The silence of the llamas

Paso Pircas Negras, 4200 m above sea level

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way Belinda. What’s it to be?”

 
It was a subdued response, I didn’t really expect an inanimate object like my bicycle to react fervidly when quizzed, but there was something in the curve of her handlebars and glint in her side mirror that made me suspect she was game for an adventure as well.“The hard way it is then Belinda”. Her silence was telling.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The EASY way…

300 km up the now familiar route 40, probably with a couple of climbs but nothing to really test the quads. Mostly smooth tarmac, plenty of traffic, shops and places to find water. Three days of plain sailing.


Villa Union to Tinogasta: The HARD way…

A 800 km loop through the high Andes taking around two weeks. It would involve riding for over 200 km at an altitude of over 4000 metres, climbing two Andean passes on the way. The first, Paso Pircas Negras, is a remote crossing 160 km from the nearest town and open only 35 days of the year. The second, Paso San Francisco is the second highest pass between Chile and Argentina at 4767 metres and nudges up against the highest volcanoes on earth. Over two weeks I would climb more vertical metres than from sea level to the height of Mount Everest, and with no shops for 12 days I would be forced to carry a large amount of food. With every extra kilogram, every vertical metre promised to be an extra effort.

Signpost on approach to Paso Pircas Negras
(translation – danger of getting stranded in snow, danger of hypothermia, temperatures less than minus 15 degrees Celsius, no telephone signal, roads in a bad state due to snow, no shelters with facilities)
Spurred on by the concrete support of a bicycle which I have christened a girl’s name and talk with frequently I was heading once again into the high Andes, and this time riding higher than ever before. Unless Tescos or Wallmart had expanded their operations to include siting a store on top of one of the 6000 metre high volcanoes in the vicinity, I would need a lot of food, and that’s when I had entered the cyclist’s vicious circle – the more food I carried, the heavier my bike, the slower I go and the more food I need. In case you wondered, this is what 12 days of food for a hungry cyclist looks like…

 
17 kilograms of stodge
This is on top of my 20 kg bike, my 35 kg of gear and my 8 kg of water. A total of 80 kg verses a diminutive 70 kg of me. Too much, maybe, but some challenges of the road I can handle – brutal climbs, fierce weather, hours of boredom and weeks of solitude, but completely bland food has no place in my lifestyle. I look forward to cooking and eating, it’s the reward for putting up with the rest.

The details of the route were afforded me by the trailblazing and hardcore Pikes, a British couple who took a year a half to ride around South America, tackling some of the highest passes and toughest roads and then studiously collecting the details so that others could follow in their tyre marks. Check out their amazing website Andesbybike. This time I needed accurate information, if you regularly follow this blog you might remember that I got lost in the Andes several weeks ago, close to where the Uruguayan rugby team crash landed in a plane in 1972 and turned cannibal in order to survive, immortalised by the Hollywood film ‘Alive’. You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare my situation to theirs, after all I hadn’t recently survived a high speed plane crash and I wasn’t combating the effects of hypothermia in thick snow, but at least they had a ready supply of food, even if it was the frozen corpses of their recently dead friends. I was down to my last packet of Super Noodles.

My first task was to get an exit stamp for Argentina in Vinchina, the last town for two weeks. At the Gendarmeria I was told that they only stamped people out Wednesday to Sunday, it was a Tuesday. I argued, debated and reasoned, stretching my Spanish to it’s limits. When told to return in three hours I came back in one. Sick of my pestering, the official finally relented and I had my stamp.

The symptoms started early. Too early. My ascent was rapid and my bike heavy enough for me to guess that some symptoms of altitude sickness were inevitable but on my third night, at a mere 3200 metres, I started to develop a headache, lethargy and breathlessness, tell-tale signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Why some get altitude sickness and others don’t is an unfolding mystery and theories abound. Serious mountaineers reading this would probably scoff at anything less than 6000 metres but in terms of risk factors, I was sitting on a full house. Physical exertion – tick, rapid(ish) rate of ascent – tick, previous altitude sickness – tick, male sex – tick, someone who participates in regular physical activity – tick. To push on when so symptomatic is never a good idea so I decided to call it a day after a slow and laborious twenty kilometres and hold up in a mountain refuge where some kind soul had left two packets of biscuits for the next to scoff. A mountain guide came by a few hours later and told me that someone lived in the next refugio on my route, this person allegedly didn’t like visitors and I made a promise that I wouldn’t stay there.

