Thursday, March 31, 2011

Take aways from Ski Touring in Val d'Isere

Mark Warner holidays, Cygnaski hotel
This has been a pleasantly surprising success. It certainly makes things easier arranging a holiday for 2 rather than 12, and especially so as a last minute deal, but even so the Mark Warner package has proved to be a very low stress and good value way to get in 6 days on (and off) the piste. We managed to get the week for half price, which makes it far more attractive than full price that's for sure. On the downsides, both flights were scheduled for an eye watering early time of day, more frustrating on the way out as we knew we'd never make it to the slopes that day despite the so early start. The transfer was a bit delayed, but we did still get to the hotel shortly after 2pm which gave plenty of time to relax and shower, get to the hire shops and organise guiding, and have a good dinner. Our experience of the complementary ski-hosting was a disappointment; we took an hour to find the group from the other hotel as our own hotel's advanced guide was unwell (...the day after staff day off, coincidence?) and then found the group already had an unwieldy 12 members despite us being told there was space, so we decided to do our own thing. Most other customers, and especially those traveling on their own or slightly less confident of there level, were extremely happy with the guiding service though, and the pre-booked lunch stopped seemed to be in good value restaurants in great locations.
On the plus side, the overall ease of travel did surprise us, having been victim to nightmare transfers before now. The quality and reliability of food; full english breakfast, real english tea!, good varied evening meals and especially the cakes at afternoon tea time; was much higher standard than the median catered chalet experience which is always very hit-or-miss depending on the particular staff you get. The room was larger than your average chalet, with a descent on-suite really appreciated. Whilst it's true the whole hotel is a touch on the tired side, it served us well and no complaints about fixtures and fittings not working and so forth.
From what we've seen and heard from other guests, the childcare service seems as good as you get anywhere, and must be really good value in non-school holiday weeks like this where they lay it on for free.
We almost booked at the Hotel Moris, for the same price that offered a better location (bang opposite the hire shop & guiding service), but no on-suite, and above a very noisy late opening bar. I heard some people staying there rave about how it has a loyal following; I guess if you take ear plugs it could be OK, but the Cygnaski having a bus stop immediately outside made life just as convenient for us overall, especially as on several days we ended skiing at La Daille (equally well placed for returning from Tignes as Val d'Isere mountains) and it's just 2 stops back to the Cygnaski from there.

Alpine Experience ski touring
Quite unlike any other ski guiding service we have used. Typically we have booked freelance guides via the agency, they are always very proficient - trained to the French exceptionally high standards - but rarely particularly talkative and so you just get a day of playing catchup with the fast guy, and not knowing where exactly you are going or why.
Alpine Experience seem to follow a quite different philosophy. Being an established company, they have a more cohesive vision about what they're about, and this runs through much of what they do. Both Andreas and Thomas were very good at explaining exactly why they were choosing a certain area to ski in, a certain slope to take, a particular spot to avoid, both from type and quality of snow and avalanche safety considerations.
Their system of putting together small groups of up to 6 or 7 works really well, making it far more affordable to take guided skiing on several days of a holiday whilst still receiving close attention but without the need to signup a whole week in an ESF-style piste-snaking class.
We came away feeling we'd learnt far more about the skills needed for "backcountry" skiing far more than any other trip, from the basics of ski touring and skinning through to many little tips on safety, finding the best snow, and how to make the trip more enjoyable.

(delayed posting, stuck in draft status for 6 years!)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Our first day ski touring

Well we survived it! And I'm glad to say, the rope, shovels and beepers were not required.

We spent 4 hours out on a private off piste lesson with Alpine Experience, and greatly enjoyed it. Interestingly our guide, Andreas, took us out over the Col Pers towards the Gorges de Malpasset valley, which is the one run we did several years ago when we had a guide for a day here. (Although this year the gorge itself has insufficient snow to ski through). It was quite a different experience this time though, partly no doubt due to our marginally improved technique and more demonstrably improved fitness, but also because we had skins for the skis to allow us to walk up some slopes as well as ski down, so we could pick and choose the exact slopes to run. Also, being a true private lesson with one guide between the two of us made a real difference, rather than a guide split amongst 6 or 7 of similar abilities, but some skiing and some snow boarding.

Andreas took some photos of us skiing, which I was able to plot on the map using my GPS track. I'm quite proud of this photo, which if you look closely above our heads you can see the neat and tidy tracks we made in the snow. Here's a close up.

Later on in the tour we had to cross over a large avalanche run off that had fired a couple days before; Wayne, another of the guides out today, wrote about a bit about it in his blog for today.

I remembered well the flat run out at the end of the day, fortunately no snow borders needing a tow out of there this time (Nick!) but Emma pointed out this is the start of the road from Fornet that climbs up over the Col De L'Iseren, the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. With luck, we'll be back here in 4 months cycling over through those very same routes; can't wait to see how it looks in summer.

In all, a great day out, and we got to try ski touring for real which we really enjoyed, and the guide was happy enough to recommend we join up a group trip tomorrow, so another early start!

After all we'd seen, and given the the general conditions in the Alps this spring, we were very keen to make it out to Henry's Avalanche Talk, which was very informative and a good opportunity to meet some more of the Alpine Experience guides too. We also noticed that some of the excellent video footage used in the talk was made by our Audaxing friend Damon Peacock, who was the one who gave us the good recommendation to come to this resort and use this guiding company.

