From atop the Andes, the finish is in sight

By Andrew Jenner,

The last few weeks have been an exercise in contrasts for Lars Akerson and Jon Spicher, pedaling from barren ground to verdant, from sea level to nearly three miles in the clouds. They are in Peru now, six months, nine countries and nearly 6,000 miles gone from Harrisonburg, bound for the Mennonite World Conference, in Paraguay in July – an adventure, a spiritual journey, a fundraiser for other young people to attend the conference and more.

John and Lars
Lars Akerson and Jon Spicher pause for a celebratory photo at Abra Condorcenca (13,700 feet) late in the afternoon of their first full day of climbing through the Andes. (Courtesy Photo)

Spicher, an Eastern Mennonite University student, and Akerson, a recent graduate, spent most of May heading south along the Peruvian coast, through some of the driest deserts on earth. It was the most lonesome segment of their trip so far. The scenery was almost surreal, lunar, bare sand interrupted by dunes and taller, jagged rocky outcrops. The headwinds, the unending brown and the miles of emptiness all took a toll on the two bikers.

"It began to wear on [me]. It was the same landscape, the same scenery … straight roads for miles and miles," said Spicher.

At Nazca, after hundreds of miles south through the desert, their route took a jog east, and up, into the Andes. The straight roads turned to spaghetti, winding and winding and climbing. They spent the first night in the mountains camped beside the road. There was a new moon that night, Akerson said, and he saw more stars than he’d ever seen before. Up and up they went; they were relieved to see the color green again as they reached wetter altitudes, and to hear the sound of running water.

They gained 8,500 feet in their longest day of climbing, and once got about 15,000 feet in elevation; they spent another entire day riding through high grasslands above 14,000 feet, dotted with vicunas, alpacas, llamas and flamingo-filled lakes.

"The whole stretch through the Andes has been gorgeous," Spicher said.

Though they suffered some minor altitude-related headaches, shortness of breath, lethargy and excessive yawning, none of it’s been as bad as they’d anticipated. At night they started having to bundle up – a welcome change from desert heat.

At the end of May, after a week of climbing, they reached Cusco, the old capital of the Inca Empire. They paused there for a week of R&R, spending their time visiting an elementary school and a clinic and making other connections as they’ve tried to do since leaving Harrisonburg on a rainy January Tuesday.

Their trip seemed to naturally break into sections: make it to Mexico (check), then to Managua by Easter (check), then South America (check, after a flight from Panama to Ecuador, bypassing Colombia for logistical and safety reasons), then up the Andes (check) and next, finally, on to Paraguay.

"It definitely feels like we’re heading toward the finish line," said Akerson.

So far, so good, and no real mishaps yet. Spicher’s trailer sustained a glancing blow from a careless car in southern Mexico, which bent his rear wheel and took about 24 hours to fix. In Abancay, Peru, another car rolled through a stop sign and grazed Akerson’s leg. Their worst scrape occurred upon arrival in Cusco, when Akerson misjudged his approach to a slotted drainage grate in the road, steering his front tire straight down a front tire-sized slot, and sending Akerson tumbling over his handlebars. A passing ice cream vendor dragged Akerson to his feet; he and the bike were fine, and Akerson and Spicher laugh now when they tell the story – evidence that the worst so far hasn’t been all that bad.

Next, into Bolivia, east across the high altiplano, and down, down to Paraguay, where they plan to finish their trip in Asuncion by July 9.

Follow their progress online at