Monday, December 26, 2011

The Escape from Argentina and a Chile Christmas

My arrival to the Pacific coast of Chile last evening was slightly late for watching the sun set, however, its vestige still cast a warm hue over the city of La Serena. The Afternoon passed had seen the crest of the Pasa Agua de Negra, one of the world's highest passable roads (15,681 ft. according to my GPS), and the surreality of the environment there left me feeling as if I were traveling within a vacuum. The solitude of the Andes is a majestic thing and, following yet another seizure and release of my motorcycle by the Argentinian Government, I relished the serenity which they offered.

     The town of Las Flores, Argentina is more of a watering hole than a break in transportation, with internet, banks, and ATM machines, all being a little further down the road. Yet here, in this nothing, last chance for gas, town the officials leveraged their authority over me and sent me into the desert, short on cash and without a ride, seeking higher authority to appeal for my BMW's release. The whole ordeal was a case study in the impotence of bureaucracy. What purpose could they possibly have been serving? I don't think that even the customs officials knew what they were achieving, but eventually after sitting at the Aduana office in San Juan long enough (2 solid days), someone, somewhere, granted the release of my motorcycle. Thank God! Four days of uncertainty had left me a bit strained but, fortunately, unlike the last run in with the Argentinians, back in August, this time I'd not been shot at.

 I got my exit visa stamped on the 21st. The first day of winter back in Tennessee had little bearing on the temperature here, but 40 (104f) degrees C was made more bearable by my happiness to be back on the road. It was a long straight shot to the Andes and once I reached the twisty bits, the asphalt, much like civilization, disappeared into the upper regions of my mirrors. The ascent into a maze of rock saw the temperature and my anxiety both recede. I was once again dealing with obstacles which were more within my realm of patience and expertise.
     After about an hour in the mountains, as shadows began to grow long, there appeared a terrific sign across the road announcing the construction of  a great tunnel connecting Argentina and Chile. Much to my amusement, I though about the improbability of this project ever really getting off the ground (Cristina Kirchner (presidenta, phh, whatever) will never be seen as someone the Chileans can trust to jointly invest with). Aside from this product of wishful thinking, just to the to the left, there was another sign. This one made a more realistic promise. Campamento 30k. Knowing that the customs office in Chile was already closed for the night, this seemed the perfect place to set camp, so I took a rather long and rough detour deep into the mountains.

 With the light fading my motorcycle was met with an impassible barrier. My strong sense of curiosity led me to dismount and hike my camping supplies a little further in. The Mercury was dropping precipitously as I lugged my baggage to a suitable campsite just over 16,000' of elevation and hurriedly assembled my tent. The wind here was insufferable, and my habitation was thrashed about mightily. I worried that in this onslaught my tent wouldn't hold up, but it proved my fears unfounded. Though noisy, the Kelty Zenith 2 remained structurally sound ($60 at Target).

      The following morning wasn't an enjoyable one, I was suffering from a combination of food poisoning and altitude sickness. The blister pack of tuna I'd eaten the previous night had stayed with my motorcycle in Buenos Aries through the Fall semester but it was well within its expiration date. It was a mistake I'll not soon forget. It hurt to remain still, it hurt to move. I continually needed to vomit, however, there wasn't much to purge myself of. My eyes felt as if they were going to explode as I wrenched myself from the sleeping bag to trek for water.
    My strides, though forced at first, grew lighter as I went, and upon cresting the rise overlooking  my camp I was greeted by the sight of a glacier covered cirque which acted as a saddle, connecting the lines of mountains to each side of me. Though still feeling ill, I came to the conclusion that my long awaited, and seemingly elusive, hiking trip was to be made today. I filled my water bottle from the stream at the base of the glacier and began my ascent.
    At first, my idea was to skirt the left side of the ice formation, climbing my way up to the low point of the ridge and then hike up to one of the surrounding peaks. However, the glacier proved difficult to deal with and my plan was changed. Rather than first reaching the top of the saddle and moving on to the peak I would just just climb directly to the top. This approach wound up taking most of the
day. Careful consideration for routes and holds were required, and points of rest were frequent. Eventually, I did make it to the top, which didn't quite reach 19,000 ft, but the view was still very nice. The adjacent peaks were much higher, and didn't require the sort of climbing endured to get to this point, but with the sun beginning to set, and only water and cameras in my pack, I went off in search of a reasonably safe slide back down the mountain in order beat the sub freezing temperatures to my tent.
    Following another rough night camping, I once again rose with a splitting head ache. Slowly I packed away my camp and hiked back to the bike.

The trip up to and across the border brought sights previously unseen. The vibrant multicolored mountains were my companions as I covered the 80 or so miles back to civilization and I was left thinking about my two nights of isolation. It wasn't likely that there had been another human being within 50 miles of me. Certainly the harsh environment wasn't conducive to sustaining life, however, there was beauty in the freedom offered by this permissive, if unforgiving, land lord. Memories of my time in these mountains will persist long after my recollections of Buenos Aries have slipped into oblivion.  

  On a side note, just before reaching the customs/ aduana office for Chile I was stopped by a truck load of national police in their four wheel drive. After examining my passport, they told me that the Argentinians had reported me to interpol as missing. "Tres dios", one of the officers said while holding up three fingers. I mused merrily to myself, as the cops examined my bike. Only 3 days? Shit, man, I've been gone a hell of a lot longer than that.


  1. We were praying for you everyday

  2. Nice pics and story of course.

  3. Great pics and narrative....except for you being sick as a dog.... hope you're feeling better!