The bus from Salta to San Antonio de los Cobres is as beaten up and dusty as you would expect for a bus that travels along beaten-up and dusty roads. 4 hours after leaving the oasis of Salta, you are deposited in San Antonio, perhaps, the last town of significance east of the Chilean border at Paso Socompa (now closed, see previous post grrr).
San Antonio has a tourist “Train to the Clouds” (think Settle to Carlisle but with less ee-by-gum) and boasts a population that has developed a tolerance to arsenic levels 10 times higher than the WHO recommended limit. For me, this is the furthest west I can get to by public transport and my interest in the place begins and ends with a visit to the petrol station for fuel and a local shop for chocolate and water. I make no enquiries about the availability of arsenic.
From here, it is a 4-day ride to Tolar Grande (where I can restock on food and water) and from there, another 4 days to Llullaillaco – a 6,738m mountain I am looking to climb having failed to summit from the Chilean side in 2014.
I have been told by local guides to carry plenty of water as there is very little available. Dutifully, I have 4 litres in various bottles mounted on my frame, plus a further 8 litres in a water bag stowed at the back next to my tent and boots. This should be good for 2-3 days. I have a further 10 days of food (largely instant noodles, porridge, chocolates and tins of tuna) and have to balance the bike with great care as it weighs over 70kg and, with the slightest encouragement, will launch itself into the nearest ditch.
Falling off the bike is a normal part of my day and has become routine, usually the result of riding into sand, drifting off the side of the road into sand or looking over my shoulder at something of interest before losing control and hitting the sand. Crosswinds are also a very useful way of losing control, shortly before hitting the sand. Fortunately these mishaps tend to happen at low speed – one advantage of cycling at my current pace.
From San Antonio, the roads are gravel and I will not see another paved road until I get to Antofagasta de la Sierra in 18 days. While I secretly fantasise about a good gravel road, I consign those thoughts to my “pixies at the bottom of the garden” bin, as they are a source of constant disappointment. Just occasionally, you might get a smooth bit crossing a salt flat. The rest of the time it is just bumpety-bump, with the speedo stubbornly stuck around 4-6 mph, even on the downhill sections.
I deflate the tyres to around 0.7 bar to give the wheels traction on the sand, but it is hard going and, once the westerlies pick up, I am having to get off the bike and haul its deadweight up the hills using handlebars and saddle. Fortunately, one of the 4x4s takes pity halfway up the 4,600m pass south of Olacapato and drops me off 10km up the road next to some buildings they have put up for people working on the roads/railway. Not looking a gift-llama in the mouth, I make myself comfortable in the only room with fitted windows and boil a bag of the finest instant noodles available.
There is not much in Olacapato (apart from water and a gazillion solar panels), so I continue on RN51 before turning left onto RP27. I am delighted to learn they have a road improvement thing going on and, for the next 10km or so, engage in a pixie dance. I wave vigorously at the people driving the graders and rollers, sensing a connection only cyclists and operators of heavy road-machinery can feel. From there, it is a long descent to the Salar de Pocitos, where there is a town with a gas plant and more solar panels. As with other salt flats, the old railway to Chile chooses its own path here, heading into the hills way off to the west where it can gain height at its leisure.
The next day the scenery goes all “spaghetti western” on me as I enter the Los Colorados moonscape – from here it is a dusty day and a half to Tolar Grande, via a 4,000m pass.
On the question of water. From San Antonio to the salt flats way to the south of Tolar Grande there is a stream of traffic. The stream consists of Toyota Hilux 4x4s (yes, almost all without exception) plus a variety of trucks carrying plant, machinery, fuel and the like. These vehicles have two functions: first, to dig enough lithium and other precious materials from the ground to feed the world’s supply of batteries, and second, to ensure that any cyclists crazy enough to be in the world’s second driest place have a plentiful supply of water. As I have not seen a single adventure-cyclist since Bolivia, the amount of resources committed to this second task is commendable. Joking aside, while the dust from these vehicles will likely be extruding from my crevices for the next 5 years, the offers of water, encouragement, toots, thumbs up, smiling, waving and general concern about my welfare from these drivers are a source of gratitude and will be one of the abiding memories of this trip.
Tolar Grande is a bit of a soulless place. While it has a 3G mast and some nice salt-pools (Ojos de Mar) just up the road, the food and accommodation are parlous. There are around 6 or 7 hostels, but only a couple are open. The “nice hotel” will let you have 1 night’s accommodation if you are lucky, even though it appears to be empty most of the time. The other places are full of miners (nothing wrong with that, but they are nocturnal creatures). The only place in town serving food will give you a blank stare when you knock on the door and ask for food, even on the 7th visit. It not a place for warm and fuzzy welcomes if that is what you are after. I think the town originally had plans to be a tourist centre but they never took off… but it does have 3G!
