Chris' 1994  R100GS/PDChris' new bike, a 1996 F650 ULTIMATE JOURNEY Erin's 1997  F650
Living a Dream . . . 2 Live-N-Ride

June 4, 2002.-- Reaching 5,000 meters

Credit to Adventure: Day 3 - Problems at Altitude

-- Story by Chris --

Sunday, June 2nd: "Vamos amigos, vamos!" was the cry into the chilled room just before 5am. The jeep was to leave within the hour to catch site of the geysers at sunrise. The 6 weary passengers reluctantly crept out from beneath the covers, into the cold morning air, and drove off in the jeep. The 6 bikers still had an hour of sleep – the night before we realized driving on gravel roads in the dark wouldn’t be smart, and who wants to get up at 5am anyway?!?! We arranged with the tour driver (Hector) directions to a meeting point later in the morning where the group would stop for breakfast.

The sun rose at 6:45am and so did we. After much reluctance from all the batteries, we eventually got all bikes started – Jamie’s KTM with electric and kick starters still required 3 pushes before the engine woke up.

With morning temperatures climbing slowly from 0F/-15C, the ride out of Laguna Colorado was crisp yet extremely clear. The 5 other riders were quite jealous of the pansy BMW with heated grips. As we drove out of the village, the corrugation got worse instead of better, not a pleasant thing first thing in the morning in the bitter cold. When we reached the base of the mountain, the track improved and we ascended quickly above 4,600meters. In shaded areas, ice covered the track and we had to take our time. At 4,800meters I was in the lead following a track that turned to snow. Pulling the bike backwards in snow is difficult enough, but at that altitude the 10 meters was like playing 40 minutes of rugby in the dead of summer!

The single road the guide had described eventually turned to many trails, and there was some confusion as to which way to go. Looking further up, we saw what appeared to be smoke accompanied by the faint smell of sulfur. Must be the geysers! We followed the windy trail through the ice and snowdrifts up to 5,033meters/16,500feet. Unfortunately, Erin had the camera, so we have no photo. The smoke we saw turned out to be from a Borax facility, and after the security guard turned us away, we made several wrong turns before finding the proper road down. We were supposed to meet the group at the thermal pools for breakfast between 8-8:30am, but we didn’t arrive until just after 9am.

The next 2 hours we raced down trails towards the Chilean border, our "backup" meeting point. Along the way, Kfir’s Transalp wouldn’t go faster than 2nd gear, and Jamie got a puncture in his front tire. All the pumps were in the jeep (good planning, eh?), so 2 bikes were out of the chase. After many wrong turns (it was supposed to be one straight road) we eventually found the jeep, 2kms short of the border on a little side-road where there was a small bus terminal. The 4 Israeli tourists got into a transfer bus to San Pedro, and the jeep headed back 10km to where Jamie was on the side of the road. After unloading Jamie, Martin, and Chris’ gear from the jeep, we bid each other farewell and they headed for the border. The rest of us headed back up the road towards Kfir, stranded some 10km back at the top of the pass. Along the way, Mark’s Tenere was giving him problems, where he couldn’t get the bike to go faster than 50km/h, and barely 15km/h up the steep hills. Things were starting to go bad.

When we later found Kfir at the top of the pass, he was again cleaning his airbox (he was loosing power the previous day) and had already cleaned his black spark plugs. He was able to return down to lower altitude and a lunch break at the thermal pools, but our destination of Alota 200km to the north was unlikely. While the driver made lunch and we discussed options, we decided to take the opportunity to refuel the bikes. Mark was sucking on the hose when the 5-liter bottle he wanted to fill slipped out of his hands. Concentrating on the smaller bottle, he forgot about the tube in his mouth until it was too late and he swallowed a mouth full of petrol! The remainder of the day was very unpleasant for him, to say the least.

Shortly after lunch, we were heading up again towards 4,600 meters and Kfir’s bike would go no further. Mark went ahead as he tried to nurse his bike up and over the next pass. Earlier, Hector had refused to let us put the bike in the trailer, even though the owner of the company promised we could use it for 2 bikes if necessary! The owner told Hector not to let us put the bikes in the trailer (What an ass!).

Anyway, it was obvious that Kfir’s bike could not make it back to the nearest refuge, Laguna Colorada, some 45kms away. Hector eventually agreed to let us use the trailer, but refused to help us load the bike and tie it down – a difficult task at sea level, something all together different at high altitude. Mark was off in the distance, and I was following the trailer to keep an eye on Kfir’s bike when my bike started to buck and thrust.

I could not get any power from the bike below 4,300rpms, but if I gave it full throttle and could get the bike over 4,500rpms, I would get a surge of power. Nervous that I would get left stranded too, I passed the jeep and later caught up to Mark. Last night we moved his carburetor needle down one notch (less gas), and now he begged me to adjust his mixture, as I had refused to meddle with it the previous night. There is this belief that those who travel longer know more about bike repairs, I know nothing about adjusting the mixture. Frustrated with my own problems, I took out my tools and turned the screw in a half-turn, not sure what the result would be. I then got back on my bike and fought to get the bike to a lower altitude safely. I first had to struggle upwards through the ice covered track at high revs, crossing 4,934 meters before eventually heading down the mountain for good.

With 45 minutes before sunset, I reached Laguna Colorada and the bike was running a little better. Mark showed up a few minutes later, claiming his bike was running great! I pulled my spark plugs to find them covered in a blanket of black soot. After a thorough cleaning, I replaced them and next opened the carburetors to lower the needle one notch (less gas). I was surprised to be having problems, as I had changed to a smaller main jet before entering Bolivia to avoid problems at altitude – guess 5,000 meters is pretty high though…

One of the other guides at the refugio claimed to be a motorbike mechanic, and he and Kfir worked on Kfir’s bike outside until after 10pm, when the temperature had already dropped pretty low. Kfir eventually came into the dorm with a look of exasperation, as he wasn’t convinced his bike was fixed. We slept better that night: maybe we were getting used to the cold; maybe it was the smaller room; mayb we were just exhausted.


One of the Geysers

Tourists take off thermal clothing for a dip in the thermal pools

Laguna Verde, near the Chilean border

Several backpacks wait for the transfer bus to Chile

Jamie working on a flat at "lower altitude" -- 4,300 meters

GPS confirms an altitude of 4,934meters/16,200feet -- I didn't have the camera earlier when we reached 5,033meters

Returning to Laguna Colorada shortly before sunset


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