Monday, March 14, 2011

South America tour 2011 - Journal Contents

Photo Gallery

Thursday - Saturday 10-12th March: Returning home (March 14, 2011)
Tuesday, Wednesday 8-9 March : game over man, game over! (March 10, 2011)
Maps are back! (March 8, 2011)
Monday 7th March : the horse is lame (March 8, 2011)
Sunday 6 Mar: definitely back in Argentina now (March 7, 2011)
Saturday 5 Mar: look Dobbin, mountains! (March 6, 2011)
Friday 4 Mar: heading up the Aconcagua valley (March 4, 2011)
Thursday 3 March : to Santiago, and then some (March 4, 2011)
Tuesday and Wednesday 1 & 2 Mar: northward bound (March 3, 2011)
Monday 28 Feb: leaving the mountains (for now) (March 1, 2011)
Sunday 27 Feb: 24 hours of surprises (March 1, 2011)
Friday and Saturday 25 - 26 Feb: Hua Hum pass to Chile (February 28, 2011)
Thursday 24 Feb : it's all downhill from here (except for the ups) (February 24, 2011)
Wednesday 23 Feb: power up! (February 24, 2011)
Tuesday 22 Feb: leaving ruta 40 (again) (February 23, 2011)
Monday 21 Feb: Bariloche (February 23, 2011)
Photos from Rafting in Futaleufu (February 21, 2011)
Sunday 20 Feb: Bariloche and beer (February 21, 2011)
Saturday 19 Feb: hippy skipping (February 21, 2011)
Thursday and Friday 17/18 Feb: parque national de Alerces (February 20, 2011)
Wednesday 16 Feb : and the decision is..... (February 18, 2011)
Tuesday 15 Feb: What to do Wednesday? (February 15, 2011)
Monday 14 Feb : Messing about on the river (February 15, 2011)
Sunday 13 Feb: Arrival in Futaleufú (February 15, 2011)
Saturday 12 Feb: the final day on the carretera austral (February 13, 2011)
Friday 11 Feb: short day to La Junta (February 13, 2011)
Thursday 10 Feb: beautiful carretera austral (February 11, 2011)
Wednesday 9 Feb: getting hotter (February 10, 2011)
Tuesday 8 Feb : the bike was clean! (February 9, 2011)
Sunday & Monday 6-7 Feb: hanging out in Coyhaique (February 8, 2011)
Saturday 5 Feb: ripio woes, paved road woo! (February 7, 2011)
Friday 4 February: ticking along nicely on a Carretera Austral (February 7, 2011)
Thursday: rock and water (February 7, 2011)
Tuesday and Wednesday: shifting down a gear (February 6, 2011)
Photos! (February 1, 2011)
Monday - A relaxing days cycle (January 31, 2011)
Sunday: leaving Tortel, more rain (January 31, 2011)
Saturday: rainy Caleta Tortel (January 31, 2011)
Thursday, Friday : setting off on the carretera austral (January 31, 2011)
Tuesday and Wednesday: border crossing to Villa O'Higgins (January 31, 2011)
Sunday & Monday: El Chaltén at last! (January 24, 2011)
Saturday: hiding out from ruta 40 headwind (January 24, 2011)
Friday : The Return of Ruta 40 (January 24, 2011)
Thursday : Glacier Perito Moreno (January 21, 2011)
Tuesday & Wednesday: ruta 40 strikes back (January 21, 2011)
Monday: final escape from the blockades (January 19, 2011)
Sunday: hiking las torres (January 16, 2011)
Some introspection on the first two weeks (January 16, 2011)
Saturday: got to Torres del paine (January 16, 2011)
Friday: escape from Puerto natales (January 15, 2011)
Adios(?) Puerto natales (January 14, 2011)
Cycling through a hurricane? (January 13, 2011)
The contradictions of Region XII (January 12, 2011)
Tuesday. Puerto natales ahoy! (January 12, 2011)
Monday: El viento gets angry (January 12, 2011)
Sunday. Ruta 40 gets nasty. (January 12, 2011)
Saturday. Dobbin hits the road (January 12, 2011)
Wed eve - Friday : Into the unknown (January 8, 2011)
Thoughts from Buenos Aires (January 7, 2011)
Dobbin updates! (January 5, 2011)
Boarding at gate X (January 2, 2011)
Bag packing (January 1, 2011)

Photos on a map
- Part 1 - Buenos Aires to El Chalten
- Part 2 - Carretera Austral
- Part 3 - Lake Districts
- Part 4 - Santiago to Mendoza

