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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Ruta Los Seis Miles Sur: Corona Del Inca

Sometimes whilst an event is occurring you can have the strange sensation that you are living in a memory. It’s a difficult and surreal feeling to describe; simultaneously feeling present in the moment but also experiencing some detachment and awareness that this will be a significant experience to look back on in the future. This was how I felt as Nathan and myself lugged our bicycles up the incline of the volcano crater Corona Del Inca. Perhaps it was the altitude playing tricks on my mind - we were after all at 5500M - but as I took each slow step or laboured breath I knew this would be a memory I’d look back on for years to come.

In the frigid morning air we’d began climbing. Nathan started a little way ahead, toes freezing in his boots; he had to get moving. The sky was a clear blue, but the crisp air held a deep and penetrating chill. Everything remained frozen. As we rose higher the wind only made things colder. Effects of the altitude were becoming very apparent. The thin air not quenching the demands of our struggling lungs. We stopped frequently, especially on the steeper sections. These breaks became ever longer as we neared the top. We spoke little; both locked in a physical and mental battle with the climb.

Up ahead a surreal sight; a convoy of jeeps appeared on the ridge. Soon they were passing us, just staring in disbelief or videoing us. The final car however stopped and checked on us, giving us bananas, alfajores and chocolate. They were angels. We sat in their dustcloud and wolfed down all the food. It was an essential energy boost. Onwards we pushed, forging a path through the sand and into the icy headwind. The scenery was spectacular, but I didn’t care. I was mostly looking at the ground, panting and internally questioning life choices. Occasionally I glanced up to see how far was left; the summit never seemed to get closer.

Somehow we eventually dragged ourselves and bikes to the top. We stood breathless; not solely from the altitude. For the vista before us was indescribable. Light grey mounds and peaks stretched away on all sides, many glaciated or with a dusting of snow and ice. Directly ahead the ground dropped sharply away into the volcano crater. A vast natural amphitheatre of ice and wind, formed over millennia. In the centre was a deep blue lake, the water tumultuous as the wind gusted across its surface. It was simultaneously the most desolate and beautiful place I’d ever been.

Riding a wave of euphoria from cresting the summit of the 5530M volcano crater we pushed onwards. We wanted to get lower in altitude to camp. This meant a long, tough day. We’d underestimated the route. From the crater rim we skidded and slid down a loose scree slope into the next valley. Before us lay yet another 5530M pass! Being already exhausted, the sight of the steep hikeabike towering ahead totally demoralised us. We sat amongst penitentes in grim silence and forced down cookies and nuts. There was no option, this valley was too high and exposed. We had to get over the next pass and to shelter.

The pass proved much steeper than any climb thus far. We set a steady yet slow pace up the sandy ascent. Stopping every 20 steps to regain our breath. Grimacing, grunting and groaning, after 30 minutes - which felt like an eternity - we were at the top. To reach our evenings camp I summoned every ounce of strength left. Fortunately we were able to ride our bicycles for the longest distance in days. A short, loose and technical decent took us to a broad plateau. Occasionally we paused to consult our map (for there were no roads here), or to haul our bikes up steep dunes.

As the light grew dim we saw our ice field camp in sight. We confessed to each other how utterly spent we were. I felt faint. Seeing stars, I stopped often. The last kilometre was agonisingly slow. At the ice field I sat - shattered - on the ground. Staring blankly around I chugged water and more cookies. It had been one of the toughest days in my life. But we’d made it through the hardest part. We high fived. I could hardly be bothered to set up my tent and cook, but an impending chill in the air gave me a little haste. Collecting water from a puddle of icemelt, I watched one of my water bottles freeze in front of my eyes. Laying in my sleeping bag that night with all my clothes on and everything frozen in the -15C chill, I smiled to myself. This was the adventure I’d dreamt of.

Waking up in the midst of the ice field at 5300M was a surreal start to the day. We remained cocooned in our sleeping bags until the suns glow had reached our tents. Packing up camp involved wrestling tent pegs from the frozen solid ground. Still no roads. We lugged our bicycles over a boulder strewn ridge top. Then we were able to cycle, at a crawl, across a large windswept plateau. The wild allure of this place was impossible to ignore. Our tyres crackled and slid over frozen streams.

Wearing all our layers to brace against the icy wind we reached a lake. The wind whipped up frothing waves across its surface while the shoreline remained frozen. We wondered how long it would take to become a human ice cube if one were unfortunate enough to fall in. It was a cruel cold, too cold to remove my gloves to take photos. Head down, plod onwards, one foot in front of the other. Trailing a bumpy riverbed downhill, manoeuvring our bicycles through a jagged maze of rocks for the remainder of the day.

