The Inca worshiped the mountains as protective deities. These “Guardians of the Valley” were called “Apu Wamani” in Quechua, the language of the Incas. An ambitious bike project in Chile wanted to try and bike five of these mountains to raise awareness of the history of the Inca people who are no longer around today. I accepted an invitation to join the team for the last big mountain of this multi-year expedition.
Llullaillaco (pronounced “Yule-ay-yock-oh”) is the third-highest volcano on Earth at 6739 meters (22,110 feet). It’s also the highest mountain with no glacial coverage, which is surely due to the fact that it sits enthroned in the most arid part of the Atacama Desert in Chile. It lies hundreds of kilometers away from any civilization, often surrounded by heavy storms, more often than not with temperatures below minus 30 degrees. Those could be the reasons it’s rarely visited by mountaineers. All in all, it sounded like an exciting goal to bike, I thought to myself. So, I told Pato I would gladly accept his invitation.
“Pato,” short for Patricio, called an interesting project to life—Guardian del Valle. He took it upon himself to ride the Guardians of the Valley with his bike. All of those mountains are over 5000 meters (over 16,400 feet) in altitude, some more than 6000 meters (19,685 feet)—including his final challenge, the Llullaillaco volcano.
My trip to Chile began in Africa, strictly speaking, on Mount Kilimanjaro. I spent some time there with my bike a few years ago. After the video of my trip was published in May 2017, I received a message from Patricio Goycoolea: “#bigmountainbike. Come to Chile! We ride big mountains here.” It was the beginning of a long mail conversation and laid the groundwork for my trip to the southern hemisphere.
Even though I did not know the names of all my travel companions, I was sure that they had convenient conditions for acclimatization at home since they were all from Santiago. The mountains rise up to almost 6000 meters only a few kilometers outside of the city. It’s easy to spend a few days in thin air here. Getting used to the lower amount of oxygen at high altitude plays a large part in the success or failure in high mountains. You can get altitude sickness if you’re not acclimatized properly, which can lead to lung or cerebral edema. Especially the last can be fatal if you don’t descend to lower altitude at the first signs. So, this means you always have to be attentive and pay special attention to yourself and your travel mates. Headaches, lack of appetite and loss of performance are signs of inadequate acclimatization.
The mountains in my surroundings at home rarely reach above 3000 meters (9843 feet), so I had to find other ways of preparing for the trip. I worked with a high-altitude training generator. It allows you to simulate an adjustable altitude. Oxygen is pulled from the surrounding air and blown back via a tube system into a respiratory mask or tent. At night I slept in a small tent that covered my head and chest. I changed the altitude every other day. That way I could sleep at up to 3800 meters (12,467 feet). Granted, it isn’t especially comfortable, and fresh air flows in every few seconds with a loud “zzzzzzshhhhh,” which had me sleep with earplugs. But it worked, and that’s what matters. During the day, I trained on a stationary bike with the respiratory mask. I was able to bike at an altitude of 5000 meters (16,404 feet) shortly before my departure without problems.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
In the beginning of November last year, I boarded the plane well-prepared but a little nervous, to tell the truth, since I didn’t know the rest of the team at all. Martin Bissig, a photographer and friend from Switzerland, accompanied me. We landed in Santiago, after 17 hours, in the early morning. We left the airport with our luggage and immediately recognized Pato in the crowd—tall, lean, tanned, with an action cam in his hand. His shirt read “Inner Mountain” in large, orange letters, the name of his travel agency. It was a heartfelt welcome, as if we had known each other forever and just hadn’t seen each other for a while. We’d encounter this kind of warmth often.
We met two more expedition participants in the afternoon during our trip to the nearby bike park: Nicolas Gantz, our cameraman, and probably the most well-known enduro rider in South America, Nico Prudencio. We went to a barbecue after a few rounds on the bonedry trails in the baking heat. Here, the rest of the team joined us: Sebastian Prieto Donoso, photographer; Benjamin Camus, the second cameraman; and Federico Scheuch, another mountain biker. The team was complete. We had a lot to laugh about during the first night already. The team spirit was right on from the beginning. We spent the next two days in the mountains behind Santiago to get to know each other better and to acclimatize further. The first peak we reached together was at 3850 meters already. Everybody was feeling well, though Martin and I were the slowest.
HEADING NORTH TO THE ATACAMA DESERT
The last errands were made, materials were packed, bikes checked and the pickups loaded. We left the city the next morning towards the north to the Atacama desert. Chile is a longish country with about 4000 kilometers (2485 miles) of coastline. We drove along this line for 10 monotonous hours in a straight line. It felt like the landscape only changed, if at all, after hundreds of kilometers. The coast was constantly to our left. Cliffs, rocks, and sand always on the right. We finally made our first stop for the night near Baja Englais. It was still light out when we arrived. We couldn’t wait to finally move, so we rode a few epic lines along the Pacific Coast and enjoyed the sunset over the ocean. It was sublime!