From Tolar Grande things get more exciting from a cycling perspective, as the road crosses the Salar de Arizaro (Argentina’s largest) before heading up into the hills. At this point, the traffic thins out dramatically as the road rises above the Salar, criss-crossing with the railway. As the forecast for the next couple of days is windy, I batten the hatches of my tent with the help of an animal enclosure one night and a large rock the next. The forecast is for the winds to drop by the Friday, although on Thursday morning (when I am supposed to be leaving for high camp), the tent is being buffeted by high winds. It takes some resolve (and faith in www.mountain-forecast.com) to pack up for the 6-hour trudge up to 5,900m.
This is probably the highest I have ever camped, but the platform is relatively flat and protected with plenty of belay-points. The wind has dropped, which is nice, although not completely. There is little chance of sleep, so I make myself comfortable, wearing my climbing gear (including inner boots) and with water bottles in my sleeping bag. Up at 1.45am for breakfast (the water takes an age to boil), leaving at 3.00am. I have a vague idea which gully to go up, but choosing the right path in the dark is a challenge. Mostly it involves sticking to the rocky sections on the right and avoiding the scree. Shortly after it gets light (6am-ish), I reach the bottom section of snow and put on my crampons. This makes things a lot easier and I am up to the summit ridge shortly after 8am.
I am not about to break any records and am in no particular hurry, with the final 200m of climbing taking another 90 minutes. As the wind has picked up and dropped again, I am thinking of what the drone-footage will look like from the top, forgetting entirely the Inca ruin just below the summit (duh!). The nearest I get to seeing this is on the drone footage itself (which turns out to be excellent – including the summit “dance”). This drone (DJI Mini 3 Pro) has been a revelation, flying almost 3,000m higher than its service ceiling, and the punters at home have been raving about the quality of the video. So pleased I brought it, although at the time it did seem an extravagance.
The summit box is made of cast iron and is full of “stuff”. I am not familiar with summit protocol so neither add to nor remove anything other than adding a signature to the book. I do not see any other signatures more recent than September 2021, although not everyone signs of course. Today I am by myself that’s for sure!
45 minutes later, I am working my way down again, taking lots of care on the snow/ice as it has been a while since I have done this sort of thing (and I am by myself). After the gully, the scree is a bit of a mare, I must have slipped 10-15 times on this section (I am not tired, it is just tricky). Back at the tent around 3pm, meaning it is a bit late to go on down to the bike which I do the following day.
The return to Tolar Grande is interesting, as I manage to lose one of my water bottles when I am packing up (operator error – I do not do up the rubber strap that holds the bottle on). I still have plenty of water to get me back to the road from Paso Socompa, but not a lot spare for the 600m climb that takes you back over to where the mining vehicles start to appear again. My plan is to hitch back from the top, as this will save me a day, but in the end it is thirsty work and I am finally saved from syphoning water from an animal trough by Luxiano, who is passing in his (surprise!) Toyota Hilux.
As I mention in my previous post, I would not have chosen to cycle to Llullaillaco from San Antonio and would have come over Paso Socompa if I could. The road from San Antonio is a long and arduous journey (I had 5 days on the final stretch when I saw no-one) and was reliant on SUVs, snow, spit and sand for sustenance. The roads are poor, the weather windy (most of the time) and there is a fair amount of climbing with heavy loads. That having been said, bagging this mountain was one of my primary goals for this trip and the climb turned into a great day out. It is probably a sign of my age, but I have now “been there/done that”. I do not need to do another multi-day off-road expedition to my next mountain. Unless I change my mind, I may well hitch a lift part of the way… 🤓
….on the question of solitude having mentioned the 5 days without human contact. I am not a loner, but I don’t mind my own company, and if you have spent time cycle-touring (or hiking) you will know that most of the day is taken up with packing, unpacking, cooking, washing, cycling, route-finding and the other stuff you need to do to get to your destination, so the lack of company is not so obvious. It is also normal, when the sun goes down, to tuck up in your sleeping bag and, er, sleep. There is really not much time to be lonely even when you are alone. While 5 days with literally no other human contact (apart from satellite texts via my Garmin) is decent but not a super-long time, the human mind does play strange tricks when there is no other (human) sound. Three examples come to mind: first, I can normally hear vehicles coming from some distance away. It tends to start with a hum that quickly gets louder. If I am short of water, for example, this sound is something to listen out for as it can mean my journey becomes less uncomfortable. Unfortunately, I can also hear this sound when there is nobody coming, and I find myself frequently looking over my shoulder only to see a wide expanse of nothing. When I have finished cycling for the day, I can still hear a low level rumble which could be nothing, or it could be an aircraft, or the sound of mining machinery, who knows? Most probably it is my imagination. Second, in my tent (particularly at high camp) I had a constant sense I was not alone. It is hard to describe but the flapping of the fabric in the wind became a conversation, partly in my sleep, with words – mostly reassuring though I am pleased to say. Finally, and most curious, is the gravel effect. As my tyres move through the gravel, they crunch and squeak in a way that sounds like a group of people at some sort of social event, chatting away, albeit in a rather indistinct manner. Again, it is quite reassuring having a group of people chatting as I am making my way back to the main road. It is nice to have company, even if they are talking gibberish and I know it is all in my head.
That is enough craziness for one post. More to follow in a later one…