A Big Steppe

The next day I set out from El Calafate on my direct route South in overcast conditions, which soon developed into a light drizzle.  As I’ve mentioned before, what to wear when climbing in the rain is a tricky decision – just a top and you can be on the cold side (especially when you stop) or wear a jacket and sweat profusely!  I went with the top option, knowing that I had a fair bit of climbing ahead to keep me warm.  Pulling off the main road and past Estancia Huyliche, there were prominent ‘No entry without permission’ signs, so I stopped off at one of the houses and asked if they’d mind me passing through – no problem there!  After a few kilometres, the road crosses into the ‘Reserva Natural Estancia 25 de Mayo’ and I started to see more and more Patagonian wildlife – most notably guanacos (a bit more antelope-like than a llama but with the same long necks), rheas (flightless ostrich-like birds), cows and condors.
Soon after, I noticed the surface getting a little muddier but didn’t think too much of it – it was just surface mud rather than anything particularly deep.  Rolling downhill into a small dip, my wheels rapidly began to pick up mud and I noticed the rear of the bike skidding about a little.  Looking down, they had both become completely covered in it, hence the lack of traction.  It wasn’t long before the wheels could no longer turn and the drivetrain was totally swamped by the stuff.  At one point, on a downhill section, I ground to a complete stop, such was the stopping power of the mud!  With me on the bike, the rear wheel would just about still turn, but the mud would accumulate much faster.  With me off the bike, the rear wheel would quickly jam up and I would be left pushing the bike with the rear wheel skidding over the surface, acting as a severe brake to my efforts.  The only solution was, where possible, to stay off the track and push direct across the scrubland of the mountainside!
Heavy rain soon swept through, testing my morale further, but pushing on, the weather eventually brightened a little and the path finally began to descend down towards a river at the bottom of the valley.  Following this river up-stream required regular crossings through icy water, each time stopping to take off my shoes and put on my sandals, in a somewhat futile attempt to keep my shoes on the drier side of soaking wet!  There were sections of rideable terrain but the mud continued to be pretty infernal.  Keen to make as much ground as possible up towards the pass, I kept going and was finally rewarded by finding a small shack with an unlocked door, that gave me a little shelter from the wind and drizzle.  It turned out to be something of a godsend, as that night was bitterly cold – one of the few times that I’ve wished for a warmer sleeping bag!  Dragging myself up in the morning, a clear sky explained the cold, the mountainside a frosty white.  Thankfully, the clear sky also meant that, once it had cleared the mountain, there was a bright sun to warm my chilly limbs and help dry out some of my kit which was still soggy from the day before.
It clouded over a little but the day remained mercifully dry as I slowly pushed on up towards the pass.  After a short section of rideable single track, it became clear that I’d have to push/carry the next 7km up to the pass.  It was fairly slow progress – either searching out guanaco trails or making my own way across the mountainside.  Preferring to push the bike from the left side (this means I’m pulling from the saddle with my stronger right arm, whilst my left has control of the bars and the rear brake), it wasn’t until I was within sight of the pass and wincing, for the umpteenth time, that it finally occurred to me to remove the left pedal!  Whilst my flat pedals are great in many situations, pushing is not one of them – the large pins that protrude to supply grip tend to drive into the rear of my right calf, regularly drawing blood!

 

With some fairly steep sections towards the top, I had to carry the bike much of the way, in bursts of about 20s, which was about as long as I could manage given the weight/exertion!  Getting to the top of Paso Verlika, however, felt like an achievement on a par with cycling to 5000m in Peru or climbing to 6000m in Bolivia – it was really special.  The view was pretty great too…
The pass marked the border with Chile and I set off down the fun, shale descent.  After a while, however, I was at the valley floor and following a stream.
Having done so well the day before to keep my shoes relatively dry, I found myself grind to a halt in the middle of a particularly boggy section with no dry spots to put my foot down on!  My foot was covered in slimy red mud and the other one soon followed as I had to dismount the bike and push to firmer ground.  In need of a wash, I figured I might as well leave them on whilst I crossed the river thereafter.  It made life much easier, as I had to cross multiple times to find a rideable path.  I was dreading, however, once I’d made camp and my feet really started to cool down.  Putting on freezing wet shoes the next morning is never a nice experience!

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