Over the years I had been looking for an adventure trip that combines cycling and mountaineering. I had read about the Panamerican Highway, the world’s longest road from Alaska to Patagonia, a long-distance cycling classic through North, Central and South America. Likewise, the Seven Summits story of climbing all continent highpoints was very fascinating, albeit at risk of becoming overcrowded in recent years. Was there a way to combine highway cycling and highpoint climbing? I briefly contemplated doing the Seven Summits by bicycle, but then dismissed that idea as too long and too expensive. Then I hatched the idea of combining the Panamerican Highway cycling with climbing all country highpoints. The Panamerican Peaks project was born.
When I got laid off in February 2009, something inside my head told me that the time had come to do this trip. Once you decide to go for it, how do you prepare for a trip of this scale? I’d say there are three components: Physical, mental and logistic preparation.
People tend to overestimate the need for physical preparation. You don’t need to be a super-athlete to start a project like this. I just did my usual cycling and some swimming and kayaking as well as two gym visits per week for some upper-body strength thrown in for good measure. You just need a basic amount of fitness to get started. And once you’re on the road, you grow physically stronger as the journey goes on. Feel like you should lose a few pounds before you set off? Don’t worry. If you ride a few hours a day every day you will transform your body into a lean machine with your only challenge being to get enough food and drinks to fuel your daily exercise of legs and lungs. Start with smaller daily distances if you think you’re not as fit as you’d like to be. But start you must. Most adventures fail because they are never started. Few adventures fail because they are too big to pull off. If you are like most people you will be surprised by how much you can accomplish if you just start and bring the right mindset.
Speaking of mindset, preparing mentally is a bit more challenging. Prepare for something so much bigger than anything I had done before. Prepare for something on a scale almost all friends and family recommended against undertaking. Prepare to say goodbye to them for a year or so. And say goodbye to most of the conveniences and trappings of modern life. Your best way to find out how you’ll handle this mentally is to do smaller trips. I had never done a trip lasting more than one week. You can’t know exactly in advance how it will go and how you will react. But that’s part of the allure of adventure, to find out for yourself what you are made of.
Lastly, logistics: Initially I had completely under-estimated the time and effort to plan and prepare. But my timing was fortunate as I had 3 months to prepare before the Northern climbing season would start. For the climbing, I signed up with commercial expeditions for the first two peaks in Alaska and Canada. I bought lots of cold weather mountaineering equipment with guidance from online gear checklists and books. But you should also have used your gear out in the wild to know how you can handle the elements with it. To test my winter camping gear, I flew out to Idaho in late March for a test trip. The weather was pretty bad with a winter storm moving through, but in this case I enjoyed it because it made for a more realistic testing environment.
For the cycling part, I wondered what touring bike would best suit my needs. While I was confident that I would enjoy this portion of the journey, I didn’t know how my back and bottom would handle multiple hours in the saddle every day. I did some research and gravitated towards a recumbent bicycle mostly for its comfortable seating during long rides. I wanted standard size 26” front & back wheels and under-seat steering for a more relaxed, if somewhat unfamiliar seating posture. In a bit of a leap-of-faith decision I finally bought a used bike, had it overhauled and then got used to it over multiple training rides back home in Florida. I learned the importance of a rear-view mirror to look behind me. I decided to tow a trailer and a pair of panniers. However, my test-rides were all in Florida with no mountains and less than half the weight. As a result, I under-estimated the heavy weight of the loaded bike, which would make riding uphill on the recumbent very strenuous and frustratingly slow. To avoid such surprises, you should test in more realistic and demanding conditions.
The journey started with two big mountain expeditions: Mount Logan in Canada and McKinley (Denali) in Alaska. I had never been anywhere near this remote or this high on a mountain. I spent five weeks camping on a glacier, with only 4 days of rest and transport in between. While similar in size and mountaineering challenge, my experience on both mountains was quite different. Logan was a great success, a place of solitude, small team (3 clients, 2 guides) and lots of camaraderie. Our expedition was crowned with a glorious summit day, with great photos and video from the summit. Denali, by contrast, was much more crowded, our expedition (9 clients, 3 guides) just one of many dozens on the mountain. A combination of slow moving team, a guide getting sick at high camp and finally weather turning bad closed the available time window for most expedition members and cost me the chance to even attempt the summit. But failure is always a possibility at such big mountains.
If you’re not failing every now and then, you are not trying things hard enough. — Warren Buffett
Cycling down the Alaska Highway and then the Pacific Coast was a great time. You meet a lot of other touring cyclists at the many State Parks, with quite a few of them having turned into good friends. Many iconic sites dot the Pacific Coast Highway, including highlights such as the dunes in Oregon, the Redwood National Park in California, and of course the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
After scaling Mount Whitney in California the next section was cycling into the Baja California and on to Mexico and Central America. The heat and remoteness of the Baja California turned out to be a good preparation for the even more extreme sections months later in South America. As is often the case in such endeavors, experience helps one get used to and more tolerant of certain conditions.
