"The sherpas start down immediately; they, too, seem oppressed by so much emptiness. Left alone, I am overtaken in that northern void – no wind, no cloud, no track, no bird, only the crystal crescents between peaks, the ringing monuments of rock that, freed from the talons of ice and snow, thrust an implacable being into the blue. In the early light, the rock shadows on the snow are sharp; in the tension between light and dark is the power of the universe. This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence. Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, and Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror." from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1979)
One night at Crazy Jamies' hostel in the small town of Ovalle somehow turned into seven. A cheap dorm bed in a hostel that I was the sole occupant, no sign of a crazy Jamie, a desire to sit still for a few days, and with the internet to myself, I began researching routes north and decided to incorporate another couple of the high Andean passes that line the frontier with Chile and Argentina. The road less traveled always being more rewarding, if also usually being either very rough, very steep, very hot, very cold or a combination of all of the above.
In contrast to the Paso de Los Libertadores, which I crossed over a couple of weeks previously, the next two passes, Agua Negra (4775 metres above sea level or 15,666 feet) and San Francisco (4748 metres) require slightly more planning in terms of food and water as the distance between the town of Vicuna (Chile) and the village of Las Flores (Argentina) is approximately 270 kilometres, and in the case of next week's pass, Paso de San Francisco, the distance between supplies (i.e. a place to buy food) is about 450 km (for all you readers considering Paso de Agua Negra, note that there is a shop, comedor and a garden to pitch your tent in at Huanta village, 40 km west/downhill from the Chilean customs post). Ordinarily not mega distances to consider except that there is a big hill in between. However, carrying water not food is the major factor to consider in long distances, and it being the mountains, with plentry of snow-melt fed rivers about, this was no problem either. In fact it really just means buying several days worth of porridge, lentils and soya granules, and hope that it doesn't snow. Looking at other cyclist's experiences of the routes (especially Jeff Kruy's detailed account of several Andean passes between Argentina and Chile) and talking with a German biking couple, Michael and Jolenthe, whom I had met in Vicuna four days after they crossed Agua Negra (after having to wait a couple of days in Las Flores for the pass to reopen following a snowfall the previous week), it was clear that water wouldn't be a problem. In fact, there's nothing to it really. It's just a bloody big hill...
As the elderly Chilean hippies manoeuvred their thundering VW Beetle around my tent in Vicuna, precariously close to the guy ropes and metres from now very awake head, I decided on my cunning plan to take Agua Negra pass. I didn't want to race up it, indeed there is little fear that 'race' will ever be associated with any of my cycling endeavours, but rather to go slowly and acclimatise to the altitude. Part of the motivation, in fact, for the high pass diversion rather than the straight run up along the Pan-American highway in Chile, was to test myself and equipment at high altitudes before taking on other routes further north in Chile and Bolivia. If I was to get water on the lungs like the other German cyclist I met, for example, this would be a bad thing. I already knew that I my other gear was not up to the task at hand. Michael and Jolenthe said that it had not been that cold when they camped at 3700 metres on the Argentinian side of the pass - "just about minus 5 or so". In the glaring headlight of the Beetle I made out the recommended low temperature for my sleeping bag, plus 4 degrees celcius.
I decided on breaking the 175 km journey from Vicuna (alt. 600 metres) to the top of the Agua Negra pass (4775 metres) into a three-day journey of 90/60/30 kilometres. Gaining roughly 1500 metres the first day, 1800 metres the second day and finish off with about 800 or 900 metres on the last day, hopefully with enough time to camp down at a warmer altitude on the Argentinian side on the night of Day 3. And that's pretty much how it panned out. I did 92 km the first day, having left Vicuna at 1pm after a nutrient rich lunch of chips and cheese empanadas, camping in an abandoned shelter just before the Chilean customs post. I turned up at the Chilean customs post at 8 o'clock the following morning and was quickly stamped out. I filled my water bottles up from the taps in the bathroom as advised. Took a initial sip and then a nice big gulp of the pretty gruesome looking water, thinking to myself that the streams looked cleaner yesterday, and then the border guard came over and recorrected his English. He meant the tap outside of the bathroom, the one with the mineral water bottle attached to it, finishing his conversation, as he wandered back to his desk, with something in Spanish that translates into "whatever you do don't drink the water in the bathroom". Several other employees walked past and seeing my water bottles also told me not to the drink the water in the bathroom. Great.
Loaded up with mineral water, I handed my receipt from customs man to the policeman, who eventually appeared from the toilet and waved me out of Chile. He obviously didn't spot that his two finest sniffer dogs were hot on my trail and proceeded to follow me 20 kilometres up the valley towards the pass. I began to get concerned when the big fellow, remarkably kind to cyclists apparently, but charged like a raging canine devil at passing cars, began to bleed around his paws from keeping up with me on the rough stones. Eventually the carabineros pickup shot around the bend and screeched to a halt behind me, yelling at the dogs to get in. I gave my smiling idiot wave reserved for authorities in uniform but only received menacing glares through two sets of designer sunglasses.
