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Thread: Top of the World - a trip to the Andes

  1. #1
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2009

    Top of the World - a trip to the Andes

    About a year ago, Séamus asked Jim and Kev if they wanted to go to the Andes to try to break the altitude record on a motorbike. The record is held by 3 Chilean guys who rode one bike to 6471m on Mont Ojos de Salado in Chile. They decided that the best bike for the job was the KTM 350 Freeride because it’s fuel injected.
    The plan was to buy the bikes, ship them to South America, hire a crew cab pick up and drive up the mountains with the bikes in the back.
    Jim and Séamus did a lot of research, scouring the internet for information, and looking at the tops of the higher Andes for hours on end on Google earth, looking for the best track up the mountains.
    Kev and I were thinking that we’d fly to Peru, and go to Macchu Picchu, then fly to Chile, where I’d relax in some nice hotel in the sunshine while the boys went up the mountain. When Kev went to one of the pre trip meetings and told them that I was coming to South America, they asked if I’d come up the mountain as they’d need someone to drive the jeep. They were thinking of hiring a local but sure if I was going to be there I may as well do it.
    I was delighted as I wasn’t really looking forward to spending a few days(HAHA)alone in a nice hotel waiting for them to come back.

    As Christmas approached, the 2/3 week trip that we had planned had turned into a 5 week trip.

    Jim, Kev and I had decided to climb Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland, to try out our camping gear.

    We had a campfire that night with glorious sausages and a drop of whiskey

    Carrauntoohil is only 1060m high.
    I wasn’t really aware of what altitude could/would do? Or indeed how difficult the terrain would be up that high. We started looking into altitude sickness and how best we could prepare ourselves.
    There’s so much information on the internet explaining to climb high and sleep low, only go up 500m per day, take time acclimatising etc. We found a place in Dublin that hired out hypoxic tents. These were tents that you put up around your bed that had machines attached that reduced the amount of oxygen that was being pumped into the tent. The idea being that if we slept for 9 hours a night in these tents for 4-6 weeks before we went that we would be acclimatised to 4000m – 6000m before we went. The reduction in the oxygen helped build up the red blood cells in our blood which would help when we were at altitude.

    We booked our flights just before Christmas, Dublin – JFK - Atlanta – Santiago, and booked the hypoxic tents to use from mid Jan to end Feb. Séamus had found an agent to fly the bikes to Santiago and we decided that we’d worry about getting the bikes home once we got there. The quote to fly the bikes home was 3 times the quote to get the bikes out there.
    Packing was a challenge as we needed shorts and t shirts because it was going to be hot, between 20 and 35 degrees C, but it was going to get really, really cold the higher up we went. You lose 6 degrees for every 1000m you climb. We knew there’d be snow up the mountains. So we needed merino base layers, down jackets, gloves, hats and all the rest of the cold weather gear. We needed 4 season sleeping bags, very decent sleep mats and a good tent. On top of all that we were bringing full motorbike gear, suits, helmets, boots etc.

    Séamus put up a post on HUBB looking for a pick up in Chile as the prices for renting one were really high. He had an answer from a German guy living in Brazil who owned a Chilean registered jeep. He had to drive it to Chile for its annual MOT type check up. He was happy to rent it to us as he was flying to Canada for the same weeks that we needed to use it. This meant that we now needed to source a trailer as it wasn’t a pick up.

    In the meantime, I had been looking for accommodation in Santiago, and everywhere I looked there was a hostel that kept popping up. Hostal Casa Matte, a biker’s hostel, right in the centre of Santiago. I sent a message telling him we were coming to Santiago, shipping bikes, and that we would need accommodation for a few nights when we arrived and some help buying/renting a trailer. Cristian, the owner, was really helpful. I booked us in there for 2 nights and we figured we’d take it from there.
    Jim had a great knowledge of all the mountain names and he and Séamus had a plan for which mountain we would try first, and then which one we’d do next if need be. The guys had also suggested I bring my bike gear so I could ride while we there as we were going to be up the mountains for days at a time. Looking at the maps they had figured that the going would get really tough at about 6000m and the woman’s altitude record was 5903m, so there was a possibility that I could go for that record.