Next day, it was the same type of route: the endless desert again. Time went by slowly. We finally arrived at the desert oasis, San Pedro de Atacama, around evening. They say there are two kinds of tourists here. Some are here for the amazing landscape and nature; others because of the intoxicating cocaine. The Bolivian border is only a few kilometers away, so it seems to be the ideal place for drug trafficking. We, on the other hand, came to further acclimatize and enjoy nature.
EXPLORING SAN PEDRO
The area around San Pedro is one of the most arid regions in the world. The annual amount of precipitation is in the lower single-digit millimeters. This corresponds to about 1/50th of the amount of rain in the hotbed of the USA, Death Valley. The sun shines mercilessly from the blue sky all day. Still, you can find unique natural spectacles around the city, such as the Valle de la Luna, which is just 15 kilometers outside of the city. This “Valley of the Moon” sure lives up to its name. The dried-out landscape of sand and rock towers seems out of this world. We couldn’t help but visit this bizarre landscape during our visit in the next few days. We carried our bikes up several slopes to follow the backs and ridges of the rock and sand formations down to the valley floor. These were surely some of the most impressive downhills we’ve ever ridden. A visit to the surrounding salt lakes is on almost every tourist’s itinerary. It was on ours too. The ride to the huge lakes that lie in the middle of the desert was also part of our acclimatization program. Since the Salar de Loyoques lies at 4300 meters altitude (over 14,000 feet), it was ideal to get used to the altitude. We saw herds of vicunas, which belong to the family of alpacas, just like camels. We simply call them “lamas.” We couldn’t comprehend how these large mammals could survive here in the desert. Pink flamingos stood on the green mats that grow at the edges of the salt lakes, like specks of color on a canvas in shallow water.
We spent one of the nights at the “Banos de Puritama.” The springs lie a little above the city. A hot river has its source up here between the walls of rock. The water collects in small pools. It flows farther down to the valley over steps in waterfalls. This steaming oasis lies at an altitude of 3500 meters and is surrounded by palm trees and reeds. During the day, the hot springs are besieged by tourists. The area around the river closes at night and you’re not allowed to enter. The springs are run by the hotel in which we stayed. That’s why we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the night there. Before we snuck into our sleeping bags, we let ourselves drift in the pleasantly warm water for over an hour. With our eyes set to the endless starry sky, accompanied by the uniform gurgling of the water, it seemed to us like we had become part of our surroundings.
We left San Pedro and headed towards Salar de Atacama on the third day. There was a lake here about 3500 years ago. Today, the large, approximately 3000-square-kilometer (roughly 1110-square-mile) area consists of a hard, rough, white sheet of salt, soiled by desert sand. Lithium-containing brine lies beneath it. Hot air flickers above it. Water flows arise in sporadic ponds that build important biotopes. The brine pools of the lithium industry are larger than the naturally occurring water holes. This valuable raw material is an important component of batteries and rechargeable batteries. But harvesting the resources has several negative effects on the environment and people here.
Extracting the brine from groundwater leads to a decline in groundwater levels, which doesn’t only dry out the rivers but also grasslands and wetlands. Pristine pastures are lost and rare bird species that nest in the areas are threatened. Numerous lagoons that mark this ecosystem are drastically changed. The local, in large part indigenous population, suffers from water shortages. The reason is the targeted evaporation of water to increase the lithium concentration in the pools. There is no process in place to reclaim the evaporated water and reintroduce it into the groundwater. We drove along the endless pools and water pipes for about an hour. Is e-mobility really a step to a better future?
We continued along dusty tracks that led into the endless landscape. The dust made it though every nook and cranny into the vehicles. We left the main trail after about seven hours to follow a few tire tracks. They led us to a huge sign that read “Parque National Lllullaillaco.” We were glad we took the correct turn. We could have easily lost our way in this labyrinth of tracks and power poles. The volcano had been visible in all its glory in front of us for a few kilometers, too. We stopped at the entrance of the National Park to take pictures. It really did look mighty. No, actually it looked gigantic. It’s understandable that the Incas saw gods in these mountains. We continued our drive towards base camp, full of joy but also humbled.
We reached the small cabins at 4200 meters, two hours later, our base camp. We could finally get out of the cars, stretch our legs, cook and discuss our tactic for the next days.
PREPARING FOR THE SUMMIT
The next day, we packed for the high camps. Only the bare necessities were to go with us, and we surely shouldn’t forget anything. We were able to drive to our first camp at 4800 meters with the Jeeps. We tediously fought up the slopes of the volcano in first gear. The ride ended between large boulders. Backpacks on and go. We wanted to get some of the material up to 5300 meters that day. We made our way slowly on the loose volcanic rock, breathing heavily. We each felt the thin air this high up. The view became more and more spectacular. It’s amazing how diverse the colors of the different types of rock are up here. Even though there were still some small bushes and shrubs around base camp, there was nothing green up here anymore. We could see the next leg of the ascent from our material depot. Slopes of gravel pulled endlessly towards the sky. We could only vaguely imagine what it would be like to carry our bikes up there. We sat there for a while, taking in the mountain. Devout silence. Only the wind howled around the rocks from time to time, sometimes more, sometimes less.
