Category Archives: Tourism

Cerro Martial

Martial with ramp


Cerro Martial is the highest point along the ridge of peaks north of Ushuaia, above and to the west of the Martial Glacier, a popular tourist attraction visible from town. I had one more full day in Ushuaia, and one morning of good weather, so I wanted to do a peak that, if not exactly ambitious, at least did not have a trail to its summit. A track on Peakbagger made it a certain and not particularly adventurous thing, but it would still cap the trip with some sense of success and accomplishment.

Martial from upper trailhead

I left my pseudo-hotel again by bike, taking my puffy jacket, rain jacket, and crampons this time, but leaving my ice axe behind. Instead of parking at the base of the Martial Glacier road, I rode all the way to the base of the ski hill. I thought I would have to start hiking there, but a decent dirt road continued from there, saving me another mile or so of walking and promising a fast, fun descent. I passed some poor unfortunate walkers on the way up, locked my bike to the sign, then headed up the trail. The weather, while not exactly clear, was at least decent up high.

Cerro Godoy

The official trail to the glacier viewpoint stays on the east side of the valley, but another trail, closed off yet marked with yellow-painted stakes, climbs along the west. I followed this trail until where it fades out of existence in a talus-field, then headed more or less straight up the slope west toward Martial’s south ridge. It looked steep from below, but proved no harder than class 3 in a few places; the crux may have been avoiding the bits of high-angle swamp. The trip report associated with the track on Peakbagger mentioned climbing a glacier or snowfield, and since I had only minimal snow gear, I figured the rock would be easier. I trended gradually north, but ended up on the west ridge a ways before the summit. The wind was mostly from the northwest, so I was happy to be traversing a protected southeast-facing slope as I made my way toward something that looked like a summit.

Ridge to true summit

Reaching my supposed summit, I was dismayed to see another broad and slightly higher point farther north, which a belated look at my map confirmed was the true summit. The connecting ridge was along the edge of the layered uplift forming the range, and therefore either slabby or crumbly to either side, often steep on both, and serrated on top. I made my way carefully along the crest and right-hand side, traversing ledges were I could and carefully scrambling up and down crumbly stuff covered in fresh snow where I could not. Once at the final saddle, I easily hiked up a scree slope with bits of trail, apparently back on-route.

Tonelli from summit

The summit had a nice sign with the name Monte Martial and an elevation. Many of the surrounding peaks were covered in clouds, but I could clearly see the next ridges east and west, and had a view down to town and the Beagle Channel. I caught a brief glimpse of Cerro Tonelli to the north, enough to confirm that it was both clearly higher and an arduous traverse away. The clouds were whipping in from the northwest fast enough that I did not want to play around up high much longer, so I soon retreated, deciding to try something more like the standard route on the way down. I followed a ramp along one of the layers, which led to the ravine south of the main Martial Glacier, and crossed back to the slope I had climbed on the way up. This route crossed one small bit of glacier or permanent snowfield, but it was buried in enough fresh snow that I felt no need for crampons. I saw many more tourists out making their way up the trail as I jogged down to my bike — Argentinian tourists are remarkably tolerant of inclement weather. I blasted by still more as I coasted down the ski area, then had a fun pavement descent back to my lodging.

Across Beagle Channel

Flying home was the usual ordeal. I rode to the airport with my folded-up bike box, finally getting a view of the distant, glacier-clad Darwin Range on my only truly clear day in Ushuaia. I boxed everything up near the tiny airport’s ticket counter, trying to stay out of the way of the milling, jostling cruise ship passengers. While I was packing up, an enormous and slow-moving line materialized, and I almost missed my flight before flagging down an airline employee. “Why didn’t you respond when I asked earlier?” she said. “Lo siento,” I replied, while thinking “because you were speaking rapid Spanish in a noisy crowd, and I was trying to tune out my surroundings so the crush of bovine humanity did not drive me insane.”

Darwin Range

The takeoff from Ushuaia would have had great views, but my last-minute ticket and checkin ensured I had a middle seat, so I saw only flashes of the peaks. My clearest view was actually on my neighbor’s phone screen, as she recorded the whole thing out the window. We are spoiled at how easy it is to travel halfway around the world — a few hours to Buenos Aires, an overnight flight to Miami, and another few to Denver — but I still grumbled at having to schlep my “checked” baggage between every leg. The bit in Miami was particularly aggravating, as I had to take it a couple hundred yards from the American baggage carousel to another American employee who put it on a different conveyor belt. The airport “helpfully” offered $9 roller carts for this unnecessary trip, a reminder that while Chile is notable for capitalist rent-seeking and nickel-and-diming, it is but the student, and America is the master.

So that was Patagonia. I doubt I will return, because life is short and the world is large, but if I did, I would do several things differently. First, I would avoid the Carretera Austral as much as possible. While it was an impressive feat of nationalist road-building and no doubt a spectacular ride in its infancy, it is a beaten-in tourist trench at this point, with locals completely numb to visitors and well on their way to becoming souvenir hawkers. I would travel more side-roads, cover less north-south distance, and bring more gear to deal with difficult cross-country travel. Patagonia has a lot of genuinely unexplored terrain, something long gone in the American West. Everything here is mapped, climbed, documented, and easily searchable. In Patagonia, particularly west of the Carretera and south of Coyhaique, there are a lot of unnamed and probably unclimbed peaks. They are not big and sheer enough to attract Real Climbers, but are ideal for someone with more interest in the unknown than renown.

