The World's Wildest Race

Article by Nathan Ward
Tuesday 26th August 2008

The Patagonia Expedition Race 2008

All photographs by Nathan Ward: www.nathanward.com


Unexplored mountains, epic treks, wild guanacos and the infamous Patagonian winds challenged the teams this year as they raced across Tierra del Fuego, the lonely Darwin Mountains and the famed Beagle Channel. Eleven international teams started, but only the strongest survived the challenge in Chile.



Crossing the Darwin Mountains at sunset

Deep in Chilean Patagonia, one of the most remote alpine areas on earth, a mountain stream had morphed into a raging whitewater monster, swollen by two days of constant rain. Dazed after days of racing, Team Littleton Bike and Fitness (LBF) came upon the river in the dark and tried to cross it by linking arms and wading into the water. As they got farther in, the water swirled deeper and faster, nearly sweeping team captain David Stiles off his feet into the darkness.

They didn’t know it at the time, but later found out that Bruno Rey, captain of the race leading team Authentic-Nutrition.com had similarly lost his footing and washed down the river just hours before. He was swept into a downed tree and trapped underwater. Only the quick action of his teammates saved his life.

"The shear power and force that river was wielding was amazing. No human let alone a bunch of tired, sleep-deprived adventure racers should have been there. If you had gone [fallen] in the water you would have been dead. It is a miracle that Bruno is still alive” said Stiles afterwards.

 


French captain Bruno Rey

LBF retreated and searched for another way to cross the raging river. After hours of hiking the river banks, they decided to inch their way across on a fallen tree high above the swirling water – an option they had earlier decided was too risky. Teammate Jamie Meyers mused over the sketchy move later, “That river crossing was the most dangerous thing I've ever done!”

 


Riding hard on the initial mountain biking stage

 

Expedition or Adventure Racing - What’s the difference?

What separates expedition and adventure racing? On paper they’re similar words, but on the ground in the heat of competition, it’s a world of difference. The 2008 Patagonia Expedition Race definitely falls in the expedition category as it covered 373 miles (600 km) of Patagonian wilderness - a course that crossed the island of Tierra del Fuego, the Darwin Mountains, remote ocean sounds, the Beagle Channel and finally ended up in Puerto Williams on Isla Novarino. After Isla Novarino, there is nothing to the south but the islands of Cape Horn and long stretch of stormy ocean to Antarctica.

The race started in the idyllic downtown streets of Punta Arenas, Chile, crossroads of fishermen, adventurers and summer tourists. The starting gun cracked and 11 teams pedaled toward the sea, the first miles in a very long and difficult race through some of the most spectacular terrain on earth.

 


The rooftops of Punta Arenas

The starting gun cracked and 11 teams pedaled toward the sea, the first miles in a very long and difficult race through some of the most spectacular terrain on earth. Crossing to Tierra del Fuego, the ferry gate dropped and teams started riding 78 miles (126km) of rolling estancia roads through open scrublands. Dodging guanacos and blessed by the absence of the fierce Patagonian winds, the teams quickly split up and three hours separated first and last by the first checkpoint. The young and fast Medilast Sport Lleida – SKY team led the pack into the first short trek.

 


Crossing between the Darwin Mountains and Tierra del Fuego


Well into the initial trek, Team LBF made good time following a faint animal trail, until they nearly became part of the food chain when they ran into a puma. “I heard a loud thump and saw a big log roll down to the ground like it just been thrown. A pair of green eye's lit up about 15 meters away, as my light moved across it the shape was unmistakable, it was a very large cat with its hair raised it walked slowly back and forth as we picked up logs and our packs over our head to seem as big as possible,” remember Stiles.

Even though the big predatory cats are common on mainland Patagonia, they have supposedly never made the water crossing to Tierra del Fuego. Locals claim there are no pumas on the island. Stiles begs to differ, “I would say the locals are wrong or their house cats are a lot bigger than ours.”

All 11 teams continued through the night, back on bikes through deep muddy roads to Check Point 3 at Rio Grande and the start of a huge trekking section. This would become the proving ground for almost all teams in the race. All the teams went into the wild, but few came out the other side.

 


The Chilean team biking through Tierra del Fuego

 

Make or Break in The Black Hole

Imagine 68 miles (110 km) of pure trackless wilderness strewn with blown-down forests, deep bogs, hundreds of beaver dams and thick forests. Now try to navigate through it with a simple satellite map, no GPS and no contour lines. Expert navigators made their way through, but 6 of the 11 teams ended their race here, victims of poor navigation and the wild terrain. Two teams became completely lost, and four teams didn’t make the time cut-off.

The five most experienced teams come out the other side with battered, saturated and blistered feet, but still racing. The first team out of the woods was the Authentic-Nutrition.com team who drew on experience from past Raid and Primal Quest finishes. They were soon followed by the Spanish-Brazilian team who passed them on the next mountain bike leg as the Authentic-Nutrition.com team experienced mechanical problems with one bike.

 


The leading Authentic-Nutrition.com team fix the bikes at the roadside

 

Team Toureg Turks, LBF and the Spanish Canarias-Andalucia teams soon gave chase and it was still a tight race as the teams finished the bike leg and trekked into the northern fringes of the Darwin Mountains. After 5 days of racing, six teams were already out and only 5 hours separated the remaining five teams. All teams were still in a position to win the race at this point.

Once the teams hiked south into the mountains, the terrain changed to high mountain passes, glaciated valleys and easier navigation as the terrain got bigger and sparser.

