Adventures in Peru - Mountain Biking to 14,000 Feet
By Vic Hanson
Everyday when I look out my window or go out of my house, I see a large mountain across the canyon. I had hiked up one trail a couple of times and found some Inca ruins at about 11,500 feet and also realized that the trail continued around to a new road that went up to the top of the mountain from the other side, and then on to some other villages. Later I rode my bike up the road, it took about 2 ½ hours to the junction with the foot trail but I didn't have time to continue up any farther. The following week I hiked up a different trail and reached the top of the mountain, it is actually the rim of the canyon and beyond that there is a rolling high plain. I went to the nearest high point, which was 14,200 feet. This is 5,400 feet above my house.
From there I had a great view of the Canyon, the village of Cotahuasi and the snowcapped peak of Mt. Solimana across the canyon on the other rim. I also saw the road coming up from the backside and knew that one of my next outings would have to be to ride up the road, my first "14er" on a bike! When I say road, don't think of anything like a nice paved mountain road in the U.S., we're talking narrow gravel road like the fire roads going up the mountains in Southern California. It was summer but also the rainy season and usually the rain clouds come from that direction in the afternoon. I decided to give it a try on a Wednesday, about a week later, but when I woke up at 6:30 it was very cloudy and looked like it would start raining early. However by 8:00 it started to clear up so I decided to go for it.
It was 9:05 before I finally left my house and it had turned into a beautiful but cool morning. I knew it would be cold on top so I put my tights on over my bike shorts. The first 20 minutes is a technical single track that goes down into the canyon, crosses a bouncy suspension bridge and then climbs back up to the road. This is the walking shortcut. Following the road from my house takes about 40 minutes. From there it is about 10 minutes on the road down into another canyon and then the climb starts. However before I got to the second bridge, I had a flat tire. There are cacti of many different kinds everywhere here and they all have nasty thorns. Anyway, I only had two freshly patched tubes with me so was hoping I would be OK on the road. I found one thorn and removed that, fortunately I took extra time checking the tire and found two more thorns before putting in the new tube. I have had up to five holes in one tube when I went to patch it!
For the next 1 ½ hours I was roasting but didn't stop to take off my tights because I kept thinking it would be getting cooler any time now. About 2 ½ hours from the start, I went through the small village of Cocchapampa at about 10,500 feet, where I had attracted much attention from some kids the first time I rode up. I think I must have been the first biker they had ever seen riding through there. This time a group of little girls took one look at me and ran off screaming like they had seen a monster! Just past the village the new road forks off, and after about 10 minutes of flat riding around a hill it starts climbing again. Looking ahead there was nothing but long switchbacks heading up the side of the mountain.
For some reason I wasn't feeling very strong or motivated this day and at this point wasn't sure if I would make it to the top. I stopped for lunch at 10,750 feet and decided to set a goal of 13,000 feet and see what time it was then and what the weather looked like. At the beginning I had set a 3:00 pm turn around time because it usually starts raining shortly after that. One of the problems with having an altimeter watch while climbing is that I keep watching it to see how fast I am climbing. It is like watching a pot waiting for it to boil, very slow! It seemed to take forever to get from 11,000 to 13,000 feet but I finally made it with numerous rest stops on the way. At this point I could see where the road went over the rim of the canyon and it was too close to turn back so I kept going. I got to the rim before 3:00 pm but my joy turned to groans when I realized that I was only at about 13,800 feet.
The road was still climbing gradually so I kept going, aiming for a high spot a ways up the road. The good news was that it wasn't a very steep road at this point so was easy riding, the bad news was that is wasn't a very steep road at this point so I wasn't gaining much elevation! I reached the high point at exactly 3:00, five hours and 55 minutes from the start but it was still only 13,950 feet. I was now only about 50 horizontal feet from the rim of the canyon facing Cotahuasi (I had come up the back side) so walked over to enjoy the view and see if it was possible to hike up to that point (looked challenging) and also hoping that my watch would "catch up" and register over 14,000 feet, but it didn't. At this point the road dipped down again and the next high spot was probably a couple of miles away. '
The weather was cloudy and cool but rain didn't look imminent so I continued. At 3:08 I went over 14,000 feet but decided to continue on to the high point. A couple of minutes later I was at a narrow flat topped ridge and could look down at the road I had just come up as well as over a few miles to where I had hiked up to the week before. The elevation here was 14,140 feet and the road marker showed that I was 14 Km from Cocchapampa. I had climbed about 6,000 vertical feet in about 15 miles and was already wondering what my next goal should be (besides doing it faster). The road continues on the high plateau for about five hours by car to Oyolo, or going the other direction it goes near the base of Mt. Solimana at about 15,500 feet.
By now I was getting cold, had my fleece pants and jacket on, added a windbreaker, and a hat under my helmet and started down, wishing that I had brought my full finger gloves as well. You would think I would remember, I had done the "cold-numb-white-knuckle" braking thing before, coming down similar loose gravel switchbacks from the other rim. Fortunately it wasn't as cold this day and I was soon down to lower and warmer elevations. Two hours and 40 minutes from the top, I was back at my house with no problems (other than scaring the little girls again) but did walk more going down the single track due to being very tired, there is a very unforgiving drop of 150 to 200 feet on one side, down to the river. Actually I walked more of the uphill on the single track too. After nine hours it was good to be home to warm food, cold orange drink and a hot shower, pleasantly exhausted. The next day I hiked about 22 miles to a village downriver (but up in elevation), returning the following day, but that is another story.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
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