The Inca worshipped the mountains as protective deities. These “Guardians of the Valley” were called „Apu Wamani“ in Quechua, the language of the Inca. An ambitious bike project in Chile wanted to try and bike five of these mountains to raise awareness of the history of these people that are no longer. I followed an invitation to the last big mountain of this multi-year expedition.
Words: Gerhard Czerner | Photography: Martin Bissig
The Llullaillaco is the third highest volcano on Earth with its 6739m. It’s also the highest mountain with no glacial coverage, which is surely due to the fact that it sits enthroned in the most arid part of the Atacama desert in Chile. It lies hundreds of kilometers away from any civilization, often surrounded by heavy storms, more often than not with temperatures below minus 30 degrees. Those could be reasons it’s rarely visited by mountaineers. All in all it sounds like an exciting goal to bike I thought to myself. So I told Pato I would gladly accept his invitation.
Pato, short for Patricio, called an interesting project to life: „Guardian del Valle“. He took it upon himself to ride the “Guardians of the Valley” with his bike. All mountains are over 5000m in altitude, some more than 6000. Just like his last goal, the Llullaillaco.
My trip to Chile began in Africa strictly speaking. On Mount Kilimanjaro. I spent some time there with my bike a few years ago. After the video of my trip was published in may 2017 I received a message from Patricio Goycoolea: „#bigmountainbike. Come to Chile! We ride big mountains here.“ It was the beginning of a long mail conversation and laid the groundwork for my trip to the southern hemisphere.
Even though I did not know the names of all my travel companions I was sure that they had convenient conditions for acclimatization at home since they were all from Santiago. The mountains rise up to almost 6000m only a few kilometers outside of the city. It’s easy to spend a few days in thin air here. The process of getting used to the lower amount of oxygen at high altitude plays a large part in the success or failure in high mountains. If things go badly it may even determine life or death. You can get altitude sickness if you’re not acclimatized properly, which can lead to lung or cerebral edema. Especially the last can be fatal if you don’t descend to lower altitude at the first signs.
So this means you always have to be attentive and pay special attention to yourself and your travel mates. Headaches, lack of appetite, and loss of performance are signs of inadequate acclimatization.
The mountains in my surroundings at home rarely reach above 3000m. So I had to find other ways of preparing for the trip. I worked with a high altitude training generator. It allows you to simulate an adjustable altitude. Oxygen is pulled from the surrounding air and blown back via a tube system into a respiratory mask or tent. At night I slept in a small tent that covers head and chest. I changed the altitude every other day. That way I could sleep at up to 3800m.
Granted it isn’t especially comfortable and fresh air flows in every few seconds with a loud “zzzzzzshhhhh” which had me sleep with ear plugs.
But it worked and that’s what matters. During the day I trained on a stationary bike with the respiratory mask. I was able to bike at an altitude of 5000 meters shortly before my departure without problems.
Beginning of November last year I boarded the plane well prepared but a little nervous to tell the truth since I didn’t know the rest of the team at all. Martin Bissig, a photographer and friend from Switzerland, accompanied me. We landed in Santiago after 17 hours in the early morning. We left the airport with our luggage and immediately recognized Pato in the crowd: tall, lean, tanned with an action cam in his hand. His shirt read „Inner Mountain“ in large, orange letters, the name of his travel agency. It was a heartfelt welcome. Like we had known each other forever and just hadn’t seen each other for a while. We’d encounter this kind of warmth often.
We met two further expedition participants in the afternoon during our trip to the nearby bike park. Nicolas Gantz, our cameraman, and the probably most well-known enduro rider in South America Nico Prudencio. We went to a barbeque after a few rounds on the bone dry trails in the baking heat. Here the rest of the team joined us: Sebastian Prieto Donoso, photographer, Benjamin Camus, the second cameraman, and Federico Scheuch, another mountainbiker. The team was complete. We had a lot to laugh about during the first night already. The team spirit was right on from the beginning.
We spent the next two days in the mountains behind Santiago to get to know each other better and to acclimatize further. The first peak we reached together was at 3850m already. Everybody was feeling well though Martin and I were the slowest.
