Reaching 5800 m.a.s.l. (meters above sea level) by Bicycle!
After almost 600 days on the road, cycling around the world, we felt pretty confident that there was little left that could really intimidate us. But that opinion quickly changed when we decided to undertake our greatest adventure yet, cycling up one of the highest roads in the world.
The dormant Uturuncu volcano in the very southwest of Bolivia, towering at just over 6000 m.a.s.l., is unique in the sense that it has a road going almost all the way up to the top.
Built, once upon a time, to reach the vast sulfur deposits near the peak, the former mining road is still in reasonably good condition and occasionally used by adventurous tourists who get driven up in 4x4s.
Our previous record, a few months earlier in Peru, was just under 5000 m.a.s.l., an altitude that was already mind-blowing to us at the time.
But the adventure of cycling on one of the highest roads in the world actually began a few days before our final ascent, when we left the city of Uyuni, next to the famous salt flat in Bolivia.
South of Uyuni, in the “Reserva Nacional Eduardo Avaroa” is the “Ruta de Las Lagunas“, a trail that goes straight through the national park, along some of the lagoons and landmarks the park is famous for.
The Ruta de Las Lagunas is not only known for its isolation and spectacular landscapes but also for its terrible road conditions.
An endless mix of rocks, washboard, and deep sand makes cycling absolutely impossible at times, or slows you down to a walking pace, even when pedaling.
We quickly realized that cycling up the Uturuncu wouldn’t be the only challenge, we’d have to get there first…
The route officially starts after the town of Villa Alota, which itself is already 150 km southwest of Uyuni, and then winds its way along the Laguna Hedionda, towards the Laguna Colorada, and further south until you reach the Chilean border.
To reach the Uturuncu, you need to take quite the detour though, cycling over 50 km in the wrong direction towards Quetena Chico, a small village at the foot of the volcano.
There is only extremely limited infrastructure in the whole region, and so we ended up carrying around five days worth of food and two days of water, although this turned out to be too much.
While the region is very remote, it is also a popular tourist destination, meaning you have dozens of 4x4s on the trail with you that often give out water and sometimes even food.
Every 70-100 km you will then also have a small settlement where you can stock up on very basic necessities. It took us six long days to reach Quetena Chico from Uyuni, but then finally the time came, and we would attempt to cycle one of the highest roads in the world!
Having left a good portion of our gear in the village at the foot of the Uturuncu, to reduce the weight of our bikes, we set out early to get up as high as we could the first day.
While the distance of the road from the village up to the summit is only 33 km, the amount of positive elevation gain is well over 2000 meters.
Starting at around 4200 m.a.s.l., the first 12 km are rolling hills, before the road then finally winds its way up the western shoulder of the twin-peaked giant.
And even though the surrounding landscape is all well above 4000 meters in altitude, the Uturuncu with its’ 6000 meters still looks impressive and incredibly intimidating.
At this point, it was strange to think that tomorrow morning we might be standing at the very top!
A few hours after we had left the village and started the switchbacks up the shoulder of the volcano, the blue sky disappeared, as thick storm clouds began to build.
Just as we had reached 5000 m.a.s.l., the final spot of blue sky vanished and it was clear we would have to find cover fast.
Cycling in Bolivia in January means cycling in a lot of rain, or rather at this altitude, a lot of snow. Our days on the Ruta de Las Lagunas had already taught us that the weather could turn extremely quickly in the national park and that when it changed, it really changed.
So we began to look for a place to camp. Not so easy on the slope of a volcano, but at just over 5200 m.a.s.l. we had found something.
It was still very early, only around noon, but we just couldn’t risk getting caught in a storm. You could say that our timing was spot on because just after we had set up our tent and had some lunch/dinner (instant mash), it started to snow.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening cuddled up in our sleeping bags and watched a film on our phones.
The next morning brought with it blue sky again and after we had cleared the snow off of our tent, we began the final ascent. It wasn’t until we reached about 5400 m.a.s.l. that we really noticed the thin air.
Thanks to our extensive time at 4000+ meters altitude, cycling in Peru and Bolivia, we were really well acclimatized, but at some point, even that has its limits.
As you approach 6000 meters of altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is halved, meaning you are essentially only breathing ~10% of oxygen instead of 21%.
So above 5400 meters, we had to occasionally push our bikes, when the road got too steep. And even when the gradient was lower and we could cycle, our hearts were pumping hard and our heads felt light.
Meter by meter we came closer to the summit, with the road now carved directly into the steep western slope of the Uturuncu.
From little vents left and right of the road, plumes of steam would rise up, with the strong smell of sulfur reminding us that we were riding on a dormant, not inactive volcano.
After a few hours, we had finally made it to the relatively flat valley between the two peaks of the Uturuncu, at 5750 m.a.s.l., and expected this to be the end of the road.
However, to our surprise, the road seemed to continue up one more switchback, climbing a little way up the smaller of the two peaks.
So with one last surge of motivation, we continued, eventually reaching an altitude of just below 5800 m.a.s.l., until the road was just too covered in snow.
It took a few seconds to sink in, but eventually, we realized that we had made it to the top of one of the highest roads in the world. A crazy thought! We looked at each other in disbelief and smiled.
This was by far the craziest thing we had ever done, and we had made it. But it didn’t take long for us to have another crazy idea…
It was still pretty early in the day when we reached the end of the road, and the weather looked like it would still hold, so we decided to leave our bikes in the valley between the peaks and hike the remaining few hundred vertical meters to the very top of the Uturuncu.
Although incredibly steep, hiking up to 6008 m.a.s.l. was an absolute breeze when compared to cycling, and in next to no time we were standing at the top, the very top!
To us it felt like we were literally on top of the world, as in every direction we looked, the landscape plummeted a good 2000 meters.
We could see for dozens, if not hundreds of kilometers through the cold, clear air, and just really enjoyed the moment.
By the time we had descended back into the valley to get our bikes, storm clouds had again started to form, and we hurried down the volcano as fast as we could.
And once again, as if we had planned it, the first drops of rain started to fall as we cycled back into the village where we had stored the remainder of our gear. What an adventure!
Officially, the paved “Umling La” pass in northern India currently holds the record for the highest road in the world at 5798 m.a.s.l. the same altitude we reached on the Uturuncu…
We are Louisa & Tobi aka chainsandchords, a couple from Germany, and we are currently cycling around the world with our guitars! Louisa was born and raised in Dortmund. Tobi was born in the US but grew up moving around with his family to Germany, Australia & China.