crossing barefoot is less secure and much slower (i.e. colder), and it takes only slightly longer to wring out socks and insoles than it does to take off shoes and put them back on. Hiking in wet shoes is slightly cold and harder on the feet, but this part of the Andes is arid enough for shoes and socks to dry overnight.

Much-diminished Colina glacier

While many people camp here, I needed to at least reach the camping area around 14,000′ on Marmolejo’s northwest ridge if I wanted to summit the next day. The trail disappeared again in the miserable boulder-field above the Estero Colina, but I could see it clearly to the right of the valley’s head, climbing steeply to the saddle with Cerro Cortaderas. Incredibly, I found a camping table and signs of a mule camp at the base of the steep part; who knew mules were so good on talus fields? The steep part of the climb was agonizingly slow with my heavy pack, and cold once I reached the ridge and was no longer sheltered from the wind. I reached the camping area late in the day, finding a couple of stashed backpacks and a dozen or so rock barriers scattered around a flat area. There was no nearby water or snow to melt, but fortunately I had hauled enough water for dinner and breakfast from the Estero Colina. I set up my tent with stiff hands, cooked glop, and set my alarm for a reasonably alpine start.

High camp and summit

I started hiking the next day just after headlamp time, making my way up the broad talus ridge that is the peak’s only weakness. I found a bit of a trail near the glacier, and broke the ice on a nearby puddle with my boot to get some water. The trail continued to a (better) camp near the glacier, where I found an orange mountaineering tent. The glacier is much smaller now than it appears on maps, and no longer continuous, so the climb is a mix of snow/ice and sand. This being the high Andes, its surface is mostly hellish penitentes, up to head-high in places, so it is best to stick to the sand where possible. I wove through the spines on the flat lower glacier, finding some fresh crampon tracks as I aimed for what looked like the least-spiky part and the shortest path back to dry ground.

Cortaderas, Meson Alto, Loma Larga

After hiking up more sand, one has to cross the larger, upper part of the glacier, where the penitentes are slightly smaller, but there are numerous significant crevasses. I took a line crossing below most of them, hopped some, found penitente bridges over others, then wove through more spikes to reach the upper volcano slog. There were a few patches of fresh snow, but it was mostly bare, and I found a bit of a trail. Still, it was the usual slow going at altitude, and the wind was intense. Near the summit, I met the other group on their way down, taking a slightly different line. I had a brief, shouted conversation with one of them, neither of us conveying much information, then continued up the final slog.

SE glacier

The southeast side of the the summit is more impressive, with colorful and chossy cliffs dropping to a large glacier. However, the wind was intense enough to discourage me from spending much time. I took the necessary photos, then quickly retreated, catching up to the other group near the upper glacier. While they wandered far to the left for some reason, I chose a higher line, hoping to pass above most of the crevasses and avoid some penitentes. Neither thing happened: I ended up crossing at least as many crevasses, and the penitentes were at least as large and numerous.

I reached my camp with enough time to pack up and move down to 11,000′, but had no reason to do so, and figured that staying another night higher would help me keep my acclimatization for peaks to come. I watched the sunset from my tent, then packed up and hiked down to my bike the next day. I was fairly certain that the mine road headed north from El Cabrerio led to the Estero Morado, my next goal, and I had enough food, but I wanted to eat something fresh for a change, so I dropped down to Baños Morales for the night, gritting my teeth at having to repeat the bike-pushing climb the next morning. I talked to a climber couple up from Santiago for the weekend, who assured me that yes, there is rock solid enough to climb, then found some eggs and a sad onion to add to my polenta for dinner.

Leaving the Puna

Parting view of 6000m peaks

I had skipped writing about my descent from the Atacama, but there are some things I would like to remember, which will hopefully be of interest to the reader. I woke up relatively early in the Orange House, and was on the road as soon as it was warm enough for my hands to handle riding downhill. It was about forty kilometers to Chilean customs at Maricunga, and I made great time on the smooth asphalt, both descending to the Salar and heading north along the salt flat. The descent follows the Rio Lamas, which briefly emerges to produce a couple of waterfalls before spending its precious fluids in the salt flat. I am not sure if the river is easy to reach at this point, or if its contents are usably low in salt and other minerals, but this would be worth studying before returning to the Puna.

