Disaster and dirtbikes go hand in hand. If you are around motos long enough, you will experience some sort of catastrophe. This story will take you with us as we rip through the Andes of South America. You will be there when it happens. You'll see the destruction and hear the screams. Cinch up your kidney belt...The ride starts here!
The written story is full of the gritty details and some great pics of the adventure. However, I understand that many of you may not want to read the entire story and would rather watch it. I have provided both. There is also a movie trailer to get your senses aroused. If I were you, I'd start with the trailer and go from there.
Here is the trailer:
It started years ago while I was in college. I met Scott, a super cool fella that loved to play hard. He somehow convinced me to buy a 1985 Honda CR500 so I could learn how to ride dirtbikes. A few wrecks later, I finally got the hang of it and thus started my love for the machine.
Fast forward 15 years. I found myself crossing the finish line in Cabo San Lucas as the final member of our 2007 Baja 1000 12x moto team. It was a cool experience; my first race. I still find myself talking about it quite often.
That experience brought our team together in a way that only a psychologist could understand. We created a family. It was all conceived with a common dream of racing in the Baja.
Here is the full movie:
Well, that is how I got to know Ben. He is the hotshot younger brother of my good friend Scott. Ben is Solid...I don't say hotshot because I am a sarcastic sort. I really mean it. This guy does everything extremely well. He has the finest of character. He gives without expectation. He pours his life into hundreds of people on a daily basis. He is a great family man, a loving brother, a constant friend, and profound mentor.
Four guys enjoying the Andes(left to right...Garret, Ben, James, Scott)
Ben and his older brother, who run an organization called Nevada County Campus Life, brought a group of 60 youth and adults from northern California to Peru to hike to Macchu Pichu, one of the UNESCO seven wonders of the world. Before the group arrived, Ben and two of the adult sponsors, James and Garret, joined me for a four day, super hard enduro tour through the Andes Mountains.
The Written Report:
Our first pass at about 13,500 elevation
The guys had been in Cusco a couple of days before the ride began. One of those days, Ben, Garret, and James were out at the house getting the bikes all wrenched down and ready for the ride. We added some accessories, adjusted levers and bars, and went through the gear for the journey that was to begin on the following day.
The first day was incredible. I picked up the guys, we ate a hearty breakfast, then hit the trail which began just behind my house. The single track climbs up a good 2000 feet in the first little section. I use the trail to compare what customers tell me about their riding level to their actual riding level. Its a good barometer.
We took a bunch of single track ridge along the top of the valley looking down into Cusco. We worked our way to the quaint little town of Chinchero to grab a bite to eat. From there, we rode down through some epic downhill singletrack to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We fueled up and headed toward our final destination for the night, Lares.
Before we reached Lares, the boys got a chance to see what I have been forever bragging about. The riding in this area is as good as it gets. I've ridden in some great places, but this tops them all. This is some great area for riding...I will leave it at that.
Ben at the waterfall dropping into Qhuisharani
The boys got a chance to see what riding technical trails at 14000+ elevation was like. We had a blast. The sun was going down which pushed us to keep going. We had been on the bikes all day, with the exception of the lunch breaks and a handful of oxygen rejuvenation stops. The fatigue was starting to set in. The excuse to take a photo was a good reason to stop for a sec to catch ones breath. We may have all used that one once or twice. It's hard to keep riding when the photo value is so high. We took pictures when we could, but had to get rolling as our plan was to arrive before dark.
Dark came and found us still riding and smiling. We had gotten through the super difficult trail and were really enjoying the fun, wide, single track route that dropped us into the Huacahuasi valley via headlight. Four bikes, tire to tire, ripping down the side of the canyon. It was a nice added bit of excitement for the ride. A little nighttime adventure!
We arrived at our destination for the night. It was complete with good food, bed, and hot springs. We soaked till our skin looked like prunes, then called it a night. The next day would prove to be a challenge. I warned the fellas that it would be a technical day of riding...all day long...lights out...good night.