Thursday - Saturday 10-12th March: Returning home

The final day in Mendoza was spent packing up and shopping. Packing materials in the form of thick polythene sheeting, bubblewrap, cadrboard, and packing tape were used to pack up Dobbin. We were directed to the other side of town by a very helpful man at a hardware store for the plastic. There we found a few shops selling nothing but different forms of plastic, from bowls and kitchen utensils to plastic bags of many sizes to large rolls of sheet plastic of different types being sold by the metre, it was all there. So getting hold of packaging material was not as hard to find as we feared. The cardboard we sourced from the restaurant/cafe in front of the hostel, and used to protect the tubes as pipe lagging wasn't available - frozen pipes is not something they need to worry about in the city. We removed the forks and rear mudguard, and disassembled the rear wheel and put the hub back into the frame to act as a spacer. It took Joth 2+ hours to pack up the bike, while I sorted out and packed up the rest of the kit, discovering how little space we had for presents to take home. We then went shopping for gifts. Surprisingly, we couldn't find any posters or decent postcards of the Andes. We'd promised ourselves a picture of them which we could frame and hang up at home, but couldn't find any anywhere! We spent the evening in a nice parrilla restaurant with some juicy steak and a splendid bottle of wine. We also came up with some good ideas of what to do during our unexpected two weeks off.
The following morning started ridiculously early. We'd booked a (van sized) cab at the hostel reception the previous evening, but weren't completely confident that we were going to get the transportation we needed to the airport. There were quite a lot of cabs around, so when a very helpful cabbie stopped to see if we needed a taxi (without being hailed), about 15 minutes after are booking time, we showed him Dobbin. After much hmmming and us vetoing the idea that he could travel with 2/3rd of him sticking out of the boot, we managed to get him inside the car diagonally with the front passenger seat down, and with Joth squeezed in the back propping him up. The cabbie then got another cab for me and the rest of the luggage. Having managed to get Dobbin into a fairly small (Ford Escort sized) car, we felt confident we'd manage to get him home OK. (As it turned out, the only section of the journey which was difficult was getting a taxi to take us from Heathrow. "A bicycle? to Morden?? haha no mate!").
The check-in desk was still quiet, and the the singular check in woman at the LAN desk didn't even blink when shown Dobbin, and after performing the necessary paperwork, summoned a porter to take him away. The forty minute flight to Santiago was amaz. We flew over the same pass we had cycled down, and in the morning sunlight it was incredible. As the journey was so short, the plane literally hopped over the Andes, spending the whole flight either climbing or descending. The passenger information screens showed an altitude of just 4800m as we flew past Cerro Aconcagua which at 6962m, is significantly higher than we were! It was incredible to look out at a mountain from an aircraft, not just down on it. The flight to San Paulo was less inspiring, but we were both impressed by the music collection on the IFE system - 100+ classical albums, 300+ rock and pop albums, and many many more in the other 4 categories. We had been late leaving Santiago, and we were 40 minutes late by the time we reached Sao Paulo where we had a theoretical 4 1/2 hour transfer time. As we had bought the tickets to Sao Paulo separately to the next leg, we actually needed to go through immigration, check back in and then go duty free shopping. What we didn't count on was the queues. We had to queue to go through arrival immigration, wait for baggage, queue for the check in, queue to go through security, then queue to go through departure immigration again (for the stamps to say we were leaving the country). So 2 hours in immigration queues for 1 hour actually in the country! We did get to spend a few minutes in duty free before they called final boarding for our flight though. After Brazil, Heathrow seemed hugely efficient. It took less than an hour from the wheels touching down to us exiting the airport. We managed to get a phone booked cab home, and so it was the end of the adventure.
We'll hopefully post a few more entries though on more general aspects of the trip, such as kit reviews and what'd we'd do differently another time. I might write something about food too :-)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tuesday, Wednesday 8-9 March : game over man, game over!

A vacation DNF?

We've had a couple of tough days, which have led to some hard choices. After a day and a half of closed-shop frustration (very reminiscent of our days in Puerto natales, at the other end of our trip), we finally got the rear wheel disassembled to a point we could assess the damage. The news was not good. Not only were the bearing races very worn, but the axel itself is badly damaged. Of course, the axel is longer than that of a standard bike and so getting a new one would take at least 6-10 working days. This would leave us with too little time to do anything beyond prepare to fly home. This left us with 3 broad options :

1 - ship the bike home now, buy some rucksacks and spend the next couple of weeks backpacking

2 - leave the bike in Mendoza for a couple of weeks and go backpacking (or car rental), returning to Mendoza to fly home

3 - arrange to get ourselves and the bike home as soon as practical.

There are actually a number of hybrid options too, but all fundamentally depend on us being able to get the bike out of Mendoza - and neither of us are confident that it can be safely ridden anywhere with a worn axle (and especially after the tender ministrations of the 'friendly' bike shop mechanic this morning), which means bus and air are the only options. By disassembling the bike, we make it more likely that a bus company or airline will carry it, but it also increases the chances of it being damaged in transit, and increases the amount of packaging we need to find. In a major city which seems to contain less cone spanners than are currently sitting in our garage, this could be a problem. The other issue is that we both desperately wanted to cycle a 'proper' Andean high pass. That is to say, something more than you find in Europe, or anywhere outside the Himalayas for that matter. In fact, one of the reasons we didn't do the ripio pass over Cristo Redentor was that we didn't feel the need to knowing we had big plans on cycling the Agua Negro pass, as our last big experience which in many ways the rest of the tour had been planned as a build up to. Doing anything else now feels like we would simply be filling the time merely for the sake of it.

So, since I started writing this, we've now decided to try and fly ourselves and the bike home in the next few days. After an afternoon trying to organise all the different options, it seems like the sensible choice. It may yet be something we'll look back on as the wrong decision, but given we've known for a couple of months that we want to come back to South America one day, it doesn't feel so bad.

So, this evening was spent dismantling and preparing Dobbin for a couple flights on an airline that doesn't take tandems (!), drinking wine, and using up some of the food and fuel we'd been stockpiling for our final expedition up to the remote, 4700m altitude Andes pass. A more relaxing end to our trip in some ways, but leaves some significant unfinished business. We've learnt a lot about the tandem, our equipment and ourselves over the last 2+ months. Next time we will be even better prepared, both in terms of expectations of our equipment and of ourselves.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Maps are back!