A long ways from home

I had heard from various sources that Chilean customs were more particular than the Argentinian ones, so I was concerned that I would get into all sorts of trouble when they noticed that it had somehow taken me ten days to cover less than a hundred miles from the Argentinian guardpost just before the Paso San Francisco to the Chilean one. I pictured time in a windowless room, handcuffed to a table. However, the Aduana de Chile did not live up to its reputation. Entering the customs building, I was initially worried to find an X-ray scanner and some people waiting in line at a window. I looked around a bit, though, and noticed some hand-written signs on copier paper saying “ADUANA ➡,” leading to an office in the back.

Maricunga peak

I eventually found a man sitting behind an aging Dell office computer, and stood in the hall confused until he beckoned me in. I handed him my passport, then sat down while he looked at it and rummaged in his desk for the necessary forms. The tinny little speakers connected to his computer were blasting some of the most generic possible techno, whose generic techno woman was repeating “don’t want no small… dick… man” ad nauseam. I succeeded in not completely losing it, but the officer might have noticed that something was amiss, since he did at least turn down the volume. I filled out one form saying I was entering via Maricunga from Fiambala, another declaring that I was riding a gray Specialized bicycle, and I was almost free to go. A man intercepted me on my way out, and rummaged through my bags a bit. He had no problem with the few remaining calories brought from Fiambala, or with the tortillas and cheese given to me by Angela (which came from Chile anyways; thanks!); perhaps the dirty laundry right on top encouraged him to hurry.

Decent dirt

With that, I was almost on my way; all that remained was to find water. The bathroom sinks were turned off, and some guy pointed me around the corner when I asked inside. I did not find an obvious spigot, but I did see a giant plastic water tank, which I assumed was potable. I looked around to make sure no one was watching, then dipped my water bottles. I had covered 40 kilometers in not much time, and still had well over 3000 meters to lose in the next 160. How bad could it be…?

Switchbacks to pass

Well, for starters the pavement ended a few hundred yards past the border post, where the road turns left to cross the north end of the Salar. It was good, treated dirt, not the washboard stuff I had experienced on my way north, but still had a noticeable effect on my speed. Second, when I had glanced at the route’s elevation profile, the enormous overall descent had drowned out what turned out to be a climb back over 14,000′ to get out of the Maricunga hole. Between the dirt, the altitude, and the uphill, this was slow going.

Vicuñas near pass

Realizing that I had probably not grabbed enough water at the border post, and unsure where I might find more, I stopped downstream of some vicuñas at a nasty little pond to filter as much as I could carry. I later found several clear-flowing springs higher up the valley, but I already had as much as I could carry. I had to stop and pant after a couple of the upper switchbacks, but eventually made it to the pass around noon, where I stopped for lunch. This consisted of several tortillas with a mixture of American cheese (ugh) and slices of a contraband Fiambala sausage I found at the bottom of my bag. I was in no real hurry, as the remaining 120 or so kilometers were all downhill, and the sun sets late in Chile at this time of year.

The dirt got much worse on the first part of the descent, a series of tight, steep switchbacks. I had packed my trailer well for downhill riding, with the tent inside and all other heavy things on bottom, but it was still slow going. I found myself riding the breaks enough that I had to stop and rest my hands a few times. I was glad I had not ridden up this side of the pass with two weeks of food, as I would have spent hours pushing my bike. Near the bottom of the steep part, where the road passes some hot springs and abandoned buildings, it gradually became paved. The pavement was not the nice, smooth, striped stuff of the Atacama, but more like asphalt that had been haphazardly pounded into the dirt.

Below the switchbacks, but still above 3500m elevation, the road enters a broad, dry wash, which it follows almost the entire way to Copiapo. Picture one of the broad washes in Death Valley or Nevada, but 80 miles long. This is when the headwind began. This was not merely a general west wind off the Pacific, which would be less directly head-on as the valley turned, but an up-valley wind that remained perfectly against me for the rest of the day. The result was that it took me around 12 hours of riding to cover 120 miles while losing 13,000 feet.

