Capitol Butte and the Sedona Kitsch Vortex

Town from Capitol

Climbing with Renee was one of the fixed points in my evolving winter plan, so I rallied down from southeast Utah to the kitschy little town of Sedona, south of Flagstaff. Despite countless trips through Flagstaff, I had never taken the thirty-mile side-trip south off the Kaibab Plateau, and while I was impressed by the abrupt drop from ponderosa forest to sandstone desert, the “no camping next N miles” sign hinted that I was entering a place incompatible with my dirtbag essence. According to Wikipedia,

In the mid-1950s, the first telephone directory listed 155 names. Some parts of the Sedona area were not electrified until the 1960s. Sedona began to develop as a tourist destination, vacation-home and retirement center in the 1950s. Most of the development seen today was constructed in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 2007, there are no large tracts of undeveloped land remaining.

In other words, the place has almost no history, what little history it does have is bad, and it has been overpopulated for the last decade. Be that as it may, I drove through the tourist schlock emporia among the pink jeeps, and found a place to park along the road below the overflowing trailhead for Capitol Butte.

Capitol Butte
Whatever its flaws, Sedona is surrounded by interesting sandstone buttes, and Capitol, being one of the most prominent, seemed likely to have a good sunset view. It is also reachable by a short, steep trail, so I could get a quick workout after my long drive and make it back to the car without headlamp time. Being used to the cold Utah desert, I was surprised at how warm Sedona was, given that it is at the same elevation as Grand Gulch and Mexican Hat. Even standing still in the shade, I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt. I found the correct trail and the unsigned but well-used turnoff to Capitol, and had little trouble following the route on the way up. There are several braided paths, and while I may not have chosen the best, I did not lose much time. The route had a few runnable sections, but was mostly either too steep, or involved brush and rock steps, with several third class sections. If for some reason I ended up living in Sedona, it would make a fun workout peak. I reached the summit in time to enjoy the evening light on the sandstone north and east of town, then made it back to the car around dusk. The correct trail was harder to follow on the descent, and I wandered off-route several times before using my Strava track to correct my error.

Sunset from Capitol
Once back at the car, I panned around the map for awhile looking for likely sleeping spots, and eventually settled on Boynton Pass Road. I have been doing this for awhile, so I was not surprised to have chosen correctly. However, I was surprised at both how far out I had to drive, and how crowded it was, hosting a mixture of the ubiquitous Sprinters with California plates, rental camper-vans, RVs, and trailers. I was tired and it was dark, so I settled into the first spot with a faint cell signal and a bit of privacy, ate my usual dinner glop, and turned in.

I woke well before dawn, then met Renee at a more civilized hour to climb a multi-pitch sport route I had found on Mountain Project, Motorboating. Given the distances and parking difficulties, it seemed easiest to approach by bike, so we rode the “moderate” trail to the base. Renee, being a competent mountain biker on a capable bike, probably enjoyed the rocky trail more than I did, but it was still an interesting challenge to negotiate as much as I could on my gravel bike with a heavy pack. We locked our bikes together off the trail, then scrambled toward a likely-looking starting point, getting ready to climb, and walking our gear along a ledge when we realized we were at the wrong place.

Motorboating goes up that
The route was somewhat disappointing in a couple of ways. Have the pitches were easy enough to barely require a rope, and it was necessary to walk the rope between belays. Worse, the sport route did not top out on the formation, so I did not get points for a summit. I was glad to be climbing with Renee, who both knows me and is patient, because I was a bumbling and incompetent partner after two or more years without climbing on a rope. On top of that, I managed to drop my long-suffering phone while leading the last pitch. Fortunately the case absorbed the first blow, and it landed through a bush onto sloping dirt. It has been a tough year for the poor little thing, which needs to last until Apple’s new “mini” (i.e. “normal-sized”) phones are available for cheap.

Renee following for a change
Renee was on child care duty for the afternoon, but we had just enough time to toprope the first two pitches of the route, which we had skipped with our mistaken approach. Lowering in from the top, I failed to bring any gear to redirect the rope, and was forced to climb the 5.10a variation. I flailed and fell and hung on the thin feet and crimps, but struggled through rather than giving up and untying at the bottom. Renee did a much better job, climbing it patiently and cleanly. We packed up, then rode back to town, finding the trail much more rideable in the slightly downhill direction. I killed some time internetting, then drove back out toward Boynton Pass to camp. It was even more crowded than the last time, so after a fruitless foray farther, I settled into my previous spot with a few more neighbors. It was almost like “camping” in an RV park, and soured me further on Sedona.

Still a bit too young
Renee was on Tyler duty on our final day, so we found a crag with some moderates and a very short approach, curious whether he would have the agility and motivation to play on a 5.7. I thought he might do well, since climbing the slabby routes we had found the previous day would be a bit like crawling. Unfortunately this area was steeper, so the 5.7s were relatively steep with big steps and handholds, too far apart to be doable for a three-year-old. The first route we climbed was dirty, with lots of rubble perched on ledges and ready to bombard the belayer while lowering. The second was at least clean and fun, and a little more kid-friendly, but by that time he had exhausted his motivation, and preferred to snack and play with dirt. He helpfully brushed off some of the lower holds, which Renee and I hoped would lead to actual climbing, but it was not to be. I doubt I would enjoy being a parent, but I do enjoy observing my friends’ kids’ development. My brother and I were both capable of a variety of outdoor activities by the age of five, but two years makes an enormous difference around that age. Even a four-year-old we saw on the way back to the car was quite a bit more capable, though apparently not enough so be motivated to climb.

