Thursday, April 28, 2011

The bridge project

Track building can be a pretty monotonous process. You basically move dirt all day. Lots and lots of dirt. If you’re really lucky there’ll be some tree stumps and rock mixed in. While I enjoy doing it and it’s great to be outside and active every day in a remarkable landscape, sometimes it’s nice to not just move dirt.

Bridge site
Recently, we needed to build a bridge over a particularly rough bit of terrain. This was a great opportunity to not dig for a few days. I was also excited to get involved as I have no experience at this sort of thing and I’m surely no structural engineer or builder. The concept of a bridge is simple but to build one is a different story, so this was a perfect chance to learn some new tricks. Three of us were designated the bridge committee due to our unique skills and ferocious work ethic (Read: luck of the draw).

Now a Chilean bridge is not like what we are used to in good old DOC-spec NZ. This bridge was to be made from whatever we could find or mill with the chainsaw from nearby. Treated timber doesn’t enter the equation anywhere. We didn’t have all of the tools you’d expect for a project of this sort; simple things like a tape measure were notably absent from the process. This bridge was to be rough and ready, but had to get the job done.

The architectural blueprints, which I drew just now in paint
The design we went with was simple. First, posts go into the ground. The posts are cross-braced together widthways. Bearers or runners sit on top of the posts, running in the direction of the bridge. Finally, slats are nailed onto the bearers. It isn’t a design that’s running for architectural breakthrough of the year, but it does get the job done.

Simple enough right? Well it’s not so easy to actually build. For example, where were we going to stick the posts? Uneven ground and rocks limited our options. Once we had decided where we were going to put them and how many we needed we had to find wood for the posts. We opted to rip out some old fence posts further down the track. This led to carrying the things a couple of kilometres uphill back to the site. When the post goes on your shoulder it seems alright; five minutes later is a completely different scene. I have huge respect for anyone who carries serious weight any real distances, because it’s bloody hard work. My muscles felt like they were melting by the end.

Posts in

Next up was post hole digging. We went with the old ‘hole a third the depth of the post’ approximation as the gold standard in sturdiness and safety. Posts were placed about 600mm apart widthways and at a varied spacing depending on terrain.  I forget how many posts we used exactly; I think it was six as we also used a large fallen tree to support a bearer.

Ian uses the stick level

We very carefully and scientifically decided the height to which the posts needed to be cut and marked them clearly. By this I mean we guessed by eye using a stick as a guide, and used charcoal from the lunch fire to put thick black marks onto the posts. This type of bridge building is more of an art than a science anyway. Our initial guesses were cautious as it’s far easier to cut more post off than it is to replace some.

Runners on
A tricky part of the process was sourcing wood for the bridge. Sure we were surrounded by trees, but take a look at a tree and you’ll see it tends to disappointingly wiggly and of uneven thicknesses (Disclaimer: this does depend on the type of tree, don’t find your exemplar in a pine plantation or I’ll look like a fool). So in practice we had some trouble finding appropriate lumber from nearby. Eventually three good-sized trees growing in a row were felled and their trunks were split with the chainsaw to give us the bearers we needed.

The first of the slats
The posts were notched with a chainsaw and bearers nailed in with 5 or 6 inch nails. At the same time, cross bracing between posts went in widthways. The bridge was starting to take shape. All that was left to do was nail slats onto the bearers with 3 or 4 inch nails. The bridge was quite long so it required a whole lot of slats, and as we were using branches as slats it was quite interesting to fit them together in a way that produced a relatively even surface. Spacing was particularly important in the sections of bridge which were curving slightly.

My mad hammer skills

The finished product
And then with the hammering of a final 5 inch nail (we ran out of everything smaller) we were done. A majestic wooden structure spanned what was once a miserable piece of uneven and unpleasant terrain. In terms of time it did take us a few days to build and there were a few frustrating moments (I’m still barely par with a hammer), but I learnt a whole lot and we left something cool on the track for times to come.

The first deflowering of the bridge

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The waterfall mission

Autumn is approaching here in Coyhaique. Red and orange is starting to creep into some of the trees up in the hills. The mornings are becoming crisper. So when the sun came out in force on a day off it was something to get excited about, and the boys had the perfect mission planned to get the best out of the day.

