Volcan Baru- 11,401ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: March 30, 2013
2:38am – 11:55am
BOQUETE, PANAMA, 11:54am
“So, how did these bikes work out for you guys?” the hostel manager asked (we’ll refer to him as Rusty). We were just returning our rental mountain bikes after a successful bike-ascent and descent of Volcan Barú, the highest point in Panama. But Rusty didn’t know where the bikes had been, he probably thought we had just ridden around town, so we were trying to keep the truth on the DL.
“Oh, they did just fine,” I said.
“Well, the back brake on this bike is rubbing a little bit,” Eric added innocently, “but it was like that when we started. Oh, and the rear tube popped, but we bought another one in town to replace it.”
“Awesome, I really appreciate it,” Rusty said, “some people ride these bikes and don’t have a clue how to fix them. Thanks for taking good care of them.”
He handed us back the credit cards and drivers’ licenses we had left as collateral. And with that, we were officially off the hook. We had beaten our noon rental return deadline by a mere five minutes.
“Thanks again!” we said to him. As we left, I turned around and took one final, fleeting glance at the two poor mechanical beasts who had served us today. It’s a good thing those bikes can’t talk, I thought to myself. If they could, they would tell Rusty about the cracked rear axle, the worn brake pads, the countless adjustments we had tried to make without the proper tools, all the telltale dust that had just been wiped off, the thorough cursing they had received. They would relate the story of how they had borne their riders up (and down) 8,000 vertical feet, had simultaneously seen the Pacific and Atlantic, and had for a moment been the highest bikes in all of Panama…
For the purposes of trip reports, it’s sometimes difficult to define exactly where the trip begins. Does it begin at the trailhead? The airport? Or when the trip was first envisaged?
Our interest in highpointing began with a simple fascination for mountains. The most noteworthy part of the trip, at that point, was the hike itself. We showed up at the trailhead, did battle with the mountain, and made it to the top. How we got to the trailhead wasn’t epic or worthy of more than just a passing mention, the real meat of the story was how we got from the trailhead to the summit. Take, for example, the Pinnacle, our favorite mountain at home in Kentucky. In less than fifteen minutes, we could ride with our dad from home to the trailhead. The real adventure was the afternoon hike to the top. A story about “the Pinnacle” was thus a story about the hike.
But over the years, as we started to reach farther and farther for more mountains, just getting to the trailhead began to warrant more thought and planning and began to become noteworthy. Take a winter trip to Katahdin, for example. Six hours of driving from Boston, ten miles of cross-country skiing, and then you were finally at the base of the mountain, where the real climbing began. A story about “Katahdin” might then include some mention of how we got all the way from Boston to the Hunt Trailhead.
Over the previous action-packed week of highpointing in Central America, we had pushed that driving/hiking ratio to the extreme. Five days earlier, we had rented car in Guatemala and had driven through four countries, climbing the highest points in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala along the way. After heavily-potholed roads, numerous bribes to the police, car troubles, and taxi roadblocks, over the course of four days, we had spent more time in the car than we had climbing the actual mountains.
After returning the rental car without a scratch in Guatemala, and a good night’s sleep, we flew to Costa Rica and rendezvoused with Amanda and her mom. Later on that night, Eric and I successfully summited Cerro Chirripó, bringing our score to five country high points in six days. The next, and final objective, was Panama’s Volcan Barú, which would complete the “hexafecta” of Central American country high points.
As we waited for our flight to David, Panama, we took a nap in the San Jose, Costa Rica airport and looked forward to our second “simple” mountain of the trip. With 24 miles of hiking and 7,700ft of elevation gain the previous evening, Costa Rica’s Chirripó had been a good old-fashioned mountain. Getting to the trailhead had been easy, and the mountain had been hard, just the way it should be. By our forecast, Panama’s Volcan Barú would be the second “straightforward” mountain of the trip – a mountain that would require mostly physical exertion and minimal mental effort.
We boarded our Air Panama flight around noon for the one-hour flight to David (‘da-BEED’). This was one of only three flights a week between the two cities, so we breathed a huge sigh of relief once we settled on board. There were only about ten passengers on the 100-person capacity plane, so we had plenty of room to spread out.
