Sea to Summit: Paso Agua Negra

We last posted from 610 meters above sea level, in route to crossing Chile’s highest pass through the Andes, Paso Agua Negra at 4753m (roughly 15,500ft). It took six days to ride from sea level at La Serena, Chile, over the pass, and into Rodeo, Argentina, where we camped stealth camped tucked into the rows of an Alamo tree grove. We’d spent three days in no-man’s land, outside the immigration controls of both Chile and Argentina, and well beyond the comfort of anything we’d done to date.

Pedal Strokes on Nature’s Canvas

On the approach, we wound up through the Elqui Valley, past vineyards and orchards that creeped deep into the valley canyons, sometimes resembling glacial floes. As we continued east, the valley narrowed, still laden with cacti but more predominantly with the vineyards. At first glance, the colors melded to one, with slight variations of tans. A closer look revealed the desert palette: rich greens flanking the river, the grapevine greens shielded by wind and sun screens, with errant grapes lost to the road by skittish birds. We passed several fields of grapes drying into raisins, all laid out like coffee beans in the sun.

The second day, the landscape changed to high desert, the vegetation dissipating to reveal magnificent barren rock walls. We camped at 1600m under one of the few trees we saw hugged back against the rock wall and showered in the frigid river we’d been following. The existing site we found seemed to be carved out of years of necessity, with tin can remains, rocks moved aside, and wind walls built. We awoke the next day to two men bringing thirty horses down the canyon, which we surmised had been grazing in the mountains until the changing of the seasons. Perhaps our campsite had been founded for times like those. As we climbed further into the Andes, we passed numerous rock foundations with low rock walls, their fabric or tarp roofs removed for the winter season and the herders all gone, save the few eking out the remaining days of fall.

Pressed to Turn Back

The third night camping at 2900m, we were awoken by Fernando, a herder who lived down the road and had walked flashlight in hand to warn us of the mountain’s ferocity and the coming snow. The next day we awoke to foreboding clouds and were met with additional advice, video clips from one man of the white outs at the top and two older women who told us the snow wasn’t sticking and the ground had good traction throughout. We spent the day equivocating on whether or not we should hitch with the next truck that passed. Ultimately, neither of us flinched as a truck went by late in the afternoon. Our desire to make it to Argentina on or own steam won out.

The fourth night we stopped just before 4000m at around 4:30pm. The sun had already dropped behind the mountains, and in the falling temperature we spent the next half hour constructing a rock wall to shelter our tent from the wind. We sat bundled in our sleeping bags and cooked dinner by periodically reaching out to the stove under our vestibule.

Reaching Our High Point

All our water bottles froze over night save the two we’d slept with in our bags. We had to punch through the icy stream to get our water for oatmeal. Fortunately it was a bluebird day, dissolving our fears of making the pass. The clear skies revitalized us, and we climbed with the spirit of knowing we could make the final 28km to the summit that afternoon.

We held roughly 6km per hour for the final 20km of the ascent. Even though our bottles melted with the rising sun, water still froze on the outside of them in the freezing winds. We stopped only to warm our hands down our pants, and to eat both a bag of raisins and nuts and later one boiled egg a piece. We had to keep moving. We came to two 7km switchbacks traversing a precipice with confused winds that allowed us a long hard look at from whence we came. At the end of the switchback, two poles came into view marking the summit in the distance. Even though there was no oxygen, we felt ourselves breathing in the rich view of our goal, circulating into our blood and giving us strength. At the same moment, forty knots punched us in the back, and for the first time, we had to use brakes going uphill. Katie might have cried a bit in jubilation.

We had followed a river just about from its outlet to above its source high in the Andes and were now looking down on the confluence of three glacial streams that helped shape the magnificent valley and give life to all that we’d appreciated along the way. It’s clear to us now why there are so many mines in this area. We saw colors we’d never seen in our lives, whole mountain faces in greens, oranges, blacks, reds, tans, and yellows starkly contrasted against the sharp blue skies. They’d swirl and drip, making vast tear drops into each other as one rock type eroded faster than another. To add to the grandeur, beat out paths of vicuña streaked across the mountainous scree fields at seemingly impossible angles and heights.

We descended for three days, stopping to camp under groves of alamo, a type of poplar that’s currently in full-blown golden autumnal glory. We’ve ridden through the drier climes of Rodeo, Jachal, and La Cienaga and come to rest in Huaco, home to a 250 year-old corn mill that went defunct in 1973 after a dike was constructed to the west, which salinated the water. A bike problem sent us on a quest for internet that landed us at Hosteria Huaco. No internet, but we did meet the American caretaker who’s driven us two hours south to San Juan to try to find a new freehub body for James’s bike. She’s a mountain guide on Aconcagua and makes delicious quince preserves, so the entire experience has worked out quite well.