Anyone searching for the highest peaks on the face of the planet will not be able to ignore the volcanoes that shadow northern Chile. Situated on the edge of the Atacama deserts, the 6000s line up alongside each other like a pearl necklace. We (Frank Hülsemann, Markus de Marées and André Hauschke) wanted to set a record, using the highest volcano on earth, the Ojos del Salado. Our aim was to be the first to cycle up its side, to a height of 6000m, with our mountain bikes.
Before we were even able to start taking on the volcano, we had to get used to the sweltering heat and adapt to the climate. Our bodies had to get accustomed to the extreme climatic conditions and, for this reason, we spent the first month in the Oase San Pedro de Atacama. We rode short tours, which led us out into the surrounding desert, and quickly realized that cycling through one of the driest regions in the world was not going to be an easy task.
After a week's ascent, we reached a height of 3500 Meters. We pitched camp in a picturesque valley with warm-water springs. Over the next few days our training route consisted of riding continuously up and down the only available mountainside. After another week we moved our camp to a new site at the base of a volcano named 'Sairecabur', which is at an altitude of 4300m. The training recommenced and our materials were tested to extremes. We had especially built our mountain bikes to be capable of completing both desert and mountain expeditions: alongside the extremely robust frame, travel adjustable suspension forks, and good tyres is the Rohloff SPEEDHUB. This carefully selected component was chosen as it is nearly maintenance-free and therefore perfect for touring/expedition use through the rocky and sandy terrain of this region. Sand, salt and dust seem to cling to all components and the sand grinds its way between the gears. The SPEEDHUB function is not hindered by this. However, the bearings were not as resistant as the SPEEDHUB was to such elements and, after approximately 2 weeks into the climb into the Atacama, it became apparent that even the small details were beginning to cause disagreements between us.
Eventually we set off towards Ojos del Salado. With two off-road vehicles and a three-man support team, we were sure to reach our 6000m goal soon. But that is not how it turned out. The route up to the summit of the Ojos del Salado was sandier than we imagined and made progress extremely hard going. Our eyes constantly scanned for a rideable path to follow and, despite our weeks of acclimatization, the thin air made us exhausted. On the second day of our ascent we were caught in a snow storm and, being at an altitude of 5731 meters, we were forced to leave our bicycles behind. Back at camp (at 4300m), we were forced to take a break. We desperately needed fuel for our support vehicles as well as drinking water. All supplies needed to be sourced from the nearest village, 'Copiapo', 250 kilometers away. Another day with nearly perfect weather conditions was lost.
On the 31st of March, it was finally time to set off once more. We quickly reached an altitude of 5900 meters before the route disappeared into a mass of rocks and sand. It was at this point that both Frank and Markus began to feel real physical problems. The first signs of altitude sickness were becoming apparent. The support vehicle took Markus back to camp in the afternoon, leaving Frank and André, whose intention it was to reach the 6000m mark the following day. Frank unfortunately didn't have a good night and his health deteriorated. It became so bad that during the night, at temperatures of -10°, he too was forced to quit the challenge. Their bicycles remained at the altitude that they reached of 5965 meters. After Frank was back in the care of the support team, and had been returned to sea level the same day for safety reasons, André set off on a final attempt to accomplish the goal. A good 24 hours later, news reached the support team via satelite telephone: André had made it. Using his very last morsels of energy, he had reached an altitude of 6085 meters with his mountain bike. The altitude record has been set; the 6000m mark has been broken. By looking at the mountain bikes and the SPEEDHUBs, you would never guess what they have been through - quite the opposite of the cyclists who rode them. Feeling badly beaten from the challenges over the previous few weeks, but happy with the success and the result, we lay on the Pacific beach and celebrated the success of our project: '0 to 6000’.
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