Around Ushuaia

Cerro Guanaco

Upper Guanaco

After a pleasant and relaxing evening at Cerro Cornu basecamp, I took my time packing up in the morning for a short ride into Ushuaia. The afternoon was forecast to be wet and windy, but the morning would be relatively pleasant, and I only needed half a day. I returned to the pavement of Route 3, then made a gentle climb up the Rio Lasifahaj past the ski area at Cerro Castor (“beaver” in Spanish). The mountains became progressively more interesting as I headed west, with sheer faces and substantial glaciers to the north, and impressive pinnacles on Monte Olivia to the south. I had to stop a couple of times to top off my rear tire, which was low on sealant, but the climb was otherwise uneventful. The descent into Ushuaia was fast and fun, and I even got to draft a truck for awhile, though some sort of “road safety” pickup honked at me angrily for doing so. I stopped at the first YPF, bought a minimum of food and used their hot water machine, then settled in to while away the afternoon and figure out where to sleep. I ended up buying groceries in a miserable 40-degree drizzle, then camping in the closed Rio Pipo campground on the west end of town. I was not supposed to be there, but there was plenty of space away from the road, all of which I had to myself, and no one bothered me.

Free campground

The next day’s forecast was unsettled, so I made modest plans to visit the end of Route 3 at Lapataia Bay and hike Cerro Guanaco, a viewpoint peak with a trail to the top. I rolled out fairly early to avoid annoying anyone, and rode up to the legal free campground near the Fin del Mundo train station (a prison train now converted for tourism). I stashed the trailer there before shoving some stuff in my daypack and continuing to the park entrance, where I paid the exorbitant 5500 ARS fee ($15 at the graymarket exchange rate), then continued to Lago Roca, where I locked my bike to the trailhead sign.

Ushuaia from summit

The trail to Cerro Guanaco skirts the glacier-blue lake for a short distance, then climbs steeply through the woods to the northeast. A sign said that I was not allowed to embark upon this strenuous later than noon, but I sensibly ignored it, as did a few dozen others I met headed up as I was heading down. The trail climbs admirably steeply through the woods, then crosses a flat swamp before making a long traverse across a talus slope to the summit. The previous night’s storm had refreshed the swamp, and deposited a few inches of fresh snow on the trail above, but enough people had already hiked the peak to make a clear track. I passed a few people on the way to the summit, but had it to myself for about five minutes, enough to enjoy what views I could before two loud young French guys arrived. On a clear day, Guanaco would have an excellent view of the Darwin Range to the west, but that was almost completely covered in clouds. I did, however, manage to see Ushuaia to the southeast, and the somewhat higher Cerro Condor across Lago Roca.

End of the road

I skipped back down the trail to my bike, then continued to the end of the road at Bahia Lapataia, stopping along the way to take grainy photos of a giant red-headed woodpecker. There is a boardwalk hike to a lighthouse from the road’s end, but I was sufficiently put off by the crowd of tourists freshly disgorged from their bus not to want to linger. I admired a touring Harley from Columbia, took some photos of the ubiquitous Malvinas/Falklands signage, then was about to leave when the tourbus driver offered to take my photo next to the sign. Then I rode back to my trailer, set up my tent, and thought about how to spend my remaining few days. With wet weather every afternoon, I knew I needed at least one night in a hotel or hostel to dry out before boarding a plane. I would also be more able and motivated to climb peaks if I had a warm and dry base, so I decided to pay for a place to stay. This ended up being far more expensive than I had expected or than it should have been ($50/night), as the cheaper options were booked, but probably worth it.

Cerro del Medio

Kinda cold

With a costly dry basecamp in Ushuaia, I could go trail running in the snow or rain without worrying about how to warm up and dry out afterward. Unfortunately the weather was still too unpleasant in the afternoons to do anything big, and I needed to prepare for the flight home, but I still had time in the mornings to tag minor peaks near town. Cerro del Medio is barely a peak, but it has a trail and a view, so it was a good objective for a day with a marginal forecast and much to do.

Martial Range from town

I rode my bike from my weird hotel to the base of the Glaciar Martial road, then locked it up at a trailhead sign and followed a powerline cut past a few road switchbacks, relying on my phone to guide me through the minor trail maze. I noted a bridge on the map, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it crossed a deep slot canyon, narrow enough that it could probably be jumped without the funky wooden structure. Beyond, the trail climbed consistently through the woods, then followed a fence east before crossing a bog. People had thrown logs and branches into the muck to make crossing easier, but the recent rains and snows had refreshed the muck, so it was challenging to cross without completely soaking my feet.

Kinda cold

Beyond the bog, the trail improves in the woods, then deteriorates as it climbs alpine moss before almost completely disappearing in a talus-field. However there are yellow-flagged stakes leading through the rocks, and bits of trail where the scree is loose enough to erode. It was chilly out, but the trail ascends a south-facing bowl, and was therefore protected from any wind. The final traverse to the summit, however, was exposed to a vicious west wind, freezing my eyeballs and making me wish I had brought more than just my hoodie. I ran to the summit, took a few photos and looked around for a few seconds, then ran back to shelter. The rest of the run down to my bike was uneventful, and the descent through the woods was smooth and gradual enough to make it fun and easy to get up some speed.

Unnecessary bridge

Showered and dried, I set out into town to find a bike box. Bike shops must receive their inventory somehow, so the normal way to fly with a bike is to ask around at shops for old boxes. Sometimes you have to pay, but most shops will give you a box for free, since they are otherwise scrapped. There are many shops in most cities large enough to have an international airport, so locating a box is rarely a problem. However, while Ushuaia has about 80,000 people, it has only three bike shops. Worse, in mid-March more bike tourists are flying out than in, and this net outward flux depletes the box supply. I therefore wanted to give myself a couple of days to track down a box.

Hernan Pujato

Unfortunately bike shops close for the siesta, so I had plenty of time to explore the town and play tourist. Ushuaia has a bunch of monuments along the waterfront, so I rode up to the navy base, where a single ship was docked, then made my way back downtown, learning a bit of history along the way. The first group of monuments were to early Antarctic explorers, as the tip of South America is the obvious launching point, being much closer to the continent than New Zealand or South Africa. I am not sure how realistic the busts were, but they had character, being bug-eyed, haggard, or grim rather than generically heroic. They honored both Argentinians and various Europeans who had achieved various “firsts” in the Great White South.

