Pushing a bike across the Peruvian Andes

The Andes, carrying too much stuff, has been an exercise in managing expectations. To say I’m riding slow on my ascents wouldn’t be an understatement, it would be a mis-statement. On today’s climb, I rode my bike for less than a kilometer out of 10km. I pushed it almost the entire way, switching sides every kilometer.

A couple of days ago I had my shortest day ever, covering only 30km. The first 7km were like the preceding 115, on windy, busy, paved highway. From then on, it’s been dirt/rock road, and a car, or a shepherd, every few hours, or less. I got to 4320m elevation for my first night camping, which was on the only patch of flat ground I could find in a massive dam-lake basin, next to a rock that made a small saddle on the slope adjacent to its local maximum. It was windy, as I cooked a delicious lentil soup and then settled in for a cozy, good night’s sleep.

The next morning was crystal clear sun and mountains:

I was a little concerned, as I packed up camp, that every time I bent down to do something, which one does a lot when packing up camp, that I’d get a noticable head rush when I stood back up. I was also breathing noticably harder than usual. I’d been at this elevation before, and have experienced slight symptoms of elevation illness before. I’d jokingly call it “acute mountain awesomeness” because it feels like being a little drunk, but I made a note to keep tabs on it because I was solo and pushing my personal record for highest elevation.

My bike’s first Andes pass:

My first pass was crossed that day, which turned out to be at 4910 meters (16,108′) elevation, after 2 days worth of ascent on dirt road, lots and lots of which were pushing the bike. I heard distant some thunder as I approached the pass while some alpacas bleated at me from a nearby ridge. I had been planning on stopping and eating some left overs from the night before when I got there, but the wind was ripping and a hail that had just started was stinging. As I hurried down from my perch back to my bike, it seemed the hail was stinging through my wool hat in a strange sorta electrical way. If I put my hand on my hat, it would stop, but if I lifted my hand an inch off my hat, which should still take the brunt of the hail, it started back up. When I noticed there also seemed to be some weird, disconcerting noises in my earbuds, which were plugged into my phone but not playing anything, I recalled the thunder I’d recently heard and decided to descend ASAP. It took no time to drop down a hundred meters where things were much less ominous.

I ate my lunch overlooking a massive herd of sheep descending a ravine through which the road I was taking wound back and forth. A few minutes after I was on my way again, I had the pleasure of crossing a sheepalanche of sorts.

Road as seen above. The sheep are in there, albeit hard to spot.

Going down was definitely easier than going up, but presented its own challenges. The weather was getting generally wet, cold, and windy, and the only pair of gloves that I brought were doing little to keep my digits from going completely numb as they were being employed to continuously apply the brakes. Thankfully, I’d been in this situation before, and like that time, I had an extra pair of wool socks which I used to make thumb-less mittens. It never ceases to amaze me how effective pure wool is.

I got to close to the lowpoint between that day’s pass and the next one, which was right on the border of a national park. I was pretty spent by this point, working with not-quite numb fingers and totally numb thumbs, and the road was rutted and muddy. I was looking around for a turn I needed to make, and/or a place to maybe call it a night, and in doing so I let my attention stray from my line down the road for a moment too long leading to my first crash of the trip. I was wearing my helmet, and that would have been crucial had my head not missed a rocky 2 foot roadside embankment by an inch or two. I banged my right knee cap pretty hard on a rock in the road, and scraped up my hands a bit while catching myself, but a quick assessment determined that both me and the bike were OK. I considered myself lucky and resolved to not let myself get distracted while riding again, especially at this elevation.

While reflecting on my good fortune and walking my bike in order to scout for sites, I happened upon an amazing campsite secluded by massive boulders, right on the river. Unlike the night before, tonight I had room to spread out. I decided to set up my tent and arrange everything so I could strip off my soaked layers, jump into the tent, and then not leave until morning. I had just finished filtering my water for the night when the snow that had been falling in various forms since the pass started to come down heavily in fat flakes that stuck. Within an hour the snowfall was a few inches thick, and I was indescribably grateful to be in a tent rather than just the bivouac which was all that I’ve brought, shelter-wise, on every trip before this.

