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The Longest Climb

Bas Steman Tekst Bas Steman Gepubliceerd 29 January 2016

So long as man exists, he will attempt to pass beyond barriers. High is never high enough if he can climb higher. Steep is not steep enough if there is something steeper. Man will always struggle to go further, faster.

A spur-of-the-moment trip to Google lead Jeroen to discover Peru’s Conococha in 2007. Apparently, there is no longer ascent in the world. 117 kilometres of climbing, up to 4100 metres above sea level — that was the one. There was no set plan though, just vague intentions.

“Sometime, we’ll do it, Dad,” Jeroen said. “Together, we’ll climb the longest climb in the world.”

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4:30 a.m. The sun’s weak light lurks behind the tops of the Andes. In the valley, quiet voices can be heard. A small group of cyclists has just polished off breakfast and is splitting onto two buses, which will bring them to Paramonga, where they’ll be dropped off. There, close to sea level, they will begin the longest climb on earth. It is quiet in the buses. Jeroen’s dad, Frans, peers out the window at the awaking light and takes a gulp from his bottle. Has he trained enough to make it up the nearly-120-km climb? His muscles and lungs have had nearly a week to get used to the thin mountain air. He knows the route by heart but has no idea what to expect. There are no stories of cyclists who’ve climbed the Conococha. An elevation profile, an undetailed map, a few sites with photographs — that’s all there is.

Two years earlier, Frans flew to Lima to recon the route with a car and fill in some of the blanks. What were they up against? Where would they be able to stay overnight? How safe were the roads? Could they arrange support vehicles?

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Frans’  solo recon came to an end after just a day. Soon after he stepped out of the plane, he felt the cold barrel of a pistol pressed against his head. A second Peruvian stood in front of him with a knife, screaming for money.

“You can fuck off with your Peru idea,” Frans said into the telephone, when he called home to say what had happened. “Get that damn mountain out of your head!”

On to plan B.

A year later, Cycletours had arranged everything for them. Frans sent out an email to say they would be climbing Conococha in 2013. Close friends would join.

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Sunlight spills slowly over the snow. In the valley, the air is sticky. Already, at 6:30, the early warmth seeps through their clothes. The lowlanders click their wheels into their forks and pump up their tires. Frans is a little tense. He embraces his companions — the boys, his wife, Femke, the men. He eats another banana.

“We’re off,” someone shouts. The first hour of the Conococha is little more than a false flat. The road is still unsure of itself. It teases them, rising at no more than one or two percent, before it turns up. They are still in the big ring.

“Keep drinking,” someone yells. “It’s going to be damn hot today.”

For 60 kilometres, the climb makes its way up a dead-straight asphalt road towards the mountain landscape that lies unchanging over the horizon. The landscape is desolate. Once in a while, they see a couple of low-slung cottages, or a car passes them by.

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After about two hours of riding, the road gets noticeably steeper. First, they feel a couple of pinpricks at four or five percent, then there’s a longer grade. The guys have decided not to wait for each other.

The boys come together up ahead. Femke nestles in beside her father. He decides not to try to stay with her. He’s enjoying the moment. A close friend rides with him for a while. Another and two girlfriends drive behind with a bus and a motorbike.The heavens seem peaceful — blue, with the odd fluffy cloud. They have the plan all worked out. One of the vans will stay behind with the slowest riders, and the other one will go ahead with the quickest. The motorbike will ferry back and forth with extra clothes and bottles. They will communicate by walkie talkie.

An endless ribbon of asphalt rises up between grey cliffs. The view stays the same — sandy plains, mostly barren, with a bit of vegetation here and there. It’s a bloody boring climb, Frans thinks. Why would anyone want to climb the Conococha? There is only one answer, an answer that’s as wise as it is stupid: because it is there.

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The others rode away from him on the first steep pitch. For the past couple of hours, Frans has been alone, against the mountain, the headwind, the paralyzing 39-degree heat. More than anything, he’s been riding against himself. Clouds gather over him. The alpine wind awakens. To his mind, it’s no hindrance. He has been haunted for a while. Fragments of the four-year-old thriller that’s now a part of his biography come back to him.

It was July 25, 2009 when everything changed. Three missed calls? Jeroen would surely be calling to say they were just about back. Frans dialled his number. The voice on the other end wasn’t the one he was expecting. “Tjark?”

“You have to come. Jeroen’s crashed.”

It sounded bad.

“The police think he might be dead.”

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In a minute, they were in the car — he and Femke. His hands shook on the steering wheel. Lazy summer light hung in the sky, as they searched through the vineyards below the colossus on the horizon, where they’d stood celebrating Garate’s win a couple of hours before. They had climbed up to Simpson’s monument in the morning with a group of Tour fans. At the Chalet Reynard, they found water and beer to fend off the scorching heat. Nearly everyone was already gone when they began the descent down the mountain. Jeroen went first, steering skilfully through the throngs of cars and cyclists and pedestrians who were making their way to Bedouin. He stood for a while, waiting.