By 1:30pm we were in David and passed through the small customs area. The officer thoroughly searched mine and Eric’s wallets, looking for illegally-large amounts of currency, I suppose, but let Amanda and her mom through without any hassle. We exited the sliding doors and breathed in the hot, dry air of country #44 (for me; #54 for Eric).
To keep things simple, we hired a taxi to take us the next thirty miles to Boquete (bo-KEH-tay), the town located at the eastern base of Volcan Barú. It worked out to eight dollars per person, and was probably our only option due to the limited availability of public transportation on this Good Friday, the holiest day of the year for Latin American countries. Thankfully, the driving (well, riding) here in Panama was far simpler than it had been in any of the other five Central American countries. The roads were straight, smooth, and well-signed, almost as nice as the USA.
The taxi driver dropped us off as Hostal Music Boutique, where we would be staying tonight. Fortunately, Amanda’s mom had been able to reserve a few rooms for us; almost every other place in town was mysteriously sold out. We later learned that this night was probably the busiest night of the year for the small town – people from all over Panama flock to Boquete for Holy Week and Good Friday celebrations.
There was a minor glitch, however, because the hostel had somehow overbooked, leaving us without a room. But, after some negotiations, the kind hostel staff of Haydee and Brad managed to squeeze us in. Getting to Boquete? Check. Hotel room? Check. Next on the agenda was rounding up some mountain bikes.
THE KONA & THE SCHWINN
In preparing for the trip, we had come across this intriguing report of a fellow adventurer named Mike who had biked and hiked from Boquete to the summit in just six hours (roundtrip)! It was an impressive feat, and especially caught our attention because he had used a rental a mountain bike. Google Maps shows a road leading to the summit, but we had read that it was extremely rough and only driveable by the toughest of 4x4s. However, mountain bikes are even more all-terrain than jeeps, and can make it up almost anything that a person can hike up. If nothing else, it would at least speed up our descent.
In his report, Mike mentioned that he ditched his bike halfway up because the road became so rough that it was be faster to hike than bike. But how could that be faster, we wondered; whatever time you lost by walking your bike up, couldn’t you make that up on the way down? Was the road really that rough? Even if you go half of walking speed on the way up, we reasoned, you’ll go five times walking speed on the way down, so overall it’ll be faster if you take the bike the whole way, right? In any case, we figured it’d be funner and more interesting to involve a mountain bike, so went in search of two around town.
Hostel manager Brad called up a few possible bike rental locations, but alas, it was Good Friday and they were all closed. Then Mrs. Morris remembered a hostel in town that she had encountered in her online searches that had mentioned mountain bike rentals. We finally found the hostel and I asked the woman at the front desk if they rented mountain bikes. “No, sorry,” was her answer. I began to walk away in disappointment, but Amanda decided to give it a second try, this time in Spanish. “Hola, ¿te alquilan bicicletas de montaña?” she asked. “Si,” the woman answered with a smile, “tenemos dos.”
She brought us around to the back and showed us the fleet. Our eyes lit up. Two bikes. Both front suspension. One Kona with disc brakes. One Schwinn with, well, duct tape on the shifter, but at least it was shiny and looked new-ish. Perfect.
Initially the woman asked for our passports as collateral, but Amanda negotiated for drivers licenses + credit cards instead. You need your passport to get out of the country, we reasoned, so we weren’t leaving those behind. I arbitrarily grabbed the Kona, Eric grabbed the Schwinn, and we started to test them out. Upon closer inspection, we discovered a few problems with Eric’s bike: the rear brakes were rubbing against the rim, and the freewheel’s smallest two cogs weren’t quite compatible with the rear derailleur, but we figured we could fix it up back at the hostel.
Next came a critical move: obtaining the ability to fix a flat tire. The bikes looked to be in good shape, and we had every intention to treat them gently on the downhill to avoid popping any tubes. But over the years, we had been on enough rides to the Fells and back home in Kentucky to know that the times when you don’t bring a pump or spare tire are the times when you’re going to need one. Bringing a pump and spare doesn’t ensure that your tubes will survive, but a lack of a pump or spare *does* guarantee that you’re going to get a flat. Luckily, the hostel had a bike pump and some spare tubes that we borrowed from a few other 26” wheels laying around. On the trip we would discover an extension of tube/pump that theory which states that “if you don’t bring tools, you’ll wish you had.”
