At Death’s Door!

Bolivia has been the most difficult country for us by far. It is absolutely beautiful but the route we chose to take was extremely remote and had terrain and weather that would challenge each of us to the core.

 

The roads conditions were the beginning of our problems, the roads would sometimes have nice compact dirt, then five feet later it would be corrugated sand, then it would turn into a path of large boulders, then 10 feet after that, it would be completely flooded and be very muddy, and the whole process would start again. However, the hardest section would prove to be the last.

Cold River Crossings
Cold River Crossings
Muddy Tires
Muddy Tires
Sandy Salars
Sandy Salars
Sandy Roads!
Sandy Roads!
Steep Downhills! by Nando Padros
Steep Downhills! by Nando Padros

 

Four more conditions would prove to be a major challenge, in fact, these conditions, for the unlucky and unprepared, can prove to be fatal. Wind, Snow, and subzero temperatures would combine to really put a damper on our progress as we strived toward the southwestern border that lies between Bolivia and Chile. The fourth condition is unity. In a situation that is life threatening, people either work together, or they fall apart, I don’t think there is any in between.

Dry Land4

How rude of me, sorry to interrupt! I haven’t mentioned our traveling partner Nando Padros! We met this hairy legged soul from Catalonia (Spain) in the small town of Llica. I was walking out of our hostal and was on my way to a store when I saw Nando walking his 180 pound bicycle to his room. We introduced ourselves and later on that evening we went out to eat and discussed our plans for the upcoming days.

Nando Padros

We found out that evening that Nando has been cycling for the past nine years! Just over half of that time alone has been in Africa, where he has helped at least 32,000 orphans. It was a pleasure meeting him and little did we know at that time, that we would be spending a week and a half with him on an unforgettable, epic journey, that would require us to come together as one. The journey tested our friendships, our patience, and ended up bringing us closer than we had ever imagined, from friendship to family.

Dry Land8

The Journey

The crap really hit the fan just after we left Laguna Hedionda. This Laguna had a beautiful Salar, a nice cozy hotel, and flamingos that were ‘intelligently’ headed toward warmer weather! After few hours of riding uphill we saw some dark clouds rolling in on top of the mountain peaks that surrounded us.

Luckily, a jeep with some tourists passed by that were headed South. Nando stopped them and asked if there was a hotel in our direction. From a distance I can see the driver nodding his head and pointing to the next mountain range ahead of us. After the jeep sped off, Nando confirmed and relayed what the driver said: “Just around this mountain range there is a hotel.”

Mountain Peak - Near Sabaya

 

Here is a word of advice: In Bolivia, if someone says something is around the corner, expect to spend ten days to get where you are going, not ten minutes!!

The wind was so bad, at this point, that it could take paint off of a car. In fact, if you look at many of the homes in this part of Bolivia, you will find many of the windows full of cardboard, because the glass has been busted out!

So our first decision (of many to come) was either to push forward to the hotel ‘around the corner’ or head back to the hotel we passed? The time was ticking and we had to make a decision fast! Since we had a tail wind (wind was in our favor but it was freezing) we decided to head forward towards the next hotel (Hotel Desierto) rather than head back facing the wind, which would have taken us many hours.

Dry Land25

 

So off we went, around the first corner was an uphill, the next corner was another up hill! Now it is getting late and the wind is getting stronger, so we headed off the path and found refuge on the side of a mountain peak, just behind a boulder! Later that evening, I found that the large boulder seemed to do nothing as our tent started bending sideways with us in it!

As I got out of our tent to secure it with some more stones, I saw that it was snowing! “Great, wind, and now snow!” Nando ended up coming over so we can deliberate what to do.

Here were our options:

  1. We could leave now and seek refuge in this non-existing hotel.
  2. We could wait it out until the morning to see if it is just a passing storm.
  3. We could stay another day if the conditions worsened.

Pros/Cons with each option:

  1. Pro: The hotel can be just around the corner!!! There may be a better spot from the wind! Con: Leaving now would be dangerous because it is late and it is getting even colder. There is the possibility of not finding shelter from the wind, and that would end up with us as monumental statues, rather than being cozy in a bed!
  2.  Pro: Waiting until the next morning may give time to allow the storm to pass, thereby giving us a better, warmer path to travel. Con: What if the storm gets worse and doesn’t stop? Now we would have to deal with snow, if it sticks to the ground.
  3.  Pro: Again, the storm may let up and the skies may clear, giving us better conditions for traveling. Con: This could be bad! What if the storm doesn’t stop, now we have even worse conditions.

So we all sat in the tent together deliberating about the options we laid out on the table. Each option being analyzed with hypotheticals of this and that sort, realizing that any one of these three options can very well turn out to be very bad and result in, lets call it for what it is, death.