We set off at around 9.30 in the morning on our way to Rio Balboa – the river we cross daily to get to work and which has a fairly spectacular waterfall a couple of km upstream. I am pretty keen on said waterfall and tend to stop by briefly each day on the way to work to take a peek (and to catch my breath, if we’re being honest). Even after a couple of weeks I still find the sight of that much water tumbling into a good-sized gorge to be pretty impressive. So I was pretty excited about the planned adventure – to head up the canyon and get to the bottom of the waterfall.

The gorge, scenic
Five of the boys decided they were keen on the outing. The start was fairly good as the water was only ankle-deep thanks to the river widening at that point. It was, however, numbingly cold and no one was looking forward to having to dip the meat and two veg later in the piece. We soon got a taste of things to come as we took to the rocks on the side of the river and I quickly learned that the much worn trainers I had borrowed from the laundry did not have a good relationship with the slick wet rocks we had to scramble over.

The baby waterfall, a wee taster.
It wasn’t long before we were in the gorge proper, with large rock walls on either side of the river. The views both up and down the river were pretty mind-blowing. There was a great view of a small waterfall tumbling into the gorge with the sun behind it and this got me pretty amped for the main event a bit further on. The whole place was pretty pristine. We should have bought fishing rods as well because in one pool we saw around fifteen trout. It was unbelievable.

As we moved up the gorge it became harder and harder to keep dry above the goodies, and the water was cold enough to take puberty back a couple of steps. There was no option but to take the hit and it truly wasn’t pleasant. The suffering became more meaningful as we came out into a wide sunny point which was close enough to our goal that we could see it. Unfortunately, in the way was a narrow and very deep channel which was clearly going to involve a legitimate upriver swim to get to our destination.

Sunny warm goodness before the bad bit
We spent a bit of time in the sun looking for possible climbing options, whimpering quietly and praying for the miraculous appearance of some sort of boat to spare us the misery of what was about to come. There was no option but to bite the bullet so one by one (and I’m not ashamed to say with me last) we swam through the last 20 or so metres to our objective.

It was easily the worst swim of my life, and by a huge margin. It beats any early morning river swim I’ve ever been on. The cold stole the air from my lungs. Reputable sources (a couple of the boys speculating) put the water temperature at 5 degrees or less. Whatever the temperature in degrees, in effect the water was approximately half a degree above unbearable. The current wasn’t strong but it was enough to drag the whole ordeal out just that much longer. Breaking through to the other side was glorious – getting out of that water was just brilliant.

Under the falls. Photo by Ben Marklew,
I didn't have the skills to swim it with my
camera in my mouth.
But even better was the view we had just discovered. We could get pretty close to the waterfall as there was a waist high ring of water around where the falls landed. The force of that much water dropping is remarkable; there were waves being formed and you could feel the air being pushed out and onto your face. But really there’s no way to describe. It’s possibly the coolest thing I’ve done to date.

All too soon we were on the home mission as the cold was relentless. The swim out was far easier than going the other way as we had the help of the current. We spent some time in the sun to try and warm up but for me at least it was pretty ineffective, as I spent my whole time shivering violently. The mission out was fairly uneventful and we were all pretty pleased to get back to the lodge for a hot lunch.

The afternoon saw us with beers at the lake and then with scotch on the lake in a rowboat. The beers continued into the evening and we set up a bonfire as well. My night ended with me passed out on my bunk with the lights on and the door open. I may have overdone it a tad and paid horribly the next day.

It was fairly universally agreed that it was the best day we’ve had here so far. With rain and snow likely to be heavy features of life around here from anytime soon it was great to get out and catch some vitamin D with our shirts off, even if it was just for one day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

First thoughts

Out riding

Okay so the internet here is pretty patchy, so getting stuff online is a bit of a mission. Here's some thoughts from just after I arrived. This is over two weeks ago now ...

Looks a bit like down South back home
Although it’s only my second day here, I feel like I’m starting to settle into life at the site. After today I am knackered and we haven’t started digging yet. Since I’ve been in Chile I’ve managed to fall pretty sick, which is why I’m feeling so jaded right now I think. However, there was no way I was missing out on today’s ride to the far edge of the property for a look at what the boys already here have been doing, and some amazing down hills on the way home.

