For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the second (blue) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Osorno, are 1625 miles and 103,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 47 days. That’s about 35 miles and 2200 feet per day, which is not so bad considering that some of those miles were over ridiculous terrain like the Paso de las Damas.
Unfortunately I only summited seven peaks, which makes me question whether I can still call myself a peak-bagger. This was partly because I did not have a “mother lode” of peaks like the Puna de Atacama on this leg, but mostly because I was burned out on high-altitude choss. By the time I reached Bariloche, where both the rock and my motivation greatly improved, COVID-19 and the world’s response to it cut my travels short. I explored the Andes from about 25 to 41 degrees south on this trip, but there is a lot more left to see. Hopefully I will be able to return sometime in the future. With almost 3000 miles under my belt on this trip, I can almost call myself a real bike tourist, though I’m nowhere close to matching Daniel, Marilyne, Kevin, or some of the others I have met down here.
I was a flip phone holdout until late 2017, I have since become utterly dependent upon my smartphone (an iPhone SE, the last of the pocket-sized phones), and all of my international trips would have been somewhere between difficult and impossible without it and a few apps. I am also utterly dependent upon a few pieces of desktop software and web pages.
Maps.me is a convenient way to use OpenStreetMap data offline for both mapping and route-finding. The maps are usually good and reasonably complete, even in small South American towns. The route-finding is quirky, though. Sometimes it will not see roads that clearly exist on the map; other times it will suggest utter nonsense. While it claims to be able to plan routes for cars, bikes, and pedestrians, the car routes tend to be the least nonsensical. It can usually be trusted for short distances within cities, but you should always double-check longer routes.
This has been my go-to offline mapping program for several years. It offers offline USGS/USFS topo maps within the United States, and usable computer-generated “global topos” elsewhere. These topos can be downloaded either for the area around a peak, or for that around an arbitrary GPX track. The app also keeps track of peak-bagging statistics, for people who play that game. However, its offline maps have always been unreliable to download over slow connections, and have recently stopped working for me entirely. I am currently looking into other options, and have high hopes for the CalTopo app currently being developed.
I do all my route-planning with CalTopo, which has a variety of maps and satellite images for the whole world. I used the free version for a long time, but recently became a subscriber, partly to support the project, and partly to eliminate some restrictions on the app. While the iOS app is still a work in progress, I hope to someday use it to replace Peakbagger for my offline topo needs.
Windy has horrible, useless graphics on both its website and mobile app, but I use it anyways because it provides worldwide point forecasts from three different models: the European ECMWF, considered the best in the world; the American GFS, which is also good; and Meteoblue, which focuses on mountains and has higher-resolution models for some ranges (e.g. the Alps). Meteoblue’s summit temperatures seem to be most accurate, while ECMWF may be better at wind speeds. Comparing the three models is a good way to get a rough idea of forecast reliability: the closer they agree, the more you can trust the forecast.
For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the first (red) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Copiapo, are 1350 miles and 80,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 51 days. That is a pathetic-sounding average of only 26.5 miles and 1570 feet of gain per day, but I also did some peak-bagging on the side…
Along the way, I tagged 14 real summits plus Cerro de la Gloria in Mendoza. That’s a pathetic average of only one peak every 3.6 days, but I also did some bike riding…
I had expected the two weeks spent crossing the Puna de Atacama from Fiambala to Copiapo, climbing as many 6000-meter peaks as possible along the way, to be my trip’s physical and psychological crux, and it absolutely delivered. In two weeks, I cycled over 300 miles, and climbed seven 6000-meter peaks: San Francisco, Incahuasi, El Fraile, El Muerto, Ojos del Salado, Tres Cruces Sur, and Tres Cruces Norte. I finally struggled into Copiapo just before dark, after a 120-mile 13-hour ride that would have been much easier without a near-constant headwind for the last 80 miles. While I had anticipated the difficulty, I was surprised by the afternoon snows, which improved the scenery, but made some of the climbing crushingly slow. I suppose I am glad I did it, but I am more glad that it is done. I will write more about the experience over the coming days, or possibly weeks.
