The following is a true story. It has not been hyperbolized or edited. In fact, it is taken WORD for WORD out of my hand-written journal mere days after the events occurred in January, 2004. This is the closest that I have ever come to death. This is a long story of my adventure over Abra Acay, but, in my humble opinion, definitely worth the read. My parents have only heard the abridged version of what happened, and with reason too, they would have pulled me home from Argentina if they only knew... at the risk of death by the hands of my mother, indulge.
The day began later than we had expected, but earlier than our exhausted bodies could get out of bed. Our only goal wasnt to shower but rather to make it to a rent-a-car agency and try to begin a three day rental so we could explore the postcard shots of Salta and Jujuy at our own pace and exposure. Little were we to know what exposure we would have. Like any summer day in northwest Argentina, it was hot.
Think we should wear shoes? Ben asked, looking at our sandaled feet.
Yeah, youre right, I said, We just might have to walk a bit.
After calculating the prices, it was apparent that wed be saving money, while listening to music and being more comfortable at the same time in a rent-a-car. So, with no particular place to go, we headed towards the town center and by great luck found ourselves surrounded by rental car agencies with no less than three choices. Sudamerics and their friendly services struck Ben and within thirty minutes, we had ourselves a small silver Fiat, who we later called Arla. We filled Arla up and hit route 51 rolling, listening to music, with the windows down and basically just having a grandeur time.
I proclaimed; Im shocked that Fiat hasnt used the slogan, Just fiat that youll have an awesome time in a Fiat, meaning, hey look at the fun we were having, twisting around turns in a full tank of gas, its pretty much given that Arla will supply us with our fun. We smiled as we continued on. The first photo-op came when the pavement turned into a dirt road hugging the walls of a green mountain valley and Arla, at that point just our trusty Fiat, drove through a trickling stream. There, we took a picture of Ben behind the wheel rocking it in his Punta del Este t-shirt and Billabong board shorts. Clearly this road was everything a sunny day in California could throw at us.
Although as we traveled through the valley, the sun began to disappear behind the clouds, we were still supplied with awesome views of the, what seemed to be, painted canyon.
Zig zagging over the river Toro, the weather grew disappointingly cooler.
I followed along on the map both our route and our elevation. Arla had successfully managed to climb from 1,200 meter to 3,800 meters above sea level as we pulled into San Antonio de los Cobres, our destination.
It was roughly 3:30 and we hadnt eaten since the jamon crucido that morning. Ben drove around looking for somewhere to eat in this ghostly old mining town. If there was anyone else around, they were hidden from us. But that only seemed easy in this barren valley by the rows of identical homes constructed by the old mining company. Aged signs pointed us in the direction of El Rancho, a small corner building facing the dirt road we came in on above. It appeared closed as everything else, but out of starvation I knocked and a child popped out of the room in back and came to the door waiting for his mother to open it.
Are you serving food? Katie asked knowing from these valleys that it was all too possible that they werent.
Yes. Come in. They were excited to have guests and told us the two items on the verbal menu. Two of their six children, Milton and Ronaldo, thrived on our attention. They got tourists around every once in a while, but never American tourists. Where did we come from? Where were we going? We really should stay in San Antonio de los Cobres for the night; they could lodge us for much cheaper than the $3.50 we were paying for a night in Salta, it would be safer too. Were we going to the famous viaduct? Yes, we were. Wed enjoy it, and their food, they said. And after we were given the tour of their place, and the llama wool merchandise, the food came out. It was enjoyable; they had been true to their word, in more than one way. We ate our empanadas and our milanesa with salad, Katie did not have more than one e mpanada and coca tea because she had filled up on cookies. We humored their attention with digital photos and purchasing llama woven hats and scarves.
Sure, I thought Ill buy a stupid cap, theyre only five bucks. I grabbed one and would later stuff it into the glove compartment. As the flan was brought out Milton asked his father if he could show us the way to the viaduct and without hesitation his father conceded to his sons wishes and sent his two sons with complete strangers. With the two in the back seat with Katie, he headed towards the viaduct and laughed and talked about their isolation and otherwise enjoyed each others company.
An hour round trip ended as we drove through pools of water and mud and bragged about how much our friends back home would love the fact that we were roughing it and splashing in this fiat.
We returned Milton and Ronaldo safe and sound back to their home and we promised to send our photos to the address they gave us. It was growing late so we had to press on. Doubling back on our route into town is where the slowly growing climatic music would begin.