We awoke to a hearty breakfast, served up at the table next to the windows looking down into the river hundreds of feet below. The Lares hot springs are a great little spot to start and end a good day of riding. The breakfast was served by a little Peruvian couple who didn't have much of a handle on how a group of young enduro riders would eat. I had to reiterate the quantities over and over again to make sure we had a good dose of energy before heading out.
We finished breakfast and began getting the bikes and gear all prepared for the day. The day's distance would be short, but nothing less than a gauntlet of obstacles. We would see it all on this day; hill climbs with large rock steps, ledges without anything below, water, elevation over 15000ft, and fatigue screaming at us like a drill sergeant. We would certainly see it all.
Within a few minutes, we found ourselves ready to take off. We said goodbye to the innkeepers, fired up the bikes, and headed into town for gas and a bit of supplies.
Gas is always a fun experience. First, you have to find the lady that runs the grifo(gas station). Her grifo consists of a 55 gallon drum of fuel in her living room. She manages to scoop out about a half gallon per plastic pitcher, then pours it into the official gallon pitcher to make sure the accuracy is spot on. She carries it out and dumps it in your tank, somehow remembering how much gas she has already "pumped." It always seems to work.
After the fueling process, some snacks and drinks were purchased, then we hit the trail. A short bit of dirt road to get outside of the community, then, the fun began.
The trail was one that was first explored on dirtbike a year or so earlier. Ben's older brother, Scott, came down to do some scouting work for the large group of hikers that they were planning on bringing down. I took Scott and another buddy over this section. We struggled, but made it. It was one of those rides that I told myself I would never do again. In fact, we coined the name of the final ascent to the pass, Misery Hill. The constant use of the tow strap created a memorable experience for Scott, Weston, and I. Scott somehow convinced me to consider the route again for his brother. If anyone could do it, it would be these guys. They ride like beasts.
On that particular sunny morning, we found ourselves throttling through some of the most scenic terrain the world has to offer. The trail was so gnarly that one could hardly take their eyes off of it. However, every time you stalled, it was an award winning photo opp. The trail was a perfect 10; a mix of rock, smooth sections of rolling single track, drops, steps, mud, and a rogue alpaca every now and then. It was fun to say the least.
Overlooking another one of the valleys
We reached an area that was about a third of the way to the top. Ben and I had made it to a good stopping point where we could watch the other two guys grappling with the enduro rock demons below. One of those rocks happened to find its way to the motor of Garrets bike. The old "hole in the clutch cover fix" was staring us in the eyes.
We got it done, enjoyed the forced break, then pounded our way up the rest of the world class trail. The climb took a lot out of us. There were quite a few tow strap moments, where we found ourselves with a team of one puller, one pusher, and a rider. Those were the tough spots.
We made it to the top of Misery Hill. It was a satisfying climb to the pass; The abra is what we call it here in Peru. We struggled, and managed to not lose our religion on the climb. A celebration picture or two, a high five, and a good whoop and hollar ensued. We took a break, ate a snack, and then mentally prepared for the long drop into the valley on the downside of the abra. Little did the boys know what was in store.
We worked our way across the mountain heights to reach the top of the valley with which we needed to descend. We had reached the clouds at the top which gave us an eerie fog to ride through. It had the appearance of a moonscape.There is not much vegetation at that altitude. It was cold and the air was as thin as a valve shim.
As we reached the drop down spot that would eventually connect us to the Sacred Valley, we found ourselves in awe of the view. The clouds had parted in such a way to expose a glacier faced peak which had the light of the sun gracing its glory.
My Favorite Picture Ever
We took over a hundred pictures, then off the edge we rode. The upper section was a blissful free ride through countless grassy chutes. The ground was smooth. It was like riding on a golf course. It provided freedom; like riding in dunes. Each descent brought us to another epic view.
Within a few minutes we found ourselves at the end of the smooth grass. In fact, we had come to the part of the trail where the tow straps needed to be retrieved. The canyon below was deep. We could see a lake at the bottom; hundreds of feet down.