28,000 km milestone
I’m one of the lucky few who can sleep through anything, especially after a day on the bike, but that night I was plagued by insomnia, my oxygen depleted unconscious mind deciding that sleep would only make things worse and over-riding my desire to get some. Day break was blurred by low hanging clouds. Feeling tired but slightly clearer mentally I packed up and started to pedal up towards the pass, my eyes often on the sky, weather changes fast here and it pays to watch for the warning signs. The world was now a pink, green and black one, the colours were smeared onto the hills, melting into one another like the swirling blend of gases in pictures of distant planets. Clouds often obstructed the sunlight so bright beams scanned the hills and reds and greens came to life momentarily and then faded sharply as the sunlight passed again. The breeze was light and so the soundscape of this strange world was almost a total silence but occasionally I jumped to the “mwa” of a guanaco, a relative of the llama, an alert call to the herd when I got too close after which they fled in a loping gallop across the rose scree. Then suddenly some movement in my rear view mirror. I squinted, nothing. I turned around, still nothing. I pedalled on. Minutes later I was sure I had seen something once again, it looked like the reflection of another cyclist behind me. I stopped and looked but couldn’t see anyone. Once I even shouted out, but to no avail. It seems slightly crazy to me now that I wondered why the cyclist in my mirror didn’t come over and say hello, why they were hiding from me in the hills. Crazy, because there never was another cyclist, just some weird artifact of a tired and oxygen deprived mind resting on a tired body, cycling a heavily loaded touring bike through the Andes.
Paso Pircas Negras

25th June 2012
Dear Doctor,

Regarding patient: Stephen P Fabes

Thank you for referring this patient

Clinical history –

Mr Fabes is a 31 year old cyclist from the UK who developed a rapid progression of symptoms in early 2012 which evolved from talking with himself in the initial stages to development of a delusional relationship with his bicycle, whom he referred to as “Belinda” and soon afterwards frank visual hallucinations.

Earlier this month Mr Fabes was taken into custody by the Argentine police after he was found dragging his bicycle through thick snow at over 6000 metres in the Andes Mountain Range. He was completely naked, suffering from hypothermia and covered in blood. Inside his panniers police found the dismembered carcass of what is believed to be a recently slaughtered llama. When questioned about this the patient is reported to have said “I was just fed up with pasta.”

The clinical picture is one compatible with the increasingly prevalent ‘Toured-Out Syndrome’ (or TOS) which is seen almost exclusively in long distance cycle tourers. An essential component of this condition is the naming and conversing with a bicycle although in severe cases patients have also been known to talk, and even develop friendships, with spanners, Allen keys and inner tubes. Other features of the syndrome include an unkempt appearance, an insatiable appetite, poor short term memory (especially concerning the date, people’s names and when they last changed their clothes) and various obsessions, the most common of which is the refusal to accept the value of everyday goods and foodstuffs which often manifests as compulsive bartering.

These patients typically take a long time to recover and to reintegrate into society. Indeed it is not uncommon after they return home for sufferers to be unable to sleep in their own bed but to instead create makeshift campsites in their back garden, cook goat’s meat over open fires and relate rambling stories of their travels to anyone who will listen. Interestingly prognosis in males is related to the density of nasal hair at the time of diagnosis, in females the length of armpit hair is a more useful prognostic indicator.

Treatment is usually supportive and involves weaning the patient off a pasta-based diet (abrupt withdrawal can be dangerous as can be seen in Mr Fabes’ case), encouraging better personal hygiene and hoping that the patient will eventually give some consideration to their personal appearance and to social norms, although sadly the latter is often not achievable. Counselling also has a role although group counselling sessions have proved to be counterproductive as the conversation tends to become dominated by the pros and cons of Rohloff Hubs and the different varieties of Schwalbe tyres.

If the patient ever recovers to the extent that they become employable then bicycles must never enter the daily routine, especially on the commute to work, as a patient may suffer an acute relapse. On occasion I have been called to deal with such cases to find the patient slumped by the side of a cycle lane, hundreds of miles from their place of work, covered in daily milk chocolate and surrounded by empty packets of Super Noodles. In another case a patient was detained in a branch of Sainsbury’s after attempting to barter for seventy five Yorkies, forty tie wraps, some electrical tape and twelve litres of cherry flavoured Fanta.

