Higdon in South America: The End

John Burns
by John Burns

March 9, 2018

Santiago, Chile

Three days ago we came through the last of the Andes’ passes, along the way hiking into a national park for a few kilometers to get as close as we could to a view of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia. If ever there was a day I’d hoped for bright morning sunshine, this was it. And we got it.

higdon in south america the end

I was in high school when I first came across Maurice Herzog’s story of his French alpine team’s ascent of Annapurna in 1950, the highest mountain then to have been climbed. They did it without oxygen and without a route. They paid for it though, leaving a bunch of fingers and toes up there. Three years later Hillary conquered Everest, but his success seemed to me to have been not so hard-earned as that of Herzog’s team. But it was Everest, and the fame and fortune to the guy who could first bag that one, that captured the public’s imagination.

One of Herzog’s stalwarts, Lionel Terray, was a climber from the town of Chamonix in the French Alps. Trust me on this, there is no more beautiful place on earth than this little town. He wrote a book of his mountaineering accomplishments in 1964 with the French title, The Conquerors of the Useless. When it was published in the U.S., the title was changed by Madison Avenue to The Conquerors of the Impossible. OK, I got that. Positive imaging and so on. But Terray knew what he was doing, just like motorcyclists know what they’re doing: impossible, useless things.

higdon in south america the end

What it took longer for me to absorb was Terray’s death the following year on a relatively simple cliff near Grenoble in France. I kept the copy of the story of his last climb as related in Paris Match for at least 20 years. I’ve been to the place where he fell. I’ve visited his grave – he is buried next to Edward Whymper, the first climber of the Matterhorn – every time I’ve been to Chamonix. And since Terray had climbed Aconcagua and had been the first to climb the even more difficult Fitzroy in Patagonia, for me just to look even at a distance where this nearly immortal man had stood was a gift in and of itself. I took a lot of photographs, but I will never see what he saw.

We crossed the border into Chile. It took forty days to get through, more or less. Jairo and I arrived in downtown Santiago in rush hour, the usual take-20-minutes-to-go-three-blocks routine we’d already perfected in La Paz and other cities. The next day I asked the desk clerk at the hotel where I might find the nearest urgent care center. I didn’t know the expression for “Doc-in-a-Box,” but I was given directions to a university hospital not three blocks away.

I’ll skip to the chase and omit the six hours or more sitting in waiting rooms over the next two days, but the care I received from an ophthalmologist at the hospital was the care I needed and the advice that I have heeded. His examination revealed that a small vein in my right eye had occluded, almost certainly because of the extreme altitude I’d attained leaving Nazca, and that I’d need further testing to determine the extent of the damage and to mitigate the possibility of further problems. His recommendation was contained in ten words: “Suspender su viaje programado y retornar a su país EEUU.” Cancel your planned trip and return to the U.S.

About 30 years ago one of Rider magazine’s staff writers, Beau Allen Pacheco, wrote an article in which he said in passing, “Sooner or later everyone quits riding.” Those words have haunted me ever since. How does it come to be that a person who is a motorcycle rider ceases to be that person? I’ve come up with some truly eloquent theories over the years about why people ride and why they quit but until now have never had to put the theories to the test. As to the latter, why riders stop riding, I’ve concluded that my original idea – they simply can’t take another bad day in the saddle anymore – is as good an explanation as any. At some point it just isn’t worth it. You just can’t push that damned bike ten more feet down the road.

I don’t know where I am here. an eternal stranger in an eternally strange land. I know I can’t see very well in what used to be my good eye. I know I’m not willing to fall off a cliff to prove a useless point the way Lionel Terray did. I know that I had a life on a bike that left nothing on the table when it was over. Beyond that, I hardly know a thing. But it was fun while it lasted. I do know at least that much. I think.



Update from Robert, 10 May 2018:

I’m not through with the bitches yet! This was the last eight days, including four sitting on my ass in Daytona. I did 833 today, leaving the condo in Daytona at 0400. I hate days slabbing the interstate, especially the horrific I-95, but this was a pure necessity.


I’ve now had three eye exams and the two ophthalmologists agree that there was no vascular occlusion, that the physician in Chile was in error, and that the problems without any doubt are bilateral cataracts, worse in the right eye. I’m going to wait two more months, do another round of exams, and have the surgery on the right done in the summer.

higdon in south america the end

With the benefit of calm reflection it looks to me, so to speak, that one of three things has transpired: 1) I’m seeing better (substantiated by an improvement to 20/40 from 20/50 six months ago) in the right eye, although there is still noticeable blurring; 2) I’m simply getting used to things and the left eye is doing all the work; or 3) The entire thing has been a monstrous psychiatric joke with my body pretending to have had a physical meltdown sufficient to excuse me from riding the bike any farther on a trip I wasn’t much enjoying to begin with. I view these possibilities as having pretty much equal odds, especially since I don’t seem to be even marginally impaired on the bike back here in all the miles I’ve ridden recently. Sigh…

Cataract surgery on the right eye is scheduled for June 11. I expect it will be successful. The doc does about 1/3 of the cataracts in this county. No one will let her buy dinner anywhere. If it does solve everything, I’ll have her do the left. I’m older than God but on days like this I feel younger than Baby Jesus!

Fantastic. Thanks for sharing, Bob. Write when you can. Over and out.

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2 of 3 comments
  • GB GB on May 29, 2018

    I had a similar situation with blurring in my eye after riding 2200 k's over 4 days in some pretty dusty conditions (with eye protection of course) Turned out it was a torn retina. Laser surgery did help, but it does go to show that we can NEVER know when there is a sudden turn of events that may stop us riding for a while, or even permanently. Carpe diem fellow riders, & thank God for every day you have that you CAN ride.

  • Vrooom Vrooom on May 30, 2018

    I've really enjoyed this series, thanks. Hope the surgery goes well and you're back to 20/20, perhaps with some help from contact/glasses, but as good as can be achieved. I need that help!