Nomads, yaks, and butter tea: Searching for singletrack on the Roof of the World (Bikepacking Tibet)

DSCF8894

After a challenging but wildly interesting summer in sweltering Hunan province, I finished my “Invited Faculty” tenure at Central South University of Forestry and Technology and was all set to travel by train to Sichuan Province in western China where I would begin an 800km bikepacking trip at nearly continuous elevations above 4000m.
Having spent the previous I year in Ecuador biking in the high Tropical Andes, I figured I was an expert at high elevation riding, but the next few weeks would be a true mental and physical endurance test. However, before I could begin the trip, I had to bike 20km through the traffic and choking smog across the 15 million person metropolis of Changsha, Hunan to drop my bike off at the Chinese Railway Shipping office to send it ahead of me for pick up in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. No one spoke a word of English nor were they willing to try to use my translator phone app, so it was impossible to convey what I was trying to do.
After numerous failed attempts at communication, I decided to bumble around in the throngs of humanity at the massive Changsha Railway Station until inevitably someone would ask to take a selfie with me. I figured if their English was good enough to ask for a selfie, then they could help me ship my bike across the country. This is the degree of desperation one often encounters in China if you don’t speak Chinese. Fortunately, it worked and before long a teenage girl came up giggling and coyly asked me for my photo. I said sure, but first she had to help translate at the shipping office. We walked to the office together and with her smattering of English, we managed to fill out the necessary forms, and I hesitantly handed over my bike with the hopes of somehow finding it at the Chengdu train station 1200km away a few days later.
I then spent my last night in Changsha, and took my own train to Chengdu the following evening. I had hoped to ride one of the amazing high speed bullet trains, but they sell out quickly and so was forced to take the slow 22 hour 1200km ride across the country. The scenery was actually incredibly boring for the most part. Just small agricultural villages and the occasional sprawling metropolis that I had grown accustomed to in Central China. One of the city-states we passed through, Wuhan, has an unfathomable population approaching an estimated 40 million people! The sheer mass of humanity in China is nothing short of mind boggling. The train ride was pretty uneventful (a welcome event in China where ordering meal had often been a major operation) and I was able to get some sleep. I arrived in Chengdu late at night and had to find a hostel for the night before trying to recover my bike the next day.
Chengdu was even bigger than Changsha, though it was a much more inviting and interesting place. The city center has an incredibly modern, chic feel while some of the surrounding neighborhoods feel like you stepped into a time warp of tight pedestrian alleyways, paper lanterns, and teahouses. As with all Chinese cities, the size and density of the city was mind boggling. I managed to find a hostel after searching around with my tuk-tuk (small 3 wheel moto-taxi) driver for nearly an hour.
The next day I took a taxi to the Chendgu Western Railway Station (not to be confused with the Chengdu Railway Station!!) which is quite possibly the biggest single building I’ve ever seen. I was quickly dispirited when I saw the size of the place and settled in for an epic day of trying to locate the shipping office. It literally took me several hours just to locate the railway shipping office/warehouse. I asked numerous people and showed them my receipt, thinking mistakenly that they could surmise from the receipt that I was seeking to pick up something I had shipped, then easily point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, everyone I asked pointed me in opposing directions so I kept going in circles for hours. Just before reaching my breaking point, I noticed the Chinese character logo on the receipt matched a sign in an adjacent building and walked on over. As I approached, I miraculously saw my Chumba Stella leaning against the warehouse wall (I’m sure some of the employees had been taking it for a joy ride-I hope they had fun!). I produced my receipt and they handed the bike over. I couldn’t believe it. I figured that would be an ordeal to get them to release the bike to me, but they handed it right over- easier than ordering a meal!
I hopped on the bike and braved the Chengdu traffic and smog and managed to navigate, with difficulty, back to my hostel. The last thing I had to do that day was get my tickets for the bus up to Kangding. I quickly strapped on my #sawtoothhandlebarbag #divideframebag and #sawtoothhandlebarbag bikepacking bags from Wanderlust, loaded my stuff, and set out across town to the special bus station for trips to Kangding in Western Sichuan, which makes up part of the Kham region of the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately there were no tickets until the next day, so I found an adjacent hostel then spent the evening riding around the city sampling the excellent spicy Sichuan cuisine and the famed Chengdu teahouses.

DSCF8827

The next day I miraculously managed to get through bus station security with my bike and  get it loaded onto the bus with minimal grumbling from the bus driver. I was finally on my way to the Himalayas! The bus ride lasted about 7 hours as it wound its way up from the lowlands of around 500m to nearly 3000m. The drive through giant panda country is quite stunning, climbing through bamboo forests waving in the wind, past large mountain lakes, until finally reaching the Qionglai mountains of the Garze province. Despite the rugged beauty of the landscape, I was dismayed to see the rampant proliferation of dams, pipelines, and other evidence of unfettered natural resource development. I imagined there were few if any environmental safeguards involved in these efforts. I hope to return to the area one day to study the environmental impacts of these projects. But, for now, I assumed the level of development would dissipate as I traveled further west into more remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau and tried to focus on and enjoy the landscape instead of ruminating about the environmental degredation.
I arrived in Kangding and braced myself for the typical onslaught of humanity you experience in Chinese cities, and Kangding, despite being a small village (pop. ~100,000) by Chinese standards, did not disappoint. That is another marvel of China, village or bustling metropolis, there always seems to be jostling crowds, rampant honking, and a general sense of chaos and nonstop activity. After reassembling my bike, I set off to find a hostel for the night. I luckily stumbled on the lovely Zhilam hostel high up on the hillside above town where I met several western and Chinese tourists including an American owner of a bike shop in Chengdu. Wish I could remember the name of the shop, as it would be a great asset to bikepackers hoping to explore the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau. After a pleasant evening with some Chinese speaking Argentine expats, I went to bed early, knowing I’d have a big day ahead getting to Tagong, about 120km away.

DSCF8828DSCF8830DSCF8831

 

My plan had been to spend two days in Kangding to acclimate, before climbing up the 4500m pass on route to the high Tagong grassland-land of yaks, Tibetan Buddhist temples, and nomadic herders. But, I felt quite good that night and figured I was accustomed to breathe-taking altitudes after living in the Andes, so I got a pre-dawn start to begin the long climb up to the pass. Getting out of town was kind of a maze, but I finally found the muddy road under construction that lead out of town. Another interesting thing about China is that massive infrastructure are built by oceans of laborers yielding rudimentary tools. The road was going to be paved, and hundreds of villagers were mixing up the asphalt in woks and other cooking pans by the side of the road! Once I made it to the outskirts of town, I could relax and take in my surroundings. I was finally seeing glaciated Himalayan peaks, including the famed Gongga Shan, highest peak in Sichuan at around 7600m or 25000ft!

DSCF8838DSCF8844

I had searched in vain for fully singletrack or unpaved routes leading up to Tagong, but instead had to settle for staying an improved road for the first 60km or so, before turning off onto a dirt track once I reached the plateau. So despite the lack of interesting biking, the yaks, stunning mountain views, prayer wheels, and other symbols of Tibet kept me entertained during the unending climb.

DSCF8845DSCF8850

I finally reached the pass at about 4500m the after steadily climbing all morning up and was rewarded with the typical Tibetan adornments found across the Himalayan mountain passes.

DSCF8852DSCF8855

I had been traveling on the main “highway” that leads from Chengdu to Lhasa, which has become rite of passage for Chinese mountain bikers, so I was often in the company of numerous other cyclists. While the “highway” to Lhasa is now mostly paved, several of high passes are still muddy, rocky, rutted thoroughfares, so the route remains the province of mountain bikes, but will soon be handed over to the roadies. This will be a sad day indeed!

DSCF8854
After the pass, I dropped down a few kilometers before turning off the main route and onto some much more enjoyable dirt roads (though at the current rate of road building in China, the road might be paved by the time of writing this!). But for now, I was glad to find some peace and solitude among the yaks, grasslands, and stunning mountain views.

DSCF8861DSCF8862DSCF8863

I also began to pass by nomadic herder huts for the first time around this point. As I traveled through Tibet, I continually witnessed the clash between traditional Tibetan culture and rapid Chinese development. I was only a couple of kilometers from a major road and all of the development , yet these herders preserved the way of life their people had been living for generations. I sadly wondered how long they could possibly continue a nomadic lifestyle as the modern world encroaches all around them. I admit that its easy to romanticize this way of life, which is obviously not without its struggles, and development can bring many positives to these communities. I just hope a balance between tradition and development can be struck in this magical land before its too late. Sadly, after my trip, I am not very optimistic about this prospect.

DSCF8867DSCF8869DSCF8870

After managing to buy lunch (a bowl of the ubiquitous packaged fried noodles found all over rural China) from a nomadic herder family, I passed by a few traditional Tibetan villages along a small river before coming to a massive Tibetan Bhuddist Temple.

DSCF8873

I then began climbing my 2nd pass of the day thankfully much shorter than the first climb of the day as I was now starting to feel the altitude. At the top of the pass I was rewarded with a view of the Tagong Monastery and surrounding grassland. What a stunning area. The sun was out, I was finally in a remote land of yaks, grasslands, and mountains. This was what I had been looking for in a bikepacking journey in Tibet. And this was all on day one! I could barely contain my excitement at this point.

I rolled on past a few more small villages before reaching Tagong where I was met by some Chinese bike tourists and a group of Isreali travelers who had travelled by van via the main road from Kangding to Tagong that same day.

DSCF8886

Although I was carrying camping gear, the proliferation of Tibetan guesthouses across the region proved to be a much better option where available. Staying in guesthouses provides income to locals and gives travelers the opportunity to interact with the community and learn about their culture. Not to mention, the interior of Tibetan homes are incredibly unique and ornate. So, if you find yourself bikepacking across Tibet, be sure to stay in the occasional home of a villager or in nomad hut or tent!

DSCF8888DSCF8891

After dinner with a nice group of ladies, I turned in early for the night and set off the next morning for a 150km stretch that would involve a mix of dirt road and pavement and thousands of meters of elevation change. I stuffed myself with yak yogurt and momos, not knowing when I’d next find such a nourishing meal.

DSCF8892DSCF8893

The ride from Tagong back to the Lhasa road was one of the most pleasant segments of my trip. The terrain sloped gently downhill as it wound through canyons, following the path of a beautiful crystal clear mountain stream. I passed several small temples and prayer wheels along the way, and was rewarding with nice views, before rejoining the main road to Lhasa, where the sense of peace and solitude was quickly shattered.

DSCF8894DSCF8897

After a painfully long stretch of climbing on pavement, the road returned to rough dirt and large sections of road could be bypassed via singletrack. Despite climbing up to over 15000 ft, I actually enjoyed this climb. I rejoined the groups of Chinese mountain bikers as we struggled up loose rocky singletrack until the trail became unrideable, at least at those elevations, and I was happy to help my comrades with bike carrying and pushing.

