Category Archives: Tourism

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.



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.

Mina Raura, glaciers, and rock

Privada, cerrado

My “guidebook,” a John Ricker article in the 1996 American Alpine Journal, suggested that most of the central Cordillera Raura peaks were best approached from near the high Mina Raura, so I made a long road-hike down from Surasaca, around Yarupá, and up to the pass near Nevado Santa Rosa, stopping near dark at what turned out to be a singularly unpleasant camp site. Not only was it shaded well into the morning, but a thick frost collected on the exposed surfaces of my bivy sack, pack, and shoes.

Santa Rosa from camp

I had a few handfuls of peanuts for breakfast, then painfully put on all my clothes and started up the road around 7:30, stomping my boots to warm my feet, hoping to find my way to Nevado Santa Rosa’s northwest ridge. For my first attempt, I started down a side-road just past the guard-post at the pass. One of the guards, who were not interested in inspecting the passing cars and trucks, waved me over and took me to speak with his boss. The jefe told me that my chosen road was closed due to falling rocks, and that I should continue over the pass to some lakes. This would make my late start even later, but I still had plenty of daylight.

Condorgsenga from the north

So I continued down the other side of the pass, stepping to the side of the dusty dirt road from time to time to let the semis pass. I neared a lake after a couple of switchbacks, and saw a side road heading toward Nevado Santa Rosa. Before I even made a move toward the road, a mine guard in a Hilux stopped to ask where I was headed. I told him that I was trying to climb Santa Rosa, and he said that all the surrounding land was privado and cerrado. He seemed surprised that people as far away as the United States had even heard of their Nevado and, apparently sympathetic to my situation, made a call to his boss.

Nevado Santa Rosa, route to the right

The call went on for awhile, with the guard repeatedly put on hold, so we had some time to attempt conversation. I explained how to use an ice tool, and showed him my crampons, which he had apparently never seen. I asked how long he had been working at the mine (three years) and if he had ever thought of climbing some of the surrounding peaks. He replied that he was busy working and, when I asked him about his time off, asked me rhetorically how much my gear had cost. He had a point, and could only shrug and grimace. He asked what my family was doing while I was wandering around Peru, and I replied no familia, no casa, nada. Had I been thinking quickly and better at Spanish, I would have gone on to say that he could buy decent used boots, crampons, and tools for under 1500 Sols ($500). That is a lot of money in Peru, but probably on the order of a month’s rent or a few months of a child’s school fees.

The mine seems to be the cornerstone of the local economy, while the locals have no time or use for the mountains, so I imagine the Mina Raura will outlive Santa Rosa’s glaciers. Someone may even have achieved the peak’s last ascent, since the underlying rock is mostly steep choss. The former standard routes on Torre de Cristal and the Siete Caballeros already looked much more precarious than when they were covered with snow.

Lake below Mina Raura and Siete Caballeros

Evidently I needed to speak to some higher-up to possibly get permission to cross private property, so I got a ride down the wrong side of the pass, then waited an hour or so outside the gate to be called in. While I sat, I took some pictures of Nevado Santa Rosa and the Siete Caballeros for posterity. I also noted with amusement that the corporate safety sign (“1. No drinking on the job; 2. Follow the 10 safety principles; …”) had been recently repainted to add “5. Only use your cell phone when appropriate.” I have been amazed by how many people, even in the poorest and most rural areas, are constantly staring at their phones, frequently checking Facebook (which doesn’t count toward their data caps). It seems our digital pollution has spread to even the most remote and isolated corners of the globe.

Santa Rosa from south mine road

I eventually gave up, hiking back to my camp with the help of a short ride from a friendly worker. I packed up and began the long march back to Oyón, less disappointed than ready to move on. The worker who gave me a ride passed again, this time escorting an oversized truck, and gave me an apple for the road. It wasn’t the first time random locals had been generous — a woman with more dental work than teeth had given me a double handful of animal crackers on my hike up the night before.