“You guys go ahead to the campsite,” he said to Frans and Femke. “Tjark and I will wait for Sietze.” He was already clipped into his pedals and riding back up to meet his girlfriend.

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There he was — Jeroen on his Wilier, in his Marmotte shirt.

A policeman stopped their car. “There’s been an accident. You can’t go on. You’ll have to take a detour via…”

“He’s the father,” Femke said.

The agent stepped back and bowed his head respectfully. He gave an odd signal. They could proceed. Then, Frans knew.

A couple of hundred metres up the road, the sheet was waiting. Frans jumped out of the car. He wanted to run to the motionless white mound that lay there on the shoulder. An agent held him back, warned him not to look. What followed? He hugged Tjark, who was in shock and didn’t understand what had happened. Then, he blacked out. The light faded from the edge of his vision, from the houses, the vineyards, until all he could see was the sheet. How small the world became, how great the distance to Jeroen. A day later, Frans made his decision. “Now, I’m definitely going to climb the Conococha.”

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40 kilometres to go. Slowly, at less than a degree per kilometre, Frans is freed from the heat. He looks up. It is raining above him. A half hour later, it’s cool. He knows nothing about his companions’ misery. The motorbike and one of the buses, the one with the warm clothing, are stopped, trying to help at the scene of a car accident. Their logistics have failed. The young ones, who are hours ahead, are desperate for warm clothes, jackets, gloves, as are Frans and Femke now as well. Just before the top, there is help. Frans has no idea. His legs churn to the rhythm of his thoughts. He knew luck would abandon him at some point, but he’d never imagined that his son would leave him.

Tjark was there but couldn’t really see what had happened. He was following Jeroen down between Saint-Pierre-de-Vassols and Modène. Did Jeroen look back to see if he was still on his wheel? Did he make a steering mistake? Jeroen’s front wheel hit a manhole cover. The bars were torn from his hands, and he flew, landing straight on his head on the cement base of an icon of Mary. He gurgled a bit. Two passersby tried to resuscitate him, but it was to no avail. Jeroen gave up his twenty-seven-year-old life at the feet of the Holy Virgin.

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It’s as cold now, as it was hot in the morning. Frans is so far behind that he’s only just emerged out of the rain and into the icy air. He sees two white dots descending — the busses! They park on the shoulder. Figures step out. They take on colour. They’re waving their arms. What is the matter?

“You have to stop, Frans. Up there, it’s impossible. It’s so cold. There’s freezing rain and a terrible wind. Get in the bus.”

“Are you crazy?”

“We mean it. That’s enough. The steep part is still ahead. Get in.”

“No way,” Frans says, sounding tougher than he feels. He’s clinging to the law that says that climbing’s all in your head. “Just give me some warm clothes. I’m continuing.”

An hour later and 500 metres higher, the sun slowly gives way to the dark cloud that’s pushing forwards over the Andes. Above, the others are waiting, wrapped in blankets and thick jackets. Jeroen’s friends stand arm in arm. “Fransie! Just a bit to the fucking top,” their cheerful voices ring out.

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Paul looks at him, waving. He rode Jeroen’s bike to the summit today. Frans grimaces. The climb has sapped all of his strength. He’s empty. The wind-battered peak is barren. Frans takes two more pedal strokes and clicks his feet loose. A hand holds him up. Stiff from exhaustion and the cold, he steps off. First, he hugs Tjark.

“I’m cracked,” Frans says. Femke helps him take his gloves off. Frans frees the pink rubber armband he’s worn since Jeroen’s funeral from his wrist. He lays it down on the rock with a photo of his son, a tiny monument on the the great Conococha.

“You leave things behind everywhere,” Femke says, in a whisper. Frans wraps himself in a blanket, takes a gulp of beer, and stares up to the heavens, where little lights are already twinkling. He falls silent. He is content.

During the final kilometres, luck was on his side. The roads dried off. Frans rode with his son. He was there sometimes, an imaginary rider in front, in his Marmotte shirt, with the triumphant grin of someone in his twenties. A line from a Bram Vermeulen song drifted into Frans’ head. “If I die, don’t cry, ‘cause it’s just a body that I’m leaving… I’m dead, only if you forget me.”

The mountain was empty. The buses had gone on ahead. Frans swallowed and looked around him. He’d never been so alone before. He’d become a dot, falling away between the eternal cliffs. He fought. He sang. He shivered. His lungs sucked in the empty air. Onwards. His fingers went numb on the bars. Frans steered to the right, beside the ochre cliffs. The sun peaked through the now-calm clouds off in the west. To the right, on the rocks, his shadow rode beside him — five times larger than he was. Together, they rode up through the softly-falling light, a wink from the sun, a kiss on his skin. Warmth spread through his body. Suddenly, he realized he would never be alone, that his son would always be there. Tears welled up in his eyes. A kindly voice said, “come on Jeroen. There’s just another kilometre.”

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