Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race 2011

Posted on 2011-03-12

This year was the 3rd time I had been to Patagonia for the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race (WPER), having won on both previous occasions, there was a bit of pressure to bring home the hat-trick.  We had a strong team though, Mark Humphrey and myself coming back, Nick Gracie was out for his first taste of the Patagonian wilderness, and relative new comer, but super strong athlete Fi Spotswood making up the Team adidasTERREX/Prunesco line up.  Yes once again, Prunesco had agreed to support us, it is a great partnership, and we do seem to do rather well when running under their name!

After the usual kit and gear checks, we bought the shops out of race food, mountains of chocolate, muesli bars, tortilla wraps, sandwiches and sweets, bagged everything up and got our transition bags to the organisation.  Then it was time to race.

Mark on the first leg, sunshine but brutal winds

Arriving in Torres Del Paine we were greeted by hoards of horse riding Gaucho’s waving flags and flaming torches, and they led us up to a huge bbq of local lamb, what a final last feast we were to have.

We started with a very windy mountain bike over 60km along the main tracks in the Torres Del Paine National Park.  The wind was so strong at times that it blew us off our bikes.  Both Mark and I suffered mechanical failures, but with some on route tinkering and fettling we battled on into the ferocious head winds and came in only 15 minutes down on the leaders, despite also having to stop water in the baking heat too.

We had a wee respite at the bike leg with the high winds postponing the start of the kayak.  During this time we fixed the bikes properly ready for the final bike leg.  Finally we jumped into the kayaks for a stunning paddle down the Rio Grey, we gradually ate into the time deficit, and upon arriving at transition we had over taken all the other teams, and with a super fast change to our trekking gear, we got out before anyone could latch onto us.

Icebergs in the Lake - taken by Japense team

The first trek was 73km, and we raced off to make the most of the remaining daylight, knowing how hard it is to move and navigate at night.  As night arrived, we hit the lake near CP3, and were met by hundreds of icebergs, a stunning view of glowing white. (The photo was taken by the Japanese team) The trek was much tougher than we expected, and there were times when we were only moving at 1km/hour, an incredibly slow speed compared to what we are used to racing at.

With stunning mountain scenery, high rocky passes, deep cold river crossings and thick forest to fight through we were always challenged, and having to navigate past everything with the poorly detailed maps.  We were however always rewarded with amazing views, and when we finally managed to do some running down the mountain side to the transition we had completed this leg in just under 48hours.

Stunning mountain views on the first trek

The kayak leg that followed was amazing, paddling down a narrow fjord, with glaciers plunging right into the sea beside us, bumping into blocks of ice as we headed south.  We hit the dark zone half way along, this is always frustrating, but we got a good camp set up, ate some nice hot food and made the most of the 8hrs of darkness to sleep soundly.  After a total of 6 hours of kayaking through ice, seals and dolphins we arrived at a tiny beach in the pouring rain, and prepared to set off on a 191km trek.

This was going to be long and tough, so with heavy packs we set off into the rain.  As mentioned the maps are not overly accurate; this was highlighted early on, coming across 3 individual lakes, where only 1 was shown on the map!  It is extra challenges like this that add to the experience and skill level required to go fast in the WPER.

As daylight disappeared, we were trekking along a very long wide valley, crossing a number of ice cold rivers, making us press on to warm up after the icy waters had reached up to our waists.  Finally succumbing to the tiredness that swept over us we found the least wet patch we could and pitched our tiny tent and crammed into it for some rest.

Battling the poor weather and vegetation

After a short sleep we pressed on, crossing a mountain pass including some fun climbing and slipping down the other side, then a few more very deep, wide, cold river crossings, another night of restless sleep in our tiny tent, before climbing back up to another pass and dropping into checkpoint 10.  We had been trekking for 67km in 48hours with out seeing any other human being, or sign of human life.

The next control was very nearby, only taking us a further 5 hours to cover 10km!  Here we were put on hold, as the weather deteriorated and the rivers rose, meaning at least one team had to be rescued due to being unable to cross a swollen river.  There were many more rivers to cross, and the organisation took the wise decision to cut the trekking and take us to the start of the 188km final mountain bike leg.

This final leg was mostly done with the wind on our backs, ensuring we sped along at a fast pace, watching the flat grass lands whiz past, where many flamingos, guanacos, foxes, nandu’s (a bird similar to an emu) and  roamed freely.  The short legs that were across the wind were very tough, and only served to remind us of the start of the race, but we always knew that the end was within reach, ensuring we kept focused to the end.

The finish was in a volcanic crater, we had been worried that we would have to climb hundreds of metres to reach it, but luckily it was at the same level we were cycling at, so a small rise and fall to reach the centre and the finish line in first place, some 16 hours ahead of the next team.

Bruce cycling with the wind behind across the flat(ish) plains

It had been another amazing race.  500km of gruelling trekking, kayaking and mountain biking, but it had been one of the most scenic races all of us had ever done, the mountains in Torres Del Paine were truly breathtaking, and the fjord with all the glaciers pouring into it was a once in a lifetime place to kayak.  And to top it off with the fact that this was our 3rd win in a row was pretty special.

After a few days recovering in Punta Arenas, we started the long journey home, stopping off to have lunch with Prunesco, our very generous sponsor in Chile, at a lovely polo club.  We then continued back to the UK, feet still tingling, legs still full of thorns, minds full of amazing memories of a great trip.

Many thanks must go to the race organisation for putting on a truly fantastic race.  And to all our sponsors for helping us get to the race with all the best kit, clothing and support available.