Fortunately, Amanda and her mom had been nice enough to bring two bike helmets with them from the States; Eric and I had guessed correctly that there wouldn’t be any bike helmets down in Panama. From what we had read, an 8,000-vertical-foot descent of Volcan Barú would be a ride in which helmets would be absolutely critical. If there was one ride of our lives that necessitated a helmet, it would be Barú.
THE PHYSICAL EXAM
Beaming with excitement and anticipation, we made our way back to the hotel and began to prepare for the big ride. I flipped my Kona over to give it a quick physical exam. Brakes? Yep. Shifting? Yep, all twenty-one gears. Tires? Yep, brand new. The Kona passed the physical with flying colors and was cleared for usage. Now what about the Schwinn? I borrowed a screwdriver from Brad and worked on the rear brakes in an attempt to adjust the left-right bias. But the wheel was so loose on the axle and wobbly that it was no use; it seemed like the bearings were out. “Well, you’ll have to disconnect the brake on the uphill,” I said to Eric. “Just remember to reconnect it when you go down.”
The drive train could not be fixed so easily. It was only content in a few of the twenty-one possible gear combinations, and with the front grip shifter duct-taped into place by an earlier user, things weren’t looking too promising. Unfortunately, Brad did not have any tools, so we were out of luck. But, I had a precious little bit of the world’s most important and versatile tool: duct tape. I duct-taped the shifter cable into place against the bike’s top tube. “OK, you’re in 2:1 right now,” I said to Eric. “When you get to a hill, just rip off this piece of duct tape and you’ll be in 1:1. Now you’ve got a two-speed bike that can’t up-shift.”
“Well, we’ll probably be walking it most of the way uphill anyway,” Eric said, “and then we’ll be coasting downhill, so actually, we don’t need any gears. All we really need is brakes.”
“True, but it’d at least be nice to have some tools,” I said. “Let’s just hope we don’t have any problems that can’t be solved with duct tape.”
THE NOT-SO-RESTFUL SLEEP
We packed up some food and prepared for the night’s journey. Our plan was to wake up at 2am and be riding by 2:30am. That’d put us on the summit by 8am, then after an easy, no-pedaling descent, we’d be back in Boquete by 10am, right? There’d be plenty of time before our noon bike return deadline to the hostel, and Eric would have plenty of time to get to Boquete before his 6:30pm flight to Panama Ciudad.
After a very nice home-cooked dinner with Amanda and her mom, Eric and I headed to bed. We hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep for the past week. The night before we left Boston, I had had a night exam in my Power Electronics class (6.334) and had only gotten a few hours of sleep. Eric, meanwhile, had had to submit a conference paper and didn’t get any sleep. Then we averaged six hours of sleep or less per night in Guatemala/El Salvador/Honduras/Nicaragua. Then we had climbed Cerro Chirripó and gotten two hours of sleep after a marathon’s worth of hiking and trail running. By this point, we were running on fumes, but still had one final challenge. Tonight was one night that we absolutely needed a solid couple hours of sleep.
But we didn’t get it. A large Panamanian family was staying in the bunkroom with us, and were bursting with excitement after an evening of Good Friday festivities. That night, I got to sleep at 10pm and was woken up twice by the family: once at midnight and once at 1am, before our own alarm finally woke us up at 2am. Eric and rubbed the sleep from our eyes and quietly tried to scarf down some food. I’ve gotta say, dry granola and plain water aren’t super-appealing at 2am. But we knew that, for a proper alpine start, you’ve got to start out with a full gas tank. The toughest hours are always those in the darkness. Once the sun rises, it imparts you with energy.
THE CLIMB BEGINS
The road assumed a steep and sustained, though bikeable grade, and Eric ripped off the piece of duct tape to access first gear. In the darkness, the road didn’t look all that steep, but we were still struggling to stay on our bikes and keep from walking. I figured that we were just too dang tired and just generally feeling whimpy due to fatigue. To ease the ascent, we tried a skill that we had discovered years earlier on a bike ride up to the Mount Whitney trailhead in California: artificial switchbacks. If you weave from one side of the road to the other and make your own mini-switchbacks (there weren’t any cars to worry about) you can increase the distance that you travel, and thereby reduce the steepness a little.
