Puna 9: Part 2 – El Condor

Our immediate problem in Antofagasta was finding Pesos. After a fruitless search we visited the cops, listened to a rant against La Presidenta (‘Hot Lips‘ as we like to call her) and then were led into one of those fortunate encounters which seem to occur in Argentina. The boss suggested we visit Anibal – ‘he’ll change your dollars’. He did, and more. An experienced mountain guide he was also a cyclist, and a mine of information about our route ahead. Where jeep drivers told us the way was fine, he’d put them right. ‘They’re on bikes! It’s all sand round there. They’ll be pushing for hours!’ Truths such as these make for far more useful mental preparation. He opened his home to us, we watched the Disney Channel with his kids. Then we resumed our journey.

As with the previous fortnight’s riding, it was wild and empty. Intoxicating, addictive. Our biggest challenges were a lack of water and an abundance of sand. The jeep tracks we pedalled and pushed existed, usually, though on occasion had clearly been forged, but not followed. It was tough, but fun.

Later than expected we were in position to dump our bikes and wander to Condor. Though the 23rd highest peak in the Andes (officially it’s 6410m, though we think probably a bit higher) this peak has been virtually ignored by andinistas, due to the trickiness of the short approach from Paso San Francisco, and the fact that old surveys mark it as being far lower than its true height.  As late as 1996 it was still apparently unclimbed, and ours was maybe the eighth ascent, possibly the fifth.

On day 8 our average speed suddenly spiralled upwards as we reached the paving and zoomed down to the Argentine immigration post at Las Grutas. A cheery buenas tardes to the policemen there didn’t roll off the tongue as fluently as usual, but then it had been a while since our last non-inter-Pike interaction, bidding farewell to Anibal as we cycled out of his front gate all those days ago…

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Anibal and Pike looking a bit bleary eyed as we leave Antofagasta early to beat the usual afternoon winds. This guy didn’t take long to enter our ‘Argentinian Legends’ list. Right up there alongside Don Jonson (Reynoso) and Javier Zanetti.

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We’re soon back out into La Nada, leaving the metropolis of Antofagasta far behind…

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On Day 1 the going is nice and easy. Particularly on these hard packed barreales (mud flats).

 

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Which lead us south, then west, in the direction of the Salar de Antofalla.

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We knew that water, along with a sandy surface, would be our biggest problem on this route, but had been assured by a number of jeep drivers who knew the way well that we’d find a few meadows with drinkable agua in the first couple of days. At the end of Day 1, we manage to find a stinking, filthy puddle hidden among this greenery, and stock up with 15 litres each. It’s a good decision – the only non-salty water we find on the whole route, and enough to sustain us until the penitente fields on El Condor, still 3 days away.

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From Antofagasta it’s a 1000m climb to a 4400m pass, after which comes this lovely descent to the Salar de Ratones.

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We don’t see any mice in the area. Just lots of dreamy Puna colours.

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From Ratones, we decide it’s best to take some really small tracks which we think from GE show a direct route to the south side of the Salar de Antofalla. The ‘main’ way hits this 200km-long, but very slender salar further north and would mean many more kilometers. We’re not surprised when our smaller route throws up a few pushes.

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But the descent is something of a surprise. 750m in just over 6km. The steepest bits are at over 40% and it takes both of us holding onto a bike to get them down safely, one at a time.

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The hillside is so steep that it’s not always clear which way the jeep drivers have actually managed to get their 4x4s down. The odd recce is needed to see how to proceed.

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Before leaving Antofagasta we have a look at the forecast for the week ahead. After a beautiful, cloudless and stormless December to date, things seem set to change, with a predicted week of storms and snow. We can well believe it as we continue descending to the salar – things look gloomy to the south with dark clouds hovering over Peinado, and obscuring El Condor.

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We continue sliding downhill on loose tracks…

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…then hit the salar. Here all signs of 4x4s disappear (‘So that’s why we couldn’t see anything on the satellite images’) and there’s a few kms of cross country to get to the southern end, from where we know a route heads up towards Laguna Peinado.

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The slushy salt didn’t do our bikes much good, but there were loads of these cool ‘salt bubbles’ around.