This was a year of extremes, of highs and lows and novelties, in which I accomplished a fair amount, though not as much as I had hoped. In the winter and spring, I managed to do some quality backcountry skiing. In the summer, I had a mostly successful trip to the Peruvian Andes, though I was shut down by unseasonable weather toward the end. I summited Tocllaraju, Chopicalqui, and numerous lower peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, explored the seldom-visited Cordillera Raura, and gawked at the too-hard-for-me peaks of the Huayhuash. These were my first climbs above 6000 meters and 20,000 feet, and included both serious glacier travel and some moderate technical climbing. In the fall, I experimented with combining peak-bagging and bike-touring, finding that I enjoy the variety.
In the end, though, I was sharply reminded of two fundamental rules: “know your place” and “focus on your strengths.” My place is in the mountains, wandering alone through new lands while going up and down piles of rock and snow. As another winter arrives, I find myself more homeless and rootless than usual, so rather than doing who-knows-what who-cares-where in the western United States, I am headed to Chile and Argentina. There I will travel by foot and bike through the high Andes, climbing as many peaks as I have time and energy to reach. Hopefully that will include Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in South America climbable without an exorbitant permit fee.
As usual, I will be traveling with no corporate or institutional support, mostly making do with what I have. Thanks to Ted’s generous donation of frequent flier points, the trip itself should end up cheaper than spending the winter in the States. That does not include a handful of mandatory gear upgrades, such as a bike trailer, tent, and miscellaneous bike parts. After multiple rejections for American Alpine Club grants, it seemed pointless to continue applying; and while I at least heard back from them, Big Agnes, Hilleberg, and Nemo all declined to support my project with a free or discounted tent. If you have enjoyed following my travels over the past decade, please consider supporting them by telling your friends about my books: 40 Classic Scrambles and California’s Fourteeners.
I wanted to make the most of the long drive up to Yosemite by spending a few days tagging random peaks around Tioga Pass. My first targets were Shepherd Crest and Sheep Peak. I thought they fit well thematically, and could make a nice loop by starting at Saddlebag Lake, traversing Shepherd Crest, dropping south to climb Sheep and its unnamed sub-peak, then climbing over the saddle south of Conness to return. I had plans for a couple more days in the area afterwards as well. Unfortunately, a combination of cold and wind forced me to lower my ambitions on the first day, and then car trouble scuttled the rest of my plans. Such is life.
I had just as cold a night as expected up at the Saddlebag Lake trailhead, with only one other car-camper for company, and took my time over breakfast and coffee before stubbornly setting out wearing all of my summer mountain clothing. It was a cold, windy, shady hike/jog around the lake, though it was almost pleasant once I reached the sun near Greenstone Lake. I was both worn down and hungry from the previous day’s unusual amount of flat running “down” Lyell Canyon, so I walked where I would normally have jogged, and ate about half my food.
At the south end of Steelhead Lake, where I expected to start the cross-country, I instead found a fairly clear use trail heading northwest, almost directly toward Shepherd Crest. The trail disappeared in the final talus below the northern end of the ridge connecting it to North Peak, but the talus and sparse krummholtz did not offer much resistance. The wind, however, picked up unpleasantly, forcing me to side-hill left of the ridge for some shelter.
I headed straight up where the rock turns darker gray near the summit, quickly grabbing the register before hiding below the ridge to read it. I saw a couple of familiar names, added my own, then quickly put it back in its place. The wind seemed to be getting worse, with knock-you-over gusts across the ridge; clearly traversing the Crest would be miserable. I instead miserably retraced my steps, hating the wind until I was finally sheltered below the Shepherd-North ridge.
With lots of day left, I decided to tag Tioga Crest, a 1000-foot prominence peak on the other side of Saddlebag that I had planned to save for the morrow. I followed various trails almost to the north end of the lake, then went cross-country up the peak’s southwest ridge, following various game trails up mostly easy terrain. The supposed highpoint is on the far end of the long east-west crest, which I again traversed well below before heading straight up to the summit.
Oddly, though Tioga Crest is slightly higher than Shepherd Crest, the wind was slightly less bad. I admired the drop into deep Lundy Canyon to the north, which held a substantial amount of snow on its north-facing slopes, and chossy, colorful Excelsior Mountain on the other side. I was pleased to see that the previous visitor had been fellow New Mexican and wanderer Guy Dahms, who I almost feel I have met after seeing his name on so many summits. The descent to Dore Pass and Saddlebag Lake was all at a pleasant angle, but not conducive to scree-skiing, so it took longer than expected. I should have jogged the trail/road around the east side of the lake, but felt more like walking.