Mateando

The second group of monuments was a war memorial for the Malvinas/Falklands. Most Brits probably don’t even remember that these islands off the coast of Patagonia are part of the Empire, but Argentina has not forgotten. I saw signs saying “Las Malvinas son Argentinas,” with a silhouette of the two islands, north of Bariloche on my last trip, and they were more plentiful farther south. Some were even a bit more aggressive, with one memorably stating “Las Malvinas son y sera Argentinas.” Your day will come, British Imperialist scum… In any case, the naval part of the war was partly based out of Ushuaia, so it made sense for there to be a monument. This one had a ring of poster-sized photos of troops doing various things including matéar (drinking maté together). At the center was a giant silhouette of the islands, and a marble wall with the names of the dead, like a small version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

Never forget!

Once I had whiled away the siesta, I returned to the bike shops, where I was informed that there were no boxes. I turned to an appliance store near one of them, and while they did not have any large TV boxes, they did have some sturdy cardboard that I could use in a pinch. I bought box cutters and packing tape, then rode out to the airport to see if someone had flown in with a box that had not yet been destroyed. I did not see one, but did meet a man flying in with a bike, a gift for his nephew. He generously offered to let me use the box once he was done, and I took down his email to get in touch. I also asked the janitorial staff if they had any boxes, and while they seemed helpful and told me to show up early the morning of my flight, I did not like my chances of finding one at the last minute. The last part of a bike tour is always expensive and stressful, but it only happens once.

To Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas view


With no decent food sources in Torres del Paine, I had to move in some direction. If I wanted to return to the park, I could ride a short day to Cerro Castillo to resupply, but I felt I had already pushed my luck in terms of not paying for entry or camping, and the weather forecast looked unsettled. I therefore decided to head south for Puerto Natales, with the option to hike Cerro Tenerife along the way. I needed a bit more day-food to do this, so I headed over to the snack bar for some calories. Everything was as depressingly overpriced as expected, with the standard cookie rolls costing three times what they would in an ordinary store. In terms of calories per dollar, the cheapest source was some repulsive raspberry-flavored Cheetos, produced by adding artificial flavor, color, and high-fructose corn syrup to the same basic food-slurry (corn and palm oil) that forms the foundation of other puffed snacks. I bought two rolls of cookies and two bags of those things, then smooshed them down to better fit in my trailer.

Fortaleza and Almirante Nieto

Once back at the main road, the ride west and south started with a long climb on bearable dirt. Thankfully it was not too windy in the morning, and I had decent views of Almirante Nieto and the peaks west of the Torres. As it turns south and heads out of the park, the road passes several large lakes, including Lago Pehoe, where there is a campground and café. The wind was starting to get annoying, so I stopped in for a $12 microwave pizza before continuing south along the Rio Paine. The wind had been mostly helpful or moderate so far, but turned into a vicious crosswind on the final flat to the park exit, where it had a clear path down from the icefield along Glaciar and Lago Gray.

Playing with wind

There was another climb getting over to Lago del Torro, at the top of which people could stop to get a view of the distant glacier and take photos of each other almost getting blown over by the wind. Thankfully it abated and was generally not harmful on the long ride along the lake’s west shore, then up and over to Lago Porteño. Where the hike up Cerro Tenerife starts at an estancia, I turned east on a side-road and immediately found a convenient open gate. I almost set up my tent there, but noticed a horse tethered to a tree and thought better of it. I continued down the road, then doubled back, finding a sheltered spot in some trees between the fence and road. I got my tent set up before the wind got too rowdy, then listened as gauchos rounded up a bunch of cattle in the area where I had almost camped, whistling and shouting wordlessly. They probably would not have minded my presence, but I was glad to be on the other side of the fence.

Cerro Tenerife

I woke to rain the next morning, and sat around in my tent hoping for it to stop so I could climb the peak without too much misery. I finally gave up late in the morning, only to have the sun come out shortly after I finished packing up. Oh, well… The road toward Puerto Natales was remarkably miserable: the first part had been freshly watered by a road crew, turning the usual dust to awful mud that coated everything, and after that it became particularly rough washboard. Tired of the abuse, I pulled into Cueva del Milodon, a small park about which I knew nothing. I was looking around for a place to sit when Robert walked up, having just stopped himself. Together we checked out the enormous main cave, which was home to prehistoric hunters and the remains of prehistoric megafauna including giant ground sloths.

Awesome French family

Weirdly, the park also had several miles of bike trail, so I stashed the trailer and rode it with Robert, who had no trouble keeping up with all his touring gear still attached. As much as I like my bike and trailer, I was getting jealous of his rugged, capable touring rig. We loitered at a picnic area afterward, then he went off to find WiFi while I rode the remaining distance to Puerto Natales. The campground I had chosen at random had Cerro Fitzroy on its sign for some reason and, stranger still, had several signs in both English and Hebrew. The older woman running the place was Chilean and spoke only Spanish, but I think the owners may be Israeli. Most of the visitors seemed to be headed either to or from one of the treks in Torres del Paine, but there was one French family touring on a crazy setup with two semi-recumbent tandems and a child trailer. I also met Seba, an interesting young guy who was inspired by my bike-mountaineering exploits.

Typical Puerto Natales weather

Puerto Natales is a touristy but pleasant town with terrible weather, and I ended up hanging out for a few days to recover and resupply. I made the mistake of trying to ride to the top of Cerro Dorotea one day, only to find that it was ringed in fences and private property (of course), then get absolutely drenched and frozen by a passing squall on the return. I also spent most of an afternoon talking to an interesting Spanish woman working remotely in one of the internet cafés downtown. As Eric Beck said, “at either end of the social spectrum there lies a leisure class,” and the same is true of nomads. They had the kind of high-powered jobs (software and pharma) that let them travel in style and work fully remote, while I travel in a way that requires very little money. Though she worked in pharma, she was interested in cognitive science, which led me to dust off parts of my brain that I haven’t used in over twenty years.

