Derrumbes Past Medellin

Waiting behind a sheet of rain draining off the roof of a small tienda were a group of stranded travelers.

“It is far too dangerous to cross right now, please wait for the bulldozer.� Somebody offered, even stepped aside to make room under the shelter.

It was true.  Rocks were continuously tumbling down, some encouraging smaller slides to pile up against the mass of earth slowly taking over the final piece of road.  We waited for about five increasingly uncomfortable minutes; our clothes of course dripping wet, our bike shorts like soggy diapers.  Rocks kept scrambling down the sloppy earth.

Against their wishes I decided to go for it.  I backed around to get some momentum, hoping to get through the slide as quickly as possible.  A path large enough for a motorcycle or bike remained, but was filled with boulders, larger than my head.  Smaller stones sunk below the huge flooded puddle that marked the path to follow.

I watched the rocks sliding down from the very top and started pedaling across, trying to time my entrance as cleanly as possible.  Once in the slide, I could no longer watch the falling rocks, as I had to pay attention to the technical riding in front of me.

About halfway across, a car apparently got panicked and began to speed into the “derrumbe�.   Their tires fought for traction and skid from left to right before grabbing and jolting forward.  I like to believe they did not see me because they were on course to plow right over me.

I jumped off my bike and desperately dragged it off into knee deep mud, avoiding the car by mere inches.  Just as I got back on my bike, another car took the same line, putting me back into the mud.

Briefly, I looked up at the slide to see if any of the rocks were careening my way before continuing through.  The last ten meter stretch offered the frightening reminder of how dangerous these conditions could be.  A boulder the size of my front tire crashed into another just three feet in front of me and smashed into tiny pieces.  I was left only to imagine the potential carnage that offered me or my bicycle.

This was just our first real landslide, one of about a hundred to come as we made our way across the “trochas� (small dirt roads) of Colombia.

I paid closer attention to the roads as we made our way up a pass that would drop into the colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia.  We were on a road that was sporadically paved, and often taken over by the muddy mountain slopes.  Many sections left only enough for room for one lane of traffic to pass.  The power of these slides were visible long after they had been cleaned up, rocks falling from cliffsides high above, splintered the pavement into a spiderweb of cracks around the tiny craters and large sections just fell away, leaving a terrible void.

After climbing up the mountain pass, we blasted down the windy cliffside road that appeared almost apocalyptic. Destruction extended for miles without break.   Rocks the size of cars had fallen from the face of the mountain, forcing us to swerve dramatically across the road, while having to avoid the equally dangerous piles of small rocks that were carried across the road by streams of mud.

From Santa Fe de Antioquia, we found an old route into Medellin that passed high above the newer road made possible by a lengthy tunnel. At every steep corner we could look down at the flurry of cars and appreciate how sparse the traffic was on our road, even if it meant more climbing.

In Medellin, we spent time with some people we met in Capurgana during our kayak trip.  We also stayed in a hostel for a few days to check out their “Zona Rosa� (Discotecas, etc) and some nights we danced until five in the morning.

A television station from Antioquia put together a program about our trip, interviewing each of us and tagged along as we climbed out of the valley and its impossibly steep hills (which would have terrible landslides just five days later taking the lives of 22 people).  After partying in Medellin, we were a sad sight trying to climb those hills.

Pavement soon ended and we began passing through the smaller towns.  Our roads got progressively more challenging, particularly as the rain failed to ease up.  Coming out of Sonson, we were escorted by a police unit to help us find the entrance to the road we wished to take.

It began with a lengthy drop to the river below where a sizeable mudslide broke away just before the bridge.  Sounds of distant thunder came from the flooding river as boulders got pushed down the watercourse.

A motorcycle came across the bridge and the driver pleaded with us not to continue.  Apparently, he had tried to take the road and finally gave up after getting stuck in a “derrumbe peligroso� (dangerous landslide) crossing.  Cars had long ago given up on the thought of passing this road, even the chivo bus (colorful public transit so named for their ability to carry goods from farmers way out in the country) turned around half a day´s ride back.  Our path became two rutted out channels that soon flooded with water and mud; rocks began tumbling down with the torrent.

We took refuge for the night in an abandoned shell of a chivo bus.  Apparently, anything of any value or use had already been scrounged from it and farmers nearby used it to store sacks of chayotes they harvested and planned to carry to town on horseback.   The rain did not stop.

