Ruta Los Seis Miles Sur: Sand, Wind and Sublimity
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
I rolled over again, scrunching my sleeping bag tighter into my body. Another gust of wind was howling across the valley and I braced myself as it tore into my tent. More frozen condensation rained down onto me, countless grains of ice peppered the small portion of my face that was uncovered. I dared not check the time, but I knew that there were many hours till the sun would show itself and that the coldest depths of the night still lay ahead. Nathan and myself were camping in a small dip at 5000M, the only wind shelter for miles around, high up on the North Argentinian Puna. Tomorrow we would have to wrestle our bicycles up and over a 5530M volcano crater rim - Corona Del Inca - in order to traverse a chain of mountains and reconnect to more rideable roads further north. But for now we were trying to ride out a storm that was blowing over. I desperately needed rest, however, it eluded me.
Rewind eleven days and we were a few hundred kilometers south in the tiny town of Guandacol. We had just finished buying food and supplies for 18 days, and were cramming it into any available space on our bikes. They weighed a tonne and handled like freight trains once we added the 2.5L cooking alcohol and 10L water capacity. There was however no shortage of distractions; the endlessly talkative campsite owner Mario was constantly bringing us food to try, testing out our bikes and showing us the process of making wine. His giant German Shepherd mirrored Marios personality and when it wasn’t trying to steal our food it was chasing a local pig around the vineyard eventually killing it via heart attack!
On the penultimate night I rolled over in my tent, only to be shocked to see a tarantula clinging to my tent vestibules mesh directly in line with my face. I knocked it away with my phone and returned to a fitful nights sleep. Nonetheless, come the next morning we found ourselves ready, saying our final farewells and rolling out of town.
In order to reach the Puna we had a 3000M climb. With our heavily laden bikes and the fiercely hot sun, going was slow. My granny gear saw a lot of use. Mercifully the gradient was generally very gentle which meant we could slowly chug our way up the climb. We passed by increasingly sparse signs of human life, a few shallow river crossings provided welcome respite from the heat. The valleys were full of vicious, spiky plants, eager to rip our clothes or get stuck in our tyres.
On the first night out of town we called it a day early, exhausted, we set up camp in a riverbed. I had a quick wash in the trickle of a stream and fell asleep shortly afterwards. We pushed on for hours the next day, climbing like snails, as the afternoon sun roasted us we desperately searched for shade to take a lunch break. The best we could find was a little ditch, we squished into the patch of shade and cooked. Nathan took a nap and I browsed my map, seeing how much we had left of this arduous climb.
As we gained height, altitude also became a factor. It was time for our first acclimatisation camp. At 3400M we pitched our tents among the shrubs next to a cracked and dry riverbed. That night we cooked on fire and I sat up a little later watching the night sky. The next day was a lazy one, sitting around with our heads stuck in books, we cooked big meals and snoozed. Coming from the South we were unacclimatised and had decided our best chance of making it over the volcano would be by taking things real slow. When buying our supplies we’d allowed for acclimatisation days and to be travelling slowly. In the midday heat we again sought shelter as our tents transformed into saunas, hiding under a small cliff we watched as some desert foxes scurried around.
A misty start the next morning saw us once more slugging up the last few hundred meters of the pass. The air felt thin, but the constantly changing landscape and feeling that we were close to the top of the climb kept me motivated. Brewing cups of tea at the top, we enjoyed the vista. Quite suddenly the descent deposited us right into the most otherworldly landscape I’d ever seen. More shades of reds and browns than I knew existed painted the mountains in stripes and dashes. This was an ancient, harsh and foreboding landscape, sculpted over millennia. Yet in its rugged appearance was a sublime beauty that was hard not to appreciate and become spellbound by.
The afternoon saw the winds pick up - a pattern that would become commonplace over the next month. We had a short days cycling, not wanting to risk it with the altitude, tents were pitched next to Salar Del Leoncito. Hiding behind some long grasses; the only wind protection around, we lounged around in our tents and cooked up more of our supplies. Unfortunately the zipper on my tent failed that evening, so there I was at the highest and coldest point of my journey with a tent that didn’t close. I was just grateful the zipper hadn’t failed back in Guandacol that night with the tarantula!
A drawn out climb stretched over to the next valley. Whilst struggling with the altitude, wind and loose sand I had to remind myself to take in the views. The vista back over the Salar was especially fantastic. Running low on water we had to fill up from shallow, muddy pools - some of the lowest quality I’d had on the trip - however needs must.
Once more we called it a day in the afternoon, this time taking shelter from the relentless wind at Refugio Piedra. The huge heap of rocks, gave us some relief. Nathan built up a substantial rock wall to protect his tent and I set up to bivvy in a shallow cave for the night. Again we cooked over a small fire before bunkering down for the icy night. Bottles froze as the temperature dropped. As I drifted off to sleep I had visions of a puma returning home to its cave only to find me snoring away inside.
