Turning up the Epic

Years ago, while sitting in an office on some dreary London day I’d daydream about this trip, of all those epic places I was going to take on with a pushbike. You’re bound to think what an amazing adventure it would be when your mind’s eye conjures up images as disproportionately optimistic as your average travellers’ Instagram account (yep, probably guilty of this as well). All I’d think of was spiky, snow-capped mountains gleaming in the sun without feeling the symptoms of altitude sickness (a close relative to the never-drinking-again hangover) or the serene, empty expanses of desert without feeling the overbearing heat. I’d certainly never daydream of the monotony of cycling along the hard shoulder of a busy road, and sadly I’ve had to do that a lot.

I’ve learned the hard way that expectations and reality shouldn’t be compared because it is just depressing. But there are those occasional moments when mother nature throws together some rocks big enough to make those office bound daydreams feel a little less farfetched.

Peru’s Cordillia Blanca has been one of those places and, as we sat in our Hotel’s courtyard starting at those white peaked caps that’s epic-ness almost reaches London daydream levels. Sometimes you find these places, where the riding would be ideal right up until you actually begin, and Events, dear boy, throw in many more problems that mean once again, things don’t pan out the way you’d like.

Here’s how our expectations were thrown into the wind:

After crossing the northern end of the Cordillia near Sihuas, we decided to cross the mountains two more times in a loop before heading to the Gringo enclave of Huaraz for some well-earned pizza.

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We set off, two days later than expected because I decided to spend good afternoon vomiting and needed time to recover. We climbed out of the hot valley form Yunguy towards a narrow crack in the wall of rock that stood to the East.

As we entered, this engulfed us in a colossal, natural half pipe that made us feel very small, as we continued to climb toward some lagoons.

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The day’s riding was cut short by torrential hail and rain that left us freezing. We lept at the opportunity to stay in a refugio to wait out the afternoon rain and ended up sleeping in the building. From our door, we enjoyed the show the setting sun had that completely transformed the colour of the valley, once the rain clouds had cleared.

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The next day was Martin’s turn to be sick as we continued to climb the 900m to the pass. It would be the beginning of a very bad day for him. The road was in classical Peruvian style, that on a map looks as if the cartographer sneezed. Mercifully more gentle than the roads in Ecuador, every mountain road in Peru is a gradual climb usually consisting of over twenty switchbacks that snake up the hill.

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The view back down to the turquoise lakes was the best we got, as clouds and occasional snow shower covered the epic white peaks of the mountains surrounding us. Somehow the bad weather that fell on us never made it down as far as the lakes, and we felt very much like a cartoon character with a single cloud of rain that floated just over his head.  Stopping for a rest necessitated putting on extra layers of clothes (always found at the bottom of our bags) that we’d just have to take off again as soon as we started to climb again.

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With very little tourist traffic, the road down the East face was in particularly bad shape. We’d stop every kilometre or so to reattach something that had bounced off one of our bikes thanks to the rocky surface. By this point, all Martin wanted was to spend the rest of the day in bed but instead, the road gave him a broken frame to deal with. It would be a long walk to the next town either side of the mountain, so Max and I scouted ahead to see if we can get Martin a lift from one of the occasionally passing traffic.

We eventually flagged down a truck that had some room in the back and a spare seat in the cabin. We threw Martins bags in the truck, and hoped the driver would stop to pick up their owner, who was walking his bike down the hill, not liking the idea that he might have to do so for 10km more. I told the driver to look for a very dejected gringo.

The next day’s ride was interrupted by Max’s trailer, that had snapped once again. We were more fortunate this time, as that loud metallic snapping sound happened on the edge of a village. After a wild goose chase all over town without finding a welder, we decide to pursue plan B: eat lunch. As we chatted to the owner of the cafe, she mentioned she knew a guy. A phone call later, the guy was outside the restaurant welding his trailer back together while we drank coffee. He declined to accept any money for the trouble.

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The weather finally improved for the final pass, at Punto Olimpica. A nice smooth paved road took us up 1400m to the tunnel, which for reasons of not wanting to be killed by a truck and part masochism, we decided to avoid and continue up another few hundred meters over the old mountain pass.

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The road is no longer maintained and is only passable by those on two wheels. The rocks, landslides, and lack of oxygen made it a slow paced ascent, involving a lot of hike-a-bikes to the snow covered pass.

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At the top, the view on the other side delivered. The mountains that were hidden two days before were gleaming white in the afternoon sun and they were truly stunning. We spent a good 40 minutes a the top, soaking in the silence, the welcome novelty of finding snow in the tropics, and watching distant avalanches. In spite of the disappointing weather, losing a man on the second day, and other technical mishaps, I never daydreamed I’d be somewhere, at spitting distance to 5000 meters above sea level, enjoying the sight and sound of avalanches.

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Expectations and reality: often so far apart you really shouldn’t compare them, but sometimes the former surpasses the latter and when it does, you really don’t care about the other disappointments.

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4 thoughts on “Turning up the Epic

  1. Really enjoyed reading his post Nick. Love the photoes. I am enjoying time with your mum! Quality twin time.Off to Exeter tomorrow to see our friend Barbara for a few days.
    Look after yourself Nicky, Love Auntie Judy xxx

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  2. I love and admire your honesty. It helps us armchair travellers to appreciate the total dejection involving mechanical mishaps miles away from civilisation, when we are used to just slinging a miscreant bike into the back of the car and taking it down to the garage at the bottom of the road. And we can marvel at your epic photos without the horror of altitude sickness and freezing temperatures. (‘Japan Nick’ obviously lost out in those internal discussions!)
    At the same time, you manage to convey the total exhilaration of the highs (literally!). And – surely – it must be all downhill from now on?!
    Glad you have some company for this testing part of the adventure! Keep pedalling!

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