Words & Photography // Aaron Rolph
I lean forward once again and scoop up my bike, balancing the wheels precariously between my upper back and shoulders. I glance down at my crampon-clad mountaineering boots, which are making a pleasing crunch as I climb the snowy face. With each tiny step, I gasp perilously for oxygen in the thin, frigid air and laugh to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”, alone, in the dark on the other side of the world, carrying my bike now well over 6000m where bikes are probably just aren’t meant to be taken. Either I’m brave or stupid, or probably both, but I bury the doubt and continue, slow and steady towards the summit of the highest volcano in the world.
With every meter I climb higher into thin air, it feels as though the weight of the bike is getting heavier and heavier, forcing me to dig deep. The face is now so sheer and the snow so deep, it feels pointless to take the bike any higher, but it already feels like I’m on top of the world at 6327m. I’m Aaron Rolph, a professional adventurer, biker, and sometimes mountaineer. On this occasion, I was in for all three, although not strictly here for the summit per se. The goal was to set a new world record for the Greatest Vertical Descent by Bike, and with the plan to ride all the way to the sea, this was only the beginning of this big adventure.
Despite this, I couldn’t help but think it rude to not tag the summit having come all this way. Although my acclimatization was irresponsibly swift, reaching this altitude after only 4 days from basecamp at 4200m, there were big snow storms inbound, and it was most likely my last chance to get this one into the record books. Laying the bike down for the time being, I decide to continue on foot, and I’m amazed by how fresh I feel with the weight off my shoulders. The following climb to 6893m flew by in just a few hours, and after an exposed scramble up the final rocky ridge, I take my last few steps onto the summit, enjoying the 360-degree panoramic views. Overwhelmed by a discernable sense of relief, I find myself standing alone on the second-highest peak anywhere outside of the Himalayas. I can’t help but wonder if there are many of the 8 billion people on this planet stood higher than me right now, but this was no time to indulge the ego; I had a job to do.
I make quick work of the descent, practically jogging back to the bike. After gearing up again, I look down at the world that seems to endlessly plummet beneath me, this is steep, and who knows how well the snow will hold under my tires. Pushing off, I carefully manage my speed while both wheels slip and slide around, struggling for traction in the snow that has now become slushy in the warm afternoon sun. Of course, a mission like this comes with some unknowns, a huge test for all equipment both on and off the bike, and as it turns out, brakes don’t perform all that well at this altitude where the effective oxygen in the atmosphere is around 9.5%. Without getting too bogged down into the Physics, I’d imagine my brakes had some oxygen in the system, and that oxygen is now taking up twice as much room in my brakes as it was before. The result? Catastrophic brake failure. I desperately pump both brakes, again and again, to get the fluid compressed and the pistons moving. To my relief, they finally return, and I’m able to temper my speed so long as I keep the brakes pumping as I slip and slide down the snowy face. I’m forced to pause while I gasp painfully for air. No doubt this is partially due to the adrenaline hit from this rowdy descent, but my body is also doing everything it can to apply the muscles with that much-needed oxygen.
This is for sure one of the most physically brutal things I’ve ever attempted, but after intense focus for what feels like a lifetime, I reach the lower slopes, which are largely clear of snow. With my brakes back in action, I’m able to open up a little, tackling the technical descent head-on. After a formidable 25 km of descending through rock, sand, and ice, I reach Refugio Claudio Lucero; a basic mountain hut with limited amenities such as running water, but I’m all too happy to be out of the biting wind and the moody storm that had been chasing me into the night.
I’m pleased to be welcomed by a super friendly group of Argentinian mountaineers who, upon hearing of my big ride, take it upon themselves to cook me a hearty bowl of pasta and ply me with their finest booze to celebrate the successful summit for which I’m eternally grateful. I had managed to reach the top of the peak Ojos del Salado, and also ride my bike from insane altitudes, but I still had a long way to go... To set this new record, I still needed to get all the way to the sea, which included crossing the totally inhospitable Atacama desert: the driest nonpolar desert on Earth.
Switching my bike into “explore mode”, I fitted my bikepacking bags, changed my Stamp pedals to mallet cleats, and crammed any remaining supplies I could carry onto my bike and into my backpack. There are zero signs of civilization here, meaning no shops, people, or even sources of water, so I was to carry everything I needed for the journey under my own steam. A fully-ladened enduro bike is far from the fastest whip around, but I crunch the miles out while fighting a persistent headwind. I find myself seriously mentally tested by some of the longer straights, which at times measure over 20 kilometers in length with the same view of an unchanging dirt track. Eventually however, the winding mountain roads get a little spicier, and I’m treated to some fast, dusty switchbacks reminding me why I wanted to do this project in the first place.
Before long, my food and water supplies had dwindled far quicker than planned, and I hadn’t seen another human in over a day. With a further 120km to the nearest settlement, it dawns on me that this has the potential to be pretty serious. Shielding myself from the wind, I hide behind a large boulder, devouring my two last cereal bars, and carefully consider my options. The longer I spend in this barren desert, the more uncomfortable this journey is going to become. Generally, the wind mellows somewhat in the evenings, and the temperatures are more amenable too, so I make a big call to go double or nothing - pushing all through the night until I reach safety.
I knew this was a high-stakes game, but the high reward of finding una cerveza in the next town was keeping me motivated. The sky, once ablaze with the fire of the setting sun, has now transformed into a blanket of stars like nothing I’d ever seen before. Miles from any man-made light, it feels as though I’m riding in a video game where the sky is a rolling treadmill, each star seeming a thousand times brighter than my head torch lighting the road ahead. On my last legs and suffering what cyclists often call “bonking”, an amusing name for some sort of hypoglycemia, after a 16-hour stretch in the saddle, I finally reach the glowing city of Copiapo where I rest and refuel until morning.
The next morning, predictably, my legs are as heavy as lead, but with the adrenaline of the finish line almost in sight and able to ditch some weight in a hotel, I coax myself back on the road without too much trouble. Now onto that sweet, sweet tarmac, the road meanders like a river around the countless sand dunes amidst this dramatic and unforgiving landscape. Riding along, I’m finally hit with the distinctive smell of fresh sea air and exactly 373.4km from the highest volcano in the world.
I’ve made it to the Pacific Ocean. The waves are gently lapping the beach, and I waste no time in getting my kit off and plunging into the fresh water. I’d traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of this crazy idea, and that didn’t come without its risks. I close my eyes and allow my now finally weightless body to float on the ocean surface, taking it all in for a second, and I’ve absolutely buzzing and so relieved to have finished the toughest ride of my life.
With the big challenge under my belt and still some time to spare, I was lucky enough to catch up with some locals in the bikepark outside of Santiago. We were treated to some epic trails and teamed up with freeride legends Nico Vink and Andreu Lacondeguy, who happened to be in the area. We headed up for one final lap, riding a truly epic 2000m descent with a great crew as the sun finally set on this big adventure. Thanks to Crankbrothers for believing in this wacky idea and for their continued support.
About Aaron Rolph
Aaron Rolph is a British adventurer and photographer based in the Alps. He founded the British Adventure Collective and specialises in human-powered ski and bike expeditions all over the world.