2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race – Part III: Trek

Race Day 02. Wednesday February 9th

I wake up, miraculously on my own, at 5:30 and get the others up, ready to go. The light slowly illuminates more of the surrounding mountains, but the jungle is still very dark. I had illusions of keeping my feet dry for at least some period of time, but as soon as we leave camp our feet sink into the turba.

Turba, I had the pleasure of finding out, is a multicolored sponge-like substance that blankets all of the ground in this area of Patagonia. It comes in just about every imaginable color, but I saw mostly yellows and reds. You could step on it and sink three inches or up to your waist. It is fully impossible to keep your feet dry while walking through turba. In the higher elevations it is still present, but much more pleasurable to walk on, as it doesn’t sink in to your knee with every step.

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

Tony Hoare standing in the field of turba, lucky enough to find a semi-solid place to stand.

Tony Hoare and Yosuke Kashiwakura head towards PC3 from PC4.

Ignacio, our guide, was told to follow the river till we reached the lake. He kept the river twenty meters to our left the whole time, as we bushwhacked through the dense jungle. Only later did we find out that beside the river was much easier walking. The sun’s orange glow reflects off the snow peaks surrounding us as we cross a waist deep river that empties into the large glacier-melt lake. We climb a twenty-foot bank to reach a large plateau that reaches to the base of the mountains. From the distance it looks like a solid plain, but you must watch your every step because stepping into a “puddle” would leave you up to your chest in water, mud, and turba. As the elevation increases, the ground grows more solid. The pace quickens, and we rush over the rocky ridges. Besides the turba, there’s a thick, holly-like bush that we’re constantly pulling ourselves through. At certain points, instead of climbing down small cliffs, I find it easier to jump off and land on the bushes (giggling the whole way).

In the distance we see a team approaching. The Brits are cruising, even after a sleepless night of bushwhacking through stupidly dense jungle. Bruce Duncan took a tree branch to the mouth sometime during the night that left his lip very swollen and bloody. But just as fast as they came, they disappeared behind us, flying through the first 70 some kilometer trekking section.

Bruce Duncan’s battle wound.

Adidas TERREX / Prunesco keep keeping on towards PC4

We misinterpret the map and the advice that Ignacio received as a “shortcut” and wind up too far up on the wrong side of a river. Finding a relatively easy place to cross with tree supports, the icy cold water only comes to our waists once again.

Perdido en el Turbal (Lost in the turba), a team of mostly Americans, appears as we come to the top of the next ridge and let us know we are a kilometer or two from checkpoint three. Tony, Yosuke and I head off in the direction they pointed.

Tim Kuenster (US, Perdido en el Turbal) on the way to PC4

Small ponds lie between the hills full of turba, which makes marshes of the surrounding areas. We reach a rocky riverbed that makes for easier walking but need to get over the next ridge. I pick a route to the top, using roots to pull my way up. The apex of the ridge is easy walking through an open wood till we come to a point that drops off on three sides. From here we can see the lake, and through the brush we can make out the checkpoint; we’ve gone past it. Going down over the bushes is much easier; gravity is on our side.

The blue icebergs float on the cloudy water in the midday sun. Teams fight their way through the impossibly thick brush that lines the lake, relieved to take a break on the rocky shore, and they take their wet shoes off to reveal feet wrinkled from being constantly soaked for the last twenty-four hours. The teams have bushwhacked through demanding terrain through the night, barely stopping to rest. But some of the teams look pretty haggard after only the first day; if they are to finish the race they have at least six more days to go.

Noel Duffy (Australia, Dancing Pandas) at PC3

Peter Spagnoli (US, Dancing Pandas) takes a breather before leaving PC3

Kay Waki (Japan, East Wind) holds herself together continues trekking despite having a broken rib.

Dancing Pandas leave PC3

Feet take the brunt of the wear

The checkpoint manager offers me trailmix for lunch that barely satisfies my hunger. But with the last teams are passing through, after a short rest Tony and I head back into the jungle to try to catch up with some teams. Because we did not get to PC3 until noon we will not have time to reach PC5 or PC6 without the risk of falling behind all of the teams. We were told there would be a boat coming at four P.M. that we could take, and we could jump ahead to PC7.

I watch a team take a route up to the ridge that seemed to be in a better direction than the one we came from, so I decide to follow. But once Tony and I get beyond the clearing we come to wall of the prickly bushes. Either we go back and find a new route, or we go up and over. We start pushing through, but soon find ourselves “swimming” over the bushes: our feet not touching the ground, pulling ourselves hand-over-hand, trying to reach the top of the ridge. After an hour we finally break through to the open turba fields. I discover the jungle has stolen several things from my backpack: one glove, one Keen shoe, a Wenger Swiss Army knife, a LightMyFire SpoonForkKnife, numerous plastic Ziplock bags, and a 77mm lens cap.

Team Todo Aventura – La Segunda, from Chile and Argentine, cross through a field of dense brush in the valley below our vantage point and enters another thick forest that delays them several hours. The Croatians unknowingly take advantage of the Chileans mistake and pick a route through the hills with more solid ground, trekking at a quick click. Tony and I leap frog this team till they reach a dangerous river crossing.

Ad Natura – Karibu

Somehow, in a second my head is turned, team captain Elvir Sulic is standing on a boulder in the middle of the river, completely dry. He somehow jumped the large distance from the riverbank to the rock. Dario Rocco jumps but slips off the rock and goes waist deep in the rushing water. The Elvir grabs hold, keeping Dario from going under. He regains his footing and pulls himself onto the large rock. The female team member, Darija Boostjancic, doesn’t try to jump, choosing to wade carefully to the rock with the assistance of all three teammates.