We came up to a rugged drop that stirred up a bit of fear in each of us. Ben arrived at the edge and began to wonder if the trail in front of him was actually the one we were going to use. I confirmed with him that it was. I remember going through that spot once before. It seemed a lot worse this time.
I walked down to check it out. Ben followed. It looked better once we had climbed down. It was doable. I returned to my bike to give it the first go. Ben spotted me. No trouble. We made it. It wasn't without some tugging and pushing, but we all made it. One by one.
The sun was trying to escape us. We had about an hour of light left. I was a bit concerned as I knew just how difficult it would be to come down that trail in the dark. I kept the guys rolling.
The trail is a challenge, but oh so worth it!
We managed to make it a bit further around the edge of the canyon where we encountered another challenging section of trail. However, it was similar to many of the sketchy areas we had managed to cross earlier that day. I began to work my way down the rocky ledge. My front brake chirped with each squeeze. My left boot, planting itself along the rock wall every few inches to my left, while my other boot was on my right foot peg. Little by little, I made my way down through the gauntlet of treachery. I made it. Ben was following.
I realized just how epic the video shot would be to have Ben passing by with the camera above him as he passed in front of the crystal clear lake, hundreds of feet below. I stopped, and began to whip my leg off my bike. I pivoted around just enough to catch a glimpse of terror. Ben was in mid fall.
Time went to superslowmo. A million thoughts began racing through my mind. One of the first was a thought of realization that Ben was in big trouble. Then the thought of screaming came to mind. Useless, but I let out a huge, "NO!" as if it would stop the event. My thoughts continued to how I might intervene. Again, useless. It was happening faster than my reaction would allow. I was 30 feet away, watching things unfold. I saw the last part of Ben's fall. He had already exited the bike, and was in mid journey down the cliff. He stopped twenty feet below the starting point of the incident. I was not sure how, but he was stopped, sitting, overlooking the canyon below. Garret and James, above Ben, looking down off the edge, could not tell the outcome, at least from their angle. A bunch of screaming, and Ben and I watching a brand new 2014 Honda CRF 450x tumble down the ledge, picking up speed, roll after roll, till the bike launched off the final cliff into the abyss and out of sight. Then, the wait for the thunderous clash finally hit us, seconds later, as the fate of the motorcycle was dreadfully heard. The sound rang through the canyon. It was over.
The whole moment was wrought with every emotion possible. Ben put his hands on his helmet, elbows to his knees as he sat there on the hillside; totally emptied. Garret came charging down the hill, thinking that Ben would not be there. The apologies began to ring out from Ben about the bike. "I'm so sorry Scott!"
I am sure that was a beautiful sound to Garret and James. Ben was alive. I began to work my way towards Ben, letting him know that the bike was just a bike and that it can be replaced. The relief I began to feel overwhelmed me to tears. In a matter of seconds, I went through the scenario of having to tell Ben's wife, who was back in Cusco along with their little boy, about how Ben had a terrible accident and would not be coming back. Elijah, not even talking yet, would have to grow up to be able to understand what happened. In my thoughts, I was tortured by the daily thought of having to explain to Elijah what had happened to his father. I couldn't bear it. The tears rolled. Ben was a friend and I was so thankful that he was alive. I was so thankful, that my fear filled thought was not actually happening. I continued to cry.
By that time, I had reached the spot where Ben was perched. Garret and James had made it down to Ben's location. There, on the mountainside, sat four grown men, with not a dry eye amongst us.
Somewhere up there is where the bike began to tumble
The bike was gone. We needed to get off the mountain. It was a dangerous place to be in the daylight, but with night closing its curtain on us, we were in another dilemma. I pulled out every leadership ability within me and directed our group by sternly pointed out that we could grieve later, but we had to get off the mountain immediately.