There are some that maintain that TOS is a ‘lifestyle’ and shouldn’t be medicalised. After spending many years treating and counselling these patients I wholly disagree. These individuals are more than just unbalanced, they have serious pathology that warrants immediate treatment.

I hope this clarifies the issue

Many thanks

Professor Jones


On with the story…

Up, up and up, past the snowy humps and creases of Cerro Veladero, to 4400 metres where I met the frozen Laguna Brava and a brief snow shower. After some technical problems with my bike I found myself at dusk outside the shelter the guide had warned me to stay clear of. On my way I had been trying to solve the mystery of who could live here, in this utterly remote, bitterly cold refuge, high in the Andes. I imagined it to be a hideous recluse, someone so ugly they had been shunned by humanity. I approached the refugio, mildly terrified and found it to be empty but then, on the edge of the desolate plain to the east, stood a red Andean fox, glistening in the golden light of dusk, inspecting me at a cautious distance. I realised my Spanish had failed once again. This must have been the tenent the guide had warned me about. Sorry mate, this place is mine tonight. But despite the absence of Frankenstein’s monster the refuge had a spooky quality that only deepened as I explored the inside. I found a miniature dolls head which had bafflingly been wedged into the rocks of the shelter, I shuddered as the wind howled around me. I explored the outside and as I peered into a pile of stones my eyes met a jaw bone, human, my eyes reluctantly took in the bigger picture and I found a skeleton gaping back at me. A few trinkets had been added to the makeshift grave, I could see now that’s what it was, the skeleton was still wearing a pair of trainers and scraps of clothing remained.

The next day, once again after little sleep, I made some more progress but then something strange happened. At around 4300 metres my vision suddenly blurred. I stopped and checked my vision in each eye. My right was fine but everything I could see through my left eye was indistinct and fuzzy. I have no idea what had caused this but after I descended to below 4000 it resolved. Any medical colleagues reading this please give suggestions!

Later that day I came across a temporary camp for some mine workers, population seven, they examined my tatty, sweat stained t-shirt and torn shorts, shrugged and invited me inside. So the night after I ventured sleep but failed, shivering and sick with altitude in a lonely mountain refuge next to some human remains I found myself sat amongst a band of cheery mine workers, fresh from a warm shower, eating roast chicken, drinking coca cola and watching satellite TV. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
The descent

Pass number two, San Francisco. Acclimatised now the first ascent to 4300 metres was an easier one. I dropped down to a salt lake, Salar Maricunga, a field of white penetrated by tent shaped islands and rocky outcrops, on it’s edge stood a lonely warehouse which served as Chilean immigration. I got my exit stamp and slept peacefully inside the immigration building before climbing once again. 

On the way up a car stopped and the driver asked where I was going but I couldn’t remember my destination, I realised this was probably not a good sign. I’ve never passed out before but a few minutes after this was as close as I have ever been. A sudden dizziness preceded the tunnel vision, I stumbled off my bike and slumped against it in the dust, seconds before a black out. On the basis that I had spent almost a week at altitude and all of my other symptoms had faded away, and perhaps more significantly that I had stopped hallucinating cyclists in my side mirror, I decided to continue, but this time at a crawl. Fortunately the terrain flattened out at 4400 metres and by nightfall I had reached Laguna Verde, essentially a base camp for mountaineers taking on the surrounding volcanoes which consisted of two geodesic domes, a long drop, a batch of tents and some 4 by 4s in amongst some thermal pools. A group of Russian climbers were planning to ascend the nearby Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano on earth and the second highest peak in South America. Some Chilean climbers and two German couples had been up and down some other surrounding cones, one of the Chileans was suffering with the altitude more than anyone else, he lay in the foetal position next to his tent.

After a better night’s sleep I nursed a mug of hot coffee and took in the unfolding early morning tableau. The first rays of light had illuminated the ridges on the far shore of the lake, creating jagged shadows which fell into the still water. Steam drifted ethereally from the termas over white rubble and ridges which contributed to the appearance of a lunar landscape. Amongst this the climbers were rummaging through rucksacks in beanies and bright puffy down jackets. The placid mood of the air, the sky and the lake contrasted to the exuberance of those amongst it, the Chilean climbers exchanged words and then hugs with the Russians, I guessed wishing each other good luck in their respective tongue. 