Narrow canyon on descent

The scenery was mostly monotonous, a rocky wash between the barren ridges of desert peaks whose elevation decreased in lockstep with the valley, but there were a few exceptions. First, there was an ugly mining town high up in the valley. Farther down, I ran into what seemed like hundreds of goats crossing the road near the only water source. The mud spattering my bike from a few stream crossings was liberally mixed with fresh goat turd, which dries more slowly. I did not slow down or stop for water here, as it was one of the only stretches where I did not have a headwind. Lower still, the road went through a narrow, steep canyon, one of the few scenic parts of the descent.

I was tempted to stop in some ruined adobe buildings near the mouth of the wash, which would at least provide some shelter from the wind. However I had already consumed too much of my water to cook another dinner and breakfast, committing myself to continue to Copiapo for the night. After several more short stops to stretch and generally hate life, I finally reached the well-paved highway leading northeast from Copiapo, and with it real pavement. The headwind was still there, but I was noticeably faster.

Copiapo does not give the best first impression from this side. The road passes first some mines and ore-processing plants, then a large tin-shack slum. It was getting on towards evening at this point, and I was wrecked, so I stopped at the first convenience store I saw to get a soda and find the closest hotels. The first proved to be a small local joint, apparently closed for the night at 9:00 PM. The second was an extremely American-looking place on the main road, surrounded by fences. However, the gate opened as soon as I pushed the buzzer, and there was a guy in the office. The room was about $25 per night, an absurd price compared to my normal lodgings, but I did not care at this point. As I enjoyed my first shower in two weeks, and the first real Western one since… Santiago?… it almost seemed worth it.

Bike touring stats, part 1

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the first (red) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Copiapo, are 1350 miles and 80,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 51 days. That is a pathetic-sounding average of only 26.5 miles and 1570 feet of gain per day, but I also did some peak-bagging on the side…

Along the way, I tagged 14 real summits plus Cerro de la Gloria in Mendoza. That’s a pathetic average of only one peak every 3.6 days, but I also did some bike riding…

Tres Cruces Norte

Atacama panorama

Tres Cruces Norte is the lowest of the three Tres Cruces peaks, being just over 6000 meters, with not quite enough prominence to count as a peak by whatever definition is used in this part of the Andes. While I had in theory left myself the option of climbing Tres Cruces Central, I knew I lacked the energy and will. Even the pathetic 2500-foot climb to Norte, plus a downhill hike and bike back to the Orange House, was about all that I could handle at this point. Fortunately it was a much more enjoyable peak than Sur, with no loose talus, a bit of almost-scrambling, a couple of interesting lakes along the way, and a great view of the higher Tres Cruces peaks to one side, and the Salar de Maricunga to the other. It was kind of a weak ending to my Atacama trip, but held just about the right amount of challenge and reward.

Norte from saddle

From my camp below the Central-Sur saddle, I made a long, mostly level traverse north around Tres Cruces Central. There was no established path, and no best or most level path, but the side-hilling was not so bad. However, as soon as I started climbing to the Central-Norte saddle around 5700m I was painfully slow, almost to the point of wanting to turn back. The final 1000-foot climb to the summit looked like a slog, so I spent awhile sitting next to the frozen lake at the saddle, eating Mantecol and psyching myself up.

Summit lake

The climb out of the saddle turned out much easier than I had expected. First, I found a switchback boot-pack up the sand and scree. Second, I was able to kick steps up some rare non-penitente snow. Far sooner than I had hoped, I found myself at the 5950-meter sub-summit. The traverse to the true summit, at the far end of the plateau a bit under a kilometer away, took longer than it should have, but I was cheered by views of a liquid lake, and by a bit of solid rock. I may have even used my hands in one or two places. I am curious why some bodies of water remain liquid in the Atacama, while others freeze. Somehow the tiny tarn at 6000 meters between the two southern peaks was liquid in the morning, despite it being quite cold there, while the larger lake at the northern saddle was frozen. Perhaps contact with a neighboring snowfield or glacier makes just enough of a difference to freeze a high lake, while the solar intensity so close to the equator keeps water liquid even though air temperatures are (I think) below freezing all day and night.