Candice Pushing Bike4

 

“I need to get Candice home in one piece, this is my job, this is my duty!”, I said to myself,   Our collective choice was option two. We would wait it out until morning and see how the weather is.

Morning came and the weather fell to the con portion of option two (Now it is your choice to scroll up if you haven’t remembered this important stuff. :) The con was this: The storm got worse! Much worse! The ground went from a nice brown path to five to six inches of snow and it was still snowing with the wind.

Nando and I spoke about walking to the path we were on and around the corner (about a mile or two) to see if the hotel or a better shelter was available. After warming ourselves enough to get out of the tent, we left first for the path. We made it to the path and found that the wind and snow were so strong that if we went further, we would never find the tents until the weather cleared! “Lets go back, we won’t find the tents if we go further,” yelled Nando. Trying to look back was nearly impossible, the snow was blinding and the wind was freezing. After walking backwards and turning to get (a mouthful of wind and snow!) some point of reference we eventually found our residences!

The three options were back on the table.

  1. We could leave now and seek refuge in this non-existing hotel.
  2. We could wait it out until the morning to see if it is just a passing storm.
  3. We could stay another day if the conditions worsened.

The option to leave now was out of the question, so option one is out the window. This leaves us with option two and three. Now the crap is really hitting the fan. How long will this storm last? A week? A month? So the decisions were getting more dramatic and our fears began to grow.

We collaboratively decided to stay the day and wait the storm out. If the storm didn’t stop the following day we would have no choice but to push on, but push on to where? The tracks were beginning to be covered by snow, so we would have to rely on my compass, if it didn’t freeze like our two liter bottles of water did! Was this wretched hotel around the next range or was it another world away?

The beginning of that day we were fairly quiet. What was on each other’s mind is decided on ones worldview. Candice and I had a sense of fear, but we were content. It is in these deep dark valleys (metaphorically speaking) that we feel closest to God, and for our part, there was contentment. After all, who can blame God for this situation if things turned out to be worse? We put ourselves in this situation. My greatest fear, was not getting Candice home safe.

After a brief time of getting lost in our thoughts we ended up playing Gin, a card game. Amazing, the game got our minds off of our thoughts and we ended up having a great time laughing and cursing each other’s countries when the other person won. “Damn Spaniards,” when Nando won. “Bastard Americans,” when Candice or I won! We agreed to play to the best of 12 then we would eat.

It took 33 games for that “Bloody Spaniard”, (Nando would have preferred “Bloody Catalonian” though) to beat us, leaving us starving for our daily 500 grams of pasta!! Yes, at this point in our trip we had to ration our food, leaving us with one meal a day (per 24 hour period) which consisted of 1/3 (each) of 500 grams of pasta and a packet of soup that was mixed in.

We fell asleep early that evening in hopes that the weather would clear. ”Get up, lets go, hurry!, ” yelped the Bloody Spaniard early the next morning. The snow had stopped and the wind temporarily subsided, so we moved and we moved quickly. Putting clothes on backwards, plastic bags on the outside of our socks to keep dry, and packing the tent into our panniers, we headed off! It was nice to be moving, but the snow was cold on our feet and the sun barely warmed our bodies as we began to move. Pushing uphill was great, as it made us warm but didn’t make us sweat.

Tracks getting covered by snow.
Tracks getting covered by snow.
Slow pushing makes for a long day!
Slow pushing makes for a long day!
Valley crossing was knee deep, our tracks seen in background.
Valley crossing was knee deep, our tracks seen in background.

The problem arose when we reached a high plateau. The wind picked  up carrying with it the snow from the tops of the mountains dubbing this plateau the ‘Devil’s Anvil’. About three miles of pushing through the sand covered snow…..hell, we made it to a hill that dropped down into a valley and back up to road. It was interesting to see  the many brown patches of earth. The wind was so strong that it shifted all of the snow into these valleys, which made it very difficult and time consuming for us to pass.

Pushing a loaded bike in knee deep snow was very difficult, what was even more difficult was the elevation. It was very difficult to walk and breath at this altitude, let alone push our heavy bikes in this snow and wind. The altitude, according to my GPS (and now looking online) was 15,546 feet. We helped each other through these valleys, one by one, we got our loaded bicycles through the snow. The snow would be firm for a few feet, then suddenly you drop down to the ground.

After a day of pushing (only three miles!) we made it to a place to camp. A nice brown patch of land that was barely hidden from the wind. Instead of first setting up the tent we all made a stone wall. We carried some big stones from the hillside and Nando began putting the wall together! Breathing was incredibly difficult and we were all incredibly hungry. After two hours of building the wall, we put up the tent and finally made supper! Bloody pasta again with this wretched soup! (As we were building the wall to break the wind, a car pulled up on the hill above us, the route we took to get to our camp. The driver saw our tracks and attempted to drive down, but then backed out and left. We waved to them but they never came back!)