Several people at the mine had mentioned cyclists, so while I didn’t understand all that they said, I wasn’t surprised to be caught by bike tourists on the descent, the first non-locals I had seen since leaving Lima. They turned out to be a bad-ass French couple towing their young daughter in a trailer. We talked for a few minutes before a collectivo stopped to ask if we wanted a ride. They were of course fine coasting into town, but I was happy to pay the 10 Sols to save my soles. I was back in Oyón by mid-afternoon, reunited with my bag and figuring out the public transit marathon necessary to reach Huaraz.

Planes, buses, planes, and buses: welcome to Peru

Sunset on Yerupá

Although I complicated things a bit by starting and ending in Spain, last summer’s trip to the Alps was logistically simple: fly to Europe, rent a car, sleep in it at trailheads, and dayhike peaks. I knew that Peru would be more complicated, but did not expect the difficulties to start States-side.

Working the airport lounge

Only a few hours before it was scheduled to take off, my red-eye flight from Denver to Miami was canceled. After a last-minute scramble, I found myself on an even redder-eye flight to Orlando, with “efficient” seats that made it impossible to sleep. Arriving in Florida around dawn, I reclaimed my checked bag (TSA having apparently stolen my approved lock), then killed some time in a fine airport lounge. After a suitable delay, I took a local bus to the long-distance bus depot for my three-hour ride to Fort Lauderdale. Having caught up on the news while waiting, I realized that I had narrowly missed Donald Trump’s Orlando kick-off rally. A “Keep America Great Again” hat would have come in handy against the blazing Peruvian sun, but I was already far enough behind schedule.

Customs comes alive after midnight

My evening flight from Fort Lauderdale to Lima was bad enough, made only slightly worse by a one-hour delay with no obvious cause. I could swear that we taxied in a circle before finally lining up for takeoff. By the time I finally deplaned and made my way though the hour-long customs line, it was well past midnight and I was only semi-conscious, having been awake for most of two days. Ah, the glamour of international travel.

Welcome to my personal hell

Fortunately Ted had booked me a room at the airport hotel, which was much more pleasant than the airport floor I would have booked for myself. I slept better than I have in years nestled among six pillows, waking late to Lima’s gloomy haze and chaotic traffic, which instantly took its place with Mexico City among my “Places to be Escaped With Dispatch.” I stayed around long enough to enjoy the hotel amenities, including a breakfast of mini-hamburgers, then took a taxi to the bus terminal, where I eventually found a company with service to Oyón. The bus was late, but much more comfortable than flying coach.

Checkpoint on the road to Gas Town

Once out of the city, the scenery turned into something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: a desert wasteland sprinkled with abandoned buildings and crossed by old tire tracks. It was dark by the time things got interesting, and I only caught headlight glimpses of a narrow road beneath overhanging dirt embankments. It was well past dark by the time I disembarked in Oyón, and cold above 11,000′; shivering, I waited for the spare tires and sacks of potatoes to be unloaded ahead of my duffel. I walked into the first hotel I saw, and happily paid more than I should have for a run-down but reasonably clean room. It had internet, beds, and a toilet — good enough.

Nice town square in Oyón

In the morning, I was still a long walk or unknown transit from my intended base camp near Laguna Surasaca. I used my pathetic Spanish to tell the hotel owner that I wanted to leave my gigantic green duffel with him for “about a week,” and he instantly agreed. Now it was time to do some shopping. Since I had no fuel canister, I needed thousands of cheap calories that did not require cooking. Fortunately these are easily acquired in Latin America, and for less than $20, I soon had a dozen muffins, a big bag of Hawaiian rolls, four cans of tuna, a couple pounds of sugar-coated peanuts, and various crackers and cookies. I attached the haul to the outside of my already-overloaded pack, and began walking up the road.

About a mile out of town, a car pulled over and the driver asked me ¿a donde va? I told him Laguna Surasaca, and he offered to take me to some unfamiliar village for 5 Sol. It was in the right direction, and only $1.50, so I awkwardly shuffled into the back with my pack, and off we went. The ride saved me a lot of annoying road-walking, and convinced me that figuring out local transit would be worth the hassle.

