In which Pete survives a brutal sandstorm and finds making headway in 30+MPH winds with 9hp to be somewhat difficult, but eventually arrives in El Calafate for a day off.Day 39
Begin: Ruta 40, north of Gobernador Gregores Argentina @ 10:00AM
End: Ruta 40, south of Tres Lagos, Argentina @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 256km (~160mi) in ~8 hours (~32KMH / ~20MPH average)
Last night was by far the worst night of the trip so far. It started out so well, nearly windless and well above freezing; inside my sleeping bag it was not only comfortable but actually warm for the first time in days. Outside the strong winds of the past few days had shifted to what could be generously termed only a strong breeze, so weak that I almost did not stake down my tent – a close call I won’t be making again.
Around midnight, I finally dozed off, lulled to sleep by the warmth and soft breeze thumping against my tent. A bottle of ice was tucked inside my sleeping bag but outside my liner, slowly warming up and providing much needed liquid nourishment in small sips every once in while as it melted. My watch read 49F as I dozed off, the warmest I had seen at night in weeks. It was, as expected, a good night.
In an instant, I am awakened. Not the slow subtle shift from sleep to wakefulness that happens when you need to pee or it gets cold or dawn is coming, but the vicious instant adrenaline fueled wakefulness that comes when your base fight or flight instinct is triggered by your ever wakeful subconscious. In this heightened state, time shifts – not because our brain speeds up, but because the bandwidth of our memory is increased massively, all the data that is normally discarded stored in clear detail.
I shift through this data, trying to determine what caused me to awaken, when within seconds it happens again: with a massive crashing ripple, the entire left side of my tent bows inward as if punched by giant fist. Accompanied by the bass staccato of the outer canvas rippling at high speed, a horrible multi-pitch chorus of shrieking wind wraps itself around me. My first thought is that somehow, here in the middle of the Patagonian desert, I have been caught in a hurricane.
Step back for a moment, and consider that I have spent over a third of the last year living inside this tent, my venerable Big Agnes SL2, and many days in the years prior. I have slept inside it in humid jungles, arid beaches, frozen mountains, windless deserts, and tropical islands to name just a few environments. I’ve set it up under conditions so windy that the only way for it to stay still is with me or bags of gear stuffed inside it, slept on beaches in conditions where it wasn’t even safe to go outside. On Easter Island it stayed rock solid (and dry) through a horrific storm that flattened other tents at the campground and forced people to sleep inside the communal kitchen.
Never, in all my experience camping, have I been through something like this. The tent did not just bow inward for a moment under a particularly strong gust, it punched inward like something fell on it and stayed that way. After many seconds, an true gust came up, bringing even more force that actually caused the side of the tent to push up against me so hard that it moved me further into the center of the tent.
I laid there stunned, cataloging in my head all the actions I could take, discarding option after option. I couldn’t go outside and add more stakes because I wasn’t sure I could move in that wind and opening my tent flap might cause a pressure shift that would destroy the tent – not to mention that it now appeared my own weight was a key factor in maintaining the tent’s stability. I noticed that the wind was hitting the tent nearly broadside as often as it was from the bottom, a frustrating indication that this wind was coming at a different angle than the breeze when I carefully set up my tent.
Before long I realized there was only one thing to do: wedge myself against the side of the tent the wind was hammering, use my weight to prevent the wind from getting under the tent and lifting it up, and trust in the structural rigidity of my poles… and hope it was a freak storm that would pass in moments.
This decision made, I calmed myself down and put the plan into action, relaxing and trying to drift back to sleep, telling my brain to ignore the incessant crashing of the wind. As the adrenaline slowly seeped away, I processed something new: my right side(the side I usually sleep on) and some of my back, from my hip to my shoulder, were incredibly cold. A strangely isolated cold, which could only have come through the air mattress and the ground, except I was sleeping on sand that should not transmit that much cold… unless the temperature had dropped massively with the wind.
I checked my watch and the air temperature was holding steady at 41F at just past 1AM, which should have left me nearly boiling hot. Tuning out the destruction around me, I focused on the feeling and realized there was something else: I was not just cold, but wet. The bottle of ice had melted and leaked! On the inside of my waterproof sleeping bag! And I was now partially soaked in ice water!
In disgust I pulled the bottle out and saw that while the chunk of ice inside was much smaller, there was no water inside it, confirming my hypothesis. I laid it down outside the sleeping bag and grimaced as I realized I would have to spend the rest of the night lying in the puddle of ice water inside my sleeping bag on my already soaked right side wedged up against the side of the tent as rampaging giants attempted to hammer me into oblivion.