Fortunately Renee had some more time later in the day to climb, so we were able to get on some more challenging routes. We both cleanly led a 5.8 and 5.9, with the latter feeling close to my limit these days. This was a pleasant surprise, since even when I was eight years younger and climbing more regularly, I never led more than about 5.9-5.10a. I suppose years of scrambling experience and my current leanness make up for my lack of practice and approaching decrepitude. In any case, it was a pleasant way to end the day. We toproped a couple of made-up and chossier routes nearby while talking to another pair of climbers, then went our separate ways. I was anxious to escape Sedona before being sucked into a vortex of yuppitude.

Buckskin Gulch

Despite making many trips between the Rockies and Sierra, and even a few to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, I have seldom traveled the route through Shiprock, Page, and Kanab, and have paid little attention to things along the way. While there are some peaks in the area, it is mostly a country of mesas, buttes, and canyons, which have never been my focus. However, when Ted mentioned Buckskin Gulch and the Wave on a recent peak-bagging hike, I decided to pay the area a brief visit. So I assembled a random collection of routes and goals and, after a side-trip for a social hike up Placer Peak near Santa Fe, took off for the Land of Polygamy.

Aside: I am not very familiar with online resources for information on non-peaks. Alltrails.com has a lot of information on everything from Jeep tours to cross-country hikes, wrapped up in a slickly, disgustingly commercial website, but I have no idea of the quality of its information or the nature of its contributors. Hikearizona.com is similar, and at least nominally more local. I suspect such hiking sites are all hopeless. While peak-baggers vary in skill, they all share a simple goal — getting to the top of piles of rocks — so sites like SummitPost, Peakbagger, and ListsofJohn can be focused and useful. The same is true for for climbers and MountainProject. Hikers, however, have too many unrelated goals, many of which they probably cannot articulate. I have sometimes found Strava helpful when looking for run-hikes in unfamiliar areas, probably because it selects for people interested in moving faster than a walk.

I locked my bike to the fence at White House trailhead, then drove around to Wire Pass, which adds several miles to the bike shuttle, but cuts off some hiking miles and possibly offers better scenery. Wire Pass is also the starting point for the Wave, a popular hike to a feature in North Coyote Buttes that requires reservations through a lottery in Kanab. Lottery winners seem to attach large green tags to their packs, making it hard to poach the trail. The trailhead has a large parking lot, regularly filled with day hikers’ cars, but there were only a handful of cars there overnight, so I had a quiet evening.

Utah is on Mountain Daylight Time, so the sun does not rise until after 8:00 this time of year. I could have started by headlamp, but I wanted to actually see things on this hike, so I waited until it was reasonably light, and threw my headlamp in my pack in case I ended up riding back after dark. Different sources listed the route as anywhere from 22 to 30 miles (the former is probably correct), and I did not know what sort of terrain to expect. The first part, descending a well-traveled and -packed wash, was quick and runnable, but most of the rest was slow for various reasons.

Once the canyon narrows, it is impossible to get lost. In the eleven or so miles between there and the Paria River, there is only one way to escape the canyon, a third class scramble leading to the Cobra Arch trailhead. As long as you turn right at Buckskin Gulch, then left at the Paria, you will get to Whitehouse. Though there are a few wider places, most of Buckskin Gulch is twisted and narrow, with only a narrow slit of sky visible, and no direct sunlight this time of year. The gulch appears to follow a natural fissure in the sandstone, between fifty and a few hundred feet deep, that has been widened by millenia of flash floods.

There are a couple of boulder-piles requiring a bit of scrambling, but the route is mostly an easy walk until reaching the Paria. However, both the scenery and the frequent rocky ground make it a poor run. Visiting after the summer rains and before winter’s freezing temperatures, I was lucky to find the wash relatively dry. However, I saw many signs of mud in the canyon, and the one section had to negotiate convinced me that I would not want to try this canyon wet. BLM signs warning that the area’s roads are “impassable when wet” are not exaggerating, and the same applies to slot canyons. I was worried that the viscous clay would steal my shoes, and spent a good half-hour throwing rocks into a short mud bog trying to create steps. Doing the canyon wet would probably require hip waders, or at least galoshes tied tightly to one’s feet.

I met no one before the halfway entrance, one group who had come in that way, and several parties entering via the Paria River. There were a handful of tents about a half-mile from the confluence, where there is dry ground and a small spring. Backpacking the Paria from Whitehouse, either as an out-and-back or a car shuttle to the Colorado, is apparently a popular group activity. However both require a reserved permit (versus a self-issued one for dayhikes), and the latter requires at least one partner. As usual, doing things solo in a day was much easier.

After the mostly-dry Buckskin Gulch, I was momentarily dismayed by the very much not-dry Paria River. But the years have beaten my dislike for wet feet into remission, so I only hesitated for a minute before beginning the slosh. There are probably fifty or more stream crossings between the confluence and the trailhead, the last only a mile from the end. Few were more than ankle-deep this time of year, and there were no extended stretches of walking in the river, but the water is muddy, so its depth is unpredictable. The banks are often either shoe-sucking mud or maddeningly deep sand, so travel is invariably slow. Still, I made it back to my bike by late afternoon, and returned to the car well before dark, for a full but not unreasonable day.

San Juan miscellany

Hayden North and the OVF

Sneffels group from Hayden

I had orphaned Hayden North on my traverse of the peaks between Red Mountain Pass and Telluride, and wanted to try the Ouray Via Ferrata, so it seemed like a good half-day peak. I found a track on Peakbagger heading straight up a slide path to its east, which I roughly followed. Thanks to plentiful game trails, this worked well, with decent footing on the steep grass, and paths through the occasional willows.

