La Carretera Alta, Part 2 – Up hill and down dale

Our luggage was prodigious, piled high in the doorway of the Melbourne Airport departure lounge. One of the duffels was splayed open like the carcass of an olive drab ungulate, its innards spread haphazardly across the floor. With the contents eventually returned, we weighed and calculated the gross tonnage of our load – 140kg, including carry-on. With a sigh of resignation, we proceeded toward the check-in desk with two heavily-laden carts.

And then, a miracle happened. I think we may have somehow entered a temporal vortex to an alternate dimension, because we weren’t charged a red cent for our excess baggage. The attendant performed some sort of computer sorcery and sent us on our way with her blessing. When we finally reached LAX, the internal transfer system took care of the rest.

Winner winner, chicken dinner. We arrived in Las Vegas thinking we were on a hot streak, but our luck was soon to change. Things were amiss as we arrived at the storage lot, but it took us a while to gather the loose strands of evidence.

First, we noticed that the cover had been removed from the van. Perhaps blown off by the wind, we reasoned. Then the rear door opened without using the key. Hmm, that’s very odd, I thought. Only after looking inside and seeing the wreckage within did I realise that La Tortuga had been broken into. Despite the mess, it appeared that no real damage had been done and that nothing had been stolen except for a knife, a USB charger and a $7 K-Mart watch. In exchange, the “robbers” had left a broken mobile phone and an LCD arcade game that looked like it had travelled there in a time machine.

Weird shit indeed, but the strangest was yet to come. Along with the other flotsam and jetsam scattered around the cabin, a heap of laundry powder had been spread about. Upon closer inspection, it seemed like the culprits had probably been smoking it. We’re not sure if this had anything to do with the fact that our propane tank had been emptied and that a jerry can of diesel had been siphoned out of the car and left under the chassis. This is an important plot point which you will need to remember as the story unfolds.

Although we felt a little bit violated by this intrusion, we cleaned up the detritus of the event and reversed the storage procedures, thus returning La Tortuga to her former glory. Soon, we were on the road… Destination: Ouray.

Having spent a decent amount of time in Las Vegas, the first few days of the trip felt somewhat anti-climactic to me. After having planned and schemed and scrimped and saved for more than two years, the reality of the trip was always going to take a while to sink in, but the fact that we began in such familiar terrain delayed this realisation significantly. It wasn’t until we’d shot through the outskirts of Vegas and passed into the Utah badlands that the trip began to feel real – we had embarked on our grand adventure.

Yes, adventure is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and it means different things to different people, but we got a little taste of it as we entered Colorado. Our fuel was running low as we neared Grand Junction, a major crossroad city on the western edge of the state, but we decided to try our luck. The van shuddered to a halt on a narrow shoulder within spitting distance of a gas station, easily less than a kilometre away.

But wait! Our friendly neighbourhood junkies had kindly provided us with a jerry can of diesel. I filled the tank in the chill of a stiff breeze and tried to kick the engine over. No dice. No matter what we tried, the engine would not start. Given that the only diesel engine I’ve ever driven is an ASLAV and I’ve never seen one run out of fuel, I was totally stumped on how to remedy the situation. Perhaps the Toyota manual could shed some light on the subject, we mused. Well, it probably could have if either of us could read French.

In the end, I ran to the gas station, paid $1.99 USD for 60 minutes of internet, and returned with the almighty sword of knowledge. Turns out you have to prime the fuel line, and there is a manual means to do this. For those playing at home, a 2005 Toyota Hiace has a small and rather discrete black button for this very purpose.

The vistas became ever more spectacular as we penetrated deeper into the Rocky Mountains, eventually making to the town of Ouray, Colorado. We were immediately spellbound. Ouray is a quaint mining town, a vision of the West. The main street is charming to say the least, its beautiful architecture set against a stunning mountain backdrop. But certainly the most impressive feature of the town is Uncompahgre Gorge, otherwise known as the Ouray Ice Park.

Once the gold ran out, Ouray was a bona-fide ghost town until the 1990’s when the ice boom happened. The brainchild of a few crazy locals (long story, I’ll go into it another time), the Ouray Ice Park saw virtually immediate success and began to draw crowds and desperately needed winter income to the sleepy hamlet. By diverting water from higher up the valley, the “Ice Farmers” are able to provide a unique experience – over 200 ice routes of all difficulties, all within the space of 1km and all within the city limits. Throw in ease of access, bolted anchors and a prestigious climbing festival, and you’ve got one hell of a place.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend a mere two days at the Ice Park, but it was certainly worth it for some skills training and to reintroduce some familiarity to what is otherwise a fairly unfamiliar niche of the sport. I would easily recommend a trip to anyone who wants to swing some picks for the first time, or those who’d like to get some serious mileage in a controlled and efficient setting, or anyone who just likes ice climbing and the community that surrounds it. The Ouray Brewery is also most definitely worth a visit.

Too soon, we were on our way. We visited friends in Boulder before leaving Colorado for the flatlands, where we spent two days with friends in Kansas. Morag lived here for a year as an exchange student in high school, literally 30 miles from the geographical centre of the continuous United States and probably the last place I thought my climbing career would find me. We were treated very kindly by all, and La Tortuga was treated to some new tyres and minor repairs at the family’s auto yard (big shout out to Becker Autos in Beloit, KS, thanks for everything!)

Then, we carried on through the doldrum flatness of the Midwest, passing War of the Worlds-esque water towers and infinite billboards for Jesus. We were also hosted generously by friends in Dallas, Texas before eventually finding ourselves here at the edge of America in the city of Laredo.

We’re in the borderlands now, a porous region of mixed cultures. We’ve been from the desert to the mountains to the prairie and back to the desert again. What awaits us is different from anything we’ve ever seen, and that is an intoxicating idea.

“I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much. But what now?” – Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
March 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?