DSCF8900DSCF8905

 

We finally topped out on the pass and enjoyed some strange Chinese bike touring snacks as group after group asked for selfies and took envious pics with my bike and bikepacking bags as the bikepacking revolution hasn’t yet taken hold in China.

The route stayed high up on the plateau for a several more kilometers before dropping down nearly 2000m into a deep canyon. The landscape changed from high Tibetan grassland to pineforests and the temperature climbed dramatically. Over the past year or so I’ve ridden and bikepacked on 4 continents, yet I was still consistently blown away by the dramatic relief of the Himalayas.

I descended for what felt like hours past picturesque Tibetan villages, winding my way down another canyon to the low point of approximately 2500m!

DSCF8918
I stopped for some snacks and to shed some layers as the temperature had grown quite hot, and a group of riders passed by and wanted to ride with me. Against my best judgement, I jumped in with them and it quickly became a Strava-esque impromptu hammerfest at race pace up a 20km steep climb to the next village at about 13,000ft where we would spend the night in guest houses. Even though I was reeling from the 130km+ I had ridden that day, I couldn’t let them best me so we all held a painfully fast pace, rolling into the guesthouses completely spent and bonked with exertion and lack of calories.tibetriders

The guesthouse was beautifully intricate, with a traditional open fire stove in the center of the room. The evening meal took hours to prepare, but was a much needed feast. After eating nearly my bodyweight in Chinese and Tibetan dishes, I climbed up to my bed, and crashed hard for the night. The next morning, after braving the rickety outhouse suspended forty feet above the open pit sewer below, I set off for another punishing day.

DSCF8921

My goal that day was complete the 200km stretch on the Lhasa road and turn off the main road at Litang, a mid size Tibetan village at 4014m, 400 meters higher than Lhasa! I had planned to do 150-200km a day for the entire trip, which was ambitious in any mountain range, but after a couple days of managing to push that far at these elevations with one 1500-2000m climb after the other, my body was starting to feel the punishment, and I began suffering mild altitude sickness.
The day started out with a burly 2000m climb that began on pavement and transitioned over to rough doubletrack as I approached 4659m (15,285ft), the highest pass yet. At this point I was really struggling with the altitude and exertion, and my pace had slowed considerably. When I finally crested the pass, I was rewarded with stunning views of Mt. Gongga peaking above the clouds.

The next several hours were stunning, but remained at these dizzying altitudes, so I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I might have had I been better acclimated.

One advantage of remaining on the Lhasa road was that there were always plenty of fellow bikers suffering their way up the passes right along with me which helped keep spirits high.

DSCF8933DSCF8934

Climb after climb, the day wore on and I began to realize I wouldn’t make it all the way to Litang. I was really worn out, and by the time I stumbled into Honglonxiang, an unappealing town about 50km shy of my goal for the day, I don’t think I could’ve pedaled another 2km. I found an absolutely wretched little roadside inn which would be home for the night. This town really exemplified the ugly side of Tibetan occupation for me. The ramschackle buildings were a far cry from the artistic, ornate interiors of the more traditional Tibetan homes. The children in this town had only trash for toys. Despite the undeniable natural and cultural beauty of the region, I was really saddened by much that I had seen up to this point. I wearily lay down on the bed at around 4pm and remained there in a high altitude stupor until the next morning.

The next day, still exhausted and unable to acclimate (a first for me in 15+ years of high altitude climbing and now biking), I decided to only ride 50km that day to Litang and stop there for a day or two to try to recover. After a while on the mixed pavement and dirt road, I found some yak herder paths that seemed to be heading toward Litang, and decided to follow them. I was rewarded with some muddy, though enjoyable single track through unending grasslands until finally descending into Litang, birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas.

Litang was a true clash of cultures. The Chinese government had literally ripped up the entire town and were replacing the roads and structures with typical Chinese highrise tenement buildings and plazas. Fortunately, some of the old town remained as well as the famous Litang Monastery (Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling). The weather had turned foul and I needed to recover so instead of bivying outside of town, I found a hostel and met an incredibly interesting Japanese Photographer named Kotaro Okamoto who had spent nearly 10 years photographing the changing face of Tibet and the loss of a unique cultural heritage. Kotaro said that Tibet was unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 more years, it would be just another Chinese province with some Tibetan tourist sites. This was the first town I had stayed in since Kangding that was large enough to have Wifi, but unfortunately the Chinese government was jamming all wifi signals across the plateau in an effort to control civil unrest due the Dalai Lama’s birthday a few days before.
Kotaro had been in Litang for weeks waiting for an upcoming festival and getting to know the local people. He offered to take me around the old part of town which turned out to be an amazing experience.

DSCF8944

We walked through the ancient alleys where Yak dung patties are smeared across the walls to dry and use for fuel as we made our way up to the temple.

DSCF8943

Along the way we met some monks that were just as interested in me as I was in them. We all took pictures of each other and Kotaro was able to translate for us as he speaks fluent Tibetan! Notice the ipad in the one of the monk’s hands!

DSCF8948

We toured around the monastery and met some michevious young monks-to-be. As one of the boys was bowing down to worship, candy spilled out of his robes! Kids will be kids, whether Bhuddist monks or western suburbanites!

After touring the temple we made our way through the old town to the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama before heading to the chaos and filth of the “new town” construction zone where we found a place to eat and met young nomadic herder who was really intrigued by his own picture, as though he hadn’t seen such technology before-which very well could have been possible.

That night I was rudely awoken by Chinese police making their rounds to the local Tibetan businesses and hostels to harass the owners and ensure there were no planned acts of defiance in response to a local dissident who mysteriously died at the hands of Chinese authorities in prison that day. It was kind of a tense situation as they checked my passport, but luckily they left myself and the owners alone.
After spending most of the previous day resting and being a tourist, I had recovered from my AMS and exhaustion enough to continue on my route. The weather had turned grey and cold which was disconcerting because I would be traveling through Haizishan National Reserve that day which would be my highest sustained altitude segment of the trip. After a short flat section out of town, I began my first ascent up to a pass for the day, taking me past limestone cliffs decorated with the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags, banners, and other adornments before dropping down to elevations much lower than Litang. I passed a couple villages as the road meandered along the river before I caught my first glimpse of the wall of mountains I’d have to pass over to reach the next major village, Daocheng.

I began my steady ascent mid morning, and would continue ascending for the remainder of that day (and into the next) as the steep mountain roads led me to dizzying altitudes, reinvigorating my mild AMS symptoms. The scenery was beautiful but my physical condition and the looming threat of a blizzard made it hard to enjoy my surroundings.

DSCF8978

At around 15,000 ft I climbed above treeline where the wind picked up and the temperature dropped discernibly, but I still had a lot of climbing to do. My limited and inaccurate maps also showed that once I crested the first pass, I would remain at ~16,000ft for 50-60km, making it unlikely that I’d be able to descend low enough that day to avoid freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. I was prepared for inclement weather, but knew it would be a punishing night out in the open.

After the first pass the steady drizzle turned to a heavy wet snow and I was completely soaked despite having donned my gore-tex shell and pants. I knew I had to get out of the elements and into my bivy sack quickly or hypothermia would have become a real threat. I finally descended a bit into a small valley and dropped below snowline where I came across an abandoned nomad hut. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t passed a single structure in hours, and right at the point where I knew I’d have to suffer through a wet cold night in the bivy, lo and behold a herder hut appears!

The interior was moldy and full of refuse, but to me it felt like the Ritz Carlton. I set up my bivy inside the hut, warmed myself with some instant noodles and hot tea, then passed out for an unknown period of time. I was jolted awake by the feel of scampering feet over my face and a scratching noise on my bivy sack. In my groggy state it took me a while to register that mice were trying to invade my bivy sack. I quickly unzipped and tried to swat them off. They had chewed into most of the food I left outside my bivy sack, but luckily I salvaged enough to get me through the next day. While I was able to doze for brief periods of time for the remainder of the night, the mice attacks never really let up, so I didn’t get the restful respite I had hoped for, but at least I was warm.
The next morning the storm had passed and I lounged around the hut until the snow melted off. The riding that morning was cold but the scenery was stunning, and I was glad for the lack of precipitation. The hours rolled on and I began to wonder when I would begin descending. I was ready to get off this high plateau and warm my bones!

After a while I started to descend slightly and began noticing more and more nomad camps and vegetation until I finally began an earnest descent into a warm river valley. The river crossing was treacherous, but fortunately the sun peeked through the clouds as I made it to the other bank and was able to sit back, dry out, and enjoy the warm rays.

DSCF8996

From there I began an even steeper, seemingly unending descent to a stunning temple perched on the side of a massive cliff.

DSCF9005

DSCF9008

I continued descending into a fertile valley dotted with several traditional villages, monuments, and temples, before arriving in Daocheng just before dark. Daocheng has few redeeming qualities other than an abundance of cheap hostels and food, both very welcome after the night before. If it ever was a traditional Tibetan town, no remnants of it remained. It just felt like a hectic, crowded typical Chinese town. I spent an uneventful night there, before gladly continuing on the road.

From Daocheng to Shangri-La, Yunnan, the riding was hard but uneventful. The scenery was nice and there were only a few towns on this remote stretch, but more traffic than expected despite being a rough, muddy, steep track.

At this point, I was just ready to finish the trip. Tibet was amazing in many ways, but overall the experience was somewhat disheartening. From the bikepacking perspective, dirt roads and nomad trails are being paved over at rate I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’d be surprised if there are any dirt tracks left in a few years #firstworldproblems. Moreover, although many of the local people were amazing, the evidence of cultural repression and environmental was nearly inescapable, making it difficult to feel the same sense of amazement and wonder I constantly felt in the high Andes of Ecuador. My final destination, the famed “Shangri-La” epitomized the sense of “loss” or at the very least, transformation of a unique cultural gem of the world. If this was once considered paradise, then it’s well on its way to becoming [in the words of John Milton] “paradise lost”.

From Ecuador to Patagonia to USA to China….and from Mr. to Dr. Alexiades!

The last several months have been an absolute whirlwind; my head is reeling from all the travel, work, and cycling on three different continents. Before leaving Ecuador I took a trip to Chile to visit friends and do explore a potential bikepacking route through the Lakes Region of Patagonia. I then came back to Ecuador for a bit and headed back to Tennessee to visit my folks, then drove up to New York to defend my PhD dissertation and sell my house-both of which were successful within 2 days of each other. The day after my defense I drove from Ithaca to NYC to meet the whole family, minus one sister, to celebrate the successful defense and my move to China. Two days later I was on a plane to Changsha, China where I taught Environmental Microbiology for month in June. So many experiences in such a short time, each so markedly different. I don’t know how I packed it all in…and I am still going, nonstop! At this point, I will be excited to just stay in one place for a bit and have a home. I am struggling to make sense of all these eventsand get my thoughts down, but at least I have some photo documentation of some of it where words are lacking…

My last month in Ecuador was crazy awesome as always. After some excellent bikepacking trips in the Sierra, I traveled down to Chile to visit my old friends from the Arica days. Unsurprisingly, Nico was ready with an action packed trip for me in the Central Valley region, and I also squeezed in a bikepacking trip down in the Araucania Region of Patagonia while I was there. As soon as I arrived we went straight to a carrete with a bathtub full of Heineken, partied til late, then went straight to Chacabuco for some sport climbing the next morning.