OMG crowds
The OVF is on the sunny side of the Ice Park, so it was t-shirt weather in the afternoon. Unlike the ones I had seen in the Dolomites, it was built for tourists rather than WWI mountain troops, so it was both safer and more whimsical, with a cable bridge and ladder. It also had a ranger to make sure that everyone had proper gear; unlike in the Alps, I would not be allowed to scramble the thing. I lucked out by starting just ahead of a large party of newbies, and far enough behind another party that I never caught up with them.

Don’t dive

The only sketchy-feeling part of the route was the cable bridge, which tended to resonate. Near the other side, my phone fell through the hole in my right pants pocket and, not tethered by my headphone cord as it usually is, fell into the disgusting yellow Ouray water. I saw it lying in a few inches of water, but not sure what to do with the horde bearing down behind me, I hurried on. I figured it had already either cracked or drowned, and that more time in the water would not cause any further harm. I imagined what a fall would feel like at various points, and there were only a few where one could suffer any real damage.

Being a rule-following person, I stayed clipped in with at least one lanyard, even when the route was just a trail. It was interesting to see the Ice Park without any ice, and recognize the rock underneath the various climbing areas. I wished I had my camera to capture the slot canyon in its fall color, but it was underwater. I finished quickly, then hiked and jogged back to the entrance. The ranger did not object to my scrambling down for my phone, so I went down the first part, hopped across the stream below the cable bridge, and fished what I presumed would be a corpse out of the water. Amazingly the thing came to life, prompting me to listen to the next podcast. I quickly turned it off to dry without frying any components, trying it periodically over the next couple of days, and it amazingly came back to life, with no more than a minor blemish in the screen. I will be sad to see my iPhone SE die, since it is the last good phone that Apple made: small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket, easy to grip with squared-off sides, and having a headphone jack. Hopefully it will survive at least another year or so, and I can pick up a refurbished iPhone 12 Mini once its price drops.

Galena, Peak 13,069

Not gonna try…

These two thirteeners, on opposite sides of Maggie Gulch, looked like they would make another good bike ‘n’ hike. I was less than enthused to have neighbors at the base of the gulch, but they were quiet in the evening. I took my time getting ready the next morning, since it was cold and shady. As I prepared one of the neighbors came over, a woman with dreadlocks who introduced herself as Brett. She asked if I would be around that afternoon to jump her car, which seemed to have a dying battery. Noticing the ATC clipped to her pocket, I asked what she was climbing in the area, and she turned out to be one of a group highlining across Maggie Gulch.

Sometimes it works
I eventually started up the road, hiking the steep parts and looking over to spot the line. I eventually did: a thick rope and some tubular webbing stretched across the canyon near some waterfalls, several hundred feet off the ground. It was windy, with the gusts blowing the webbing out sideways from the main line. Amazingly, one of Brett’s friends was trying to balance across, barefoot for better feel and grip. I watched her repeatedly fall on her tether, flip back up to sit on the rope, then cautiously stand and keep walking. I could not imagine enjoying this even if it were warm and calm; it seemed crazy in the cold and wind.

The peaks were pretty standard fare, made a bit more difficult by my phone having a fainting spell, leaving me map-less. This is how I used to bag peaks most of the time, and I still mostly remember how. Riding down the road, I ran into the highliners, and stopped to talk for a bit. I had been puzzling over how they set up the line (bow and arrow? trained bird?), and they told me they hiked down into the gorge and back up the other side, towing a thin line that they then used to drag the main one across. This process took some six hours and sounded a bit sketchy; they were thinking of using a drone next time. We talked a bit more down at the campsite, then they split for home, and I went on to the next gulch.

Verdi and Tahoe

North rim view

Verdi (pronounced like “hair dye,” not the requiem composer’s name) is a prominent summit northeast of Lake Tahoe, and a worthy reason to drive all the way north to… ah, who am I kidding? It’s a forested bump with a road to an old fire lookout on top, with enough prominence to give me peak-bagger points. In short, it was a perfect peak to tag with Renee and her not-quite-three-year-old. A few sections of the road were rocky and steep enough to be unpleasant on my touring bike, so we hiked it. The kid did an admirable job and, with steady encouragement and other devious motherly psychological tricks, walked more than his age in miles. The lookout was well-situated, with a clear view of the train tracks and highway along the Truckee River to the south and east, snowy Castle, Basin, and Lola to the west, and the peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe to the south.

Tahoe peaks from Verdi
Points accomplished, it was time to enjoy some alternatives to my recent Eastern Sierra desert slogs, including road cycling (I am slow), mountain biking (I am bad), and trail running (I can do this one, though my aging body complains). While I could never afford to live there, I am reminded every time I visit that Tahoe has a wonderful backyard. It lacks the major peaks found in the Owens Valley or the Alps, but has acres of forested public land with miles of trails and fire roads, making it a bit like where I grew up. While not a destination, it has everything necessary for day-to-day outdoor activity.

Short off-trail section
For example, there are several passes over the Nevada side, connected along the top by trails, and the bottom by the lake road. These allow excellent point-to-point runs with a bike shuttle. Renee had mapped out a run from the Brockway road to the Mount Rose road, tagging one fire lookout and a number of minor summits along the way. It would have been a better run the other way, but I convinced her to run it in the net uphill direction, then bike shuttle back. Unlike the lookout on Verdi, which was trashed, the one on Martis was well-kept, with unbroken windows and a silhouette map identifying the peaks on the skyline. Much of the rest of the run was uphill at just the right grade to be frustrating (I should have listened…), but the trail was mostly snow-free and the views were excellent. The return ride along the lake was not pleasant, with narrow shoulders and constant traffic, but both Brockway and Mount Rose roads have good shoulders and pavement, so those parts were fine.