The next morning, it was again sunny, and I was able to dry out my camping gear before packing it away. I decided that I would take my time getting over the day’s pass, and push, rather than ride, my bike, unless it was clearly worth the effort to mount and pedal. It was not an easy ascent, but it was made much easier by being deliberate in the line taken while pushing the bike. Exertion-wise, pushing a loaded bike uphill is something like backpacking with a perfect pack (you feel no weight on your body’s frame), that’s much lighter than the loaded bike, in inverse proportion to the slope, while also doing a partially twisted wall-plank pose with mini-pushups corresponding to each bump you hit. It really pays off to avoid every rock that you can and to maintain momentum.

The next descent was a lot dryer, more gradual (didn’t have to brake quite as constantly), and generally a lot more enjoyable. I got to another dam-lake and contrary to Google Maps and Maps.me, could not cycle across the North end of the lake and the dam, and so had to cycle 8 miles around the lake. At the far end of the lake was a town called Tanta, full of sarape clad, flat-brimmed hat wearing, diminutive folks.

As I finished up scrubbing and relubricating my drivetrain (which had been crunching with mud since the rainy descent the day before) in the town plaza, it started to hail again. There were a ton of hospedajes in town, so I inquired with one, liked the vibe of the guy and paid the $6.70 for a room for the night. The door into the room was 5 and a half feet tall, and the ceiling in the room spared only a couple of inches when standing up, but it was dry.

I hung up a clothes line, fixed one of my saddle bags and tightened the bolts on the rest of them, then fell asleep.

The next day was mostly descent on road that paralleled river peppered with waterfalls. I got to Vilca, the first tourist town (mostly local, but some foreign) and got some chicken soup. This, like every other prepared meal I’ve had, has been unappetizing. I was hungry enough to devour the large, fatty chunks of chicken, the 3 small chunks of sweet potato, and even half of the mushy spaghetti pieces, but couldn’t bring myself to consume most of the lukewarm broth. And regardless of wether I was getting foreigner prices or not, at $2.50, this one bowl cost as much as the lentils, farro, pasta, onion, carrot, beet, yam, and potato that I had obtained for the 5 day traverse between population centers.

I continued on to Huancaya, the next little tourist town, with even more tourists, and asked a couple of elderly women sitting in front of the town museum where I could get “cafe rico”, to which one of them led me to her closed cafe and hosted me. We chatted about her town and family, and in the process I learned about a free camping zone just outside of town, and decided to call it a day a little early.

I set up camp, cooked dinner, and bundled up as the sun set. It takes only minutes for the air to get super chilly after the sun sets.

It was a rowdy Saturday night of locals partying, but earplugs sufficed to shut out the noise and get a decent nights sleep.

The next day was again sunny and warm and the descent got steeper as the waterfalls in the accompanying river got higher. I got to a river junction at 3000 meters, and then it was time to climb again. The road was carved directly into the cliffs in spots, and the going was slow, but not so steep that I had to push the bike too much.

The towns along this road each had really pretty plazas, but no waterfalls or other tourist draws, so were quite desolate.

I was pushing up the incline to the last plateau before a long descent back to civilization when a shepard couple and their young daughter flagged me down and implored me to stay on their roadside ranch. It was a little earlier than I’d intended on stopping, but after giving the father a full tour of my gear, gifting him the superfluous backpack frame that I’d regretted bringing since my first ascent (which he kept wearing until he went back to his house a hundred meters from my campsite), it was timing out well. I was just finishing my dinner when the father and daughter came over with 4 small fish they had just netted out of a stream running through their ranch. They seemed curious about my stove, so I fired it up to show them how it primes and then jets gasoline. Since the stove was going, I asked if they’d like to cook the fish. A little oil and salt and the flayed fish tasted a little like fishy bacon. The daughter and I shared disgusted giggles as the dad ate the heads.

The next day they had me over to their mud hut kitchen and made me breakfast of some eggs that I had bought at the last town, an apple cider, and re-heated rice, all prepared over a wood flame. Their generosity was truly touching.

I had one more pass to make to get to an alpine valley, then some up/down, then another pass and then one long descent to the city of Huancayo (not to be confused with Huancaya two days earlier). It was 8:30 when I set out, and noon when I was 12km into the 95km total and at the top of the last climb. From there, I went from averaging 3-something km/hour to 30-something km/hour and with breaks, I was in town by 4pm. I checked into a hotel, where I’ve caught up with the rest of the planet using internet, washed up, and rested up. I think I’ll spend a full day here before heading back into the mountains…or whatever lies ahead.

Thanks for reading!!!


Author: jeremycalvert

Temporarily retired mathematician and software engineer currently tooling around on a bicycle.

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