On the way from Coyhaique

The landscape here is eerily similar to parts of New Zealand. When we hopped off the plane in Balmaceda it could have been the Otago plains outside. Tussock and rolling hill was visible as far as the eye could see. Now we’ve moved out to the site it is in some ways similar to the Southern part of the West Coast. Of course, the landscape around here is a lot grander. Huge steep hills surround the immediate lake, with snow-capped mountains visible in the none-to-distant background. The lake itself is a large expanse of water, with a bright icy blue hue. Clearly it is filled with glacial run-off. There are also several other rivers nearby. Up on the hills many small waterfalls are apparent, which are stunning up close. Overall the scenery is extremely rugged and very beautiful.

The hill we'll be digging on first up
It is also rather remote. To get to the site from the nearest town involved a two hour drive down some particularly rough gravel roads. Alternatively, entry is possible from the river at the far end of the lake, where there is also another site. The site does not have any vehicles readily available, for either land or water. In short, getting badly hurt or very sick is not a good option here. It also means that running down to the shops to pick up some supplies is actually quite a big ordeal. For the next three months, we are all pretty much stuck on site.

Looking down the vallety from the Helipad

The accommodation is pretty mint but backwards in lots of ways. All of the power is sourced from a generator out in the shed. It cuts out briefly a couple of times each day. Internet access is patchy and slow at best when working. One of the showers can’t be used because the runoff pops up in the bedroom next door. Apparently it is not uncommon for the gas, which heats the water, to run out for days at a time.

Singletrack happiness
The food has seemed okay so far, but is meant to get repetitive pretty quick. Breakfast is cereal and toast. Lunch is a couple of pan filled with some meat and cheese. Pan (pronounced paan) is the local bread here, sort of a cross between pita bread and a roll. They aren’t bad toasted. Dinner is a piece of meat with rice and some veg. After being a student for so long it doesn’t seem so bad. Not having to cook is a big plus too. The maids seem pretty choice but it’s hard to know what’s going on sometimes as they don’t speak English.

Moma, good times trail dog
Already the best part about being here is the riding. The hillside is a scarred mess of crisscrossing tracks. From one day riding it seems like all of the tracks are built to be hardwearing and loads fun. The climb is a good honest one, which is long and steep enough to be interesting without being a huge ordeal. The downhill tracks are mint, with a good mix of fast flowing tracks and challenging technical sections. Already I can tell that my descending is going to improve dramatically during my stay. Over the whole track network there are a lot of structures made out of wood which keeps things interesting. The rocks are super slick when wet, and there are forced hike-a-bike sections on some tracks where the terrain is too gnarly to build rideable tracks.

Looking back from near the end of The Gulag
I am looking forward to getting stuck into some decent work and doing a bunch more riding. While the weather is good we will be trying to get as many days as possible pushed through. It is already pretty cold here and it’s only going to get worse. Working in snow at some stage is a certainty. The next couple of days are going to be filled with safety stuff and then it’s into the digging. I can’t wait.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

To a new country

 For the last wee while I have not had the internet here at the lodge, but I have written a little bit of stuff, amongst other things. So for the next couple of days I will be adding some new things. Here is the first:

Everyone I have ever talked to about long distance plane trips has not had much positive to say about the experience. It isn’t hard to see why; being stuck in a cramped metal tube with wings in an even more cramped seat for hours on end isn’t many people’s idea of fun. But I didn’t find my flight from Auckland to Santiago to be too bad.

Flying LAN airlines, our flight left at 5.40 in the evening. In eleven and a half hours time we would be landing in Santiago, Chile. Our arrival time was 4 and a half hours before we left, something which took me some time to get my head around. I got to basically live the same day twice. The trip covered 9661 km’s at speeds of up to 1000km/h.

Before the flight the crew met up for the first time. These were the people I would be almost exclusively spending the next three month with. Fortunately they all seemed to be pretty good sorts. Some of them already knew each other from trailbuilding trips past, with five of the eight lads on the trip having done some digging for the company before. As we were all seated in different parts of the plane, getting to know each other better would have to wait.

Soon we were blasting down the runway for takeoff. Reality began to set in: this was to be the last time I would be in New Zealand for six months. As the flight proceeded I became more and more aware of just how far away from home I was going to be. Still, there was no turning back and it was pretty exciting to know that everything was going to be a new experience from here on out.