The mountains in Central America – with the exception of Pico Orizaba in Mexico, the 3rd highest mountain in North America – were relatively easy and usually just one or two day side trips. The cycling, however, was often challenging due to hilly terrain, high heat and humidity. Also, the days were much shorter in the tropics than when I started up in Alaska and Canada.
Here I cycled through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. I met many people along the way, almost uniformly friendly and curious to learn about me and my story. Quite often a car that had just passed me would slow down and stop in front of me. Often a surprising number of family members and kids would pile out of the car and motion me to stop. They would ask me the same questions like where I come from and where I was going. Many would give me water or snacks; some would even invite me for dinner or to stay at their homes. Most Latino men would comment at my unusual recumbent and say: “Oh, look at that bike!” The women would usually say something like: “Oh, look at those legs!” It was quite amazing how much attention I received with my bike and outfit. At times it was downright exhausting; I felt like an accidental celebrity. Often upon evening arrival at a town I hurried to get rid of my bike at a campground or hostel, change into normal clothing and slip into the relative anonymity of a regular tourist.
PANAMA to PATAGONIA
The midpoint of the journey came in Panama. I hurried to get there before Christmas just in time to catch a plane back home to Florida. After a two week break for Christmas and New Year I flew down to Ushuaia, the southern-most city and endpoint of the Panamerican Highway. As January is the Southern summer, I again started in the hemisphere summer cycling away from winter. This sequence also allowed me to get to the high mountains during their respective climbing season.
After adventurous cycling in Patagonia (high winds) and South Chile (lots of rain) I had an unexpected mechanical defect on my bike. My aluminum rear fork broke and I had to order a replacement part from the manufacturer in the Netherlands. This would cost at least two weeks, the remaining time for me to ride up to Mendoza prior to the next planned mountain expedition. In an act of improvisation I staged a surprise visit to Florida, unannounced to my wife. Timing was on my side in mid-February. I will never forget that look on her face one Sunday morning when she opened the door at home and I could take her into my arms: “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Next up was Aconcagua, highest mountain of Argentina and of all the Americas. By now I had more experience with and more confidence in my own abilities to organize big mountain expeditions. Hence I planned the next two climbs in Argentina and Chile together with my new Canadian friend Antoine Labranche. Aconcagua was a great adventure. We climbed at the end of the season, the mountain being less crowded but the weather still favorable. After 15 days we topped out on the summit in beautifully clear and calm weather. Ojos de Salado, the highest peak in Chile and almost as high as Aconcagua, had other plans for us, however. Its summit proved elusive for both of us due to our bodies not coping well with low oxygen at high altitude. We were disappointed; as we thought after Aconcagua and being well acclimatized it wouldn’t be such a big problem. Personal performance at high altitude remains a bit of a mystery.
PAMPA and ALTIPLANO
After the mountains I had a blast cycling further North in the dry pampa of Argentina. Here my recumbent bike design was ideally suited for long days of riding on relatively flat and good surface roads. There were many long days and often what seemed endless roads going North. Argentina is a vast country; the distance from Ushuaia up to the Bolivian border measures more than 5000 km.
Bolivia had its own rugged beauty in store for me. Now up at the higher elevation of the altiplano, the air was dry and hot during the day, but the nights would get chilly and often below freezing. Two major attractions had lured me into Bolivia: The white salt plains of the Salar de Uynui and the mesmerizing blue waters of Lake Titicaca against the backdrop of the glaciated 6000m peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. Camping on the Salar de Uyuni was an otherworldly experience, with absolutely no sounds or lights disturbing the brilliant night sky all around.
After Bolivia I entered Peru and cycled into Cusco, probably the most interesting city along my journey. Many of the sights were familiar to me, as my wife and I had visited here back in 2008. Peru turned out to be quite hard, with countless mountains and extreme elevation changes while riding. Now I was starting to run low on time due to having lost a few weeks with the bike repair earlier in the trip. To me, getting a chance to attempt the peaks had priority over cycling every part of the South American continent, as I had done in North and Central America. So I covered major sections in Peru and later Ecuador by bus.
PERU and HUASCARAN
Huascaran, the highest mountain of Peru, is a formidable challenge and heavily glaciated. I joined a small expedition with two guides and three clients. We first did a three-day acclimatization climb. Nearby Nevado Pisco is about 1000m lower elevation than Huascaran, but also features glaciers, impressive surroundings and a wonderful summit panorama.