We continued the switchback method until we heard a car behind us. A tough-looking jeep, similar to the super jeeps used on glaciers in Iceland, roared by us. Good, we thought, we’re on the right route and probably headed to the same place as that jeep. We started walking the bikes and soon felt gravel beneath our feet. Two large, rugged mounds of dirt marked the transition from asphalt to gravel – their purpose seemed to be to discourage unsuitable vehicles from continuing farther. It was like “hey, car, if you can’t make it over this stuff, don’t even think about it. This is merely a taste of what’s to come.”
We quickly and clandestinely tip-toed past a ranger station, hoping that we wouldn’t be spotted and asked to pay some kind of admission fee. Then again, it was 4am and it wasn’t too likely that the ranger was at his post, but you never know. We turned off our headlamps, hurried past the lonely streetlight and slinked back into the darkness on the other side.
At this point the road was steep and the gravel loose, so we continued pushing the bikes. Once in a while the steepness eased up a bit and we could get some riding in. “Man, this isn’t too bad,” I said to Eric, “these bikes aren’t slowing us down at all, and we’ll be able to tear down this stuff during the descent.”
“Yeah, this isn’t too bad,” Eric said, “but I’m sure it’s going to get a lot worse.”
We didn’t have extensive experience pushing bikes uphill, so it took some time to explore the entire ergonomics space. I’ll quickly summarize our conclusions. There are four options for pushing a bike uphill: 1) both hands on the handlebars, bike on your left; 2) left hand on seat, right hand on handlebars, bike on your left; 3) & 4): mirror 1) and 2) with the bike on your right. We’d rotate between configurations 1, 2, 3, and 4. No configuration was sustainable for more than five minutes, so I began to think about other solutions.
Could I dismantle my bike and strap the whole thing to my backpack? No, that wouldn’t be a good idea, because occasionally the path was rideable, and it made sense to briefly hop on the bike. What about carrying it? That was even less comfortable. What about towing it behind me? I brainstormed some ideas and grabbed a big piece of bamboo. I duct-taped the bamboo solidly to the bike’s handlebar stem and tried to pull it uphill. The bike quickly leaned to one side and fell over. It was all a matter of stability, the old inverted pendulum problem, that was working against me. To stabilize it, I could tape a bamboo outrigger to the side of the bike to prop it up, and let it drag against the ground, but that would probably be harder work than just pushing it up.
“What if you attach the two bikes together, side by side?” Eric suggested. We thought for a while, but couldn’t come up with a good solution. “I think that it’ll be overconstrained,” I said.
No amount of engineering could quickly fix this problem, we would just have to bite the bullet and push the bikes uphill the old-fashioned way, the way that cavemen had done it for eons.
BATTLE WITH BARU
Progress seemed agonizingly slow, but we kept reminding ourselves how much fun it would be to ride down, rather than walk. The road distances were marked every kilometer or so. From a motivation standpoint, it’s nice when things are marked in kilometers instead of miles, because that means you get see to signs of progress 60% more frequently!
At about km 3, we noticed a bunch of trucks parked curiously on the side of the road. “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on here?” Eric said. “Why’d they park here? There’s still nine kilometers to the top.”
We turned the corner and found out. The road transitioned from rough gravel to a seemingly impassible creek bed. “How can any vehicle possibly make it over that?” I said. There were loose rocks the size of basketballs scattered all over the place, boulders protruding as high as your knee, and loose dirt and gravel scattered over everything. I mean, cars have come a long way since the Model T, but it was still hard to imagine any vehicle besides an army tank or the Mars Curiosity rover being able to climb up that field of talus. I think Henry Ford would just shake his head.
But some vehicles must be able to make it, we concluded, as evidenced by the deep gouges and scars on the boulders, which must have come in intimate contact with the undercarriage of super-jeeps and super-trucks, no doubt. Occasionally, we had to carry our bikes over the roughest stuff, but we held out hope that the promised land of easy biking would be just around the corner. The ratio of impassable stuff to manageable stuff was still low enough that we figured the bikes would result in a net time/funness benefit, so we kept on schlepping. We knew that each vertical foot of agony on the ascent would translate into a vertical foot of adrenaline on the descent.
By 5:30am, twilight began to replace darkness and soon we could begin to appreciate the view we had just earned. We still had a few kilometers to go, but the summit felt within reach. We could see the clouds drift through the lowlands and rainforest spread out beneath us, with the twinkling lights of David and Boquete far below. By 6:30am, the sun popped over the horizon and cast a blanket of orange over the rugged landscape. The temperature was a little chilly, but comfortable, and the air was dry. We knew that in a just few hours the true Panamanian heat would start to set in, and it’d be great to be on the descent by that time.