The flight itself was pretty mild. My seat was in the middle of the middle section of the plane, far from idea. On my right was a guy from Argentina who owned a firm which did work on wind turbines. He was originally from Australia which meant he was fluent in English, a bit of a rarity on the flight. This was good news for me, both because it gave me someone to talk to and because he could translate for me when the air hosts came around. On my left was an empty seat, which meant I could dump my stuff on the seat and stretch out a bit more. One left again was an Chilean guy with whom I wasn’t able to have much of a conversation.

The bike box after a quick retaping,
 it's seen much better days
I think I slept for about half the flight and then watched movies for the other half. The food was surprisingly good and the service on point. I got into my first Chilean beers, a brand called Cristal. It was very drinkable.

When we landed in Santiago it was just after 1 in the afternoon on the day we had left. All of the boys looked a bit ragged as we rolled into customs. This was a bit of a battle as we collectively didn’t have much Spanish under our belts, but we were soon through to baggage collection. Nervously we waited for the bikes to come out, and of course it was my bike that was hanging sadly out of my munted bike box. Looks like the bikes got some pretty rough treatment and despite a pretty heavy tape job my box was basically toast. Fortunately pretty much everything was still in the box (although my bottle cage was lost to the void) and nothing looked damaged.

The baggage checking over here is pretty lax, none of the bike boxes got opened or anything. Everything just got rolled through the scanner. Then we strolled across the road from the terminal to our hotel, the Holiday Inn. While our rooms were being readied we chilled out in the hotel bar, and then hit a much needed shower. We taxi’d into Santiago proper, probably getting ripped off horribly in the process. They could see us gringos coming from a mile away.

Street art in Santiago
Walking around Santiago was interesting. We started in a kind of poorer, less ‘touristy’ area with lots of locals and street art on every building. Some of this art was mind-blowing. Then we moved into more of the main centre of town for a feed. The meals were pretty heart, with most of the boys opting for a plate of fries covered in meat and cheese. From looking at the menu, it seems Chileans aren’t shy on the meat and carbs in every meal. We washed down our feeds with a massive litre of beer each.

During tea we had a bit of a downer as one of the lads had his camera stolen from right under his feet. It was a pretty vivid reminder we weren’t in NZ anymore and it meant a night battling language difficulties in the cop shop for Dan. Even though Chile seems like a pretty developed place, especially in the main cities, it is still pretty critical to show some extra caution over here.

We strolled through to the main square, which was surrounded by some pretty amazing buildings. It was a good place for a bit of a sit and some people watching. The boys were pretty knackered though (I was having some sad naps on the park bench), so we headed back to the policia to pick up Dan and then hit back to the hotel. A few quick emails were sent and then it was time to hit the hack before a 8am flight the next day.

The next morning we all dominated the smorgasbord breakfast. The spread was pretty impressive; as well as fruit, cereal, bacon, eggs and toast there was also a pretty good spread of deli meats, cheeses, pastries and fresh juices (think melon and strawberry). Quite a few plates went south before we headed back up to the rooms to pack. I also spent a bit of time doing my best to reinforce my mangled bike box.

Our plane to Balmaceda.
Getting onto the flights was a bit of a mission as we had a hard time checking our luggage in. We got it done and got on the planes for an hour and a half flight to Porto Montt. After a half hour break to swap some passengers and refuel we were off to Balmaceda. These flights were pretty miserable for me as I had managed to get sick since leaving Auckland, and was feeling pretty gunked up. The change in altitude was quite painful as my ears weren’t popping like they should and for the rest of the day after we landed I still couldn’t hear properly.

When we arrived at Balmaceda we all tried to not look at the baggage handlers unloading our bikes as they clearly didn’t believe in doing anything gently. Fortunately everyone’s gear arrived intact and we soon headed into the nearby town of Coyhaique to sort out our work visas. Then it was a 2 hour drive into the hills on some very marginal gravel roads. The scenery in the area is rugged and stunning (more about this another day).

Eventually we wound our way down into the valley that was to be our home for the next three months, and moved our gear into the lodge. The rest of the day was spent settling in, putting bikes together, and meeting the existing crew who are a few days from leaving. The lodge is mint and the area incredible, so all the boys are eager to get into it in the next few days.

The valley and lake. The lodge is on the flat bit top right