Just noticed My Tracks has updated itself to a new version that can upload My Maps once more, so I've just uploaded map link for the last week. May do more if I get really bored waiting for the bike shops to open!

Monday 7th March : the horse is lame

So, we're stuck in Mendoza with a broken bike!

We had a good morning cycling up and over the final ridge and a fantastic (if very hazy) view on the descent to the plain and Mendoza. About 25km out of the city the freewheel on the bike finally gave up. It started misbehaving a few weeks into the trip, and the pedals would go around when you pushed the bike forward. It failed 'fixed' rather than 'free' fortunately, so we could pedal, but not freewheel. We've always wanted to try a fixed wheel tandem, but never thought that Dobbin would fit that category! Unlike a true fixed wheel bike we could still change gear (just), and the bike wouldn't give you a little kick to remind you to keep pedaling - the excess chain would wind itself around the cassette instead. We fortunately had found a non documented, decent, non motorway route into the city as the cycling was interesting enough as it was! This eventually led to a very good quality new cycle path leading right into the city (following a disused railway line embankment) but unfortunately the town has the UK affliction of forgetting to signpost where you will get to should you follow said cycle path! (Germany on the other hand was great, even labeling cities hundreds of km away and across borders!)

The freehub is not a serviceable part (although it can be replaced), and we had hoped that it would last until we got back to the UK where we were thinking of replacing the entire hub. The chances of finding a replacement 48 spoke tandem hub in south America is very slim, and time wise, there is no point in trying to ship a hub here.

On the way into town we saw many people out on road bikes, and we wondered whether it was a public holiday here. The tourist information centre confirmed that today and tomorrow are public holidays and that all the bike shops would be closed on both days. We wanted to take the wheel apart to assess the damage before visiting a bike shop, so we got places in a hostel with a large garden (and swimming pool) around the back. A closer examination of the wheel indicated that the problem with the hub was not as simple as we first thought, and that there was significant resistance to the wheel turning at all! The axel is off centre on the drag brake side, and the central part of the drag brake appears to have split and turned oval! Unfortunately we can't confirm the problem, or assess the damage to the hub as we didn't bring the correct tool with us - we have removed the cassette, but can't disassemble the hub. There are many bike rental places here (including the hostel), but none seem to have any bike maintenance tools. So we are stuck in Mendoza with a broken bike for a couple of days. Fortunately this is the centre of the Argentinian wine region, so there is plenty to do.  We're hoping that the bike is fixable though and we can continue our cycling adventure.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Sunday 6 Mar: definitely back in Argentina now

The 200km descent didn't entirely live up to expectations. The first hour was pretty fair traveling, but then we refound our old friend, Argentine headwind. The clouds had cleared overnight so it was a dry day, but very windy. It isn't supposed to be that strong this far north, and it is meant to prevail from the west, yet there it was in our faces as we traveled east, and then south after lunch. We somehow pretty much avoided any wind in our previous sortie into Argentina, in the lake district, so maybe this was to make up for it.

The Rio Mendoza valley is spectacular scenery though, so our stunted speed was not without its benefits. The rock is red and orange and green and black at various points, and interesting shaped with oddly angled strata throughout.

Also, entertainment was found playing spot the (disused) railway line, seeing the bridges and tunnels it follows and landslides it disappears under. At one point in the afternoon we saw a couple people with a motorbike making their way up the abandoned line! Not sure how they were coping with the collapsed sections and crumbing embankments above the fast flowing river. The Mendoza river is popular for white water rafting, and we saw several rafts on the river. There didn't seem to be a great deal of white water though, and like most of the rivers we've seen flowing out of the Andes in this area, the water was definitely a muddy brown colour.

As well as windy, this valley road is less monotonic in its ascent to the pass, and by lunch we'd already climbed over 800m despite being on the downhill direction!

By 5pm we were pretty warn out from battling the wind, barely managing 10mph downhill in places, so we gave up on any plans of making it to Mendoza, and stopped in Potrerillo with some 50km still to go. This is a slightly odd town, the recent (ish, I think) dammed river has forced the road to reroute and bypass the town, but they seem to have forgotten to put up much in the way of signs to let you know what the town offers, or that it's even there. We eventually found the campsite, after climbing several km around the bypass to drop back down into the town and discover we needed to get back across the town to a few hundred meters of where the road had passed on the way in!

So, in all not the elusive hundred miler day we thought it might have been, but 127km it was still our longest yet of this tour, and 1500m of climb and the headwind, not an inconsiderable one.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Saturday 5 Mar: look Dobbin, mountains!

Wel, Damion was right when he said cycling at altitude makes you fart!

I missed the 6:30 alarm due to having ear plugs in, but Emma informs me there was one. We made it out the tent just after 7 by which time daylight was making itself visible, although we had to cycle up the valley a way before the sun finally popped out from beside a mountain to warm us up.

Loaded up with soft drinks at Rio Blanco, but we didn't see the old engine sheds that apparently remain there. Next the road started to ascend more, in short but occasionally steep ramps between rolling sections along the valley. It was starting to feel like it could be a tough old day, but at least the sun was not overbearing nor the traffic unbearable.

Around the 93km marker (20k on from last nights stop) we passed another campsite. Given a longer day leaving Los Andes that could make a better camp before starting the main ascent, especially if one was intending to tackle the longer route over the top of the pass.