    We went to Waterford in February for a pre trip meeting and to practice some bike winching.

    Two weeks before we left we packed up the bikes, took the front wheels off, took the handlebars off, drained all the fluids out and took the batteries out and got the 3 bikes into a crate sized 180cm x 120cm x 100cm. The crate was being priced by weight so we put nothing in with them only spare rear tyres.

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  2. #2
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    Apr 2010
    South America
    Keep it coming.

  3. #3
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    Jun 2007
    Galway Ireland
    Very good

  4. #4
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    We arrived at Dublin airport for our 11.20 flight to JFK with 6 big bags to check in. It was just as well we hadn’t a crew cab pick up as there’s no way the luggage would’ve all fit in.

    We arrived in Santiago 26 hours later, after 3 flights and many hours sitting around airport lounges.

    Hostal Casa Matte was about a 40 minute drive from the airport. Cristian welcomed us in and told us that Sascha, the german with the jeep, was already there waiting for us. He was a lovely guy, and everything was as he said it would be.

    There were a few other bikers in the hostel so we had a bit of craic while we settled in. The boys started looking for a trailer and asked Cristian if he could help.

    9th March
    Cristian had a friend who had a trailer and was willing to sell it. The boys went to have a look at it while I went to the notary with Sascha to get the paperwork required for us to drive the jeep and bring it over the border into Argentina. There’s a lot of red tape and bureaucracy in Chile.
    Cristian decided to buy his friend’s trailer and rent it to us for the 5 weeks we were going to be there. It was exactly what we were looking for and it made it easier for us to rent it rather than have the hassle of having to sell it again at the end of the trip. The lights on the trailer weren’t working so it had to go to the trailer light fixer the next day, but we needed to pick the bikes up from the airport so we picked the trailer up that night to use it to collect the bikes the next day.

    10th March

    I went back to the notary with Cristian to the notary to get the paperwork for the trailer while the boys went to the airport.

    Then they dropped the trailer over to get the lights fixed. We had to have it MOT’ed the next morning too before we could head off!
    The boys were delighted to have the bikes and went out for a quick spin round the block.

    The lights on the trailer still weren’t right when we picked it up that evening. Turns out there was no earth on the wiring on the trailer, so the boys set to work and fixed them before we went to bed.

    11th March
    Kev and I were getting up early to bring the trailer for the MOT. The MOT place opened at 8am, Cristian told us to be there at 7am. So off we went. We got to the place and got in and out fairly quickly. It was only a visual test so we didn’t need to wait for the ramps. As we watched the guy walk to the back to do the visual, Kev was watching him in his mirror and noticed that one of the mudguards had fallen off on our way there! Luckily, it wasn’t a problem. We found the mudguard on the way back to Casa Matte.

    We had to empty out the back of the jeep as Sascha had a bed on a frame and shelves and stuff in it. We packed most of our luggage into the back, it barely fit! The bikes and spare tyres were on the trailer. Off we went just after lunch, heading north.

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  5. #5
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    We were going to start off on Mont Pissis but had 1300km to go to Fiambalá first. Fiambalá was 135km past the turn off into Mont Pissis. We had to go past the turn off as there was no village, shop, petrol station at all between Copiapó in Chile and Fiambalá in Argentina. Once there, we would buy enough provisions for 4/5 days and head up to Mont Pissis.

    We drove for about 3 hours when a knocking sound started coming from under the bonnet. We pulled over and the boys all had a look.

    It turns out that one of the alternator belt tensioner bearings was worn out.

    We drove on for another while and the noise started again. We pulled over again and decided to take the bearing out altogether and try to get to La Serena.

    We got there at about 8pm and had found a hostel online. It was a lovely hostel, Hostal El Arbo (beach house). We made dinner there in the kitchen and got an early night. Jim woke in the night, panicked about the bikes being stolen as we had no lock on them, so went out and slept beside them on his ground mat!

