A Father and Son Gravel Adventure
Words by Tom Haines
Photos by Luca and Tom Haines
Our fourth week in the Andes began with a stout climb from the rushing blue waters of Laja River toward a slumbering ski area and, just beyond, Laguna del Laja. The terrain along the lake was treeless and stark, more black volcanic rock beautiful in its uniformity. I pedaled the rises and falls of gravel road, having just passed four men on horseback heading in the direction from which I’d come, and I began to wonder and worry a bit about Luca. He’d gone far ahead on the climb, and the gravel road forked, one way tracing more than a mile down to the lake shore, the other wrapping westward around jagged outcroppings of rock into the expanse.
I did not, in that moment, have the gumption to waste time or energy, as a bigger challenge lay ahead: 6,700-foot Paso Pichachen, the border between Chile and Argentina. Our plan was to traverse the 15 miles of lake shore that morning, then rest up before rising early the next day to climb the pass. Isolated in such extreme terrain, but comfortable together, we were father and son, but also companions for rare experience that was defining us both.
“ Isolated in such extreme terrain, but comfortable together, we were father and son, but also companions for rare experience that was defining us both. ”
Luca, it turned out, was only further up the right road, and soon he spun back to me. He handed over a few Mogul Conitos, a Chilean gum drop that had become a favorite. We set off again, steady and sure of the next two days, despite the dimensions of the ride: 100 miles, 12,000 feet of climbing, all on gravel, with no services along the way.
We had covered 750 miles during the first three weeks, and that delivered fitness, but also confidence that we could handle hardship. The sky was blue overhead, but the sun pounding, and the temperature already climbing above 80 degrees. We pedaled steadily for an hour, the road rising and falling gently above the lake, though sometimes thick with piles of black dust that bogged down our bikes. The wind howled, offering both fresh relief and a loud reminder that we were alone out there, several hundred yards above the lake, two tiny beings moving through the desolation.
We passed a Chilean flag staked in the ground, and then another, each accompanied by rocks marking the graves of soldiers who had died during a training march more than a decade before. They had been out in May, early winter in the Andes, and, ill-equipped, got lost in a blizzard. We could see fifty miles or more across the lake and over distant ridges, the day as clear as could be, the snow-capped peak of Volcan Antuco looming just to the south. We had been told that the old barracks from which the soldiers departed on their ill-fated trip still stood and that, perhaps, we could camp there for the night. It was another hot hour before we came to a small stream that ended, suddenly, in the ground. We pumped water from the narrow trickle and just beyond spotted the seemingly abandoned barracks. The front door was open, so we walked around and plotted a night spent sleeping on the floor, when suddenly down the stairs came first a private, then a sergeant, who offered water and pointed us to a nearby stand of trees for the night.
It was only noon, and the shade proved to be the perfect place for a rare afternoon off among our 40 days. Luca and I quietly settled into a familiar rhythm, setting up camp, turning an unexpected place into a kind of home. We sat by another small stream nearby, comfortable in our solitude together. A single-track trail that led south along the flank of Volcan Antuco angled back toward the country through which we had already traveled. We would head the other way, east, to Argentina.
By 8 the next morning, having broken camp and snacked on cookies for breakfast, we were pedaling in 30 degree cold. The air was warming quickly, and we were eager to reach Paso Pichachen before the high heat of midday. We knew two checkpoints awaited, the first a collection of trailers home to a Chilean border post. Inside, an agent had to call a supervisor to figure out how to process people crossing the remote, seasonal border by bike, as he’d never seen any do it. He apologized with a smile for the delay, and then we were riding again, 13 miles to climb to reach the pass.
“We had covered 750 miles during the first three weeks, and that delivered fitness, but also confidence that we could handle hardship.”
Luca again went on ahead, and I rode the tailwind trying to keep pace. The gravel pitched steeply at times, but also meandered in soft switchbacks, and the final mile approach to the pass was smooth and straight, a look back over the shoulder opening down the valley toward the volcanic lake we’d left behind. We stopped for the impromptu picnic with Fidel, driver of the grader that arrived at the top with us and the only other human for miles around. He had to return down the valley to Chile. We pushed past the sign that marked the entrance to Argentina and glided into a glory descent of soft dirt into the country. Our heavy packs gave speed to our progress, legs and hearts resting as our spirits soared.
“ We pushed past the sign that marked the entrance to Argentina and glided into a glory descent of soft dirt into the country. ”
We would spend eight more hours on the bike that day, arriving near sundown in the town of Guañacos. All along the way, we were never quite sure how far Guañacos was, or if it even had a store. A fly fisherman walking along the road pointed us onward, wrongly promising it was only 15 miles or so more. Finally, an old gaucho, out riding his fence line in the evening, confirmed that Guañacos was just one mile more, and, yes, there was a store, and, yes, it was open.
But before all of that, we were on that descent that seemed like it would go on forever, as the barren landscape of Paso Pichachen dropped toward a rushing stream and soon green meadow all around. We stopped to pump more water, the cool oasis of soft earth urging us to linger, but soon pressed on, not yet tired, the Argentine border checkpoint still several miles ahead. It felt like stolen time, Luca and I, together and alone in a foreign country to which we were returning.
“ It felt like stolen time, Luca and I, together and alone in a foreign country to which we were returning. ”