The last errands were made, material was packed, bikes checked and the pick-ups loaded. We left the city the next morning towards the north to the Atacama desert. Chile is a longish country with about 4000km of coast line. We drove along this line for ten monotonous hours in a straight line. It felt like the landscape only changed, if at all, after hundreds of kilometers. The coast was constantly to your left. Cliffs, rocks, and sand always on the right. We finally made our first stop for the night near Baja Englais. It was still light out when we arrived. We couldn’t wait to finally move so we rode a few epic lines along the Pacific Coast and enjoyed the sunset over the ocean. It was sublime!
Next day, same type of route. The endless desert again. Time went by slow. We finally arrived at the desert oasis San Pedro de Atacama around evening. They say there are two kinds of tourists here. Some are here for the amazing landscape and nature. Others because of the intoxicating cocaine. The Bolivian border is only a few kilometers away so it seems to be the ideal place for drug trafficking. We, on the other hand, came to further acclimatize and enjoy nature.
The area around San Pedro is one of the most arid regions in the world. The annual amount of precipitation is in the lower single-digit milimeters. This corresponds to about one-fiftieth of the amount of rain in the hot bed of the USA, Death Valley. The sun shines merciless from the blue sky all day. Still you can find unique nature spectacles around the city. Like the „Valle de la Luna“ just 15 kilometers outside of the city for example. The “Valley of the Moon” sure lives up to its name. The dried out landscape of sand and rock towers seems out of this world. We can’t help but visit this bizarre landscape during our visit in the next few days.
We carried our bikes up several slopes to follow the backs and ridges of the rock and sand formations back down to the valley floor. Surely some of the most impressive downhills we’ve ever ridden. A visit to the surrounding salt lakes is on almost every tourist itinerary. It was on ours too. The ride to the huge lakes that lie in the middle of the desert was also part of our acclimatization programme since the „Salar de Loyoques“ lies at 4300 meters altitude. It was ideal to get used to the altitude. We saw herds of Vicunjas which belong to the family of Alpacas, just like camels. We simply call them “lamas.” We couldn’t comprehend how these large mammals can survive here in the desert. Pink flamingos stood on the green mats that grow at the edges of the salt lakes, like specks of color on a canvas in shallow water.
We spent one of the nights at the „Banos de Puritama“. The springs lie a little above the city. A hot river has its source up here between the walls of rock. The water collects in small pools. It flows further down to the valley over steps in waterfalls. This steaming oasis lies at an altitude of 3500 meters surrounded by palm trees and reed.
During the day the hot springs are besieged by tourists. The area around the river closes at night and you’re not allowed to enter. The springs are run by the hotel in which we stayed. That’s why we had the once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the night there. Before we snuck into our sleeping bags we let ourselves drift in the pleasantly warm water for over an hour. With our eyes set to the endless starry sky, accompanied by the uniform gurgling of the water, it seemed to us like we had become part of our surroundings.
We left San Pedro towards „Salar de Atacama“ on the third day. There was a lake here about 3500 years ago. Today the approximately 3000 square kilometer large area consists of a hard, rough, white sheet of salt, soiled by desert sand. Lithium-containing brine lies beneath it. Hot air flickers above it. Water flows arise in sporadic ponds that build important biotopes. The brine pools of the lithium industry are larger than the naturally occurring water holes. This valuable raw material is an important component of batteries and rechargeable batteries. But harvesting the resources has several negative effects on the environment and people here.
Extracting the brine from groundwater leads to a decline in groundwater levels which doesn’t only dry out the rivers but also grasslands and wetland. Pristine pastures are lost and rare bird species that nest in the areas are threatened. Numerous lagoons that mark this eco-system are drastically changed. The local, in large part indigenous population, suffers from water shortages. The reason is the targeted evaporization of water to increase the lithium concentration in the pools. There is no precaution to reclaim the evaporized water and reintroduce it to the groundwater. We drove along the endless pools and water pipes for about an hour.
Is e-mobility really a step to a better future?