This first climb was designed to get used to high altitude, test rental gear and get to know one another. After one rest day in Huaraz we set out again for a 7 day expedition to Huascaran. The normal route ascends the massive West face, rising more than 4000m above the valley of the Rio Santos North of Huaraz. We set base camp at the uppermost reaches of vegetation just below the large granite slabs under the receding glaciers, as high as the weight-carrying mules could go.
From here on up we all had to carry heavy backpacks, with two porters and one cook each hauling enormous loads. First we ascended bare granite slabs below the glaciers, which was a bit tricky and exposed at times. Then we passed the Refugio ‘Don Bosco’, a remarkable alpine-style hut blending in due to being built from the locally available stone.
To advance higher and also to save money we didn’t stay at this hut but established Camp 1 about 400m higher on a safe spot on the glacier well below the icefall above.
The normal route leads up to the ‘Col de Guarganta’, a saddle between the main and the North Summit. To get there, one has to cross a section of the glacier prone to icefall and avalanches. The conditions in the icefall change every year and at times they are deemed too risky for any expedition to proceed. We crossed this part very early in the cold pre-dawn to minimize avalanche risk from the warming morning sun. I was relieved to have put this dangerous section behind me. We established Camp 2 near the Col at an elevation of 5900m just below some large crevasses. We were the first team up on the mountain this year, so from here on up we would need to break a fresh trail. Just like on Mount Logan in Canada it was exciting to be up here in relative solitude. What a stark contrast to the base camp of say Aconcagua, where you can order a fresh Pizza and pay for Internet access to send and receive emails.
The two guides decided to scout the route and break trail on the following day while the three clients would rest at Camp. While the scenery was magnificent, the environment at this altitude was also very harsh. Constant winds made the already very low temperatures barely tolerable outside the tent. I remember spending nearly 36 hours almost nonstop in the tent. Only a few times did I get dressed up and ventured outside to take some pictures and escape the narrow confines of the shared tent.
High altitude mountaineering is a mix of glorious hours of outdoor experiences combined with dull days and nights hunkered down in a small tent. There are bright times when you can breathe fresh air, see the sun-lit mountain range to the horizon and feel limitless freedom and gratitude for just being there. And there are dark times when you feel suffocating in the small tent, sheltered from the brutal cold and wind outside, feeling bored and badly wanting to get out of there.
Thankfully the weather held and we could set out early in the dark on summit day following the tracks laid by our guides the day before. The terrain was challenging and I was suffering from extreme cold as I relied on cheap rental equipment instead of my own better quality gear which I had shipped home to Florida after Aconcagua and Ojos. Nevertheless, we persevered and finally reach the summit. I was now standing not only on the highest peak in Peru, but also on the highest point anywhere in the tropics worldwide.
After another adventurous ride through the so-called Duck-Canyon down to the Coast I loaded my bike again on a bus and drove several hundred remaining kms through Ecuador to Quito. There I met up with my wife Jill for a final week of mountaineering. After two smaller acclimatization hikes we set out to climb the two iconic volcanoes Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Although stormy weather turned us back near the top of Cotopaxi and prevented any view from the top of Chimborazo, we both enjoyed the experience in the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
At long last, after climbing Chimborazo, 14 months after I had started up in Alaska and Yukon, the Panamerican Peaks project came to an end. I had spent 8 months on the road and about 4 months in the mountains, with 2 months of breaks and travel time in between. Jill and I went on to a wonderful week-long cruise in the Galapagos. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate the end of this grand journey.
People often ask me: What’s next? Here is my motto:
In my twenties, I flew around the world.
In my forties, I cycled around the world. (halfway, anyway)
In my sixties, I will sail around the world.
What an experience Thomas!
Beautiful photographs. It looks like it would be an incredible trip, but I don’t know if I could be away from my family for so long – it’s great that you were able to see your wife during the trip!
Yes, being away for so long was hard. However, we were always in touch via email and Skype, as well as via satellite tracker. I flew home a couple of times and my wife joined me in 3 places (Vancouver, Costa Rica, and Ecuador). So while we were out of sight, we were not out of mind.
Trip of a lifetime!
congratulations on a most amazing, inventive, daring trip! i aspire to do something like this…..encompassing many passions outdoors, exploring this wondrous world of ours! thomas, you are very inspiring! muchas gracias amigo! continued success!
Inspiring story Thomas, I too aspire to accomplish an expedition of such grandiose geographic scale; currently planning to ride a solo mountain bike tour of the United Kingdom to gain some experience insight into the world of long distance cycle touring.
Again Congratulations on such and amazing trip.
I remember when you started this trip. Keep it going!