The Peak Puzzle: What’s the best time of the year to climb?

As every mountaineer knows, there is usually a limited time in the year when you can climb high peaks. Depending on the hemisphere and local climate, this usually is in the summer (higher latitudes) or in the dry season (near equator). Climbing a 6000m peak in winter or in the rainy season is much more extreme, more risky, less rewarding (except perhaps to avoid crowds), and in general not really an option.

In the excellent book “Climbing: Expedition Planning” authors Clyde Soles and Phil Powers have listed the prime climbing seasons for all major mountain ranges world-wide. From this I was able to generate a pattern for the peaks along the Panamerican route as follows (grey bars represent good months):

Prime Climbing Season for Panamerican Peaks

Prime Climbing Season for Panamerican Peaks

I started planning. Beginning in the North in late spring / early summer and assuming a certain average daily distance on the bike and the time spent on the various mountains, I ended up with the following pattern (yellow = within 1 month of good time, red = bad time):

Peak climbing times with original itinerary

Peak climbing times with original itinerary

As you can see, while there were a few peaks that fit, two were borderline (Mexico’s Orizaba and Chile’s Ojos del Salado), and three were way outside the possible climbing season: Peru’s Huascaran, Bolivia’s Nevado Sajama and Argentina’s Aconcagua! No amount of tweaking the daily distance or start time or other parameters seemed to work within one year. I didn’t want to skip any mountain. I didn’t want to extend the trip beyond roughly 1 year. What to do? I was stuck.

After some thought I had a different idea: How about riding in the Northern summer from Alaska down to Central America for the first half year, and then in the Southern summer from Patagonia up to Central America for the second half year! While this is not the original all-in-one-direction bike route, it does solve the climbing season puzzle and allow for a much better fit. My current plan looks like this (bottom five rows in reverse order):

Peak climbing times with new itinerary

Peak climbing times with new itinerary

There are no red zones and both Canada’s Mt. Logan and Chile’s Ojos del Salado are close to the good season. So I should have a reasonable chance of possible weather conditions for most if not all peaks. Note that I also swapped Mt. Logan and Denali at the beginning. This decision was due to the scarcity of expeditions offered on Logan. The number of climbers on Denali is about 50-100 times higher than on Logan (Denali is part of the Seven Summits, Logan is not). Consequently, there are many expeditions every week for several months on Denali, while on Logan I only found this one in 2009!

Now purists might say: “This is not the classic Panamerican Highway ride, you need to fly from Central America down to Patagonia, and the sequence of peaks doesn’t match those of the countries on the map!” And guess what, they are right! But that’s the best I could come up with. After all, this project has never been done before, so there is no template or blueprint. Finding a solution for problems like this is part of the challenge. As long as I ride the entire distance (except for the Darien Gap) and make an attempt on all peaks I am satisfied. Perhaps others will find a better solution for the peak puzzle…

Add comment March 5th, 2009

Preparation is a full-time job

I knew this would be a logistical challenge: Getting all the gear for the bike and the climbs, researching routes, flights, bus and ferry schedules, expeditions, visa, health preparations, insurances, technical gadgets, testing everything ahead of time etc. This is by far the biggest adventure project I have ever done!

To get a feel for trip logistics, here is how I set up the first two expeditions up North:
– May-7: Flight from Florida to Whitehorse via Air Canada
– May-9 to Jun-1: Mt. Logan expedition with Canada West Mountain School
– Jun-3: Bus Transfer to Anchorage with Alaska Direct Buslines (Whitehorse – Tok – Anchorage)
– Jun 7-27: Denali expedition with American Alpine Institute
– Jun-28: Bus Transfer to Fairbanks with Alaska Direct Buslines (Anchorage – Tok – Fairbanks)
– Jun-30: Bus transfer to Prudhoe Bay with Dalton Highway Express
– Jul-1: Start bike ride …

I thought I had some equipment and it was only a matter of updating a few items here and there… Not exactly! At least there is no shortage of good information online. For example, the expedition outfitters provide detailed equipment lists, such as the Mt. Logan gear list from Canada West Mountain School and the Denali gear list from American Alpine Institute. I realized that most of my own equipment is either too old – most of my mountaineering was done when I still lived in Germany some 20 years ago – or it was no match for the conditions on Logan and Denali, considered among the coldest on Earth.

As for the bike and regular camping, I have the basics. However, one of the big changes here is my desire to ride on a recumbent, which I have never owned. (I’ll blog about that separately.) A good equipment list for the bike part of my trip has been compiled by Dani Grab and can be found here. Dani has done this bike trip in 2005/2006, so he knows what he’s talking about!

So for the last couple of weeks I have been gear shopping and ordering from many online stores such as REI or It is a lot of fun when you get all this brandnew equipment and try it on – anticipation is half the fun! How I’m going to fit all this into the 2 bags allowed on the Air Canada flight to Whitehorse on May-7 – now that’s a different question…

Add comment March 4th, 2009


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