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After a while we leave the salar, deciding it’s better to follow the vicuña tracks on the hillsides near its edge.

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From these we’re able to make much faster progress.

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Particularly when they morph back into rideable jeep tracks again.

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A long day ends with a camp near the salar and in the morning the west side of the salt flat is ablaze with sun. But it’s only fleeting, and the moody clouds soon regain control.

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As we pack up camp we realize Pike’s rear tyre has a slight problem. Good job we’re carrying a spare, for a change. We wondered whether the salt the day before was the catalyst for the split. Any ideas anyone?

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Cycling round the southern end of the Salar de Antofalla is a memorable experience.

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After all, it’s not every day you get to pedal through a lava flow.

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And past lakes and salt such as this.

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From the salar, a decent track heads south, directly at the perfect cone of Volcan Peinado.

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We enjoy the smooth ride while we can…

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…as we’ve been told that there’s a bad section before Laguna Peinado, which takes a few hours to plough through.

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But round the lake’s shores we’re riding again. Aah, that was a happy hour…

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What a privilege to be able to travel through such unspoilt beauty as this.

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Look at that lovely hard surface!

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And those weird Andean rock formations to the west.

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As night falls we’re pushing again. The exhausting hour to camp up a steep, sandy slope (not this bit) sees us almost too tired to bother putting up our tent.

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But the body’s powers of recovery impress us as always. In the morning, after a couple of hearty meals, we’re feeling good again. Which is lucky, as the next section is the one all the jeep drivers have been warning us about. ‘You’ll be ok to start with…’

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‘…then it all goes a bit blando (soft).’

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They

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woz

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not

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wrong.

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By 17:00 we’ve made it a whopping 16km.

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But that’s ok. It’s far enough to reach the western flanks of Volcan Peinado, where we dump our bikes. El Condor (out of sight to the right) lies beyond a 400m deep hollow in which languishes Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake), and Anibal has told us there’s no point taking the bikes down there and closer to the mountain. The push out would be soul destroying. Most jeeps that descend into the hollow are unable to climb back out the same way, and so face a detour to the north of around 200km to get out and back to this point!

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We camp just west of Laguna Amarga, and the following day is the 25th. Here’s Haz carving up the Christmas dinner. ‘Twas delicious, though the roasties didn’t turn out as well as usual.

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From 25km away we took a zoomed in photo of El Condor and then just head for the lowest patch of snow we can see. This turns out to be at 5400m, and we arrive there and make our high camp at 15:00.

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On the way are a rich variety of lava colours. Pike pockets a mammoth collection (on the way down).

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The penitente field turns out to be somewhat irrelevant. At 15:01 the hail and thunder begins and soon all is white. In the morning there’s snow settled all the way down to 4400m. The lightning abates after a few hours and Pike heads out for penitentes – it’s still quicker to melt this hard snow, than any of the fresh stuff that’s fallen (we think).

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The respite is a brief one, as the hail storm is replaced by snow rolling in. It continues well into the night.

 

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Which makes sunrise a good one. Here’s the usually dark Volcan Peinado looking a bit whiter than usual.

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As it’s clear-ish at 07:00, we set off, but by the time we get to this boulder field at 5900m, the weather is looking threatening again. We can think of few things we’d less like to do that be on a high mountain ridge in the Puna when an electrical storm explodes, so decide it’s best to descend back to camp, to try again another day.

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As we retreat, the sun comes out for a few hours. Not till the early afternoon does the thunder arrive again.

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In the morning all is rosy (as it normally is on the Puna) and the way forward is obvious.

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Despite the soft, fresh snow it’s easy going.

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And we’re on the summit crater rim before 10:00.

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Which means smiles all round. We never work out which is the highest point on the crater, so walk all the high points just to be sure. Then comes a marathon 25km walk back to the bikes. We reach them at 19:00.

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The following day is the last, and turns out easier than expected. A few short rocky pushes…

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Past Laguna Amarga and El Condor…

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…then we’re up and over a 4900m pass, and descending to the paving near Paso San Francisco. Volcan San Francisco dominates the road – at 6030m this easily accessible peak is one of the easiest 6000ers in the world.