We put up our tents next to the vehicles after our descent. A breathtaking spectacle unfolded before our eyes. The setting sun made the colors of the desert glow even more vibrantly. It turned ice cold as soon as the sun was gone. The temperature range in the desert is enormous. It can get up to 40 degrees centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, and at night temperatures drop to the double-digit, sub-zero range (around 14 degrees Fahrenheit). I thought about the history and story of the mountain as I lay in my thick down sleeping bag.
THE ANCIENT CULTURE OF THE INCAS
In 1999 archeologists found three mummified bodies of children in a shrine on the summit. They were 13, 7, and 6 years old. The cold had preserved the dead so well that they still looked like they were sleeping when they were found. This allowed them to be examined very closely. The oldest became known under the name of “Llullaillaco Virgin.” Her time of death was somewhere between 1430 and 1520 AD. Sacrificing humans was a firm part of the culture of the Inca population. The chosen ones were well-cared for and celebrated; they rose in reputation. This cruel rite was prepared for a whole year. The last passage of the human victims probably always began in the capital of the Inca empire in Cuzco. They hiked to the place of their sacrifice for weeks and months with the priests and an entourage. The 1420-kilometer (882-mile)-long walk from Cuzco to Llullaillaco probably took at least two and a half months. The virgin regularly consumed large amounts of coca during the last year of her life. Her alcohol intake, on the other hand, rose only in the last weeks of her life. She was probably submissive and highly intoxicated on the day of her death, if not unconscious. This theory is substantiated by her relaxed, sitting posture in the grave-like construction. The assumption goes that the children simply fell asleep from the intoxicating substances.
I fell asleep, too, at one point, but unlike the three children, I woke up again on a beautiful morning with a view of the vast Atacama Desert. We spent the day carrying our bikes up as high as possible, so we’d have the weight of them on our backs for as short a time as possible on our summit day. We trudged up in the direction of our material depot on the known path. This time it was even more arduous. The extra weight pressed down on us. In addition, we had to bring everything we had left at 5300 meters (17,388 feet) the day before up to our camp at 5600 meters (18,373 feet). The backpacks were really heavy now. Tents, food, crampons, warm clothes, our bikes. We all had at least about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) to carry.
ATTACKING THE SUMMIT
The rest of the team got on its way to the summit at midnight. It was minus-25 degrees centigrade (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit). They went up a steep gully, then they put on crampons at the edge of the snowfield. They made their way up carefully to a ridge. The boulders soon reached the size of small cars. They took a short break when the first rays of sunlight reached them. It was hard to navigate, since the huge blocks obstructed any points of orientation. Martin was the first to reach the summit around 2 p.m. The rest followed and made it to the peak at 3:30 p.m. at 6739 meters (22,110 feet)—with bikes on their backs! What a performance! They were the first to carry their bikes up from the Chilean side for sure. They didn’t spend much time on the summit, since it was so late already. They had to get back down, of course. Riding down was impossible at first. The terrain was much too rocky, so they had to carry again instead of ride. Everybody was extremely tired and weak. Their first rideable passage was on the snowfield, after which they stopped and rested. Biking at this altitude is extremely grueling. The huge gravel slope to camp from 5800 to 5300m was a highlight for Pato, Frederico and Nico. They collected their material and waited for the others.
THE FINAL DESCENT
The symptoms of altitude sickness usually disappear immediately when you move to lower altitude. I was feeling much better this day already. I followed the team’s descent from base camp via radio. It started to slowly get dark. I was worried a bit. Finally, the bikers arrived at the cars. It was 10 p.m. when I heard the news that everyone had arrived at the Jeeps, so I started cooking. My friends had been up for 24 hours. Of course they had to be hungry.
The sound of the motors was a relief. Their strains of exertion were apparent. We fell into each others’ arms, and I congratulated them. I thought they would fall into their beds immediately, dead tired, but the adrenaline kept them awake for a while, so we shared our experiences for a few hours and celebrated the success.
It wasn’t just the success on Llullaillaco, but the grand finale of the Guardian del Valle, Patricio’s entire project. It was the last Apu Wamani who will continue to guard the Atacama Desert long after our departure.
SANTIAGO DE CHILE FOR BIKERS
Around Santiago de Chile there is a lot of biking potential, with several tracks, bike parks and trails. The shops in town offer everything you need from spare parts to rental bikes. There is a huge mountain bike scene. Spanish is good to know, but a lot of English-speaking people are around, too.
If you would like to go to the Atacama Desert, you will need very good preparation and logistics. You will have to go long distances without access to water, gasoline or food. It is easy to get lost on the tracks, and there is no one to rescue you in a lot of places.
If you would like to do some bigmountain riding, be sure you have proper acclimatization.
For logistics, trips and guidance, check out www.innermountain.cl. Patricio is looking forward to helping you and showing you his country.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.