More Flume Trail
Most Tahoe trails are rocky and “technical,” thus miserable for me with my limited mountain biking skills, but the Incline and Marlette Flume trails are much better. After mistakenly starting off on the Tyrolean trail, a “flow” trail that was more of a survival ride on my touring bike, I enjoyed a long ride on smooth trails and gentle grades. Supposedly the trails follow some old flumes, but I saw no evidence of such. It was a weekday, but the trail was somewhat crowded with both cyclists and pedestrians, making some of its exposed blind corners a bit unnerving, but I was still enjoying myself.

Fixed-gear riding
I was hoping to continue all the way to Spooner Lake and Highway 50, but at Marlette Lake’s southern end, I finally figured out why my rear derailleur had been acting up: my derailleur cable snapped. Riding back in my outermost gear would have involved a lot of hike-a-bike, so, thinking a minute, I wedged a small stick into the derailleur to hold it somewhere near the center of its range. I gingerly pedaled back toward home a bit, then bummed duct tape from some Game and Fish employees to secure my stick. With two middle-of-the-range gears, I only had to hike one part of the trail, and could pedal up to a non-pathetic speed on the flats and descents.

Cold Luther Pass
After a stop in Carson for a replacement cable and brake pads — bikes are an endless money-pit — I continued around to check out some peaks south of the lake. Most northern Sierra peaks are short climbs, so I tacked on some cycling to give myself a bit of a challenge. I camped at the junction with the Luther Pass road, where it rained overnight, then took my time in the morning, eyeing the fresh snow on the peaks and fixing my bike. When it was finally warm enough for my hands, I made the short ride to Luther Pass, then locked my bike to a tree to hike up Waterhouse. I found no use trail, but there was little underbrush, and neither the fresh nor old snow posed much of a problem. I took in the view south from the summit rocks, then returned to my bike and continued west.

Desolation from Ralston
It was a weekend, so I wanted to avoid the highways as much as possible, especially 50, with its traffic from Sacramento and the Bay. For my first dodge, I went through the closed Luther campground, cutting off a bit of 89. I crossed the highway, then took off again down Upper Truckee Road, which starts as steep single-lane pavement, then becomes a quiet residential street. I had hoped to take the Hawley Grade National Historic Trail — “grade” seemed to imply “railroad” and therefore “gentle” — but it was nasty and rocky. Instead, I found the Old Meyers Grade and Johnson Pass roads, thus avoiding the highway climb to Echo Summit. From there, unfortunately, it was pure highway to the Mount Ralston trailhead, with constant traffic boding ill for the uphill return.

I semi-hid my bike near the Ralston trailhead, then took off at a determined walk. This turned out to be a deservedly popular but not overly long hike, with excellent views of Lake Aloha and the Desolation Wilderness from the summit. I took around an hour from trailhead to summit, a respectable time, though far off the course record. The Desolation peaks were still snowy, but Lake Aloha had melted out; on my last visit earlier in the season, I had walked across it to save time while tagging the other peaks. I spent a couple of minutes on the cold summit, then ran back to my bike and retraced my route. The ride up 50 was as miserable as expected, but I’m turning into a roadie again, and getting used to close and constant traffic. The rest of the ride was much more pleasant, and I returned to the car mid-afternoon, satisfied with a full day.

Termas de Sosneado

Risco Plateado and Sosneado from near Malargüe

Though the Sosneado valley was the wrong direction from Malargüe, I had several reasons to visit. First, it is home to two ultra-prominence peaks, Cerro Sosneado and Risco Plateado, only a few miles apart on opposite sides of the Rio Atuel. Second, Biggar’s guide describes the valley as scenic and a good spot for wildlife-viewing. Third, the abandoned hotel near some hot springs sounded like a great place to camp for a few days. My visit to the Atuel valley turned out to be rewarding, but not for any of these reasons.

It looked like about 110 kilometers to the hotel, the first fifty on pavement, and the rest on dirt for which, according to Biggar, four-wheel drive was “not really necessary.” Since several of the roads he described as requiring it had been moderate by bike, and since I would be heading west and up-valley, presumably with the afternoon upslope winds, I figured it would be a straightforward ride. I rolled out of the nice Malargüe campground late, making it to the gas station town of El Sosneado for a late lunch. The attached convenience store had WiFi, and the other patrons were eating some nice-looking ham sandwiches. I was not smart enough to realize that they had bought them at the butcher’s next door, so I ended up paying too much for a crappy gas station sandwich, a grapefruit soda, and some “Super Roly” alfajores. These were the kind I had bought way back in Potrerillos, and I wanted to see how they tasted without the mold. They also have a ton of calories.

I took my time over lunch, downloading podcasts and taking care of business before an expected 4-5 days away from civilization, then grabbed some water and headed up the road. I soon found that while four-wheel drive might not be necessary, the road was classic high-traffic Argentinian dirt, badly washboarded everywhere it wasn’t too rocky for people to drive quickly. I saw some compact cars, but the drivers had to be slow, careful, and indifferent to their cars’ suffering. Also, unlike everywhere I had been in the Andes farther north, the afternoon wind came from the west. Things were looking grim.

Still windy
I had slogged about half the distance, and was sitting on a rock debating what to do, when a pickup stopped and the driver asked if I needed anything. I said I was fine, and we talked for a bit while his wife looked on from the passenger’s seat, and several small children waved from the back. They turned out to be heading back to Buenos Aires after a family vacation that seemed to involve an insane amount of driving. As he was about to leave, he asked if I wanted some water. I was low, and not looking forward to filtering from the silty river a few hundred yards away, so I said yes. From a cooler in the back, he produced not just water, but a 2-liter bottle of ice and a beer. That made my decision easy: I backtracked a hundred yards to a ruined barn that served as a bit of a windbreak and pitched my tent. Hopefully the wind would die down overnight.

