I said that this was a story about unexpected difficulties, and we surely had our fair share of them. But from some of them came the very best adventures. The ferries crossing Lago O’Higgins from Chile to Argentina were cancelled for a week by bad weather, which resulted in our spending Christmas in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the line on Chile’s famous Carreterra Austral, which winds a precarious path 1000km into Patagonia before meeting an impenetrable wall of rock and ice. As dead ends go it was fairly definite, and the town only got a road link to the rest of Chile in 2000, but there we found the warmest welcome and friendliest company in the form of a dozen fellow cycle tourers and a shared Christmas dinner. When we set off on Boxing Day to catch the boat across the milky blue lake it had been raining for a week. Across the lake and into the no man’s land between the two borders, what should have been a 20km singletrack meander through the Antarctic beech forest followed the established order of things by becoming unrecognisably testing.
At home in Scotland, we both work as outdoor guides and instructors, and know better than to treat river crossings lightly, but getting our tired, wet bodies and loaded bikes across the many small streams that had become log-filled torrents was nearly more than we were willing to risk. Shuttling the bikes across the worst crossings meant spending several minutes waist-deep in the snowmelt-fed water. Gradually our group split up as folks kept moving to stay warm, and uncertainty abounded about whether those behind had stayed put and opted to camp, or braved the waters and were still loving through the wraiths of fog and leering branches. We really were in no man’s land.
We arrived at the Argentinian border post in the early evening, having taken 6 hours to cover those ‘easy’ 20km. The guards pointed to a barn with a small pile of firewood, which was very quickly arranged into a fire, and soon the air was full of steam and chattering teeth. The rest of our unlikely band of bikes and riders trickled in steadily for hours, every one another voice adding to the wide-eyed tales from the journey. The shared sense of comradeship was strange to see spread over such a large group of people from far corners of the world, pushed together by something as simple as a few cancelled ferries. As the rain cleared and drier people left the barn to begin pitching tents by the shores of the lake, a guy from Colorado tapped me on the shoulder and pointed along the lake’s length to the far end. As the clouds began to lift the peaks and spires of mountains began to emerge below them, the largest we had seen and no less beautiful than anyone could hope for. In one of those comedy double-take moments, it took as all a few seconds to register the other mountain looming behind and above the clouds, dwarfing the other peaks by almost two full kilometres as we looked from 300m up to its 3,800m summit.
Mount Fitzroy is a colossal middle finger pointing skyward, mocking logic, perception and planning permission. Those vertical granite slabs have no place among the more reserved mountains at its feet, and it is the unmistakable elephant in the room, alongside its spindly henchman Cerro Torre. I had seen plenty of photos before we even set foot in South America, but even so it was at least a minute before anything else but profanities came out of my mouth. I would do it all again, all two months of pedalling and sweating and wondering when the respite would arrive, if I could relive the moment of recognition of that mountain again. Old Rockwell said that things look good from far away, but that’s not to say that they can’t look even better up close.