Another Win in Patagonia – Thats 4 in a row now.Posted on 2012-04-16
Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego, Darwin Range, Beagle Channel. Place names from the stories of early explorers, at the end of the world. But this is where we were heading for the 10th Patagonian Expedition Race.
We were back in Punta Arenas, Chile. In the team was Nick Gracie from the UK, Albert Roca from Catalonia (Spain) and Stu Lynch and Sarah Fairmaid from New Zealand. Team adidas TERREX – Prunesco had won the race for the previous 3 editions and we were there to try and make it 4 in a row.
The race start was at a very uncivilised 2:30am in the morning with a bike ride from Punta going south along the coast of the Magellan Strait. The early start was so that we would get on the water at first light to cross to Dawson Island where we would have to portage the kayaks before crossing the rest of the Magellan Strait to Tierra del Feugo. Team GearJunkies from the US seemed keen to lead out the bunch on the mostly flat ride from Punta Arenas and we were happy to let them do that and save our energy for later. Two thirds of the way through the ride we hit the first small hills and without any plan to do so we found we had broken clear of the bunch so pushed on to the transition where we arrived with a small lead over the rest of the field.
It was still dark but by the time we had packed away our bikes and readied the kayaks the sky was starting to lighten and as we set out into the Magellan strait we had a nice tailwind helping us on our way. The crossing was fairly uneventful with wind-driven swells providing some good surfing conditions on the way over. As we neared the landing point we tried to pick out the CP on the shore, finally spotting the CP staff who where unhelpfully clad in camouflage clothing! We quickly checked in and then broke out the Kari-Tek tow ropes, hitched ourselves to the kayaks and started hauling across the island. A quick glance backward showed the chasing teams about ten minutes behind us and then it was back to the task at hand.
We had to travel about 10km across the island, about 4 km of which we could kayak on lakes, the rest we had to drag the kayaks cross country. After a tricky section to begin with the going became quite good, with reasonably firm and flat turba providing good towing conditions. We made good time through most of the portage until we arrived and the final challenge. From the flat ground we had been travelling on we had to cross a ridge 100m high, not a big obstacle until you are towing two fully laden sea kayaks. To make matters worse, the only way forward was through dense forest. We had no choice but to push on, manhandling the kayaks over and around trees holding out hope that we would break through onto clearer ground. Fortunately after half an hour of painstakingly slow progress we did reach the end of the thick trees and were once more on open turba. It was still uphill and by no means easy but at least we could start making real progress again.
We had heard the next team about 20mins behind us so were keen to make a big effort and try to get a bit more of a gap opened up. Straining at the ropes it was a real team effort to keep the boats moving on their slow progress up the hill but finally with legs about to give up in protest we crested the ridge and started descending the other side to the CP and the Fiord that would take us back out to the Magellan strait.
Once back in the water it was another 25km paddle with a few dolphins for company before we reached the last CP on the Island. There was planned to be a dark-zone imposed on this CP from about 7pm in the evening. We were there at 4pm however after a frustrating period of waiting for the CP staff to contact HQ we were informed that kayaking the rest of the Strait would not be allowed that day and we would have to camp till the morning. We were not really prepared to stop for the night but fortunately Albert dug some avocados and burrito wraps out of his pack and we had ourselves a small feast in the sun while waiting for the other teams to arrive. Our effort on the portage had paid off with GearJunkies arriving nearly an hour and a half after us and several more teams arrived over the following few hours.
At 6am the following morning after a good night’s sleep we were on our way again across the final part of the Magellan strait to our landing point on Tierra del Fuego. A small lead that we built up on that kayak soon disappeared as we had to double back on the following run after taking an incorrect road. We were back on track with a small lead over the Japanese team Eastwind at the next CP as we left all man-made tracks and started a long valley trek inland. We tried to follow the recommended route which was good going at first but became quite slow further up the valley as the forest became thicker. When we finally dropped back to the river in the valley we found much better travel in the riverbed and to our concern footprints of another team that was now in front of us. As darkness fell we left the river valley and made our way up to the last CP on the trek which was at a lake in a low saddle. Here we learned that the Japanese team Eastwind was the team who had passed us and we soon found out how far in front they were as they were asleep in their tent a few metres further down the track. We didn’t feel the need for a rest so pushed on again keen to open up a bit of a gap. Unfortunately in our haste we missed the faint fishermans track that would lead us towards the next transition and lost a good deal of time trying to get ourselves back on course again. Now feeling a bit exhausted we stopped to rest for 30 minutes convinced that Eastwind must have overtaken us again. As the sun rose we were on a way again, quickly to where the end of the trek should have been and then running a further 16km out the access road as the transition had been moved due to access problems. With no footprints in the wet mud on the track we suspected that we were actually still in the lead and after a tedious run to the transition we has this confirmed as we reached our bikes first.
