Pan American Rouleur: Battling the Atacama Desert
Back in February, Austrian ultra-endurance cyclist Helmut Pucher set off from the southernmost tip of South America to begin a journey he expects will take 18 months. His goal: to ride the length of the Pan-American Highway and reach Prudhoe Bay, Alaska by August 2017.
In this, his second missive for CyclingTips, Helmut takes us along for the ride as he ventures into the Atacama Desert. Spanning four countries — Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina — the Atacama is the driest non-polar desert on Earth, receiving an average of just 15mm of rain per year.
In the following vignette, Helmut shares his experience of riding solo through the desert, and dealing with challenges of leaving behind those you’ve just met.
In keeping with the tradition I was adding another badge to my backpack. I had been waiting for that moment ever since I bought it back in Patagonia at a small souvenir stall. After weeks of cycling in relentless winds I figured I now deserved it. But all of this came at a high price.
Since heading out of Ushuaia, Argentina — the southernmost city in the world — my goal was always to tell real stories about real people. After months of avoiding the “Gringo Trail” and confronting myself with those ordinary lives alongside the road, decision-making was sometimes the toughest part. The further I went the more I started to realise goodbyes are simply part of the game.
It really is a choice I have to make every time I find a place that starts to feel like home. A choice over friends I haven’t seen in years and ties that were just about to be built. But making that choice will always bring me that little bit closer to crossing this continent. Riding the Pan American Highway is a commitment I have to make over and over again.
In Santiago de Chile I made that choice and headed into the Atacama desert.
What came to my mind when riding out of Santiago was the crisis I went through when crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in 2014. On that day icy winds created a sudden temperature drop of 30 degrees and I was forced to take shelter in a ditch on the side of the road, wearing everything I had to keep warm.
This time around I was keen to stay positive; to treat it like just another ride. Those experiences were valuable because they would help me stay calm even in the midst of a storm, whether it was a change in weather, health issues, mechanicals or motivational ups and downs. At the end of the day the Panamericana is simply a ride of overcoming all of those adversities. And the Atacama desert was another one of those.
“Now”, I kept telling myself, looking back at the very last Posada (eatery) before heading into the nothingness. The wind carried so much sand it was hurting my face and all I dreamed about was getting to the top of that final climb. My legs were heavy from the previous day and fatigue was slowly starting to creep in. The traffic had completely died down and in all of this silence I could hear the sound of gigantic wind turbines, spinning loud and clear on the horizon.
I realised I was well above 2,000m, riding in the desert with an incredible headwind and a significant load on my back. Although I kept drinking my throat felt dry and the thought of doing this for another two hours gave me chills.
A couple hours earlier a truck driver had offered me some water and invited me for coffee; one of the brightest moments I had had for days. I should have gone for it. But instead I replied “I am ready to go!”, put on a brave face, filled my hydropack to the very top and shouldered my backpack.
Assured he would be the last person I would see in a long time it took me by surprise when I saw men in orange overalls erecting a pylon in the middle of the desert. As I cycled past this odd scene I kept thinking we all had been selected for a mission to Mars and this was supposed to be our first space camp.
Thankfully my semi-accurate roadbook was telling me I was still chugging along Ruta 5 and the next Posada would be up on kilometre 1,282, the oasis I was trying to reach. Jesus, a sip of coke, a smile from the girl behind the counter, a clean shiny table with a bunch of napkins neatly folded — all of this was waiting for me. All of this was driving me along. As too was the promise of setting the first Strava KOMs in the Atacama …
The combination of exercise and isolation is something so intense; it really does take a couple of days for your mind to comprehend what you went through. Today, writing this, I can see that my inner struggle in the Atacama is something that made the ride unique. It is the culmination of grinding it out on and off the road at all costs.
The moment you go deep physically and emotionally is when you start to really understand what it means to ride in places like this.