I ate a late lunch, then looked around for an easy afternoon peak, settling on Gaylor Peak, just outside the park entrance station. I turned the key to start my car, and… click. I waited a bit, then tried again with the same result. I pushed and rolled my car into the sun, gave the engine a chance to warm up, and tried once more, with the same result. Shit.
Since it was downhill from where I was to the Mobil station, I figured that if I could coast I could reduce the cost of the tow, and perhaps even push-start my car. The first obstacle was getting out of the parking lot, which had a slight flat/uphill section. After some experimentation, I found that if I chocked the wheels with wedge-shaped rocks, I could rock the car back and forth to gain ground, quickly kick the nearest wheel’s chock forward, then walk around the car to advance the others. Sometimes I would gain only an inch, sometimes six or eight. I had about twenty feet to go to reach the downhill, but I also had nothing else to do all afternoon, and could use the strength training.
I had been doing this for a bit over an hour, and wasn’t especially interested in help, but when one of the other hikers noticed what I was doing and offered, I did not refuse. With two of us pushing bobsled-style, we quickly got the car over the hump, and I jumped in to steer and brake. Driving was a bit more work without power steering or brakes, but perfectly safe at 20 MPH or less on the way down toward the Tioga Pass road. Unfortunately, there is one flat stretch about a half-mile before the intersection that was too long to coast. With my last momentum, I pulled to the side of the road, then prepared for another cold night, preparing myself to bleed money the next day. Cars suck sometimes.
Since it has been awhile since I have written anything, I figured I would just drop a quick note to let people know that I’m okay, and that while the blog is dormant, it is not dead. I should hopefully have something more interesting to say in about a week.
Update: For those of you waiting for books, I am very sorry for the delay. I will mail them out next Thursday.
As I have every year since 2011, I have spent the first part of June at the American Alpine Club’s Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch. After a week of staining cabins (and myself), fixing bikes, and other miscellaneous repair work, I normally stick around for a week or so to socialize and play in the mountains. I have done more of the former than the latter this year, partly due to inclement weather, and partly because of the rest of my summer schedule.
For the first time in nine years coming to the Ranch, I woke two days in a row to an inch or so of fresh snow in the valley. While it melted quickly below 9000 feet, the new snow stayed around awhile in the mountains. This has meant snowy rock routes, postholing in the high valleys, wet avalanches on south- and east-facing slopes, and powder on north-facing ones. Though this has not prevented me from regaining some of my winter-blighted fitness, it has thwarted some of the more ambitious goals I had for my brief Teton climbing season.
What about the rest of the summer? After a successful and rewarding summer in the Alps last year, I was looking to put together another extended dirtbag international trip. I am running out of new ranges to explore in car-accessible western North America, so I must travel farther afield to see completely new terrain. This summer, that terrain will be the Cordillera of Peru, where I will spend about 8 weeks climbing and trekking. The mountains are higher, wilder, and less suited to my abilities than the Alps, and the logistics will be more primitive and trying, but it should be an interesting experience nonetheless. Stay tuned — the adventure starts in about a week!
PS — As usual, I am making this trip with no corporate or institutional sponsorship. What support I have comes from friends: Ted, who is the master of frequent flyer points (and owns a house near an airport where I can stash my car); and Scott, who wears roughly my size and has generously donated boots, skis, and other miscellaneous gear. I have not and will not run ads, post affiliate links, publish “sponsored content,” or ask for donations on this site. If you support what I do and enjoy reading about it, please consider buying my new book.
After a decade of scrambling, and several years kicking spreadsheets and drafts around my hard drive, I am pleased to announce the publication of Forty Classic Scrambles of North America. Inspired by Roper and Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs, but aimed at scramblers like myself, it presents forty excellent moderate routes from across western North America, from the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona to the northern Canadian Rockies. The guide is intended for people familiar with their “home” mountains who want to explore similar terrain farther afield. Routes range in difficult from class 3 to 5.7, and in length from half-day jaunts to fifty-mile epics.
Thanks in part to interest from a couple of Eastern Sierra bookstores, and to that expressed by some correspondents, I will be printing more copies of my California 14er guidebook. I will try to contact people who expressed interst in a print copy, but I will probably miss some; please email me. Anyone who wanted a print copy, but had to settle for the e-book instead, can contact me to get a print copy for the price difference, i.e. $12.95 including shipping. Books will begin shipping within two weeks, so they will arrive well before the best 14er season in a heavy snow year.