Rivers, risk and Reward
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Diverting off the Carretera Austral just North of Cochrane there was another dramatic shift in the landscape. Patagonias ability to do this is something I find constantly fascinating, and it means travel there is constantly interesting. The rich vegetation of the Carretera gave way to a drier landscape, the gravel track we were following meandered beautifully along a valley. It was my first day cycling with Nathan from Australia, and as we pedalled along at a leisurely pace we chatted, starting to get to know each other. Our excitement and anticipation about the route was justified, each turn in the road revealed new vistas, there was one especially loose and thrilling descent. We stopped in some shade by a small stream to hide from the sun, refilling my water bottle I found wild mint. For the remainder of the afternoon we followed the doubletrack.
Turning North we left the comfort of the gravel road. A short stint took us across a dry and thorny plane. We followed an undefined singletrack to the bottom of a towering cliff. Here the hikeabike begun. Up a series of increasingly steep, scarily loose and dusty switchbacks we wrestled our bicycles, heavy with one weeks food. Climbing higher I think we were both questioning the sanity of this route choice, yet we remained silent and grimly pushed on. One slip and we would find ourselves careening down a sheer mountainside with unthinkable consequences. After some time we emerged onto a grassy plateau. Here we rested, recovering from the energy sapping climb in the hot sun.
As we went to move on Nathan noticed he had a flat tyre, no doubt the result of one of the numerous thorn bushes in the valley below. We fixed it up as best as possible, battling a frustrating faulty spare tube in the process. The hour was getting late and as we moved on in the golden evening light we started scouting for a campsite. Under a tree sheltered from the wind we quickly pitched our tents and prepared dinner, finding time to listen to some music and chat before passing out utterly exhausted.
Waking the next morning feeling refreshed we got straight back into a short stint of hikeabike. In the morning light the natural splendour of our surroundings struck me all the more. The effort we had put in to gain this altitude was rewarded with multiple stretches of beautifully flowing and rideable singletrack. Some sections of very exposed track required us to carefully manipulate our bikes along narrow paths with perilous drops into the roaring river below, or to haul the bikes up rock faces, intensely monitoring each foothold to avoid taking a tumble. After stopping at a stream to brew up some late morning coffee we soon came to our first river crossing. It wasn’t especially deep, but the water was moving fairly fast and I had very little experience of fording rivers, let alone with a heavily loaded bike. Keeping my shoes on to ensure a good grip on the slick rocks underfoot, I entered the river. I was across before I knew it, wondering why I worried about the river at all. On we pedalled.
The track brought us out further up the valley, it was much wider here, and the river was shallower yet broader. The point marked by some rock cairns didn’t look safe to cross, we searched up and downstream, eventually finding a spot that enabled us to cross to a small island effectively splitting the crossing in two. Again as we clambered out of the chilly water the other side, we both agreed it wasn’t so bad. We tucked into the bushes, away from the wind, taking a well earned break and cooked food. After lunch there was hardly any rideable ground, we pushed for several hours. We crossed paths with a group of hikers, it was surprising to see other people here, the park had seemed a perfectly isolated wilderness. They were shocked to see two gringos out here on bikes, I asked about a pass that we were aiming for the next day. They seemed nonchalant about it, making it seem like easy work, this was great news for us. The groups guide also informed me that bikes are not allowed in the park; I apologised profusely in my poor Spanish.
As the afternoon wore on, we could feel our pace slowing, we took more breaks and our bicycles started to feel heavier each time we hauled them over a boulder field or fallen tree. We weaved in and out of forested mountain sides. The track headed downhill, we were bound for a valley bottom and hoping to reach the refugio at Valle Hermosa before nightfall. We hoisted our bikes over countless fallen trees before we eventually heard the roar of a river; we were getting close. The track itself came to the river at a pretty intimidating point. The river was easily the fastest, and deepest of any we had seen so far. A dark torrent of glacial meltwater was being funnelled through a narrow channel. We could see the faint track on the other side, just 15 meters away. I left my bike on the shore and stepped tentatively into the current, I could straight away feel the power of this river was far beyond the earlier crossings. I waded directly upstream, hunting for a better point there, meanwhile Nathan was searching downstream. No luck. This whole section seemed unsafe to cross.
We opted to head off trail. We crashed into the bush, following the river downstream keeping it on our lefthand side. The undergrowth was dense and thorny, our clothes getting snagged and ripped. My cold legs being slashed by thorns, we hoisted the bikes over yet more dead trees, often not bothering to look for the best route, just crashing head on into the brush and yanking the bikes after us. My feet sunk into soggy bog, a strong smell arose. The mosquitos soon followed, savagely and mercilessly biting, I could feel my face swelling almost straight away. After a while of this we emerged back on the rivers bank. This spot instantly looked better and we cautiously crossed.
