When Things go Wrong
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
La Paz was a whirl of beautiful chaos, a gorgeous fusion of traditional Andean culture and the 21st Century. A real melting pot and place of fierce contrasts. I stayed in the Casa De Ciclista and met some fantastic people whilst also reuniting with friends from the road. Days were spent ticking off errands, repairing my bike and soaking up the city.
The seeds of an idea sprouted and soon we had a group of six, heading into the Cordillera Real, attempting to scale the 6088M Huayna Potosi. Supposedly one of the easier +6000M peaks around, for me it was still no small feat and put my nerves and mettle to the test with some serious exposure and crevasse crossings. I’m pleased to say I made the summit, but was relieved to return to less vertical realms and more oxygenated air.
Back in the city I grew restless and prepared to leave. On my birthday I chugged up out of the city in a collectivo. Back up amongst the snowy giants and I was quickly riding along in solitude. The gravel track ended and I found myself riding or pushing through fairly deep snowfields. Clouds lingered like whisps of candyfloss around the serrated peaks. It was an enchanting view and I sat by a small pond to watch - not a bad way to spend my birthday.
Riding downhill I felt an alarming total loss of power in my rear brake - it was useless. Upon further examination it appeared a leak had sprung, all hydraulic fluid was lost and I found myself with only one working brake. No choice really - I had to return to La Paz. I felt deflated, its funny how rapidly situations and moods shift when travelling by bicycle. Rather than rush back, I thought I should enjoy my surroundings and instead hung around on a small damn for a while.
Bailing off my intended route a few thousand meter descent led me back to the city. Going was slow and steady with one brake. In the neighbourhood El Alto packs of fierce dogs tried to bite or chase me, fending them off I dropped further into the bowels of the metropolis. Back at the Casa De Ciclista people were surprised by my rapid return. I was pretty shattered and after dinner and a consolatory beer I fell asleep.
Brake fixed and feeling optimistic I procured a lift back up to where I left the route. My optimism dwindled a little finding myself pushing the bike off-trail through deep snow. Still it felt adventurous and snow is always exciting. However, the angle of the slope I was traversing became increasingly sleep and in the warm sun things were slippery. More and more I felt the bike sliding or a foot slipping, looking down was scary and a fall or slide here would have been nasty. As the slope reached a stupid angle I decided it was only sensible to turn around - I didn’t want to fall.
I bumped into Mike - another bikepacker and fellow Englishman. A pleasant surprise out here in the backcountry, we had a great conversation joined by a rather clingy kitten and friendly dog. Parting ways I watched Mike whizz down towards La Paz. The bikepacking community always puts a smile on my face.
Soon the pass became unrideable - the road covered by more snow. I pushed on, relishing the views of Huayna Potosi. Coming down the backside of the pass things were more rideable but some snowy patches lingered. My breath was taken away by the view of the West face of Huayna Potosi, the sheer icy cliff, steeple like peak and snowy flanks. It was difficult to believe that I’d stood on the summit; from here the peak looked unattainable and intimidating.
In the fading light and sinking temperature I was aware that it would be more comfortable to get lower to camp. I bombed a superb double track that traversed the foothills of the mountain before crossing some grassy plains. Condoriri - a 5648M mountain that looked about as fearsomely beautiful as they come caught the last rays of the setting sun.
A flat patch of grass by a stream was home for the night. I cooked by the light of headlamp, suddenly savage barking split the silence, two dogs came rushing over a hilltop - probably from a nearby hut, as they neared me I stood up, shouting and pretending to pick up stones, confronting them and causing them to retreat to a distance. That night as I snoozed the barking returned, this time more fiercely and directly outside my tent. I was a stranger on their land and they wanted me to know.
At some point they got bored and left, although they returned twice more. Come morning and after a broken nights sleep I was keen to leave the valley. On the following pass I felt weak and pushed most of it. I had been feeling rough since leaving La Paz, having a weak appetite and countless bowel movements per day. On the track I met a young boy - Ever - we walked together, conversing about the area and all manner of things. He was heading out to attend to his llamas, we shared some cookies and took a selfie before parting ways.
Cresting a hilltop I was greeted with my first sighting of Lago Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake on the continent. Leaving the track I found myself slogging over a large hill. I bumped down the other side, meeting a shepherd Roberto by the creek at the bottom, he used to be a mountain guide in the area and was very interested in my route.
