Leaving El Chaltén with a gently falling snow on a nice tar road wasn’t such a terrible thing. Sure it was cold, but there was no wind and the snow completely changed the landscape. Despite this, I had a bit of a knot in my stomach. At Tres Lagos I was going to hit Ruta 40 proper- the famous gravel highway of Patagonia. Normally this wouldn’t bother me at all, I would actually be looking forward to it, but I was about to ride it at the worst possible time. Other riders had told me that the road itself was decent gravel and not a real worry… Except for the massive deviations where they were expanding and tarring the road. There they said that it might get tricky in the wet.
The next 500km stretch of road had been rained and snowed on for the last week straight.
At first the riding wasn’t too bad. I cursed my choice of tires (I had taken a chance and went for long lasting ones instead of knobbies that would have worn out quickly), but I was still able to make decent progress even as the conditions deteriorated.
This happy state of affairs was not to last. Before long the wind kicked up and started to drive the increasingly heavy snow horizontally across the road. The deviations became long muddy tracks, so mixed with snow that you couldn’t even get a feel for the right track to take.
The hours passed, but the kilometers seemed to stand still- in 5 hours I had barely managed 120km. My bike fishtailed from one side of the road to the other, any use of the brakes would instantly cause either my front tire to turn and lock, or my rear tire to skip away crazily. This continued until I passed around a lake and between two hills where the road dried out and seemed to become quite manageable…
I started to pick up a little speed and thought I was on my way, but then my front tire started to become completely unmanageable- twisting and turning under me. I stopped and checked it and saw that the mud had completely encased it. The slightly drier conditions had turned the mud into a slick cement that stuck to everything. I cleaned the tire as best I could and continued on, stopping ever 10-15 minutes to clear it out. Until I hit a gentle slope- a nothing of a hill. As I rode up, the bike became more and more unmanageable. I ended up having to stick my feet out wide (see the parallel tracks in the mud) to keep it going forward and not simply turn and fall. After barely 100 meters that wasn’t enough- the bike just wouldn’t move. My rear tire span in the mud until it was a blackened clay, but still the bike wouldn’t move.
So, I had no choice- take all the gear off the bike and walk/ride the bike to the top of the hill. Then walk back down and carry my gear up, piece by piece. This took another couple of hours and put paid the idea of me getting anywhere that day. By the time it started to get dark I had managed about 150km for the entire day and was beyond simply exhausted. I decided not to even try and find a camping spot out of view of the road and simply got the bike off to the side and pitched camp a few yards away.
The morning came with a ray of sunshine through the tent and gave me hope for the day ahead.