June 29, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Today was the second most challenging day of the last 8 months; beat out only by my March 30 trip to San Sebastian, Argentina, closing in on Tierra del Fuego in the beginning of their winter. But today was also very rewarding.
In one word; cold. Really really cold with snow all around and I spent over 2 hours at altitudes between 14,000 feet and 15,800 feet above sea level. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and I've never been more cold on such a sunny day. Cold is far more difficult at high altitudes. At low altitudes there's sort of a constant air pocket of atmosphere all around you that acts as an invisible insulation. At 15,000 feet, especially when it's close to freezing, that invisible insulation is functionally non existent; and on a motorcycle the cold, fast moving air all around you goes on a heat-seeking mission to suck out every little nugget of heat it can take from your body [yeah, I'm pretty sure that "nugget" is the scientific term for a unit of heat from the human body]. Sounds like war but it only feels like punishment.
Altitude can be pretty tough on mountain climbers but a big reason for that is because THEY CLIMBED to that altitude. My cold, achy, altitude weakened ass was carried there by 4 cylinders and 2 wheels and it was still incredibly taxing. I probably stopped to take pictures about 8 times and every time it was a very slow and careful process of balance and choosing just the right spot because if I dropped the bike I would have had to wait for someone to come by and hopefully help me pick it up, and dropping the bike was a very distinct possibility from my being weaker due to the altitude and my gimpy left ankle. Contending with rock slides and llamas in the road also increases the challenge. At one point I stopped to roll a large, relatively round, rock from the middle of the road -it was about twice the size of a basketball, which normally would have been easy especially since I was rolling it at a downhill angle, but it was difficult today.
What made the altitude even more difficult is that I hardly slept the night before. The night got colder and colder and I was shifting around in the cheap little single-sized mattress trying to find just the right position and putting on more layers of clothing, and then there was the breathing thing. My best guess at an explanation for this difficulty is that when we fall asleep we breathe at a rate that we're accustomed to, from the oxygen level that we're accustomed to, which for most of us isn't way way above sea level. So when we fall asleep at 12,000 feet above sea level (Susques altitude) and we're not used to it we begin that same old breathing rate that's worked for years and after a little while the body goes into emergency panic wake-up mode from oxygen deprivation and you wake up panting, gasping, or at least taking deep breaths. So by the time it was morning I could hardly get out of bed because I was still so tired.
But after all that sleep deprivation, cold and concentrating on balance and keeping everything going, one of the most unique experiences of this whole trip was the descent to San Pedro Atacama. Within about 25 miles the road descends from 15,400 feet to exactly 8,000 feet above sea level. It's a very warm and welcoming feeling as the temperature gradually increases and the atmosphere becomes less hostile; minute by minute I could feel the air thickening around me like a slow, invisible hug. So now I'm in the Atacama desert. Dusty is the one word I'll use for it, at least so far... And I've finally found a place to download the last couple days of stuff.