I tuned everything out and time dropped out for a moment. I snapped back to consciousness as a particularly strong gust again tried to push me inwards, my subconscious safeguards overriding my conscious attempts to tune out the world. I checked my watch and saw it was nearly 3AM, only six hours to go until dawn.
Then something absolutely horrible occurred to me: I had left my main dry bag, nearly empty, outside on the back of Red. It wasn’t tied down. What if the wind took it? It could be kilometers across the desert and it’s a critical part of my gear. I considered going out to check on it but realized if it was gone, it would be long gone already, and there was little I could do in the dark.
I tried not to think about it, tried not to think about the cold, tried not to think about the wetness, tried not to think about my tent poles snapping under the strain, impaling me in multiple places or simply wrapping the canvas around me and sending me spinning across the desert in a tangle of gear and tent until I battered my head on a rock and died, slowly bleeding out alone and unconscious, a human tumbleweed abandoned to the harsh reality of the desert.
It was around this time that a new sensation finally clicked and I realized that gritty feeling in my mouth wasn’t just dehydration from only drinking a liter of water in the last 24 hours – it was sand. Sand, in my mouth. I touched my face in the dark and realized there was sand all over my face. Flicking on my headlamp I was greeted by the scene I expected: the inside of my tent was covered in sand. I quickly checked the tent itself and the integrity was uncompromised, the outer shell was still staked down without any major gaps and there were no tears in the mesh of the inner. This sand was so fine it was being driven between the layers by the wind and happily sliding right through the mesh!
This, however, was something I could deal with: ziiipppp went my mummy bag and over my face went my liner, my entire body wrapped without a single shred of skin exposed. The parts of my body not wet rebelled at the overheating caused by this as the wet parts considered civil war as they coveted the warmth of their neighbours. My breathing ragged, I tried to chase the dragon into sleep once again.
The rest of the night passed in little skips of time, as sleep came in fits and starts but never truly settled in. The wind, the cold, the warmth, and the beating of the tent on my body stretched on and on in the interminable type of experience that makes you truly understand how something as simple as repeated drops of water on a head can drive a person to rage and madness.
With the slow lightening of pre-dawn came the mild hope that the storm was a relic of the night, caused by temperature shifts across the desert, and that all would fade in the changing warmth and power of the sun. After half an hour with no change, I realized this was not to be; like the rain, like the snow, like all hardship on such a journey, there was only one way to end this misery: ride through it.
Pulling myself up and out of my sleeping bag I could not help but laugh at the inside of my tent, which for all the world looked like a petulant child had thrown dirt over all my things in a fit of pique. The sand was everywhere – I had left my main gear bag slightly open and even the inside of it was coating with a fine dust, over all my camera gear and lenses. Even better, there was a thin layer of sand-caked water over the bottom of my tent near the entrance, where the water bottle had laid in the night and continued to leak, leaving only a small chunk of ice and no potable water. My mouth caked with sand, my head ringing slightly from lack of sleep, dehydration, and general adrenaline rubber banding, I noticed the chunk of ice was too big to even put in my mouth.
It might’ve been mentally crushing if it wasn’t so damn funny. Why was it funny? I don’t know, I guess that’s the only way I could deal with it. Usually when I am stressing over hardship I completely forget (or choose not) to take photos, something I always regret later. As proof of the inherent humor in being covered in sand inside a tent, I actually snapped a few photos as I prepared myself for the morning ahead.
When I stepped outside my tent, I was greeted by a spectacular sight: an endless blue sky with a great ball of fire beating down on me. On the back of my mototaxi lay my big red dry bag, wadded up and wedged under the seat by the force of the wind. Nothing was gone, and somehow I was able to pack up my tent in the incredible wind without too much difficulty (aside from a close call when my uninflated air mattress nearly flew away).
Time to ride! The morning road paid me back for my trials by putting the wind at my back and even though it was gravel and dirt, I soared along it. I knew from a sign a day ago that I was approximately 40km from Gobernador Gregores, a town large enough that I should be able to resupply – in fact, I was heading a bit out of my way already the evening before to get to this town and had hoped to make it before nightfall.
Something interesting happens when you ride with the wind: you forget it’s there. Then you stop to take a photo or a little personal business and it reminds you. The first time I coasted to a stop in neutral on a flat section I tried to figure out why Red kept going even though I wasn’t downhill, then I realized… oh, he’s being pushed by the wind. The wind is so strong it is pushing my mototaxi! Holy crap.
Gobernador Gregores lives up to my expectations with a large gas station at the outskirts of town. I pull in to fuel up and notice that it’s well protected from the wind, but the sound of the wind tearing at the building is exactly the same sound I know so well from my childhood on the Philippine islands (typhoons!) and my four years as an adult in Florida (hurricanes!). This wind is vicious.