    12th March
    There was a big hardware store around the corner so we headed over there in the morning after a nice breakfast in the hostel. They didn’t have bearings but we got fuel containers, rope, chain and locks.

    Then onwards to Copiapó. Copiapó is a mining town so we had no doubt but that we’d get the bearing there. There’s a lot of mining in Chile, mainly copper but also gold. Shortly after we left La Serena we entered the Atacama region. We were on the Pan American highway, it was a good road, tarmac with no potholes or lumps and bumps, but it was tedious.

    Long, long road that went on for miles and miles. The mountains were incredible and we were still by the coastline. The landscape was very barren, very little vegetation at all. There were cacti but little else.

    Everytime we went over a mountain there was another one, and then another. We again found our accommodation for the night on tripadvisor. It was a hotel, but the rooms were individual chalets, just a bedroom with ensuite.

    13th March

    There were3 Brazillians on bikes staying there too, they had been touring for 2 weeks and were on the last leg of their trip. They were going to Fiambalá that day too, but they were up and out early.

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  6. #6
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    We were going over the Andes that day. The San Francisco Pass. It was high, 4726m high.
    By the time we got the bearing sorted and got engine oil for the bikes it was 1 o clock. Then, as we headed out of Copiapó, up into the mountains, we realised that there would be no more shop or petrol for 450km.
    We went back to fill up the car and the petrol canisters and have some lunch and buy a few bits of food for the journey.
    The tarmac turned to gravel shortly after we left Copiapó. The gravel road was good for a while but our speed was now much slower and we realised that it was going to take much longer to do the distance than we had originally thought.

    We saw goats and donkeys and some vicunas.

    We got to the Chilean part of the border after 5pm. The borders close at 5pm and 7pm. There’s 80km between the two border controls. We went in and the guy behind the hatch asked for our passports.

    There was another guy in the room with us and he started chatting to us. Asked what we were doing and where we were going, he showed us all the mountains on a big map on the wall. He went out and had a look at the bikes, came in and asked about them and then disappeared. The guy behind the hatch was very serious, asked for paperwork, checked it all, no smiles at all, then gave everything back and told us to go next door to customs.

    In we went and there was the nice guy, sitting behind the desk. He asked who had the paperwork for the car, I said me, and he indicated for me to sit down. He turned his computer monitor around towards me and pointed. It said, “A thuras go maith” which, (while not translated very well) means have a good journey in Irish. What a lovely gesture and one that would have been wasted on Kev and Jim!! Luckily I was in the hot seat.

    He told us that we should make the other border in an hour if we were quick. But that it took some people 2 hours. We headed off, confident that we’d do it in the hour and 20 minutes that we had before the border closed in Argentina. The lovely tarmac road lasted about 20 minutes and then it turned to gravel, then to rutted gravel, and then to really, badly rutted gravel. We were slowed down to about 30 km an hour.
    On the plus side we passed Laguna Verde and there were flamingos in it. Fabulous.

    We also passed the turn off for Mont Ojos de Salado, the second highest of the Andes and the mountain on which the current record was achieved. The road was very twisty coming towards the Argentinian border. I started to feel a bit ropey. I’m not a great traveller, and even though I was sitting in the front I was really nauseous;(
    We reached the other border at about 8pm, well past closing time, but they came out to process us. They must live there for a week or month at a time as it’s in the middle of nowhere so you wouldn’t be going there and back every day. I was feeling really sick by now and had a migraine coming on too, so I just sat in the corner while the guys processed us.
    They told us about a hotel that was 80-90 km away, so we headed straight there. We hadn’t eaten since lunchtime(except for some sweets) but there was no food there so we headed straight to bed.

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  7. #7
    Dream Maker
    Join Date
    Jun 2005
    Worcester, England
    Loving this Mide

    "Of all the forces that make for a better world, none is so powerful as hope.
    With hope, one can think, one can work, one can dream.
    If you have hope, you have everything."