Go right here, right I told Ben to split off from our route home and to head towards the mountain pass that led to Cachi. We nearly missed the turn off because the road melted into the dirt fields on either side. Ben soon grew tired of swerving around the rocks in the middle of the road and asked to switch drivers. I volunteered seeing as how I wanted to have my third manual driving experience in the altiplanos of northwest Argentina. With the clouds growing darker and the road ahead growing higher I thought for the final time to myself to ask if this were a good idea or not. After taking photos of the sheep on the side of the road running towards their adobe pueblo I decided that it was a good idea, what better way was there to experience the valleys of Salta.
You do know how to change a flat tire, right? Ben asked me.
Ummm no. I laughed and shifted the car into gear and headed right for the grey hills. At first, a little scared of the poor conditions and the steep drop off without a railing, I took it slowly. Honking around every turn, its safe, I thought, but out loud I stated, Whats the point? We havent seen another car on this road. We probably wont even run across another either.
I took a sharp right and swerved from a rock. We entered the pass which was filled with empty wine bottles. I guess this was the place to get drunk, it was also the point in the melodramatic plot that the camera would scan out from the winding car and with the menacing clouds pushing down on the hill and the screen would grow dark. I stalled the car shifting gears down, and I got stuck in a rut. Ben took the wheel again and rolled back down and then back up the hill we went.
Hey, take some pictures of the snow, Ben said as Katie leaned forward to get a picture of the accumulating flurries ahead through the windshield.
Damn its cold, I said, and the snow only got stronger.
Yeah, and great, all we need is inclimate weather now, Ben sarcastically replied and we wound further up the road. It was when we couldnt see the mountains surrounding us that we were supposed to have the most amazing view crossing Abra Acay, the highest pass in the area* at just under 5,000 meters.
Arla pulled to the side of the road and we jumped out into the snow to take pictures to remember the cold and the height, shivering in our t-shirts and Katies sandals we didnt realize that we wouldnt need any help remembering these two elements later.
We were 45 km from San Antonio de los Cobres, 45 km from the next town, La Poma, where hopefully we would eat, and we were 5 km up in the sky.
As quickly as we could, we jumped into the car from outside, turned up the heat and began our decent. As Ben drove through the snow that now covered the entire road, he said, Good thing we switched drivers.
Yeah, I thought to myself or else wed probably now be stranded in the rain down before the pass. It became where we couldnt see the turns ahead, Damn wed better go down quickly, back to where we can see the road. I wanted Ben to hurry, but I wanted Ben to slow down too.
Around one downward angle we turned in the blizzard and Arla slid along the snow. Dave Matthews was singing to us from our speakers and I leaned forward trying to get some heat from the vents, and then we hit it. It wasnt a large rock, but the thump was felt as the back right side of Arla lifted, the car stalled and Ben slammed on his break around the sharp U turn ahead. We coasted and he stopped. Three times he attempted to restart Arla, three times she told him no. It was silent, really silent. A wind blew the dropping snow against our car, Katie began to freak out and then I followed along after the car wouldnt move again. It was not possible to believe this. We didnt know what happened, the engine was not dead as the wipers were still working, but they remained the only sound as we just stared ahead into white, and then down at Arla, mouths open, wondering what she did to us.
No way. No way! Ben said and we got out of the dead car. Alright, lets push it and try to start up the engine. Katie, in her sandals, was on one side of the car and I was on the other. A blue fluid leaked onto the snow. The engine made the worst sound we could hear at this point: nothing
I think its leaking gas, Katie screamed while looking at brown spots on the snow and as the car stopped on the side of the road.
No way Ben and I said in unison, looking at the snow, still in complete awe. I dont know much about cars. In fact, I know pretty much only that you need a key to start it, but I was sure that we were not leaking fuel. The snow collected on my hair and we stared at Arlas misdeed, none of us with a clue of what to do. Realizing there must be something useful in the trunk we opened it and pulled out a bag of items. It was getting way too cold and we jumped into the car. That is when I saw the flat tire. The tire wasnt just flat, it was squished, squished like or fates. This upsetting information made wiping the snow from our heads and feet in the car more enjoyable, we shivered and began to look through our goodie bag.
In times like these I recall its just as important to remain calm and optimistic and that I did. Inside, I was as scared as a little white boy in a t-shirt caught in a blizzard a marathon away from civilization and angry at myself for being completely naive, but outside I tried to remain as cool as it was outside of the car.
