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2009 Wenger Patagonia Expedition Race
posted Wednesday, April 22, 2009 by Yak @ 3:28 PM - 1 comments

It was the strongest field in event history, the most prominent press team and the most dedicated staff. Perhaps then, it's no coincidence that conditions brought unprecedented brutality and challenge. The event tested wills, expanded horizons, broke down barriers, raised awareness; all of it bringing us closer to nature, ourselves, and one an other.

Section 1 - 90 km kayak

The start of the 2009 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race blew away all expectations with wind gusts up to 90 kilometers an hour, bringing meter high waves crashing against competitors kayaks as they embarked on the great journey at glacier-lined Lago Grey in majestic Torres Del Paine.

Race organizers closed the section before the swift current of the bulging Rio Serrano dumped racers into the Seno Ultima Esperanza, which churned with nearly two meter white caps and up to 120 knot winds. Staying tight throughout the section, no clear leaders emerged.

Section 2 - 100 km mountain bike

Having wolfed down some calories and quickly assembled bikes with prunes for fingers, teams set out in a tight pack onto a small dirt road flanked by quintessentially Andean snow-capped, jagged peaks in the day's first drizzles of rain.

The first 46 kilometers are pure ascent and descent, racers struggling to gain every meter before cresting, then reaching dangerous speeds in the pothole riddled gravel road.

Adventure was had by all as photographers leapt from truck beds and clambered up hillsides.

Surprising everyone, first time participant English Team Helly Hansen-Prunesco gained a 39 minute lead over last year's winners, French team Easy Implant on the section. "We're very tired and cold, but the news that we're in the lead is a huge mental and physical boost," said a beaming Bruce Duncan of Helly Hansen-Prunesco. They also put over 11 hours of distance between themselves and Chilean Almas Patagonicas, the last to arrive at checkpoint 2.

Section 3 - 55 km trek

Now with over 12 hours of continuous racing covering nearly 200 km, teams began arriving at Lago Anibal Pinto in the early hours of the morning. Most didn't stop after disassembling their bikes, but continued on following the glow of their headlamps winding to a 100 meter vertical wall and ascending upwards into the moonlight.

Fearlessness and stamina soaking into us all, race organizers cheered on the racers at the transition, while ambitious journalists hung midway up the wall searching for the perfect shot in darkness.

Greeting racers at the top of the ascent was a 55-kilometer trek, enshrouded by a mist-filled darkness and temperatures hovering just above freezing.

"The crest of the mountains was very craggy, limiting where a team could find passage, and we had no visibility due to heavy rain clouds and the rapidly approaching night," recounted Druce Finlay of Calleva. Most teams persevered through the second night of trekking with a 15 minute catnap or two, deliriousness setting in for some.

It only got wetter and colder after the disorienting forest section. "Then it was just all bog and more bog. We were up to our ankles in water all the way and pushing hard to try and get the trek completed in daylight, but when we came off the hill we could see the whole valley below was flooded - there were pools of water everywhere," lamented an exhausted Bruce Duncan of Helly Hansen-Prunesco.

Heavy rain persisted during days 2 and 3, making travel and navigation ever more complicated. Patagonia grit its teeth claiming the race's first two victims. After struggling to reach mandatory checkpoint cutoffs, both Almas Patagonicas of Chile and QuassarLontra Master of Brazil withdrew from the race.

Section 4 - 137 km mountain bike

Many teams had trouble finding the muddy Rio Perez checkpoint where organizers, journalists and sponsors were gaining a greater appreciation for one another as they huddled together for warmth under tarps enshrouded by the forest.

The worsening conditions had made roads to the checkpoint impassable to all but beefy 4X4s. Meter deep ruts filled with slippery goop caused more than a few falls that weren't without consequence, once sunny racing jersey's transformed.

In spite of the conditions, "this race had some of the most scenic riding I've experienced in any expedition race" said racer Druce Finlay.

Leading teams raced on with even more urgency, compelled to reach the day's final ferry at 19:00 departing for Isla Riesco, where they would find their kayaks. Only the English and the French made it, arriving late in the evening of the 12th of February at Rancho Sutivan where they were able to have their first real rest since embarking over 245 km ago.

Section 5 - 88 km kayak

Nature's unpredictability turned the seeming advantage of arriving early to Rancho Sutivan into disadvantage. The English and French teams entered the second kayak section starting with a 15 km open water crossing of Otway Sound in nearly prohibitive conditions that kicked up massive swells.

Conditions subsided, rainbows softening the drastic coastal landscape, allowing for a relatively easier crossing for the Canadians, Americans, Team Buff of Spain and Trespass of Chile. Having completed the mountain bike section Medilast Sport-La Tercera could not continue.

There would be little reprieve following the challenging crossing. After paddling through the fairy tale landscape of Wickhand Fjord, racers commenced hauling their 45 kg Necky Amaruk kayaks and gear across the 'Indian Passage'. The route, once made famous by stalwart natives who used the shortcut to their advantage in battle with invaders, is a brutal 20 km slog through bogs which quickly envelope racers up to their wastes. Bruce Duncan and Helly Hansen-Prunesco will forever remember the black-hole Patagonian bog lands called turba as "PESM, the pink energy sucking monster."

In an arrogant attempt at gaining journalistic empathy, a member of the organization and I made the slog ourselves. In hindsight, a fair comparison would be a journalist covering a war shooting themselves to know how it feels.

Shortly after starting the passage, local team Almas Patagonicas became the race's fifth victim. Team Buff of Spain completed the portage but could go no further leaving only four teams left in the struggle for the finish line.

Section 6 - 120 km trek

"As we were preparing the French team arrived. We knew we had a time bonus over them, but 5 hours wasn't going to be much on a trek that was expected to take 3 days," recounts Bruce Duncan of the English front runners.

The quest for the title was still up for grabs going into the last section, a trek with drastic alpine ascents containing unforgiving routes, turba that even Moses would sink into, and sinister forest; far longer and more demanding than the first trek.

The French team made good time in pursuit of the English and thought they may be gaining ground. The better rested English had feared that may be the case when they took a substantial gamble, climbing high up on a ridge on the southern side of the valley they were traversing in an attempt to get out of the forest that was both physically and mentally painful to thrash through.

Five days of relentless toiling against all odds and obstacles, yet it can come down to just one decision. "When we got to the top we were rewarded with a lovely undulating ridge with spectacular views and easy progress, much better than the trees and rivers in the valley below where we could see the French battling along," said the team.

The English were on their way to completing what those of us who witnessed it are calling the perfect race. From there the team, "made great distance, crossed huge rivers swelled with heavy rain, gazed at waterfalls being blown back up the mountain and marveled at the mountains," as they marched on to the 25 meter tall Cross of the Seas - a symbol of spirituality, a marker of both an end and a beginning - lying atop Cape Froward. Here at the very end of the Continental Americas, they were humbly overcome by emotion as they were crowned champions of the 2009 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race.

Next would be the French who had battled past injury and illness in an inspired performance. "I want to give my sincere thanks to the English team who gave us a great challenge," said a gracious team captain Bruno Rey after the race.

Spirit Canada arrived to claim third place the following day, February 18, and waited at the finish line for team Calleva of the U.S. who was expected to arrive shortly. They did not. February 19 came. Team Calleva did not.

Having arrived later than they hoped after both of their kayaks were overturned when they aggressively attempted to make up time by running a river riddled with brambles and rapids, the Americans showed their relentless spirit by continuing into darkness up the steep mountainous climb during their first day of the trek. Shortly after dark, the alpine Patagonia abandoned its ephemeral serenity, transforming into a violent storm of snow, ice and wind.

Left no alternative but to pitch their small, wet tent on a thin mountain ridge, the team relied on each other and instant soup for the warmth needed to keep them from having to call for assistance from the organization and abandon the race.

Waking to a tent buried in snow, the team refused to relinquish their hopes of finishing this test that had taken them to their limits and beyond. Now in daylight and fair weather, the team quickly realized they had veered off course. After bushwhacking for twelve hours and only gaining 7 kilometers in the thickest brush forest they'd ever seen, the team decided to take a short cut.

It proved to be "the longest shortcut of my life," said team captain Mark Lattanzi. It led them to the coast a mere 8 kilometers from the finish. For a few kilometers the going was relatively easy. Slowly though the cliffs grew taller with the sea closing in on the coast. They followed the coast until they had gone beyond the finish line to the south, finally there was nowhere to go.

In a show of superhuman devotion to achieve their goal, Calleva attempted to swim in the 10 C waters of the Straight of Magellan around the looming cliffs for a couple hundred meters but their weakened state - they had now been with little food other than berries they found along the way for days, were beyond exhaustion and had lowered body temperatures - prevented them from making a swim they may have otherwise been able to.

After being trapped at literally the most southern point of the continental Americas and only a few hundred meters from the finish for almost two days, two team members decided to try climbing the massive, vertical cliffs overhead without the aid of rope. Risk was rewarded and the Cross of the Seas came into view after they struggled to the top. The sight of the finish line pulsed through them and they made the final arduous pilgrimage. " invisible force that can't be measured or assigned to anything physical," is what Calleva's Druce Finlay says brought them through the ultimate test of will, and to the finish line.

The organization quickly transported the team by helicopter back to Punta Arenas. After being treated at the hospital they were still able to make it to the lamb feast and awards ceremony to the inspired applause of all.

Walking away from the ceremony there was little doubt in the human capacity to break down any barrier, achieving the truly unthinkable.

2009 Wenger PER Gallery

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Blogger Neal said...

WOW guys ROCK!

April 26, 2009 at 6:06 AM  

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