Llamas along Surasaca

The main road from Oyón across the Andes via Mina Raura sees plenty of mine and other traffic, the side-road to Laguna Surasaca almost none. I had a quiet but endless-seeming walk to the lake, then around its 5-kilometer length, passing a road worker with a wheelbarrow and shovel, and a llama-herd checking in on his beasts. I left the road beyond the lake, following cow-, llama-, and sheep-tracks as the valley gently climbed above 15,000′. Along the way I passed a flock of sheep, and learned that they are to be feared and avoided. Though the sheep are docile and stupid, they are accompanied by vicious guard-dogs, not the cute guard-llamas I had hoped for. They didn’t seem inclined to bite, but three of them efficiently herded me up a hillside, barking angrily from a few feet away until the shepherd came over and called them off.

I continued uphill until dusk, then made my cold, miserable camp on a hillside in a small patch of grass free of cow turds where I hoped cold air would not collect. It was not the best choice, partly because I needed to camp on the west-facing side of the valley, and partly because everything is backwards: the Cordillera Raura is just far enough south of the equator for north slopes to get more sun, and prevailing winds seem to come from the east. But I was tired, and far enough up the valley to reach any possible peaks the next day. I watched the sun set on Rumiwayin and Yarupá as I settled in for a night of pseudo-sleep.

Iztaccihuatl (Pies y Pecho)

Izta from Pies

Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest volcano, and the second-highest that can be legally climbed, as Popocatépetl has long been closed for being too active. Translated from Nahuatl and Spanish, the title is literally “White woman (feet and bust),” and the mountain does indeed look like a woman lying on her back when viewed from the east or west. Her bust is the highpoint, her head and feet are legitimately separate peaks, and her belly and knees are minor bumps on the standard climb from below her feet to her chest.

Los Pies

I had hoped to climb Tlalocatépetl on my way over from Malinche, but confusion about the trailhead location and problems turning around on the divided highway spoiled that plan, so I kept on driving to Amecameca, then up the magnificent and windy road to Paso de Cortes, between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I paid the $3.50 entry fee at the visitor center, then crept along the dusty road to the La Joya trailhead, arriving late in the morning. I wasn’t feeling especially energetic, so I decided to take a short, slow hike up Los Pies, which would be new to me and, at 15,387′, would give me some acclimatization benefit.

Trail toward Izta

I ate some junk food, then took off slowly up the trail, passing various hikers headed in both directions, and a group of Red Cross members possibly patrolling the popular area. I left the main trail near a saddle where the trail crosses from the south/east to the north/west side of Izta’s crest, finding occasional old boot-prints and cairns on the slope leading to Los Pies’ summit knob. I was feeling slow, but was cheered up by a couple stretches of seemingly mandatory class 3-4 climbing getting through rock bands. This was the most technical climbing I had found on this trip, slightly more difficult than the crux on Pico de Agila, and it even required some route-finding.

Los Pies’ summit knob

I eventually emerged on the ridge west of the summit knob, from which I could see the trail toward El Pecho below and to the north. The summit knob itself looked serious, defended by sheer cliff bands of questionable rock on all sides. However, tackling one problem at a time, it proved no harder than class 3. I started to the left, climbing near the crest, then crossed to the right, traversing a sandy slope below the main cliffs. Here I found a ramp trending back left, where moderate scrambling led back to the crest and to a couple old pitons and a dubious hand-line. After a brief wrong turn, I crossed back to the left near the hand line, traversed a bit, and was soon at the summit.

Los Pies summit plaque

I found no register or cross, but there was a plaque cemented to the summit rock that made no more sense to me even after running it through Google Translate. There also seemed to be an easier way down a loose chute on the other side of the summit knob. I hung out for awhile, looking for people descending Izta to one side, watching Popo puff on the other and listening to its deep rumbling, then retraced my steps off the summit knob.