How much water do we have? was Bens first question making us realize we might actually have a larger problem than we had expected.
We all have a little Katie said and suddenly I felt embarrassed that I ate the last of the cookies, we had no food, and I saw the empty bag down by my numb feet. It was 7:25pm and the already darkened clouds grew opaque. Whilst contemplating aloud what to do, I took the first step by putting together the reflecting triangles. So that any car from either direction could see them we placed them on top of the car and in the middle of the road. But good luck, our best chance was to wait for someone to drive by and to take us to whatever the next town was. I remained very optimistic, but the truth remained, no one would be as stupid as us and drive up into a blizzard as the sun was setting. It stayed unsaid but we were all expecting very little. It was fear that kept us utterly silent and the harsh cold that had kept us from not moving. Katie suggested that we all move to the back seat and keep warm. After Ben tried to start the car one more time, we hopelessly relented and moved to the back and huddled. That hardly kept us warm. To remind myself of my llama hat in the glove compartment at that point would have been to be too smart. We shivered. We prayed. As I looked down at my watch I realized the first hour had passed quickly, and dark, but the rest would go by real slow. I promised myself to not look at my watch until morning.
While there was still just a little bit of light, Ben and Katie read aloud the latest psalms Ben had been reading, 9-16. This gave me a relief in a way it shouldnt have. Reading the Bible did not strike me with warmth of Gods salvation, the frigid air was still there leaking through the windows we cracked down to breathe. No, reading the Bible told me that God was with other people at that moment. But I realized that there were indeed others around the world that night in far worse positions than me. There were those who had to deal with this starvation every night, there were those who might be throwing up as Ben was, not because of extreme mountain sickness, but because their diseases were fatal and there were others in the world praying to God at that same moment we were. I prayed for them that night, I wanted God to be somewhere else, for others sakes
When I found my hat, it gave me a little chance for a smile. But with Ben having trouble breathing from the elevation and Katie taking my socks for her feet, there was little else to smile about.
How you doing, Ben? Katie asked.
He replied with both a blunt and pointed, Not good at all.
Neither am I, said Katie followed by a; Chris?
Im fine, I said and I rolled my cap over my eyes and tried to fall asleep. But it was way too hard, heavy breathing, snow falling and disappearing light led my mind in a hundred and six different directions. What are we going to do tomorrow? What are we going to do tonight? Are no cars passing? When will the snow stop? What if it doesnt stop? Should we go back where we came from? Should we head to a city weve never seen? Why cant I feel my lower back? And we all were thinking, how did we get so stupid? I wondered if Ben needed medical attention, if Katie needed to go to the bathroom in only socks. Of course we couldnt rest and as long as our eyes remained open we could see the snow piling up; maybe it was time to pray to God for myself.
Although we slept on and off, no one could sleep for more than minutes at a time, if we werent huddled it was too cold, if we huddled we were in such uncomfortable positions. But we didnt care, elbows jabbing each other, chins pressed on backs, body parts going numb, faces in bosoms, none of us had brushed our teeth.
My head throbbed with pain. If I wanted to breathe, I had to roll down the window. We all went through the same crazy and continuous dreams that night, they were the kinds that although interrupted, continued and felt so real even when you woke up. Ben kept seeing and hearing cars pass, Katie bought a coke from some guy and then realized that she forgot to ask him to help us out. Apparently for me there was a village down the road and they were real nice people, they didnt have a phone but they did have a tire shop. So we had that going for us.
The sun rose at 7:15, almost a full half day later, and it peaked out from some clouds. The good news was that it had stopped snowing during the night, I dont know if I dreamed that or if I saw it during the night, but the skies had cleared and we could see outside. Unfortunately there were no tire tracks along side of out car, only body liquids. There was about to be more as I had held myself in since the previous afternoon. The closest town was about 27 miles away I kept reminding myself, we were in shorts and there was snow outside and inside. Do we wait it out and risk no one coming by? No, I could not let that happen, we could not stay another night, with no food and only snow for water, it could not be, and then wed have to make the same decision the next day, only weaker. Unfortunately, Ben was too sick to move, let alone do a 9 hour walk. I dont even know if I would be fit to do that in top shape. And then what happens?
Our car is in the mountain, its 6pm and were in a town we know nothing about? We were a 5 hour drive from Salta and the car dealership. Needless to say we sat around for a bit to think it out. At 8am, we braved it out and went outside to change the tire.
