How (or How not) to tackle a volcano|
Sunday, March 11, 2001
Although Barva isn't the biggest volcano in Central America, you wouldn't really notice biking to the top. It's imposing outline, demanding climbs and blown off top have drawn bikers for years.
When I set out with my partner to bring our less-than-perfect bikes (an old Trek and a new custom bike, neither with shocks) to the top of one of the central valley's most-recognizable features, I knew it would be a challenge to complete the excursion. We intended to go from the bottom to the top and back - in one day, both agreeing that under the right circumstances it could be done.
The complete trip is 20 kilometers of 35-40 degree ascent and back. Just to make it a little interesting the ride takes you through narrow dirt roads trails, pot-holed country roads by green coffee fields, pasture land and cloud forest. This day there were a couple other surprises the volcano had for us.
We both had done sections of the planned route, but neither of us had been to the top. The day began at 9 a.m. when William phoned and said he was ready to roll. We did the usual maintenance to our bikes, including a mandatory testing of both front and back breaks. As we had discovered on previous excursions, even in good condition, our rubber was little match for some of the steep, steep descents. I usually like a little give in my tires, but because we were going to be doing more road work, they were inflated until rock hard. This created more speed and subsequently, more work for the breaks.
It is important to note that my breaks are always at peak performance. I use a special break pad made for my rims which, under normal circumstances, perform perfectly. I haven't tried the front or rear disc breaks on a Gary Fischer, but I doubt they could work much better.
Our first surprise of the day came right after we mounted up. For the past few days it had been excellent biking weather - calm and sunny - but not too hot. When we got out on the road, we found the wind had shifted and was blowing straight from the Atlantic Ocean into our faces. This was not a good sign. We knew that we would need to accumulate good velocity going down some of the hills to get a good start up the other side. If we didn't, it could add over an hour to our time, and keep us from reaching Sacramento - the top.
The first phase of the ride was a 4.5-kilometer run through a few minor hills and valleys, culminating in our first ascent or 'cuesta' in Spanish. Immediately after, we entered the small town of Santa Barbara - a typical Costa Rican pueblo, centered around a colorfully painted church and central square.
As we passed through, I hoped the little valley would deflect some of the wind which was gusting by this time. Unfortunately, the flags were waving violently and as I looked at the summit, I could see clouds starting to close in, which usually means rain in Costa Rica. We decided to continue anyway.
After Santa Barbara we continue around a few more hills and valleys. Climbing a small dip, I usually have the advantage on William, but if it becomes a big dip he can out power me. This day, we were about even. The next post was 4 km away in another pueblo called 'El Roble' where we refilled our water at the local cemetery. We made it in what seemed like record time, and I began to notice the wind dying down - good luck since from here one it is pretty much straight up.
After forking to the right and stopping to survey the landscape we dove into virgin territory. A ridge with what looks like a road on top appeared to be the best way to reach the upper level, so we asked an old man. He says to get to Sacramento we needed to go through another pueblo called 'Birri' and we should keep going 2 km, then turn right. We politely thanked him and eased away, watching the machete he was swinging in his hand.
Having experienced Costa Rican directional advice more than once, a minute later I decided to ask another man sitting on the side of the road - just to confirm - who pointed us to a left turn only 500 meters away. We accept the advice and take the turn. It quickly turns into a dirt road filled with rocks and holes, interrupted only by the occasional gray, plastic water pipes, fitted into open trenches, which crossed the road.
After climbing for about half an hour the road dead ended in coffee fields. William is not happy. The ride down is fairly rapid, the only obstacles being rocks and water pipes, which we have to hop over. I always worry that a road like this will blow out a tube, and that day we weren't carrying a spare or a patch, fortunately nothing happened and we safely returned to the turn off. The man was still sitting there, trying not to see us.
We continued for another 1.5 km down the road, and sure enough, there is a turn off that leads us another kilometer to Birri, another small pueblo nestled in a valley with a pleasant downhill into the center. It was now past midday, and the sun was in full force - luckily the wind had quieted down to a mere whisper. Next stop - Sacramento and 10 kilometers of grueling cuesta.
After about 40 minutes of bone-busting hill we stopped for a break. We had somehow missed the ridge and were now facing some serious pain when we caught our next lucky break. A farmer in an old truck was passing by our rest spot and offered us a ride to the top of the ridge. We only went two or three kilometers, but we saved an hour we would need later on.
The climb from where we got out was excruciating. In some places it seemed like the mountain was going up at more the 45 degrees and playing stairmaster was punishing. An hour later we were both off the bikes walking. Our philosophy is usually to die before getting off, except the incline was simply too much. The back tires were spinning and even my partner, who has extensive experience in Alaska, was feeling the volcano's toll.
So we walked, riding wherever the mountain would permit, and dismounting when necessary. After approximately another hour we were in range of the summit. Clouds were coming in from around the Volcano, but behind us was a beautiful vista of the central valley. Everything could be seen including Costa Rica's three main cities (the capital of San Jose, Heredia and Alejeula) and the airport. In fact, all three are located fairly close together and the only way to get a fix without binoculars is to look for landmarks. As fate would have it, San Jose is the only city with buildings bigger than five stories so locating ourselves was easily done.
From here on, the trail becomes easier to ride - a lot of switchbacks and steep dips, bottoming in hairpin turns. The vegetation is a lush green with birds singing everywhere, and as we maneuvered our way through I could hear several waterfalls. Following six or seven switches, we see Sacramento and the top. Mission half accomplished.
To be honest, Sacramento isn't really a town in the sense that most people know it. Telephones are extremely hard to find and as far as I could tell, it was just a small family-run restaurant with a couple other stores. We sat outside the restaurant and quickly ordered two plates of rice and beans, typical Costa Rican food. Although I have eaten it a thousand times before, I swear it rarely tasted so good.
Regretfully, our time to enjoy the alpine air was cut short. Volcanoes and their weather are unpredictable things, and it was becoming cold - even for two Northerners - and I sensed a drop or two of precipitation. We both knew it would be a bad idea to add mud and water to the mix at the speeds we would reach going down.
After regressing some of the switchbacks William and I are instantly greeted with a potentially dangerous mishap.
Just as we are going down I head a whistle - it was William. "Hey, hold on," he said. "I'm riding a flat."and as he slowly glided down, I could see his rim riding the tire and bouncing violently.
After inspecting the tube, two holes appeared. Clearly, a patch was needed but we were on top of a volcano and none were to be had. Our first efforts to repair the tube, by wrapping with old tape or tying off the holes, were totally unsuccessful. The only option was to take his bike down to a place where we could get a ride or use a phone. He decided to continue to ride despite the damage it might cause the tire or rim. As providence might have it, we were able to obtain a patch from some kids with BMXs in the first pueblo. After more than an hour from starting the descent, we continued.
Going down the first few 'cuestas' was nerve-wracking because often we were much faster than any car or motorcycle. Despite having both front and back breaks close to locked, my tires kept spinning too fast to control and when I hit bumps, the back brake in particular would lock and I lost a little rubber coming down.
Continuing our race down on dirt and pot-holed, narrow road at more than 50km/30mi per hour, we passed a couple of busses. The climate started to warm up to a point where there was no chill. The sun was fading fast and we still had over 10 kilometers to go before San Joaquin, but it was all cake from here on. The next day I woke up refreshed, having slept like a bear in winter.
For anyone thinking about such a trip I suggest a good knowledge of the area, and in our case knowledge of the language. Obviously, we will be carrying patches in the future. I did bring a small tool kit and pump with me, but that one item was missing. It could have been a serious problem, fortunately good luck is hard to beat.