“Mucho cuidado. Mucho cuidado!” the old man said.
He had come up to me to inquire of my route into the town, looking at the filthy bike and shaking his head at the road we’d taken in the night before.
Arriving in Huaraz after riding Cañon del Pato the day before, we’d headed back to Yungay and took the dirt pass road into a national park. It began raining immediately and the road was muddy and slick. Rains continued as we passed through the park and its stunning sheer mountain walls, waterfalls, and lakes as blue as Lake Louise at about 12,000 feet.
The road turned to rough rock and mud, the rain continuing as we slid and struggled up to 14,000 feet on the tiny narrow road carved into the mountainside. As we hit 15,000 feet, it began to snow and the temperature had dropped to 33 degrees.
Somewhere along the way up, I kept smelling burning oil and my heart skipped a beat. Having had the rear main seal replaced only three days before, my heart sank at the thought of the disaster returning. Multiple times I stopped and got off the bike, trying to see an oil leak amidst the mud, water and grit covering the rear of the bike. I could see nothing obvious but could not deny the smell and feared complete failure somewhere in the Andes.
It was a difficult ride, finally entering thick clouds and struggling not only with the heavy bike in the mud and rough rocks, but just to get a breath in the thin air. My head began to pound as it finally topped out at just under 16,000 feet. The sleet and snow was heavy but I pulled out the camera for a single picture to prove the location. The ride up was so demanding I’d not even thought of trying to capture images.
The down side of the mountain was raining less intensely thankfully. As we descended, the road was rough but smoother than the upward side. The lightening rain brought hope that soon we’d be in civilization. The road continued, heading further into the mountains and never dropping below 12,000 feet said my GPS.
The problem is, we’d only seen random names on our GPS apps and had no idea whether they were towns or what. In fact, we didn’t really know where we were going other than east. Any towns didn’t really show on the GPS, so it was hard to now which to head to. The constant rain made it difficult to stop and read a phone screen anyway.
I began to notice that my bike was getting harder and harder to turn, feeling sluggish as if having a flat. I stopped multiple times to kick the tires but they were hard and showed no sign of air loss. The bike began to move sideways at the slightest bobble and became a real handful to control. To say I was fearful on the narrow pass roads at 13,000 feet was an understatement. I was working very, very hard to keep the bike from falling in the mud.
After a couple of hours we reached a fork in the road, but the gps maps weren’t accurate in the area and we were effectively riding blind. An old man came by and Ward asked him where the nearest large town was. He confidently pointed at the fork heading downhill and we went that way, despite the road looking much less traveled. It was very rough and rutted, with large sections fo fresh mud from landslides and the continuing rains. I felt completely out of control and stopped several times. Something was severely wrong, as if the rear wheel was loose, however nothing was out of place. As I stood in the rain, I pushed down on the seat and it went down so easily that I realized the rear shock was completely blown. It explained both the burning oil smell and the bad steering problems. My $2000 rear suspension had failed miserably and very early in it’s lifespan. My heart sank as I struggled the bike into the town we’d headed for. It was a shock to realize we’d come to a dead end and the light was fading.
Ward spoke to a man carrying a bundle of wood on his back, asking the way to a large town. We knew no town names, but he pointed at the road we’d just come down and out. I couldn’t believe we were going to have to reverse all the way back up to the fork, a good 30 minute ride and one I’d barely made down. We’d been on the bikes without stopping or eating for about 5 hours straight and the fatigue was showing from the time, the nonstop roughness and mud. Sitting in the village after dark was no option, so I swallowed hard and gunned it back towards the mountain. It was a lot of work and curse words, but after about 20 minutes we had made it back to the fork. The falling darkness was not comforting. I got my GPS to catch the track again and it showed the nearest town to still be 3 hours away at best.
It was easy to feel panicky, knowing the road ahead was treacherous and we were still 12,000 feet or more in the Andes, with rain and darkness falling. We rode as fast as I could, until spotting a minivan in a group of small homes.Ward asked the driver what was ahead and how long. His response was at least three hours to go. It was now 6 pm and the road ahead was difficult. We rode until the light faded completely, crossing mudslides and rock piles, running streams, huge sections of greasy slick mud and deep ruts. I couldn’t help but wonder how the minivan had ever made it up this road.
Below, a silver ribbon in the dusk indicated a river below and we made as fast as we could to try to get off the precipices before absolute darkness. We arrived at the river just as the skies went black, sitting at a fork in the road next to a bridge. My GPS maps indicated a town to the north and one to the south. Both showed to be still two hours away despite the short distance. South was the choice and we headed into the darkness, headlights on bright and swerving around rocks, mudholes and anything we could make out in the light. Below the sound of a roaring river could be heard in my helmet over the breathing, rumbling engine and road noise. It was disconcerting to imagine what lay just a few feet to my side and a simple rock roll away.
The fatigue had set in deeply by now, having been riding in cold, rain and difficult roads for over 7 hours straight. The last hour and a half was in somewhat of a stupor. Ahead, twinkles of orange light indicated a town on a distant mountainside. It seemed forever, broken by dogs running out from the darkness and snarling at the bikes as they passed. As scary and irritating as it was, it indicated people in the vicinity and that brought a lifting of spirits.
The shambled road eventually brought a small village of mud brick walls and miraculously, a concrete street. At the first turn, I saw a sign for a hostel, and more importantly a gated driveway. That meant security for the bikes and we stopped. Through an iron barred widow, the old man took our money and passed some thin old towels through, along with a padlock and key. Finding my room, he had to help get the door open and showed me how to padlock it.
The water and mud ran down from my gear onto the stone floor as I stared at the tiny, musty old room and wondered what lay amidst the sheets. It was as if a scene from a movie, the faded painted walls, illuminated by a lone, weak fluorescent bulb. I was tired and just sat on the corner of the bed, my boots touching the wall the room was so tiny. I couldn’t bother trying to get out of my gear for a while. There was no heat, wind coming through an open hole in the wall that used to be a small window. Outside I heard Ward wanting to find food and slowly pulled off my gear, looking for places to put it. There was no choice other than the narrow space between the bed and wall. I stayed in my riding gear, save the rain covers and jacket, going outside to find my fleece and we walked a block down in the darkened town to find a lone restaurant open.
A cold wind came through the door of the unheated place as we sat, slurping down a bowl of chicken soup and waiting for the next dish to come out. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open by the end, finally walking back to the room and collapsing on the bed, determined not to crawl under the sheets. In a few minutes, the cold drove me under the two heavy wool blankets and sleep came quickly.