Let me give you the background on how all of this happened.
It started with a casual conversation with one of my events colleagues Joe. I am a non executive director with a challenge event and adventure cycling company called Greenrock which Joe and his wife Laura set up. I happened to mention that for my 50th year next year I was keen to go away with two friends who were also celebrating this milestone birthday. I think I possibly got a bit over excited and started to look a little further afield than they had in mind. South America, and in particular Argentina had always been on my hit list. They were more limited on time and so were thinking more Europe and Croatia, which is great - at the end of the day, it is about spending time with these very special friends. Ah but Argentina was still on my mind and I happened to mention this to Joe. "We're doing a recce of a cycling trip in Argentina in November if you fancied joining us?" he said in just as casual a manner as I had mentioned it. Ooh I thought, cycling AND Argentina, what's not to like? Bit of cycling, some Malbec, steak to refuel and all of the tango and amazing culture you associate with South America? And so I was signed up to be one of just seven people who would be 'helping' assess if this was a good trip to the open up to the public.
Well, fast forward six months and the reality is substantially more challenging, and exciting in equal measure. This little adventure will take us from Salta in Argentina to Cladera in Chile, across 827 miles, and yes, over a small matter of the Andes, climbing up to 5000 metres. I swear Joe has adopted a sort of desensitisation process where little by little he introduces another fact about the trip, but you gradually see it as normal. You know, a bit like what Donald Trump is doing. (Sorry Joe, you're not like the Trumpster really!)
The extensive briefing notes were sent over and yes, the ride has its own official name 'The Lavadome Ride' due to the fact that we will spend some of the camping sections under the gaze of one of the largest volcanoes in South America. But wait, no, not the word 'volcano' ...was that what caught my attention? No, it was actually the reference to camping, something I haven't done for about 20 years. In fact I can pinpoint the exact year, 1993 when my boyfriend at the time and I did a camping tour of the west coast of Scotland. This involved camping on the edge of a loch where the tide came in very early morning causing us to hurriedly pack up and sleep in the car, and then camping in what turned out to be a field full of cattle who were mooing and brushing against our tent all night. Still not thinking this was something that would beat me, I do recall another camping trip with my swimming club where a friend and I arrived in the dark and realised in the morning that we had pitched our tent inside out. At this point we referred to ourselves as 'City Slickers' and decided that camping probably wasn't our natural habitat.
Well, the Lavadome ride will involve camping for at least 6 of the 20 nights, with 4 of them being wild, and at altitude. Which brings me onto my next worry, altitude! Something I have never experienced. As I am slightly asthmatic, I flagged this up to Joe in what was possibly my attempt at a get out. But he replied in his chirpy way with "that's ok, it probably means you are used to breathing with slightly less air". Ok, so there was no going back now...
The next few weeks involved buying all sorts of random things that I never thought I'd have a use for: a universal plug for a sink; water purification tablets; a spork (one of those spoon, knife and fork combined things); and so on. Apparently my sleeping bag (mostly used indoors) wasn't rated to a low enough temperature, so I borrowed my PT Marks' one. As a former marine, he had one that was 'comfort rated' to -10. Now there's a contradiction in terms. I thought sleeping in the drafty spare room at my mum and dads at Christmas in Aberdeen was cold! There's nothing 'comfortable' about sleeping at minus 10 surely??
But what about the training, surely that is the hard bit? Well strangely, this is the bit that worries me least. I have been doing lots of cycling with the lovely Liv crew, including Regents Park laps (speed), Swains Lane reps (hills) and some long rides in the Chilterns etc at the weekends (endurance). I figured with so many other challenges to the trip, I had to try and feel slightly in control of one element of it. Though I was under no illusion that this will be easy, in fact cue Joe again with one of his emails from adventure cyclist Harriet Pike who had told him to..."mentally prepare everyone for much tougher and remoter conditions than Manali - Leh.” (I had no benchmark to prepare this to and actually had to Google where that was!).
Hmm, very hard then?
But yet it was the other details that continued to worry me and I found myself having anxiety dreams about waking up on the morning of my flight and frantically trying to get my panniers packed and my bike in a box. Here's the thing for anyone who has ever travelled with their bike (and again, that's not me). Usually this involves using one of those bike bags which has a strap and wheels. But no, that's not going to work with this trip. Being point to point it will have to be packed in a cardboard box which is then disposed of in Argentina, with a new one being sourced in Chile to come back again. What's on my mind? How do I physically drag said box AND an oversized bag with four pannier bags in it to the airport on my own? (Repeating to self, "I am an independent woman, I can do this..") These have been proving to be the things that anxiety dreams are made of for me, the ultimate organiser.
The thing that really derailed me slightly however, was a visit to my doctor to get anti-altitude sickness tablets. This started on a bad footing when I realised the doctor wasn't one I had seen before. I am lucky actually to stay relatively healthy as an adult and so don't know any doctor in my practice particularly well, but this guy didn't seem to know my background at all. When I said what I was there for he asked me what brand of medication I wanted to which I replied that surely that was his call. He said I needed to talk to the person leading the trip and ask them and so I started to feel a bit agitated by my wasted appointment. As I was leaving, he asked me for more detail about the challenge and his reply was "Hoo Hoo, BE CAREFUL!" This was not what I needed and I have to confess to going home and having a little cry as I started to feel a bit overwhelmed.
Not to be daunted though, I used that weekend to do an 80k bike ride with fully loaded rear panniers on my bike and also bought myself a little travel journal to record this amazing experience. That following week I also had an appointment with my practice nurse to have my typhoid and tetanus jabs and she couldn't have been more different from the doctor - "South America is the best place I have ever been!" She enthused. "What an adventure, you will LOVE it!" I left feeling re-energised about it. I realised that a lot of my anxiety had been borne out of a feeling instilled in me by my parents. Having been what you might call a 'sickly child' in and out of hospital with asthma and various conditions when I was young, I had been quite over protected by my mum in particular.
But get a grip Denise (said in true no-nonsense Scottish style), you are almost 50, get out there and do it!!
And so in the ensuing week or so, I have had the first of three rabies shots (because 'wild dogs chase bikes') and have met some of my fellow adventurers as we delivered a Survival Challenge event for the Tesco National Charity Partnership in the Peak District. One of them is a paramedic by day, so that can only be a good thing! I am accumulating all sorts of weird things in my spare room for the trip, and have been advised that I will need to buy dried food packs for four days of the ride when 'we might not have access to food as we will be so remote' But am I phased? Well yes, slightly, but am I excited? Very much so!
As I finish off this first part of my blog, I am getting ready for a 70k bike ride in the morning fully loaded up with front and rear panniers. Let's hope storm Brian has passed, although it might replicate some of the conditions that I can apparently expect in the Atacama desert!?
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.