Crossing Paso Jama

19 Oct

Doing a rare inbox tidy up today, I happened on a thread I’d not only forgotten but whose final two emails had passed me by. In early June a French friend emailed a piece by a man just shy of seventy who, having cycled over nine thousand miles from Seattle to Chile, was now facing the toughest stretch in the shape of a climb into the Andes, peaking at near sixteen thousand feet. It’s an astonishing piece which, like all the best writing, transcends its specificity – in this case a hybrid of travel/outdoor sports – to explore deeper truths. I’d asked my pal if he could seek the author’s permission for me to post here. Getting no answer, as I’d thought, and sidetracked by a trip to China, by Theresa May’s beautifully ill judged election and the horror of Grenfell Tower, I forgot about the issue.

Till today, when I discovered that Alain had indeed relayed my request, and that it had been granted. So here, better late than never, is Crossing Paso Jama by Mark Brown, with thanks to Alain.

After 15,000 kilometers (9300 miles) of cycling from Seattle I find myself in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, at the foot of the Andes.

I’m stopped here for a few days with a question I must answer, namely, how to get over this rather significant upthrusting of continental shelf. More specifically, how to do it on a bicycle.

The route is obvious: you follow the road. But there are other issues needing attention. First, I’ll find no food or water for 160 kilometers (100 miles). Second, it reaches over 4800 meters (15,748 feet). Third, it’s cold as sin at that elevation. And fourth, I’ll suffer from CMS (chronic mountain sickness) which will have me awake and gasping for breath at night.

At first I’m not aware of those issues, because as usual I’ve remained oblivious about what lies ahead. I don’t even know the name of the pass, or that it has a name, or that it is a pass. All I see is a thin line on Google Maps which is the most direct route to my destination, and somewhere in my thinking I say okay, I go thataway.

But with minor probing I learn there won’t be any water or food for 3 cycling days. Then my friend Jim quietly emails from the States asking me, um, did I know it went above 4800 meters? No! Of course I didn’t know. How should I know? I haven’t done any research.

“Do you have any idea what you intend to breathe up there?” he asks. No, that hasn’t crossed my mind, either.

But what does come to mind are two issues that really might bother me. First, I don’t like being cold. And second, if it’s that high I’ll get CMS which will keep me awake at night. If I spend 5 days at altitude I could be delirious, not from cycling but from lack of sleep. Darn, this will require more thought than I intended to give it …

Download the full version. It’s a lengthy piece but, whether you’re a bike geek or can’t even balance on fewer than three wheels, absolutely worth spending an hour or so crossing paso jama

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