Morro Chico

I was hoping to meet a friend in Puerto Natales, but after not hearing anything for awhile I was starting to feel stale. The upcoming weather was nasty, so I took advantage of a non-rainy morning with a tailwind to head for drier climes and Punta Arenas. After the initial grind away from town, the road turned southeast and aligned with the wind, and I began having a grand old time cruising the pampas. I saw isolated storms roving the plain in the distance, but none hit me. Once the road turned purely east along the Argentine border the wind became even more favorable, and I gained even more speed. I spotted a cyclist in the distance, who proved to be Robert, his top speed limited by his lower gearing. We rode together for awhile, stopping at the gendarmeria at Morro Chico for water. Morro Chico is a broad volcanic plug standing by itself in the plains, and I had thought of climbing it on my way by, but decided to keep going instead.

Occupied hut

The wind became less favorable but not quite adversarial as the road turned south. There are several refugios in this section, built by someone and apparently available to anyone caught out in this harsh and shelterless plain. I was looking forward to staying in one in particular that was supposedly in fairly good shape, but I reached it to find that both it and its older neighbor were occupied by gauchos. Their mumbly, toothless spokesman said I was welcome to camp outside, but the cabin was his. I pitched my tent in the lee of a pile of old wood, Robert pitched his nearby, and we spent a disappointing but not over-windy night.

Punta Arenas view

I had expected to take three short days between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, but with the excellent wind I would need only two. I made good time to the gas station at Laguna Cabeza de Mar, then hung out there for awhile watching a large storm pass to the south. Another cyclist, on a road bike, was hanging out as well, and we talked a bit as we watched some rheas or ñandus peck around and take dirt baths outside. We both took off once the storm started dying down, and he quickly left me on his smooth, skinny tires. I caught Robert, and eagerly took him up on his offer to split a place in Punta Arenas. Camping would be tough in the big city, and it would be good to have some dry comfort before braving Tierra del Fuego. Punta Arenas is one of the oldest towns in Patagonia, established around 1850 as a port for wool exports and a stopover on the Strait of Magellan. With the opening of the Panama Canal and decreased interest in wool, there seems to be little reason for it to still prosper, but it seems to be doing well as both a tourist town and a port. I wandered around some, then cooked town food for dinner and prepared to ferry across the Strait to Porvenir in the morning.

Aketegi

Creepy sanctuary


Aketegi, another Spanish provincial highpoints in a really Basque part of the country, was my last peak before flying home. Waking up in our weird hotel, Mike and I drove north and west through the mountains toward the north coast, at first on the autovia, another spectacular alternation of bridges and tunnels. It cut straight through the hills from the dry southern side to the permanently wet and dreary north, under villages, farms, and fields. Once on the side-roads, we wound crazily in and out of valleys on a narrow strip of unstriped pavement, traveling much farther and more slowly than the straight-line distance on the map would suggest. We briefly saw some limestone cliffs through the clouds and mist, but for the most part the drive was free of scenery. The road signs were all in Basque and Spanish, with the towns having seemingly unrelated Basque and Spanish names, and the latter were usually crossed out in green spray-paint. Spain is more of a passive-aggressive agglomeration than a nation…

Creepy in detail

According to Peakbagger, the place to start hiking for Aketegi is Arantzazu, a large Catholic sanctuary and tourist attraction, and a vision straight out of a horror film. The sanctuary’s architecture would be disturbing even in the best conditions, lacking only the twisted, screaming faces of sinners on its spindly, spiky, hostile towers. When we arrived mid-morning, ours was the only car in the large lot, and we were the only visible people. The local businesses, one of which I hoped would sell food, and the supposedly full guest house where we had tried to make a reservation, were all closed and locked, and the open public restroom was foul and unlit. The thick mist and thin drizzle made it impossible to see more than 100 yards.

Arantza zu?! Gipuzkoa, LOL!

Tired and suffering from caffeine withdrawal, I almost stayed in the car, but Mike convinced me to go for a walk in the rain. Thanks to a downloaded GPS track, we managed to head in the correct direction through town, where we found the only open business, a bar that seemed to be serving both breakfast (coffee and pastries) and dinner (beer and salty snacks). I ordered coffee and some food, and felt much better about the day as the caffeine hit my brain. Again following the track, we found the correct dirt road taking us out of town, which wound through mossy woods toward who-knows-what, slowly deteriorating into a trail. A couple of signs along the way featured cartoon Basque people doing characteristically Basque things like being friars, herding sheep, and pronouncing words with too many k’s, x’s, and z’s.

Forest track

The trail/road eventually led to an open plateau, where we continued along some confusing roads in the general direction of the summit. We eventually reached another bar/cafe, again showing some activity, but it seemed like a locals-only joint. Somehow vehicles reach this plateau, and I was a bit concerned that we would get in trouble for crossing someone’s land or harassing their sheep. After following the main road a bit too far, we cut cross-country back toward the track leading to Aketegi, passing through rolling territory dotted with limestone outcrops looking a bit like tombstones.

Summit views

What is apparently the correct track ends at someone’s house, where we saw a car, no people, and an aggressive but thankfully chained dog. Passing quickly by the barn, we eventually picked up some braided trails with occasional pain markings leading toward a ridge. It had been drizzling for awhile, and the limestone, mud, and grass were all slick, making for careful going in my worn out trail runners. The sheep had made a maze of tracks, which became much more confusing on the other side. Navigating purely by phone, we made our way up the best sheep-paths toward the summit, trying not to slip and coat ourselves with a mixture of clay mud and sheep droppings. We finally reached the narrow ridge crest near a summit marker, from which we could see a bit of grass to one side, and mist and a cliff to the other. I visited both the marker and the red dot on Peakbagger, marked the latter green, and considered my work done.