Salar Maricunga
Laguna verde

Altitude sickness isn’t a two way street and as I descended I was pondering the injustice of this. Surely once I’m acclimatised to the thinner air at altitude then there should be some happy effects of all this excess oxygen after I descend. I should feel suddenly clear-headed, energised, pumped up, buzzing with serotonin. But no, all I have to take down with me is the memory of brain splitting headaches, sleepless nights and a hypoxic hangover. But the descent was quite fun. From the rocky slopes of baron mountains, where winter snow is permanent and little vegetation can survive, I whistled through the Puna, a region of high elevation montane grassland which lies above the treeline at 3,200 – 3,500 metres elevation, and below the permanent snow line. A road sign warned “no moleste a la fauna”. I know it’s fairly obvious and innocent translation, but Spanish words have a funny way of sounding like English ones with a slightly different but related meaning, in this case I couldn’t help envisage an elderly, horny German tourist running naked through the Puna after a panic stricken llama. 

After 175 km, a descent of 2500 metres and with three hours of daylight left, I reached the town of Fiambala to discover that my plastic water bottles containing air from four and a half thousand metres up had crumpled under the new atmospheric pressure. Another sleepy town, another wait. Siesta is taken very seriously north of Mendoza and if you want  to buy food staking out the local supermarket until it reopens is all you can do. At 2 pm sharp metal grates are pulled over shop fronts and the streets empty as if some legal curfew has been enacted. Even the ten year olds on scooters which usually ply the streets of every Northern Argentinian town disappear. In some towns the buses stop running and campsites lock their gates and as I walk through the dead streets eyes watch me from house windows and I wonder if they are contemplating alerting the authorities about my refusal to heed the sacred Siesta. The only places that stay open are the ice cream parlours, a perfect base camp.

Then, finally, I was back on the conveyor belt of Route 40 which delivered me sweaty and tired into the peaceful charms of the The Santa Maria valley. It was a Sunday, the smell of grilled meat on asados wafted through the small villages and men reclined on their porches cradling bottles of local brew and just about summoning enough energy to manage a lacklustre wave as I past by. For one morning I cycled with Dirk, a Belgian biker. The difference between me and ‘The Holiday Biker’ has become extreme. There was a sheen to Dirk’s bright white panniers and neat cycling jersey. His bicycle was a picture of perfect health and it purred perfectly as he pedalled. We both produced maps to compare routes, his a brand new folded chart, mine a crumpled mess which had long since disintegrated into almost ten sections, each oil stained and most unreadable. My clothes were ripped and dirty. My handlebar grip looked as though a Samurai warrior has unleashed a furious attack on it. Someone observing this meeting might assume that Dirk had cycled straight out of a local bike shop whilst somewhere in the direction I had cycled from there had been some near apocalyptic event and I had just about managed to escape with my life.

Down the road to Cafayate more bike trouble was followed in predictable fashion by a sense of panic. I used to have the same approach to bicycles as my mum did with computers. My mum would press a single key on the keyboard with such deliberateness that 27 of the same letter would flash across the screen, the next five minutes would be a flustered hunt for ‘delete’. Luckily we have both improved. I think I have had well over my fair share of bad luck when it comes to bicycles but maybe fixing bikes and fixing people aren’t all that different – here are some striking similarities:


1. Prevention is better than cure
Stop smoking, lose weight, oil that chain, check that spoke tension.

2. Listen to your patient
Every medical student will have been subjected to the timeless medical adage, usually retold by a bald, bow tie wearing Professor… ´Listen to your patient and they will tell you the diagnosis´. Not literally of course, that would make doctors defunct, but the implication is that the clues are in the medical history, the same applies to bikes. When bikes make new and strange sounds it pays to investigate before it’s too late. When my bike makes a new sound I stress for about an hour and then put on my IPOD in the futile hope that Kool and the Gang will give me some inspiration.

3.  Hitting elderly patients with large spanners will not make them better, and may make them worse
I believe this is one of the first things they teach you at medical school. Apparently it also holds true for old bicycles.

4.  Leave it to the experts
Don’t ‘have a crack’ at the following if you are not 100% sure what you are doing – brain surgery, wheel building, coronary artery bypass grafts, bearing transplants.

