Our most recent bike adventure starts from a somewhat romantic dream: to reach the top of the highest volcano in the world, as well as the second highest mountain in the American continent, starting by bicycle from the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, all with our legs . The volcano is called Ojos del Salado, 6891 m high, and is located in northern Chile, on the border with Argentina.
In reality it was not a “first time”, in the past we have climbed various peaks of the Andes with this type of approach, which we have always liked very much, since it combines our two great passions, the cycle route and the high mountains.
As always, we organize ourselves independently. The only news is the company of a dear friend, Mirco, who had this dream in his head for some time.
The preparations are quite complicated: putting together bike and high-altitude equipment, respecting the weight and size limits that airlines impose, is not easy. On the outward journey everything went smoothly, after a bit of Mirco’s insistence at the check in to accept the bike (despite respecting the conditions); on his return Mirco is always more unfortunate, failing to get the better of an Air France employee in Santiago who extorts him 200 euros for special baggage (100 for the bike + 100 for 2 kg more than the 23 allowed). Damn, this uncertainty about the contractual conditions of baggage transport continues to haunt us …
From Santiago we reach Copiapò, our reference city, with a long bus trip. In this case no problem to load the bikes, you pay a surcharge, strictly to be negotiated.
In this sleepy city, capital of the “Atacama” region, we find a comfortable hotel and finally we take the bikes out of the cartons: they are all whole, and this is the most important thing!
The territory we have to cross is full desert: not a desert of dunes, but of mountains of rocks and sands of volcanic origin, on the borders of the Atacama desert, one of the driest on the planet.
There is a beautiful collection of tales from the much loved Sepulveda, “The Roses of Atacama”, which is inspired by the very rare moments when the rains literally explode the flowering of small plants that otherwise remain at rest in the sand.
In the previous months we had read every possible report of cyclists and we understood that we could not venture hoping to find some trickle; moreover, the little water that can be found is almost always contaminated by heavy metals, since the area is rich in mines. So already from home we had looked for an agency specializing in mountaineering expeditions that would bring us water and food in a couple of places along the way.
Once the logistics are settled, from Copiapò we travel by bus on the coast to La Caldera, which is only about eighty kilometers away, and finally we start pedaling!
Our direction is almost perfectly east and we immediately discover that this has a huge advantage: from the ocean there are regular winds from west to east which reinforce from mid-day until late afternoon, and then drop in the evening. What a tragedy if we had to pedal in the opposite direction!
To give an idea of the total vacuum level that you cross, think that on the outskirts of Copiapò numerous signs warn the drivers: next service station at 480 km, in Fiambalà, the first country in Argentina!
In the whole approach path to the mountain there are only two inhabited places: an inn managed by an indigenous family, in a sort of mini oasis, and the customs control post! Customs is a surreal place, which reminds us of Buzzati’s novel “The desert of the Tartars”: an enormous structure, from which very little traffic passes to Argentina, with a small office of the Carabineros de Chile where we must show permission to climb to our mountain, which the Chilean government had released us via email for free and with astonishing speed, other than Italian bureaucracy!
The path winds through a majestic and amazing landscape, with multicolored mountains for the different minerals they contain, very rare streams that descend from the snowfields now present only in patches on the peaks that exceed 6000 meters, a pioneering vegetation made up of sparse tufts of herbs, a beautiful lake, called the Green Lagoon on whose banks some vicuñas graze here and there … such an arid and severe environment can inspire fear, but for us its primordial beauty and its mineral “wildness” are a source of great wonder and contentment of the eyes and heart.
Traffic on the road is very minimal: most of the few vehicles that pass are the pick ups, all rigorously red in color, by the technicians of the mines where gold or copper is extracted, even at stratospheric altitudes.
Drivers often come to ask us if we need anything, and more than once we accept their offer of water!
Tent nights are dominated by total silence and the light of the moon and stars …
In Laguna Verde there are some pools of natural hot water that allow us to make the only “baths” of the whole trip, truly a gift of the volcanic nature of this area.
Here we finally meet some other travelers, some headed like us to Ojos del Salado, mostly organized with tourist agencies, others simply around the great Chilean north.
On the shores of the lagoon, at about 4300 m, there is a refuge that is nothing but an old shack, in poor condition, which offers some cot, a room with a table and incredibly also an indoor hot water pool. We plan to stay here a few days to acclimatise, so we take advantage of the sheltered environment of the refuge to prepare food without the hassle of the swirl of the wind or the scorching sun.
To acclimatise well, we dedicate a day to climbing the mountain that looms over the lagoon, the Cerro Mulas Muertas, 5908 m. There are many mountains around that attract our attention, several exceeding 6000 meters, but we discover that it is not so trivial to climb them because they require a long approach on a sandy bottom, without real paths.
From Laguna Verde we use bikes for the last time to reach the nearby Murray refuge, at an altitude of 4500 m. This is a larger refuge, used as a base by the Andean Rescue, but always unmanaged, with free access. From here the profile of “our” mountain stands out imposingly on the horizon!
Our theoretical plans foresee going up again with the bikes to the “Atacama” camp, the real base camp of the Ojos, but an attempt by Mirco to pedal on the sandy road immediately dismantles all ambitions.
A guide from one of the organized groups had already warned us: the road surface in recent times is particularly inconsistent due to the long drought.
We then leave the bikes here, after 365 km of pedaling, tied in the open warehouse of the refuge, together with all the material that we don’t need for the climb.
It may seem a little careless to abandon materials in an unattended place, but the experience has been positive: we found every single piece on the way back.
We organize the backpacks with everything we need for the climb; loaded as donkeys, or rather as llamas, we face the infinite 21 km that separate us from the Atacama camp, altitude 5300 m.
The route coincides with a sort of road, open with a bulldozer, which is normally used by off-road vehicles. We are the only ones on foot, autonomous, and when we arrive at the base camp we are greeted with great compliments!
Here we find the supply of food and the sack with high-altitude boots that the agency has brought us, but there is no way to find the promised water: a moment of panic, soon overcome by the discovery of some bowls of water left by a previous shipment. Hooray!
The climate at the camp is very collaborative, there are “Andinists” from various parts of the world, some are customers of guides, others independent, all however a little curious and certainly kind towards three extravagants like us who come directly from the ocean ! In short, with great pleasure we accept the offer of a plate of vegetables cooked by the chefs of the expeditions, who manage to work miracles in the super restricted space of a container called “Refugio Atacama”, where you have to take turns to make food.
We still do an acclimatization climb, unfortunately then, the day we start the climb to the summit, the two of us do not feel too fit and so we stop at 6500 m, leaving the very strong Mirco to reach the top on behalf of everyone and three!
We cannot deny that we were a little disappointed for not having placed the icing on the cake, but if we think of the experience we have experienced, we can only be happy, especially since we are no longer young …
Our three-way mini expedition worked very well: united by the same spirit in experiencing travel and nature, we organized the days in order to respect the different athletic skills and we managed to share everything else in harmony.
Nature has given us great emotions and the encounters with other humans, few in terms of quantity, have always been characterized by availability and kindness: it is true that when we are faced with the basic needs of life, immersed in a nature so essential, we all feel brothers and we bring out the most human and social side of our being.
by Grazia Franzoni e Marco Berta (Savona)