LA CIMA DE PANAMA
We rounded a corner and caught our first good glimpse of the summit. A long line of about twenty communication towers dotted the summit ridge, and we spotted a few people standing atop what looked like the summit. “They must have been in that super jeep that passed us,” I said to Eric.
We could taste the summit now. Over the next hour, Barú tried to dish out its last few obstacles for us, in the form of some ultra-mega-steep, rugged uphills and downhills, but it was no use. The summit, a super-massive black hole, was pulling us in. We had passed the event horizon and at this point, nothing could prevent us from reaching the top.
At 7:24am, we staggered over one final dusty hill and, at last, the summit ridge spread out before us. There were people and tents scattered everywhere – probably between 100 and 200 people on the summit; we guessed that it must be tradition in Panama to see sunrise from Barú on the Saturday of Holy Week. They had indeed picked one spectacular day to be on the roof of Panama. The communication towers were surrounded by chain link fences, but the optimal flat, wind-free spots were located inside the fenced areas so people had found ways to get through.
We looked over to the north and noticed that we weren’t actually on the high point, just the highest point that cars could drive to. The true summit was located on a rocky, rugged-looking hill a few hundred feet away. It looked tricky enough just to hike it, let alone mountain bike it, and we briefly thought about ditching the bikes. But that wouldn’t be fair to the bikes. “We told these bikes we’d take them to the summit,” I said to Eric, “so let’s take them to the summit. I’m not ditching mine here, when we’re so close.”
PACIFIC AND ATLANTIC
As we approached the final trail to the summit, people descending gave us some puzzled looks. How’s these guys get their bikes up here? How and why are these guys bringing their bikes any farther?
The path turned from hiking to third-class scrambling, and it became a bit tricky to traverse with twenty-five pounds of mountain bike on one shoulder while the other arm worked to maintain balance. After some bouldering moves over no-fall zones and some final tiptoeing over sketchy ledges, at 7:36am Panama Time, on Saturday March 30, 2013, we touched the concrete summit cross and stepped onto the highest land in all of Panama. The great Central American six-day hexafecta of high points was now complete.
The weather was absolutely unbeatable. Sunny, no wind, temps in the 60Fs. The western half of the country spread out beneath us. But there was one final question to answer: could we see both oceans? We had read online that summit of Volcan Barú is the only place on the surface of the earth where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic at the same time. But trip reports were mixed; most people reported clouds or just the Pacific, while some called the two-ocean theory into doubt.
We scanned the southern horizon and easily spotted the Pacific, a long, smooth coastline thirty-five miles away. Now what about the Atlantic? The view to the north was a bit more obscured by clouds, but we noticed some glare from the low-angle sun, and as our eyes adjusted, we spotted some islands indisputably surrounded by seawater. There weren’t any lakes that big to the north. It was the Bocas del Toro region, about forty miles to the north, in the Caribbean Sea. We could see both oceans!
A large, ten-foot tall, rebar-reinforced concrete cross proclaimed the summit, and of course we had to climb on top of it. Fortunately, the builders had constructed it to be Panama-tough, so it appeared that no amount of graffiti, vandalism, or extra weight could bring it down. We did some bouldering on the cross and posed for victory photos.
We consumed our fill of the scenery and breathed in a big sigh of relief. We had done all six mountains and accomplished all of our goals without any significant snafus. It had been tough, had involved bribes, and some driving that I shudder to recall, but we had done it. All we had to do now was get down this mountain and then we could close the book on six Central American country high points.
THE VALUE OF AN 8,000ft DESCENT
We carefully downclimbed the rocky summit outcropping and stopped for a brunch at the end of the road, next to the big super jeep. We tried to psych ourselves up for the 8,000ft descent ahead of us. I thought it would be important to document the descent for posterity and humanity, so I duct-taped my camera to my helmet. It wasn’t exactly a GoPro, but it was the best we could do.
As we stood there with our bikes, on the threshold of an 8,000ft descent, Eric paused to ask an important question.
“Let’s say that someone comes up to you, right now, and says they’ll pay you to take your bike away. You’ll be walking down the mountain. How much would they have to pay you?” Eric asked as we suited up. “One million dollars is my price,” he said.