We continued along dusty tracks that lead into the endless landscape. The dust made it though every nook and cranny into the vehicles. We left the main trail after about seven hours to follow a few tire tracks. They lead us to a huge sign that read „Parque National Lllullaillaco.“ We were glad we took the correct turn.
We could have easily lost our way in this labyrinth of tracks and power poles. The volcano has been visible in all its glory in front of us since a few kilometers, too. We stop at the entrance of the National Park to take pictures. It really does look mighty. No, actually it looks gigantic. It’s understandable that the Inca saw gods in these mountains. We continue our drive towards basecamp full of joy but also humbleness.
We reach the small cabins at 4200 meters two hours later, our basecamp. We can finally get out of the cars, stretch our legs, cook, and discuss our tactic for the next days. The next day we packed for the high camps. Only the bare necessities were to go with us and we surely shouldn’t forget anything. We were able to drive to our first camp at 4800 meters with the Jeeps. We tediously fought up the slopes of the volcano in first gear. The ride ended between large boulders. Backpacks on and go.
We wanted to get some of the material up to 5300 meters today. We made our way slowly on the loose volcanic rock, breathing heavily. We each felt the thin air this high up. The view became more and more spectacular. It’s amazing how diverse the colors of the different types of rock are up here. Even though there were still some small bushes and shrubs around basecamp there was nothing green up here anymore. We could see the next leg of the ascent from our materialdepot. Slopes of gravel pulled endlessly towards the sky. We could only vaguely imagine what it would be like to carry our bikes up there. We sat there for a while, taking in the mountain. Devout silence. Only the wind howled around the rocks from time to time, sometimes more, sometimes less.
We put up our tents next to the vehicles after our descent. A breathtaking nature spectacle unfolded before our eyes. The setting sun let the colors of the desert glow even more vibrant. It turned ice cold as soon as the sun was gone. The temperature range in the desert is enormous. It can get up to 40 degrees hot during the day and at night temperatures drop to the double-digit sub-zero range. I though about the history and story of the mountain as I lay in my thick down sleeping bag.
In 1999 archeologists found three mummified bodies of children in a shrine on the summit. They were 13, 7, and 6 years old. The cold had conserved the dead so well that they still looked like they were sleeping when they were found. This allowed them to be examined very closely. The oldest became known under the name of „Llullaillaco Virgin“. Her point of death was somewhere between 1430 and 1520. Sacrificing humans was a firm part of the culture of the Inca. The chosen ones were well cared for and celebrated, they rose in reputation. This cruel rite was prepared for a whole year. The “last passage” of the human victims probably always began in the capital of the Inca empire, in Cuzco.
They hiked to the place of their sacrifice for weeks and months with the priests and an entourage. The 1420 kilometer long walk from Cuzco to Llullacillaco probably took at least two-and-a-half months. The virgin regularly consumed large amounts of coca during the last year of her life. Her alcohol intake, on the other hand, rose only in the last weeks of her life. She was probably submissive and highly intoxicated on the day of her death, if not unconscious. This theory is substantiated by her relaxed, sitting posture in the grave-like construction. The assumption goes that the children simply fell asleep from the intoxicating substances.
I fell asleep too at one point. But unlike the three children I woke up again. On a beautiful morning with a view of the vast Atacama desert. We spent the day carrying our bikes up as high as possible so we’d only have the weight of them on our backs for as short as possible on our summit day. So we trudged up in the direction of our materialdepot on the known path. This time is was even more arduous. The extra weight pressed down on us. In addition we had to bring everything we had left at 5300 meters the day before up to our camp at 5600m. The backpacks were really heavy now. Tents, food, crampons, warm clothes, our bikes.
We all had at least about 20kg to carry. The so-called Snow Penitents are a sight to see for sure. The up to two meter high snow and ice pyramids formed though uneven melting in the strong and direct sunlight and low humidity. They’re very burdensome to get over though. We had to cross a few smaller fields of them, making the slow pace even slower. It took us over 20 minutes for a hundred meters in some parts. It got steeper and steeper on our way to high camp. The fine gravel got coarser and the rocks continued to grow bigger. Pretty soon we were balancing back and forth on huge boulders. A really tough endeavor with our bikes.
