2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race – Part I: The Beginning

*note: This blog post has six segments. At the end of each page, click “older posts” or the orange link “THE STORY CONTINUES WITH MORE PHOTOGRAPHS IN THE NEXT POST.”

Teams portage over a falls in the kayaking section on the first day of the 2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race.

I never expected to be in southern Patagonia. I have always dreamt of coming, but I wanted to learn Spanish before I traveled South America.

Don’t stop here. More photos and story after the Jump>>

Fortunately, I was at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show when I found out I won a National Geographic photo contest, with the grand prize of being an official photographer for the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race in Southern Patagonia. Most companies that do any business regarding outdoor life in North America descend upon Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace and strut their stuff, showing off their specialized products – the next big thing – to potential vendors such as REI. I connected with Wenger, the title sponsor of the adventure race, who informed me about what I would be doing, and connected me with Michael Clark and Tony Hoare, two photographers who have covered the race in the past. They gave me a clearer idea of what I would be doing for the race, and what I needed to take – both with photo equipment and technical gear. I was then able to procure much the technical gear I needed for “testing and review”.

From the moment I found out I had won the photo contest and was heading to Patagonia I had less than two weeks to put everything together.  Not only did I have to acquire equipment, but I also had to find someone to cover my classes at Indiana Wesleyan University and get approval from the school that I could take the two weeks off.

Going through customs in Santiago a couple I have seen before comes up in line behind me. I recognize Chelsea and Jason from the Yogaslackers; I saw them at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show about a week before showing off their skills performing yoga while balancing on a slackline. The rest of team GearJunkies.com meet us at the elevators, along with T.C. Worley, one of the photographers for the race. It can be nice seeing familiar faces in a far and distant land.

Set up comfortably in a hostel room and fed “Authentic Peruvian Cuisine”, I go to the race office to find out what is in store for the next two weeks. The office is situated in a common looking house behind a gate with a sign, “No Racers Allowed.” Inside, the house is abuzz with activity, everyone walking on top of each other to get their jobs done. The hallways are too small for two people to pass each other, and people spill out into the back yard, organizing equipment and preparing food for the checkpoints on the race.

Teams have to go through an equipment check to show the race organizers they have everything they need. Most of the teams were extremely disorganized with their equipment spread out all over the shed, but Brazil’s Selva NSK Kailash, all ex-military, were decidedly different in their organization.

The teams also had to have their skills checked in kayaks. They had to paddle out, capsize their boats and correct themselves while the Navy made sure no one died.

Traditional dancers give the teams a spectacular send-off from Punta Arenas.

Sunday night everyone involved with the race and all of the racers congregate in the ballroom of a local casino for the opening ceremony. After a presentation of traditional dancers in the central plaza Monday afternoon, we load up on busses and drive for two hours to Torres del Paine, the start of the race. As we put more distance between Punta Arenas and ourselves, the mountains continue to grow larger.

Our first views of Torres del Paine.

The rickety bridge over Rio Baguales is far too small for our passenger busses to squeeze through, so we must disembark and reload on smaller vans that clear the sides of the bridge by mere inches. The vans pull onto the road to Hotel del Torres, and gauchos on horses, wooping and hollering as they gallop alongside, escort us to the hotel. The log cabin hotel sits majestically on a plain with Torres del Paine as a towering white and black backdrop. Over an open fire a sheep is spun on a rotisserie, and an old gaucho plays guitar as a young man sings traditional Chilean songs. The race teams from all over the world and support staff mingle about in the unseasonably warm night, enjoying their last night of comfort before pushing themselves to their limits starting the next day.