It still tasted like food

I had many reasons to take my time at the summit: this was my last Atacama peak this trip, and possibly ever; it was sunny and not too windy; the views were great in all directions; there was a summit register; and previous climbers had left about 500 calories of candy. In the interest of “picking up litter,” I ate all the candy, including some “tatranky” that I only later realized later had expired in 2012. Oh, well, calories are calories.

Yes, it’s windy

After signing the register, I said “goodbye” to the Atacama, and took my time returning to camp, then packing up and slogging down to my bike. Fortunately I had left a waypoint where I stashed it, because I took the wrong one of the many vehicle tracks. It was crazy-windy by the time I reached it, and clouds were covering the higher Tres Cruces peaks, so I opted to spend another night in the Orange House. It was over 120 miles to Copiapo from there, but also over 12,000 feet downhill, so it seemed like it would be a reasonable one-day ride.

Tres Cruces Sur

Welcome to hell

I had planned to tag Cerro Medusa, another 6000-meter peak, from my camp between Ojos and El Muerto, but did not have the energy for that much high-altitude hiking, so I decided to start late and simply take a “commute” day. I hiked back to the road and down to my bike, then wove and jostled my way down toward the refugio, where I hoped to find a barrel containing usable water. The ride over washboard and sand was not pleasant, but was far better and slightly faster than walking. As I neared the Refugio Murray, I saw a few people outside, staring curiously at me as I gradually approached, weaving between various tire tracks to find the smoothest and least sandy.

I asked about the rumored water barrel, which apparently does not exist, making the Agua Dulce the only usable water source below about 5000 meters. However, the people watching me fortunately turned out to be two Brits and their Chilean guide, just returning from a big expedition to Ojos with lots of food and water to spare. They generously shared both, and I did not have much farther to go, so I spent most of the afternoon talking to them. One of the Brits was a doctor living in Guatemala, who had the enviable job of teaching wilderness medicine courses in the world’s most interesting places. The guide, a small and lively woman from San Pedro de Atacama, had climbed all over the Andes, often carrying a pack weighing most of what she did. After plenty of good food and welcome English conversation, I left with a bit more food, including tuna and a large jar of peanut butter, a rarity outside the United States.

Single-use anemometer

The afternoon storms had unfortunately arrived by the time I headed west down the highway, so I had to fight a headwind and intermittent rain. The numerous “single-use Chilean anemometers” (i.e. road signs) told me that yes, in fact, it was windy. Today, it was strong enough that I usually encountered the rain in sunny patches, so I was never too cold. It was nice to be back on pavement, until I noticed that my back tire was low. I really did not want to fix a flat, since that would involve putting a sealant-free tube into my tubeless tires, so I repeatedly stopped to pump up the tire, then spin it to give the sealant a chance to repair the damage. I eventually realized that the paving crew had paved right over the 1″x2″ stakes used to mark the road, which conveniently fell right on the white line. Some of these were obvious, but others protruded only a jagged and tire-destroying centimeter above the pavement. Fortunately the sealant eventually won the battle, and I limped on to the junction with the dirt road toward Tres Cruces.


I did not look forward to spending a windy evening in my tent, so when I saw an orange building a few hundred yards farther down the road, I went to investigate. This turned out to be some sort of newly-built information kiosk, not a refugio, but clearly I was not the first person to use it as such. It was little bigger than my tent inside, but just large enough to lay out my tarp and dry my stuff, which had been soaked by my leaky water bladder. I spent a pleasant evening there, enjoying the novelty of tuna mixed with my polenta.

Tres Cruces from bike stash

The next morning I got a reasonably early start up the Tres Cruces road. Since it sees much less traffic than the one toward Ojos, it becomes completely unridable where it enters a sandy wash. I stashed my bike behind some rocks, then took off on foot for base camp, slogging up one of several alternate “roads” — in classic Atacama fashion, people had driven wherever they felt like doing so. Nowadays the approach is drivable all the way to about 5300 meters via a road skirting south of a minor hill. From a distance, I saw another group just packing their truck and leaving, but did not feel like talking. It was only early afternoon, and the weather was good enough that I could have continued to the high camp at the 6000-meter saddle between Tres Cruces Sur and Central, but I was feeling lazy. I told myself it would be awfully cold up there, and easy enough to tag both peaks in a day with a light pack, then settled into a flat spot near the stream.