Shortly after midmorning snack, we turned a corner to see the first of the hairpins, and we knew the real climb was about to begin.

There are 29 numbered switchbacks in all (photo), the first 20 in one tightly woven set and the rest up the remainder of the ascent to the portillo ski resort. There's something really quite magical about climbing switchbacks. (In a strange way they're more fun to go up than down - for tandem descents we prefer nice straight roads which makes this pass a perfect choice for doing in the direction we are going). As you climb you get a real feeling of your progress. And it was very noticeable that this was the point that passengers started leaning out of passing cars cheering and taking photos, which just got louder and more frequent the further up we got. At one point we even saw a juggernaut driver taking a snap of us, whilst simultaneously negotiating an inside lane hairpin bend!

The portillo ski resort is at about 2800m but with no snow anywhere in sight it was a strange image. We pressed on past, around a long stretch of roadworks, and then through a long covered section of road that we were glad to put on the rear lights for. Then, on emerging we saw the flags that mark the start of the 3km tunnel between the countries, and off to the right the dirt track that leads up to the Cristo Redentor monument that stands at the summit of the natural pass. Decision time. At this point we were at 3200m, the highest we'd ever cycled, and the highest we'd been with full touring luggage by about 2 vertical km! It's another 600+ meters up to the summit, and as the weather was looking suspect and the day getting on, we decided the sensible option was to take the tunnel. Not that we're big fans of sensible options!

Bikes are not permitted through the tunnel, but a very efficient system is in place such that within a couple minutes of reaching the entrance a man appeared with a small truck and loaded the bike and luggage in, for a free lift through to Argentina. Whereas motor vehicles get to pay to drive through!

Sure enough, we emerged the other side into a rain shower that soon turned to hail, feeling glad we'd already donned rain jackets before loading the bike on the van as it's the most convenient way to carry them.

After 15km of rapid if damp going on painful descent we reached customs, which is very strangely a combined Chile / Argentine post. Very odd to see the respective authorities sharing offices and chatting to one another, when the early crossings we did in the south still have multi kilometer demilitarized zones to stop them taking shots at one another - or so it feels like!

Beyond the customs point is puento del Inca, an intriguing natural bridge with small settlement built around it, where we have stopped to camp. This area has base camps for folks attempting ascent of cerro Aconcagua, so has quite a different feel to the ski resort the other side. The valley is completely different too, being long and stretched out, and rocks of amazingly varied colours from what we have seen so far; looking forward to seeing more on the 200km descent to Mendoza tomorrow!


Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday 4 Mar: heading up the Aconcagua valley

I never expected a day heading towards south America's highest mountain to be quite so relaxing. Maybe the fact we've not yet spotted it behind all the other towering peaks helps. Fortunately, we'll only be passing by it rather than right over Aconcagua (6962m) itself!
As predicted we had plenty of sleep to catch up on after late nights and overnight bus journey, so we made full use of the midday checkout time at the hotel. Los Andes must have one of the nicest tourist information gentlemen we'll ever meet. He seemed delighted to see us arrive and enter his information shed, and invited us both in to sit down and get all our questions answered. I almost thought he would offer a cup of tea too! Despite him not knowing a word of English we understood almost all he said, partly due to our improving skills but mainly because he spoke nice and slowly and with plenty of gestures! There wasn't really a huge amount for him to say though: tourist facilities in this area are fairly limited, and generally outweighed by trucker stops.
He had some good photos on his PC of the road to Mendoza we plan to follow. He warned about many lorries along it, but when we came to it we found it had been resurfaced since his photos were taken and now has a good sized shoulder making it quite easy to cycle. Also the traffic seems fairly friendly, even though there is a lot of it, as I guess everyone setting out on this pass has already mentally prepared themselves for a solid journey that can involve a good chuck of time behind slow trucks labouring the climb, or even more so the descent judging by stuff coming the other way! A lot of international vehicles, Argentine as expected but also Paraguay, Peru, Uraguay, Bolivia plates or destinations.
Like yesterday we had more great views up and down the valley, but again too hazy to do much justice in photographs.
We were both grateful to find the one campsite we'd been told about on this road, at the 74km marker 28k from town as promised. As well as both being a bit tired still, and feeling the heat of the day, we seemed to develop a slow puncture midafternoon and it was useful to be able to fix it with the bike unloaded at the site as, of course, it was the real wheel. This was the tyre I swapped over from the front wheel 2 days ago - think I managed to get some sand in it which did it, certainly doesn't look this the Marathon plus tyre itself has let us down yet!
The campsite is right between the road and railway line, so could be a bit noisy overnight. The railway predates the road pass, and must have been quite something in it's day. It no longer runs right through to Argentina, but seems to be used for mineral transportation for some mines.
At least the site will be convenient as after an early supper and sleep we will try to get out for an early assault on the main climb tomorrow, before the temperature gets too high; it was predicted to peak at 29°C today, and every day for the next week! As we're further north again daylight is officially now from 7:30 to 20:15, some 4 hours less than when we started out. And of course we're now right amongst the mountains making days even shorter. So we'll probably be getting up in the dark for the first time in months!