Termas and lunch tent
It did not. I folded my tent in the wind (I’m getting good at this), then fought another thirty kilometers of washboard and headwind to the hotel and hot springs. Both were disappointments: the “hot” springs were lukewarm at best, the hotel contained an unpleasant amount of trash and graffiti, and both were too crowded for my taste. I found a shady spot outside, where I sat to have a random daytime meal and read a bit on my phone. My leisure was interrupted several times by the wind blowing things off of where I had hung them from my bike into a nearby mud puddle.

Hotel has seen better days
I was not loving life at this point, trying to figure out how best to spend the time and food I had invested in this excursion, when an older man approached and asked if I wanted to share his food. If you know me at all, you know that I would never decline such an offer. I then spent most of the afternoon hanging out with a pair of older couples from Malargüe, eating their steak, bread, and home-grown peaches, and exercising my still-pathetic Spanish. As usual, the men did most of the talking, but as they left, one of the women gave me a bag of bread, meat, and cheese for the road.

Biggar mentions a refugio a few kilometers up the road as a base camp for Cerro Sosneado, and I almost passed it by mistake before a group headed downstream clued me in as I was getting water from a stream. The building looked very military, and there were a couple of cars outside, but no one was home, so I threw down my things in one of the rooms and made myself comfortable. While I was in the middle of figuring out how to spend my days in the valley, several vehicles pulled up outside and, a few minutes later, guys in camo opened the door.

This is where things would have started going badly in the States, possibly involving extrajudicial proceedings, but fortunately I am in Argentina, so the soldiers just said “hi” and moved in around me. Representatives of the local mountain regiment were out for a training exercise and, perhaps as a side-hustle, were guiding some tourists to the Uruguayan plain wreck made famous for the subsequent cannibalism by the book (good) and movie (bad) Alive. I had read the book at an impressionable age, so it was exciting to be so close to the events decades later.

These being Argentinians, the first thing they did upon arriving was to make maté. I don’t particularly like the taste, which is something like strong, sour green tea, but I accepted a bit when offered, and have to admit that the system for drinking it is genius. It is sipped through a straw from the bottom of a small cup, so the leaves float on top and do not need to be filtered out. Hot water is poured into the cup a bit at a time from a thermos, so every sip is both hot and freshly brewed. If it gets weak, more leaves can be sprinkled in. I am picky about the temperature of my coffee, so I may have to try this with coffee grounds, though I promise not to be that guy who comes back from Latin America with a maté cup preaching its virtues compared to coffee (caffeine with the other chirality, maybe?).

The Ejercito Argentino are also a bunch of cowboys, so instead of boiling their water over a portable stove as I had done, they gathered wood, built a bonfire, then set a half-dozen old tin cans full of water in it. When one got hot enough, its owner would reach in with a leather glove to pluck it out and pour it into his thermos. A bit later, the really cowboy troops arrived leading a string of mules, which they would take up to the crash site. Not only are they amazingly capable on scree and talus, but mules are much better than humans or vehicles at crossing the area’s treacherous glacial rivers. Talking to one of the troops, I learned that the Rio Atuel crossing on the way to the plane is thigh-deep at mid-morning, the safest time to cross. I was pretty sure I could do it with a stick for balance, but… it was something to think on later.

The tourists seemed to be associated with a Buenos Aires law firm, so they mostly spoke a bit of English. One, a law student, spoke it particularly well and was eager to practice, so I had a translator and English conversation partner for the evening. He invited me to share their meal, which I eagerly accepted, though I was not yet hungry again. At this rate, I would leave the valley with more food than I brought in. Another of the tourists was well-off enough to have taken his daughter skiing at Aspen, which was shocking to me even in pre-inflation Argentina. Apparently I was hanging out with the 1%.

Grilling setup
A bit before dark (between 8:00 and 9:00 in this bizarre time zone), the grill-master took over the fire to begin the asado. They had attached a whole lamb (or kid, possibly lost in translation) and a substantial portion of a cow to a large iron grill, which they strung at an angle slightly downwind of the fire next to one corner of the building. With the grill properly hung, they tied an old cardboard box over the meat. With the back-end of the lamb on top and closest to the fire, and the beef on bottom, everything would cook at the proper rate in this arrangement. However it would take several hours, meaning we would eat around midnight. This was good news for my appetite, but bad news for my intended alpine start.

The finished product
Before the asado, there was a picado, i.e. appetizer, consisting of a large pile of commissary cheese and homemade sausage. There is apparently some rule about when one is allowed to start eating it, so I stared hungrily at it for most of an hour while waiting for others to dig in. Finally, sometime after 11:00, the meat was ready. Rather than grabbing plates and forks, everyone grabbed rolls out of a giant sack, tore them open, and cut off slices of meat with their knives, impressive 5-6″ things sheathed under the belt in the small of the back. Sawing away with my tiny, dull Swiss army knife, I felt even less manly than usual. The meat was delicious, and the supply was regularly refreshed as the grill-master chopped off newly-done parts.

Butchery complete, we wandered off to bed sometime around midnight. The tourists and other soldiers had taken the other rooms, while I was in with the cowboys. They spoke no English, and their Spanish was fast and hard for me to understand, so we did not talk much. While I topped off my increasingly leaky air mattress, they unrolled their blankets, put saddles at one end and boots at the other, and quickly went to sleep. There was no way I would manage the 3000-meter climb of Cerro Sosneado the next day, but fortunately I had other things to do.