I fuel up and head into town to buy two 5L jugs of water, then turn around to head west, back towards the main road, and into the brunt of the wind. For the first time, I point Red directly into the wind and I find something astonishing: my little moto doesn’t exactly want to go anywhere. In fact, the wind is so strong that I can’t make more than 30kmh into it, and the occasional gust knocks me down to 20kmh while I slowly claw back my speed.
Misery. Slowly, slowly, I head out of town, along the road I breezed inward along at 65kmh, fighting my handlebars to keep Red straight into the wind at a pesky 30kmh. For a brief moment, the road turns to ascend a hill and the wind is again behind me, blowing me up a steep hill in fifth gear as if I’m heading down it. At the top, I see a sign that I can’t quite read before I drive past it and, wishing to confirm I’m on the right road, I try to turn around.
On the gravel shoulder, in first gear, directly into the wind, Red won’t go anywhere. It’s like trying to drive uphill, the wind pushes me back so hard my tire requires too much power and can’t get traction. I have to bounce up and down to slowly nurse it forwards, only to find the sign is of no value to me because the places it mentions are Estancias (ranches) and thus not on my map. I shrug my shoulders and decide to drive down the road anyway.
It’s a long, slow drive against the wind for hours as I fight my way westward. I finally gave up on finding shelter from the wind and stopped on the road to have a snack, huddling down behind Red to take the edge off. Even here, the wind is so insane that it actually sucks the plastic top right off the can of Pringles I bought in Gobernador Gregores. Within literally two seconds the top flies over fifty meters down the road, bouncing once before being lost to sight as it skitters towards the horizon.
Eventually I make it to the mostly southward heading section of Ruta 40 and find a new struggle; with the wind coming at me from the side at 30-40+MPH, I can make slightly more headway (sometimes up to 45KMH) but have to struggle against being blown sideways across the road. Some gusts are so strong that they actually push the back end towards the left through the gravel, requiring constant effort and attention.
I run out of fuel somewhere north of Tres Lagos, having gone something like half the normal distance on this tank as a result of the wind. Once again, pouring fuel from my gas can into the tank is an exercise in gas splatter, the wind blowing fuel everywhere. Next time I come to South America I am going to bring with me a nice American style gas can, where safety regulations require sealed spouts and all that good stuff – impossible to find in South America, in seems.
In Tres Lagos, I talk to the attendant at the gas station and ask if the wind is always this bad (actually, I asked if the “window” was always this bad, but he figured it out and corrected me). He told me sometimes it is not as strong, but most of the time yep, this was normal. It would also be like this for the remaining 120km or so to El Calafate, and he said it was like that all the way south. Joy.
On the plus side, he confirmed that the road from here to El Calafate was paved, which should make dealing with the sideways wind a bit easier. I hit the road again, surprised to realize it’s approaching 6PM and yet another day has passed with what feels like insignificant headway against the brutal Ruta 40.
A few kilometers south of Tres Lagos, I see another construction quarry (my go-to stopping places world wide it seems) and decide to give it a try, figuring the high walls may inhibit the wind a bit. As I stop just after 6PM, I notice the wind has died down with the setting sun. Not to be fooled tonight, I carefully stake down my tent and position Red to block the wind as much as possible if it starts up again from the west. I also make sure to set up where it’s mostly rocks around me, instead of fine sand tonight…
The breeze is still too strong for my stove, so I snack on oatmeal cookies and watch some tv, my usual evening routine with six hours to kill before sleep. It’s a bit cold and windy to be outside the tent and in a fit of genius I do something I should have thought of many weeks ago, wiring up an extension cable with my extra ten feet of wiring, allowing me to run wiring from my battery into my tent to recharge my phone – giving me as much phone play time as I need.
The wind kicks back up, but not as badly as yesterday and with Red blocking some of it I spend the evening in cozy warmth, mostly out of my sleeping bag as I write my blog and prepare to doze off.
Begin: Ruta 40, south of Tres Lagos, Argentina @ 10:00AM
End: El Calafate, Argentina @ 2:00PM
Distance: approx. 155km (~97mi) in ~4 hours (~39KMH / ~24MPH average)
This morning was a throwback to earlier days on the road, when morning was a simple affair, without hardship. As usual I went to sleep around midnight, waking up around 8AM in the pre-dawn light. It was warm enough – in the high 40’s still – that I decided to head out of the tent to photograph the quarry in the pre-dawn light. Maybe I don’t normally spend enough time being up before dawn, but I’m constantly amazed at how much time there is between the sky brightening towards daylight and the sun actually coming up down here.