Fortunately this scenario didn’t materialise and we got off to a cold start in the morning. Yet another pass stood ahead of us. We slowly climbed, finding some frozen streams that provided higher quality water on the way. As the track steepened near the top I found myself panting frantically and struggling with the thin air - it was easier to push. 4450M; this was a new altitude record for me, a statistic that would continually be exceeded in the coming days. We high fived before dropping into a fun descent towards Laguna Brava.
It was time for another acclimatisation day. The Refugio at Laguna Brava provided top class wind protection. The sun began its slow descent towards the horizon, the dry and grassy mountainsides were set ablaze in a wash of golden brown. Weary yet content from a days cycling it was time to cook up some dinner and retire to the cocoon of my toasty sleeping bag before things froze. I spent the rest day reading, strolling around the wild landscape taking photos and collecting more drinking water.
Whilst at the Laguna for water I stumbled across a large flock of flamingoes wading in the salty pools. As the wind howled I sat and watched these strange but graceful birds going about their business. They seem like unlikely residents of such a high altitude wilderness, but are some of the few creatures that thrive here.
More climbing in the morning took us ever higher, this time a few kilometres on a paved road that lead to the border with Chile. Heads down, forcing the pedals around, we did battle with the wind - something we were getting very used to by now. I pointed out to Nathan how much we’d both improved as cyclists; a wind that would have crippled us in Patagonia, and now here we were at altitude, in freezing conditions, carrying two weeks food and climbing uphill at a decent pace! However any illusions of maintaining this pace were shattered when we turned off the tarmac. Horrendous washboard road teamed with the ever stronger wind and we were soon crawling along. We hid in a shallow dip in the landscape, scoffing cookies and scouring our maps for any possible relief that the landscape could offer to camp. Not finding much, we pushed on regardless.
Finding ourselves in a slightly desperate situation we took matters into our own hands. We spent over an hour building a rock wall; both feeling immensely proud of our creation. It had been a taxing day, and I ached for sleep, but not before taking in one of the most otherworldly sunsets. The world turned orange and more so than before it felt as though we'd left our earthly realm for an alien planet. One of the side effects of altitude sometimes involves suddenly waking up short of breath, feeling as though your heart has just stopped beating. Despite this happening a couple of times, I still got a restful nights sleep.
Another day and yet more wind. We passed under the shadow of giants, flanked on all sides by +6000M volcanos and peaks, I felt dwarfed and insignificant. This brutal world of rock and ice I found myself in cared nothing for my ambitions or well being. The track we were following deteriorated further, the corrugations and bumps giving way to deep sand, eventually the track disappeared altogether and we were left to choose our own path across a vast sandy valley. We couldn’t ride. The wind gusted angrily and blasted us with thousands of grains of sand, scratching the exposed skin of our faces. We searched desperately for water and luckily found some ice melt. Progress was painfully slow, we were pushed to the brink. Seriously considering turning back. After much debate we decided to call it a day.
Our hunt for shelter wasn’t very successful. The sandy valley provided none. We spent a night camped behind a small slope. The morning saw us pushing on for many kilometres more. Wrestling our heavily laden bikes through the sand. The wheels sunk and meandered, never going where we intended. Every few steps I had to pause, panting and fighting for air. It was tiring work. A jeep appeared in the distance, the first in days. They gawped at us in confusion. After some quick phots they issued a stark warning of heavy snow and a storm. Like stubborn mules we pushed on. Letting yet more air out the tyres helped somewhat. Moving slightly faster we reached a little harder packed surface. Onwards we pushed into the gathering gloom and grey of the impending storm.
As the clouds thickened to an angry grey we finally came within sight of Corona Del Inca. This volcano crater rim stood 5530M high and represented the crux of our Southern Puna route. Our plan had been to attack the climb today. However, as the wind screeched more intensely, the ground froze and an ever denser flurry of snow blurred our vision, we hesitated. Things looked bleak. We stood exposed in a wide and otherworldly valley. Towering volcanoes surrounded us. Refuge was essential. It would be stupid to climb higher into the chaos.
Yet again no obvious shelter presented itself. We stood shivering in a frozen ditch, considering its potential to protect us from the storm. The ground was frozen solid; our tent pegs unable to penetrate its frigid armour. After some hunting we pitched our tents in a little gully behind a rocky outcrop. The temperature sunk as we hid. Snow blew in thicker, forceful gusts shaking my fabric refuge and a few intimidating cracks of thunder rumbled closeby. I was terrified this was one of the high punas notorious electrical storms; but thankfully the lightning ceased. This was how I found myself in a frozen tent, tossing and turning, wishing for the morning light. After the chilly and restless night we awoke to clear and calm skies. Mercifully the sun finally peeked out from behind the gigantic shadow of Cerro Bonete Chico. We began our preparations for the volcano crater summit.