DSCF8552  DSCF8554 DSCF8557

After climbing, Nico saw me off to Patagonia in style with a couple Chilean cervezas!

DSCF8561

I took an overnight bus to Curacautin, near Parque Nacional Conguillio where I would begin my 250km bikepacking trip across backroads and trails in the Patagonian Andes to finish in Pucon on the banks of the stunning Lago Villarica. The scenery was beautiful, passing through lava fields, Araucania forests changing into Fall colors, small Maupuche villages, and glaciated volcanoes. Unfortunately, low clouds kept the high mountains from view most of the time. The trip went remarkably fast-I had planned on 4 days, but finished in 2 because the dirt roads where in good shape and the climbs were tame by Ecuador standards. Overall, it was a rather peaceful backcountry bikepack stroll through a beautiful area, but it couldn’t compete with the world-class bikepacking routes we’d been doing in Ecuador.

DSCF8566 DSCF8572 DSCF8576 DSCF8577 DSCF8578 DSCF8580 DSCF8584 DSCF8585 DSCF8592 DSCF8594 DSCF8596 DSCF8597

After the Patagonia trip, I came back to Santiago and explored the singletrack in the Metro area. Found some awesome trails right in the city!

DSCF8599 DSCF8602 DSCF8603

That weekend, Nico, some of his friends, and I went on a high mountain trek up to a glacier to check out some potential routes on a 6000m peak they are planning to climb this December.

DSCF8623 DSCF8624 DSCF8626 DSCF8633 DSCF8637 DSCF8640 DSCF8646 DSCF8649

After climbing up to the glacier, we headed back to Santiago, and had one last party before I flew back to Quito for my last few weeks in Ecuador. I took full advantage of those last few weeks with night race down into the Pululahua Crater and back up

A hike-a-bike up to Rucu Pichincha via Las Antenas (brutal!) followed by an amazing 7000′ descent on a downhill track.

And an awesome 90km, 3000m (10000ft) ascent farewell bike ride with my good friends Daniel Martin and Rodrigo Sanchez on an old endurance course called Vuelta a Nono. Great views

great friends, and even an Andean condor or two thrown in for good measure.

After several farewell gatherings and shorter, less epic rides, I reluctantly packed up my stuff and flew back to the USA. Despite going through a divorce during my time in Ecuador, it was  a truly unforgettable experience. I will never forget the great friends I made there, the magical landscapes and cultures, my research, and of course the epic backcountry bike rides and races I undertook all over the country. Ecuador, like Chile, now holds a special place in my heart and psyche. I can’t wait to get back.

Apparently fate didn’t want me to leave Ecuador as my flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems so I ended up having to spend the night at La Mariscal Airport in Quito.

I flew into Knoxville TN and spent a pleasant week with my parents before driving up to Ithaca, NY to defend my PhD at Cornell University. It was an insane week and I ended up sleeping on the floor of my office each night I was there, but at the end of the week I successfully defended, and left town early the next morning as Dr. A Alexiades (not to be confused with Dr. V Alexiades, my dad who is also a PhD). Although I made some nice friends in Ithaca and the PhD experience was invaluable at Cornell, I never really felt at home there and was glad to be moving on.

I had to start work in Changsha China just a few days after my defense (what was I thinking taking on so much!!) so I drove down to Jersey City to meet up with most of my family (minus one sister) and celebrate the successful (though admittedly painful) defense and completion of my PhD. I still didn’t feel like I was finished since I had some revisions to do on the dissertation, but it was great to see my family again before moving to China.

After a couple days of respite in the city, I flew to Changsha via La Guardia-Detroit-Shanghai-Changsha. It was a brutally long and uncomfortable flight full of delays, lines, and the typical headaches of flying with a bike. My feet swelled up so much on the 15 hour Detroit-Shanghai leg of the trip that I couldn’t put on my shoes when we landed. I arrived in Changsha in the middle of the night, but fortunately Mr. Xiong (aka Bear) was there to pick me up as I would’ve never found my way to the University on my own.

A couple days later I started teaching two sections of Environmental Microbiology to 60 sophomore Env. Sci. majors at the Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha, capital city of the Hunan Province. The English language ability of my students ranged from reasonably competent to non-existent, but fortunately their knowledge of Microbiology was well beyond that of a senior microbiology major in the USA, so the course ended up being mostly an english language class. I did notice that my students had an exceptional ability to memorize facts, but really struggled with more complex tasks and critical thinking. I was also really surprised by the immaturity displayed in the classroom. I think this was due to the interactive learning style I used-they simply aren’t used to working in groups and completing tasks and activities in class, so rather than focus on the task at hand, they assumed it was playtime. I was definitely not expecting to have to be a disciplinarian in a university class.

Over the past 12 years I’ve traveled to 50+ countries and lived in 8 countries, but I still experiences culture shock in China. Everything is strangely familiar, yet strikingly different than western countries. Changsha is a city of 15+ million people so it has all the commercialism and hustle and bustle of major metropolitan area, but the food, customs, language, air pollution, and population density were like nothing I remotely imagined. In many ways, Changsha made NYC feel like a sleepy country village.

It took me a while to get used to the staring and gawking, but after a while you just stop noticing it. Still, I often felt like a caged monkey there for the amusement of passersby. My students were lovely though-very hard working and generous. For my first week, they took me out nearly every night and wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.

During my month in Changsha, I was super busy with work, but still trained as much as possible. Unfortunately due to the air pollution and oppressive heat and humidity (temperatures ranged from high 90’s to low 100’s and the region is more humid than Florida or Louisiana!) often made it difficult/unpleasant/unhealthy to train outside. I ended up paying top dollar for a gym membership that filtered the indoor air and had spin classes. The spin classes in China are hilarious and brutal. They don’t use AC or fans and the rooms are small so a fog of human sweat quickly envelops the room. I wish I had filmed one of these classes. The music was some ultra poppy electronica that the whole class dances along to in unison, all the while spinning hard on their bikes. The temperature was probably over 100 and everyone has a huge puddle of sweat at the base of their bikes. I always felt like I was going to pass out by the end of them, more from the heat and humidity than exertion. Good fun!

There were many days that were supposed to be “sunny” but the smog was so thick it looked like a cloudy day. It was the odd day that the sun broke through the pollution and blue sky was even rarer. That said, I met some really nice mountain bikers (one of the guys races for Giant China) that showed me some really nice local trails. None of them spoke  a word of english and my chinese was so bad they couldn’t understand me, but somehow we managed.

The best riding in Changsha China, should you ever find yourself there, is on Yue Lu mountain just west of the Xianjiang River and quite close to the heart of the massive metropolis. There is actually some killer singletrack if you happen to have a dry day with little smog. Most of the riders are heavy smokers and pretty slow, but the two racers I rode with were absolute hammerheads, especially on climbs, and kamikaze warriors on the descents. Though friendly, I think we were semi-racing each other for the pride of our country’s and sponsors as we were all beaten and bloodied by the end of the 115 degrees F day.

After a month of teaching, culture shock, constant sweating, and training  hard both indoors and out, I submitted my course grades and packed up for a 3 week bikepacking trip across the Garze region of Tibet. I hope to post a write up of that trip soon.

Zen and the art of bicycle carrying: bikepacking across the Piñan highlands of Ecuador

11194402_10152974780629285_3551387922156139775_o

I’ll soon be leaving Ecuador and wanted to do one last epic bikepacking ride before I go. I had asked Cass Gilbert during our trip across the central Ecuadorian volcanoes which highland area was his favorite during the Trans-Ecuador Divide trip, and he mentioned Piñan, with the caveat that the ride was incredibly brutal and definitely NOT for everyone…Challenge accepted! Felipe Borja is one of the few riders I know down here that also enjoys this sort of punishment; so for the May 1st Labor Day holiday weekend, we decided to try to piece together a loop route that crossed the Piñan paramo, starting and finishing in Otovalo. Before this trip, I had done a lot of hike-a-bike sections that required mostly pushing with limited bike carries, but I was woefully unprepared for the amount of fully loaded bikepacking bike carrying this ride would require. The terrain we crossed in this ride really tested my limits-mentally and physically-but I learned a lot about carrying a fully loaded bike!

We had planned to leave Friday morning, which would have given us plenty of time to do the 190km route at a comfortable pace, but alas, life got in the way, and Felipe couldn’t leave until late afternoon on Friday. He picked me up from my apartment in Quito around 2pm and we drove to Otovalo, a colonial Ecuadorian city that sits between two stunning volcanoes, Imbabura and Cotocachi and is home to the famous artisanal market. We didn’t start riding until nearly 5pm, so we would really only have 2 days to complete the mountain portion of the route. Still, we wanted to get across the valley and drop down to Salinas, Ecuador and finish the paved part of the ascent before camping that night.

Though mostly paved, the ride from Otovalo, to Ibarra, then down towards Valle de Salinas was actually quite stunning with views of Volcan Cayambe towering over the area.

DSCF8671

The route also passed through several well preserved Andean Spanish colonial villages and dipped down then ascended several dramatic canyons. After a couple of hours riding, we passed through a larger village named Urcuqui, which would be the last real town we’d see until dropping back down the other side of the mountains into Cotocachi at the very end of the route. We didn’t want to waste too much time there so we just grabbed some quick eats on the street and refilled our water bottles, before taking off again. I actually had a decent burger for $1.25 from a street vendor called “El Profe” or “The professor” which was fitting since we were very close to Yachay Ciudad de Conocemiento (The Yachay City of Knowledge), which President Correa hopes to turn into university and tech hub like the Silicon Valley- I hope it succeeds! After Urcuqui, we dropped down then back up a few more canyons before beginning a steep 5km ascent to Pablo Arenas, a really beautiful hidden gem of a town with a well preserved colonial center and churches. We then dropped down a really stunning canyon (too bad it was dark so we couldn’t get a pic) then back up to Cahuasqui, the last village before the 10,000ft ascent to the paramo and where the pavement ends. It was around 9pm by this point, so we decided to start looking for a place to bivy. Luckily we quickly found a small, semi-flat plot of land where someone had started building a house but never finished it. We decided that, though private land, this would be our best bet for camping since we were travelling along a thin ridegeline with steep slopes dropping several thousand feet to the valley below on either side.

DSCF8673

We quickly set up our camp for the night- Felipe in a tarp and myself in a bivy- and since we were still full from El Profe’s burgers, we just went straight to sleep. It was beautiful clear starry night, something of a rarity during this time of year in Ecuador as it often clouds up at night. After a good night’s sleep, we were up before dawn cooking a solid breakfast (oatmeal, machica (broad bean flour), and granola) that  would give us energy to climb 10,000ft in less than 20 miles, or so we hoped.