“So, if you had walked up here, and someone offered you a bike right now, you’d pay them a million dollars?” I asked rhetorically. “I’d do it for a thousand.”
“I don’t know,” Eric said, “this bike is essentially priceless right now.”
We packed up, donned some extra layers in preparation for a chilly, effortless descent, Eric connected his rear brake, we lowered the seats, took a deep breath, and took the plunge down the mountain. The helmet-cam was rolling.
MECANICAL SNAFU UNO
Soon it became apparent that the problem-bike would not be Eric’s – it would actually be mine. After just a few hundred feet, my rear brake began to fade and became useless. Unfortunately, it was a hydraulic disc brake and I didn’t have the tools to fix it. There was no cable to tighten up, and no amount of duct tape would help. “Dang it!” I said to Eric, “I’m never getting a bike with hydraulic brakes. Without the proper tools, there’s no way to fix them.”
Fortunately, bikes are designed to have a little bit of redundancy, so with one functional front brake, the game wasn’t over just yet. As we descended the ultra-steep section, I rode the front brake hard. The road was so steep that much of my weight was actually on the front tire. I was worried about flipping over the handlebars so I leaned back as far as I could. As I approached a hard-packed section covered with sand, my front tire started to skid and I knew that I was in trouble. Unable to slow the bike down, I started accelerating and began to lose my balance. This is not good, I said to myself. Bikes don’t have an eject button, so I did the next best thing. I jumped off the bike, sending myself and the bike crashing into the steep dirt hillside. Over the years, Eric and I had discovered that, if you have a choice, it’s a lot better to do a controlled crash at low speed than an uncontrolled one at high speed.
I dusted myself off, walked my bike down the steep section, restarted the helmet-cam, and kept on riding. This is going to be an agonizing descent, I said to myself. I’ve got to dissipate all of my 8,000ft of potential energy into just my two little front brake pads.
We took the steep parts slow, the not-so-steep parts fast, and made good progress. After fifteen minutes, we took a break to let the brakes cool down (no pun intended). Eric’s aluminum rims were warm, but my front rotor (disc) was scorching. I could feel the heat from a few inches away. “Well at least this gives us a good excuse to stop and admire the view,” Eric said.
We continued in the same fashion, pausing every fifteen minutes or so to let the brakes cool. This made the descent take longer than expected, but at least we weren’t exerting ourselves. Some of the sections were so rough and steep that we actually had to walk our bikes *downhill*. It was the first time that we had encountered a “road” that was too steep to *descend* on a mountain bike, but we wanted to play it safe, considering that we still had plenty of time before our noon return deadline.
We stopped again to rest our brakes and I was beginning to get fed up. I licked my finger, and it sizzled as I touched it against the rotor – that sucker was hot enough to boil water! “If we’re going to have to rest my brakes every fifteen minutes,” I said to Eric, “it’s going to take us forever. I wonder if there’s any way I could drag something behind my bike to slow me down? What if I took my shoelace and tied it to a big log and dragged that down the mountain? That’d definitely slow me down.”
“That’d probably just get caught in your back wheel,” Eric said.
Fifteen minutes later, at about one-third of the way down the mountain, we were astonished to encounter another cyclist walking his bike up. He had a super-nice dual-suspension bike that I suspect was taken much better care of than either of our bikes. We started chatting; it was time for us to rest our brakes again and probably time for him to take a breather. It turned out that he was an Italian fellow living in Panama.
I told him about my brake problems and asked if, by chance, he happened to have any tools to fix it?
“You’ve got hydraulic disc brakes?” he asked. “So do I! Yes, I’ve got the tool right here.”
“Perfect!” I said.
He pulled out a tiny Allen key from his pack and tightened a small set screw on my brake lever. I grabbed the brake and it worked!
“Thank you so much!” I said.
After chatting for a while, we gave him a hearty handshake, and wished him good luck with the rest of the climb. A moment later, we passed another fellow mountain biker schlepping his machine up the mountain. He was a Panamanian from the city of Volcan (on the west side of Barú) and the Italian dude was his friend. He told us that this was actually his *fifth* ascent of Barú by mountain bike! “As you know,” he said, “it gets pretty rough farther down the mountain. Just take it slow, and walk your bike over the tough stuff. There’s nothing wrong with walking your bike over the hard parts; it’s not worth risking injury.”