Forget how cold it was, we were weak. Ben couldnt unscrew the bolts so we just kicked the hubcap off, then we finally got the tire off, it had a gash the size of a half dollar. There was no way to repair it. But when we finally got the spare on and tried the engine, it didnt work, again. So again we sat, helpless and afraid.
Instead of walking down 45 km we decided to put the car in neutral and roll it as far as we could.
That worked for about one fourth of a kilometer, and then we stopped. It was beautiful around us; I guess we could have picked an uglier place to get stranded. Huge glistening mountains reflected from the suns morning glows, rolling white fields and vicunas eating in a herd.
At least from pushing the car we warmed up a bit. Ben decided to collect snow in his nalgene for water and I did too. Then, with enough strength we managed to get the car up the slope and get it rolling. After a kilometer we were out of the snow, what out luck, we could have been there the night before. Arla rolled another four kilometer before we finally reached an uphill battle we couldnt win.
Although we had managed to push Arla into warmer weather and through streams and over rocks, we had to call it quits still forty kilometers from La Poma. We stopped outside of the adobe pueblo from my dream. They didnt have a phone, a car or even a horse for that matter and unfortunately they didnt have a tire repair shop either. With Arla dead on the side of the road all we could do was walk. So, towards La Poma we went. We didnt get yet two kilometers and I saw others!
There walking down the road, although I didnt know it at the time was a miracle, divine intervention, Ben's father's prayer for the safety of his son earlier that morning coming to life. Walking along the road were two tourists from Spain and seven locals walking down the road, clearing rocks, their vehicles parked behind them. We stopped to talk and found out that the Spaniards had taken the same route we had the previous night and had had to sleep farther down, because of the rain, there were rivers that couldnt be crossed. They recommended us to turn around. No way. No way! Not up hill I thought, not up another 1,000meters. Not only is that three sears towers but its an added 2 hour walk. But, when they said something of coming with them, my ears perked. The lo cals had room in their trunk. We jumped at the idea. I was incredibly grateful and walked ahead and helped move rocks. We hopped into their truck until we got back to our own car. They wanted to look and see what was wrong.
The car wouldnt start for them. They looked at the engine with confused looks. I heard one say, This is different, and they fiddled with.
One looked under the car and said that indeed we had bumped something; he wanted a closer look, so all the guys lifted the car onto two rocks and our local pal slid underneath on a tarp and pulled out the tools. While he was working diligently we sat and watched and talked. Minutes later he yanked off a broken cover and said we broke the fuel filter and had indeed been leaking fuel.
We had lost the hose and the tank was no longer connected. Just great, we wondered how much this would cost us. He continued to work, pulled out a few more things, put some others in, and sent his coworker up to the pueblo to get something. He frowned his face once or twice went to back of his truck, got masking tape and unbelievably to everyone pulled out a hard plastic straw, cut it and taped it to something under the car. We all cracked up, but when he told Ben to turn on the car and on the second try it started, we werent laughing anymore. In complete shock we hoped the car back off the rocks and although we only had about a quarter tank or less left we coasted back to San Antonio de los Cobres.
We drove past where we had stayed the night, it was bright and most of the snow had melted. We worked our little engine that could up to the top of the pass where we found out that the empty wine bottles wer e to pledge the mother earth to guarantee a safe journey, for Pancha Mamas protection. It was ironic that we passed right by them on our way up and made sure to double our pleas on the way down.
After gas and dinner in town we head towards Salta by way of the original route with the Spaniard couple following us back to make sure nothing went wrong.
We got in at about six at night, thanked the couple, bought soccer tickets, trashed the broken parts from our car and returned to our hostel where they didnt know we were gone. The whole way home we cussed Arla out, saying how much she sucked but not saying it loud enough for her to hear and crap out again. We didnt play music, we didnt speed, we just went home and as Ben and I pulled into the rent-a-car lot, a day early because we had enough of renting cars, I proclaimed; Just fiat youll have a shitty time in a Fiat. We paid $195 pesos for a new tire, cap and realignment. We didnt tell them about the tape and the straw and wire holding together the bottom of their car. But we did eat at McDonalds that night.
Maybe we could sled down the hill.- Katie in absolute sincerity.
I brought my dad home a stuffed armadillo from Ecuador because for some reason I thought my dad like armadillos. But he doesnt.- Katie.
*Abra Acay, I would later find out, is the HIGHEST PASS IN THE WORLD. At over 5,000 meters high, it is the world's highest point over a National Route.