Tarn at 6000m

Hoping for a big day, I got a pre-dawn start, slogging up a faint path to the saddle, where there was nice camping by the promised tarn. I was feeling slower than usual, so I headed for the higher Tres Cruces Sur first. Things quickly turned unpleasant, as I lost the faint path and began side-hilling toward where I thought the route was. I eventually saw the trail again, lower down toward a broad gully leading to peak’s northwest ridge. I slid and scrabbled my way down to it, losing precious elevation, but found that it was only slightly better than the slope I had been fighting.

South glacier and snowy Atacama peaks

The gully eventually reached the ridge around 6450 meters; from there, the summit was only 300 meters and less than a kilometer away. However, those last thousand feet were perhaps the most miserable I have ever climbed. All of it was large, unstable talus covered in several inches of fresh snow. This kind of climbing is bad enough at 10,000 feet, and unimaginably worse at 11,000 feet higher. I finally reached the summit area with only one or two slow-motion falls, only to find a maze of volcanic pinnacles, forming endless false summits. I headed toward where I thought the true summit might be, finally topping out on one of a few similarly-high bumps on the edge of the large south glacier. If you must climb this peak, I recommend somehow ascending the glacier, which would be infinitely less immiserating.

Norte and Central from Sur

The descent was only slightly faster, though I managed to link up a few more of the patchy permanent snowfields. The “trail” sucked on the way down, being too solid to boot-ski, but too soft to walk easily. I looked up at Tres Cruces Central, a mere 1500 feet above the saddle, but I was utterly broken at this point. I lied to myself that I would come back for it the next day, then trudged back to camp. In retrospect, I might have been able to do both in a day if I had camped at the saddle, and if there were no snow, but even in perfect conditions, this route on Tres Cruces Sur would be pure misery.

Ojos del Salado

Sunrise on Ojos and camp

Ojos del Salado is the second-highest peak in South America, the highest volcano in the world, and likely the highest thing I will ever climb. It was therefore, in some sense, this trip’s “main event,” though I took a roundabout way of reaching it, and lingered for an inexplicably long time afterward. I took the standard Chilean route, but probably thanks to the new snow, had the peak to myself on a calm and briefly clear day. Though the Alpenvereinskarte shows a route from the saddle with El Muerto, I chose to take the standard route from near the 5800m refugio, preferring my choss well-packed.

Dawn on El Muerto

Once again anticipating afternoon showers, I got a rare headlamp start, a cold endeavor at 5450m, and possibly a time-wasting one when traveling cross-country. However, it was less cold than it could been, and I did not waste too much time on the ascending traverse toward the standard route. I lost some time rooting among the various use trails above the hut, eventually finding the correct one shortly after my headlamp became unnecessary. Stopping to stow it and have a snack, I waited a bit too long to put on my down jacket, and my hands chose this moment to go full Reynaud’s. I therefore got to put on my jacket and heavy gloves using a combination of aching stiff hands and teeth. Then I spent the next hour or so sweating uphill in a down parka, waiting for my body to decide it was warm enough to resume supplying blood to my hands.

El Muerto, El Fraile, Incahuasi

There were clear up- and down-trails, but with the fresh snow, the most efficient line tended to be a mix of the two, as the up-trail was often full of fresh snow, while the loose sand and choss in the down-trail were frozen together enough to offer stable footing. The trail apparently crosses to the right above a snowfield, but I found it easier to head straight up the talus toward the crater. I briefly tried to cross the crater directly, then realized that this was a terrible idea when I postholed into a couple of buried penitente-holes. Returning to the crater entrance, I picked up the standard trail, and made my agonizing way around toward the summit through calf-deep snow.