Late in the afternoon we crossed the final lung busting pass of the day. A long downhill through a boulder field and we reached another river. Tyre pressure still low to ride through the deep sand, I winced each time I felt my rim ding on a boulder and desperately avoided razor blade rocks. This was not the place to rip a sidewall. On the other side of the river - a road - the first in several days. A milder night was spent camping in the shadow of the formidable Monte Pisis (6793M). A fierce lightning storm raged away to the East. Flashes illuminated the darkness, and thunder rumbled across the Puna. I was glad not to be experiencing the wrath of the storm. Come morning spirits were high as we once more enjoyed the familiar crackle of gravel and dirt under our tyres.

After spending days travelling at such extraordinarily low speeds it felt like we were positively flying along as we careened down the sandy roads and tracks of the Southern Puna. The landscape was alien as ever, the cliff faces were contorted into strange geological formations and we followed a salty river down a slight incline. The valley was painted assorted shades of red and brown, dotted with crystal white salty patches. Several times we forded the galloping river as the track crisscrossed the valley floor.

As we cranked our way up a steep little climb a couple of pickup trucks appeared. Their surprise at seeing us here was immediately apparent. They were loaded to the brim with supplies, beer, meat and even a couple of quadbikes, coming out to enjoy the wilderness of the Puna for a night or two. After some wishes of good luck and a few exclamations of “Que duro!”, the trucks shot off upriver.

We veered away from the river and soon found ourselves alone on the salt crusted shore of Laguna Verde. In each direction lay the giants of the Puna, snow and ice coated peaks, close to 7000M and as remote as you can imagine. The day ended with a slog to the only protection around. Arriving just before sunset we crossed a final salty mudflat before pitching our tents and passing out. It had been the longest distance we’d covered in quite some time.

Nathan and myself started cycling at different times the following morning. It was a gorgeous morning, still air, sun shining happily and the Puna seeming more teeming with life than I’d ever seen it. A few condors wafted on thermals, flamingos feasted in the lagunas and herds of vicunas lazily grazed in the reeds. A long and meandering climb lay ahead of us. I soon found myself in a nice rhythm and inching closer to the top. With each switchback and turn of the cranks the view became more spectacular. I still found myself struggling for air at points, but was feeling the strongest I had in days, perhaps some degree of acclimatisation was kicking in.

After a final steep section that saw me standing up out of the saddle and delivering all the force I could muster, the climb was done. Quite unexpectedly and uncontrollably I found myself weeping. Rich tears rolled down my dirty face. The sight before me was so incomprehensibly sublime. A panorama of the Puna lay before me, the scale and beauty of the environment somehow finally laid bare and all the more apparent than ever before. The majesty of our strange little planet and lives was abundantly obvious.

It was also a moment that felt like a true realisation of my dreams. Here I was in the central Andes, a remote desert wilderness, on my bicycle, feeling at my strongest mentally and physically after the route we’d just come through. There was no single place I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be doing with my life.

Before Nathan arrived I pulled myself together and high fived him when he reached the summit. I think he was equally effected by the sight. After a long rest we rolled a few kilometres of twisty downhill before tackling the days final climb. The last hours of the day dragged on whilst we fought a building headwind, aiming for a Refugio to spend then night. Ever denser grey clouds were assembling.

The kilometres eventually ticked by and one at a time we reached the Refugio. I greeted Nathan with a steaming cup of tea. As snow began to fall and the wind gusted with more force once more I couldn’t believe our luck. The first Refugio in many days and the timing couldn’t have been better. We feasted on our remaining supplies and enjoyed countless cups of sugary Mate that a kind soul had left behind, before tucking snuggly into our sleeping bags comfortable in the knowledge that a storm was raging outside whilst we were nicely sheltered.

A coating of fresh powder lay over the Puna in the morning and had transformed brown hillsides into something altogether different. A final climb on our route and we were atop a series of switchbacks; the way down from higher elevations we’d been at for just over two weeks. In the middle of the descent we ran into a group of four cyclists coming up the climb! It was quite a surprise. Victor, Sebastian, Jan and Clint had been climbing for a few days and were almost at the Puna plateau. We spent almost an hour chatting with them and giving them some information about the route and road conditions. After some photos and exchanging details, Nathan and me sped off down the mountain.

Tarmac. This now unfamiliar surface greeted us at the bottom of the gravel road. The final push into the town of Fiambala was at first a drawn out affair, pushing hard into a headwind on a largely flat road. Doubts arose about wether we would be able to reach town today. Just as we contemplated stopping for the day the road dived steeply downwards and we covered countless kilometres at record speeds, speeding through slot canyons and past rows of crumpled mountains and ridges. Temperatures constantly rose as we descended to the lowlands and we stopped to remove warmer layers.

Finally Fiambala, and with it civilisation was in sight. But so too was a fearsome looking cloud of dust. We cycled directly into it. A dust storm bombarded us, we couldn’t look up, and for the last 10KM into town my view was mostly of tarmac passing under my wheels. Litter blew across the desert floor and a post apocalyptic graveyard signified we had reached town. We sat in the plaza coated in dust, clothing torn, eyes bleary but with weary smiles on our faces and toasted the completion of the challenge with hearty bottles of cool lager.


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