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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’s a 4-day ride to Tolar Grande (where I can restock on food and water) and from there, another 4 days to Llullaillaco – a 6,739m mountain I’m looking to climb, having failed to summit from the Chilean side in 2014.

I’ve been told by local guides to carry plenty of water as there’s very little available on the road.  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 either 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, so I’ll not see another paved road until I get to Antofagasta de la Sierra in 3-weeks’ time.  While I secretly fantasise about a good gravel road, I consign those thoughts to the part of my brain where the pixies live, as roads 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 at 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’s hard going and, once the westerlies pick up, I’m having to get off the bike and haul its dead weight 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 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 windows and boil a bag of the finest instant noodles.

There’s not much in Olacapato (apart from water and a gazillion solar panels), so I continue on RN51 before turning left onto RP27.  I’m delighted to learn they have a road improvement thing going on and, for the next 10km or so, I’m in pixie-land.  I wave vigorously at the people driving their graders and rollers, sensing a connection only cyclists and operators of heavy road-machinery can feel.  From there, it’s a long descent to the Salar de Pocitos, where there’s a town with a gas plant and more solar panels.  As with other salt flats, the old railway line 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; it’s a dusty day and a half from here to Tolar Grande, via a 4,000m pass.

On the question of water.  From San Antonio to the salt flats south of Tolar Grande there’s a stream of traffic.  The stream is made up of Toyota Hilux 4x4s (yes, almost all of them, 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 desert have a plentiful supply of water.  As I’ve not seen a single adventure-cyclist since Bolivia, the resources committed to this second task are commendable.  Joking aside, while the dust from these vehicles will likely be lodged in 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 has been a source of gratitude and will be one of the abiding memories of this trip.

Tolar Grande is a bit of a soulless place.  It may have a 3G mast and some nice salt-pools (Ojos de Mar) just up the road, but the food and accommodation are pretty parlous.  There are around 6 or 7 hostels, but only a couple of them are open.  The “nice hotel” will let you have 1 night’s accommodation if you’re 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’re nocturnal creatures which is a bit weird). 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’s not a place for warm and fuzzy welcomes if that’s what you’re after.   I think the town originally had plans to be a tourist centre but they never took off… but did I mention the fact it has 3G!

From Tolar Grande things get even more exciting (from a cycling perspective), as the road crosses the Salar de Arizaro (Argentina’s second largest salt lake) 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.  The forecast for the next couple of days is windy, so 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 Friday, although on Thursday morning (when I’m supposed to be locking the bike and 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 the next camp at 5,850m.

This is probably the highest place I’ve ever camped, but the platform for my tent is relatively flat and protected with plenty of belay-points. The wind has dropped, which is nice, although not completely.  There’s little chance of sleep, so I make myself comfortable, wearing my climbing gear (including inner boots) and with water bottles in my sleeping bag.  I’m up at 1.45am for breakfast (the water takes an age to boil), finally 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 of the gully to avoid 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’m up to the summit ridge shortly after 8am.

I’m not about to break any land-speed records, and am in no particular hurry, so the final 200m of climbing takes another 90 minutes.  As the wind has picked up and dropped again, I’m thinking about what the drone-footage will look like from the top, forgetting entirely the Inca ruin just below the summit I’d intended to check out (doh!).  The nearest I get to seeing this is on the drone footage itself (which turns out to be excellent – including the summit “dance”). My drone (a 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 a bit of an extravagance.

The summit box is made of cast iron and is full of “stuff”.  I’m not familiar with summit protocol, so neither add to nor remove anything apart from my signature in the signature book.  I don’t see any other signatures within the last 12 months, although not everyone signs of course.  Today I’m by myself that’s for sure!

45 minutes later, I’m working my way down again, taking lots of care on the snow/ice as it’s been a while since I’ve done this sort of thing (and I’m by myself of course).  After the gully, the scree is a bit of a mare,  I must have slipped 10-15 times on this section (I’m not tired, it’s just tricky).  I arrive back at the tent at around 3pm, meaning it’s getting a bit late to go all the way 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 packing up my gear (operator error – I forget to do up the rubber strap that holds the bottle on).  I still have plenty of water to get me back to the main road coming down from Paso Socompa, but not a lot spare for the 600m climb taking 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’s thirsty work and I’m finally saved from syphoning water out of an animal trough by Luxiano, who’s passing in his (surprise!) Toyota Hilux.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wouldn’t have chosen to cycle to Llullaillaco via San Antonio, and would have come over the Paso Socompa if I could.  The road from San Antonio is a long and arduous journey (I had 5 days on the final stretch and on the mountain when I saw no-one at all) and was reliant on SUVs, snow, spit and sand for sustenance.  The roads are poor, the weather windy (most of the time) and there’s 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’s probably a sign of my age, but I have now “been there/done that”.  I don’t need to do another multi-day off-road expedition to my next mountain.  Unless I change my mind of course… 🤓

….on the question of solitude, after 5 days without human contact.  I’m not a loner, but I don’t mind my own company.  If you’ve spent time cycle-touring (or hiking) you’ll 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; the lack of company isn’t at the front of your mind much of the time.  It’s also normal, when the sun goes down, to tuck up in your sleeping bag and, er, sleep.  There’s really not much time to be lonely even when you’re alone.   Having said that, 5 days with literally no other human contact (apart from satellite texts via my Garmin) is a fair stretch and the human mind does start to play strange tricks on you when there’s nothing else to listen to, apart from the wind.

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.  It’s quite distinctive.  If I’m short of water, for example, this sound is something to listen out for as it can mean my journey is likely to becomes less uncomfortable.  Unfortunately, I also hear this sound when there’s nobody coming, and find myself frequently looking over my shoulder only to see a wide expanse of nothing.  Disappointing!  When I’ve finished cycling for the day, I can sometimes hear a low-level rumble which could be nothing, or an aircraft, or the sound of mining machinery, who knows?  Most probably it’s my imagination.  Second, in my tent (particularly at high camp) I had a constant sense I was not alone.  It’s 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’s quite reassuring having a group of people chatting as I’m making my way back to the main road.  It’s nice to have company, even if they are talking gibberish and I know it’s all in my head.

That is enough craziness for one post.  More to follow in a later one…