Following trail around crater

The summit was very close, but at above 22,000′ I was killing myself to move uphill at two breaths per step. Even this pace was a bit too quick in the steep chute leading up to the saddle between the Chilean and Argentinian summits. I finally reached the “technical” section, finding it protected by a couple of decent-looking hand-lines. I ignored them on the way up, finding the climbing not much more difficult than I would have 10,000′ lower. Climbing fourth or low fifth class rock covered in fresh snow in boots and gloves was just slow and thought-provoking enough to keep it from being a cardiovascular activity. The final climb to the Chilean summit was a bit thought-provoking, being slabby and exposed, and it required a bit of excavation to find some footholds.

Chillaxing on summit

Reaching the summit, I dusted off the Banco de Chile box for use as a warm, dry seat. There were scattered clouds building, but not enough to obscure magnificent views of the Tres Cruces peaks to the west (my next targets), snow-clad Incahuasi and El Fraile far to the east, various peaks I could not name to the south, and numerous high lakes nearby. It was nearly windless, and the mid-day sun reflected off the snow made it comfortable to sit for awhile. I took my time, as I had particularly fine conditions, and it was the only time I would visit this summit.

Argentinian from Chilean summit

I did not hesitate to use the handlines on the way down, especially on the slabby section. I had hoped to traverse over the Argentinian summit and descend straight to my camp, but none of the possible routes from the saddle looked appealing. All were in the shade, and looked like powder over outward-sloping and loose choss. I believe the best approach would be to traverse down and right, then climb a lower-angle section back to the Argentinian route, but I did not have it in me. Instead, I retreated the way I had come, then took the standard trail back toward the orange 5800m hut. The upper mountain was enveloped in clouds while I was still around 6500m, emphasizing my good luck and timing.

Crazy ice pinnacle

I took off cross-country for camp above the refugio, taking a slightly different line and finding slightly easier going by daylight. I also found a nice tarn that perfectly reflected Ojos, and some odd penitentes, including an isolated pillar of ice and snow standing at least 8 feet tall out of bare sand. Back to the tent, I got more water for hot chocolate, then kicked back to watch the afternoon weather and reflect on the day. Slowly panting and stumbling around the crater, I realized that “high altitude mountaineering” is just “slow mountaineering.” Chop off the bottom 10,000′, and Ojos del Salado would be a moderate but forgettable desert scramble with a nice view, something I might do to break up a long drive across Nevada. I do not avoid suffering in the mountains, but I prefer my mountaineering to consist of more than just pain. Climbing Ojos convinced me that I have no interest whatsoever in doing a walk-up 8000m peak, neither to see what it feels like nor to say I had done it. I can extrapolate well enough from the Ojos experience that it would be nothing more than suffering at an even slower pace.

El Muerto

El Muerto, showing route

[There is still a fair amount of catching-up to do, but with shorter excursions and more civilization, that should start happening. — ed.]

El Muerto is a high 6000m peak next to Ojos del Salado, sharing much of its road approach. Its slightly lower elevation makes it much less popular, which counts as an advantage to me. The Alpenvereinskarte shows routes up Muerto, Ojos, and Cerro Medusa from the Muerto-Ojos saddle at 5500m, so that seemed like an efficient base camp. In the end I only tagged Ojos and Muerto, the former via the standard route, and used a base camp in a sheltered dell around 5450m with easier water, but it was still a good route choice.

Laguna Verde reflections

Waking at a reasonable hour at Laguna Verde, I hummed a little Bach a bit more happily and loudly than necessary as I packed, hoping to exact the morning person’s passive-aggressive vengeance upon my late-talking neighbors. I could have backtracked a few miles to top off on Agua Dulce water, but (1) I was suck of its seaweed taste, and (2) I thought I had enough to reach my intended camping area, which seemed likely to have some kind of water. I took some photos of the sunrise scenery near the lake, said “good morning” to the Germans as they headed toward Mulas Muertas for acclimatization, then began the short ride.

Road to the Refugio Murray

I followed the pavement for a bit, admiring the fresh snow in all directions, then took off on a dead-straight dirt road headed for the refugio at the base of all Ojos del Salado climbs. It was good dirt by Atacama standards, but still the usual washboard, so I spent my time hunting left and right for the least-bad path. Most of the way there, I turned off on a corner-cutting road up the wash. It was an almost unridable mixture of washboard and sand in this direction, but I was still moving at a fast walk, and reasoned that it would be slightly faster in the other direction, and therefore was worth riding.