Rodeo and Ischigualasto

There are not many appealing peaks between Las Flores and Fiambala, so I was looking at several days of pure riding, much of it through widely-spaced low-elevation towns where the afternoon temperatures get close to 100 degrees. After a very short ride from Las Flores to Rodeo, I had hoped to relax for just a single afternoon, then knock out the remaining 325 miles to Fiambala in four days.

However, a combination of everything being closed for New Year’s Day, and some compound stupidity on my part, kept me in Rodeo an extra day. Fortunately, what could have been a nearly trip-ending screw-up turned out better than I had any right to expect. First, the crowding in my campground on New Year’s forced a friendly family from Jachal to share my table and use my grill. Not only did they feed me dinner — imagine pizza cooked on a grill, but with the crust made of meat — but Carlos pointed me in the direction of Ischigualasto Provincial Park, an area that looks like southern Utah, and has some of the best early dinosaur fossils in the world. Second, I ran into Simon again, retreating with his tail between his legs after having nearly succumbed to a flash flood on the Paso Agua Negra.

With these two developments, I decided to take a slightly longer route east through Huaco and Patquia before heading north. Ischigualasto was a bit of a disappointment, as one can only see the place as part of a guided group; this protects the fossils and rock formations, but is not my style. Fortunately a mother and son had room in their car for me on the vehicle convoy tour (they wouldn’t let me ride my bike, and the shorter bike tour misses all the interesting stuff). The park delivered the southern Utah sandstone scenery I had expected, and even had a nice campground for $3.30 per night. While there, I met an Argentinian bike tourist heading the other way with a truly ghetto touring setup. Despite riding a clunker, carrying polished rocks which he sold to pay his way, and looking to be in his fifties, I was impressed to learn he was averaging about 120km per day.

I got a relatively early start for once, and almost made the 105km to Patquia before the regular afternoon east wind started. With the next town far away, water sources uncertain, and afternoon temperatures well into the 90s, I decided it would be a good time to hide somewhere with air conditioning and internet. Here are a few photos from the ride and park.

Antichristmas

Antichristmas

I had hoped to climb Cerro Ansilta 2, the almost-6000m highpoint of a range near Mercedario supposedly approached via Calingasta and a dirt road along the Rio Ansilta. This would involve a short ride from Barreal, then an unknown ride to base camp and probably two or three days climbing Ansilta 1 and 2. I had expected Calingasta, a somewhat touristic town at a road junction, to be a better base camp than Barreal. I was therefore disappointed to find that it had almost no internet, and a truly pathetic grocery store that had a whole aisle of yerba maté, but lacked such basic staples as oats, chocolate, and peanuts. Making the best of a poor situation, I bought eggs, vegetables, cookies, a kilogram of dinner rolls, and 750g of “Dulce Calingasta,” a giant bar of gelatinous fruit-flavored stuff. I then hung out in the shade in the town square, waiting for it to cool off and deciding what to do.

I totally raided this
I had planned to take RP 412 to Las Flores, a 130 km ride, but it looked like some 60 km of it might be dirt. On a whim I asked at the gendarmeria about route options, and was told that 412 was a 4×4 route, and that my best choice was a 180 km route via RN 149. I decided to chip away the first 40 km of that in the evening, camping at my last guaranteed water source along the Rio San Juan. After some initial dirt due to road construction, the combination of a steady descent along the river and a raging tailwind made the miles fly by, and I was soon across the big bridge where the road leaves the San Juan. The river was thick and muddy like the Colorado or Rio Grande, so rather than dealing with it, I raided a water/garbage shrine next to the bridge. Hopefully the water was meant for travelers such as myself, and I did not call forth the wrath of the patron saint. One of the eggs had broken in the top of my pack, so I got to spend some time dealing with that before making a dinner of vegetable and egg soup with dinner rolls. Yum.

Well-stocked water shrine
The next day began with me paying for my fast ride down the San Juan with a 3000-foot climb into a brutal headwind from the east. I still do not understand the wind directions here, but at some point while traveling east across the range, the prevailing wind direction seems to shift from west to east. I am not sure where this point is, but I suspect that my future ride back west across the Atacama may be slow and painful. I fought the wind mostly in my granny gear, finally reaching a particularly large roadside shrine at the vaguely-defined pass. It featured a sheltered picnic table, a fire pit, and even a Christmas tree. I took this as a sign to take a break and choke down some Ducle Calingasta and my few remaining peanuts.

Lots more of this
The headwind remained the same on the other side of the pass, but was far less annoying going downhill, and I reached the road junction without too much frustration. From there it was a daunting 97 km to Las Flores, but fortunately no longer against the wind. The road heads north and east through a couple of valleys, in which the wind seemed to come from the east and southeast. This made my second 3000-foot climb of the day much more pleasant than the first. A man in a pickup truck stopped and offered me a ride near its base, but I politely declined, partly out of pride, and partly because I had plenty of time, water, and energy. I was thorougly sick of the vile Dulce, but in a stroke of genius I had added Nestle Quik to both of my water bottles, both masking the plastic-y taste and providing delicious calories.