By lunchtime on Day 2 I had made it to the artificial La Laguna, a large saline reservoir perched over 3300 metres high, 30 km uphill from the Chilean border controls. I was blown around the side of the lake by the gusty west wind and decided on a sheltered spot for lunch but quickly reconsidered when four wild mongrels began to converge, from both edges of my field of vision, on their roasted leg of Irishman. Moments before impact a toothless man emerged from behind a boulder and whistled restraint to the beasts with remarkably swift effect. He and his son came out to gander at the passing freakshow and he asked me a fairly simple question in Spanish, which unfortunately I still didn't understand. Did I see something, but I wasn't sure what the something was. Shrugging my shoulders in apology I headed on leaving the waving father and son to once again whistle the dogs back. By the evening of Day 2 I had covered 58 km and pitched my tent in a fairly sheltered spot just off the roadside and just under 4000 metres, with only 28 km remaining to the top of the pass. I anticipated a cold night and putting every item of clothing on and my sleeping bag inside my Nigerian maize bag, settled in for a cold one. In fact, it didn't get really cold, inside the tent at least. I awoke every hour or two, the lack of oxygen noticeable when breathing and apparently not allowing me to sleep soundly. At 4am I clambered out, unable to refuse my pleading bladder any longer, but quickly retreated to the tent after getting instant relief in the bright starlight.
The following are excerpts from my journal entry for Day 3 of the pass...
6.25 am Wake up and begin mental preparations for getting out of warm sleeping bag. Momentarily consider the option of going downhill instead. This is a recurring theme for the rest of the morning.
8 am Ready to roll after double portion of porridge and peanut butter. No direct sunshine in the valley yet, only on the snow topped peaks at the end of the valley. Very cold though and soon begin to feel slightly queasy (altitude?) and sluggish. Pass by a short-wheel based Landrover and tent a couple of kilometres up from my campspot. A waving hand appears from the doorway and then retreats.
9.20 am Regain feeling in my extremities. The day is looking up. Amazing colours.
11 am Long (plus 5 km) switchbacks start to wind up the mountain after 4200 m. Great going with the wind, not fun against. Managing 2 or 3 km now before taking a break. Eat a half-pack of biscuits. Quite a few cars passing now, most wave, some stop to see if I need anything. A psychiatrist? Landrover catches up and have chat with father and son from Valparaiso.
2 pm Nearing the top of the pass now, under 4 km to go. Man and wife on motorbike are descending. Pulls out a video camera and starts shooting. Nice guy though, from Cordoba. Moments later another car descends and pulls to a halt and without a wave or a hello a woman starts taking pictures. Normally I am not bothered by the attention but they say altitude can make you edgy and aggressive. Driver doesn't see another car behind and it skids to a stop just before pushing them over the edge. Can't help laughing. Driver behind waves and smiles.
2.40 pm What was a distant dream a few hours ago... reach the top of the pass. Fantastic, though very windy and cold. Put off lunch in favour of getting lower down and descend into Argentina seeking warmth.
Top of the Agua Negra pass, between Chile and Argentina
Having had as an emotionally-balanced, indeed high-spirited three-day climb, as one could expect, on the ride down I had a sudden and brief interlude of self-questionning about the trip and the purpose of spending so much time alone, away from family and friends, away from a more purposeful life perhaps. What nonsense brought this on I wondered, as I tried to avoid particularly bumpy sections and large rocks on the road? Thoughts that I imagined I had under control but which can apparently reappear from time to time. And perhaps, why shouldn't they? And then I stopped and ate lunch at 5pm and by the time I had reached the tar road and the first police post, 54 km from the top of the pass, I was giddy again with the joy of freewheeling down. I covered the remaining 35 km to the customs post in under an hour. Down in the warmth of San Juan province, I finished the final pages of The Snow Leopard, where Matthiessen chronicles his descent to the Nepali lowlands and his impending return to New York...
"Remembering the depression of my first descent from Tarakot into the Bheri Canyon, I have convinced myself that the sudden loss of altitude is the main clue to my veering moods. A change is taking place, some painful growth, as in a snake during the shedding of its skin - dull, irritable, without appetite, dragging about the stale shreds of a former life, near-blinded by the old dead scale on the new eye. It is difficult to adjust because I do not know who is adjusting; I am no longer the old person and not yet the new ... Already the not-looking-forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience the now that is spoken of by the great teachers." from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1979)
Meanwhile I know I am back in Argentina now because last night at 11.30 pm the digital thermometer display read 30 degrees Celcius in Chilecito's main plaza, as I sat eating my ice cream with five grannies, watching the world go by.
Pedaled/crawled: 28,520 km