18 March 2020
Situated in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, not far from Chile’s capital, Santiago, the Valle Nevado summit is 3000 metres above sea level. It consists of 58 switchbacks over three valleys. And in my opinion, I believe it to be the world's best road climb. The Valle Nevado has it all – rolling contours, vast landscapes, killer reveals, and once you reach the top, the majesty of the Andes still towering high above you. But the world’s best climb?! That’s quite a statement, and it’s my opportunity to convince you.
Before I talk about the climb itself, I need to share more about the majesty of the Andes, and how the journey started. A direct flight from London to Santiago and not a short one either, 14 hours and 35 minutes to be exact, for sure the longest direct flight I’ve ever taken so stock up on movies and snacks, and maybe some carbs as you’ll need them for the climb!
The sun is rising, I’ve had some sleep, and we’re tracking down the Andes, my word magnificent! The Andes is the world’s longest mountain range, at 4300 miles long and with mountains rising up to 6961 metres with the mighty Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia. The tyres squeak, touchdown! With the bike picked up in one piece, it’s a short taxi ride to downtown Santiago and I’m in full tourist mode. A city nestled by mountains, it is quite stunning, and I got treated to an incredible sunset with the light reflecting off the buildings to end the day. I’m excited.
06:30 and I’m clipping in, making my way to the base of the climb, which is just under 30km away from Santiago city centre. The first 10km or so is like leaving any city, but at this time of day the roads are quiet and before I know it I’m on a winding incline on Camino a Farellones. The sun is creeping above the towering mountains with not a breath of wind in the air, the sun warming me; this is glorious.
A descent over a bridge, a short punchy ramp, and through the guard station (only working in the winter) and I’m now at the base of the climb. Valle Nevado 33km!
An average gradient of 5.5% with ramps over 18%. 5.5% sounds imminently doable, but it is a little deceiving as, from the off, you’re greeted with joyous alpine switchbacks. Sixteen of them to begin with and as you start climbing, you start to see the fruits of your labour.
Stunning views back down into the valley you rode up, the switchbacks and the mountains ahead. Like all alpine switchbacks, you can make life harder for yourself by riding up the apex. Worth looking at the surface of these switchbacks as depending on the time of year, there can be a fair amount of post-winter grit and debris on the road. The roads also get extremely hot in the summer, and the surface can be like glass.
16 switchbacks done, and there is some respite as the valley starts to open up and you’re riding along wide open roads with stunning vistas as the road meanders along the valley. Now for sure, it’s nice to have a descent, but as you’re enjoying it, you know you’re going to have to ride it back! And one last sting in the tail on the way home also!
Immaculate tarmac and just four switchbacks take you to a small café, a cyclists haven and most will ride past. Still, if it is hot (gets into mid 30 degrees in summer) it might be worth a quick stop as this will be your last chance to refill your bottles (chances are you’re already close to finishing your two bottles).
The climb continues, and so do the switchback markers, 21, 22, 23 and up-to 40. This is misleading! As in fact the 40 only takes you to the junction where you can either go to Valle Colorado or Valle Nevado. Most turn around here, but you’re missing a trick and depriving yourself of another 18 switchbacks, take that Stelvio! (48)
Up until now, you’ve been enjoying some spectacular views, spread amongst several valleys and hopefully you’ve held a little back. Nothing will prepare you for what you’re about to witness. I’ve never been on a climb where the landscape opens up like this at over 2500 metres above sea level. Truly epic views of the Andes and the ride to the base of the final section of the climb is totally jaw dropping. The hairs were on the back of our necks.
A rolling open road where you’ll definitely want to take a camera to share photos with your friends, although like most big vistas, a camera really doesn’t do it justice. You'll have to bring your friends back!
Meandering along with mountains thousands of meters above you, you finally get the first view of the Valle Nevado Ski resort. Is it pretty, like some sort of alpine village nestled in the trees? No, but just look around you! And if you come here in the summer during the week like I did you will barely see another soul.
18, 17, 16, 15 switchbacks to go, this section has some bite to it. Ramps around 7% but you’re now above 2500m and no matter what pace you’ve hit this ride at, you will have worked to get here. Blasted into what looks like volcanic rock, these final switchbacks are starting to hurt. You've climbed near 3000 vertical meters if you started in Santiago.
3000m (GPS says 3070m), I see the sign! So one final push before demolishing coffees, biscuits, coke and more. A solid effort to get here and I’d recommend taking an extra layer with you regardless of the time of the year. You’ll be hot and sweaty, and the conditions in the mountains can change fast.
Fuelled up and now in the descent. Easy to go well over 80 km/h and you will be grinning from ear to ear. The speed, the majesty of the surrounds are quite incredible.
That section to the top of the 40 switchbacks is fun but if you’re looking to hone your descending skills then for sure the remainder of the descent is going to put a massive smile on your face. Seemingly endless and, if you’re on a mission, you will have worked hard as they’re tight and technical.
Three switchbacks, two switchbacks…. By this point, you’re physically tired, and when you roll through to the main road, there is a sense of relief, but at the same time, disappointment. That was epic! And the thoughts of a massive meal were clearly on my mind, a descending time trial to get back to downtown Santiago and two solid food recommendations! Burgers, Beers and Boards in Mall Sport (you would have ridden past it) or the best Vegan and Vegetarian restaurant I’ve found in Santiago: Verde Sazon on Barro Italia (closed on Mondays!)
What a day, what a climb! And if you’re looking for more punishment, descend down to the junction of the 40th switchback then climb up to El Colorado. That will take you to over 4000m of climbing. I’ve nick named it “the Devils tongue”. Enjoy!