Volcanic Heights: The Longest MTB Descent in History

Dropping in to 6000m+ of elevation from the world's highest volcano to the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Written by
Aaron Rolph
·
4
min read
Summary
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Leaning forward once again, I hoist my bike onto my shoulders, the cold metal of the frame digging into my back. The crampons on my mountaineering boots create a satisfying crunch as I ascend the snowy face. With each tiny step, I struggle for breath in the thin, freezing air, questioning my sanity for attempting this audacious adventure. Here I am, alone, on the other side of the world, carrying my bike beyond 6000m, a place where bikes probably shouldn't venture. Brave or stupid, or perhaps a bit of both, I dismiss the doubts and forge ahead, slowly and steadily climbing towards the summit of the highest volcano on Earth. 

As I climb higher into the thin air, the weight of the bike feels as though it’s getting heavier and heavier, pushing me to dig deep. The face becomes steeper, the snow deeper, and I wonder if it's worth taking the bike any higher. But at 6327m, I already feel on top of the world. 

I am Aaron Rolph, a professional adventurer, biker, and sometimes mountaineer. On this occasion, I was in for all three although not strictly here for the summit per se. The goal was to set a new world record for the Greatest Vertical Descent by Bike and with the plan to ride all the way to the sea this was only the beginning of this big adventure. 

"The goal was to set a new world record for the Greatest Vertical Descent by Bike."

Despite my rapid acclimatization, reaching this altitude in just four days from the basecamp at 4200m, I know the approaching snowstorms may thwart my chance at the record. Determined to make it into the record books, I decide to tag the summit before the weather turns. 

Leaving the bike behind temporarily, I continue on foot, feeling lighter without its weight on my shoulders. Within a few hours, I reach the summit at 6893m, standing alone on the second highest peak outside of the Himalayas. Relief washes over me, but I can't linger, as I still have a job to do. 

"The face becomes steeper, the snow deeper, and I wonder if it's worth taking the bike any higher." 

The descent is treacherous, and I navigate the slushy snow carefully, trying to control my speed with failing brakes due to the thin atmosphere. With adrenaline pumping through my veins, I manage to keep my bike in check, despite the technical challenges. Finally, I reach the lower slopes, and the snow gives way to rock, sand, and ice. I find solace at Refugio Claudio Lucero, a basic mountain hut, where a group of friendly Argentinian mountaineers warmly welcome me, celebrating my successful summit. 

Switching my bike into “explore mode”, I fitted my bike bags, changed my Stamp pedals to mallet cleats and crammed any remaining supplies I could carry onto my bike and into my backpack. There are zero signs of civilization here, meaning no shops, people or even sources of water so I was to carry everything I needed for the journey under my own steam. A fully-ladened enduro bike is far from the fastest whip around but I crunch the miles out while fighting a persistent headwind. I find myself seriously mentally tested by some of the longer straights, which at times measure over 20 kilometers in length with the same view of an unchanging dirt track. Eventually however, the winding mountain roads get a little spicier and I’m treated to some fast dusty switchbacks reminding me why I wanted to do this project in the first place. 

I knew this was a high stakes game but the high reward of finding una cerveza in the next town was keeping me motivated. The sky, once ablaze with the fire of the setting sun has now transformed into a blanket of stars like nothing I’d ever seen before. Miles from any man-made light, it feels as though I’m riding in a video game where the sky is a rolling treadmill, each star seeming a thousand times brighter than my head torch lighting the road ahead. On my last legs and suffering what cyclists often call “bonking”, an amusing name for some sort of hypoglycemia, after a 16-hour stretch in the saddle, I finally reach the glowing city of Copiapo where I rest and refuel until morning. 

The next morning, predictably my legs are as heavy as lead but with the adrenaline of the finish line almost in sight and able to ditch some weight in a hotel, I coax myself back on the road without too much trouble. Now onto that sweet sweet tarmac, the road meanders like a river around the countless sand dunes amidst this dramatic and unforgiving landscape. Riding along I’m finally hit with the distinctive smell of fresh sea air and exactly 373.4km from where I started on the highest volcano in the world. 

"Riding along I’m finally hit with the distinctive smell of fresh sea air and exactly 373.4km from where I started on the highest volcano in the world." 

I’ve made it to the Pacific ocean. The waves are gently lapping the beach and I waste no time in getting my kit off and plunging into the fresh water. I’d traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of this crazy idea and that didn’t come without its risks. I close my eyes and allow my now finally weightless body to float on the ocean surface, taking it all in for a second and I'm absolutely buzzing and so relieved to have finished the toughest ride of my life. 

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Author Bio

Aaron Rolph

Aaron Rolph is a British adventurer and photographer based in the Alps. He founded the British Adventure Collective and specialises in human-powered ski and bike expeditions all over the world.

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