11090872_10152974779519285_3832581745630221002_o

The first few kilometers were beautiful and rather pleasant as we climbed up the ridge and were rewarded with views of the fruit farms and orchards and passed be another small hamlet with an old church.

DSCF8674DSCF8676DSCF8675

and even some views of Cayambe and Imbabura volcanoes in the distance. I even began wondering what all the fuss was about, questioning why Cass thought this ride was so hard….

DSCF8677

Then, the nature of the climb abruptly changed, starting out as just punishingly steep, but rideable singletrack, then quickly turned into an even steeper, deep-cut rocky, muddy trench that would take us all the way to 4000m without easing up. I can’t really do the brutality of this part of the route justice. Even for someone who seeks enjoyment in this type of suffering, I found myself struggling up this climb. The trench was too tight to carry the bike on my bike and too rocky and steep to push the bike up in many places, so for several hours I just had to shoulder my bike, mercifully punctuated by a few “easier” sections where I could just push the bike.

11143661_10152974779889285_2492673113196816389_o 11143685_10152974780039285_2339897157013050795_o11169665_10152974779789285_6807392193304691518_o

Although punishing, the views were spectacular and we could actually enjoy ourselves during the few times we stopped to take a break.

DSCF8679 1537492_10152974779849285_7821583351213722540_o

At about 3900m, we passed through an amazing polilepis (one of the few native trees of the Ecuadorian paramo) forest, with some of the tallest polilepis trees I’ve ever seen.

DSCF8682

After a particularly brutal bike carrying up a trail-less section, we finally reached the paramo (Ecuadorian high altitude grasslands) and figured the hardest part was behind us since we had gained most of our altitude. We were in for quite a surprise..

DSCF8683

Though the terrain was “rolling” at this point, for the most part there was no trail at all, and where there was a trail, it was almost worse than trying to pick a way through the tufts of tussock grass, so we ended up carrying our bikes

11154649_10152974780184285_4620513744100587855_o

across the seemingly easy rolling hills before coming to a brief rideable downhill that dropped us into a mud bog.

11206538_10152974780084285_1885498802044316764_o

From there, we trudged through knee deep mud, crossed deep trenches, and fell into invisible holes covered by tussock grass for couple of hours or so before we spotted a dirt track cutting across the paramo. We had been pushing or carrying our bikes for nearly 7 hours at this point, so this was quite a site for sore eyes! I had been at my wits end because we had no idea when, if ever, we would get to some rideable terrain. Though close, getting to the track actually took quite a while because the terrain never let up, but eventually we made it and got on our bikes for the first time in hours! Once on the jeep track, we made it to Piñan village in no time and had hoped to find a store where we could stock up on provisions, but the village didn’t even have a small store. Out of sheer luck or coincidence, Felipe’s old friends who he hadn’t seen in years (they actually used to ride horses and camp in this area when they were teenagers) were camping up there with their families and had tons of food! They took pity on us and kept plying us with sandwhiches, juice, and little chocolate treats-which greatly fortified our spirits! With full bellies, we decided to press on even though it was nearing dark, thinking it would be easy since the next few miles were mostly descent. Wrong again!

DSCF8686 885795_10152974780239285_8383632459950836760_o11206538_10152974780314285_3141270152444984042_o

We started out from Piñan on some of the first fun, rideable singletrack of the trip, but the trail quickly changed back over to unridebable, deep cut trenches. These trenches were so tight that you couldn’t carry your bike or stand next to it to push; instead we to hold on to the back of the bikes, doing our best to control them down steep drops and switchbacks.  To add insult to injury, it started pouring rain for a while, then thick fog crept in, reducing visibility to a few feet. As it got darker and darker, we wondered if we would make it down to the next valley where there would be water and flat spots to bivy. Finally, though we couldn’t see a thing, we could hear the sound of the river and the terrain leveled off a bit. We had made it to our bivy site for the night just before it got pitch dark.

It was difficult to find a truly flat spot in the dark, much less a dry one in this marshy, boggy area, but finally we found a somewhat suitable spot right next to the river and set up camp. I then dug into my framebag to find my noodles and can of tuna that would serve as dinner, only to find that my bag of peanut butter had exploded at some point that day! It was a real mess, but a tasty one, and I did my best to clean it up-which also served as a great appetizer! Gross, I know, but I was so hungry at this point, I didn’t care. After excavating through the peanut butter, I eventually found my dinner, and sat down to cook. It felt great to sit and eat after such a long day! Shortly after, we turned in for the night, just as it began to rain. My OR Helium Bivy held up in the rain quite well, the major problem was that I got way too hot in the zipped up bivy and my 20F sleeping bag-it felt like a sauna, but the alternative was rain pouring down on my face. Fortunately, after a while it got cold enough so that I could actually get some sleep.

We woke up at dawn the next morning thinking the hard part was behind us and that we’d be on rideable trails and dirt roads all day. Wrong yet again!

DSCF8692 DSCF8690

Felipe knew of a good singletrack descent down to Irubi, a small village on the Rio Apuela at about 1500m where we would begin our final climb up to 3400m and then back down to Otovalo, but we decided we wanted to follow the Trans-Ecuador route, assuming it would also involve some sweet singletrack. And it did start off that way.

11206663_10152974780349285_993891408303162794_o

We began our ride that morning with beautiful sunny skies, some hard but rideable singletrack climbs,

11157529_10152974780439285_3846675600831138645_o11174719_10152974779649285_8211384594344751768_o

then finally, some amazing singletrack descents, stunning views-we had worked for more than a day for this, so we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

DSCF8695 DSCF8696 DSCF8697 DSCF869811194402_10152974780629285_3551387922156139775_o

Then, all of a sudden, the track dropped straight into a deep gorge, all the way down to the jungle. It quickly became too steep, muddy, and rocky to ride. I was disheartened to lose so much elevation on foot, and then we saw that we would have to climb over yet another mountain before finally dropping down to Irubi. We eventually made it down to the bottom of the gorge, then began the most brutal climb yet, in the scorching hot jungle sun.

11218539_10152974780799285_2237649175287881089_oDSCF869911169746_10152974780839285_2130409408390546186_o

For the next hour or so, I heaved my fully loaded up impossibly steep, alternately muddy or rocky switchbacks as we made our way up the mountain. For me, this was the hardest part of the trip. It was so steep, loose, and slippery I could barely climb up the trail while carrying my bike. When I could push, each step took immense effort-it reminded of football practice in high school when you push with everything you have to move sled across the field. My arms quickly started to feel like jello and near the top I was having trouble hefting my bike up onto my shoulder. At this point I realized that all my on-the-bike training had not prepared me for so much lifting and pushing with my upper-body. I longed for my former climber physique when this type of thing wouldn’t have taken such a toll on me.

11201130_10152974780994285_1238033602359527941_o11182795_10152974781044285_3240580920371996281_o

At the top of the mountain I felt like I was drunk-I had allowed myself to bonk during the struggle up from the jungle; but ravaging most of the remainder of my food while taking in the stunning views quickly revived my spirits. You can see in the pictures below how steep the terrain we had just crossed was.

11162055_10152974780989285_276675483808091271_oDSCF8700 DSCF8701

From the summit, we were rewarded with the best singletrack of the trip, and some of the prettiest terrain yet. We even passed a purple forest-only in Ecuador!!!

11074134_10152974781089285_4983032627275960368_o

The epic singletrack turned to road all too quickly, and eventually we were in Irubi- the first village with a store, albeit a very small one with limited provisions-since Cahuasqui on Friday night. They only had crackers and sodas, but it was better than nothing so we ate and drank our fill before continuing on.

DSCF8702DSCF8709 DSCF8710 DSCF8711

After Irubi, we were on well maintained dirt roads and enjoyed making such fast progress, even if it was mostly climbing. After what we had been through, climbing steep dirt roads felt like a piece of cake.

11206845_10152974779619285_550237237750525221_o

We contoured along the valley for a while before finally joining a bigger dirt road that would take us up our final 30km climb up and over a 3400m ridgeline that separated us from Otovalo. The climb, though on a nice dirt road, was pretty steep so the going was slow and it took a few hours to finally reach the top where it changed over to paved road. At the pass above Laguna Cuicocha, it began to pour rain and we suited up for the long fast descent down to the valley below. For the first time in days we reached high speeds, racing down the mountain at over 60km an hour!

11059791_10152974781149285_2475403200391425185_o

We were back in Otovalo before we knew it, hardly phased by the cold hard rain. Over the last 2.5 days we had ascended 7870m (25,971ft) in just 190km through some of the most unforgiving yet undeniably beautiful country imaginable. Cass was right, this was not a trip for the faint of heart, but the rewards were worth the struggles. I would highly recommend doing it over 3 or even 4 days though!

Before we left town, we had one last epic event..We had parked at a gated lot that advertised 24 hour service, but no one answered the bell when we rang nor the phone when we called the number on the sign. We hoped the manager would show up soon, and went to a pollo joint where we destroyed some quarto de pollos (1/4 chicken plates with rice, fries, soup, and salad) and watched a spanish dubbed version of The Fast and Furios while we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, faced with spending the night in Otovalo, Felipe brazenly climbed 15ft the parking lot wall and dropped over the side, battled the guard dog, and managed to open the gate so we could get the car out!

Man, I’m going to miss Ecuador and these kinds of trips!!!!!

Andean breakfasts: Searching for singletrack in the highlands of Ecuador

chumbausa (5 of 125)

What does and Andean Breakfast consist of? It starts with a minimum of 1000m of steep climbing, toss in a good helping of hike-a-bike, add some gnarly cobblestones and/or deep mud, perhaps a dash of sand, some singletrack, and some of the most spectacular terrain and views found anywhere, then repeat. That’s pretty much how we would start our mornings for this 7 day, 500km, with countless meters of elevation gain bikepacking expedition across the high central Andean volcanoes of Ecuador.

I first found out about Chumba bikes while racing the TNGA in 2014 when I tied for first place “rookie” with Chumba Team Racer Joey Parent. We got along well and rode almost the entire race together and his URSA bike was ideal for the race. After that I knew I wanted to be a part of the Chumba community, but I moved to Ecuador a few days after the race, so I had to shelve the idea. So when Operations Manager Vince Colvin contacted me about organizing a multi-day bikepacking trip in Ecuador for Chumba Cycles USA; I jumped on the chance and joined the team.

Vince wanted to a ride that showcased some of the highlights of the central Andean volcanoes and featured as much singletrack as possible. Through stage races, talking with my local rider friends, and weekend-long bikepacking trips I was able to piece together an ideal route that would meet those criteria. I had done bits of pieces of proposed route that were spectacular, so as long as the rest of the route followed suit, I knew we would be in for a stellar experience. Vince also got in touch with the man, the myth, the legend Cass Gilbert of WhileOutRiding fame, and he was interested in joining the ride. He had just completed a crossing of the entire Ecuadorian Andes Divide, so he would be able to fill in the gaps of areas I hadn’t been to and take us through some sweet terrain. The route we finalized would take us to some of the most emblematic regions in Ecuador- Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and Chimborazo, passing through some really remote highland (paramo) areas in between.

