RIDING HIGH

Descending the world’s highest volcano into the record books

This story first appeared in issue 88 of Spoke Magazine.

Words and images: Aaron Rolph

Forced to take a moment to catch my breath, even the deepest gasp I can muster can’t satisfy my burning lungs and aching muscles. Desperately searching for oxygen in the thin air, I lean forward once again and carefully scoop up my bike, balancing the wheels on my back and shoulders in the classic hike-a-bike technique I’d learnt to both love and hate.  

I glance down at my mountaineering boots as my steel crampons crunch the firm, early morning snow. I can’t help but think “what the f*** am I doing here” as I climb, alone in the dark, 6000m above sea level in the Andean Mountain Range, carrying my bike where bikes are definitely not supposed to be. I’m either brave or stupid … maybe both.  

“I can’t help but think ‘what the f*** am I doing here’ as I climb, alone in the dark, 6000m above sea level in the Andean Mountain Range…”

I bury the doubt and continue slowly and steadily towards the summit of the highest volcano on Earth – Ojos del Salado. My bike seems to get heavier with every metre I climb into the thinning air. The face I’m climbing is now so sheer and the snow so deep that it feels pointless to carry 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’m here for all three, although not strictly for the summit itself per se. The goal is to set a new world record; I’m attempting the greatest continuous vertical descent by bike, essentially riding down the biggest mountain I could find anywhere in the world. The plan is to ride all the way to the sea, so really, this was only the beginning of a crazy adventure. 

Although reaching the top of the mountain isn’t strictly necessary, it’d be rude to not tag the summit having come all this way. My acclimatisation had been irresponsibly swift, reaching this altitude after just four days from basecamp at 4200m, but there are big snowstorms inbound, so it’s my best chance to get this one into the record books.  

Laying the bike down for the time being, I decide to continue on foot. I’m amazed by how fresh I feel with the weight physically and metaphorically taken off my shoulders. The ascent flies by in just a few hours, and after an exposed climb up the final rocky arête, I take my last few steps onto the summit.  

At 6893m, Ojos del Salado is the second-highest peak outside of the Himalayas. Taking in the view, I’m hit with an overwhelming sense of relief. After all, it’s all downhill from here, right? 

I make quick work of the descent through deep snow to my Zerode Katipo, where the real unknown was about to begin. I gear up, sit on the bike, look down at the endless plummet beneath me, and push off into the snowy abyss. Somewhere below me is Chile.  

The descent is a challenging balance between having enough speed to plough through the snow, which has softened in the early afternoon sun, and not so much that the bike becomes a runaway train.  

A mission like this is a huge test for all equipment, both on and off the bike. It turns out brakes don’t perform all that well at this altitude, where the effective oxygen in the atmosphere is about 9.5 per cent. I think my brakes have some oxygen in the system, which is now taking up twice as much room than at sea level. The result: catastrophic brake failure.  

I desperately pump the levers to compress the fluid 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.  

I’m forced to pause and painfully gasp 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 supply the muscles with that much-needed oxygen. This is one of the most physically brutal things I’ve ever attempted. After what feels like a lifetime of intense focus, I reach the largely snowless lower slopes.  

With my brakes back in action, I’m able to open it up a little, tackling the technical descent head-on. After a torrid 25km of rock, sand and ice, I reach Refugio Claudio Lucero, a mountain hut with little more than running water. Despite the lack of amenities, I’m happy to be out of the biting wind and sheltered from the menacing storm that had been chasing me into the night. 

To my delight, I’m welcomed by a 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 booze.  

I’d managed to summit Ojos del Salado and ride my bike from insane altitudes, but I still have a long way to go. I need to ride to the sea to set this new record, which means crossing the driest nonpolar desert on Earth, the desolate Atacama Desert. 

Switching my bike into explore mode”, I fit my Restrap bikepacking bags, change to my Crankbrothers clipless pedals, and cram any remaining supplies on my bike and into my backpack. There are zero signs of civilisation here – no shops, people or even sources of water – so I have to carry everything I need 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. Some of the longer dirt track straights are a serious mental test, at times rolling on for more than 20km with the same, unchanging view.  Eventually, the winding mountain roads get more interesting, and I’m treated to some fast, dusty switchbacks that remind me why I wanted to do this in the first place. 

After an afternoon of riding big distances in scenic, golden light, my food and water supplies have dwindled far quicker than planned. I haven’t seen another human in more than a day, let alone a shop. With another 120km to the nearest settlement, it dawns on me that this could get bad.  

I hide from the relentless wind behind a large boulder, chomp on my last two cereal bars and consider my options. The longer I spend in this barren Wild West-like desert, the more uncomfortable this journey will become.  

“With another 120km to the nearest settlement, it dawns on me that this could get bad.”

The wind usually calms down in the evenings and the temperatures become more manageable, so I decide to push on through the night. This is a high-stakes game, but the prospect of finding una cerveza in the next town keeps me going. 

The sky, once ablaze with the fire of the setting sun, transforms into a blanket of stars. Miles from any light pollution, it feels like I’m riding in a video game where the sky is a rolling treadmill, each star seemingly a thousand times brighter than my head torch on the road ahead.

On my last legs, and after a 16-hour stretch in the saddle, I finally reach the glowing city of Copiapó, where I rest and refuel with a mojito – traditional post-ride nutrition, I’m told by locals at the bar. 

My legs are heavy the next morning, but motivated by the thought that the finish-line is almost in sight, I coax myself back on the road.  

I’m now on sweet, sweet tarmac and the road meanders like a river around countless sand dunes before I’m finally hit with the distinctive smell of sea air. I’ve made it to the Pacific Ocean, exactly 373.4km from the highest volcano in the world. 

“I close my eyes and allow my weightless body to float on the ocean surface, letting the relief wash over me.”

The waves are gently lapping the beach and I waste no time getting my kit off and plunging into the salty water. I’d travelled halfway around the world pursuing this crazy, dangerous idea. I’ve finished the toughest ride of my life. I close my eyes and allow my weightless body to float on the ocean surface, letting the relief wash over me.  

With the big challenge under my belt and still some time to spare, I head to a local bike park high above the capital city of Santiago and team up with some awesome local riders, trail builders, and freeride legends Nico Vink and Andreu Lacondeguy.  

We ride late into the evening, and as much as I enjoyed my solo mission, I’m reminded why the mountain biking community is so special. Despite our various ability levels and language barriers, we all have one thing in common: a love for riding bikes.  

Our final lap of the day is a truly epic 2000m descent all the way down to Santiago. The sun dips below the blue-tinged hills, and the final ray of the golden light disappears from the dusty trail and from a day I will never forget.  

Aaron Rolph @aaronrolph  

www.britishadventurecollective.com 

Aaron was supported by Crankbrothers, Arc’teryx, Julbo, Mons Royale, Zerode Bikes, and Sublimetime expeditions.