Basque horses

Returning down the slick sheep paths, we found a trail that worked its way above the barn and angry dog to join the driveway lower down, and took something more like the correct path back to the cafe/bar. Life was finally emerging as we returned, and we saw a few hikers in raincoats, plus some short, stocky horses with hairy fetlocks and long tails, apparently domesticated but serving no purpose. Back in Arantzazu, the clouds had lifted enough to see the tops of the creepy towers, and a few tourists were wandering around. The businesses were still closed, but there was a table selling local goods near the parking lot, where Mike bought some filled doughnut holes. There was no ticked on the windshield, but someone had cordoned off the car with tape and bollards. We packed up, then I quickly took down and replaced the tape for us to drive out. The clouds had lifted enough to see more of the surrounding valleys and cliffs, but this did little to dissuade me that Gipuzkoa is a real-life horror movie.

Escape from the Lower 48

Doing it my way


Reaching the place you want to be is always one of the most brutal parts of international travel. Airports are invariably dehumanizing, airlines indifferent to their customers, airplanes crowded and late. Foreign transit has unfamiliar rules you learn only by making time-consuming mistakes. And this increasing strangeness is met with increasing sleep deprivation, so that by the end you find yourself trying to read a bus schedule or check into a hotel in a foreign language when your brain is barely working well enough to do so in your own. The misery of the ordeal is yet another reason to stay as long as possible.

This trip began at 2:00 AM in Denver, when I woke an hour too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was already packed, so I puttered around and ate “breakfast,” or whatever you call the last meal before extended transportation hell at a time that will soon be “dinner.”

I drove to some long-term parking near the airport, dragged my boxed bike out of the car, and shoved it onto the shuttle, where it annoyed the driver and most of the other passengers. There was a family with a confused baby, a professional woman, and some Asian tourists politely masked (I had forgotten mine in the rush). Once at the airport, I dragged the box around for awhile until I found the right counter, then had to open it and add the smallest, heaviest, least threatening items to my carry-on to avoid the $100 overweight baggage fee. Thus burdened, I wound my way through security, which fulfilled my dream of being groped by a rent-a-cop despite having pre-check status and no metal objects. At least the flight was on time and I had a window seat, so I could watch the sunrise, some interesting clouds, and a lot of cornfields on my way to DC. The guy next to me emitted more farts than words, but the plane’s HEPA filters took care of that fairly quickly.

Expecting at least one flight to be late, I had a long layover scheduled in DC. All of the accessible lounges were in other terminals, and the airport requires more walking than most, so I would get some exercise between bouts of sitting. I met an interesting Canadian couple in the Turkish lounge. I talked to him because he was taking dozens of photos of a Lego couple in front of the window. Expecting this to be some hashtag-desperate play for Instagram fame, I was overjoyed to hear that he was just practicing with his camera, and that the Legos were a way to put a subject in his photos without turning them into selfies. Very Canadian. He and his partner had both left jobs in Nunavut to travel the world, and this was the first leg of theirs journey.

After talking with the Canadians for awhile, I left to proceed to my gate, only to learn that my flight was delayed by an hour, which soon became three. I guess an engine had fallen off to original plane or something, because the eventually located a replacement and pulled it around. Fortunately and uncharacteristically, the new plane was both fader and bigger than the old one, so I had two window seats to myself, and we hit ground speeds over 600 MPH. Also, flying directly over New York City at night, I got to watch a dozens of small fireworks displays from 20,000 feet.

This flight was shorter and farther south than my last one from Seattle to Dublin, so it got dark and I had no Greenland to see. I may have slept an hour or so, but the double seat was just a bit too small to get comfortable, and others had taken the middle rows. I was half-awake as I went through Swiss customs, but they didn’t ask me any questions. The surveillance state seems more overt than in the States: my European cell plan required a photo of my passport, and the airport Wi-Fi demanded a scan of my boarding pass. Of course, in the States the government simply buys this information from a private data broker.

Because of the late flight, I only made it as far as Grenoble on transit, where I finally turned my bike from an awkward box to a useful machine. I booked the closest cheap hotel to shower, organize my gear, and try to sleep for some normal hours. Things started to look better at the Carrefour, where I picked up a baguette ($1), a half-pound of Camembert ($1.30), and other sundries. In my search for cheap, dense, durable local calories, I went for a bag of pain chocolat and a large chocolate bar. I will need to carry multiple days of calories in a daypack at times, and it looks like chocolate bars and perhaps sausage may fill that role.

A half-day of trains and buses later, I finally got going under my own power at the turnoff to Ailefroide, riding about ten miles up a wooded valley to a cute town that happens to be a bouldering destination. I must have passed 100 cyclists on the climb, a few even going my way, and none passed me, so I was feeling pretty good despite my heavy and awkwardly-loaded bike. I checked into the campground, then headed into town to forage and find a way to make my load more stable. The weather looks good for the forecast window, so there’s no good reason not to get this thing started.

Bend area cycling

McKenzie Pass at peak snow


The greater Bend area has a wide variety of cycling, which I have been exploring based on recommendations, maps, and Strava segments. For pavement, there are many flat country roads in the plains to the east, hillier options to the west and south, and a couple of major paved climbs. For gravel and graded dirt, there are miles of National Forest roads of all types, as in much of the area between Lassen and Hood. Finally, there is a range of single-track, from the smooth trails north of Sisters to the bro-friendly manufactured downhill trails off the Mount Bachelor. However both roads and trails are in a transitional state now, and though the volcanic soil does not become terrible mud, the snowline can be sudden, and varies quite a bit based on aspect and rain shadow. Unfortunately, this same volcanic soil also turns into chain-destroying grit and powder that becomes progressively deeper over the dry summer.

McKenzie Pass

McKenzie Pass hut view


McKenzie Pass is an historic route over the Cascade crest near Sisters, south of the current Santiam Pass, between Mount Washington and North Sister. A similar route was used by Natives, with the road built as a toll road in the late 1800s and becoming public shortly thereafter. The pass features a stone lookout tower, built by the CCC and Forest Service back when they did that sort of thing. It is semi-famous among cyclists for being plowed but closed to cars in the late spring, at which point it is bordered by huge snowbanks. The local bike shop in Sisters, Eurosports, even has a pass conditions page and sells jerseys.