After bit more logistics and planning, Vince was in Ecuador with my new Chumba Stella XT plus the full suite of custom Chumba Bikepacking bags made by Wanderlust Gear. The poor guy had traveled with all of his equipment and an URSA XT in addition to my stuff-but I was grateful to have the sweet new rig to bring along for our crossing of the central Andean volcanoes.

DSCF8361

Vince was also doing a family vacation down here, so instead of starting the ride from Quito (in my case) and Pifo (in Cass’ case), he would meet us in Cotpaxi National Park at the end of the first leg. This was a great decision since we woke up on Sunday morning to an absolute downpour. Even for Ecuador standards, this was incredibly heavy rain. It was so bad, several of my friends who were in Cotopaxi and Chimborazo contacted me to warn of flooding and miserable conditions. Cass and I tried to hold off on starting the ride until as late as possible, thinking it couldn’t rain this hard for more than a couple hours, but by 9am or so we knew we had to get going if we wanted to get to Tambopaxi before dark.

I reluctantly left my apartment in Quito, and despite my raingear, was soaked and freezing within minutes. From Quito, I began the ride with a 1000m (normally) blisteringly fast descent down to Tumbaco, but visibility was so limited that I had to go slow. From Tumbaco, I continued on pavement across the Valle los Chillos for a couple of hourse before finally turning off onto gravel and cobblestone on route to Pintag. Cass was staying near Pifo, so his ride to Pintag was a lot shorter and he had arrived in town before me and was already eating and drying himself out by the time I arrived, cold and hungry. I found a little grease pit street stall and filled myself with a greasy gut bomb that warmed me up considerably. While we were eating the rain finally subsided-which was fortunate. If it was this cold at 2500m, I didn’t want to think about riding for several more hours in the cold rain up to 4000m! After stocking up on Pintag’s famous sweet-cheese filled bread, we began the long climb up to the paramo on particularly nasty cobblestone roads.

DSCF8381

Although I’ve done a lot of bikepacking trips and races, I’ve always elected to go ultralight and fast, foregoing comfort for speed and distance. This trip would be different-we’d be taking 7 days to cover a distance I would normally cover in about 3 days going “race” style. So for this trip, I had packed substantially more gear, food, and clothing than usual, so my bike was far heavier than what I’m used to. Due to the extra weight, I was really suffering on the cobblestone climbs-my muscles just weren’t used to cranking so hard in the saddle. To add to the difficulty, Ecuador cobblestones really sap your speed and energy and bounce you around like a toy. I was definitely envious of the 29er+ which seemed to just eat the cobblestones up.

Fortunately, after a couple hours of climbing, the road turned to pretty gnarly jeep truck punctuated by huge, pond sized mud puddles-these difficulties actually broke up the monotony of the climb and made things more challenging and enjoyable, so I was able to forget my heavy load. We kept climbing and the landscape finally gave way to Ecuadorian paramo or northern South America alpine tundra ecosystem, which is a neotropical high mountain biome with a vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette plants, shrubs and grasses. Some biologists consider páramos to be evolutionary hot spots and among the fastest evolving regions on earth! Ecuador is packed full of superlatives such as this…As an ecologist and backcountry cyclist-its a veritable paradise for me. I absolutely love this stark, haunting landscape and try to get up to the paramo whenever possible.Once we were pedaling through the paramo, all memories of the mornings epic sufferfest began to fade and we just cruised along, taking in the scenery and feeling lucky the rain had stopped and we had a full week of this ahead of us!

chumbausa (44 of 125)chumbausa (6 of 125)

We arrived at Tambopaxi by late afternoon, making pretty good time overall. Vince was there, nice and dry, with his tarp already set up. Tambopaxi is a great little mountain refuge right at the base of Cotopaxi volcano. I had camped here several times for summit climbs while the Refugio at 4800m was being we reconstructed. The problem is that meals are incredibly expensive-$17 for lunch or dinner. That might sound reasonable for NYC, but in Ecuador, even in nice neighborhoods in Quito, you can get an awesome 3-course lunch for $2.50. Needless to say, we stuck with camp food-noodles and tuna for that night. While we were eating the clouds actually lifted a bit and Vince got his first views of the stunning, perfectly symmetrical, conical volcano. We went to bed that night under a waxing gibous moon reflecting off the glacier-this is the life!

DSCF8386DSCF8382chumbausa (1 of 125)

Our plan for monday was to travel around the base of Cotopaxi volcano through some of the most spectacular volcanic paramo in Ecuador, so we didn’t plan to cover a lot of kilometers that day to allow plenty of time for photos and just to enjoy the peaceful, remote landscape. DSCF8393  DSCF8394chumbausa (19 of 125)

We also got in some really fun singletrack before hitting the boggy areas at the base of the infamous “El Morro” from the Vuelta al Cotopaxi stage race.

DSCF8413chumbausa (12 of 125)chumbausa (33 of 125)

The last few kilometers of the day through deep mud and soggy grasses  were pretty difficult, and we were above 3500m, so by the time we found a Inca shepard’s choza (the design of these thatched roof huts is incredible and remains largely unchanged after millennia of use-they shed water and stay dry and warm even in this cold, rainsoaked, humid environment). Unfortunately it was locked, but there was a cement storage building next door that we were able to use for the night. Not as warm as cozy as the choza, but better than sleeping out in the open paramo.

DSCF8406DSCF8408chumbausa (29 of 125)

We knew we had a harder day ahead of us on Tuesday-starting with an Andean breakfast consisting of a burly hike-a-bike up to 4200m+ over El Morro, then another big climb before finally descending to the Panamericana Highway then another ascent towards Quilotoa before the day was done, so shortly after another noodle and tuna dinner, we turned in early and got a good night’s sleep.

chumbausa (32 of 125)  chumbausa (34 of 125)DSCF8419DSCF8420

After starting on some fun paramo style singletrack,  the hike a bike over the Morro actually wasn’t that bad,. Near the top we saw two massive andean condors up close. What a way to start the day! We were then rewarded with an incredibly fact 20km descent down to a low valley. From there, we had a super steep, sandy climb up switchbacks to yet another pass, albeit a lower one than El Morro. From the pass, we had a fun descent on a mix of sandy double and  single track. We were speeding our way down off the paramo when I looked up and noticed a small strand of barbed wire strung across the trail at neck level, and Cass was racing toward it at high speed. I called out when he was just a few meters from getting clotheslined, just as he himself noticed the wire, and he slammed on his brakes, coming to a stop just inches from the barbs. Whew, close call…

We cruised into Lasso, a small highway town along the Panamericana, had a $2 almuerzo (set lunch), stocked up on supplies and were on our way just as it began to drizzlem which fortunately  didn’t materialize into a full blown storm. The first 12km up to Quilotoa were on paved roads, passing through Toacazo, the last real town we’d see until Zumbahua, past the Quilotoa crater. After Toacazo, we turned off onto cobblestone, which switched back to a very small paved road that climbed relentlessly back towards the paramo. We were taking a less common way to the Quilotoa crater, one that my Ecuadorian friends had recommended, saying it would eventually become singletrack.

It was getting very late in the day as we kept on ascending, passing a couple tiny hamlets and we needed to find a place to camp soon. After a while the road turned back to dirt and finally began to level off a bit as we passed through Yanaurco Grande just as a cold, steel gray fog enveloped us.

chumbausa (74 of 125)DSCF8425

We filled up our water bottles as it started to get dark, and rolled out of the village feeling chilled to the bone, hoping we’d find a decent place for the night. It wasn’t looking promising since the terrain was steep all around and wherever it was semi-flat-there was always a small house or hut that was occupied, but fortunately we climbed back out of the fog again, so at least the weather was more pleasant. Just as it seemed we’d have to pedal into the night until we found something, we came through another tiny village with a church and small volley ball field. It would work as a campsite for the night, so we were pretty relieved. As we scouted around a bit, we found a great little grassy spot behind the church, right on the edge of a precipitous drop into the valley below-the view was stunning. At the very last moment, we had found a great place to camp!

DSCF8426

As we were changing out of our riding clothes and making camp, we noticed several young village girls staring at us through the bushes-privacy would be an impossibility this evening so we embraced it and just smiled and waved as we continued to drop trow.  We were probably the most interesting thing to happen in this village in a long while, so why not. We had a pleasant evening cooking in the bright moonlight looking down into the deep valley below, and turned in for the night just as the fog and drizzle moved in on us again.

DSCF8427

I guess word of the gringo squatters had made it around town that night, so in the morning we had even more onlookers as we broke camp. A village elder came down and actually talked to us, snapping photos of us with his cell phone! Just before leaving, he insisted on getting some pics of us all together, which we enthusiastically agreed to. You have to admire the hospitality of the indigenous communidad Andino in Ecuador. I shudder when I think of the welcome you would get if you tried to camp behind a church in the middle of a town in the USA! In Texas, where Vince hails from, they would probably shoot first and ask questions later. Here, they welcome you and want pictures taken of you with their children!

We started the day with another Andean breakfast, a nearly 1000m climb to a high pass at 4200m. But the climb was on a decent dirt track and graded well for Ecuador standards, so it was quite pleasant. One thing I love about the Quilotoa region is that its full of local communities who live largely like their Inca ancestors, herding animals and growing Andean crops such as quinoa, potatoes, and habbas. You pass one small farm after another clinging to the steep Andean slopes, smiling children waving you on and little old ladies carrying massive loads and shepherding sheep and llamas while rolling through this ancient mountain landscape.

chumbausa (47 of 125)

After the pass, we started dropping down into the massive canyon that separated us from Quilotoa. We began on dirt road, which gave way to burly jeep track, and finally lead us to the edge of huge precipice-where we could get a good look at the epic singletrack below. There was a small village school right on the edge of the cliffs that excitedly came to watch us descend on our fully loaded bikes. The singletrack dropping several hundred meters to the river below is impossibly steep, sandy, and puncuated with rocky sections and deep ditch washouts. It would have been hard to ride clean on a downhill bike, much less on fully loaded bikepacking set-ups-but we gave it our all and cleaned what we could-hootin and hollerin all the way down.

DSCF8434chumbausa (51 of 125)chumbausa (52 of 125)chumbausa (53 of 125)

The last part of the “trail” leading to the river was pretty much unrideable, so we walked out bike’s down and had some food at the river’s edge before tackling the nearly 2000m to the top of the Quilotoa crater.

DSCF8436

We had anticipated a long hike a bike out of the canyon, but were stoked to find a decent dirt road, so the climb went rather quickly up to Quilotoaloma, a small Andean community on the backside of the crater. From there we had the option of continuing up the nice dirt road to the Quilotoa village, or taking a more direct, but infinitely harder hike a bike/bushwhack up the crater, then push or ride our bikes halfway around the crater ridge on the hiking trail. Naturally we chose the latter option.

