Sunday, August 29, 2010

Week 11 Patagonia – The final countdown...

To ensure continuity with the dreary theme of last week, we were again battered with the most appalling weather that Northern Patagonia could muster. Spirits were at an all time low during the week, but rather than bore you with verbose descriptions of the multitude of miseries we were put through I thought I’d share some entertaining sidebars that have helped us pass the time.

Speaking of time, it seems that our proximity to departure has conspired with the weather to slow the passage of days down to a crawl. Although I’ve been sans watch for the entirety of the trip the time keeping monkey residing deep within my hippocampus has slowed his cymbal banging to a once a minute thud. A stark contrast to the staccato beat that has till now underscored my time here in Chile.
Roof manjar in all its terrible glory

With the new crew well and truly settled, the crowded rooms have given rise to a sickening phenomenon which can only be described as roof manjar. Named for its resemblance to the Chilean delicacy first described back in week 5, this disgusting ceiling dwelling scum seems to grow overnight, achieving full coverage by the morning before shrinking back during daylight hours. The source of this phenomenon has left our crew’s best biological minds baffled, and the speculation over its origin has filled many hours of the working day with entertaining banter.

Perhaps the most exhilarating part of track building is rock rolling, which has always been the default option for extreme trampers looking to add some ‘pow!’ to their hike. This past week we have been working under bluffs, which pose a risk of rock fall but also a plenitude of roll able ammunition. We justify the destructive and exhilarating rolls by setting out to only roll rocks which pose a threat to the long term safety of the trail. The hard graft to dig out the boulders only serves to build anticipation, and with some brutal persuasion from rockbars, picks or spades, rocks finally topple end over end. They build speed before launching off rocks and careening off bluffs to the fields below, trees crashing in their wake. Rolling rocks awakens a primal amusement and it is usual to see the whole crew cease digging in favour of gawking at the destruction in morbid fascination.

Preparations to roll Behemoth are well underway

Last Friday while clearing a slip from a river side trail we happened the largest rock rolling candidate we had yet encountered and duly dubbed it the Behemoth. It took the best part of a morning to uncover the full girth and our best estimates put its heft in the order of four tonnes. It then took four good men with spades to edge it over the brink where rather than roll it slid, gaining momentum before a final lurch into the air and a splash into the river below. The demise of Behemoth was even captured on film, so all can relive the destruction in vivid multimedia colour.

Those who know well of my bike obsession will know I’m particularly fond of a certain fully suspended trail monster by the name of El Terremoto. He has performed flawlessly here in Chile and this past three months has topped off almost three years of good times shredding the gnarlier trails around NZ. The business running things here in Chile is buying up crew member’s bikes and offered a good price to part ways with the ‘moto. So the least I could for its faultless service was give it a solid scrub behind the ears removing the accumulated scum of 3 months of Patagonian winter. It’ll be sad to see the tail end of this awesome bike  but his spirit will live on in a new bike based around an El Chucho frame. Combining the look-at-me rollability of a big wheel in the front with the tight wheelbase and ginga-whipping abilities of a 26er in the rear it should make for a deadly trail machine to rival the huckability of the ‘moto.
Accumulated gunk in the 'moto's chainrings.
Safe to say life in Chile had been far from easy!

This will be the final report from Patagonia but keep your eyes peeled for some adventures in the mountain bike meccas of Moab, Fruita and Winter Park, USA. Even more adventure is likely instore after that with a three week cycle touring mission along the Nepalese Annapurna circuit on the cards. Thanks for following my adventures so far and I hope to catch up with you all when I’m back in the relative warmth of New Zealand!

Mountain Pedaler out...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Week 10 – Patagonian weather strikes back

A waterfall crossing one of the tracks. At times the rain felt like we were standing under it!

The omnipotent weather being struck again this week, as if sensing the proximity of our departure it replaced the pleasant weather of the last couple of weeks with ferocious gales and rain showers which we last experienced back in July. Still with only two weeks, the chance of cold digits and damp torsos is much easier to stomach, especially given the 11 weeks of hell the new crew could be in for.

