Easy Days, Hard Days: A Year in the Andes
Looking back on his time bikepacking through South America, Toby Elliott put together this reflection on the two distinct kinds of days that are seared into his memory. Find a beautiful gallery of images and his essay on the value he gleaned from both slow days of sipping coffee at camp and grueling days of pushing up mountainsides here…
We began our climb in the frigid morning air. Nathan started a little ahead, toes freezing in his boots. He was desperate to get moving. We’d bunkered down early the previous afternoon, hiding in flimsy feeling tents from a fierce lightning storm. Mercifully, the sky was now a clear blue, but the crisp air held a deep and penetrating chill. Everything remained frozen.
As we rose higher, the wind made things even colder. Effects of the altitude were apparent. We frequently stopped, especially on the steeper sections. The duration of these breaks increased as we went up. Pushing the bikes was our only option. We spoke little; both locked in a physical and mental battle with the climb.
The scenery was spectacular, but I didn’t care. My face contorted further into a twisted grimace. The thought popped into my head again: “Why? Why are we doing this?” I paused, exhausted and unmotivated, chugging greedily from my water bottle. I gasped for oxygen with equal greed; this doesn’t come easily to the unacclimatised at 5,500 metres. Surveying our surroundings brought welcome respite from hauling my overladen tank of a bike up the steepening, sandy incline. We were deep in the Puna de Atacama, a remote high-altitude desert straddling northern Argentina and Chile. Our route took us off trail for four days through a string of gradually rising sandy valleys and now up and over the far steeper volcano crater rim of Corona Del Inca.
What an incredibly hostile and otherworldly landscape we were experiencing. Another voice in my head started to fight back, attempting to put things in perspective and rationalise our situation. It didn’t take long before I dutifully started plodding upwards again. Head down, one foot in front of the other, little by little. We would make it, forging a path through the sand and into the spiteful headwind. Up ahead, I could see Nathan charging. It looked like he was nearing the summit of the crater rim; he must have sensed the end of the slog as his speed seemed to have doubled.
I mainly was looking at the ground and trying to control my breathing. Occasionally I glanced up to see how far remained; the summit never seemed to get closer. Somehow we eventually dragged ourselves and bikes to the top. We stood breathless—not solely from the altitude—for the vista before us was indescribable.
Light grey mounds and peaks stretched away in all directions, many glaciated or dusted with snow and ice. The ground plummeted sharply down into the volcano crater—a vast natural amphitheatre of ice and wind formed over millennia. In the centre was a deep blue lake, the water tumultuous as the wind howled across its surface. It was simultaneously the most desolate and beautiful place I’d ever been.
Yet the day wasn’t done. Our euphoria was short-lived; little did we know things would get tougher still. Off trail, we dropped a couple of hundred meters down a scree field into the next valley. Shock and despair greeted us as we saw a sheer wall looming ahead. This meant another sandy hike-a-bike up and over 5,500 metres. We hadn’t studied our route’s elevation profile closely enough and now had this unpleasant surprise as a reward. No time for our planned break as daylight was waning, we had a long way to go, and this area was too high and exposed to camp. We knew what had to be done. With grim determination, we fought our way up the slope. Down the other side, we crossed an expansive, undulating plateau of deep sand. The going was painfully slow; I felt faint and found myself mildly hallucinating.
Looking around, there was hardly any shelter. An icefield offering modest respite from the winds at 5,300 metres would have to suffice as home for the night. I sat in the dust, devouring almost a whole pack of cookies. As we pitched camp, I began to feel more human. Our alcohol stoves brought water to a boil in record time, thanks to the effect of low pressure at altitude. To my frazzled mind, this seemed like a miracle. A little later, whilst filling up my water bottles, I watched a puddle freeze in front of my eyes.
We both threw on every stitch of clothing in our possession. I synched the sleeping bag tightly around my head and shouted across to Nathan’s tent, wishing him luck for the bitterly cold night ahead. However, I needn’t have worried; I was shattered and asleep within moments.
I spent 14 months meandering through the Andes. It was a trip that provided innumerable lessons about myself and the world, creating memories to last a lifetime. The juxtaposition between life on
the road and during a global pandemic has been sharp. Feeling somewhat cooped up and restricted, I’ve often caught myself daydreaming, as so many of us are. My mind wanders back to the jagged peaks, windswept plains, and parched deserts of South America.
Something that struck me was that my most prominent memories of days spent cycling often fall neatly into one of two categories: the easy days and the hard days. Each of these holds its own special value. I look back and smile at leisurely days in the saddle. Tranquil mornings spent brewing strong coffee, the sun gently warming my tent, morning dew evaporating as I stretch and that almost tangible sense of anticipation for the day ahead. Cruising along sun-dappled trails, stopping often to take in views, eat, joke, and perhaps swim. Meeting a succession of smiling faces and interesting people brimming with as much curiosity about my journey as I have about their own stories. Evenings spent savouring deliciously simple meals, watching the sky turn funny colours before drifting off under a canopy of glowing stars.
Days such as these teach me to appreciate life and this spectacular planet. They offer up that zen-like sense of meditative wellbeing. Almost as if each pedal revolution is driving you closer towards some ineffable enlightenment. The distractions, stresses, and busyness of the world melt away, replaced by utter contentment in the here and now.
This, I suppose, is one of the chief appeals of bicycle travel and is the sensation we find ourselves chasing. Not just passing through a landscape, you are able to spend the whole day utterly immersed in it. Living, breathing, smelling, hearing, and feeling the place. Following your desires and intuition, letting the day take you where it pleases. Effortless. Total freedom. Master of time and place. No rush, why rush?
If bikepacking existed on a spectrum, dreamy days like those are one end of the scale. At the other end we have the tough days. When I say that, I mean those days that stretch on and on. Those that might make you question everything, curse and grunt, sweat and bleed, ache and fall. Bike breaking, storm raging, running out of food, getting sick, getting lost, backtracking. You finish the day so tired you barely have the energy to pitch camp. Days like Nathan and I shared on the Corona Del Inca. There is a point to it all. Sometimes we may not be entirely sure what, yet we come back stronger. We learn to deal with things, roll with the punches.
Obviously, not every day on the bike is such a struggle, and when they are, it’s almost always through choice. You chose to get on the bike and you chose to come this way. Sometimes though, I like to suffer like this, for the ride to feel like a battle—although admittedly not usually at the time. Through digging deep and pushing physical and mental limits, we grow and learn we are capable of more. It might sound daft, but those who have been in that position of hitting rock bottom, having nothing left in the tank, and then pushing through anyway will understand. It’s for these reasons we go the long way round, opt for the path of most resistance, or decide to keep riding.
If I look back and smile fondly at the easy days, I do too for the hard days. However, it’s a different kind of smile. I smile because I remember that I was able to get through them, that I endured, that I chose the hard way and didn’t give up. This gives me strength in everyday life. The bicycle is a teacher, and its lessons are numerous. Easy days, hard days—they can all teach us something.
About Toby Elliott
Toby Elliott’s passion for cycling is intertwined with an appreciation of our planet’s wild spaces and connecting with cultures on a deeper level. He’s spent time getting lost with his bike across Europe and South America. More recently, he completed the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race and has rediscovered a love for doorstep adventure back home in the UK. Find occasional photos and musings @therockandroam.
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