DSCF8440DSCF8442DSCF8443DSCF8447

The first part was hard and required pushing or carrying the bikes, but was at least on trail. Eventually the trail completly petered out and we had to bushwhack, push, pull, lift, and drop our bikes as we grunted our way over small knife edge ridges and through inpenetrable thorny bushes for a couple of hours until we finally made it Enshalala- an ecotourism lodge built and managed by the local Quilotoaloma community whose members we had met below. I highly recommend staying here if you are in the area-its a beautiful area with a cool overlook and lodge is really well done-plus you’ll be supporting this remote community. From Enshalala- we carrying our bikes up the steps to the stunning overlook of the Quilotoa crater lake and hung out for a while to recover from the hike a bike and snap some pics.

DSCF8448DSCF8452

From the overlook, it was another 30 minutes of steep bike pushing up to a high point on the ridge before dropping back down into Quilotoa village and lunch! The pushing up the ridege was hard, but the singletrack on the other side was epic! Cass got some awesome pics of this section-check it out: https://instagram.com/p/1KKRo4P_mZ/.

After Enshalala and the rugged terrain around the crater, the touristy overlook at Quilotoa village didn’t seem too appealing, so after slightly overpriced and underportioned meal in town, we decided to head straight down to Zumbahua.

DSCF8470

We stopped at the first bakery we saw in Zumbahua and raged several pan de chocolates (chocolate bread)-a bike tour favorite all over Ecuador. It was getting late at this point and we had a nearly 1000m climb on a big paved road ahead of us, with limited options for camping so we opted to stay in Zumbahua that night rather than camp. It was a good opportunity to dry out our stuff, get some good food, and restock on supplies. We found an $8 a night shabby hostal, dropped our bikes and went back out in search of more food. Cass and I braved some street meat (not sure if it was chicken or pork-but damn it was good!), but Vince opted out. I’m glad we ate it since it was the only decent food we found in town. Later that night we ate in our hotel and it was one of the worst meals I’ve had in Ecuador, only breakfast the next morning at the same hotel being even worse!!

DSCF8462DSCF8461chumbausa (65 of 125)

After a rather loud nights sleep, we got up early, forced down the unappetizing hostal breakfast, and began the Andean breakfast climb up to the high paramo around 4200m. Since the road was paved, we climbed rather quickly. Vince was still tired from the hike a bike the day before and he was less acclimated than Cass and I, so we sped ahead and waited for him at the top of the pass, where we turned off onto a dirt road. We found a nice place to sit and wait with stunning views of Zumbuahua way down below, figuring Vince would see us as he passed by.

DSCF8467DSCF8468DSCF8470

After half an hour or so, we saw Vince cruising up the highway and yelled out to him. He looked over at us, so we assumed he saw us and would be coming along shortly. I guess it was just coincidence that he looked our way just as we yelled, since he ended up riding right past us up to the top of the pass on the highway, rather than turning off. When he didn’t show up, I was was kind of freaked out, thinking he might drop down the other side which would have lead him several thousand meters down to the coast. I hopped on my bike and tried to follow him up the pass, and just as I crested the top, I saw Vince heading back down towards me. Whew-I was stoked he didn’t drop to the coast-that would have cost us at least a day.

DSCF8466

Shortly after we got back on track and began trekking across paramo on rolling dirt roads looking down on the cloud forest below, with the occasional glimpse of the coastal banana plantations thousands of meters below. This is one of my favorite paramo areas in Ecuador-the hillsides are dotted with choza that people still inhabit, rather than the cement buildings many of the shepherd families have more recently begun to opt for. It has a remote feel to it, bordered on one side by high steep mountains with the precipitous drop into the cloud forest on the other side. Cass stopped to take a picture of a some shepherds with their flocks with a great views in the background, when his wide angled lense must have rolled out of his bag. Vince and I were a ways ahead before we noticed Cass wasn’t with us- apparently he had noticed his missing lense and ridden back to find it-but we didn’t know it at the time. We waited for half an hour or so before heading back to look for him. We hoped nothing bad had happened. Shortly after, a truck passed by and relayed a message from Cass, telling us what had happened and to head on to Angamarca, the next village on the route. We hoped he’d find the lense soon and heeded his advice, continuing on our way. Less than half and hour later, another truck passed by and handed us the wide angled lense, having spotted it on the road! Yet again, I was completely taken aback by the honesty and kindness of these people. The lense is probably worth more than they make in a year, yet they handed it off to the crazy gringos on the bikes rather than taking it to the nearest city to sell it. #restoredFaithinHumanity!

DSCF8474chumbausa (67 of 125)chumbausa (72 of 125)chumbausa (70 of 125)

We were stoked to have it but they hadn’t seen Cass so we knew he’d still be looking for it. We decided that rather than turn back, we should send him a message with the next passing vehicle. We didn’t see another for a long while, but finally a guy on a motorcycle passed by and we begged him to let Cass know we had the lense. From there we took our time getting to Angamarca, stopping to take pics on some singletrack sections and enjoying the day, finally making progress and hoping Cass was on his way. It wasn’t too long after that Cass caught up with us. The motorcycle guy had relayed the message, but Cass couldn’t believe it-we could hardly believe what happened ourselves. From there we had a “small” (1500ft+) climb to another pass before the big drop down to Angamarca, one of our lowest points on the ride. The weather at the bottom was sunny and beautiful until we made it to the pass where the fog rolled in. I was a bit ahead at this point and hung out at this creepy little church with a medieval red door.

DSCF8475

From there we had a huge descent down to the edge of the cloud forest. We found some sweet, though muddy singletrack during the descent to spice things up.

DSCF8476DSCF8477

After descending through the fog, we finally caught a glimpse of Angamarca and made our way down to town. I really like this town, it just has such a remote feel and the people are super friendly. Right in the central plaza of town a woman was cooking some fantastic tortillas de papas with eggs for $1. It hit the spot after a long day, so much so that we all had a second plate. Probably not the best idea considering we had a 1500m+ climb ahead of us, but we hadn’t eaten anything so tasty in several days, so it was worth the discomfort later on.

DSCF8479 DSCF8481chumbausa (76 of 125)

After lunch, we stocked up on the limited food supplies available town, and got on our way just as thick fog rolled in which quickly changed over to fairly heavy rain. We ducked under a small shelter, hoping the rain would pass, but after a while we knew we had to start the big climb, rain or shine. Fortunately, the rain tapered not long after we began the climb, which was good, because the climb turned out to be one of the harder ones of the trip. It started with steep switchbacks on loose gravel and dirt, but as we got higher it turned into a thick muddy slop with the consistency of peanut butter, so for the next few hours we slipped and slid our way up to the paramo.  In Ecuador, you either quickly learn to find your zen place on such climbs or you stay at home, so we put our heads down and happily grunted our way up the mountain. As we climbed above the foggy cloud forest and finally reached the paramo, we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow arcing over the peaks as the skies began to clear.

DSCF8483

I reached the top of the pass ahead of the guys and was stoked to find a very basic little community store in the tiny hamlet on this cold windswept section of paramo. The wind was bitingly cold up there so I braved the snapping dogs and made my way into the store, happy to be out of the wind while I waited for the guys. The owner was very friendly and talkative for high Andean standards and I quickly bought up half of his stock of chifles (fried plaintain chips that are ubiquitous in Ecuador) and a soda. Cass arrived shortly after and we asked the owner the name of his dog, which turned out to be “Twitter,” because the dog serves as a sort of messaging system across the high valley through its  incessant, loud barking. Maybe it was the altitude or the setting but I found this to be hilarious at the time. Although this “village” probably won’t have internet connections for another 20 years at the earliest (they’ll need electricity for starters!), somehow the locals knew about Twitter. Its nearly impossible to truly get away from the internet and global communication these days-for better or worse. Still, I found it amazing.

Vince arrived a little while later and had thoroughly enjoyed the climb to the paramo having met some really friendly locals on the trail and still stoked about the rainbow. It was quickly getting dark by this point, so we boogied down the other side to look for a place to camp for the night and escape the icy winds on the pass. Not even 10 minutes later, just as the last rays of light dropped below the horizon, we came upon a small school house with an unfinished concrete building that would make for a great home for the night. Continuing the tradition of noodles and tuna which is the only meal you can consistently buy at the small shops in the small highland villages, we had our dinner and turned in for the night under the brilliant, now full, moon. It had been an incredibly long, eventful day but couldn’t have ended better.

We woke up to stunning views of the steep Andean slope leading to the cloud forest thousands of meters below, and after a power breakfast of oats, raisins, and machica-we were on our way. This was the first morning of the trip where we didn’t start with a non-stop 1000m+ climb, instead we rode up short steep hills followed by exhilarating descents, one after the other, as we contoured along the edge of the paramo and ticked away the morning hours in great spirits. Just before lunch time we finally made to our first major climb of the day which would lead us up to our highest point of the trip to that point, about 4300m. We had been on fun jeep track all morning, but for the climb we turned onto a better dirt road so the climb, though steep, went quickly until we gained the ridge and were buffeted by strong icy headwinds. Cass and I battled our way along the ridge to the highpoint marked by a cross, and decided we better hunker down as we had gotten ahead of Vince.

chumbausa (89 of 125)

Fortunately we found a little dirt cornice that we could huddle under to escape the wind, but when Vince arrived, I was chilled to the bone and ready to get off the pass. Unfortunately, rather than a fun descent, we lost several thousand feet of elevation on nasty cobblestones, the bain of Ecuador backcountry roads. After a few kilometers I couldn’t feel my fingers on the brakes and it became hard to grip the handlebars in the icy cold with the nonstop teeth-rattling cobblestones, but finally we found some smooth dirt singletrack and had an epic descent for the last couple thousand feet into the valleys around the mighty Chimborazo. Chimbo (6268m) is the highest peak in Ecuador and due to its proximity to the equator (the earth bulges at the equator and pinches down at the poles), is actually the highest point on earth relative to the earth’s core, or put another way, its summit is the closest point to the sun on earth.

chumbausa (92 of 125)chumbausa (94 of 125)

But Chimbo is perhaps even better known for the world renowned “Bar Internacional Don Max (pictured below),” the most hoppin bar this side of the paramo.

DSCF8496

Cass had passed by this landmark several years before and I had been looking forward to seeing this place. I still can’t get over the name or location of this “bar.” Its literally just an old dumpster and shipping crates in the middle of nowhere that Don Max has converted in the only bar for miles in any direction. I was crushed to see that it was closed, but even so, there were two young ladies waiting to get into da club.

