A Pilgrim on Snail’s Pass
Soon the road is an unrelenting slalom and a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river. Wheezing and lethargic, sweat soaking my beard, I battle slowly upwards and a claustrophobia builds as I become more hemmed in by the surrounding rock.
The wind whips and whispers between us as the Chilean and I straddle loaded bikes, shivering and suddenly quiet. Our front tyres are almost nudging, aimed at opposing horizons. I break his gaze and focus on javelins of dawn light that pierce the leaves of roadside trees and mottle the tarmac, and I’m edgy with the blindness of what to say next.
“Good luck then” I finally manage; there’s a lingering handshake and cheery waves. As he slowly recedes in my side mirror, venturing ever further away from the hulking mountains that lie in my path, I reflect on his story. Seven years ago his father’s ashes were scattered at the top of the Andean pass I hope to reach before the light fades and bitter cold claims the day. On this day every year he has cycled this road. Every year he speaks to his dead father as he pedals.
A touch teary eyed now, my chest full of heartbeats, I begin the languid crawl upwards. The Andes are lined up like children in a school photo, distinct rows of rock of increasing stature, sprouting up from the eastern horizon. In there somewhere is the lofty peak of Aconcagua, the lankiest pupil in Class Andes. In there too is Paso Libertadores, my route through the snow studded behemoths and into Argentina.
My front wheel spins over asphalt that drifts eccentrically east towards the new country. The memory of the Chilean biker rumbles on but I muse that he’s just another member of my tribe I will probably never see again, another ship in the night.
Soon the road is an unrelenting slalom and a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river. Wheezing and lethargic, sweat soaking my beard, I battle slowly upwards and a claustrophobia builds as I become more hemmed in by the surrounding rock. The metal ores sparkle all shades of rose, amber and scarlet under the glare of a determined sun.
Slowly the peripheral sky shrinks away, traded for the craggy shoulders of mountains which frame an ever diminishing blue streak above. For half a day the road clings to the river, but when the bond is broken it’s a dramatic parting. The river idles away around some corner of the valley as the road takes a desperate, mettle-destroying leap up the side of a mountain in a series of sharp, intimidating chicanes.
There is a certain kudos that comes with cycling this Andean Special – the drivers can see the distant river too and for hours I’m treated to honks, waves and muted cheers and applause from behind windshields. Every fist raised in my honor coaxes me further onwards and upward. In the late afternoon traffic is abruptly swallowed up by a tunnel and my only option – an unpaved old road, dead of traffic, branches off and wiggles further skyward.
The air has thinned and the terrain is uneven as my legs give less then I want from them, but just as the sun sinks into the jagged montane horizon a slap of success takes the sting out of my exhaustion as Christ The Redeemer of The Andes rises with authority into my eye line. The four ton statue marks the top of the pass, around 13,000 feet above sea level, and commemorates a bygone reconciliation.
In 1904 Chile and Argentina were on the verge of war when various religious figures stepped in to ease tension between the nations, like school teachers forcing two feuding pupils to shake hands and make up. The statue was carried up in pieces by mules and the two armies, who were days before ready to battle to the death, fired gun salutes together. I find a plaque on the statue and translate the words: “Sooner shall these mountain crags crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break this peace which at the feet of Christ the Redeemer they have sworn to maintain.”
The road behind Jesus tumbles downwards in a series of crooked, messy corners, like the journey home stumbled by a drunk in the night. I gleefully freewheel the rock-strewn twists and turns, bouncing over chunks of ancient volcanic debris with just the afterglow of dusk and a full moon to guide me, daydreaming as I go.
I ride past the ghosts of soldiers shaking hands. I hear the words of men as they talk to their dead fathers. For me, as for them, Paso Libertadores will always be more than just another jaunt through the mountains.
“Sooner shall these mountain crags crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break this peace which at the feet of Christ the Redeemer they have sworn to maintain.”
Like all decisions of great consequence, Stephens plan to cycle around the world was made in a pub, beer in one hand, mini-atlas in the other. He waved goodbye to friends and family in January 2010 and has been cycling ever since, racking up over 30,000 km in thirty countries and four continents.
For more information on my adventure visit http://www.cyclingthe6.com and to sponsor Stephen to complete this challenge please visit his justgiving page. Every penny donated goes to the medical aid charity Merlin who work in areas affected by natural disaster, conflict and health system collapse.
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