I have officially recovered from my previous exertions, with a soothing balm of ice-cream and Stella Artois, and it is time to get back on the road. The broken wire on my odometer has been fixed by a wizard at the motorbike shop with a pair of pliers, electrical tape and a lighter. ‘No charge senor’ he says, ‘I am rehearsing for the next J K Rowling movie “Harry Potter and the Unlikely Bike-Repair Shop in Belen”.’ He points me in the direction of the bus station, apologising that his magic only extends to city limits – beyond that, he tells me, I am at the mercy of Empresa Gutierrez and their driver, who must not be named.
It’s a 3-hour drive to Tinogasta (2 hours driving and 1 hour waiting in a place called Salado, for no obvious reason). Tinogasta is Spanish for “barking dogs”, or at least I imagine so, judging by the canine cacophony all night. The breakfast at the guesthouse is excellent and, as I am a sucker for coconut sponge cake, all is forgiven. Duly fortified, I set my satnav for Fiambala, 45km along the only road out of town, and test my legs. My legs confirm that 3 days of ice baths would have been a better bet than ice-cream for the hills and headwinds.
Fiambala is an oasis of trees and the last meaningful stop before the Paso San Francisco frontier with Chile. The pass is, as I discover later, still closed despite the announcement in April that it is now open. Bad blood runs with its westerly neighbour still, 40 years after the Malvinas “thing”. A thing that is marked, in this part of Argentina, with various memorials with soldiers and slogans featuring the words “British”, “thieving”, “are”, “a”, “bunch” and “barstewards”, in no particular order, and street names in the must-select manual for town planners. The entrance to Fiambala has statues of a couple of native-American hunters, like kings of Gondor, to keep the timid at bay. The statue of a condor on the other side of the road, in what looks like a death-flap, undermines these efforts.
I book a room at a place recommended by the tourist office and negotiate transport to Balcon de Pissis the following day. The first person I speak with, called Elbio (Guy Garvey’s love-child?), wants £350, but don’t we all? I explain I only want to go one way, but he is unimpressed and promises to get in touch when the fires of hell have subsided. The next chap is more reasonable (and less rich) and I am soon bouncing along the 60km section of off-road the Balcon de Pissis shares with various mining concerns. I point at the Komatsu digger on the low-loader as we go pass and ask the driver if the Balcon de Pissis is a bit wonky. He looks at me blankly.
While the other tourists are enjoying what is, wonky or not, a magnificent view, I am unloading bike, panniers and my reserves of willpower before descending 500m to Laguna Negra where I expect to camp for the night. In a fit of enthusiasm, I cycle around the lake (which, even with my sunglasses on, is brown rather than black) and take the Monte Pissis turn, which is helpfully signposted. What isn’t signposted is the Willy-Wonka-style chocolate river I have to cross before pitching my tent. The river is of unknown depth and in a hurry but, like Augustus Gloop, I throw caution to the wind and am soon up to my knees, ploughing through. The front panniers are set low and do their best to carry the bike, panniers and their owner far downstream, but I hold on tightly, relying on the traction control in my Crocs, until I am safely on the other side. I make a note to remove the front panniers on the way back.
The following morning I have to cross that river again, but the river has subsided overnight as the water upstream has frozen. I prefer hypothermia to drowning, and have crossed back before you can say “I have lost sensation in my feet”. I make a second note to avoid having to cross at all by sticking to the right-hand bank on my return – a nice idea but foiled by matters geographical.
10 miles of sand and rut later, I am abandoning my bike and loading the essentials into a rucksack. Essentials have grown since Llullaillaco it would appear, as I struggle to lift the weight onto my back. These struggles pale to insignificance later as I wrestle to put up my tent in the strong wind, but I have a limitless supply of rocks and do not intend to sleep in the open unless palm trees are involved. The next day is also a bit of a slog, rising to 5,700m over 8 miles, a mere 1,100m short of my target which sits tantalising above me. The laws of perspective elude me as they did during art lessons at school.
The following morning there is a bit of a breeze, so I make a good start at 2am. The moon is fullish but all scree looks the same at night (Chinese proverb?) and, given the choice, I don crampons and stick to the snow. At 5am I come to a halt as the snow runs out and lung-busting scree offers little respite. Eventually, I circumnavigate the mountain looking for kinder slopes, ruing my early start and waiting for the sun to add contrast. By 9am I am on a lumpy summit plateau wondering if I have climbed the right mountain. But the cross and assorted gubbins I also found on Llullaillaco allay my concerns and I smile winningly for my selfie. My attempts to fly the drone in the strong winds are less than successful, but may come in useful if anyone is looking for “B-roll” for an earthquake movie.
On the way down, I take route 1 and end up on the glacier. This is a bit of a schoolboy error as I know climbers have disappeared down crevasses on this mountain in the past. I resolve to avoid suspicious cracks and am back at the tent by midday (the glacier may be hazardous but it is quick). I lie down to enjoy the moment, but the angel on my shoulder is telling me to pack up and head down to camp 1. Beelzebub has other ideas, as I am nice and warm out of the wind, but the guy with wings and a harp wins the day.
I take a slightly different route back to camp 1 as it looks quicker. Predictably it isn’t, and I am in penitente heaven for the 3 hours it takes me to get down. As I save half an hour putting the tent up (using the techniques I learned two days earlier) I am even-stevens and can enjoy a more comfortable night at “only” 4,650m. It also gives me a shout at walking, cycling and hitching to Fiambala the following day. If I am unlucky, it’s a 3-day ride starting with a 500m climb back up to the Balcon.
It’s a 4km walk back to my bike. I’m half expecting my kit bag to have been gnawed by something small and furry, but apparently the area is rodent-free. I change into “clean” clothes (a relative term) in case I get lucky and am back at the river by 2pm. Plan A (avoiding crossing) is replaced with Plan B (getting covered in mud in the attempt). I cross over anyway, leaving my Crocs on for the more perilous second attempt. Willy Wonka has the taps on full flow, and the front panniers are off, when I hear the roll of tyres and toot of a horn behind me. Elbio and his friend have turned up in the nick of time in two vehicles and obviously don’t fancy my chances. They offer me a lift with some bemused Buenos Aireans. It really is the earliest point at which I could possibly have got a lift, and I am back in Fiambala by 5pm. Result! I celebrate with 2 triple-scoop ice-creams (I always was a class act) and contemplate my next step. This turns out to be beer and empanadas with Diego and Martin, who have been up since 2am and should know better. Diego is a big Rio Plata FC fan and has photos wearing his shirt all round the world. That is dedication!
In summary, Monte Pissis is the second highest volcano in the world, or possibly not as not all sources recognise its volcanism. It’s the third highest mountain in South America, although my GPS reading on the summit put it at around 6th. It’s only climbed around 5/6 times a year, but if it had a more sensible name (like Monte 6-Pack or Monte Chris Hemsworth) it would get more ascents, who knows? What I can say is that the battle between high mountains in remote areas on the one hand, and ice-cream and beer on the other, is at a turning point. I have done everything I wanted to do now in terms of summits and any more would be just, well, greedy. As Paso San Francisco is closed, I won’t be bagging any of the peaks near the border up here, so it looks like I will be taking a bus south to Mendoza. There is a big mountain down there after all, but it is early in the season, making an ascent of Aconcagua before 1 December a bit problematic. Let’s see…