In the afternoon I found myself riding the contours of a mountainside around a couple of lagunas. There was a small brook to cross before climbing up the other side of the valley. Another trail less section of grinding over tussocky hills. A short push brought me to the top of some single track, as I was speeding along a wheel slid out and I had a surprising crash. I sat in the dirt feeling sorry for myself. At the shore of the laguna I contemplated my options. I could either forge on with the intended route - probably 3 more days tough riding to the town of Sorata. Or there was a track dropping down to lower altitude and connecting to a network of dirt roads. My mind was made up, the illness won, feeling weak and struggling with the route; I cruised away from the giant snowy peaks.
My sleeping pad had reached a state of perpetually leaking air and like clockwork most nights I would awaken at around 3am on the rocky ground freezing cold. So after another chilly night camped by a river I spent the day passing through the foothills. Despite feeling absolutely wretched it was nice to be able to turn the pedals and crank out some easier kilometres on a gently undulating road. I opted to reconnect to the route at an easier point, following a steady climb up to 4600M.
With imposing views of the cordillera as my backdrop I plunged down towards Sorata. Boulders, rocks, ruts and mud. The descent demanded my full concentration. Sinking lower it became warmer, flowers emerged, insects buzzed and homesteads littered the hillsides. Speeding through the greenery I was eager to reach Sorata and get some rest. The relentless bumps caused the end of my long suffering pannier attachment system which had been hanging by a thread for some time. After a bodge fix with some bungee cord I managed to complete the ride into town.
A warm shower and quick nap before dinner. I headed out to meet Mark and Hannah (http://www.highlux.co.nz) from New Zealand. They’ve been bikepacking down through the Americas for over 3 years. We had a great evening sharing a few beers, some food and watching a noisy procession through town. Between them they have a wealth of stories and knowledge which was fantastic to dig into. My eyelids were growing heavy and upon my return to the hotel I lapsed into deep slumber.
Before climbing out of Sortata I took some time to watch the Bolivian Independence Day parade around the plaza. It was a wonderfully vibrant and happy spectacle (if a little unorganised). My illness was still plaguing me but I pushed on anyway despite feeling lousy.
From a junction I dropped down into a deep canyon before commencing the gruelling battle up the other side. Under the suns punishing rays I alternated between riding and pushing. I felt faint, glugging water constantly and forcing down nuts and snacks despite my absent appetite.
The track here was poor and large sections of the road had been devastated by landslides. I hauled my bike to the top of a high debris pile. There was a digger working here to repair the road. I waved to grab the drivers attention and see if could pass. Sliding down the other side of the destruction I was shocked to find what seemed like the entire village lazing about in the shade watching the digger. I hung around for a while answering all the questions and having a good laugh with some of them. They told me it was about an hour and half to the top off the valley - fortunately this estimation proved exaggerated and shortly I sat panting at the top of the switchbacks recovering my breath.
For the remainder of the day I slowly winched higher, occasionally traversing more sections of landslides or meeting puzzled shepherds. I tucked away in a riverbed and camped for the night. I awoke feeling my roughest yet. The only sensible decision seemed to be bailing to easier riding around the shores of Lago Titicaca. Just one downside - a +1000M climb in order to get out of the mountain range I was exploring. In my fragile state this task seemed gargantuan yet I apprehensively started up the switchbacks. I won’t go into grim details but it was a real struggle and one of my toughest days on a bike. I vomited twice and lost count of my bowel movements, I did eventually crest the pass weary and frail, but pleased to have easier riding ahead.
After floating down to the shores of the lake I joined a paved road for the remainder of the day. Progress was strikingly easier, covering many kilometres even while feeling like garbage. It was the official Independence Day and in each small village there was some kind of colourful fiesta. I camped that night on a blustery hillside with a special view onto the lake. Come morning I felt a marginal improvement in my condition and after forcing down some oats I cycled the remaining kilometres to the Bolivian border post at Puerto Acosta. The official told me I only had two days remaining on my visa - a surprise to me, I’d obviously miscalculated. They were friendly and waved me off on my way to Peru.
A dusty overgrown track clung to the cliffside leading to Peru. I appreciated the views over the azure lake; it appeared Mediterranean in character as the suns rays bounced off its tranquil surface. I got a friendly reception from border officials and curious locals alike in the town of Tilali. My intended route through Southern Peru would head back up into the mountains and a slew of demanding climbs. I was in no condition to be tackling such a journey, feeling utterly spent and empty.
Asking round I found it was possible to reach Cusco in two busses. Soon I found myself chugging along in a cramped collectivo towards Juliaca. Then I scoured the streets of the charmless, grubby city for the bus terminal. In a stressful flurry I negotiated my bike and me onto a bus bound for Cusco at the last second.
In Cusco I would rest up and recover my strength, putting back on lost kilograms. Then I intended to return South to explore those little travelled mountains I longed to see.