We gathered ourselves as much as we could, derived a plan to have Garret and I ride solo, while Ben and James would ride two up on any spot that was doable. That meant Ben walked quite a distance down the nasty section of the ledge that led to the bottom of the canyon. Darkness wrapped its arms around us within a short time.
We made it off the mountainside, although we were not out of danger. We had a long and treacherous 6 miles of trail, river crossings, and darkness. Little by little, we forged our way out. In what seemed like an eternity, we reached the end of the single track. The trail turned to a 4 wheel drive two track, then to a dirt road, then to the little town of Huaran, which was our hint that we had made it to the Sacred Valley. Cold, wet, tired, and emotionally withered, we made our way down the highway a few miles to Urubamba where we called it a night. Hotel and a late dinner was a blessing.
Dinner after a long day...
We called back to base as soon as we got into cell range. Ben needed to talk with his wife. I, as well, just wanted to hear the voices of my family. We hadn't come up with a plan, but I told my wife that I would call her back after dinner after we had a chance to devise a plan for the rest of our tour.
We found a pizza place open. We crammed down an enormous amount of food, discussed the day's events, worked out a couple of recovery options, and headed back to the hotel to get some needed rest.
We came up with a plan to go back into the crash site the following day. I called my wife, who was a good 2 hour drive from where we were staying. The plan was for her to bring hiking boots, tools, bigger backpacks, more food, and a number of other items to make the recovery as simple as possible. She would leave early in the morning to arrive at about 8am the following morning. I said goodnight and went to bed. It was good to hear her voice.
Ben and I had a good pillow talk session before quietness swept over us. We rehashed the whole ordeal many times over. How amazed we were to still have Ben with us and not in a body bag. I, still to this day, cannot figure out why he didn't keep going down the ledge. It just wasn't Ben's time...We both laid there quietly thinking to ourselves for hours, wide awake.
As I laid there trying to make sense of the day's events, I found myself sobbing. In order to keep my manliness confined to me, I did the best to sniffle, cough, and whatever else I could do to mask my sappiness. Ben was in the same room. I didn't know what was going through his mind, but it really shouldn't have surprised me that he was awake at 2am. As tired as we were, there wasn't much sleep to be had. We talked through it some more. Every emotion came through. The joy that Ben was still alive, the thrill of the epic day of riding, the fatigue and pushing ourselves through much more than we could ever expect from our bodies; it was heavy.
Finally, my eyes closed. Not sure if Ben's ever did, but morning came all too quickly. My wife had arrived with everything we needed. She even brought one of my daughters. I couldn't stop hugging her. Any one of us could have been in Ben's boots. It gives a different type of appreciation for life when you tease it like that.
We finished our planning over the food that my wife, Teri, had brought for us. James and I would ride in to the crash site. We would all leave at about the same time, but because of the difficult and slow route for the Landcruiser to reach the trailhead, James and I would be far ahead of the others. Our goal was to arrive and assess the situation. If there was nothing to salvage, then we would satellite message the rest of the crew to stay put, while James and I returned to the trail head. If no news was received, Ben and Garret, on foot, would begin the 4000 foot elevation hike which covered just over 6 miles. They would be carrying large empty packs to bring anything salvageable back to base.
Scott and James on the way to recover a downed moto
James and I were loaded down with the necessary tools to dismantle any part of the bike that was worth keeping. We packed our hiking boots as well as we were not sure just where the bike ended up from the fall.
We began the journey. James and I headed out a few minutes before the rest of the crew. We retraced our steps of the night before, but this time, we could see. The morning sun was forcefully strong.
Within a half hour, James and I found ourselves at the beginning of a trail that one would wonder if it could even be used for a motorcycle. It was gnarly. The elevation gain was relentless. Section after section of steep rocky stairs, tight switches designed for foot travelers, and enough water to satisfy a million ducks. FUN! It was a challenge for sure, but it was a grin factory for James and I.
We managed to get through the rocky steps while only losing a little bit of antifreeze. The valley opened up into the area of Cancha Cancha and provided us with an incredible view of the box canyon where the beautiful glacier lake lay nestled.