I was done for the day at 5600m. The path further up became even steeper and the boulders bigger. Above that a huge snow field followed. Pato, Frederico and Nico continued to fight up a few more meters in altitude. I hadn’t slept well the night before and didn’t feel acclimatized well enough. I felt like the ascend was too fast for me. I would have liked to spend another night at 4800m to better adapt. The rest of the team felt well under the circumstances so we stuck to our timetable and descended to the cars to drive down to basecamp. A rest day was planned before an attempt at the summit.
Everyone slept in the next morning. The last two days had been demanding after all. Martin and I wanted to spend another night higher up. I had the feeling of not being acclimatized well enough, Martin felt the push to the summit was too long. So we packed our things at noon to set up our night camp at 5300m while the others stayed in bacecamp. It was an overwhelming evening up there, just two of us, in this grand volcanic landscape. I woke up at night because I felt sick. I got the shivers and had to puke. The next day I still had a headache and didn’t feel well at all. Martin had no problems. The rest of the team made it up. There was a big hello. I decided to get my bike back down from our high camp since I saw no chance that I’d be able to carry my bike to the peak in the condition I was in. No mountain is worth seriously risking one’s health. The possibility that I’d make it to the peak unscathed was zero. I said goodbye to my friends with a heavy heart and sat there for a bit while they continued further up. The following ride down to basecamp was extremely exhausting but also a very special experience. Completely alone across the volcanic slopes, a few kilometers through the Atacama desert to the cabins in basecamp. I was exaulted by the beauty of this hostile environment.
The rest of the team got on their way to the summit at midnight. It was minus 25 degrees. They went up a steep gully, then they put on crampons at the edge of the snowfield. They made their way up carefully to a ridge. The boulders soon reached the size of small cars. They took a short break when the first rays of sunlight reached them. It was hard to navigate since the huge blocks obstructed any points of orientation. Martin was the first to reach the summit around 2pm. The rest followed and made it to the peak at 3.30pm at 6739m. With bikes on their back! What a performance! They were the first to carry up their bikes from the Chilean side for sure. They didn’t spend much time on the summit since it was so late already. They had to get back down of course. Riding down was impossible at first. The terrain was much to blocky. So they had to carry again instead of ride. Everybody was extremely tired and weak. They first rideable passage was on the snowfield. Highly concentrated on their bikes for a few meters. Then they stopped and rested. Biking at this altitude is extremely grueling. The view, the summit, the entire experience is definitely paramount during these expeditions. The huge gravel slope to camp from 5800 to 5300m was a highlight for Pato, Frederico, and Nico after all. They collected their material and waited for the others.
The symptoms of altitude sickness usually disappear immediately when you move to lower altitude. I was feeling much better today already. I followed the team’s descend from basecamp via radio. It started to get dark slowly. I was worried a bit. Finally the bikers arrived at the cars. It was 10pm in the meantime. When I heard the news that everyone had arrived at the Jeeps I started cooking. My friends had been up for 24 hours now. Of course they had to be hungry. The sound of the motors was a relief from the endless wait. They strains of exertion were apparent, we fell into each others arms and I congratulated them. I thought they would fall into their beds immediately, dead tired. But the adrenalin kept them awake for a while and so our personal experiences were shared for a few hours and we celebrated the success.
It wasn’t just the success on Llullaillaco but the grand finale of the „Guardian del Valle“, Patricio’s entire project. It was the last „Apu Wamani“ who will continue to guard the Atacama desert long after our departure.
Santiago de Chile for Bikers:
Around Santiago de Chile, there is a lot of biking potential. Several tracks, bike parks and trails build around. The shops in town offer everything you need for spare parts or rental. A huge Mountainbike scene is there to find. Spanish is good to know, bt a lot of english spoken people are around.
If you like to go to the Atacama desert, you need a very good preparation and logistics. Huge distances without water, petrol and food. Easy to get lost on the tracks. No rescue in a lot of places.
If you like to do some Big Mountain riding, be sure you do have a proper acclimatization.
For logistics, trips and guiding ask: www.innermountain.cl Patricio is looking forward to help you and show his country.