While back home I’d be the first to question the originality of a discussion of weather (particularly in the hermetically sealed comfort of an office), the sheer extremeness of the weather here, not to mention the fact you are balls deep in it digging trails has lead me to hypocrisy for most of the Patagonian reports.

Like the trail troopers that we are we kept plugging away at building trails. The first part of the week was spent clearing the uphill trail of storm debris. Now fully ridable, it makes an enjoyable but strenuous commute to work. We then moved on to complete a downhill started by the crew working prior to us. Given it was dug in snowy conditions the track needed a bit of work widening benches and removing obstacles, while making better use of the trail features that we like rocks and logs. One particular rock slab required some rock work that would have stretched even the most avid stonecutter. Graham put his skills to work and using rock scattered about (the pinch was at the base of a 30m cliff) he crafted a set of ridable steps which led into the final segment of trail.

Graham rocks it out.

Another development which brightened the otherwise dreary days has been a major revision of the pann stick, first discussed back in week 5. By taking a single stem of cane, trimming it of leaves, then splitting the end 150mm, you are left with a weapon of mass toasting (WMT). This allows us to reach the desired level of toasting with none of the risk of pann loss inherent in earlier pan stick designs. Only two cases of pan loss were reported with this design (John’s rolling down a steep unrecoverable bank to the amusement of the other crew) so pann security is markedly improved.

Pann stick development underway.

Up till now, our crew had harboured a bitter resentment of cane bushes when they crossed the line of the track, such is the difficulty of removing the rubbery and extensive root systems of these exotic bushes. But now with this innovative (and patent pending) pann stick, this flora has garnered some new found respect.

Pann sticks in action. Note carying degrees of toastedness.

With two weeks (9 working days) of track building remaining the countdown has well and truly begun, and already I’m starting to reflect on the amazing experience I’ve had here in Patagonia. While working outside is a sure fire way to get wet and cold, the satisfaction of being able to shape trails as you see fit, not to mention the beauty of the natural surroundings has made for a thoroughly rewarding time. In a way, the adverse weather has served to heighten the experience, proving that one can survive in the worst that nature can muster without the modern comforts we have become cocooned within.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Week 9 Patagonia – Sunshine coming out our ears

A sign mourns the burning of a tree in flora loving Coihaique
Translation: What was the reason for this sacrifice?

An increasingly familiar glowing orb (found only in the sky) again came to the party this week with some fantastically balmy days. Some even pushing the thermometric scale into the twenties, a hitherto unheralded level of warmth in our small part of Patagonia.

Our weekend trip to Coihaique was a ball. On the hour and a half drive from the lodge more breathtaking views flashed past in the van windows, punctuated by river crossings and wayward cows. On arrival we stocked up on empanadas at the supermarket and checked into our cabano, a place which roaches could easily call home sweet we’re the place not so freaking cold.

In a drunken dare Jack trys to lick his elbow, Ollie watches in amazement
Photo John Butler

A round of heavy drinking ensued, several members of our crew pulled back from the brink of  rowdiness by a good old fashioned pull-up competition. On hitting the bars we we’re turned away at first sight by some fearful looking bouncers. In a display of good old fashioned racism entry was denied on the basis of the rowdy behaviour of some other trail building kiwis, who legend  told had bottled a bouncer. The bouncer's position was entirely understandable, as some of the other crews obviously hadn’t been a model of kiwi friendliness. Perhaps their personas had been warped another classic kiwi trait; binge drinking.

Thankfully, Oscar a builder at the lodge took pity on our plight and took us to a groovy salsa joint called Burlin, where we proceeded to dance the night away. Questionable gringo dancing skills were more than compensated for with enthusiasm, and some of the crew stretched the night into the next day with plenty of random stories involving stray canines, hotdogs and emos.

Refreshed by a weekend of good times, the week of trail building passed in a flash. We progressed well with a second climb below the gaucho trail, carving out almost 800m of prime singletrack from the soft loam soil.