I jumped back into the tent for a quick shot of warmth, but by 9:30AM the sun had finally started to peek above the horizon and I decided to pack up. The wind was going strong again, yet I was feeling lazy and confident and made a minor mistake, unhooking the top canvas of my tent from the two sides facing the wind while leaving the other sides still hooked in (always do it the other way, folks).
The result was that the two loose corners were held in my hands at waist level as I started to go around the tent to unhook the others, at ground level… meaning the impermeable canvas was exposed almost in entirety to the wind, exactly like sail, and the wind took full advantage of it. The canvas inflated and there I was, holding onto my two corners for dear life while the bottom two, still attached to the rest of the tent, created a beautiful little sail which pulled both me and the tent slowly across the ground.
It took all my strength to hold on, but after ten seconds of panic the wind abated for just a moment, allowing me to punch down the sail and jump to the other side of the tent, wadding it up and quickly unhooking it. Safe! With a bit more care, the rest of the tent packed up with ease and I was on my way.
The rest of the day felt like a bit of a picnic after the last few days, all nice easy button paved road with the wind mostly coming from the side and often at my back. As I rode further south, the wind dropped more and more until at one point I pulled over for some photos and noticed that it seemed there was no wind at all.
Knowing I was heading to El Calafate and not worried about making distance, I took the opportunity to make a try at some ultimate decadence: a cup of warm coffee. My stove lit in a blaze of glory and for an entire five minutes stayed happily bright and flaring, slowly warming my cup of warm… then, spitefully, the wind decided to remind me who was at whose mercy and started up again, making further heating impossible.
To show the wind I didn’t care much, I nonetheless enjoyed my cup of tepid coffee, the caffeine jolt having a quick and obvious effect as I began to bounce around with glee. Soon I would be staying inside a building! I could work on my moto! Maybe even get spare bits! Weee!
As I was packing everything back up, I noticed something unfortunate: a spoke from my front wheel was broken off. I pulled out my spares and found, perhaps predictably, that they don’t fit this new front wheel. Why didn’t I check that in San Martin? No worries, I am only a few kilometers from El Calafate, and worst case I’m 300km from Rio Gallegos, I can get some spares.
For the next hour, I cruise happily amongst beautiful lakes and ignore the wind, screaming Cake lyrics until my voice is sore as I celebrate with my favorite road album (Fashion Nugget – I think it’s my favorite only because I know all the songs). El Calafate turns out to be a gorgeous little town, and I quickly find a cabin to hole up in for $80USD a night.
Cheaper places are surely to be found, but I want to cook myself breakfast and be decadent, and honestly at this point I don’t much care about spending money. I’ve been camping in the snow, wind, sand, and cold enough for a bit of a reward, methinks.
I spend the afternoon wandering the town, buying groceries, eating a pizza, and uploading my blog and photos while settling down with some more of that fantastic Reserva San Juan Extra Anejo cognac (mostly fantastic because it’s quite drinkable for being $10 a bottle).
At first the plan was to drive Red to Perito Moreno (the glacier) tomorrow, however I’m told the road is covered in snow and ice and it may be impassable. Instead I think I will do some work on Red in the morning then see if I can get a bus out there in the afternoon. Unfortunately there’s no motorcycle mechanic or parts place in town, according to a bunch of locals, so I’ll have to head to Rio Gallegos to get some much needed work done before the push to Ushuaia:
1. Both my front and rear chains should be replaced, I think. They have both stretched to the point where I’ve had to have links removed in order to keep them tight and I’m concerned that they may stretch to the breaking point soon. Better to replace them and keep the current ones as spares.
2. My front tire and my drive tire are very low on tread – low enough that I think after 300km to Rio Gallegos I won’t be confident about their ability to perform in gravel, mud, or snow. I hope in Rio Gallegos to replace them with some snow tires, if I can find some.
3. I need spokes for the front wheel. I think one set of spares I have are short enough that I can cut a bit off with a hacksaw and use them, but I only have five of those and they are for the rear wheels also.
4. I’m due for an oil change. I have a liter of synthetic (and a liter of normal) on me and can do the oil change myself easily, but I don’t want to leave a liter of used oil on the side of the road.
5. General service stuff – at this point, my air filter needs a good pressure cleaning, my oil filter could use a good cleaning, etc. All of this is stuff I can do on my own but it takes time and facilities, facilities I don’t have. Easier just to have a mechanic do it in his shop.
So, I expect a day or two here in El Calafate, then a trip to Rio Gallegos and a day or two there before the run to Ushuaia. Depending on how tomorrow’s review of the status of Red goes, I may end up leaving Ruta 40 and taking the paved road towards Rio Gallegos, especially if my spokes are in danger. We’ll see!