El Muerto, Ojos, and… hah-hah!

I found the main road from the refugio no better when I finally joined it, but the same logic still, so I gradually ground my way toward the peak. Where the “road” crossed the wash and spread into a half-dozen tire tracks made by drivers desperately struggling with the sand, I was amused to pass an SUV stuck axle-deep. I had to push my bike a bit, but that was far easier than pushing a car. I finally switched from cycling to walking where the road left the wash. In retrospect, it might have been more efficient to keep going, since there were numerous ridable sections above, and even one downhill, but the climb looked like it would require a lot of pushing above 15,000′, and there were some convenient rocks in which to hide my bike. The Russians passed me slightly higher up, racing by on a side-road in their Hilux, with the woman driving and not even slightly slowing down to acknowledge my presence.

El Muerto, with skiable Incahuasi behind

Rounding a bend, I was impressed to see the amount of fresh snow on Incahuasi and El Fraile. Both peaks had been nearly dry when I climbed them, but the former was definitely skiable now. A more polite driver offered me a lift here, but their truck seemed full, and I was close to where I would leave the road, so I politely declined. The road has several branches here, cutting progressively lower to avoid an un-drivable washout; I was able to cut directly across on foot.

The lonely path I tread

I finally left the road where it wallows through another sandy wash before it turns right and heads for the Refugio Atacama. My path started out as a cross-country slog through sand and boulders, but I soon found some old footprints, then a set of tire tracks following occasional cairns. These made for slightly easier walking than the surrounding desert, so I followed them past rocks that seemed to have been sandblasted by the prevailing winds. Where they turned toward Ojos, I continued up a faint wash, then contoured around toward a point just below the Ojos-Muerto saddle. I dropped slightly into the drainage to its northwest, where I found a nice flat-bottomed area. It was somewhat sheltered from the wind, contained a couple of clear penitente-melt streams, and had numerous flat spots. I chose one to be my home for the next few days, and set up camp just in time to hide from the afternoon thunder-snow.

El Muerto

(I wish I had had appropriate “Death Mountain” music on my phone.)

Sunrise on Ojos and camp

This was a west-facing route with not a whole lot of elevation gain, but I also expected the usual afternoon weather, so I got started at a respectable hour, leaving my tent before the sun reached it. Though it was cold, I was surprised to still find some liquid water making its way across the sand-flats from various buried penitentes. I turned to watch the shadow descend snowy Ojos del Salado as I climbed, highlighting the well-trod switchbacks of the standard route on its sandy north face.

Sidehill and Ojos

El Muerto does not see enough traffic to have such a path, but I did eventually find an old boot-pack after traversing most of the way around the prominent subsidiary peak to its west. One advantage of the steady precipitation is that it stabilizes the ubiquitous sand, particularly in the morning when it is frozen. This made the ascending sidehill somewhat more bearable, and I hoped it would have softened enough on my descent to allow for fast plunge-stepping. Past the subpeak, the route switchbacks up toward the saddle, then heads through a mixture of sand and rocky outcrops to the summit. The slope to the saddle was unpleasantly loose, so I instead headed left through the rocks, aiming directly for where I thought the summit should be. After a bit of route-finding to keep things class 3, it was mostly a class 2 meander. I found occasional footprints here and there, but since there is little traffic and no obvious “best” route, one is largely left to find one’s own way.

Near-summit view

Slowly, oh so slowly, I ground my way to the summit, which is one of several equally-high piles of rock protecting a small icefield in what may be a shallow crater. The clouds reached the summit at almost the same time that I did, but I had already seen most of the surrounding peaks on the way up, with the exception of a clear view of Incahuasi and El Fraile. I sat around looking at the summit glacier for a few minutes, then headed back for camp before it started raining or snowing. I took a higher and sandier line, heading closer to the saddle before dropping down, then followed the bootpack on the long sidehill toward camp. The ground unfortunately had not softened, so the descent was a slow, ankle-punishing scrabble on ball bearings over hardpack. I reached camp in the early afternoon, grabbed some water, made hot chocolate, then spent the rest of the day watching the weather and contemplating how best to do Ojos.