Gauchos escorting the teams into Hotel Las Torres

She smiles at me slyly as I walk by, the beautiful girl in the golden scarf. I return with a shy smile as I pass by. Then again, as I look in her direction, she sends me a very pointed smile. Third time’s a charm. I walk over and join her on the hay bale, “Enjoying yourself?” I ask. Marie from Boston volunteers at the Torres del Paine national park so that she can hike the circuit for free. She’s traveling in South America for close to a year, and will be here (South America) till sometime in the summer concentrating on learning Spanish. “We’re having a bonfire tonight, you should come join us tonight,” she says. I find Nathan walking through the dark back to camp. “You want to go with me to a bonfire?” I ask. “What’s there?” “Girls.” “I’m in!” We wonder through the dark woods along a path past Chileans campsite, looking closer at every campfire till we find a group of twenty or so circled around a fire drinking boxed wine. This must be the one. I see the golden scarf reflect off the fire and head in. Nathan has to leave to get sleep for the race in the morning, but Marie asks me to stay. We talk about life over red plastic cups of red wine, with the hum of the party and Chileans playing guitar and singing in the background. The hum is in French and Spanish and Turkish and some English. It’s one of those unreal moments when traveling around the world, congregating around a fire with people you barely know from so many other countries, but no one cares; everyone is best friends. I lean over and tell Marie, “I really have to go to sleep so I will have some energy to photograph the race tomorrow. It was so great to meet you.” She sweetly replies, “We will meet later in life. Take care.” I hope so.

Race Day 01: Tuesday, February 8th
“Where are the bikes?” Nothing ever goes smoothly. The bikes were supposed to show up during the night, but none were on site by the official starting time of 7:30am. The truck driver bringing the bike boxes got to the tiny bridge and couldn’t find the transfer trucks, so he just went to sleep. Teams putting together their bikes as they arrive one pickup truck at a time cover the lawn of the hotel. The start time is pushed back two hours, which throws off all the timings of the rest of the race.

Once the bikes arrive in the boxes, the teams have to put the pieces together.

The gauchos on horseback start off the race, leading the fourteen teams of four on their bikes down the dirt road. The photographers and video crew run to the awaiting pickup trucks. Hanging on as best we can in the backs of the trucks we bump our way past all the teams.

Racers reach a traffic jam traveling across a small bridge near the start of the race.

Daniel Staudigel and Jason Magness (US, Team GearJunkies.com) pushing through the pain.

A lone guanaco watches the racers struggle to gain elevation on the road from Torres del Paine.

This is how we travel, crammed in like cattle, holding on for dear life.

The driver of our vehicle can’t seem to understand the concept that we want to take photos of the teams from in front of the bikers, rather than only getting butt shots from behind. And he stalls the truck every ten minutes or so. To top it off we get a flat tire about 1/3rd the way through the biking section and are stuck till it is changed.

A guanaco looks watches us change the tire on our truck as racers pass us.

The landscape passing by the teams is unbelievably beautiful: deep turquoise lakes surrounded by steep, snow capped peaks and blue, cracked glaciers slowly making the lakes deeper. Around each turn you see something even more incredible. Wind passing between the peaks comes in powerful gusts, sometimes picking up dust, water, stones and anything else it can carry. Before you can even see a lake you know its coming by the water-spray on your face.
One of these gusts of wind, full of dust and rocks, blows teams off of their bikes. Team Four Continents was picked up by the wind and dropped meters away – Paulette Kirby’s (US) front wheel getting bent almost beyond usability – and most of the team received road rash. The Dancing Pandas and Perdido en el Turbal dive over the bank of the road and hide behind cars to avoid getting pelted by flying stones. The air, thick with dust in the warlike scene, eventually clears and the sunny blue skies shine over the race once again.

Gusts of wind up to 70mph come sweeping between the mountains and over the lakes. The wind picked up rocks and debris, nocking the teams from their bikes.

The teams push through the mountains and finish the biking section on an open, grassy plain that leads to Lago Grey, the glacier melt of Glacier Grey. I have been running back and forth on the course in the back of a truck, trying to capture as much of the race as I can. The driver drops video guys and photographers off at spaced intervals, promising to return later to pick us up. Finding out that the kayak section has been delayed because of high winds, the teams are able rest while they pack away their bikes.

CLICK ME!! The story continues with more photographs in the next post.

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