Punta Olympians

The first rain foams the road slippy, something we'd get used to on our ascent up to Punta Olympica - the highest motorable tunnel in the world.

We rode to Huaraz in the rain. To say downpour might not even be an exaggeration. A downpour which liberated sun-baked oils and detritus from their porous prisons in the tarmac, boiling over in white streaks. Thankfully the valley road meandered gently left and right on it’s way to the city, the foamy road looked too slippy to be banked over. The orange earthen banks sank into bold reds, stained by the water. The steel grey storm left an ominous purple afterglow as it retreated back into the mountains that, between obnubilation and the darkening sky, were largely kept hidden from view.

That morning, without hint or sign of a storm cloud, we’d walked around Yungay, a town that had been declared a national cemetery after over twenty thousand people were buried in a landslide in 1970. An offshore earthquake had dislodged a large mass of rock and ice from the flank of Huascaran, causing an avalanche that just carried on going all the way to the foot of the valley. Safe to say it’s a sombre place. Stood underneath the mountain it was difficult to escape the sense of dread that must have accompanied the disaster.

I walked alone, listening to the wind breathe through a tidy corridor of cypress trees, finding it difficult to understand just how it happened. Huascaran was hard to miss, sure – but it still seemed so far away (15km is the official distance), easily far enough to dissipate a landslide before it hit the village. The fact it didn’t dissipate, the fact it carried on going and buried a whole town spoke volumes about the mass of the churning rock wall that must have descended. And to come so far must have taken tens of seconds, if not minutes. Again,difficult to escape that sense of dread.

Eerily enough the graveyard, located on a small prow barely higher than the rest of the village, avoided the impact – sheltering most of the 92 people who survived. Ninety two.

Hardly being the cheerful start to my day I’d hoped for, I was glad to be in the saddle and riding, sharpish, away from the shadow of a disgorged Huascaran and Yungay. Mike was back on the bike and looking confident after taking a slide (well, as close to sliding as you can do on a rocky dirt road) the day before. With a few miles under our belt the group pulled over into a petrol station where a bulldog with a dodgy eye and a leaky penis limped over to greet us. Franco was suggesting we put our wet gear on. Sure it looked dark, but I didn’t think we’d be in trouble just yet. I left the over-trousers stuffed somewhere in the bottom of my rucksack…

Huaraz sits a little over 3000m at altitude, and serves as forward operating base for thousands of walking and mountaineering types each year. The surrounding mountains were also the site of Joe Simpson’s survival tale, Touching the Void. Fittingly enough, there’s plenty going on in the sprawling city. We headed out for Trappist beers and authentic Peruvian food – Swiss Currywurst at Enrique’s bar before heading out to Chilli Heaven for a spicy curry. Ever the enigma, Jorge entertained us all by pulling the word ‘Minions’ out of his limited English vocabulary, as a way of describing himself and Franco. His one word sentences were coming along well. Elsewhere Mike became more and more alive with each beer thrown down the hatch, eager to sample the night-time treats Huaraz had on offer. Franco took point.

Now, I’m usually quite perceptive of such things, but I have to admit it dawned on me pretty late that we were sat in a brothel… And maybe brothel is too suggestive. It was definitely a bar – just full to the gunnels with prostitutes. Unfortunately generous, Mike had ordered the big beers so it wasn’t like we could just down them and go. We gave Frank a quick re-brief and made our way to somewhere a little less sexy. 

It wasn’t an especially late or messy return to the hotel, still being in the early hours of the morning, but still a vagueness of mind had settled in that the morning coffee barely scratched. My first view of the valley however, misted lightly in the morning sun, was enough to rouse me from the grip of any hangover, no matter how much my body creaked in protest. I just wanted to get into the mountains, whether it was to see the world’s highest motorable tunnel, Punta Olympica, or not. 