  8. #8
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    Feb 2009
    Cork, Ireland
    Fantastic adventure.

  9. #9
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    Nov 2004
    Cork, Ireland
    Great stuff, and ye look so happy and relaxed as if ye had just gone down the local roads for a relaxed spin.

  10. #10
    Never knowingly understood Click here to find out how to Subscribe
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    Nov 2005
    South Yorkshire
    Good one Mide ... you have me riveted to your report

    Tours, training or custom made earplugs ... it's all here.

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  11. #11
    Destined to come last Click here to find out how to Subscribe
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    Feb 2010
    'arrow, near the 'ill.
    Great report, I'm in. Thanks for sharing.

    Nauseous, migraine coming on. Sounds like the start of altitude sickness. Tingling arms and numb fingers next. I'm rivetted.

    GSA Triple Black
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    You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one

  12. #12
    Senior Member
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    Dec 2016
    South Wales
    fantastic journey, cant wait for the rest.

  13. #13
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    May 2013
    Norfolk, England
    Brilliant report. Thanks for all the work doing this.

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  14. #14
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2009
    14th March

    When Kev and I got up the next day, the guys told us that the bread was really hard and not to bother with it. I went out to the car and got some (irish) tea bags so we could at least have a half decent cup of tea.
    It was only another 90 km to Fiambalá, so we figured we’d get breakfast there.

    We arrived in Fiambalá at about 11am and the Brazillians we had met in Copiapó were there.

    Cezar had great English and he helped us find out about where we could get breakfast etc.
    La Serena and Copiapó were both big towns, where now we were in a small town. Jim and Séamus had gone to the ATM to get some Argentinian money out. Kev and I were finding out that there was very little in the way of breakfast to be found. It was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch.

    The boys came back from the ATM with no money. Our cards wouldn’t work in them. Cezar told us that the Argentinians didn’t trust the government who pretty much controlled the banks, and they wouldn’t take cards in the shops or petrol stations, he suggested we go to the bank up the road.
    So, off we went, feeling hangry! Kev managed to get his card to work, but it would only allow him take the equivalent of €100 and charged 10% for the privilege. We went into the bank to try and take money out with the cashier. She wouldn’t let us use any credit/debit cards either. The only thing we could do was change up some dollars. Luckily the boys had brought some. Kev and I only had $200. We all took some money out of the ATM too as we were going to be needing it.

    We walked back into the town to try and get some food. We were starving by now. We ended up having steak and ships for breakfast.
    After eating, we headed in to find a supermarket. We had to drive 90km back to the turnoff to Mont Pissis and then another 80km to base camp. But the 80km was going to take us up to 6 hours as it was all off road.
    We drove around Fiambalá looking for the supermarket. There was no sign of one. Not even a closed one. Just no shop.
    We found a shop open that sold wine and pickles so I went in to ask where the supermarket was. The guy in there told me that the supermarket wouldn’t open until 7pm!! 7pm?! It was only about 1.30. I went and told the boys. This was really messing with our day. We couldn’t drive into base camp in the dark. We decided to drive to Tinogasta, 45kms away, to get provisions. It was a bigger town so hopefully the supermarket would be open.

    When we got there however, everything was shut there too! Until 5pm. It was about 37°C. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. We bought and ate icecreams. That took about 10 minutes. What a looooooooong afternoon. At 5 to 5 Kev and I went and stood at the door of the supermarket. Jim was gone to the hardware store and Séamus was in the car. 5pm came and went, the staff in the shop were faffing about. Kev opened the door and they came running over. Turns out they weren’t open til 6! Nightmare!!
    Eventually, they opened and we got provisions. There wasn’t a whole lot to choose from. We got loads of water, milk, some bread, biscuits, ham, tuna, sweetcorn, cheese, eggs, bananas, mandarins, tomatoes, onions, pasta, pasta sauces, chorizo and some dodgy looking sausages. We also got toilet rolls, baby wipes and kitchen roll.
    The hardware store wasn’t open. We got petrol there too. Both the supermarket and the petrol station took credit cards which was a relief.

