5000 METRES UP

Getting out of Lima proves to be no easier than getting in. We spend two hours on the city’s freeways trying to find our way.  After passing the highway exit a couple of times, we finally spot the tiny road sign that we have been searching for and are once again on our way into the Andes. We are headed for Ticlio Pass and Morococha, the highest passenger train station in the world at 4758m.  At the top of the pass, we stop for lunch and Miles finally gets his chance to try cuy (guinea pig).  Given that this is considered a delicacy throughout the Andes, he isn’t that impressed – lots of bones and not much meat to fill a hungry belly.

As we gain altitude, the scenery in the mountains is quite stark.  We are often in deep canyons with rock on both sides and lots of tunnels.  Our intended destination for the day is La Oroya, a bleak, cold mining town.  It would not be worthy of a stop but for its ideal location at the end of our day’s travel and the fact that its streets are lined with hotels to house the mine workers.  As we get closer to the town, we are constantly climbing in altitude.  The higher we get, the colder we get and just minutes before we reach the town the skies open and we are soaked, making sure that if we aren’t already feeling well chilled, we are now.  Stefan and I begin the task of finding a hotel, splitting up and then re-connecting to compare our findings.  I am soaking wet, bulked up with six layers of clothing, and feeling very short of breath and a bit dizzy after an increase in altitude from sea level to over 4800m in under six hours.  To make it more challenging, the reception for every hotel is on the second floor at the top of a steep flight of stairs.  I climb a dozen of these staircases only to find that all of the hotels I check are either full or have no parking.  Stefan’s luck isn’t any better and we are beginning to think that we’ll be continuing our chilly drive to the next town.  Fortunately, there is one hotel left and it has a room for three and secure parking.  The room is not great, but it is amazing what becomes acceptable accommodation when you are frozen, exhausted, light-headed and now starving.

The next day is sunny and much warmer.  Following an early afternoon fuel stop in Huancayo, we travel a beautiful route that ascends on mountain contours then loops down to a narrow river valley and Izcuchaca before opening out again into lush alpine meadowland with artfully painted thatched-roof homes and wandering herds of llamas. It then spirals down into the valley and Huancavelica, our home for the night.

From here we head onto dirt roads. This is our opportunity for some real back-country adventure. We are headed to what is marked on our 30-year-old mining map as the highest road in the world at 5059m.  It looks like the road never goes below 4700m for almost 200km. After many skinny twists and turns, we arrive at the pass and pose for the requisite photos.  We have some sense of accomplishment, having potentially taken our Ural to the highest altitude that one of these Russian beasts has ever reached.

We are now in the midst of Peru’s Central Highlands, immersed in uninterrupted wilderness.  It is rocky, remote and feels like Peru at its most Peruvian. For hours at a time, the only signs of life are the passing herds of llama, alpaca, and vicuna.  With each new turn we are faced with a new and starkly beautiful view.

On a particularly narrow stretch of road, balanced on the edge of a cliff, we come across a truck – a big, wide truck. We maneuver the bike against the rock wall on one side of the road to provide space, but this doesn’t give the truck enough space and now the bike is sinking into the soft roadside soil. Once we get unstuck we try the other side of the road. With one tire off the road and beginning to slide downward, Miles and Stefan are both clinging to the bike to keep it from sliding completely off of the road and down the steep slope.  As the back-end of the truck passes, its rear wheels scrape the side of the Ural.  There is no room to spare.  Finally the truck makes it past us and it takes some careful footing and super-human strength to push the Ural back to safety on the road.  Whew!  Disaster averted.

The next morning the roads become steeper and less road-like with every kilometre. The altitude is taking its toll on our horsepower and finally the lack of speed and difficulty of the terrain causes us to stall to a halt. We try to continue but smoke pours from the clutch and the reality is that I will need to tackle the next couple of steep corners on foot as it is the only way to reduce our weight enough to complete the climb.

A short while later, we face a repeat situation.  This time we decide to do some load-swapping, moving one of Stefan’s bags into the sidecar while I move to the back of Stefan’s bike.  It is a nice change of pace riding on the back of the bike but I quickly remember how tiring it can be – holding on, balancing, feeling every bump. I’m missing my cushy sidecar.

Tracey

Update:   Thank you to Walter Colebatch and the Husaberg Adventure Team for featuring our altitude achievement on your website (http://www.andesmotoextreme.com/p/altitude-review.html) and congratulations to each of you as well as to Sherri Jo Wilkins http://sherrijosbecauseicanworldtour.blogspot.ca/) on your own new altitude records.

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