Now there was another problem to deal with. We went left, down the valley, towards what we thought were car tracks, and there was another set of tracks that turned right. I walked up the hill and saw cars miles in the distance taking the opposite route. So when the next morning came we moved in the direction of those tracks. This day, we paced ourselves. For example, if the terrain was flat, we would take 100 steps then stop for 30 seconds, if the terrain was steep hill, we would take 30 to 50 steps then stop for a minute. It was slow, but we were all together.

We merged to the tracks and into another snow drifting windy valley until we saw a sign that read Hotel Desierto. We pushed out bikes to the sign and Nando and I went off to the Hotel. The sign to the Hotel was about two miles (it felt like ten!) off the path and it was against the wind (as usual!). Candice waited at the sign to see if there were any cars in case the hotel was closed. The walk to the hotel almost killed me! I had to stop about a hundred times before I finally got there, breathing was just too difficult at the pace I was trying to go.

The hotel was open! I recovered quickly with a quick cup of coffee and a piece of bread and then brought a thermos full of coffee and some bread to Candice. As I was walking out to her, I see two men with Candice, struggling to push our loaded bicycles towards the hotel! The two men were driving their Land Cruiser and the vehicle got stuck in the snow. They walked about four miles until they saw Candice with the bikes! Their destination was the hotel as well!

Candice was helped in by one of the women workers and she was in tears! The hotel gave us some food and we ate like kings! We reflected on the moment and realized that if we stayed on the tracks we were on, we would have missed the hotel sign entirely! The next hotel was about 30 miles away! We didn’t have enough food for all of us for the time it would have taken to get there! We also found out that the national park that borders Chile was closed due to the snow. The weather there got worse, not better! The border was not passable, even by vehicle!

Later on we met two ladies in the lobby. “You are NUTS!”, yells the first lady! “How did you get those bicycles here?”, says the other! The ladies met us for dinner. We found out their neames: June Harvey (from England) and Maz Round (from Australia), who were both teaching in Qatar. These ladies were wonderful and very interested in our journey. They were touring South and Central America by bus. “We were complaining about the cold in our rooms, now we feel bad after hearing your story!”, they exclaimed. Their company was comforting and memorable!

Now with no choice, our plans were to head to Chile through the Northern border entrance of Avaroa/Ollegue! So after befriending the drivers that got stuck in the snow, we arranged a ride with them to the border the following morning. They were headed Northeast towards the jungles of Bolivia (how warm that sounds!).

As we began to eat dinner with June and Maz, the drivers decided to leave that evening (9:00 pm). “You are not leaving are you!,” asked June. We had no choice. We left and found a comfy spot (not as comfy as a hotel bed though!) on the dirty floor of the migration office, in the Bolivian border town of Avaroa!

If I had the opportunity to erase this experience from our lives, I would never do it! I have found that conflict can bring us together, but only if we work together. We have solidified our relationships with these difficult moments! It is highly emotional to reflect on the moments we shared! We shared our tent, food, water, thoughts, fears and pains! But in the end, it is love for each other that wins the day!

 

 

 

7 Responses to "At Death’s Door!"

  1. wow! you guys had some tough going there. i mean, when i was in that area i was cold in the jeep. i can only imagine how cold and rough it was for you!! but it’s a good thing you all stuck together and made it thru that ordeal! i still think you two are mental for cycling around the world but i love that you’re going for it!!!

    • erek4 says:

      Master Chen!! Always great to hear from you! It was pretty hard and freezing to top it off! We were think that because the roads were bad, being in the jeep must have been pretty tough too, all that bumping around! Safe travels!

  2. Mom says:

    Wonderfully written, just wish it were not as horrrific as it was and sounds to a mother! Glad you both and your new friend are OK. I will stop complaining about the heat now! Be safe and hope your planning skills develop quick…. Love You Erek and Candice. Hope your trip is as awesome as it looks (leaving out that last part) hope to see you home with all your stories, we ALL miss you both dearly, you will find me on my knees a lot more after this one… Love Mom

    • erek4 says:

      If this journey causes anyone to pray more than before, it alone will be well worth the trouble!! Thanks mom for the kinds words and encouragement!

  3. June Harvey says:

    Hi you two! Reading your blog sitting on the sunny shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.Reading your account made me shudder all over again. So glad you are both safe and well. We’ll follow your travels with interest. Much love June and Maz xx

    • erek4 says:

      Hello June & Maz!

      Thanks again! You two were exactly what we needed after a journey like that!! Hope you enjoy the remainder of your journey!

Leave a reply