I have ridden the east side twice now, a steady, gentle climb of about 2000 feet from town, once in some unfortunate rain and the other time with clear skies on a weekend, dodging other cyclists on my way down. I was hoping to ride the whole pass, dropping 3000 feet to the junction with Highway 20 on the other side, but that is still being plowed as of May 23, and may not be clear in time. Since the pass is a short ride by itself, I added on a side-trip both times. The first time, I followed the good dirt forest road to Trout Creek Butte, which has an old lookout. Though the Butte is higher than the Pass, it is in the rain shadow, so the road was almost entirely dry to the summit. The second time, I tacked on some of paved Forest Road 11 near Black Butte, returning to town via Indian Ford Road.

Newberry Volcano

Newberry roads


The Newberry Volcanic Area, which I have written about previously, has a plethora of dirt roads and trails in addition to the main crater and highpoint. Many of these seem to be popular with OHVs, though, which churn the surface and make it unpleasantly soft for cycling. However, the major roads are more for cars, and therefore remain passable. The main area around the highpoint receives more precipitation than the surrounding area, which caused problems for me when a loop I intended ventured a bit too high. I ultimately exited to Highway 97 near La Pine, which has wide, safe shoulders but too many semis and speeding cars with loud A/T tires. The dirt roads north and east of the caldera are drier and quieter, but can be washboarded, loose, and dusty.

Lava Butte

Some history


Lava Butte is the perfect reddish cone to the west of 97 south of Bend. It is a deluxe Oregon peak: not only does it have a lookout, road, and cell service, but the road is paved and closed to cars, the lookout is manned and has an enclosed interpretive center beneath it, and the cell service is provided from somewhere else instead of unsightly nearby towers. In addition to its own recent lava field, Lava Butte has panoramic views of larger volcanoes in all directions, from Jefferson and possibly Hood around through the Sister and Diamond to Paulina. There are, of course, ridiculous Strava records both up and down the road, with which I did not try to compete.

Swimming in the P-trap

I do it for the views


“Peak-ness” is like pornography: as Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it. The Matterhorn and Rainier are clearly peaks; so are North Maroon and Mount Morrison, rising above Maroon and Convict Lakes. Impressive though it is, Castleton Tower is not. Shiprock? It’s hard to say. While a peak is intuitively a notable highpoint, trying to quantify that intuition is not easy. Elevation alone is clearly not enough: the town of Leadville lies above most of Washington State, but the North Cascades are far more peak-like than the talus mounds of the Sawatch. Other measures include isolation (distance to the nearest higher thing), prominence (rise above the connection to that thing), and combinations of those two. Then there are even more elaborate ones like Reduced Spire Measure, the integral of angle from the summit to all surrounding points.

Watching the definition of a seemingly-simple concept spiral into endless complexity is a delight to philosophers, but seems overdone for something trivial like peak-bagging. When it comes to lesser peaks in unfamiliar areas, I find prominence sufficient: it favors large solitary mountains and range highpoints. Unfortunately it has the weakness of favoring volcanoes and small ranges, i.e. Oregon and Nevada, so chasing prominence leads to what one could call the “P-trap.”

After Shastina, I found myself faced with an extended period of bad weather in the northwest, and therefore took a dive into the P-trap of northern California and southern Oregon. This area at least has trees, so it’s not as grim as Nevada, and many prominent peaks have roads leading to antennas and/or fire lookouts on their summits, making them attractive bike-and-hikes. Here are some of the summits I scaled in this brief effort to improve my “P-index.”

Black Butte

Black Butte is Shasta’s mini-me, a basalt cone next to the highway to its west. It is a nightmare of loose volcanic talus, but fortunately it had a lookout, and therefore a trail. Only the concrete foundation remains of the former, and the latter is slowly being reclaimed by the rubble, but it is still an improvement over the peak’s original state, making it a good short objective. As I ascended, I watched Shasta being swallowed by clouds, grateful that I had skied (most of) it the day before. It was cold and windy on top, so I did not stay long before hobbling and jogging back to the car.

Goosenest

Goosenest is another old volcano north of Shasta on the way to Klamath Falls. It would ordinarily be a good bike-n-hike from the pavement, but it was afternoon and raining off and on by the time I reached it, and I did not want to get my bike dirty and did not have enough daylight. I was worried about the dirt forest roads, but they were well-packed and not yet saturated, so my sorry vehicle had no trouble reaching an intersection a few miles from the summit. From there, I took the direct route, hike-jogging a road to an old quarry on the south side, then following a trail from there to the summit. The upper trail had some big snowdrifts, and it was snowing with no visibility on the summit, but it was worth just as many peak points. I jogged the descent, then continued to Klamath Falls.

Stukel

Lying well on the rain shadow side of Oregon, Stukel is another classic Oregon ride to radio towers. To make it a bit more challenging, I started from town, taking the canal bike path to a rail trail heading east of the city. The rail trail continues remarkably far out of town, but I turned south on some farm roads, then located the gravel road to the summit. This was challengingly steep at first, and I barely managed to keep my rear wheel from spinning out while toiling up in my lowest gear. Fortunately the grade eased beyond the first couple switchbacks, and I had an easier time the rest of the way to the summit. I once again had a magnificent view of clouds where Shasta and McLoughlin should have been, with clearer skies to the south and east.

Hogback

Hogback is Klamath Falls’ Atalaya, a “workout peak” with 1500-2000 feet of elevation gain and many routes leading to its summit. It was a good target for a morning of miserable weather. After looking around for awhile behind a closed and gated church, I took the wrong path for a bit before getting on the direct route to the summit, an unofficial trail that is relentlessly steep at first. I crossed the road from the other side, tagged the lookout, then quickly retreated in a storm of ice pellets. If I lived in Klamath, I would no doubt put in dozens of laps and loops on this peak.

