The idea was to put ourselves out there, to challenge ourselves by making plans that may not even be possible. The only real way to start a trip like this is choosing to fly the discount Spirit Airlines with all the needed gear for a two month, thousand mile bike tour combined with some high altitude mountaineering through Peru and Ecuador. For our flight to Lima, Spirit insisted on enforcing a weight restriction on the boxes containing our bikes. They are the only airline in the whole terminal to do this. We could not check our clothes for weight restrictions, or get past security with our overloaded carry-ons. The only option was to don all our high altitude climbing gear, including clunky mountaineering boots, and waddle our way through security sweating profusely. Take that Spirit. Feeling like the trip could only get easier after battling our way through the Fort Lauderdale airport terminal, I landed in Lima with my close friend Pyper Dixon.
Pyper and I have known each other for three years, and hatched our plan for this joint bike and mountaineering trip as a celebration for graduating college. We met and have worked the last three summers together at Exit. The goal was to start in Lima, bike north to Huaraz to climb in the Cordillera Blanca range in Peru, and then continue north to Quito, Ecuador. We could find no evidence on the internet of anybody else combining these two sports in the way that we were interested. The total biking would be a little over 1000 miles and we hoped to climb peaks that would take us above 18,000 feet. We gave ourselves three months to complete the journey. Our third team member, Nathan Iltis, was a friend of Pyper’s from their days skipping classes to ski together while attending Montana State University. He also happened to be a bike mechanic. This was essential, as I knew almost nothing about bike repair. In fact, I wouldn’t consider myself a biker at all, and had only gone on one long road bike ride two weeks before we departed. It wouldn't have hurt to train more since our bike route through the Andes was on neglected dirt roads that punished us with daily climbs and descents averaging 3,500 feet. Because we picked a route based upon roads that seemed rideable on Google Earth, and Google Earth can be deceiving, we sometimes were forced to push our loaded bikes. One memorable day had us pushing bikes for almost three hours in punishing heat to a plateau at 15,000 feet. When we got on our bikes to ride again it started to hail for the rest of the night, resulting in a thoroughly soggy camping experience. Needless to say, choosing a trip with the goal of putting ourselves out into the unknown led to fun in the most masochistic sense of the word.
Biking over a pass
When we arrived in Huaraz after ten days of biking we chose modest climbing objectives. It was the off-season for climbing. Combine this with our relative inexperience in larger mountains, and we chose to attempt less technical routes on Urus Estes, Ishinca, and Yanapaccha. After meeting up with three friends, including two fellow Exit guides, Josh Solomon and Henry Gates, we set out to climb. We managed Urus Estes and Ishinca, though were made wary of late season conditions after I triggered a series of shallow slab avalanches on Ishinca that threatened to yank our rope team off of an exposed ridge. Yanapaccha turned us back a pitch into the technical climbing section as visibility dropped rapidly. Navigating a heavily crevassed glacier in a whiteout turned out to be our limit on acceptable risk. Although it was frustrating to turn back, the Cordillera Blanca was a place to learn safe alpine climbing practices and decision making in big groups and dangerous environments. We considered our month there a success.
When you embark on a trip that is entirely meant to push your comfort zone, you are constantly faced with questions. There are the ones you would expect to have to answer during the trip: Should we push for the summit in bad conditions? Can we bike to the next town today, or should we plan to camp overnight? (That one we got wrong a lot, and needless to say we all lost some weight.) The reason I loved my trip, though, was because of the questions that you could never plan to answer. Is hitchhiking down from Yanapaccha on top of the tank of a gas truck down steep switchbacks a good idea? How many straight meals of chicken and rice can I eat before going insane? How many people have laughed as we biked in the wrong direction after misunderstanding their Spanish instructions? Though they were most challenging three months of my life, they were also some of the most rewarding. In fact, with some time to numb the pain, I might even be convinced to do a trip like this again. I think next time, though, I would skip the part where I biked with food poisoning.