 


Team Littleton Bike entering the wild

The next stages of the race would see teams taking on more alpine terrain mixed with big ocean crossings – first a kayak across the Almirantazgo Sound, a big ropes section, a trek across the nearly unexplored Darwin Range, a kayak crossing of a section of the Beagle Channel, another mountain bike ride and finally a mountain top race finish. The difficulty of the race is hard to express without personally witnessing the remoteness of this long and varied course.

The teams made short work of the first trek, but unfortunately the strong Spanish-Brazilian team dropped out due to a twisted ankle that grew worse with every mile. They had consistently been one of the top two teams until this point. Now there were only 4 of the 11 original teams left in the race.

Finally, back at the coast, the infamous Patagonian winds woke and displayed their power - 30 knot winds transformed the kayak crossing into a dangerous matrix of thick choppy waves in fast sets broadside to the route. After two days of waiting for safe conditions, the Chilean Navy called it too dangerous and shuttled racers across the sound to the foot of the highest Darwin peaks.

 


A Magellan River Dolphin appears as the sea calms

 

Well rested from waiting for the sea to calm, the teams hiked into a mountain range that few adventurers, let alone adventure racers, have ever laid eyes on: the Darwin Mountains and Death Pass. Despite nearly losing their captain to the dangerous river crossing, the Authentic-Nutrition.com team dropped the hammer during this section, crossing the Darwin Range and the ominous Death Pass in a blazing 28 hour push. The other teams couldn’t stay close and the French-American team essentially wrapped up the win. They were definitely the most experienced team coming into the race, and it proved to be a deciding factor.

 


Race staff reap the rewards of a spot of fishing whilst waiting at a checkpoint.


Team Toureg Turk came in 7 hours later, immediately followed by the Canarias-Andalicia team and finally Littleton Bike and Fitness joined the others in Yendegaia on the banks of the Beagle Channel. The race had taken a toll on all the teams and one TV journalist commented, “You should have seen the racers when they arrived. They were trashed and I think two of the teams would have had trouble going on.”

Unfortunately, we’ll never know as the persistent high winds made it impossible for the race organizers to get the kayak paddles to the racers. The paddles were in a helicopter - and the helicopters couldn’t fly in the high winds. Without paddles, there was no way to continue, plus the ten scheduled days for the race were almost up. The organizers then decided to call the race finished.

 


The race ends not with a sprint but a concession speech

It was an anticlimactic ending, but the race had definitely taken its toll on racers and no one seemed to mind too much. The race organizers made up for it by chartering the Victory, a classic ocean schooner to sail the teams south down the Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams.


'The Chilean Armada' - Transport back to Isla Navorino


Under wind-filled sails, wild skies, thick weather and the sharp summits of the Patagonian peaks, the 2008 Patagonian Expedition Race came to a shortened, but safe end. The 'Chilean Armada' then carried the racers back from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, through the incredible Drake Passage and Strait of Magellan.

 


Isla Navorino: where fishing boats go to die. Puerto Williams marked the end of the 2008 race.

Back in Punta Arenas, the townspeople came out to welcome the racers back and cheer on the winners. There is no prize money in the Patagonia Expedition Race, just the satisfaction of knowing you’ve tackled one of the hardest, wildest races in the world and come out the other side.

 


Mountain biking across the open plains of Tierra del Fuego

 

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To find out more about Nathan Ward's photography, writing, and adventure consulting go to: www.nathanward.com

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The following international teams entered the race:

1 Authentic-Nutrition.com (France/USA)
2 Canarias –Andalucia Spiuk Tenerife (Spain)
4 UnTamed Adventure (USA)
5 Team Touareg Turk (Turkey)
6 Quasar Contra Master (Brazil)
7 Medilast Sport Lleida – SKY (Spain/ Chile)
8 Team Littleton Bike and Fitness (USA/Canada)
9 Club Patagonia.com (Argentina)
11 Montagne Team (Argentina)
12 Punta Arenas – Chile (Chile)
14 Raid 74.org – SKY Airline (France)

Final Race Results



1st: Team Authentic-Nutrition.com (146hrs 42mins)

2nd: Team Canarias-Andalucia Spiuk Tenerife (158hrs 31mins)

3rd: Team Touareg Turk (163hrs 18mins)

4th: Team Littleton Bike and Fitness (167hrs 31mins)


5th: (Until PC6, Km 384) Team Medilast Sport Lleida – SKY

6th: (Until PC4, Km 281) Team Raid 74.org - SKY Airline

7th: (Until PC4, Km 281) Team Punta Arenas – Chile

8th: (Until PC4, Km 281) Team Quasar Contra Master

9th: (Until PC4, Km 281) Team Montagne

10th: (Until PC3+, Km 247) Team Club Patagonia.com

11th (Until PC3+, Km 247) Team Untamed Adventure

Preparing for the Race

After watching the 2008 Patagonia Expedition Race, here are some suggestions if you race in 2009:

- First of all, don’t take the name lightly – this is an expedition race where you may not be able to get external support, even if you need it. Be prepared to take care of yourself completely.

- Make sure your navigator is an expert. The maps the PER supplies are basic and the terrain goes through challenging mountainous, treed, glaciated, boggy terrain where it’s easy to get lost. If you do get lost, you cannot count on running into any signs of civilization as there are very few roads, houses or even trails in this area.

- Bring your own satellite phone – Iridium or Thuraya. One team used a race-provided phone and found that it didn’t work when they needed it.


2009 Patagonia Expedition Race


The 2009 Race will be held in central Chilean Patagonia near the famous Patagonian Ice Cap and will head south to the southern end of Chile. The race organizers promise savage wilderness, vast wetlands, wild rivers, ocean paddling and unexplored valleys. It’s sure to be epic. Find out more at: www.patagonianexpeditionrace.com

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