We could see the spot where Ben had discarded the bike. However, we could only see it from a long distance and the final resting point of the bike was not in view. We rode the same trail that we descended the night before, at least up to the point where we needed to peel off to reach the area where we assumed the bike would be.
James and I looked over the landscape which was riddled with rock tailings. Over the years, they had fallen from the canyon's rocky ledges. The riding was a difficult mix of trials as loose bowling ball sized boulders covered the ground. We could see the area we needed to reach. We trudged through until we felt like it would be easier to walk than to ride. We ditched the bikes, traded motoboots for our hiking boots and began the hike up toward the lake. We couldn't actually see the lake as it sat on the valley floor, still hundreds of feet in elevation above us. There was even a possibility that the bike was in the lake.
After a 30 minute walk or so, James and I reached the vicinity of the crash site. We knew that over any one of the next little knolls, we'd find what we were looking for. For me, it was like tracking an animal during a hunt. The shot had been made, and now it was a search to find the downed animal. The bike was our trophy buck.
We passed over many a spot where we thought the bike would be. It seemed like forever, to reach a place where we found anything. But, we pressed on.
The Field of Shrapnel
We came over the top of a little rise and there in the middle of the rock, laid a bright red Honda seat. As we came up to the seat, the view opened up to exhibit an array of shrapnel. It was bad. Shining in the light of the sun were nickel sized anodized pieces of aluminum from the front shocks. The plastic of the fenders, air box, side number plates, and shrouds were spread around like fertilizer on a lawn. Up and down the path of destruction, the parts and pieces laid.
James and I began looking for the biggest parts. The chassis, if there was one. We both followed the aluminum and plastic trail. James yelled out, "I got it!" Referring to the main section of the bike, or at least the largest section of our treasure. It was the chassis. Parts of the motor still connected. I followed.
I think we can pound that out...
Within a few minutes, we assessed the damages and realized that there were some salvageable parts that would be nice to have. We had an unspoken agreement to strip off anything valuable. We did it in a way to prioritize the value and make the most of the limited space we had. Handguards, Thanks Cycra, those made it. Plastics covers were broken, but hand guards and the bars were OK. The air filter, the chain and sprockets, the front wheel hub, the rear wheel, the rear brake caliper and master cylinder, the carb, cables and electronics...We stripped it down.
Ben and Garret arrived shortly thereafter. They looked around at the crash site and then began picking the rest of the bike clean. We created many piles of parts. The small parts and corresponding items were batched together in Ziplock bags. Each us working on a specific section of the bike. It only took us an hour or so to dismantle enough parts to fill Garret's and Ben's packs. They had a long haul to get out of the canyon, so as soon as they were loaded, they began the long walk back to the trailhead where the Landcruiser waited to haul the remains back to base.
Ben and Garret heading back with full packs
James and I stayed until we stripped everything we wanted. We stayed until just before dark. We couldn't carry everything. The trash, we left. The chassis, we left. The motor, we left. It was broken. The cases broken, the head, broken, only the internal parts may have been protected. We were not sure, so we left it. We did take out the clutch and water pump.
"Can you believe this?"
James and I stuffed our packs with more than we could really carry. We had parts tied to the outside of our packs, hanging off our shoulders, and attached to anything and everything we could manage. We hiked back to our bikes. The light was gone by the time we reached the motos. We realized that we had left some stuff at the bikes and forgot about how we might need some additional space.
We had a repacking party when we arrived. Our motoboots replaced our hiking boots. We mounted a few things to our bikes with bungees and parachute cord. Our packs reworked as best as we could to make it possible to ride with such a burden to carry.
Stripping it clean...
We had little choice. We were bringing this stuff back. With much difficulty, James and I began our return through the treacherous rock. This time, loaded down with more weight than either of our bikes had ever carried. It was a slow descent back down the trail. With numerous tipovers, and crashes, we somehow made it back to the trailhead, well after dark, just in time to find Ben and Garret geared up to come rescue us.