The bike ride was simple but spectacular, taking us down to the bottom of Tierra del Fuego with magnificent vistas unrolling before us and a steady tailwind helping us on our way. It was almost over too soon and we rolled into the next transition to prepare for the crux of the race, a 140km trekking leg which we expected to take us a minimum of 3 days.
With packs straining with gear and food for 3 days travel we marched out of transition at 6pm keen to get a good distance covered before darkness fell. Ammi, one of the reporters was accompanying us for the first part of the trek and we assured her that we would mostly be walking to begin with. The first checkpoint on the trek was cancelled so we had a few more options available and we chose to climb up a ridge line to try to take advantage of more open country up high and cut a bit of a corner off the recommended route.
As darkness approached we pushed hard, keen to get up the ridge and down the other side before lack of light made travel much more difficult. The other side of the ridge was a bit of an unknown for us and we needed to find a clear way down avoiding the multitude of cliffs that were common on the higher ground. With sufficient light left we found a steep but do-able scree slope to descend and we were quickly down that and on our way to the abseil at the next CP. We were running to make the most of the last scraps of daylight and we were a bit concerned about Ammi but fortunately she was doing well, keeping up with us as we eked out the final scraps of daylight. Finally it was too dark to carry on without headlamps so we stopped to get them out and then carried on at a less hectic pace. Shortly after we reached the abseil, said goodbye to Ammi and descended into the darkness.
The following valley was difficult travel with large boulders in the valley sides slowing progress. We pushed on for a few more hours before stopping to sleep out the last couple of hours of darkness.
After oversleeping slightly we were on our way again under a mostly clear Patagonian sky. We had been fortunate so far with light winds and fine weather. We could move more quickly again now with the valley opening up before dropping away to a much larger valley system below. We crossed the turba on the main valley floor before climbing steeply again over another ridge to get to the river crossing at CP12. The river here was very swift and although a rope had been set to aid us across it required all of our strength to pull ourselves across against the force of the current.
Although wet from the river crossing we soon warmed up on our way to CP13. This was one of the most frustrating sections of the trek. No matter where we tried, the forest, the turba, the river, progress was painfully slow and it was many hours later before we were finally climbing up to the CP13 at Paso de las Nieves. I was afraid for a minute that we had approached from too high and were about to get bluffed out but fortunately we found a small snow shute that safely took us the last few metres to the CP.
Again we were racing the impending night as we charged down the valley trying to get as far as possible before darkness. After a few hours of navigating in the dark we decided to camp just short of another saddle when our progress had slowed almost to a crawl.
Waking up to a heavy frost we realized our mistake of leaving our shoes outside the tent. Everything was frozen solid and it took several minutes of bashing shoes and socks against trees before they were flexible enough to put on. Once that was sorted we were on our way again under a cloudless sky making good progress on very firm turba. We had to stop to tend to some blisters Albert had which were becoming very painful.
With a bit of first aid and some painkillers he was good to go again although in some pain from large blisters on his heels and balls of his feet. With the best part of two days trekking left we knew we had to manage this as well as possible to ensure we could make it to the end. Fortunately the view at CP15 took away all thoughts of suffering for a while. We found a nice clean grass slope to ascend to a glacier moraine wall from which we were suddenly greeted with magnificent views of the glacier with its lake and the surrounding mountains. A few quick words with the CP staff and the photographers there and it was on again down another valley to another river crossing. Some well worn horse trails sped us on our way as night fell once more and then we endured an exhausting trudge across a wide turba-filled plain before collapsing exhausted at the far end and setting up the tent once more.
