2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race – Part V: Trek

Race Day 05. Saturday, February 12th
I eat breakfast with Stjepan Pavicic, creator of the race. He asks me, “How do you feel about going up in the helicopter with me?” Well, that would be fantastic. Stjepan, media producer Brien Leittan, and I take off in a small van to a field where the helicopter will come pick us up. Flying around turns on the gravel road the van comes sliding to a halt, missing an unseen oncoming vehicle by merely inches. Both drivers look at each other without any hint of anger, just relief.

The helicopter circles before it lands. Four weary faces look out from the cabin. T.C. Worley, Sam Salwei, and Paul Cassidy had been trekking with the British team, but eventually got left behind. They waited for several days to get picked up, surviving without food or dry clothes. They were taken to PC10 by helicopter where they picked up Jan Villilon, who had been stuck there for days. For some reason Sam and Pauls gear bag was taken off and left at PC10. They didn’t get their bag back for over a week after the race was over.

My first views of PC10

My first successful flight in a helicopter! I grew up riding in small aircraft since my father is a private pilot, but the motion of the helicopter is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There is a side to side Seen from above the fjords are incredibly beautiful; you can fully appreciate the intricacies of the landscape. After 15 minutes or so the pilot starts circling a mountain peak speckled with a few brightly covered tents. Figures appear from the tents and scramble around the peak. Stjepan yells over the roar of the engines, “We will be back in a few hours to pick you up.” The helicopter sets down on a knoll and we jump out, splashing into the wet turba and ducking to avoid the whirling blades. We hurry to get out of the way of the helicopter and away from the rain.

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

Harold greets Brian and I and tells us to get into his tent. We gladly jump in the small tent, keeping our feet and bags out the door under the vestibule. Harold crawls in after us squeezing between myself and Christiano, a Chilean photographer staying at PC10. The four of us barely fit sitting up in the two man tent. Harold and Christiano barely speak English, and neither Brian nor I speak intelligible Spanish, but we communicate as best as we can. The rain continues to drum on the fabric of the tent throughout the rest of the day. “A team!” It’s the French. The British team passed through hours ago, but we were expecting to see the American team, GearJunkies.com, next. I hurriedly shove my shoes on and grab my camera. I can’t see through the viewfinder, it’s completely fogged over. I try my best to shield my camera from the rain, but the ziploc bag I brought is awkward to hold with the camera in it. The French waste no time and take off down the mountain, headed for the next pass over which PC11 should be. We return to the shelter of the cramped tent.

Josiane Squeier and Raymond Pascal (France, Vaucluse Adventure Evasions) checking in at PC10 before taking on the last section of trekking.

The French team debates which route to take through te next mountain pass.

When the Croatian team shows up, none of us bother to get out of the tent. We push back the flap and snap a few photos, then retreat to the cramped comforts of the tent. The team I was waiting for, GearJunkies.com, never shows up. They were comfortably in second place. What happened? Are they lost? Did one of them get hurt? Over the satallite phone we hear that they arrived at PC11. The somehow went around PC10 thinking they would reach PC11 in time to beat the cutoff. For missing PC10 they were penalized 10 hours.

Brian insists that the helicopter must come back. He’s in charge of the video crew and is in charge of all their logistics. But, as I predicted, no one comes to pick us up. Yet again, I am stuck. It’s raining. Hard. All four of us are practically asleep. I can’t summon the drive to set up my own tent in the current conditions. In the tent made for two the four of us somehow manage to stretch out and get some sleep. At times the wind whips the tent pushing the sides almost on top of us at to the failpoint of the tent. At one point, in a particularly vicious gust, one of the tent poles snaps, luckily separating at a joint. We are all very awake. Harold gets out to inspect the damage and is able to get the pole back together.

Race Day 06. Sunday, February 13th
We wake up to find the tent in one piece and the weather much improved. It still rains intermittently, and the clouds move at a frighteningly fast pace across the sky. But we get pockets of sun. The improved weather made up for getting stranded again, and the terrible night. I decide to set up my Nemo tent to get some shots in the beautiful scenery, and as a precautionary measure for whether or not the helicopter comes back to pick us up today. Harold looks at me, his mouth gaping from astonishment. “You had a tent?” Behind that speechless gaze he was really saying, “We were crammed in that tiny tent like sardines all night, none of us barely getting any sleep, and you didn’t bother to solve the issue just by setting up your tent?” “Ah,” I say, “I told you when we landed that I had a tent. I was just holding onto the hope that we would get picked up by the helicopter.”

The spectacular views from PC10

“Double rainbow all the way across the sky!”

The hum of the helicopter in the distance alerts us to it’s arrival before it can be seen among the surround peaks. They’re coming to pick us up! The craft lands on the patch of turba where it left us, and weary racers jump out. All of us in camp hurry over to pull their bags and get them safely away from the helicopter. The teams had gotten stuck. They couldn’t cross a swollen river, and they had already missed the cutoff for reaching PC10. The helicopter had to make three separate trips to pick up the three teams: The Japanese, the Danes, and the mostly American team, Perdido en el Turbal.

The unprotected hands of Danish racer Niels Torp took a beating in the unrelenting dense forests

Kay Waki (Japan, East Wind) enjoys a bit of sunshine at PC10

Although they did not finish, Team East Wind remained in good spirits.

Just another double rainbow.

Finally Brian and I load onto the helicopter that takes us out of the mountains, over the fjords, and drops us on a cattle ranch which is PC13, my home for the next four days.

Spectacular views of the fjords from the helicopter en route to PC13

The teams that made it to PC11, after 60 kilometers of biking, 105 kilometers of kayaking, and 150 kilometers of trekking, had a powow with the leaders of race. The weather was worse than expected, the terrain more intense. The teams were worn to the core. Eventually everyone came to agree: to send the teams out for the rest of the trekking section would put them in too much danger. The race would continue from PC13 on bikes to the finish.

The mountains give way to forests, which open up into plains. I imagine if the race teams had finished the last trekking section, the flat lands would have been a much needed reprise from gruelling mountain passes. The trees are twisted into grotesque shapes after years of weather beating them down. The winds sweeping out of the mountains bring ever changing conditions. You never know from hour to hour what will come next. But from the edge of the forest bordering the open fields of the cattle ranch you can see each new system tearing towards you, giving you just enough warning from the rain to jump into a tent.

Landing in the helicopter, people wonder out of the woods and into the clearing to see who is arriving. Seemingly everyone involved with the race congregated at the last checkpoint, PC13. Large geometric domed tents covered with the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race logo line the field, and more are semi hidden in the woods. These serve as headquarters for the media, the medical staff, etc. British Pete, who is in charge of all the biking logistics, fills the barn with all the teams’ bikes and supplies. German Peter takes over a shack to use as his kitchen, and he creates pretty spectacular meals to feed the thirty plus volunteers, interns, staff, and media. Tents of every different shape and color scatter throughout the woods just beyond the clearing. This camp doesn’t look like its going anywhere soon…and it isn’t.

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