Curva 3 and already I was short of breath. Gasping and gulping in precious oxygen.
I reckoned we were at just over 2,000 meters. That’s nothing in the Andes. La Paz, the highest capital city in world lies at around 3,400 meters (10,600 feet).
In Peru, roads criss-cross the cordillera, snaking their way over high passes of over 5,000 meters. The vast altiplano, Bolivia’s desolate wind-swept plain, has an average altitude of 3,750 meters (12,300 feet).
And here I was huffing and puffing at a mere 2,000 meters. It hardly boded well for the rest of our Andean tour that I was already feeling the adverse affects of altitude.
True, almost a year had passed since we’d been at such a high altitude. We’d gotten a tiny taste of the Andes way back in Venezuela, topping out at an unimpressive 2,446 meters. But that was in March 2010.
Curva 3. Just 26 more to go.
I needed a rest. My knees grumbled under the strain of the over-loaded bicycle, my chest heaved in objection and my heart pounded with fury. The day had begun at a sensible 800 meters. Now, after 1,200 meters of gradual elevation gain, the switchbacks kicked in.
29 of them in total. TWENTY-NINE torturous curves!
At curva 11 we rested and reflected. There was obviously a down side to this notion of Nomadic Standard Time. Traveling slowly, drinking in your surroundings, calling it a day after a measly 60 kilometers is all well and good, but there’s a price to pay. And we were in the process of paying it.
My body was rebelling. I was asking too much of it. My heart lungs and legs quite obviously preferred that Amaya who shoveled in chocolates and wiled away her time on the internet. She was a gentler taskmaster. Who was this evil soul prodding the unwilling body up an Andean pass?
Inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale. Concentrate on your breathing. Remember what you’ve learned in yoga class. I coaxed myself on. You can do it. Come on. Don’t wimp out now.
18 wheelers lurched by, straining under their heavy loads. The smell of burning rubber permeated the air as drivers fought to control their descent.
Higher and higher we climbed until finally, at around 3,000 meters, the road leveled out and before us stood the entrance to a four mile tunnel.
The tunnel was tempting. There was even a special SOS tunnel service that would take you through for free. We’d benefited from this service just before arriving in Santiago.
But there we’d had no choice. At the mouth of the tunnel the authorities pulled us over and literally forced us into the back of the SOS truck. Not that I’d have RISKED MY LIFE just to ride my bike every single inch through the Andes.
But here, at the Cristo de Redentor Pass, we had a choice. The old road off to the right snaked its way up the mountain and in to Argentina. More switchbacks and some serious climbing. And an abrupt end to the smooth tarmac. Think big rocks and sandy surfaces.
I summoned all my determination and set forth. I would turn my back on the tunnel. Opt for the hard way up the mountain, hoping my efforts would be justly compensated.
The High Mountain Road Extreme Caution sign did not exactly set me at ease. This was going to be tough.
After the first few switchbacks, I began to wonder if my lungs might explode. Eric appeared to be having a much easier time of it. He worked the pedals slowly, easing himself up the track. I, on the other hand, operated on short bursts of energy followed by long periods of panting like a winded dog on a hot summer’s day.
At every curve I’d beg him to give me a head start. Wait till I was half way around the switchback before he started grinding the gears.
This idea met with some resistance. Not good use of energy, he claimed.
And he was right, dammit.
Eight long kilometers up the sinuous track. Eight kilometers of self-induced torture just to get a glimpse of a big statue of Christ and a cross perched on the top of a mountaiside.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak, loomed in the distance. I gazed down at the long track I’d just conquered as a deep sense of satisfaction flooded over me.
I’d pushed now and then. I’d whined a fair bit. I’d let fly a few un-Christain-like curse words fly. But I hadn’t given up.
Now it was time for some fun, flying down the mountain into Argentina.