UC MagazineUniversity of CincinnatiUC Magazine

UC Magazine


Tackling twin peaks

by Brendan Cooney

Holed up for days, three-quarters of the way up one of the highest mountains in the world, Eldon Dales repeated the "climber's equation" over and over in his head. Outside his tent, the temperature plummeted to 20 below zero as the deafening 60 mph winds gusted over Mount Aconcagua, South America's highest alp. Inside and down to his final three packs of food, Dales agonized over whether his daily calorie intake, which had fallen from 5,000 to a mere 1,000, would be enough to summit.

"I was doing math constantly," the '85 University of Cincinnati nuclear engineering grad says. "Calories are gold. I had less energy at 1,000, and I was colder at night."

He considered descending for more food to try again, but instead, chose to push on. The rations turned out to be enough to get him through, and when he finally made it to the top on Christmas Eve, 2002, he found himself all alone.

"Here I was absolutely alone for the whole summit day. That's very unusual. There were other people at the top when I climbed Mount Denali."

He cherished his day as the highest person in the Americas. "All that pain and sweat I went through to make it to the summit was worthwhile."

Though Dales' 19-day solo climb into thin air is impressive, perhaps what is most fascinating is the 40-year-old's 8,000-mile journey from Texas to Argentina to reach the base of the mountain. He did it by bicycle.

Six months earlier, the self-described "computer geek" was spending too much time in front of the screen. Sitting in his home office in Houston, the software engineer found himself losing touch with reality in the world of Internet protocol. So he hopped on a bicycle at the beach in Galveston, Texas -- sea level -- and pedaled his way to Argentina.

Dales wanted to start at sea level, because that's what he'd done a couple of years before when he rode his bike from Galveston to Alaska before climbing Mount Denali (20,320 feet), the highest peak in North America. His winter summit of Mount Aconcagua (22,831 feet) made him the first person to bike from sea level to the highest mountains in North and South America, then climb them both.

When he finally made it to the top of Aconcagua, after an unconventional ascent through brutal cold and winds, Dales celebrated by "wrapping the moment around me." It had been quite a journey with plenty of misadventures.

Biking through the Americas presents lots of different natural challenges. "In North America, I cursed the rain," Dales says. "In Central America, I cursed the heat. In South America, I cursed the wind."

On the bike trip south, the impediments were just as much human as natural. He got robbed twice, and each time he considered turning back. "I thought maybe I was pushing my luck," he recalls.

The first time was in La Libertad, El Salvador, where he lost a camera, shoes, clothes and some cash. "I was staying in a ratty hotel on the beach. Someone entered the room and stole some stuff, and I didn't hear him because of the surf. I kind of suspect it was the owner."

The second robbery was in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Dales was walking on a busy street on a Saturday morning, when a 16-year-old boy with a knife said in English, "Give me your wallet." Fortunately, he was carrying only about $30.

But two times was enough. Dales decided that his blond hair was making him an easy target. He went to a drugstore in Quito, bought Miss Clairol No. 57 and dyed his hair, beard and eyebrows brown. Sporting his new look, he avoided getting mugged again.

Dales' favorite country was Bolivia, the place he found most different from the United States. "People tend to be very shy in Bolivia; they tend to hide. They also have no concept of business."

One time a shopkeeper took a pack of biscuits out of his hands and put it back on the shelf because neither of them had small enough bills. "I couldn't believe it was happening," he says.

Bolivia's bad roads and limited supplies made things tough on Dales, attempting to bike his way nearly the length of a continent. In one stretch there was only sand for hundreds of miles, with no road on which to ride.

So Dales put his ingenuity to work. He went to a welder's shop and rigged up a contraption that allowed him to ride along a train track. "It's a lot better than slogging through sand," he notes. 

rail rider

The "rail-rider" consisted of two small wheels that he made out of spare bike parts and scrap metal, one serving as an outrigger to roll on the opposite train track and the other he attached to his front wheel for balance. His invention helped carry him along 300 kilometers of track.

The locals couldn't believe their eyes. "I came riding into town on this thing," he says, "and the whole town stopped. 'What is that?' They didn't even know how to react."

Another handy accoutrement was an orange flag that he attached to his bike to make it appear about 2.5 feet wider than it was. He felt he had to do something, because truck and bus drivers "absolutely do not care" about bikes. "If you're a biker, you're less than a pedestrian -- you're a dog." Lots of big vehicles blew past him too closely for comfort, and two buses actually hit his flag.

Vehicles were even more of a nightmare in the cities. In Lima, for example, with its chaotic circles and absence of stoplights, the traffic was "heartstopping," Dales remarks. "Drivers make their own rules."

Nevertheless, many of the people he met were disarmingly friendly, he states. About every other week, someone would invite him into their home, cook dinner for him and let him spend the night.

Often he camped, but even when he stayed in hotels, accommodations were in the one-star range. One motel in Bolivia had mud floors. "Seventy-five percent of the buildings there were adobe," he says. His diet? "I ate chicken and rice for weeks straight. When I finally got to a city and saw a McDonald's, it was like Food of the Gods."

Dales learned to expect the unexpected. He pedaled into Chimbote, Peru, stashed his bike and gear in a motel room, then walked around to "absorb the local culture." The local culture on that day consisted of a riot, complete with "police running through the streets in full gear with dogs."

He had linguistic obstacles to his journey, as well. "You travel through Mexico, and you think you've got the language figured out. Then you get to Nicaragua and they change it on you."

The hardest Spanish for him was in Bolivia. "In some places they're speaking Spanish as a second language, because their first language is Quechua."

In Nicaragua, Dales found "shocking" poverty. "Kids were running up to me and begging for clothes, wearing nothing but underwear. Kids were begging me not to throw my chicken bones to the dogs." 


By contrast with the Latin Americans he met, U.S. Americans are "incredibly wasteful," he realized. "In the U.S. people are out of touch with how the rest of the world lives.

"There are basic problems of sustenance and living conditions that are much more pervasive than I had realized. People are still farming with oxen like they did 400 years ago, because they can't afford a tractor."

Dales admits he's as guilty as anyone for having been unconnected to reality. "It's very easy to live in an artificial world, and it's even easier to do so with the Internet."

While he will remain dependent on the Internet as a software consultant, he also plans to keep an eye on reality by taking long trips regularly. "You have to have a balance to your life," he says. "When you travel like this, it becomes clear how different the artificial world is from the real world."

As Dales' 5-foot-8, 155-pound frame can attest, you don't have to be Superman to find this kind of balance through adventure. "I would encourage everyone to live a life that is larger than life."

Brendan Cooney is a free-lance writer and cultural anthropologist living in Argentina.


Eldon Dales' Web site