    We headed back to Fiambalá, topped up with fuel and got some chairs and a hammer in the hardware store there and then headed north to the turn off for Pissis.

    We pulled off the main road and drove for about a kilometre. The altitude was about 3500m. We stopped there and pitched our tents. Jim lit a fire and we sat around and for the first time we felt like the adventure was about to begin.

    15th March
    Jim couldn’t wait to get onto his bike! He and Kev were going to ride in to base camp, Séamus and I would drive.

    We packed up and got going. We were going to bring some wood with us so we could have fires at base camp, but the only wood was the small bits of bushes, kind of like tumble weed. But we didn’t have any way to carry it. It was too messy to put in the jeep and it wouldn’t stay on the trailer so we left it there.

    The mountains were amazing. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The colours and contours of the mountains.

    Again, everytime we went over a mountain or around a mountain, there was another one and another one. Red ones, green ones, multicoloured one. The photos just don’t do them justice at all. If you painted them exactly as you saw them, they’d look pretend. Incredible.

    There were many vicuna and, everytime we came to water we saw flamingos. I never thought that high altitude lakes would be the natural habitat of flamingos.

    We came over a mountain and there before us was the most amazing coloured lake. It was turquoise and kind of milky.

    We stopped beside it, and Jim stripped off and ran in for a swim!

    There was another jeep there, a local company bring tourists up to see the lakes and mountains. The tourists were all taking photos of him. Turns out the water was freeeeezing. We had a bit of lunch there beside the laguna and then got on our way again.

    After about 6 hours we reached base camp. The first thing Jim and Séamus noticed was that there was more snow on Mont Pissis than on any of the pictures they had seen, and the the glacier was bigger.
    We set up our tents and kitted out the kitchen in the back of the jeep.

    We were really starting to feel the altitude now. We were at 4580m and everything was difficult.
    We’d walk to the tent and back to the car and then have to sit down for 10 minutes til we got our breath back. Pitching the tents took a little longer, just because we had to do everything a bit slower.
    We had also realised that even eating and breathing at the same time was difficult. Everytime we ate, we sat down and just ate, no wandering around doing something while you ate. It’s so hard to explain it the breathlessness. The wind was fierce. We were in a valley, with high mountains either side. It was quite a long valley, so the wind was quite strong, when it blew. When it didn’t blow, the sunshine was really warm.

    When the sun went behind the mountain, it got very cold. Because we were in such a deep valley, the sun went behind the mountain at about 6pm but didn’t set until about 8pm. Once it got dark it got even colder. We chatted for a while and then went to bed.

    16th March

    When we woke up, we noticed that the 6 litre bottles of water had frozen, even the olive oil frozen.

    The baby wipes had also frozen, which meant we couldn’t even have baby wipe baths
    Luckily, because it was so difficult to breath, no one was doing anything energetic so we weren’t sweating.

    It had been really cold during the night. All of our camping gear was working well as none of us had woken up cold. But, Jim and I had headaches. I wasn’t sure if it was the migraine back or if it was the altitude. We drove down to about 4300m, we had breakfast there and after a while Jim and I started to feel a bit better.

    We went back to base camp and decided to move our tents back about 500m to a place that wouldn’t spend as much time in the shade. Where we were was in the shade for almost 2 hours at sun up and again at sunset.

    Once we’d moved our tents we decided to take it easy for the day. We had found lots of wood up there that someone else had left there so we could have a fire if we wanted. There was also a table and 2 big logs we could use as seats. As the day wore on, Jim and I again started getting headaches so we dropped down to the same place as that morning and Jim felt better but I didn’t really.
    We dropped the boys back up to base camp and Kev and I went back down to 4300m and slept in the jeep that night.

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  15. #15
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Jun 2010
    Looking forward to reading more.

  16. #16

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