Walker

Walker is another lookout and comms tower, east of the highway between Klamath and Bend. It would normally be a moderate ride, but snow turned the last couple miles into a hike. I biked from the highway, taking a well-maintained main road to the turnoff, then following the lookout road until the snow became too continuous to make pushing the bike worthwhile. This road had some interesting rubber water bars, which were several inches high, but just flexible enough to make it almost unnecessary to bunny-hop them. I checked out the lookout and its outbuildings, examined the weather stalled on the Cascade crest to the west, then returned to my bike for an unpleasant, hand-freezing descent.

Odell

Odell Butte is a near-perfect cone near Crescent Lake. I had been hoping to ride the road to the Oregon standard lookout and antennas, but the storm arrived in earnest the night before, so I ran it from the car, about 6 miles each way. The snow began as a dusting, which gradually turned into moderate postholing, with a large old drift blocking vehicles at the “road closed to tourists” sign just below the top. I got a brief view of Crescent Lake on the way down, but was mostly in the clouds, with only the nearby rime-covered trees for distraction. I turned up the speed a bit on the final, more runnable road, and enjoyed some time at an actual running pace; it had been too long.

What to do around Susanville

Hold my beer…


I have passed through Susanville a number of times commuting between the Sierra and points north, and my impression has been: (1) at least it has a Walmart, and (2) keep going for cheaper gas. For reasons too mundane and pathetic to detail, I found myself spending a few days nearby recently. It remains a desert redneck hub, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and fertile ground for “F*ck B*den — not my president” signs to grow. But it also has a wealth of good cycling in the shoulder season, from paved backroads, to dirt forest roads, to a couple of long rail trails. I don’t think I could live here, but like many parts of drive-through country, it has redeeming features if you take the time to look.

Bizz Johnson trail

Bizz Johnson trail

The Bizz Johnson trail is a 25-mile rail trail following the Susan River west from Susanville, with two short tunnels and many bridges. Parts were destroyed by recent fires and floods, but the first 7.5 miles are undamaged, and the rest is being repaired. I was in town too early for the western parts, which are still a mixture of snow and mud, but was able to follow parallel forest roads to the end at Mason Station, then loop back on Highway 36. Once the country to the west melts out, there are apparently many other roads and trails that can be combined with the Bizz Johnson to make long loops. But as in Oregon, there is a strong rain shadow despite a lack of notable mountains, so peaks above 7000 feet east of town were dry even as forest to the west had patchy snow at 5500 feet.

Fredonyer Peak

Fredonyer summit

There are no fewer than four mountains named Fredonyer in the area, as well as some other features. All are named for Atlas Fredonyer, an early settler with an unsettling biography. This is the highest one, with a lookout and antenna nest on top, accessed by a rough dirt road off Highway 139 between Susanville and Eagle Lake. The road is hard to spot, an unsigned turn on the long descent to the lake. Another, more obvious road apparently also leads to the peak, but crosses aggressive private property near the bottom. Riding the peak from camp north of town, it came out to just under fifty miles round-trip. Though the day was fairly pleasant lower down, the summit was uncomfortably windy, leaving me with cold, stiff hands for the rough descent and much of the paved ride back south.

Eagle Lake

No need to share this time of year

For some reason, this region features many large lakes. The most famous and arguably scenic is Tahoe, but others include Pyramid, Honey, Alkai, Goose, and Eagle. From Susanville, there is a 60-mile paved loop around Eagle Lake via Highway 139 to its east and Eagle Lake Road (A1) to its west. Even the highway part of this loop is not too busy, and the Eagle Lake Road is almost deserted before the campground along the lake are open for the summer. This makes for a wonderful, quiet, rolling long ride, only slightly spoiled by the pavement cracks on A1, causing vicious jolts every few seconds for what seems like hours.

Shaffer Mountain

Susanville from Shaffer

This is another peak with an antenna nest, and therefore a road to the top, climbing about 2000 feet in seven miles at a steady grade. The upper parts can be frustratingly rock and loose, but not nearly as bad as the Fredonyer road. This would be a long ride from town, but it was a good short objective from the highway, suitable for a day with miles to travel and errands to run. Not only is it an efficient workout, but Shaffer has 2000 feet of prominence, making it worth multiple Peakbagger Points.

Glenwood and Mogollon

Nope!


While I have been traveling and getting out more than I do in a normal winter in the Lower 48, I have unfortunately been writing less. Though I do not plan to abandon the blog, I expect this new sporadic schedule to continue.

The greater Gila is a largely undeveloped area of mixed piñon-juniper and ponderosa forest in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While much of it lies within the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses of New Mexico, they are surrounded by a vast area of non-wilderness (i.e. bikeable) National Forest. With elevations ranging from around 5000 to over 10,000 feet, there is only a narrow springtime window in which the lowlands are cool enough and the highlands are relatively snow-free.

We had been carrying a tandem and bike trailer around on my car for weeks, at a significant cost in both hassle and gas, and it was finally time to use both. My friend Mike had laid out an ambitious 350-mile tour through the Gila, north from Silver City, then west to Alpine and down scenic Highway 191 in Arizona, which we hoped to complete in a bit over a week, including some time for hikes. The forest roads on the northeast part of the loop climb as high as 9,000 feet, though, so while the lowlands around Morenci would be too hot (and windy!) for pleasant touring, some sections remained impassable due to snow and mud. We therefore saw only small parts of what would have been an excellent loop.

New catwalk

Our plan was to leave the car at the Glenwood Ranger Station, then bike the paved road up through the ghost town of Mogollon and continue on dirt forest roads to Beaverhead Ranger Station. The helpful woman at the Station, however, informed us that fire crews had recently been turned around on that road due to lingering snow. Since minor snowdrifts that block a truck are often avoidable on a bike, we remained slightly optimistic. However it was too late in the day to sensibly start, so we instead took a side trip to the nearby Catwalk.