DSCF8492

From Don Max’s, we headed down the road a bit and passed by some hot springs. It was a holiday weekend so the baths were hoppin, and fortunately there were some food stalls catering to the bathers. Conditions were far less than sanitary, with dogs everywhere and buckets of fish heads and guts next to the wooden bench seating area, but we were starving and it was a chance to get some hearty eats. The stall was serving fanesca, a soup consisting of 7 types of beans and grains along with fish chunks and some other veggies. Its incredibly hardy, but an absolute gut bomb. It was damn tasty though, so we each had 3 bowls followed by a delicious sweet squash drink that was served piping hot. I was bursting at the seams by the time we were finished, and of course we had to climb all the way back up to 4300m that day, so we would pretty much be climbing nonstop for the rest of the day.

chumbausa (100 of 125)

At the first hike-a-bike up an impossibly steep hill, I immediately regretted the 3rd bowl of fanesca, but the scenery was beautiful and we were following a neat, off-trail route up to the paramo, weaving our way through tussock grass and following small irrigation ditches that led down to the farms in the valleys below. After a hard, but fun, few hours, we reached the paramo again, and cut out of the tussock grass bushwhacking and onto a dirt road as we approached the Chimborazo Reserva de Producción Faunística. As we entered the reserve, the sun began to burn through the clouds and we started to get glimpses of the glaciers of Chimborazo volcano. Not long after, we came upon several heards of vicuñas, which are native, wild camelids, similar to alpacas, their domesticated cousins. Their wool is world renowned as some of the finest on the planet. The herds in Ecuador were actually hunted to extinction many years ago, but recently they transplanted a population from Chile that is now thriving in the reserve. Back in my mountain guide days in northern Chile, we would see hundreds of vicuñas everyday, but seeing them never gets old, especially in such a majestic setting.

DSCF8527chumbausa (101 of 125)

Vince was stoked to see his first vicuñas, but was still struggling with the heaping bowls of fanesca. I couldn’t resist snapping a shot of him in his misery!

DSCF8500

Once we entered the reserve, it was just a short, gradual climb up to the base of the pass that separates Chimborazo and its neighboring peak Carihuairazo (5018m)(which might be the hardest word ever to pronounce). The indigenous community in the area runs a small mountain refugio, which we didn’t want to stay in, but fortunately there was an amazing choza right next to it, and we decided to spend the night there so we could spend the remaining hours of daylight enjoying the amazing views of Chimborazo.

DSCF8518DSCF8516DSCF8508DSCF8513DSCF8503

In one of those “small world” type coincidences, I ended up knowing the guide, Fabian, who was staying at the adjacent refugio, having met him during a climb of Cotopaxi a couple months before. We chatted for a while and it turned out he knows my colleague Deb, a world renowned alpine stream ecologist, who has some study streams on Chimborazo. It also turned out that I had a mutual acquaintances with two of his Spanish clients, a fish biologist that lives in Quito. We were all so stoked to be rewarded with such stunning views of the peak. I’ve been to Chimborazo several times and had never had such good views. As the sun went down, it got bitingly cold and we were glad to be staying in the well insulated thatch choza. After dinner, I went outside of the choza to take a leak and was floored by the view of Chimborazo basking in glow of the nearly full moon. I ran back in and told Vince he had to get some pics. He was tired and ready for bed, but suited up and went out with his tripod and got this epic shot.

chumbausa (106 of 125)

The view was so amazing that its impossibly to do it justice in 2D, but this pic comes damn close! Nice work man.  We woke up the next morning and climbed the couple hundred remaining meters up to the pass that splits the two peaks at 4400m. From there we had a huge descent on singletrack that started out as great fun, but quickly turned into a deep muddy bog. Even though we were descending, the mud and standing water was so deep, we ended up having to trudge through a good part of this descent rather than ride. The guys on the fatbikes definitely had an easier time of it through the slop; they seemed to be enjoying it while I was struggling and walking! After a few river crossings and some steep muddy hike a bikes, we finally made it to a dirt track, and from there it was smooth sailing down to Urbina, where Vince would split off to the Panamerican highway while Cass and I would continue up and over the highest pass of the trip at 4500m then drop way down to Salinas, a small town on the edge of the cloud forest.

chumbausa (118 of 125) DSCF8520DSCF8524

Kudos to Vince for an epic ride-what an effort to come directly from Texas and then ride for 5 days mostly above 12,000ft and with passes over 14,000ft through such challenging terrain! After splitting off from Vince, we contoured around the base of the mountain on cobblestone roads until we came to Cuatro Esquinas where there was a small store, and we stocked up on bread and crackers.

DSCF8525

From there we climbed up a brutally steep dirt track that is part of the Chimborazo Extremo race. In fact, we later found out that nearly all of the route we did from Urbina to the main entrance to the Reserve was part of the race course. The only difference was that we were carrying an extra 20+ lbs of gear and had been riding all morning before getting on the course.

After the dirt climb we hit a paved road, which we followed for a while but split off on dirt roads and singletrack every few km. As we were heading up one of the paved sections, I saw two riders blazing down from the pass. They both had blue helmets and looked eerily like my two great friends Pericles and Gaby, whom I ride with several days a week in Quito and surrounds. As they got closer I realized it was indeed Peri and Gaby and I called them over. It was so weird to see two close friends so far from home after 7 days of nonstop backcountry bikepacking. After chatting for a while, we all still had a lot of ground to cover that day, so after snapping some group pics, we continued up the mountain and they sped down it.

DSCF8528 DSCF8529

After leaving Gaby and Peri, we got on some really fun single and double track climbs that led us all the way up to the main Reserve entrance, just before the high pass at 4500m. At the entrance, I quickly walked through the little visitors museum while Cass asked the guards if there was a way to continue on trail and avoid the paved road.

DSCF8532DSCF8531  DSCF8535

From there, we continued on old dirt roads  and trails up to the pass.

DSCF8534

As we crested the pass, it became completely socked in with fog, limiting visibility to a few feet and making it impossible to follow the track, so we had to drop down to the pavement, just as the clouds began to burst.We dropped down off the pass in the thick fog and rain, hoping drivers would reduce their speed in these conditions and not hit us. On the other side of the pass, the rain turned to a snowy slushy mix, which froze and soaked us to the bone. At highway crossing, we ducked into a derelect building that apparently is used as an outhouse by highway travelers-it was a true cesspit-but it got us out of the snow for a bit. We waited about 20 minutes, but just kept getting colder and we still had a long way to go to Salinas, so we reluctantly stepped back out into the wintry mix that was still coming down in buckets. One thing you can count on in the highlands of Ecuador is variable weather, and fortunately the snow/slush let up after a short while and turned to light drizzle. It had been a while since I could feel my fingers and toes, and was soaked and cold to the core, so it was a relief when it stopped snowing, especially since we were close to the top of yet another pass which would be followed by a long, cold, muddy descent down to Salinas.

DSCF8536

We dropped several thousand feet down to the tiny hamlet of Pachancho Central and I arrived cold and shivering. Cass is more prone to overheating than getting cold and he seemed to faring much better than me. After Pachancho, we turned off of the dirt road onto an epic 12km descent on singletrack that led straight into the central plaza of Salinas. Due to the heavy rain, the singletrack had morphed into a small river, punctuated by deep mudholes, so it was incredibly challenging. At least it took some effort so I began to warm up. As I approached town my bike and I were nearly completely covered in mud when I came upon mud-puddle the size of a small lake. I tried to avoid it by traversing across a small muddy ledge above the mudhole, but the ledge crumbled and my bike and I went into the mud, reaching up to my handlebars and causing my GPS to shutdown! I was worried I had lost the entire track from our trip. Huge bummer! (I was later able to recover the files-whew!) From there, I cruised into town looking like some sort of swamp beast and waited for Cass in the plaza.

DSCF8538

He arrived a few minutes later and we found a sweet hotel for $10 a night, with a wood burning stove so we could dry out our things a bit. I felt bad tracking in several kilos of mud, but it was unavoidable. Seven days and 500km of paramo after leaving Quito, we had arrived in our destination and could relax. If you find yourself doing a big bike trip in Ecuador, make sure you pass through or finish your route in Salinas (the remote highland one 35km north of Guaranda, not the beach resort town!)-what an amazing little town.

DSCF8539 DSCF8540

Apparently, in the 1970´s, Salinas was one of the poorest towns in the country, consisting of little more than a church and some thatch roofed chozas, when an Italian missionary named Antonio Polo rode into town and completely transformed the place by setting up a credit cooperative to buy cheese and chocolate making equipment. Under expert Swiss guidance, they set up world class cheese and chocolate factories and now export very high quality products all over the world. This has benefited the town inmeasurably, and when coupled with the towns beautiful location high up in the Central Andes, has turned into somewhat of tourist destination, mostly for local tourists. That night we sampled some of the local fare at a pizzeria run by an Italian-it was the best pizza I’ve had in Ecuador. I guess he couldn’t beleive we each ate our own medium pizzas (which were admittedly large for one person, but we had earned it), so he gave us each a free shot of some local spirit that burned like crazy but had a good flavor. What a town!

The next morning, after stocking up on incredibly cheap organic dark chocolate and nibs, Cass and I said our goodbyes and I took a pick up truck taxi down to Guaranda and from there caught a bus (unfortunately with no spare seats) for the 5 hour ride back to Quito. What a stellar route through spectacular country with great company. I highly recommend this route for the intrepid bikepacker, or with some slight variations that avoid the trails and hike-a-bikes and keep you on the dirt roads, the route could be doable on a touring set up with mtb tires.

DSCF8541

Bikepacking across the Ecuadorian Andes and down to the coastal plain: Lasso to Quevedo via Quilotoa

DSCF8155

Ever since moving to Ecuador, I had really been wanting to find a cool backcountry bike route that crosses over the Cordillera Occidental of the Ecuadorian Andes and drops down to the coast. After asking around for gpx tracks of cool singletrack and doubletrack rides and looking over some maps of the area, I worked out a route that would pass through the Quilotoa region to see the lake filled volcanic crater then head across the paramo a bit before dropping down to the coast near Manta. I talked my buddy Felipe into joining me for the first part of the proposed 500km, but he couldn’t commit beyond Quilotoa so from there I would go it alone.  I chose the weekend of Carnaval for the trip, since it was a 3 day weekend, but this, along with not buying a new rear tire for the trip, would prove to be a disastrous mistake as you’ll soon find out.

Felipe and I left Quito early on a drizzly, gray Saturday morning and drove to Lasso, a small town on the Panamerican Highway about an hour and half south of Quito. Luckily, the weather had improved a bit, so after checking and packing up the bikes, we started the 500km journey over the Andes to the coast. The route began with a 15km paved climb up past the small village of Toacazo before cutting off onto an old cobblestoned road and eventually changing over to dirt. I didn’t even make it to the dirt track before getting my first flat.

1498991_10152803388449285_306880290778603818_o

I had torn a gash in my rear tire on my last overnight bike trip to Mindo, but had since had the tire “professionally” patched at a car tire shop in Quito and though it would be fine to run tubeless for this trip. I guess it wasn’t patched well enough as it blew out after about 11km. Luckily I had two tubes, so I threw one in and we were off again.