“That’s right,” we said to him, “thanks for the advice, and good luck!” We waved goodbye and continued our descent.
“Man, what were the chances that we’d meet other people biking this mountain today?” I asked Eric. “And what were the chances that we’d meet someone with the right tool for my brakes?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty lucky,” Eric said.
With two working brakes, the descent became fun again. We respected the Panamanian dude’s advice and took it easy on the roughest parts, walking our bikes over the big boulders. Now I consider myself and Eric to be pretty competent mountain bikers, so the fact that we were walking our bikes *downhill* attests to the roughness of the road.
THE EASY WAY UP
Pretty soon we heard some rumbling coming up the mountain and we instinctively jumped out of the way to give room to the oncoming vehicle. After another few minutes an awesome-looking jeep came bouncing around the corner. It had been modified, with big balloon tires, wider axles, higher clearance, and big winch on the front bumper. To add to the ruggedness, mounted on the rear door was a shovel, full-sized spare tire, and an external fuel tank. A sunglassed, tough-looking Panamanian dude, with his elbow hanging casually outside the window, gave us a big thumbs up as he rumbled by, with a full load of tourists. It would have been a fun road to drive, but at this point, we wouldn’t trade our mountain bikes for anything. They became more valuable with every mile we descended.
Soon another jeep and then another truck passed by. “Man, I wonder how two oncoming vehicles pass each other?” Eric asked. “I haven’t seen a wide spot in the road for the past kilometer.”
“Maybe they all go up in the morning, and down in the afternoon?” I suggested.
We continued our descent, and by 10am we had reached the end of the rough stuff. Hooray! From now on, it was normal gravel, and then eventually asphalt. We still had another few thousand feet of vertical descent to savor. But Barú wasn’t done with us yet. No mountain bike trip is complete without a flat tire, and Barú wasn’t willing to let us off the hook that easily.
MECHANICAL SNAFU DOS
As we blasted down a steep hill, we heard a loud, violent hissing sound erupt from Eric’s rear tire. He quickly slammed on the brakes and threw the bike on the ground. We had heard legends of people on long descents heating up their rims so much that their tubes melted, and we halfway expected that to be the case. But upon closer inspection, we discovered that the problem was actually with the valve stem; the tube had been inserted at an oblique angle, and the rim had sliced right into the stem. Patches would have been useless – thank goodness we had brought two spare tubes.
I switched out the tube, pumped it up, and it held air nicely. But as I put the wheel back on the bike, I noticed that something was amiss. The rear axle was extremely loose, which explained why the wheel had been rubbing against the brakes. I played around with each side of the axle and discovered that it was actually cracked in half! The only thing holding the two halves of the axle in place was some surface tension provided by the ball bearing grease. I had encountered this problem a few times before on my own bikes, and it only seems to happen with the quick-release axles, which are hollowed out in the middle and thus weaker than the solid axles.
But thinking back to the check-up I had performed on the bike the previous afternoon, the rear wheel had seemed loose, and in all likelihood, the axle was broken when we checked out the bike in the first place. Eric had successfully ridden a mountain bike with a broken axle up Barú and half way down.
Could we squeeze just a few more thousand feet, a few more miles from the crippled bike? Our experiences over the years including obliterated bike trailer bearings on the Alaska Highway and countless mechanical issues at the Fells suggested that we shouldn’t give up on the bike just yet. At best, the bike would be fine. At worst, the rear wheel could lock, sending Eric to a skidding stop, or the wheel could come off altogether, which would be a little scary, but was very unlikely. As long as Eric took it slowly, we figured he would be OK.
I tried to replace the wheel exactly as I had taken it off the bike, but somehow the nuts had loosened up and I needed to fiddle with it slightly. As a result, when I tightened the quick release, the tire was rubbing against the bike frame. No good, I thought, the tire won’t last too long like that. After about ten more minutes of finagling, I still couldn’t come up with a workable solution. The brake pads would either rub against the tire or make no contact altogether; without any tools to speak of, it was hopeless. “Well, I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to make this descent without a rear brake,” I said to Eric. “This is the last time that I’m going for a bike ride with someone else’s bike and no tools.”
“Well, as long as I’ve got the front brake and take it slow, I’ll be OK,” he said. “The road isn’t too rough from here.”