Elvir Sulic keeps Dario Rocco from being swept downstream.

Elvir Sulic and Stiven Vunic help Darija Bostjanicic cross the fast moving stream

Tony wades in and with assistance from Stiven Vunic, the last Croatian team member, he pulls himself onto the boulder. I put my feet into the rushing water, immediately feeling the pull of the current. A few degrees from frozen, my mind pays no attention to the temperature of the water – I’m fully concentrating on getting my equipment and myself safely across the waist deep aquatic onslaught. I grab hold of the boulder and Tony tries to help me up, but my feet are slowly sliding off of submerged stone. I picture my head go under, my camera taking on water. With a renewed burst of energy I lunge onto the rock, and Tony pulls me to safety.

We continue the leapfrog routine through the relatively easy trekking in the spongy, but more firm turba. In the distance behind us we see another team approaching. Tony and I play rock, paper, scissor to determine which one of us will fall back to follow the new team. I get to sit for a bit, setting up a beautiful shot, waiting for the incoming team to move into position. As they approach, I see that it’s the Japanese team, East Wind, which has their own film crew and photographer. With the team in the right position I yell to the film crew to duck out of sight. When they get closer we start playing the leapfrog game, each trying to stay out of the others’ way. It’s pretty apparent from how Yosuke carries himself that he’s exhausted.

Team East Wind

Team East Wind

I run ahead and put my camera away (you can only take so many of the same looking shots). I don’t want to navigate for the team, but I want to stay ahead of them in case I see an incredible shot. And being much fresher than the team who has trekked through the night, I am able to easily keep in front. I come to a cliff line that I don’t remember from the morning, and the valley below looks more familiar. So I double back and go along the valley. East Wind doesn’t follow me; they stay high on the ridge.

I soon find that I did not make the right move. I come to a decision: thick forest versus climbing up a cliff. I attack the cliff, not wanting to spend any more time in the forests than I have to. At the top I can see for miles, but I don’t see the Japanese team ahead of me and I see no teams behind. Exhausted, I take off my shoes and eat a granola bar, needing some fuel to carry me on. I have an hour before the boat is supposed to come to PC4. Hopefully I can get through the lower jungle in time. The Japanese helicopter flies directly overhead, unaware that I’m below them.

With my shoes empty of sticks and stones, I take off feeling somewhat refreshed. I reach the turba filled plateau over the lake, but from a different ridge than we went up in the morning. Crossing the plateau I keep looking back up the ridges to see if there are any more teams visible, but I see no movement at all. I step carefully knowing that one false step will send me chest deep into the muck under the turba.

I reach the last river crossing and pack up my photo equipment to be as waterproof as possible (which is not very), when I hear some noise behind me. Yosuke is meandering around the lake; the Japanese team had left him behind. I was glad to see him because I was not looking forward to finding my way through the thick jungle to PC4 on my own.

We cross the river and enter the jungle near where we had left it earlier that morning, and I head in a direction toward the seashore which will lead us to the checkpoint. We push through trees and bushes, coming to a field with mounds of turba. I decide to see if I can get to a high point for a better look around, but after climbing the tallest mound I find myself up to my chest in dry turba. There is nothing inside the mound except more of the spongy substance. After bushwhacking for a while walking through turba between knee and chest high I can see water ahead, I’ve led us straight to the shore…! Oh no, it’s the river that is the complete opposite direction. Instead of heading in a westerly direction we ended up going due north.

Humans naturally go in circles when walking without reference points. It is something that has been studied for years. Check out this NPR article “A mystery: Why Can’t We Walk Straight?”. One thing the article doesn’t comment on is the fact that all of the subjects seem to circle to their right. I found this to be true, I did a perfect arc to the right that led me directly to the river.

Footprints lined the river; it’s apparent that racers had been here, but not having a map I didn’t necessarily trust the racers’ navigation. I took my compass out and took a reading. I need to go west, southwest. Keep the mountain on my left and the sun over my left shoulder. Alright, lets go….wait. It’s 5pm. The sun should be in the northwestern sky. If I’m traveling west it should be in front of me. I check the compass again: mountain on left, sun over left shoulder. This doesn’t make any sense. The sun should not be behind me. I give in and follow the mountain, keeping the sun over the back of my left shoulder. I still cannot explain why this worked.

Yosuke offers to lead for a while, as making a path through the brush is extremely exhausting. Sure enough, he starts to make that gradual right arc. It’s so easy to do; unless your REALLY paying attention to your reference points you don’t even notice. I take the lead again and finally we pop out onto the shoreline only about 300 yards from the checkpoint. Navigation success, though I’m still thoroughly confused by the position of the sun.

No boat is waiting to take us back to Porta Natales, and no boat comes that night. Over the satellite phone the checkpoint manager says one will come the next afternoon. The two main photographers are stuck behind most of the teams, with no prospect to get ahead. The Japanese NHK film crew get out by helicopter, promising to send it back for Tony, Yosuke and I, but it never comes.

A racer airs out their foot at PC4. There’s rarely a time in the race that their feet are not wet.

Taz Lawrie (Australia, Four Continents) after his second day in the race.

Since we left the resort at Torres del Paine I had not been fed anything besides chocolate bars and potato chips; two days without real food. Twenty exhausting kilometers later I am overly hungry and tired of eating junk food. I ask the Checkpoint manager for some food and he hands me a candy bar. “I can’t eat this; I need solid food.” I am introduced to pork pâté, a paste of pureed meat that comes out of a plastic tube, usually eaten with crackers. Over the next week I would eat a lot of pâté. (Even now, months later, I sometimes crave the salty goodness).

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