Early in the day we could still find dry channels to ride in, but as the road deteriorated more and the flow of water increased, we were left to search for a line with the shallowest water.  Xtracycles put all the weight towards the rear and gave us pretty good traction, even in streams of mud.  As the road got steeper, the terrain got frightening.

What were normally mere technical rock obstacles, had become raging rapids, and our trail was in every way a small flooding river.  Waterfalls of mud brought huge rocks crashing down from the cliffs above, across our path and falling into what used to be part of the trocha; now abandoned to the valley below.   Some stretches threatened to take you with the current and forced me to step off my bike and drag it through the current.
During one such section, I stepped back on my bike, and felt the alarming sensation of the chain popping and my feet spinning wildly.   I tossed down my bike and grabbed onto my chain hoping to salvage the Powerlink and make a quick repair while stopped at a place where a landslide was not just possible, but very likely.   Unfortunately, the Powerlink was swept away in the current.  I started cranking on the chain tool reconnecting the links until I discovered another broken section of chain in my hand.  My rear cassette started winding back taking the rest of the chain back through the derailleur.   I grabbed onto the end of it before it got dropped into the flooded trail.

I looked over at Goat who had witnessed what just happened.  “That was Sketch, man.  We don´t have that much extra chain,� he said to me.

“No kidding.  That cascade of mud looks ready to go.   I wish there was somewhere we could go.  Tough working on a bike in these conditions.� I replied.

“We´re basically at the bottom of this mountain, this flood is not going to end anytime soon.� He said, while looking over my shoulder at the torrent ahead.

It was a scary scene seeing the water charging its way down.   A few kilometers further up the hill we came upon a few isolated houses.  Some women were building up some embankments to divert the water from flooding into their homes.

“No pueden pasar por alla.� One of the women said with an edge to her voice, tinted in fear.
They explained to us that just three hours ago the road fell out and the river had been filled with mud and rocks.  

“Por favor.  Por Favor.  No pasear por alla.� Another beseeched.
JJ greeted me at the beginning of the mudslide,  “Let me help you cross this one.  Sean got swept up and stuck under his bike.  It´s pretty gnarly.�

A cascade had collapsed and taken with it the narrow corner of road.  Large rocks were lifted up by the muddy current and shifting the pattern of rapids while other parts were deceptively deep with mud.   Dragging the bike through it was quite a challenge, even for the two of us.

For the next few hours we were fighting the flood and landslides.  Knee deep mud and waist deep puddles made it a messy enterprise covering any ground.  Our bikes suffered from the exposure and soon my small chain ring was inoperable.  Within a few spins it was sucking into the frame and forcing me to step off.  Only my big front ring was left, forcing me to power through the steep, technical sections which often enough proved too much.

We reached the granddaddy of mudslides towards the evening.  A 150 foot chunk of the mountain just fell off the obvious result of a recent slash and burn that still charred the surrounding land.  A 20 foot drop broke the road and opened up to a steep muddy pit of earth.
We pulled off our bags and tried to carry them up and over the high end.  This proved a huge detour along cracks in the landscape that threatened to fall below.  We opted to slide into the mud pit and drag our bikes across.

Some kids stood at the edge of the road, warning us not to continue crossing.  “You guys are crazy.  It is too dangerous right now.�  No doubt living along a road so frequented by mudslides has familiarized him with the tragedies involved in landslides.

The dangers were obvious, but soon enough we found ourselves on the other side and were stoked to be back on our bikes.   Mudslides were going to continue to destroy the road making it even more difficult to cross.  We knew we had to get across as soon as possible

After a long day, we reached a fork in the road and a small little tienda called “Cuatro Esquinas�.  For the life of us, we couldn´t see the fourth corner, but it didn´t matter because the sun made an appearance and we had made it to the top of the pass.

We all ordered cold beers and sat on a bench in front of the store relishing our recent adventure and watching the locals ride by on their horses.  One rode his horse onto the porch, dismounted and ordered a beer.   He began a game of pool with the bartender and would come out every few minutes to check on his horse.

He fed the horse some neon green galletas and looked down at our bikes, then looked over at us and said, “¿Nice roads out here, no?�

I couldn´t agree more.