The next morning marked 2 ½ days on this trek and we were keen to finish without having to stop again. It looked like we might be thwarted in that goal as after an icy river crossing at Rio Yendegala (CP17) we made painfully slow progress up Rio Niemeyer towards CP18. We started flagging in spirits here but Sarah was great in keeping us motivated and moving and finally we reached the glacier lake from which we would make the final climb to CP18. The way up looked almost impassable but we soon found some achievable sections to ascend and finally we were at CP18 which marked the last major pass we had to cross.
After a few moments to take in the massive glaciers surrounding us we forged on again and with a great effort by the whole team made it all the way out to the Beagle channel just as darkness fell once more. From here we only had 8km to the transition across what looked like an easily navigable hill. Perhaps we relaxed a bit much as that 8km which should have taken us only about 4 hours took much longer. We strayed a little off course at first, which was not a big issue but as we corrected it, it started to snow, and then kept snowing harder until we were walking in a blizzard, trying to navigate in the correct direction while crags and bluffs appeared out of the darkness blocking our way. Thinking off playing it safe we dropped off the hill earlier than planned into what was mapped as a mostly open valley.
From here it should have been an easy walk into the transition however it conspired that we had walked into the worst bog we had encountered on the trek so far. Sinking at times chest-deep in icy water the final 500m seemed to take forever. Like a bad dream it which you never seem to get closer to your goal we seemed doomed to flounder forever just short of our destination. Fortunately we did finally make it, stumbling into the end of trek transition just as day broke once more marking 3 ½ days since we had set out.
The final stage was a 50km kayak down the Beagle channel. After a short rest and refuel we donned all our kayaking kit ready to hit the water only to be told as we were about to set out that due to the weather conditions there was to be no kayaking that day. Instead we had to camp for the day and hope that we could kayak tomorrow. Later in the day the chasing teams began to arrive and it was clear that we held a very comfortable lead of at least 10 hours. Eastwind were the 2nd team in and seemed to have wrapped up 2nd place however it was going to be very close between the Americans in GearJunkie, the South Africans in Cyanosis and the Kiwis in Kauri.
The next day the storm was still raging and kayaking was cancelled once more. And again the following day. That was the last available day to do the kayak so instead we were ferried up to the Fiord where the official finish of the race was. In a mostly ceremonial finish we paddled the last few kilometres of the course.
As disappointing as it was not to kayak up the Beagle channel it was still a spectacular finish paddling among small icebergs up to a huge glacier with snow covered mountains all around us. With a spray of champagne on the beach we were officially winners of the 10th Patagonian Expedition Race.
It was a truly amazing journey across a landscape more spectacular and remote than any the team had raced in before. We had a fantastic team and considering it was the first time the 4 of us had raced together it went very well. Stu did a fantastic job navigating, motivating and also carrying way more than his fair share of weight. Nick brought valuable Patagonia experience and great leadership. Albert is a very talented adventure racer who shared the navigation duties with Stu and endured extreme levels of hardship as his feet suffered on the long trek. Sarah really held the team together, motivating us whenever we slowed down, she is one of the strongest racers that we have ever had the pleasure of racing with.
As ever the team would like to thank our sponsors.
Adidas and adidas eyewear for helping fund the trip and for providing a huge range of great kit.
Prunesco our very loyal and enthusiastic Chilean sponsors who again have been very supportive in the 4 years we have been competing in Chilean Patagonia.
As ever our kit and nutrition sponsors have been great.
We ate 108 clif bars, 48 clif builders bars, 78 packs of clif shot bloks, drank 14 tubes of High 5 ZERO, 53 sachets of For Goodness Shakes and 26 sachets of Peronin. The OMM backpacks held up to the tough terrain and the new LEKI Micro stick poles were super light, strong and very easy to pack away. The Exposure lights again did a brilliant job and really helped us move well at night in the challenging terrain. The Salewa multisport helmets were great in both the heat and cold and we all felt very confident in them when we abseiled in complete darkness off a 70m clif into a dense forest!! Nordenmark Maps boards were brilliant as ever and the new 29er Schwable Racing Ralph tyres were spot on for fast rolling and plenty of grip. And finally the wet weather gear from Paramo, which kept us warm and dry almost beyond belief in some very demanding conditions.
Thank you to the race organisers, staff, volunteers and media for making this such a special event, especially in such challenging terrain and conditions.
Finally we would like to thank our families for allowing us to go on this incredible journey and making so many sacrifices.