Jack and Jake had been putting the finishing touches to the downhill trail we built last week, erecting a 5 m wall ride to add some pizazz to the final turn. We’ve called the trail ‘Get some!’ in homage to a trigger happy soldier in Kubrick’s Vietnam masterpiece ‘Full Metal Jacket'. The whole crew spent a lunchtime sessioning the wall, with DJer John boosting so high off the end that he landed in a bush above the landing. With ‘Get Some!’ complete, all that is left are some tweaks and plenty of laps to ride it in, not to much of a stretch given the sheer fun factor of this track.

Ollie boosting the wall ride at the end of 'Get some!'
Photo Emil de Vries

Track building shifted back up the hill for the last part of the week, with recently melted snow finally making it possible to ride up to the traverse where we were working. Snow had given the track a working over with smashed bridges and collapsed benches giving plenty of scope for work.

A bridge destroyed by a swollen stream.
Beams will be resused for a bridge to traverse a tricky pinch.

We’ve also taken delivery of a bangin’ (literally) petrol rock hammer dubbed the Cobra that has allowed us to unleash some indiscriminate justice on any rocks who dare challenge our trail building prowess. It can even be switched to drill mode to allow rock bolts to be installed, or rocks to be split with the aid of wedges.

Matt gets medieval with the rock drill

A new crew of gringo trackbuilders is due to arrive tomorrow, so we’ll be doing our best to show them the ropes and ease them into the daily slog. It seems like only yesterday we were in their position with 3 months of riding and digging ahead of us. I’ll be sure to show them all the great trails they can ride on the way to and from work and with the turn towards spring they’ll no doubt be spoilt with plenty of the good warm stuff.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Friday, August 06, 2010

Week 8 – A mountain top, some structures and downhill sickness

Matt admires the vista atop Mt 5 Puma

Our day off this week fell on a Sunday, and a member of our crew named Tommy had hatched a marvellous idea to use the forecast pearler of a day to push for the summit of a mountain we had spied from our work spot. Initial plans to leave at first light to take full advantage of the morning frostiness we’re pushed back with the inevitable sleep in. But when the time came to set off the air was still chilly and the crusted snow made for easy progress up the steep slopes with slightly frosted digits at least till we climbed out of the shade of the valley.

Nature crafted this snow spiral, snapped on the trek to the summit

Prior to departing we had talked up the expedition to the rest of the crew. We claimed that we would not only spot a real live puma (the first sighting of our trip), but capture five of these ferocious felines with only our bare hands. As such, the mountain conquest was named Mt 5 Puma, and standing tall above the surrounding ranges at 1640m it made for some breathtaking views. We were treated to endless mountain ranges of needle thin spires and vertical rocky faces, a quintessential 360 degree Patagonian vista. Just like postcards of the region only in vivid 3D colour and with the awe that can only come from earning the view with a 3 hour hike.

Millsy captures Mt 5 Puma's vista on lens

Descending was a blast. While the exposure forced caution on the steeper upper slopes, we threw this approach out the window as we descended to the tree line, using a combination of gravity assisted snow plodding and bum sliding (both legitimate mountaineering techniques).

The week began with another blue bird day, something we are quickly becoming accustomed to given they snow hell that we were faced with earlier in the trip. This fine, clear weather gives rise to a strange phenomenon called hoar frost. Moisture in the soil freezes and expands lifting the top layer of soil as much as 30mm and making for a challenging but not unridable surface. Come afternoon though the trails may sport a benign look, but they become a slippery, muddy skating rink. This made for at least one 180 degree washout spin that would have put Chazz Micheal Michaelson from Blades of Glory to shame.

The Terremoto after a particularly muddy outing

Millsy and I decided to brave the treacherous conditions and our 10 min ride became the single most intense mudslposion I have ever experienced. By then end both wheels would no longer turn and the entire drivetrain became in a battered in a brown paste. The ride was cut short when my derailleur got sucked into the wheel, bending the cage and letting out a petulant graunch. Macguyver skills to the fore and with the aid of only a 5mm allen and a set of pliers I was up and rolling for work the next day.

