23rd – 29th April 2022
It was a very long 900km drive from the Argentine-Chile border near San Francisco Pass, where I finished the cycle expedition, to Mendoza, but the only way Toby and I could get to Santiago in Chile was to fly. We said goodbye to Rolando, who has done a terrific job supporting the expedition in Bolivia and Argentina. He had to drive all the way back to Uyuni in southern Bolivia where he lives.
Toby and I flew to Santiago and were fortunate to stay with Quentin, an old friend who currently lives in Chile’s capital city. I may have no longer been cycling, but the final few days of the expedition were hectic.
Firstly we needed to get to the world’s highest volcano, Ojos del Salado where I had planned to complete the expedition. I had organised for a team from Copiapo to take us to the mountain and guide the climb. From Santiago it was a 90 minute flight to one of the main mining towns in the Atacama Desert where the team – Daniel (boss), Mauricio (guide) and Carlos (driver) – was ready and waiting for us. We drove directly into the mountains, sleeping the first night at the immigration post, which wasn’t active due to the border being closed.
When I researched the expedition, late April was cited as the end of the climbing season (as winter approached), but it should still be possible to climb the 6893m mountain. Daniel had been watching the weather forecasts and conditions weren’t favourable. This season seemed to be colder and wetter than usual. The attempt would normally take three days – to reach Laguna Verde (4550m) and then Atacama (refuge 1 – 4800m), Tejos (refuge 2 – 5800m) and climb the final 1000m to the summit. The forecast for the 25th – Laguna Verde to Atacama – was reasonable and the calmest wind day for the next week.
We reached the lake by mid-morning, located just 15km down from San Francisco Pass (4760m) and 35km from where I finished my cycle expedition on the Argentinian side of the border. Laguna Verde is typically tranquil in the mornings with picture postcard mirror views of the surrounding mountains reflecting on the green waters. By the time we reached the lake, the wind whipped the surface into choppy waves with whitecaps.
A panorama of Laguna Verde
The forecast for the 26th and 27th was for a storm with wind gusts of up to 150km/hour and a wind chill factor of -41C! Daniel made a plan but that relied on us climbing in the dark during restricted weather windows and I couldn’t see much point in that. Weather forecasts aren’t always accurate and the predicted weather windows (for a few hours here and there) may not happen. The forecast for the 28th was slightly better but even the best laid plans would have given us only a very slim chance of making it and involved huge risks. We met another climbing party at the Laguna Verde refuge and they aborted their attempt. No one else was attempting to climb the mountain.
So late in the season, the chances of climbing into May are nigh and so I had to make the difficult decision not to climb. This expedition has been fraught with obstacles, even from before I began in 2020, from finding the right team to the onset of the pandemic and the complex, dynamic logistics and regulations it brought in 2022. I hit roadblock after roadblock and constantly had to adapt and find another way, so it seemed par for the course that we were unable to climb Ojos del Salado. This time, the mountain and Mother Nature have had the last say and I respect this.
We drove back to Copiapo and flew to Santiago, only to turn around to fly up to Iquique in northern Chile the next day. We wanted to get a story I had intended to tell earlier in the expedition, however we had been unable to cross the land border from Bolivia into Chile due to Covid-19 restrictions.
In the sand dunes of the Atacama Desert outside Alto Hospicio, a city that has developed in the last few decades on the escarpment above Iquique, new dunes are forming, not of sand but of last year’s unwanted fashions from all over the world. These clothes are piled atop of the previous years’ fashion faux pas and unbought lines of brand new clothes. Annually about 40,000 tons of unwanted clothing from North America, Europe and other Western regions end up in the Iquique free zone and ultimately in the dumps outside Alto Hospicio.
While the human cost of ‘fast fashion” is pretty well-documented (forced child labour, slavery, poor pay and working conditions), less has been said about the environmental costs.
The fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, accounts for 8-10% of the world’s carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime transport combined. It takes, on average, 7500 litres of water to make one pair of jeans and the fashion industry is estimated to use 93 billion cubic metres of water each year – enough to supply five million people with water annually. Half a million tons of microfibres end up in the oceans and waterways (three million barrels worth of oil) and toxins from dyes leach into waterways. It is estimated that fast fashion clothes will take about 200 years to break down in the environment should they be left to rot.
I was interested to see the problem for myself and meet with two founders of startup companies who are developing innovative solutions.
Iquique is a modern city that stretches along the Atacama coastline, on a narrow strip of land, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and a 1000-metre high escarpment. In recent times the region, including parts of Iquique, has become a security risk due to migrants flooding into Chile seeking opportunities for a better life, mostly from Venezuela and Colombia. Alto Hospicio in particular is a poverty-stricken city. Some of the poorest people search the clothing dumps on the fringe of the city for anything of value, to resell or to wear. Over the last year, the region has become dangerous for anyone visiting – people have been mugged, robbed and there have been several murders recently.