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By early afternoon we’re at Las Grutas, the Argie immigration post, and our first human interaction since leaving Antofagasta 8 days ago. As we’re continuing our journey by bike over to Chile after a rest in Fiambala, we hitch down to this wonderful little town. It takes less than half an hour to get a lift (which beats our previous record on this road – took us nearly 24 hours to get a ride the only other time we’ve tried hitching!). Back in civilization it’s not long before we raid the local wine cellars…then reflect on one of the toughest, most beautiful, most rewarding routes we’ve ever ridden. Though ridden is probably the wrong term. Of the 26 hours our cycle computer says we were moving to complete the 190km from Antofagasta to Las Grutas, we’re pretty sure more than half of them were spent pushing through sand!

 


16 thoughts on “Puna 9: Part 2 – El Condor

  1. oli

    Lovely descent to salar de los ratones! awesome view :)
    Wonderful time following you, pics & texts, since a while!
    from belgium
    oli

  2. Mateo

    “What a privilege to be able to travel through such unspoilt beauty as this.”
    Indeed! love those “salt bubbles” too…do they remind you of rime ice bubbling up at all?
    Right there with ya’s…wish I was! Ride good and spin a km for ole Mateo.

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      Mateo!
      Not seen bubbling rime ice I’m afraid. We’re from England! (no exciting meteo phenomena there!)
      We pushed a good few kms for ya, don’t you worry!
      Neil

  3. James

    Beautiful photos and great stories as always – I think you’ve invented a sub-category of bikepacking all of your own: the Bike ‘n Pike! We missed you at Christmas – although glad to see you found a good plastic salami wandering around up there. I’ll think of you next time I have a hissy fit about not having seen a Grido’s “for at least two days”…

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      The bike ‘n Pike! Love it. Grido vs Yo is a tricky one. Better ice cream (Yo by far) or bigger portions (Grido). Think I’d always choose the Grido…
      Remember though that down in Patagonidoms it’s all about facturas, not ice cream!
      Neil

  4. Jan

    Hi,

    no matter if it was the fifth or eighth ascent, at least you can very probably claim the first ascent by fair means – no motorised access. Which is probably also true for Antofalla.

    I’m looking forward towards reading about Pissis!

    Jan

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      I think you’re probably right. Maybe the first time anyone’s cycled to the Argie side of Llullaillaco too? I’m not sure. But we’re sitting next to a guy on the internet in Fiambala who cycled to and climbed Llullaillaco from the Chilean side in 2009, so not the first time it’s been cycled to!
      Will sort out our Pissis photos and tales in a bit!
      cheers
      Neil

      1. Jan

        …and by some guys of a German commercial group a couple of years ago, too. But I think they had a support 4×4, and I can’t remember from which side they climbed the mountain.

        Jan

  5. Michael

    Crazy. Its really cool how you can just ride most of the way up the peak, dump the bikes and hike the rest. Did you use crampons for this?

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      We sure find it nice and convenient that most of the high peaks on the puna can be cycled/pushed to, and that you can then walk to the top from there! Walter Penck would probably be the hardest of the biggies to reach without a 4×4 or mules.
      We didn’t need to use crampons for Condor – the snow was all quite soft. We did use them later on on Tres Cruces, Muerto, Pissis and Bonete though.

  6. gautier

    hello,

    thanks a lot for remember me this area. Six years ago now, i cross this area with two friends by walking, from las grutas to antofagasta, and fare ago. Some years before i travel to south america with bicycles, especially in bolivia where i cross the lipez. Here,pushing , i decide not to be back with bicycle but by foot. This part of the travel (entirely made by foot, from chilecito in la rioja to the sale of uyuni) was the more incredible… is still my stronger experience, physically and spiritually… now i can’t walk anymore because of health problems. I did this a the good time. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      Hi there,
      It’s good to hear from you. Anibal showed us your photos when we were preparing to head through this area.
      Harriet

  7. Fatcycling

    I’m jealous totally jealous right now. We’d mapped out this route without realizing you’d documented it(Without the climbing parts etc). All set to roll but Dan has a golf ball sized lump on his butt and we have to head down to Belen and rest up. I guess its a reason to come back later, but mega dissapointed we couldn’t ride it. At least we can live vicariously through your post!

    Dan and Gina

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