Millsy and Jack get stuck in on the bridge build

Construction of our downhill track has romped ahead, and we reached the final feature this afternoon. All up it is a feature packed downhill extravaganza. No less than 5 rock gardens, drops, rock rolls, wall rides and monster berms. The multitude of features is a sure sign of a crew unleashing their trail creativity after too long building featureless uphills.

Jack and I spent the first part of the week constructing a bridge to rival the Otira Viaduct. Traversing a tricky rock outcrop it drops riders to the start of the trail with an exhilarating swoop. From here the trail only gets better!

The bridge that signals the start of our yet-to-be-named downhill track

Being able to ride and tune our features was a blast, and with a completed loop composed of mellow uphill and gnarly feature packed downhill, there should be no shortage of post work entertainment (as long as the weather plays fair).
Jack gets his huck on on one of the track's numerous drops

We’re off for the weekend to Coihaique where hilarity will no doubt ensue. I’m planning to stock up on icecream, chocolate and of course Pachunga!

Mountain Pedaler out...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Patagonia Week 7 – Sunshine, riding and climbing corner perfection.

Ollie gets on the Stihl on a frosty morn
Photo Graham Laing

The last week here in Patagonia has been reminiscent of the Christchurch winters I’ve come to know well. Cold with a frost and icy puddles succumbing to the warm glow of the sun during the mid part of the day. The only break from this pattern was a particularly miserable Wednesday morning plagued with sleow (a dreadful sleet and snow combination) which disappeared at lunchtime giving way to more glorious sunshine.

The benefit of working on a hill track is that we now get the sun about 10 in the morning and can bask in the warming rays till it disappears behind a ride about 3:30. One cannot describe the wonders this does for your outlook.

Come Tuesday, the sunshine had finally managed to eat through the crust of snow encasing the trails, so Millsy and I went for a shred, riding and pushing to the top of the main DH run called Josef’s Cellar (named after Fritzl, the infamous Austrian basement dweller).

Ollie shred the title feature on Josef's Cellar
Photo Emil de Vries

One benefit of the brief mid-week showers was that they melted away even more of the snowy remnants, and come Thursday the trails were clear top to bottom. With singletrack shredding back on the menu crew morale is at an all time high. Sketchy and intense, on the limit of traction and terrain all the way down, our ride ended in hooting and hollering as well as a round of non-ironic high fives.

Ollie carves a 'cutty' on the ride home to the lodge
Photo Emil de Vries

While the riding has a downhill focus, our track building charged ahead up the hill. However when slope runs out we have no choice but to throw down a switchback. Our first attempts were rather crude, but now onto our 13h attempt we have got it pretty dialled. The secret is to get corner entry and exits as close as possible (ideally a spade height between levels) and to allow a solid 2 metre radius to give you plenty of room to turn in to the next straight. After a day of backtracking along the track to make corners rideable, I was so confident in my corner building prowess that I offered to eat a hat should I not be able to ride the hot-dog turn I’d built.

My corner that bested the hat eating challenge

Despite some unneccasry and un helpful nerves, the corner rode sweetly first go, negating the need for any hat consumption. Secretly, stakes weren’t that high as if I had failed I’d planned to source one of the nacho hats made famous by Homer Simpson. Eating one of these hats would only be slightly less of a chore than a plate full of pachunga.

Nacho sombrero had the corner been unridable!

With our track now topped out on a plateau, the only option is to build a downhill and this has roused a new level of passion amongst the crew. The tricky and steep terrain has opened the flood gates on a myriad of riding features. I’m working on a ladder bridge braced to the side of a rocky outcrop (with optional death huck drop-off) while Hamo and Millsy have pieced together a gnarly rock garden chute; all this within the space of fifty metres!

With plenty of scope for building exciting features, and the rediscovered ability to ride the tracks we’ve built as well as the others built by crews before us, I’m sure we’ll make the most of our the four weeks we have left in Patagonia. I’ve no doubt that the remaining weeks of our time here in Chile will melt away like the last stubborn patches of snow.

Mountain Pedaler out...