Thursday 3 March : to Santiago, and then some

The bus journey to Santiago was a success - two Things and one Dobbin arrived safe and well. Although we managed some sleep on the bus, we were both still rather tired however so abandoned any plan of trying to cycle to Los Andes, and decided to just try to get out of town. Like any large city you are not familiar with, Santiago is difficult to enter/exit when riding a bike, especially as all the roads shown on our map exiting the city are motorways, and any others would be dirt tracks! We had read on a webpage that a good way to exit was to use the Piedra Roja Pass, which starts in a posh suburb in the north east of the city and is not a motorway. Navigating to the suburb is also fairly straightforward, and uses the main road (avenue liberator Bernard O Higgins), through the centre of the city. There was even an off road bike path for some of it. We stopped a couple of times for late breakfasts, finding a cafe near the map shop recommended in our guidebook where we wanted to get some more detailed maps of the city and borders. By 11 it still wasn't looking like it might open though, so we carried on and then had lunch at a cafe next to a bike shop on the east side of town. The shop owner was very helpful, lending us a track pump and spending some time searching for the slightly unusual European style inner tubes we use (MTB size tyres with presta valves: while performing the maintenance in Temuco, we realised that we had managed to bring a spare tube which wouldn't work with these rims as the valve is too large). On the bus overnight I'd noticed the outside temperature steadily climbing, with it reaching 20 degrees before dawn on the outskirts of the city. It's definitely a bit warmer here than further south!  Shortly after lunch we had our first navigational issue, as the bridge we wanted to use to cross the river is a restricted access road. We could see the road we wanted to take on the other side of the river, but there was no way to reach it. The detour involved a small climb which gave a good, but very hazy view of the city, and we eventually found the pass. Unfortunately, for no good reason we could see this road was also restricted access - no bikes, lorries, buses or horse drawn vehicles. We decided to ignore the signs and carry on as the only other option was to return to the centre and try and hitch (the short distance buses are too small for a tandem). There were a number of exclusive new developments on the road, and we thought the signs were possibly like those sometimes found in the US - more socially oriented than for safety. We certainly saw a few posh road bikes on the road, and it remained safe and wide for it's entire length. The views descending the far side were great, but again, very hazy. Having reached Colina and ruta 57, we noted the motorway feel of the road and the the 'cycling prohibited' signs. While people do cycle on this road, we really didn't want to, and with no obvious accommodation nearby we decided to try and hitch a lift to Los Andes. The first Dobbin sized vehicle stopped (a small enclosed lorry), and the luggage was quickly loaded into the back, with us in the front. We had difficulty understanding where the driver was going to drop us off, but understood that he was taking a load of tomatoes to Argentina. We were dropped at the toll booths prior to the motorway tunnel where our driver was taking a dirt road to collect his load, and made our way to the other side. There were many more vehicles here than our previous hitching point. A recovery truck soon stopped and after strapping Dobbin and luggage on the back we made it to Los Andes, and the end of the motorway (for now). It was a useful day as we got to do a bit of climbing in the heat, and also confirmed that hitching with the bike is quite possible. We are planning to have an easy day tomorrow and cycle the first (valley) part of the climb to Mendoza, leaving the main climb (switchbacks) for the following morning.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tuesday and Wednesday 1 & 2 Mar: northward bound

