I first visited this area in 2011, when I traveled around South America with a bag of mountaineering equipment. I hitchhiked to climb Ojos del Salado alone from the less-traveled Argentinian side. Arriving at the trailhead, I stared across a 50 mile void of wind battered desert between me and the peak. My pack was loaded with nine days of food, though I suspected a trip to the summit and back might take me ten. In the morning I hitchhiked back to town, wondering if I lacked the courage or simply lacked the desire to keep suffering. I never forgot thinking 'if I only had a mountain bike, it might be fun'.
The corridor from Paso San Francisco, south to the next road at Paso Pircas Negras is home to a concentration of high peaks. On top: Ojos del Salado, 22,615’, the world's highest volcano, and second highest peak outside the Himalayas. Pissis, Bonete Chico, Tres Cruces, Cazadero, Incahuasi – all of them above 21,500’.
Over the next six years, I periodically returned to gazing at Los Seismiles, this chain of six-thousand meter peaks, on Google Earth. In time, I mapped out many scraps of what looked like rideable 4x4 track. These eventually were incorporated into this month-long route across, hugging the Chile-Argentina border across the Puna region.
Traveling on the Rhino FLT fat bike from Pissis' basecamp southward, was the longest stretch that followed no road or track at all. We simply chose the lowest pass – first to 17,300’, then along the edge of the glacier-filled crater Corona del Inca to a height of 18,100'. Of course, we mostly pushed our bikes up to that height, with pedaling over flatter alluvial fields.
A general rule of high-altitude mountaineering is to climb high and sleep low. But, we found ourselves setting up camp a hundred feet below the highest point of our trip at the day's end, hammering tent stakes into rock hard permafrost while the wind wailed as usual. Or, perhaps we were on a sand-topped glacier.
While camping one night at about 18,000', I was forced out of the warmth of my sleeping bag. I have no idea of the time, the sun sets quickly at lower latitudes I could have been anywhere from 6:00pm to 2:00am. As I stood there in the night, there was no moon, but I could see for the unfiltered light of the stars. It was an incredible sight, I looked for the Southern Cross in vain, the stars were too bright to make out constellations. An uncountable number filled the sky in a near solid mass – only our own galaxy painted a distinguishable shape across the sky, in a great glowing streak. Perhaps I would have spotted our neighbour Andromeda, had I dallied in the bitter cold wind. But, after casting a quick glance at Rick's flapping tent, pitched to half its usual height, I hurried back into my sleeping bag. We were so alone. We are so alone, chained to a star with a finite life, trapped by the expanses of a universe destined to go dark. On the edge of where few travel, the sweet of the unknown meets the harsh reality of why so few travel here.
Check out more of the trip on bikepacking.com