I thought it looked easier to drop north and join the standard trail on the main peak, but I was wrong. What looked like nice scree-skiing was a shallow and slippery layer with hard-pack underneath, with occasional patches of Izta’s evil mud. After numerous slips, I reached flatter ground and picked up the trail at the saddle northwest of Los Pies. With plenty of daylight left, I took my time on the trail down, passing (the same?) Red Cross group, this time playing around with ropes and gear next to the trail.

Radical Mexican bike design

It was only mid-afternoon, and I was bored, so I made the long drive back to Amecameca for some street tacos, which cost about $1 each and contained generous helpings of chorizo and cecina. Many of the region’s eateries advertised their cecina, and I was eager to try it, having enjoyed it in Leon. However, this “cecina” was a different thing entirely, more like thinly-sliced, salty roast beef. It was good in its own way, but I preferred the Spanish version. After ingesting real food, I drove back up the pass to sleep near the trailhead and turn my meal into red blood cells.

El Pecho

For my last Mexican climb, I wanted to try to set an FKT for Izta’s standard route. The climb gains just over 4000 feet, and I thought I could go faster than Joe Gray’s 2h11 ascent despite the altitude and somewhat indirect route. I had my doubts when I woke up, sore from 5 days sleeping in a tiny rental car, with my cough and headache worse than they had been the whole trip. I sat in the car for awhile, drinking cold instant coffee and eating bland crackers, then finally drove over to the trailhead and got ready. I started my watch and jogged down the trail, and almost gave up when my left glute and hamstring complained. But suffering up hills is what I do; instinct took over, and I got to work.

Crossing the first saddle before Los Pies, I was surprised to run into the Mexican Army. There must have been at least 50 guys in combat gear, most carrying assault rifles, some carrying regimental banners, hiking steadily up the loose climb. The ones in back noticed me and shouted to their companions, who stood aside for me to run through along the short downhill-to-flat section. I reverted to hiking as soon as the trail turned uphill, and slowly plodded past the rest. I was impressed by their progress carrying all that gear; one guy even had a gallon water jug strapped to the top of his pack.

Ayoloco Glacier

I saw no one at the hut, and only a few other people on the rest of the familiar route. I stuck to the rocks on the grind above the hut, and tried to run the flat and downhill sections along the undulating ridge. It was cold up high for a change, with a brutal west wind driving me to put on my hat and windbreaker, and to shelter my left eyeball. I sketched my way down onto the Ayoloco Glacier, passing two guys in crampons, then jogged by some people on the flat section before grinding out the final ridge climb to the summit.

South from north summit

Izta’s highpoint may have been its summit icefield many years ago, but it is much diminished, and is now an icy depression surrounded by three similarly-high points. I reached the south one first, where most people stop, then cut straight across the ice plain to climb the north one via its east ridge. This one had a couple of crosses, but both had geological markers, and the south summit looked higher from the north. ¿Quien sabe? Pleased to have made the south summit in about 2h02, and the north one in 2h08, I decided I was done with speed for the day.

Conquering Mexican Army

My plan had been to continue to La Cabeza, Izta’s northern distinct subpeak. However, I was sick of the cold wind, and it looked tricky from where I stood, so I moseyed on back the way I came. The Mexican Army had occupied the territory surrounding the hut, setting up brightly colored and very un-army-like tents. It seemed like they had plenty of time left to summit, but they were going to wait for la mañana. I made my way through camp, trying to be friendly and not get too close to any guns, then put on a bit of speed on the descent toward Los Pies. I stopped once to talk to a fellow American, then cruised back to the car.

I drove to the visitor center to rinse the volcanic dust off my feet and legs, then found a Starbucks to kill a few hours before driving to the airport. Using the Starbucks WiFi, I learned that I was far from the FKT, a blazingly fast 1h40 or so set (once again) by Santiago Carsolio. Oh, well… Luckily I left myself plenty of time to return the car, because it took me several circles and wrong turns to find the hole-in-the-wall car lot. I handed in the keys, got back my deposit, then began the 2-day transit nightmare home. It hadn’t been the Mexico trip I had planned, but non-tourist Mexico is still an awesome place.