It wasn’t the first time of the trip that we had had problems with brakes. A few days earlier in Guatemala, our rental car’s primary brakes had worn out, so we had to slow down by using a combination of the handbrake and downshifting into first gear. Without any car repair experience, the problem was pretty mysterious to me and Eric. At least with Eric’s bike, the problems were pretty transparent. They weren’t really solvable without tools, but at least we knew what was going on.
FIXING THE BRAKES
As Eric limped his crippled bike down the mountain, the grade steepened.
“Man, is this the same road we came up this morning?” I asked. “It seems a lot steeper now on the way down, especially in the daylight. I had just assumed that we were slow this morning during the climb because we were tired.”
Ten minutes later, the finish line came into view with the transition from gravel back to glorious asphalt. Well, I guess I wouldn’t call it a finish line, it was more like the twenty mile mark in a marathon, but it sure was nice to see a smooth road again. We passed in front of the ranger station and there was no hiding this time, it was broad daylight. We walked over to the booth and Eric asked the ranger if he had any kind of tools that we could use to fix the brake. An Allen key, pliers, wrench, anything. “No, sorry,” the ranger said in Spanish. “And the park entrance fee is five dollars per person.” We forked over the two Abe Lincolns. Jeez, thanks a lot dude.
We hopped back on the bikes, and as I released my brakes, I began to rapidly accelerate. It was liberating to be riding a bike with fully functional brakes on a smooth downhill, and I wanted to see how fast the bike could go. I broke 35mph and eased off a bit. The bike felt good, but I still didn’t trust it at any higher speeds just yet. I pulled off onto a side road and waited for Eric to arrive.
A few minutes later, he came into view. “Man, I was grabbing the front brake as hard as possible back there and the bike wasn’t slowing down, it was a little scary,” Eric said, walking his bike down the road. “It’s painful to have brought the bike up this far but I can’t even ride it downhill. If I kept riding back there, the road is so steep and my brakes are so weak that my terminal velocity would have been a lot faster speed than I’m comfortable with.”
“Bring it over here, I’ll take another look at it,” I said. My patience with that bike was rapidly waning. “If we can get these back brakes working it’ll be a fun ride once again.” I grabbed the two rear brakes, and as I somehow managed to summon some unknown reserve of strength, I twisted the brakes into place. Surprisingly, they now made perfect contact with the rim.
“Wow, they’re fixed!” I said. “I guess you just need to get mad at it in order to fix it. We can trade bikes now, so you can feel what it’s like to ride a good bike.” I felt bad riding the good bike the whole time, and the decision for me to get the Kona in the first place had been completely arbitrary. So I figured that, for fairness, I should get a few miles on the crappy bike.
I took it slow at first, and gripped the brakes with full force. But the brakes still weren’t quite strong enough, and the bike began to accelerate. I took my feet off the pedals and applied pressure with my shoes to the asphalt in an attempt to dissipate energy. I continued like this for about five minutes and, even though I lost a couple of millimeters of Asics rubber to the Panamanian pavement, my speed stayed under control.
THE FINISH LINE
As the steepness lessened, I soon built up confidence that the bike would stay together and began to ease off the brakes. Mindful that I was riding with snapped rear axle, I kept it below 25mph. The road was so smooth, steep, and straight, that with a trustworthy bike, you could easily have gotten into the 40mphs, or probably even broken 50mph, if you dared. But in the interest of survival and self-preservation, we kept it slow.
By 11:30pm, we were back in Boquete. The goal was to return the bikes to the hostel by noon, which meant we had another half hour to take care of some final business. Even though the bikes were actually in no worse shape than when we started, we still didn’t want to arouse any speculation that we were the cause for any of the mechanical problems. As Eric bought a spare tube at a hardware store in town, I gave the bikes a thorough cleaning with some baby wipes. They were nice and shiny when we returned them to the hostel, and aroused no questions from the nice gentleman at the hostel whom we’ll continue to refer to as Rusty.
As we walked back to the apartment, my primary feeling was one of disbelief. The bikes were returned. We had climbed Barú. We had completed the Central American “hexafecta” of country high points safely and with no major issues. Finally, for the first time on this Spring Break, we could relax.
For GPS/GPX track of Panama’s Volcan Baru (or any of the other five mountains), email us (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com).