Back toward the mountains
This pass was mostly similar in appearance to the last, climbing a subtly-inclined desert plain, but did narrow in its final few kilometers, following a dry streambed to emerge on a high plateau. The “welcome to Iglesias” sign, with its guanacos and greenery, hardly matched the sere surroundings, but presumably such things existed elsewhere in the province. More importantly to me, the rest of my day would be downhill. The tailwind that had pushed me up the pass turned into a steady headwind at some point, but the descent was steep enough that I did not care as I made my way to the village of Iglesias, stopping along the way for a phone call (finally, 4G service!). I could have stopped there, but chose to crank out another 10 km to Las Flores, an equally tiny village with the two distinctions of having a campground on my map, and lying at the junction with my next side-trip up the Paso Agua Negra. Though almost everything else was closed for Christmas, the gas station and campground were open, so I could buy myself a treat and sleep in peace.

Calories are calories…
I took a rest day in Las Flores, not prepared to head straight back into the wilderness. The gas station and town square both have usable WiFi, and most of the town has decent cell coverage, so I was able to catch up with the outside world. The grocery store has the basic staples, though they are weirdly all behind the counter, so you have to ask the shopkeeper for them one by one. Uncomfortable with this kind of shopping, I forgot a few things in my hurry to escape, and had to supplement my food with a last-minute junk food run to the gas station.

Cerro de la Gloria

Statue silhouette

Cerro de la Gloria is a minor hill on the west side of Mendoza with a good view of the city, and a convenient target of opportunity when everything is closed on Sunday in this very Spanish country. In theory, my itinerary could have taken me straight north from Uspallata, as the only mountaineering reason to visit Mendoza is to obtain an Aconcagua permit. However, Mendoza would be the last real city I would see for a month, and I had heard that it was one of the nicer large ones in South American, so I dedicated a few days to a side-trip.

The ride from Potrerillos to Mendoza was a big improvement over what I had experienced so far. For the first part, I left the truck route of RN 7 to follow RP 82, a two-lane road that follows the Rio Mendoza more closely than the main highway. There was the usual headwind, but it abruptly turned into a tailwind when I exited the river valley west onto the plains. As I got closer to Mendoza, I was surprised and pleased to find green-painted dedicated bike lanes (“ciclovias”) which allowed me to avoid most of the city traffic on the way to my randomly-chosen hostel.

Plaza de Armas fountain
I was substantially less pleased when I reached my hostel. The one in Huaraz had been fairly quiet and mostly inhabited by mature and interesting people, but this one was another matter, overcrowded with party kids. I had been pleased to find a dorm bed for a bit over $5 including breakfast, but when I entered the 6-bed room in the middle of the afternoon, I found two girls passed out on lower bunks, and someone’s clothes drying on the ladder leading to the least-bad upper bunk. Since I was on an early-rising mountaineering schedule, and had a ton of gear that needed to be sorted and reorganized, this was less than ideal. At least the WiFi worked, so I could find a better place to stay the next night.

You know someone tried…
After a night of mediocre sleep in the hot and overcrowded bunk room, I woke a bit after 6:00 and went downstairs, where I found two Australians still talking and going through liters of beer. I couldn’t help but smile at their heroic endurance, but they also reinforced my desire to get out of this place. I had paid the “big bucks” (a bit over $20/night) for a private room in another randomly-chosen hostel nearby, to which I rode around noon. This one, Hostel Estacion Mendoza, was much more my style, smaller and less crowded, with an older clientele and staff who actually lived there, as opposed to bored kids with keys to the beer.

San Martin park path
It was early afternoon on a Sunday, so everything was doubly closed for both religious and siesta reasons. I spent the rest of the day checking out the city by bike. I first rode up Cerro de la Gloria, where I checked out the elaborate war statue and met an older couple from Chicago. Then I spent some time touring around the large park near its base, with many bike and running trails popular with the locals. Finally I checked out a couple of the smaller parks, including the Plaza de Armas, then returned to the hostel to shower. It was one of those weird showers where you just close the bathroom door, stand on the floor, and get everything wet, but it was hot and got me clean.

Afterward, I was making use of the spotty hostel WiFi when a woman at the next table in the courtyard said “hey, I recognize your bike.” It turned out that she was a translator from Buenos Aires who had been hoping to climb Cerro el Plata at the same time I did. However, thanks to time/speed/weather issues, she had only climbed Vallecitos. Both she and her friend (another translator) were smart, talkative, and of course spoke excellent English, so I had an unexpectedly social time.

The next day was for preparation: riding around town to find a few big-city things and generally preparing for a month of nothing but small towns and markets with idiosyncratic and limited selections. I added sealant to my trailer tire and extra guy lines to my tent, and dined on comfort food — fried cabbage and eggs. I also spoke to my friend in Spain via WhatsApp; as a move in Facebook’s quest for world domination and even more data, it does not count against my data quota. I was annoyed to have someone playing violin exercises while I was trying to understand a mediocre VoIP connection, then immediately regretted my irritation when I met the guy practicing, who was working/living at the hostel while preparing for a difficult and high-stakes recital to get into the national music school. He even put together a barbecue later, with sausages, grilled onions, and tripe.

Monument along RP 52
Tuesday morning I set out to return to Uspallata by a non-highway route, with a rushed and early start that robbed me of a chance to exchange contact information with any of the people I had met. My first attempt, via RP 13, ended shortly after my phone directed me along a dirt road through a garbage dump. I rode to the other end of the dump in the hope that things would improve, but they did not, so I rode back through, re-sampling its bouquet, and tried another option.

Villavicencio guard quarters
My next attempt, via RP 52 to its north, probably would have scared me off if I had known what I was getting into. After twenty-some miles north in an almost straight line, the road began climbing an alluvial fan, then turned up a dry river valley. I was running uncomfortably low on water, but fortunately I was able to refill at the closed guard station for Villavicencio, an old hotel or something that is now a weekend tourist attraction. Showing up on a bike earns you a lot of good will: despite blatantly climbing over the cerrado sign and disturbing the rangers’ lunch, they were happy to let me refill from their garden hose, and even talked for a bit.