How better to end our ripio journey than with a spot of motorway cycling!
The gradual downhill trend continued Tuesday morning for the final 10km into Freire, continuing down the eastward Andes to Pacific slope, so we reached the town before it was even time for midmorning snack. At Freire we faced something of a decision point. To continue to Temuco, transport hub for the southern quarter of Chile, one must go north for 30km. The central nervous system of Chile's transport network is the ruta 5, or panamerican, autopista, which we had just hit. This cuts right through the middle of towns and suburbs with controlled access freeway, seemingly replacing any other paved roads that predated it and meaning one must detour for miles and take numerous unpaved roads to proceed if you are not in a motorway-going vehicle. Such as a bike.
Our other option was to try and hitch a ride north, possibly skipping Temuco completely and working our way towards Santiago that way.
But stopped at the autopista entrance, we came to realize this was no European style Autobahn. The slip road has houses alongside. The highway has pull-ins for bus stops. We could see pedestrians walking up and duown the shoulder and even crossing the two lanes and central barrier. Shortly, we picked up enough courage to do the Latino thing, and set off north along the freeway shoulder.
From riding a tandem I'm used to receiving long stares, so tried to convince myself these were normal tandem stares we were receiving, not special bike on a motorway looks. This became easier after we passed a few other cycles doing the same as us, and even one contraflowing back down the shoulder!
Before too long we eased into a good cycling rhythm, the sort we've rarely found since leaving the uk. The shoulder being over 2m wide gives plenty of space to ride, well away from the wind wash of even the largest truck thundering past. A few times the road narrowed for a river crossing, but we negotiated these without a problem with our above average number of eyes (for a bike). After 10k we left the fine mist that had descended on us in the night, and were back in clear blue skies once more so started to warm right up. It was turning out to be a fine day of cycling on the autopista!
There are many trucker's cafe shacks perched right there on dirt pullouts from shoulder edge along the way. No sooner had we decided to pull up at the next on for second breakfast than we hit the exit for Temuco and saw no more.
Once in the town, we decided to push through to the bus station and try our luck at purchasing tickets to Santiago. It took a bit of effort to get through the center of town to the north side where the long distance bus terminal is, in which time we still didn't find a cafe that might promise internet access, so ended up pulling into a petrol station just by the bus terminal, and bought hot dogs and updated Sunday's blog.
Eventually we got to the bus station. With a lot more confidence than our last attempt in Buenos Aires, and aided by a ground floor concourse making it easy to point and gesture at Dobbin, we managed to express our requirements to the Pullman bus representative, and to our surprise after a couple phone calls she said si, we can take the tandem, but with a surcharge and only on the 22:10 night bus, the next of which with seats wasn't until the following day. The price wasn't an issue, as the tickets were a tenth of the price of our (much longer) previous journey. Waiting a day wasn't ideal, but gave us chance to catch-up on tasks and was perhaps for the best.
It turned out that our new amigo from Saturday night's camping lived in town, and with a short phone call we discovered he was in a cafe a block from us so we met up for a coffee. He seemed keen to show us about town, and then proposed dinner at his house. A fine evening was then set into motion, with fine BBQ meats and wine and of course a bit more whisky too. It was soon past the midnight lockout time of the hostel we'd impulsively arranged ourselves, so we ended up sleeping over at Omar's house rather than in the bed we'd already paid for!
This morning we returned to make use of the hostel's fine breakfast and showers, and then after clearing out of the roon used their garage area to hide away from rain showers and treat Dobbin to several hour's worth of well earned bike maintenance. It turned out that there were many things to do, including loose and warn brakes, a loose cassette on the rear hub, and bulging sidewalls on the rear tyre looking as if it might fail at any moment. And of course layers and layers of ripio dust in the chains and everywhere.
New tyres and brakeblocks fitted (both carried from home) we left the bike at the hostel for a few more hours, and went and met up with Omar one last time. Over coffee we shared photos from previous days and got to see some of his brothers nearby farm, which Emma in particular found interesting. Then I asked about the monument hill, Cerrro Niliol(?) just north of thee center, and he kindly offered to drive us up there and we spent a great final hour walking around the Mapuche monument, viewing and city from a surprisingly high vantage point, and checking out the gardens.
We left ourselves plenty of time to get to the bus station, in which we planned to eat and fret. As before our bus was late arriving so we had extra time to worry we'd either missed it or what was going to happen when we attempted to load Dobbin on board. When it finally did pull in it was a relief to see it is in effect a double decker with the lower floor entirely given over to luggage space. So a quick bit of dinero changing hands and Dobbin jumped right on board and nestled in with another bike already in the hold, to a glorious sound of pedal against wheel-spoke. Hopefully we'll be able to unknit them 6am tomorrow morning when we pull into Santiago!
Despite being cheaper, the bus we're traveling in is in a different class to the one in Argentina, with blankets, pillows and seats which stay in the position you set them! It also has electronic readouts for the (internal and external) temperature and taco (showing speed, name of driver and how long they've been driving).

map (1 Mar)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monday 28 Feb: leaving the mountains (for now)

Today was a good day, today we found some tandem country.
After another later start, we set out on the paved roads to Villarrica. We had needed to go shopping for groceries, and cancel a debit card (the cash machines here don't always automatically give you your card back, even after giving you cash, and we think we forgot to get the card back from the cash machine in San Martin). It was another hot day, but there was a reasonable road shoulder to cycle on and the traffic wasn't heavy. Having failed to stop for a drink in Lican Ray (we only decided we wanted to stop as we were on the way out of town), we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Empanadas were on the menu, so we ordered half a dozen and a salad along with drinks. We were both quite thirsty all day, I guess the hot springs are a bit dehydrating. We reached Villarrica in time for a mid afternoon snack on the lakeside, with a view of volcano villarrica. There was actually a large supermarket in town, and we stopped to pick up some meat for tea and some of the packet sauces which are not reliably found in the smaller shops. They also had snickers bars- the first ones we've seen since Torres del Paine!
The road from Villarrica to Freire is the biggest road we've been on since turning onto seven lakes drive last Tuesday. It was wide and again with a good shoulder, and very slightly (overall) downhill for about 20km. This meant we had decent stretches where were actually maintaining 'evens'! It was a great opportunity to stretch the legs and do a good stint without stopping. A nice change from the riding we've been doing recently, and more like the riding we do back home (although we don't normally have a fully loaded bike - we're not Steve Abraham!) .
We've stopped at a campsite next to Rio Allipén. A very basic site compared to
many of the sites we've seen recently, although the owners are very friendly and helpful. We both went for a dip in the river (shock, horror, Emma wearing a swimming costume two days in a row!) . It was rather cooler than yesterday's thermal pools, but quite refreshing. It certainly looked better than the alternative option (a cold shower).
We're now leaving the very touristy lake district and getting into more industrial/farmed areas. It is quite noticeable how the road to Villarrica (alongside the lake) was littered with campsites, but since turning away from the lakes and towards the panamerican highway it took 30km before we saw one. Likewise the morning was punctuated by regular shops selling "artesanal" wooden furniture; this afternoon it was sawmills and then logging yards. Also this afternoon we've started seeing the first real commercial fruit farms and have even seen fields of (poor quality) corn.
Tomorrow we head to Temuco and try to arrange a teleport north. Today wasn't a big mileage day, but satisfying nonetheless.