Pausing on the other side and checking our maps, we realised the track itself took a rather indirect route. The sun was low in the sky and exhaustion was kicking in, the track would take too long and would probably be unridable. We rode directly down the riverbed. The rocks proved a bumpy ride, but we were moving faster than we had in hours. Our large wheels absorbed the bumps, making what looked like an unrideable surface incredibly fun. Nathan charged headlong through streams and smaller river crossings, this far down the valley the river had split into several more tranquil and calm steams. We made swift progress and eventually arrived at the Refugio just as the sunset. A small group of hikers seemed confused to see two cyclists there, offering us a delicious granola bar. We breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to have a nice, sheltered place to camp after more than 12 hours on the move. After setting up tents we cooked a meal on the fire in the shelter before bed. We needed rest as tomorrow morning we had to cross the pass into the next valley.
We got a slower start to the next day than planned as I had to take some time fixing a puncture I’d received. We followed the last section of the riverbed, joyously riding through the small streams and rolling over rocks towards a lake. Pausing at the lakeshore we marvelled at the striking azure colour of the water. It was perhaps the most perfectly blue body of water I had ever witnessed. The colour coupled with the steep mountainsides and sense of isolation created a truly mesmerising scene.
To our left we could now see the pass, it looked far steeper than expected. We crossed the river right were it met the lake, then started climbing. The path seemed to be constantly increasing in steepness, it was loose and before we knew it the lake looked far below. We grunted and groaned, hardly talking, faces marked with grim concentration and determination. I was afraid to look down at points, after dislodging a rock I watched it tumble endlessly down the cliff, there would be no stopping a weighty falling object. The sense of relief when we reached the top was huge, I surveyed the area, looking back up the valley we had just come from. The view was remarkable. We sat quietly in a state of exhaustion and cooked a quick lunch.
The other side of the pass was mercifully less steep and we were even able to ride parts of the singletrack down to the valley floor. Crossing numerous streams and rivers, this riverbed proved less rideable, the rocks being larger in size. Looking up the valley we saw yet another glacier and we were still flanked by steep mountainsides to the East and West. As we rounded a bend we saw two small figures in the distance ambling across the riverbed towards us. They had large packs. We neared the two hikers by a river, trying to shout over its noise and talk to them, but it proved easier to just cross. Stopping to chat, I think that they were just as surprised to see us as we were them. Corey and Ashley were from the USA and were hiking and packrafting south through Patagonia. We picked their brains about the final river crossing that we had ahead of us and wished them well for the rest of their expedition.
We pedalled over the next kilometre of riverbed and shortly came to the large river. This one looked a little more serious, we surveyed the scene, strategising our crossing. I headed a little downstream, spotting a point that looked suitable to cross. I stepped into the torrent, backpack on and raising my my bike up, I took one cautious step at a time. The rocks underfoot here were bigger and slipperier than before. As I neared the middle of the river the current was strong, but my progress felt good. Then suddenly my foot slipped a little, the bike dropped slightly and I felt the current pushing fiercely on the bicycle. It dragged my bike and I fell, dropping the bike, my adrenaline surged. Everything happened quickly, I grasped onto the handlebars and pushed down, the end of the bars caught on a rock, I was able to regain my footing, my heart racing I hauled the bicycle back up. I managed to finish the crossing, I stood dripping wet on the other bank, shaken and shocked. Nathan stood back on the other side, probably also a little shocked by what had just taken place. He spotted a better looking spot to cross upstream and carefully wrestled his bike across.
We rained our composure on the other side, we had just made it. We sped through the rest of the valley bottom, making swift progress fording the smaller streams. Then a double track appeared out of nowhere, suddenly we were moving at a blistering pace. Our mood was euphoric. The beautiful road snaked its way around a lake and we blasted along, enjoying a gorgeous tailwind and gradual downhill. The landscape had transformed once more, broad and wide open horizons had brought us back onto the pampa. Ancient mountain ridges littered the distance, one in particular stood out to me, its form rising from the plains like the spine of a dinosaur.
We were exhausted and battered by the route but riding euphoric at what we had seen and the sense of accomplishment we felt. In the evening we found a beautiful sheltered camp spot by a river bordering Argentina. We set up our tents and kicked back with dinner, both agreeing we should stop here for a rest day. Off to the Southeast we could see dense, grey clouds dumping rain. Two fishermen stopped by and came to chat, sharing a beer with us. Eagerly sipping the cool fluid it was one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted.