2010 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race

(noun): the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, typically one that is dangerously low.

Half way across the Beagle Channel, just south of Tierra del Fuego and not too far from the Drake passage, I learned what it really means to be cold. Jim Wedlake, Gabriela and I were in a zodiac photographing team Helly Hansen-Prunesco as they sea kayaked from the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego down to Isla Navarino. I got into the boat wearing every piece of clothing I had with me knowing it was going to be cold. When we pulled away from the dock, I was wondering why the Navy officers were wearing neon orange survival suits and we weren’t. The wind was blasting the boat from the west as we headed south across the Beagle and each time we dropped into the trough of a wave the spray would douse us with ice-cold water. I was wearing Gore-tex and several layers of synthetic insulation but it only does so much when you are being nailed time and again by small waves. After an hour or two of wind and spray, we were all starting to get a bit punchy. It took everything we had just to keep the cameras dry – and even more to keep the lens clean.

Team Helly Hansen was having no problems with the cold. They were wearing dry suits and were sweating like crazy. In fact, Bruce Duncan was so overheated that he even took his neoprene gloves and hat off. It was at this point that I started to tell the Navy officers we had to deal with Gabi and the onset of hypothermia. They didn’t want to leave the sea kayaks out in the middle of the Beagle Channel since they were there to act as the rescue boat and as such weren’t supposed to leave their post. But after the fifth or sixth mention of hypothermia, the officers finally got the point and could see that Gabi was freezing quite literally. I myself wasn’t far behind. I was freezing my ass off as well. Jim, who was shooting video, was dressed in a massive Gore-Tex down jacket and faired a little better but was still feeling the chill.

As it happened there was a Naval outpost in the Murray Channel, just ahead of us – and through which the sea kayakers would pass. Once we reached the channel we were kindly escorted to the outpost, greeted by a very kind family and warmed up with fresh coffee, bread and hot showers. A few hours later we rejoined the sea kayakers and tried to keep ourselves a little warmer in the protected channel. Back in our zodiac, and on our way to the next checkpoint I realized we weren’t far from the Drake passage and I thought about Shackelton’s men who had crossed those chilly waters over a century ago in an open lifeboat. It was then that I realized we hadn’t even begun to suffer, hypothermia or not. Perspective is a wonderful thing, though it doesn’t stop the cold.

Such were the grueling conditions we encountered while covering the 2010 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race. As it turned out the weather was some of the coldest ever experienced for the race. And the wind, nicknamed la Escoba de Dios, which means “the broom of God”, was howling pretty much the entire race. With gusts upwards of 80 mph, the racers had to walk their bikes through several sections of the race. Even standing up on some of the higher passes in the Cordillera Darwin was difficult. The wind began to play with our mental state. Even when you got out of the wind for just a moment you could still feel it and hear it in your head. Other than the wind and the cold, this year’s race was at least blessed with decent weather. It only rained a few days, but it did snow over a foot one evening making trekking difficult. Even so, I’ll take cold and snow any day over rain.

This year’s race featured some rough terrain as you might expect. After the first few “warm-up” sections the racers took on a 178 km (111 mile) mountain bike ride in fierce winds, then picked up their gear and hiked through a 120 km (75 mile) trekking stage, only then to be greeted with a 46 km (29mile) sea kayak across the ice cold waters of the Beagle Channel. While these three sections were the “meat” of the race, by the time the teams hit the last trekking section on Isla Navarino there were still four teams within 2 hours of each other and second place was up for grabs. The main 120 km trekking section in the Cordillera Darwin this year was the hardest and longest trekking section ever in race history but it felt pretty tame compared to last years “forest of death”, which included climbing under and over thorny trees while having to deal with sideways rain and poor footing.

For the second year in a row Team Helly Hansen-Prunesco, who also won the adventure racing world championships in 2009, ended up winning the race by almost a full day ahead of the competition. In fact they were so fast that they had to bypass some of the checkpoints because they weren’t even set up yet. They are indeed superhuman and masters at ignoring pain. My congratulations to them on a superb accomplishment.

While I did do a fair bit of hiking this year in the trekking sections I was mercifully airlifted out by helicopter and spent several hours shooting from the air. This year’s race went over some huge passes in the mighty Cordillera Darwin, a.k.a. the Darwin Range. The racers also had to deal with huge swaths of turba, a sponge like ground covering that sucks you in up to your ankles or sometimes up to your waist. Either way you are wet from the waist down. And if the turba didn’t get you then the river crossings would surely keep you moist. In fact, some teams, depending on when they arrived at certain rivers had to swim across them because they were so deep. Most stripped down to bare skin to avoid soaking all of their clothing in the glacier fed rivers.

The race organizers had also contracted Hatch Entertainment to produce a video of the race – and I have to say those guys were shooting around the clock and worked their asses off. From what little I saw of their footage they should have an amazing show. The aerial footage in particular was stunning – I know because I was sitting behind the aerial cameraman contracted by Hatch, as he shot out the open door of the helicopter. Of course, I’ll keep you posted when that airs later this summer or fall.

All in all, this years race was a grand adventure just like last years epic. There weren’t any close calls this year. No teams almost died (a good thing) and even though loads of racers and some journalists were hobbling around after the race, no one was seriously injured or required a hospital stay like previous years. I have to say a huge thank you to Ann and Stjepan who invited me back this year (my third year down there) and also to Wenger who is the main sponsor of the race.

Of course, I’ll have a more extensive write up on the race in the next issue of my newsletter and will post an image gallery on my website here as soon as possible. Stay tuned…

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