Halfway back to Yungay we took a right turn through the the narrow streets of shabby pink buildings and open plazas of Carhuaz. The road, although advertised as a main thoroughfare and the quickest way past the mountain range, alternated between tarmac and hard packed dirt, sculpted into empty, criss-crossing rivulets by rains gone by.  When tarmac prevailed, it wasn’t the wonderfully smooth surface we’d been used to so far in Peru – it had strange undulations – torso sized ripples that seemed to suggest something was growing out from underneath, with a black crack topping each protrusion. They were common enough to thud over at least one, the impact felt in the back of my shoulders as the shock pumped through the forks and handlebars. Followed by a soft punch to the perineum.

Donkeys, guided en masse by a stick wielding Peruvian, mixed with cattle and descended down to town via the most direct and worryingly steep lines. There was at least one window where it looked likely that one of us would be crushed under a falling ginger cow that worriedly tiptoed 20ft above us. I guess the crescendo of exhausts going past didn’t do anything to calm it down. 

I parked up behind a toll booth and jerry-rigged barrier – a big red and white painted stick that, with the aid gravity and a big boulder, rose up to allow us passage, the operator pulling hard at a rope to lower it behind us. After we’d paid the entrance fee of course.

From then on we were in the valleys embrace, the outstretched arms of increasingly tall mountain faces enveloping us on both sides. A gentle mist set in as we followed the valley floor past frequent evidence of recent rockfalls that sometimes blanketed the whole road. I picked my way past carefully, before trying to figure out a pattern that was emerging from the fog on the other side of the valley. A tight zig-zagging of what looked like a farm track, all the way into the clouds. It certainly didn’t muck about gaining altitude – indirect it wasn’t.

In one big, sweeping right hander the so-thought farm track shifted from being on the right to directly ahead. Closer up, it was obviously a tarmacked road, but the dull rocky walls made it look like another dirt track. And before long we were heading up it, angled pretty steeply, battling on through deteriorating weather. The drizzle, clutched by the mist, turned to sleet, with a chill that penetrated deep through my patchy leather racing gloves and deep into my knuckles. It was a gloriously atmospheric backdrop for some photos, but the walking from the bike to vantage point and back again was starting to get a little dizzying. We were higher up than I thought.

In complete cloud cover we rounded the final prow after seemingly endless, wet hairpins, my eyes going slightly out of focus with the thin air. A big green sign adorned the arch of Punta Olympica. Entering the tunnel mouth it was difficult to see anything, eyes bleached by the wall of white cloud on either side. The roughly chiselled, black cave walls were shiny with moisture and dripping in places – it was pretty dank, not especially comfortable and not exactly scenic. Still – a tick in the guidebook. 

The way back down was a little hairier than the way up, facing a wall of air at every turn and feeling more than capable of riding straight into it. By the time I reached the toll booth I had to strip off my gloves and tuck my blue/white fingertips into my armpits to reheat – the 50mph wind chill sapping the movement right out of them. I wrapped my hands around a bowl of warm chicken soup and watched as a biker posse pulled up a few feet away. Young lads, clearly out for thrills, but so many of them! They took a slight interest in Matilda the cow skull, nestled on my headlight but otherwise kept themselves to themselves apart from taking a quick couple of group photo’s we managed to photo bomb. Spinning round and bolting back down the mountain roads must’ve triggered something in Frank because as we pulled away, giving them a good head-start, he started applying the heat. Brilliant! I skimmed his heels while the next 10 or so miles went in a speed blur – catching biker after biker and leaving them in a trail of dust.  We tore through the small section of village, nearly thrown over the handlebars down a near-sheer vertical street, before hitting the gravel again. We’d passed each of them before Franco returned to his previous chilled out pace. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself in my helmet. We had both earned a complimentary nod as the group passed by where we’d pulled in to wait for the Jorge, Mike, Chas, Colin and Dave. Who’d have thought riding like a lunatic was all it took to earn respect from young riders? Oh yeah.. wait.

Punta Olympica was our final high Andes excursion and in a day we’d be riding out West, back to the coast. I can’t say I’d miss all the flights in the hotel stairs, but I wish I could’ve stolen the views away with me. Thanks for playing host Huaraz.

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