It was a good feeling to be back at the truck. My wife and daughter were there with food, water, and dry clothes. James and I had soaked ourselves getting down the trail. The crisp mountain air had made it impossible to stay warm. The torture was over. The most valuable parts of the bike had been recovered, and dinner was calling our names in the town of Urubamba. James and I loaded up on warm gear and finished the ride back to town, while the rest of the crew followed in the truck.
We still had three bikes to ride return to Cusco. We made a plan for Ben to go back with my wife and daughter, while James, Garret and I would do a night ride back to Cusco via some really fun single track. It was night, but we had enough gear to outfit us for the chilly ride. We ate dinner, and then headed out.
About a couple of hours later, we arrived at the house to find the rest of the crew. Absolutely beat tired, we all managed to retain some sort of smiles. The ride was over, for the moment. It was time to take a break from the motorcycles.
We still had two important tasks to complete. The first was to get Ben back on a bike; the old, "get back on the horse" concept. After an event like Ben experienced, it was imperative to give Ben a good moto experience to keep the passion alive. The second was to recover the rest of the bike and clean up the mess at the crash site. We managed both.
The following day, while Garret was under the weather, Ben, James, and I went for a ride to the cross on Cerro Picol. The cross sits at 13,400ft elevation and is a super fun single track ride to the top. It overlooks the city of Cusco. This is a great place to finish a ride as it culminates an enduro experience by leaving an unforgettable picture in your mind of just how incredible the Andes truly are.
We made it back to base, all intact. The riding part of the trip was complete. Filled with as much as any of us could handle. Bucket list riding in the Andes, obstacles beyond measure, and spending time with some of the best young men on the planet. It was a wild ride.
As I eluded earlier, we still had a task to complete. The pristine place where Ben's crash took place, was a mess. We still had piles of plastic, aluminum, and rubber to clean up. We concocted a plan to have a number of the guys from the Campus Life group hike back into the crash site and help with the clean up. It proved to be a miserable day. However, we accomplished the task.
A group of six of us hiked on foot, up the 4000ft elevation gain to the crash site. A couple of us lagged behind as we had to deal with some food borne bacteria. We did our best to keep the pace, but it proved almost impossible. We watered the trailside shrubbery with explosive diarrhea, and pushed each other through the misery of cramps and fever.
At the crash site, the shrapnel from the destructed bike was gathered and placed in backpacks. The chassis, which contained the remains of the motor, was lashed to a couple of two meter eucalyptus poles which we had packed in. With one man on each corner, the procession began back down the daunting route from which we had just come. Over and through the tailings of loose rock, the corpse of the motorcycle swung back and forth as the blisters began wearing on the hands of the pallbearers.
It was grueling process. We managed to reach the community of Cancha Cancha where someone had the brilliant idea of hiring somebody to haul the bike the rest of the way.
Cancha Cancha is not a typical town. No electricity and no roads to get there. However, what we found were a group of three grown men building a rock wall. I happened to be the translator for the group. I mustered up all of my negotiation skills and went a round with the fellows as I made them an offer they couldn't refuse; to drop what they were doing, pick up our bike and get it to the trailhead...I'll pay the equivalent of 3 weeks wages for a couple of hours of work...and throw in all the granola bars and extra food we had between the group. They agreed and off they ran with the chassis, down the trail.
As we watched in amazement, the gap increased between the porters and our group, we quickly realized just how manly those little Peruvian men really were. We couldn't keep up. We laughed about it, but it made each of us feel like less than real men. They made it to the bottom, dumped the bike at the trail head, and began walking back up the trail to finish off their rock wall. We met them on the trail, gave them a good amount of pay, lavished our food supply on them, and began the final section of the trail. Our driver was waiting to load up the chassis, and carry us back to Cusco to end the crazy adventure.
Feel free to follow this blog as there will certainly be more adventures in the future. Click on the "Follow Blog" button on the middle right of your screen. Until next time...Keep the wheels down...Scott