5. If you can’t fix it / him / her, give up and move on to the next one
(just joking)


The Puna
Fiery tongues of sandstone light up the surroundings on my descent to Fiambala
Finally I embarked on a another loop, taking in the famous quebradas, or gorges, of Northern Argentina, South of Salta. The landscape was, well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…


Quebrada de las Conchas…








Quebrada de las Flechas…





Cuesta del Obispo and Los Cardones National Park…




I arrived into Salta and looked over at Belinda, but this time I didn’t bother to pose the question. Next up – Abra Del Acai – the highest pass in Argentina at 4972 metres above sea level, then the remote Paso Sico into Chile which involves various climbs to over 4000 metres and finally the rugged Lagunas Route into Bolivia and to the edge of the world’s largest and most famous salt lake, a place I have dreamt about biking for years – The Salar De Uyuni.


Paso San Francisco

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Comments (19)

  • Avatar

    Fred Fulton

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    Truly superb and inspiring! Well done!

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    South America is AWESOME! I love it! More than Asia!
    Jacek
    Greets from Dublin;)

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Grey Prince

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    Well done! Your travel around the world is very inspiring!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jocelyn

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    And here I thought the whole tale would end with an embolism story. There goes your book contract, you plodder.

    Thanks for taking us on this trip with you. I am not either imagining you setting the timer on your camera and then racing to get on your bike or lie down in front of a beautiful vista, curbing your breathlessness to look casual and relaxed by the time the shutter snaps.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Ronan

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    great stories bro…..maybe take a rest if the llamas start talking to you…..sweet photos dude….proud of you fella!!!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Christina Williams

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    I'm getting so jealous (aside from the sickness). Those pics are all so incredibly gorgeous!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Paul

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    Inspiring blog, keep them coming.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Hi Stephen I am a friend of your Mum and Siobhan your aunt and heard all about your travels and was inspired to start reading your blog which I thoroughly enjoyed. You are so lucky to be doing this and enjoy every moment. Take care Suzanne from Dublin

    Reply

  • Avatar

    jason

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    hey up mate..

    just came across your blog, refreshing to read a bit of class for a change, and english class at that, haha…your clinical history is one of the best things bike related i have ever read, so so true! Im in puno , peru, few days away from La Paz, maybe bump into you on the hopefully not too wet salar…

    Im from sheffield, started in california 2 years ago, reckon another year down south or so

    ps. its always worth having a crack at it 😉

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Stephen Fabes

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    Cheers Jason. Be great to catch up en route. I'm also hoping timing is right for the salar. Can't wait to ride it though. Stay in touch mate.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sheyi

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    So happy to read this blog today. Running or traveling the world does not make any meaning if you are not using it to help others which you are already doing here. More grease to your elbow.

    Sheyi

    Reply

  • Avatar

    George

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    Hi Stephen,

    It was good to see you on Skype last week. I didn't have the opportunity to ask you but wanted to know how you like the "Butterfly" handlebars. Are you pleased you chose them and would you recommend them for general cyclingn day rides etc.

    Cheers

    George

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Proud to know you! who would have thought that little kid who came to our house every morning would achieve so much. You never did bother about your appearance – I remember trying to persuade you to wear a pair of socks instead of two odd ones. What a waste of time it is to try and curb such a free spirit. Your mom is a dab hand at lots of things these days – not just computers!Angela and family

    Reply

  • Avatar

    notjustagranny

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    wow Steve, sounds like youve had a rough time of it lately. bravo for getting so far, inspirational. your storytelling is brilliant as always and your photos amazing. who would have guessed Argentina was so desolate. hope youre much better by now and that they havent taken you away in a white jacket just yet. glad Belinda is coping. 🙂 how weird to read about the skeleton with the trainers….I cant even begin to imagine something like that. take care of yourself and I hope youre getting better sleep and some nice meals.

    Reply

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    Tom Walwyn

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    Steve

    On a layover day in Santiago on our way home to Oz from a cycling down the americas. In major withdrawals already, so found you blog via CGOAB. If you feel any need for off-piste info on your way north in addition to Neil and Harriet Pikes's stuff have a glance at our measly mutterings too (Route info section)

    Great writing – and have lots of fun up there – the riding's only going to get better!

    Tom

    Reply

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    Teachorbeach

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    Wow! And we thought buses and mini-vans were tough! Great writing! Jon

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    From a fellow "small" time bike tour rider to the "master".! I am proud of you as a fellow human being!

    Reply

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    Daniel Miley

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    Reading your blog from the beginning to end. Couldn't help but thinking of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after this post

    Reply

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