Quite a road…
The road turned to dirt just past the hotel, and remained that way as it climbed to a broad 10,000-foot pass. This pass seems to have been the original route between Uspallata and Mendoza, and was used by San Martin, likely a deputy of Simon Bolivar, according to interpretive signs and interesting monuments along the way. Fortunately the climb was gently graded, so I was able to ride it at a decent pace, the road was spectacular in its own barren way, and there was almost no traffic. There were also ample distractions, including an old telegraph station, many guanacos, and an utterly fearless fox sitting on the shoulder of the road.

Unfortunately, the upper pass and part of the descent toward Uspallata were badly washboarded, making for miserably slow progress. However, it became semi-paved again partway down the Uspallata side, so I returned to my familiar campground at a reasonable hour, where the owner recognized me and gave me a discount. Knowing about the wood-fired hot water heater this time, I was able to have a hot shower before cooking a quick dinner, preparing sandwiches for the next day, and passing out in my tent.

¡Vamos a Santiago!

High Andes on descent

The air travel can be the hardest part of these international trips, with one or two sleepless nights spent in airports or on airplanes, ending in an hour-or-more plod through customs in a language you don’t understand — like Irish. Then you either stumble to a hotel at some unholy hour, or try to sleep on benches deliberately designed to hinder sleeping. Fortunately this time was much easier. Leaving Denver in the early afternoon, I had a reasonable layover at Dallas, then an overnight flight to Santiago that got me there at a normal hour.

No longer fast or light
I was worried about packing for this trip: not only did I need to bring the usual mountaineering gear, but I also needed to pack enough stuff to support three months of bike touring in a place with very limited spare parts. I also needed to cram almost all of my gear around my bike and trailer in their boxes, convince the airline that these two mince-gear pies were “sports equipment,” and keep them both under 50 pounds. I did it, though barely: my bike shared a box with my mountain boots (stuffed with socks) and a few other things, every nook of the trailer was filled, and both boxes weighed somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds. So much for fast and light… Ted snapped a picture of the unusual scene, only to anger some TSA rent-a-cop who was captured in the photo while playing around with his phone while on break. I found this ironic, given that I’m almost positive that both Ted and I appeared on TSA surveillance footage, and would not be surprised if we were run through a facial recognition database fed with state drivers’ license files. But anyways…

I found some reasonably good and healthy lounge food in both Denver and Dallas, and tried to get in as many vegetables and fresh things as I could. Low weight and volume, and high tolerance for hot and cold, will define much of what I eat for the next few months. That means a diet of primarily powdered stuff poured into boiling water, fruits and nuts, and canned fish. They don’t even seem to have pop-tarts down here, though the Latin American junk food scene is strong, and I am trying to become a locavore.

The leg from Dallas to Santiago was my first time on a Boeing 787 — the plane with the wings that flex alarmingly upward when it flies. I found it mostly pleasant, with larger windows than other planes, tolerable cabin noise, and plenty of leg room. It would have been better had the original seating arrangement remained in place. I had a window on the east side of the plane, with an empty seat and a friendly older woman completing my part of the row. Unfortunately that woman somehow upgraded to business, to be replaced by a younger one who immediately stuck in her headphones to preempt any social interaction, and put her legs up to make it awkward for me to get up and fetch anything out of my pack. Later, another similar woman took the middle seat after finding that her original one did not recline.

At least I had a clear view of Aconcagua and the other high peaks in the region as we descended into Santiago. The backlight through the partly-tinted glass made it hard to get a photo, but I tried. It was already 70 degrees when we landed around 9:00, and into the 80s after spending an hour or more going through customs. I was finally reunited with my bike and trailer. Both boxes had been rifled through by TSA, but they appeared unharmed, as did their contents.

My bike shop
I briefly explored various options to store and recover the boxes, but quickly realized that it just wasn’t worth it. It was painfully hot outside, so I assembled my bike in the terminal, which apparently did not disturb either travelers or security. This was when I realized the third thing I had forgotten, pliers (the others being a pin for SIM removal, and a pen to fill out the customs form). The BOB trailer is almost entirely assembled and disassembled with a hex key and Phillips screwdriver, but its hinge requires two pairs of pliers for optimal assembly. I spent a half-hour or so wandering around the airport trying to desribe pliers with broken Spanish and hand gestures (“kind of like scissors, but not”). Finally, a woman at a phone store lent me hers once I allowed her to hold my phone hostage.

Weird graffiti
It was early afternoon by now, so I ditched my original plan to just ride away from Santiago into the sunset. A quick online search turned up a hostel toward the center of the city that was too much ($24) but not ridiculous. Wheeling my monstrosity out of the airport, I had to smile when one of the employees asked if I was going to Patagonia or Atacama, then made as if to climb on my trailer. The hostel actually turned out well, as there was a supermarket right acruss the street, and I got to spend the afternoon seeing a bit of downtown Santiago, some of the only “culture” I plan to experience this trip. It has the usual somewhat run-down Latin American feel, but is cleaner and less dog-infested than Huaraz, and far more sane than Mexico City, Lima, or Quito. I felt mostly comfortable riding through the streets, though a crazy mess of one-way roads and some map-reading errors made the short ride take longer than expected. Tomorrow the real trip begins.

Huayhuash trekking

I prefer not to merely dump a pile of photos on the internet, but the Cordillera Huayhuash is worth looking at, and I probably won’t write a detailed trip report. This was the last of my travels in Peru this summer, but I hope to return soon to take care of much unfinished business.