For those in the know...R41 CH~ RN150. La Serena, ~ Vicuna, Chile, ~ Paso del Agua Negra,~ Rodeo. Argentina. 25th~ 29th. November.
Now I know the answer. My problem is I can't remember the question. Last night I'm not sure I could even have formulated a question, such was my lethargic thought processes at over 14000 feet. A brain under oxygen depletion and a body running on fumes, all enhanced by a visual inspiration of the encircling cirque of multicoloured mountains, a rolling succession of glaciers all under a impossibly blue sky.
I can see the road gradient up in front, it looks disturbingly level. The map tells me the distance to the top and the elevation I need to climb, I can still just about manage a sum. So somewhere between there and I, there has to be a climb. I look again, start the push, and the lactates in my legs tell me a different story. It's a strange sensation this difference of opinion between body and brain. Experience tells, at this height you need to move slowly, don't rush that next insignificant incline, yet sea-level habits prevail. I attack, " will be up this we bit in a moment, then it'll level off a bit, I'll get my recovery as I pedal on". Only it doesn't happen. I'm pushing an elephant up an Andean pass. A belligerent elephant. It's only when I do make the top of the next rise and look back, that I realise what looked so flat was in fact an incline, a significant accumulation of metres to set against the day's accounts. The hope is, it won't be debited around the next corner, squandered by the road dropping off to cross a riverbed.
We're completing a neat circle, a tidy looking navigation on our map. One that's taken in three conurbations, two passes and an infinity of experiences. Mendoza, Valparaiso and La Serena, Pasos Libertadores and del Agua Negra. The latter, as every Francophonic European will tell you is the same height as Europe's highest point. Yet I do wonder if that stated elevation for Mont Blanc varies in much the same way as this pass's does. Differing maps, even the the mandatory passtop board disagree, but then South American road signs never add up. This route has at least four different one hundred kilometre posts.
These are young mountains, still growing, still eroding back downhill. In some places rather quickly. Disturbingly quickly. 'Derrumbes", is such a suitable, if seemingly innocent onomatopoeic for a 'rolling stone'. A schuss of granites slide slowly, ominously, with determined intent, into a gully. Boulders the size of small cars are bouncing down the vast, long steep hillside. The heaviest will make it all the way to the distant valley floor, lying scattered, boules on a giant's pétanque court.
We've left the dubious delights of a seaside resort and headed inland. Our intention to cross back over the Andes, back to Argentina again. First, we need some intelligence. Is the seasonal pass open yet? The web page says "yes, in three days". Only the update is three days old. Fact is, there's always been a degree of ambiguity. Our first report had it in 'early November', then, in the nearest Argentine town to it, we collect: 'the twentieth'. What we need is some confident assurances, for we need to haul a few days worth of supplies, which we don't want to squander, sitting, awaiting opening, at an immigration barrier a day's ride from a re-supply. Now the Navigator can be the very devil. I know she does it deliberately. It's closing for siesta time at the Ministry of Culture in Vicuna, the closest Chilean town to the pass. In she goes, out she comes, with; "sometime next week". Officialdom's speak for 'don't waste my time'. Next morning it's the turn of the tourist officer, "definitely tomorrow". For once, stated with assurance and confidence, by a person who understands what a job description is. It also concurs with the roads authority web page. Still we give them a day's grace, just in case.
We use that day to investigate one of the side valleys, "Valle del Estrella", 'Star Valley', a marketing guru's branding construct. One that replicates a previous national president's attempt, who renamed one of the local villages Pisco Elqui, in the hope that the name would be appropriated from the Peruvian town that gave its name to the fermented beverage. We were to pass a number of distilleries that soak up the surplus grapes. It also explains in just one short space the whole Chilean agricultural revolution. A ribbon of verdure completely cloaks the floor, geametrics of vegetative green are stapled to the arid, steep hillside. Stark angular parcels of paltas and orange groves, wind net shrouded trellises of dessert grapes, mangoes in full flower. High value produce that will be on a British supermarket shelf soon. But all totally reliant upon that river, that's fed from those glaciers and snow fields.
We get the interrogation from the immigration officer. Have we got mountain clothes, "yes, we've just hauled them through forty degrees of desert", are we aware just how high we will have to go, 'it's much higher than the 'Cristo'. I wonder how he's able to make such an authorative statement, but of course our point of entry is on the screen right in front of him. So too, I trust is the information that we're not attempting to export contrabanded cycles. He also does the tourist officer bit and suggests the distances to the best camping spots. Not that he's exactly busy, five vehicles will pass through on our first day.
Successfully stamped out of Chile, we head off into no-man's land, it'll be three days until we officially enter the neighbour's. To start an amazing travel. Up through series of interlocking spurs, a tangle of geology, each new mountain a different colour, the degraded cliffs leaving Paisley print patterns on some, whilst others are striped in a rainbow of striations. One is purple, another is crowned by lenticular flying saucers. It's other worldery, an antithesis to our own Scottish hills. Yet once they too would have looked similar.
By the third day we're reduced to a funereal trudge, pushing our reluctant bikes through newly graded gravel that more resembles a rock quarry than a road. Counting the steps, five-~ six~ seven~eight...stop...recover the heartbeat that's escaping out of my rib cage, start again.
Yet there's always two sides to a mountain, always a pay back for an investment of effort. It's that Presbyterian ethic. Pain before pleasure. Suddenly there's no more road climbing out in front. We're up high, but not for long. We will be hurled both by gravity and an ugly wind down into Argentina. Down through another landscape of colours, textures and compelling beauty. Down to an answer.
It's a conundrum that exercises me on occasions. When there's a choice of asphalt on one side of a pass and gravel ripio on the other. Which to ascend, which to decend? Now I know. The last twenty kilometres have left an indelible bruise on my right shin as I kick, yet again that trailing redundant pedal. I would rather push my reluctant elephant up a smooth, even surface, then I could bounce, slither, slide down the other side.