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I’ve officially recovered from my previous exertions, thanks to a soothing balm of ice-cream and Stella Artois, and it’s 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’m 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’m 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’m a sucker for coconut sponge cake, all is forgiven.  Duly mollified, 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 better 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’s now open.  There’s bad blood still between Argentina and its westerly neighbour, 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” and “barstewards”, in no particular order.  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, is less impressive.  Just saying.

I book a room at a place recommended by the tourist office and negotiate transport to the Balcon de Pissis for 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’s unimpressed and promises to get back to me with a lower price when the fires of hell have subsided.  The next chap is more reasonable (and less rich) and I’m soon bouncing along the 60km of gravel the Balcon de Pissis road shares with various mining concerns.  I point at the Komatsu digger on the low-loader as we go past and ask the driver if the Balcon de Pissis is wonky and in need of repair.  He looks at me blankly.

While the other tourists are enjoying what is, wonky or not, a magnificent view, I’m 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 round 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 river of chocolate 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 mental 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 is partially 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 eventually prevail as I have a limitless supply of rocks and do not intend to sleep in the open unless palm trees are involved.  The next day’s hike is also a bit of a slog, rising to 5,750m over the next 8 miles, still 1,000m short of the peak which sits tantalising above me.  The laws of perspective elude me, as they did during art lessons at school.

The following morning there’s 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 prefer to don crampons and stick to the snow.  At 5am I come to a halt as the snow runs out and the lung-busting scree offers little respite. Eventually, I circumnavigate the mountain looking for kinder slopes, ruing my early start and hoping the sun will add contrast by which to navigate.  By 9am I’m on a lumpy summit plateau wondering if I’ve 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 Dronio in the strong winds are less than successful, as he’s thrown hither and thither like a demented dragonfly.

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 do my best to avoid suspicious cracks and am back at the tent by midday (the glacier may be hazardous, but it’s 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’m 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’m 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’m 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’m unlucky, it’ll be 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 the 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 Diego and Martin, a couple of bemused tourists from Buenos Aires.  It’s really the earliest point at which I could possibly have got a lift, and I’m back in Fiambala by 5pm. Result!  I celebrate with 2 triple-scoop ice-creams (I always was a class act) and consider 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 showing him wearing his shirt at different destinations around the world.  That’s dedication!

In summary, Monte Pissis is the second highest volcano in the world.  Or possibly not, as not all sources consider it to be a proper volcano.  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 macho 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.  As I’ve done everything I wanted to do now in terms of summits, 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 as if I’ll be taking a bus south to Mendoza next.  There’s a big mountain down there after all, but it’s early in the season which could make an ascent of Aconcagua, before 1 December, a bit problematic.  Let’s see…