Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Pushing Downhills.

For those in the know: Argentina rutas 491~150~149, Huaco~ Jachal~ Rodeo~ Callingasta~ Uspallata. La Rioja Provice.


We fought the wind and the wind won.

Temples of the wind.

Downhill gradients of 5%, pedalling hard to make a meagre headway, on the outside of the bends, driven to a near standstill. Crossing the bridge at the bottom, over the Río San Juan, we give up and push. The road, having found the valley floor, then meanders in concert with the river around cliffs and buttresses, clinging to the side wall, the wind force strong enough to start grit avalanches and localised dust storms. On asking the police at the local check point if this is usual: We're offered a wry smile and "yes all day, all week". A bit like asking a Skye man "are these midges normal?" A poleaxing wind that attacks from every angle, to include that from above, its sole intention to empty my mind of any appreciations. An attack in violence and noise, so all-consuming there is neither time nor brain space to understand our surroundings. Yet to the left is the pre-cordillera, the foothills to the true Andes that climb up on our right. This road and our route are literally consumed within these mountains. The tops rise above me, 6000 metres high, but that's only a number gleaned from a map. It's impossible to appreciate their scale as there's nothing to measure against. The numbers are big, but the views are vast.

Parts of this route are credited as being the windiest in Argentina. A fact possibly only credible if you ignore Patagonia, Cape Horn and the Argentinian Antarctic. Speeds of 120kph each afternoon in October are considered normal. Windsurfing and its associated offshoots are catered for, with land sailing on the sand pampa around Leoncito, for which we saw no evidence. Which was a pity, trying to photograph wind is difficult. The Alamo poplars never bend, nor craft into wind shapes, the Sauce willows just flow gracefully, like sea swept seaweed. Neither showing any concern for the ferocity of the gale. Which should be a metaphor for our angst amongst this normal weather event. Don't fight it. Stand it out with British stiff upper lip or be Latino and go with the flow. Truth is we're probably tackling this route in the wrong direction, or we should have sought divination at that temple. Instead we investigate the underworld, climbing down into yet another culvert.

To sit still and await the early evening meteophysics, when the blessed stillness creeps in. These naked mountains take on a sidelight, the gullies and cliffs etched out stark and sharp. The tinnitus of silence. A silent wild camp, with the sure knowledge that we will get the ten minutes sunrise that can memory erase hours of wind battle. The tops sitting astride the frontier, the continental divide, picked out in pinks and russet reds, against the dark Chilean pre dawn. For its these few precious moments that make a weather battle and dark start so worth while.

The Río San Juan gives us our first true river on this trip, one that is glacier fed, albeit pinked with sediment. A 7/24 affair, the feeder side streams mere part timers, more seasonal rios of sand. It also offers that great boon, the reassurance of a resupply. It would be a difficult extraction, down crumbling banks to a questionable footing, but the thought alone, that of available water is comforting in itself. Fact is we're carrying an Aquarians' worth of tap water. Once we might have questioned our logics if we'd hauled an oversupply to the next destination; now I do not care. Water in this parched landscape is more precious than that stash of oats, bread or Mars Bar lurking in the bottom of a pannier.

Wind or no wind, this is a classic Andean introduction. An up close interview with these young mountains.