The cobble, then dirt track weaves you up up and up through the Quilotoa backcountry with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape; mountains checkered with small, steep small scale farm plots of quinoa and potatoes, tiny Andean hamlets, grazing llamas and alpacas, and bright smiling faces of local children as they tended their plots. This countryside is as Andean as it gets. The track at this point is graded rather nicely for Ecuador standards, so we were able to take in the views and enjoy ourselves as we climbed about 1200m up to a pass before dropping down to Isinlivi.

DSCF8101 DSCF8105  10269168_10152803388709285_7621598435599521692_o 10981287_10152803388554285_2362265163469793168_o

 

At the pass we were rewarded with sun and stunning views of the surrounding mountains and steep, seemingly unending drop down into the Rio Toachi gorge.

DSCF8114 DSCF8117

We started dropping down at breakneck speed on a good dirt and gravel track, but I couldn’t help but fret a bit about losing all the elevation we had just gained over the last several hours, and then some! Felipe got ahead of me on the doubletrack and missed the turn off for some sweet single track action leading directly into Isinlivi.

DSCF8122 

I made it into town and stopped at Viveres Tito for some snacks and more water while waiting for Felipe. I waited a long while and tried to text and call, to no avail. Meanwhile, the townsfolk all came out to ask me about my heavily laden bike and what I was doing. They couldn’t believe I planned to ride to Quilotoa, much less to the coast! After another 20 minutes or so, I figured Felipe had gone on ahead. Since we both knew the route, I pressed on ahead figuring we’d meet up soon enough, probably in the next town.

DSCF8120

 

After Isinlivi, which is lower than Lasso, where we started, you still drop another 200-300m or so in elevation via some epic, though extremely hard to follow, singletrack.

DSCF8127 DSCF8123  DSCF8134

Eventually the track ran out completely, so I had to rely on the gpx track on my gps to navigate my way down the river. Even with the gps, I kept getting cliffed out or running into nasty bushwhacking sections. Even though it was mostly a descent, the terrain was so confusing and intricate, that several times I had to carry my bike back up impossibly steep hillsides I had just ridden down!

DSCF8133

 

This was definitely a “trying” though adventurous section to say the least, but I eventually made it down to the Toachi River.

DSCF8125

The river crossing was a bit hairy carrying a fully laden bike, but I made it across and enjoyed the hot sun while I let my feet dry off a bit. I was now much lower in elevation than when we had started that morning, and knew we had a 1300-1400m climb ahead if we wanted to make it Quilotoa. The day had been so hard thus far, that this was now starting to seem like a daunting prospect, and Felipe was still nowhere to be seen. Still, I continued on, and began the 40km+ climb up to Quilotoa. Luckily, the climb out of the gorge wasn’t quite as bad as the drop down, as there was a nice, though painfully steep, dirt doubletrack climbing up to Chugchilan. As I kept climbing, it seemed to get harder and harder. I thought I was running out of steam, but then I checked my rear tire and noticed I had lost a lot of pressure. I had a slow leak that would have to be patched, but wanted to get to Chugchilan to eat and deal with it in more comfort. My bike pump was a real piece of junk and it took me forever to get to a reasonable pressure, but luckily Felipe caught up to me at this point! I had thought he was ahead, but apparently he had backtracked to find me, and had been pushing it to catch up with me for several hours! I was nice to be back together, and we climbed the remain 15km or so into Chugchilan.

 

DSCF8137

In Chugchillan we had a great dinner at Hostal Mama Rumi and patched up my tube just as the rain started to fall again. Great timing. It was starting to get dark and we still had a 20km+ climb up to the Quilotoa crater, but we both had lamps, so we started off in the light rain, which eventually let up and turned into thick fog and cold wind. This section of the route has just recently been paved, within the last few months actually. While I like to avoid pavement as much as possible, in these conditions and at night, I can’t say I minded it too much! We made pretty good time up to the village at Quilotoa,

DSCF8142

 

and after a cheap merienda (set dinner) and a large Pilsener, we slept like rocks.

We woke up at dawn the next morning and snapped a few shots on the overlook deck at Quilotoa, before going our separate ways. Felipe would finish the Quilotoa loop via some outrageous singletrack around the crater and a different way through the gorge and back up and over the mountains to Lasso.

DSCF8145 10995904_10152803389399285_524625698874411604_o

I dropped down to Zumbahua, again on brand new pavement (aargh!), but with stunning views, before heading up to the paramo. Zumbahua has to be in one of the prettiest settings in all of Ecuador. I can only imagine what this place was like before the roads into town and up the volcano were paved. Its still worth a visit, especially for their famed Saturday (or is it Sunday?) market.

DSCF8160DSCF8153 DSCF8154

After a quick resupply in Zumba, I began the paved (aargh again!) climb up to the dirt track that leads across the paramo and down to the cloud forest. The first 15km or so of the climb were on more paved road, much to my dismay. At this point I was getting annoyed with paved roads, but luckily it went quickly and I was back on a beautiful dirt track that rolled across the paramo, slowly making its way to a pass just shy of 4200m. I was really enjoying myself at this point as I rolled past Kichwa shepards grazing their sheep and llamas

 

 

 

 

DSCF8156DSCF8163

and enjoying views of both the highlands and peering down into the cloud forest.

DSCF8167

 

This part of the ride ended all too quickly and I began the insanely long 12,000ft+ descent to the coastal plain. The track started out incredibly rocky, and no surprise, at this point I got another small leak in my tube through the gash in my tire. I used my last tube here, and continued the descent, as the beautiful highland vistas gave way to thick fog, drizzle, and mud that was the consistency of peanut butter as I entered the cloud forest zone. I rode through a small village as the rain began to pick up and mud got deeper where I stopped in a shop with meager supplies so I bought some cookies, cheap junky chocolate, and a Fanta which I quickly inhaled as villagers gathered around me to ask about my bike and trip. As carnaval was quickly approaching, much of the town was already quite inebriated, despite the somewhat early hour…It was 5pm somewhere right?

DSCF8168

I set off down the track which was now more of a muddy stream than a double track, but after 20 or 30km, I turned off onto a slightly better road near the small village Chapas where I was surprised to see my first vehicle since leaving the pavement. It was a classic Ecuadorian “chiva” or open-air seating bus. I think they were just as surprise to see me.

DSCF8170

 

Shortly after this encounter, I met a family walking down the road and a young boy was so interested by my bike that he ran along side me for over a kilometer. He was even kind enough to snap a picture of me in front of a really cool tree.

DSCF8172

 

Around this time the rain started to pour and after a day in the mud (and also due to having worn chainrings) I began getting the worst chain suck imaginable. It got so bad, I could no longer pedal uphills, despite trying my best to clean off my drivetrain. Luckily, the ride at this point was mostly descent, and after hours of struggle, I hobbled into El Corazon, which was sort of the end of the cloud forest wilderness. I was ravenous and ate a rather unappealing almuerzo del dia at one of the few restaurants in the small town, but what the food lacked in flavor and freshness, the owner made up for in character. He was genuine Andean character and was very interested in my trip. Feeling refreshed, though reluctant to get back in the downpour, I got back on the bike and began the speedy descent down to the coastal plain region that produces a large share of the world’s bananas on extensive plantations. I am sure the views on the descent would have been great, but unfortunately I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in the pouring rain. The rain was so heavy, I could barely open my eyes making the descent a little bit sketchy.

To make things worse, as I entered the coastal region, the Carnaval activities increased dramatically and trucks that passed by began pegging me with water balloons! I am sure this is really fun and all if you are a part of the festivities, but after over 10 hours of riding that day, and the last 3 or 4 in driving rain, I was in no mood to be drilled by water balloons at high speeds. It was actually really dangerous in these conditions and I had to slow down on the descent.

The terrain finally started to level out as I rolled into Moraspungo. The streets were teeming with partygoers and people started nailing with me with shaving cream and silly string. I was beyond annoyed as I try to make my way through morass and continue on my way.

DSCF8176

 

 

I made a few more kilometers before having yet another tube blow out on my. This time it was a real explosion and the gash on my tire widened dramatically. This was the last straw for me, as I was out of tubes and didn’t want to sit and the rain trying to patch an old tube while dodging water balloons and shaving cream bombs. As I really wasn’t enjoying the ride since entering the coastal region, I decided to cut my ride short and took a pick up truck taxi the last few kilometers into Quevedo, where I caught a bus back to Quito. I had made it over 250km through difficult terrain and conditions in just 2 days, and learned a lot of lessons on this ride, most notably; 1. don’t do a bikepacking ride through populous coastal areas of Ecuador during Carnaval, 2. if you destroy a tire, get a new one before going on multiday backcountry ride across the highlands and cloud forests of Ecuador, 3. the highlands are much better for backcountry biking than the coast and cloud forest 4. buy and carry a better portable bike pump, 5. don’t ride on worn out chain rings when going to muddy destinations. Despite not making it to my destination, the ride through the highlands and cloud forest had been absolutely spectacular and got to experience a remote part of Ecuador.

DSCF8180DSCF8177

Field work in the cold wet cloud forest and even colder wet paramo!

After finishing up our ecohydrological classification and physicochemical predictive modelling for the Napo Basin, I have now begun field work for my Rufford Small Grant for Conservation Project. We are trying to understand how replacement of a native stream fish (genus: Astroblepus)

DSCF8087

by deliberately introduced nonnative rainbow trout can disrupt ecosystem function through alterations to stream nutrient cycles. We are also trying to better understand the life history of native fish communities in these streams by relating their abundance to physical and environmental factors. So far, we have worked in three different subwatersheds within the Napo- Papallacta, Oyacachi, and Cosanga.

Our results will directly inform conservation groups and stream managers here in Ecuador. Stay tuned for how this project develops.

DSCF8064DSCF8061 DSCF8065 DSCF8066 DSCF8067 DSCF8068 DSCF8069

This was by far the biggest worm I’ve ever seen. Pic was taken near Sierra Azul, in the Cosanga drainage.

DSCF8073 DSCF8074 DSCF8076 DSCF8077 DSCF8078 DSCF8079 DSCF8080 DSCF8082 DSCF8083 DSCF8084 DSCF8085 DSCF8086  DSCF8089

Biking to 15,000ft-Quito to Guagua Pichincha

Biked up to Guagua Pichincha (15,696′) on Sunday with Felipe over a rainy weekend. The weather started out nice, but by the time we approached the summit it started to sleet and snow. The ascent was absolutely brutal, gaining 6000ft in just a few kilometers from Lloa. I was nursing a pretty bad cold from doing field work in the rainy cloud forest, so breathing was even harder than normal at that altitude. The descent was freezing. By the time I got home at 2pm or so, I was totally spent and went straight to bed!

1548014_10152787949644285_4762072911219370315_o 1401397_10152522901961152_6085819646839663267_o10945819_10152787949669285_4779937467488814146_o 10974288_10152787950374285_6476183193013463735_o 10984176_10152522901911152_5029642360270294645_o 10988526_10152522902101152_1143700133090610394_o 10989230_10152787949899285_7591302774524408173_o