Better alternative

The Catwalk in its current form is a sturdy metal structure extending less than a mile up the box canyon of Whitewater Creek, popular among tourists visiting the Silver City area. It was longer and more impressive in its earlier forms, first as a slapdash wooden affair built by miners in the late 1800s, then wooden and metal replacements built by the CCC in the 1930s and Forest Service in the 1960s. We started on the modern structure, but were soon driven down to the river by the crowds of children and lumbering gawkers. It was actually much more fun below the catwalk, as I was able to hop from rock to rock, while Leonie splashed up the shallow stream.

Rockslide damage

Somehow missing a trail closure sign, we continued past the crowds, finding remnants of several old routes up-canyon, all destroyed by rockslides and flash floods. There is no way to build a long-lasting trail up a box canyon with crumbling sides, but the trail has at various times followed the creek all the way to its source near Whitewater Baldy, the Gila highpoint. This area contains (or contained) a rich network of trails connecting the western lowlands at 5000 feet to a highline trail closer to 10,000, but fire, erosion, disuse, and lack of maintenance have left them in an uncertain state. As tempted as we were to backpack these trails, we retreated and decided instead to try riding up through Mogollon as far as we could along our original tour route.

Mogollon ore carts

We spent a decent night in the Ranger Station parking lot; the ranger who approached us in the morning was more bemused than upset by our choice of campsite, and invited us to the annual dutch oven bakeoff that afternoon. We slowly assembled food and water for a single day, then headed north of town on the highway before turning right on the dead-end road to Mogollon. While there are a few summer homes there, and perhaps even a permanent resident or two, it is mostly a tourist destination in normal years, or a well-maintained cluster of abandoned buildings in COVID times.

This is the good stuff

After climbing 2000 feet from Glenwood, the road descends 500 to Mogollon before turning to dirt. We stopped to take a few photos among the abandoned buildings and equipment, then continued uphill, climbing another 2500 feet to Silver Creek Divide at just over 9000 feet. The road maintained a consistent grade that was pleasant on the tandem alone, but would have been painful with a loaded trailer. It was mostly snow-free and dry to the divide, though its route along the creek meant we had no views and no visual cues of when the climb was done. We met a few cars, including a an ambitious Mini Cooper from Florida, but mostly had the area to ourselves.

At the Divide, we regrettably elected to miss the cookoff, instead continuing along the high traverse, with expansive views to the north. Unfortunately this north-facing slope held much more snow and tire-sucking mud, so we soon gave up, settling for some trail mix before returning through Mogollon and back to town. It seemed both too early up high, and too late down low, to complete our original tour. We were not done with the Gila, though: the mid-elevation roads between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings offered a suitable and seasonable consolation prize.

Santa Barbara tour: Big Caliente

Relaxing?


My peak-bagging had put us behind Steve’s itinerary, leaving us a mostly downhill half-day from Big Caliente hot springs, or a full day from various other possible camps. The hot springs were a side trip of several miles out of our intended loop, but supposedly worth the visit, offering a better experience than neighboring Little Caliente. We decided to at least try the springs, then choose whether or not to continue depending on quality and crowding.

More dirt…

The unfriendly couple were only slightly better in the morning, perhaps still resenting having to share their “private” campground. This complicated our start, as my tissue paper Thermarest had predictably sprung a leak; such is the way of “ultralight” gear. Once the picnic/operating table was available, we set about trying to repair it, following the manual in the repair kit. The preferred way to fix a long tear is to heat an adhesive packet, then quickly spread it around the hole and apply a nylon patch. This supposedly both works in the field and lasts, but the glue would not liquefy after several minutes in boiling water just above sea level. We eventually slapped on an inferior self-adhesive patch, saw that it apparently held, and got on with our day.

Jamison Reservoir

We continued down the Santa Ynez River, passing Jameson Lake, the highest of three reservoirs supplying drinking water to Santa Barbara. At the small caretaker house below the dam, the road finally became passable to normal vehicles again, and we made good time to the Pendola Guard Station. This was our most pleasant riding in awhile, descending gentle grades through a sparse oak forest along a broadening river valley. The Station was closed, but in good repair, with intact informational signs outside informing us that, among other things, the area is home to some of California’s condors. These giant vultures became extinct in the wild in 1987, and were subsequently bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in 1991; I am old enough to remember hearing about both events on the evening news.

This being a holiday weekend and an accessible backcountry hot spring, we met a number of parties headed in both directions. These included two parties of light bike-packers going in and one coming out, more than I have probably seen in the rest of my travels in the United States. The modern way to camp on a mountain bike is to eschew panniers and load up the frame, bars, forks, and whatever else with small bags of ultralight gear. This allows for probably three days of food without wearing a backpack, and with a decent-handling bike, at the cost of only a few thousand dollars. Though I find it slightly tempting, I do not enjoy singletrack enough to invest beyond my cheap and capacious trailer.

Rules are flexible

We were concerned that the springs would be crowded, but we met two parties leaving, one consisting of ten or so young women and a bored-looking guy. Arriving at the most-developed pool, we saw the expected “no camping” signs, but hoped that we would have the place to ourselves, and could camp unmolested. It was only slightly after midday, but with hot water in the main pool and drinkable water in the creek nearby, we would probably not find a better place to camp. Not traveling ultralight, we had brought a couple of books apiece, and spent much of the afternoon reading and unconsciously dehydrating in the hot pool.

It turned out to be less than ideal, but still good enough to spend two nights without regretting it. With one more day of holiday weekend remaining, we shared the pool with a couple of other groups in the afternoon, and two more overnight. Fortunately everyone was more or less considerate in maintaining social distancing and not being too loud overnight. Unfortunately, though, the wind picked up in the evening as it had every night, and blew in unpredictable gusts all night. While the others hunkered in their tents, we set up camp in one of the nearby concrete bunkers or changing rooms. This had the advantage of being a large, flat space, but it channeled the wind more than blocking it. That, plus what turned out to be a failed patch job on my TissueRest, made for a long and sleepless night.