In Iquique, I first arranged to meet Franklin Zepeda, the founder of EcoFibra, a company that makes insulation panels for the construction industry out of the discarded clothing. The panels are completely fireproof, offer better thermal and noise insulation, and are much cheaper to buy than the most commonly used fibreglass insulation panels.
Franklin has grown up in Iquique. His epiphany to do something about the issue of unwanted garments polluting his region, including its underground water supply, came during a journey he did through the Andes in northern Chile and being inspired by the natural beauty of his surroundings.
EcoFibra is starting to receive much international recognition. At the same time Franklin is raising awareness about the plight of people’s unwanted clothing and the costs to the environment. He explained that the Iquique port is a tax free zone and the clothing ends up there because there are no tariffs to pay. About a third of the clothing (20,000 tons) does get sold on to other South American countries, but two thirds is discarded.
On the back of an exciting new business deal, Franklin has just moved his factory from Alto Hospicio to Santiago, so we didn’t get to see how the products are made. Due to the security issues, he hadn’t visited Alto Hospicio himself for several months, but he had contacts there and arranged for two locals, Ivan and his son, to escort us to the region. A local van would not attract attention so we could essentially travel undercover, keeping Toby’s valuable cameras out of view.
It took about an hour to drive up the massive escarpment to Alto Hospicio and then the eastern fringes of the city. To our surprise, the vast expanses where the dumps were had been either burned, buried or taken away. We didn’t get to see the huge piles of clothing I had seen in articles when I researched the story. Maybe the recent murders had prompted the local council to do something about it. While Toby and I didn’t get the visuals we wanted, the environmental problems and human costs of the fast fashion industry remain, even if the clothes were being burnt or buried out of sight.
Back in Santiago we had one more person to meet – Rosario Hevia, the founder of Ecocitex, another company creating innovative solutions to make a difference to the unsustainable practices of consumers and the fast fashion industry. Rosario’s motivation arose just two years ago when she was looking for clothes for her children. The business has developed since then to meet the needs of disadvantaged people in the community and contribute towards a circular economy. Rosario sells Ecocitex’s 100% recycled textile products through more than 250 women-led businesses across Chile.
Contributions from the public are stockpiled, some of the best clothes are resold or given to those in need, while the rest is sorted into colours, sanitised and turned into different types of yarn. No dyes and virtually no water is used in the process. It’s a brilliant contribution towards a circular economy.
The “out of mind, out of sight” attitude of Western consumers both scares and saddens me. While I find the EcoFibra and Ecocitex solutions of turning waste into commerce to be inspiring, compared to the scale of the problem, they are just a tiny part of the equation. The only way to significantly change the issue is to reduce consumers’ addiction to fast fashion and the conditions that cause it.
The clothing mountains are a consequence of societies caught up in the hamster wheel of the “Buy Now” button, the 24/7 news cycle, and pressures from the need to communicate instantly on social media. It all perpetuates short term thinking. Between 2000 and 2014, fast fashion consumption increased by 60 percent globally. Imagine what the situation would be like in 20, 40 or 60 years if consumption of fast fashion goes unchecked? They would have mounds of clothing that more resembled the size of the Andes rather than the Atacama’s sand dunes, and the environmental and human costs would be hard to fathom.
Long term changes need to be made through education (Ecocitex and EcoFibra are contributors) and actions that bring about behavioural change. Those who buy need to pay for the full cost of producing a garment – the social and the environmental costs. The fashion industry in particular must take more of a lead in responsibility for change.
A key theme of The Andes, the Altiplano & the Atacama expedition was to explore what the mountains mean to the Andean people, past and present. In ancient times, the mountains were venerated primarily because they controlled the climate and water sources and as a result, the fertility of crops and animals, communities and empires. Many of these traditions and beliefs still permeate through present-day Andean cultures. By cycling through the same landscapes, struggling in the extreme altitudes, being caught in violent thunderstorms and tossed around by the powerful swirling winds it is easy to understand why those who live in the Andes region centre their belief systems on the mountains, and by extension, place their highest values on the natural environment.
I also wanted to find out whether there are lessons to be learnt from these cultures that can be related to some of the issues confronting our global community today, such as climate change, sustainable consumption, gender equality and the need to preserve and work with our environment, not against it.
For Andean societies past and present, it seems that longterm thinking is embedded in their cultures. Decisions made to benefit future generations are the priority. Maybe an underlying solution to the unsustainable dumping of unwanted clothing is for consumers to reconnect with the life-giving cycles of nature.
Exploring different parts of the world at such close quarters and hopefully inspiring others to do so (in their own way, not necessarily by cycling) helps create a realistic perspective of how the world fits together. If you experience more of the world, you have a greater chance of understanding the issues that affect it … and then you must do something about it.
Now that the expedition is finished, there is still much to do to put the story into perspective, and in particular, to make a film and TV series. I thank the following sponsors for helping to make the journey possible and hope they enjoyed the ride as much as Toby, Rolando, Reza, Chris, Javier and I did over the distance (2020 and 2022).