Sunday 27 Feb: 24 hours of surprises

Somedays events just take you a different way to what you expected. And occasionally it just works out for the best.
I wrote Saturday's blog entry whilst on the ferry, predicting the evening would be uneventful. This is where I went wrong. It almost was - we cycled for an hour after the ferry docked, getting as far as the north branch road towards Coñaripe which we'd been warned was the toughest part of the route from San Martín. We'd already found the ripio so far to be tough going, so when we saw a campsite after 4km we decided to make it a short day, and start out early the next morning on the remaining 20k, hoping the traffic would be lighter and hence there would be less of the dense dust clouds. We were both feeling a little disapointed with the day, and wondered whether we'd made the right decision in San Martin to come this way. After a pasta dinner we were just preparing a cup of tea before bed, when our camping neighbour walked over and invited us to join them for a little food. We accepted out of politeness, a little embarrassed once again that we'd alreay eaten our first supper, and had no interesting food to offer of our own. Our hosts spoke less English than we speak Spanish, so it was shaping up to be a tad awkward occasion, when the bottle of whisky was produced from their drinks hamper. I'd already had a glass or two of their red wine by this point, so found it hard to refuse a wee dram of Mr J Walker's finest, especially as Emma was abstaining after starting the day with a hazy head.
It turns out Omar, our host, had been a hiking guide a some time in the past, in various places including Torres del Paine, and had mastered the art of speaking through gestures and hand signals. Coupled with slowly spoken Spanish and an almost saint-like patience for our slow understanding, we ended up spending a good four hours conversing in a way I never thought possible with only a few hundred words of shared language. More often than not the conversation reduced to language lesson, but this was in many ways the most interesting part for us, and Omar seemed to have a gusto for it too (weak Spanish pun intemded). His partner, Inis, retired to bed by this point, but we continued oblivious to how ridiculous our conversation must have sounded to any bilingual campers that were subjected to it! Inis works in the central market in Temuco, as a meat buyer, and hence supplied the extensive range or meats they'd cooked up which we enjoyed feasting on, taking a second grazing later on as we conversed. In all, it was a most enjoyable if unexpected encounter.
So our early start next morning turned into a slow crescendo beginning, with Emma on top form looking after a groggy husband. We still managed to get away at eleven thirty, not much later than usual, and started out on this road we'd been warned off taking. As usual forewarned is forearmed, and it turned out to be a lot less harsh than we'd expected. For the most part, the surface was better than the previous couple days, and being off the main route (and perhaps being Sunday) the traffic was much lighter and slower, throwing up much less dust.
It did involve a severe climb though, at first underestimated so we did the first half in the middle chain-ring, grinding out a stupidly low cadence that somehow seemed more reasonable when carrying a thick head. Eventually we conquered it though and were rewarded in a most unexpected way. From the top we could see over to the mountains of the next valley where we were heading, and there in the middle of them was volcano Vallarica, complete with gentle line of smoke and ash emanating from it's cone! Volcanos are always an impressive sight, but one covered in snow except the heated business end of the smoking cone; well that's something else. And to then consider that was the exact direction we were heading in...! Awesome indeed.
Another full-sized serious climb proceeded a late lunch - taken staring across at the now closer smoking cone (photo), and consisting of BBQ leftovers in baps (our thanks go again to Omar and Inis). And then a well-earned and fairly good fun - for ripio, descent took us into the village of Coñaripe.
The sight of the volcano had fired up within us a desire to take a guided trip up and gaze down into the abyss within it. Unfortunately the only (reputable anyway) guided trips out of this town, from hostel Chumnay, just go to the cojoining glacier for a profile view of the cone. Certainly interesting but not exactly what we were after. Coupled with the fact the girl covering the tours desk was not at all comfortable talking to us with our limited language we decided to move on (we've already noticed numerous times how our night with Omar has given us more confidence to attempt conversation, but several disappointments when we rediscover his communication skills and patience are not universal!)
On the way over to the tourist info cabin, a very helpful chap (with great English) recommended visiting the local geothermal springs ("termas" as they're known). This was something I'd previous suggested, but Emma wasn't at all keen on the whole Resort &Spa experience, preferring the idea of more natural hot spring baths. On looking at the photos in the office, they seemed to be more like the latter, and to my surprise Emma suggested we do go try one. Termas Geométricas is the most recommended (and most expensive) in that area, and the tourist info guy was very helpful explaining it's a very steep rough road - effectively climbing the side of the volcano - to reach it. So we quickly found a pitch for the tent and Dobbin, behind the town's main hotel, the Elizabeth, and marched up the highstreet to find a taxi or shuttle bus. I saw a minibus just pulling out, with Termas in the window, so quickly hailed it down. Some more half Spanglish later, and I was surprised to see the driver kick all the current occupants out, and offer us the whole bus!! Seems we'd just interrupted their family Sunday evening outing somewhere! There was no way for us to undo it now though, so we jumped in and he tore up the hairy mountain track to deliver us to the pools. Turned out we'd fortunately booked the full service, with entrance and return fair included for what turned out to be the going rate, so we added in a tip too for his efforts.
The thermal baths themselves are quite impressive, set in a spectacular gorge with a stream running through from a tall waterfall at the far end. There are 17 hot pools in all, interconnected via wooden boardwalks that have the hot water channeled underneath so one is always walking on a cushion of steam. All built up against the sheer sides of the gorge, and open to the sky (photo), it was quite amazing to arrive at 6pm just as the sun was playing on the trees hanging into the gorge, and climb into a pool of 38°C water. We tried pools from 36 to 40°, and always had each poll to ourselves due to it being quieter in the evening. By the time of our return bus at 8.30 we were quite well relaxed and refreshed.
A quick meal in the hotel, and we settled down for a very sound sleep; not bad given the 24 hours leading up to it, and the volcano smouldering over our heads!