Chile: Patagonian Expedition Race 2013

The Race: The Patagonian Expedition Race is considered to be the pinnacle of adventure racing by many of the teams that make it here to compete.  Always located relatively near Punta Arenas, Chile, the race covers a different route each year, usually 600-1000 kilometers over about 10 days and includes trekking, mountain biking and kayaking. The race was founded by Stjepan Pavicic, a native of Punta Arenas with a strong passion for the outdoors and adventure sports. He started an organization called NIGSA, which runs the race each year as well as the Patagonian International Marathon in September.

The 2013 Patagonian Expedition Race covered a distance of 701km (436 miles) and 11 teams from seven countries came to compete.  The teams are required to pass through various checkpoints throughout the race (2013's race had 17), but each team is left to its own navigation skills with only a map and compass, and they are allowed to take any route they choose as long as they make it to each checkpoint.  The teams race through pure wilderness bushwhacking through forests, mountains, turbal (peat bogs), ice-cold rivers, and everything that Patagonia has to offer. Only three teams crossed the finish line in 2013: 1st place went to Adidas-TERREX from the UK with their 5th consecutive win, 2nd went to East Wind from Japan, and 3rd went to GearJunkie/YogaSlackers from the USA. It’s a bit hard to fathom how long 700km is. For people back in the States, it would be similar to going from Chicago to Nashville, or round trip from New York City to Boston. Teams are doing this with just a few hours of sleep per night, in freezing rain and 50 mph+ winds, with wet clothes, wet sleeping bags and just a rain fly for shelter for 8-10 days. They really are a breed of super athletes (though Sally from team Adidas told me that anyone can do it…).  I often viewed Iron Man races as sort of the hardest thing out there, but after seeing what these teams go through, I was surprised to learn how under-the-radar Expedition Class adventure racing is for most of the general public.

The Work: I ended up being a volunteer photographer/cameraman during the race, working with a team of 11 other cameramen in order to film 2013's documentary. Each year the race puts together a documentary that gets shown in film festivals and TV across the world in order to gain more publicity for the race and its sponsors, as well as to show the incredible landscape of this region of Patagonia and what the teams go through in order to cross it.

After a midnight start on mountain bikes at the Plaza de Armas in Puerto Natales and filming the teams at night from the back of a pickup truck on the back roads outside Torres del Paine National Park, I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to ride in an air force helicopter for the first day of shooting. Once we confirmed that at least four teams were crossing the Tyndall Glacier, Jose Manuel (one of the directors) and I went up with five members of the air force to film them crossing a section of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The terrain had the potential to be very dangerous and almost impassible depending on the route they took, as you’ll see in some of the photos. Flying just above the crevasses and huge ice formations of the glacier appeared as if we were looking at a different planet.

For the next portion, I went to Checkpoint 8, which was a transition point from mountain bikes to kayaks prior to the teams crossing the water in front of Puerto Natales. It wasn’t exactly wilderness, but the other two volunteers and I had a nice time there during our three-day wait for the teams to pass.

After that I went to Checkpoint 13 with another volunteer. It was one of the windiest spots of the race. We took turns holding up the dome tent that housed our basic supplies, often losing the never-ending battle. Team East Wind arrived during some of the worst of the wind and said that it took them 5 hours to go 40km on the bikes.  For both Adidas-TERREX and East Wind, I walked with the teams for a few kilometers along the next trekking section.

When Team Gearjunkies arrived, they asked me to come along for the entire next section of the trekking, adding that they’d be going slow as one member of their team suffered from tendonitis in her ankle. We walked 35km over 13 hours with very few brief stops, slept for a few hours, and then walked another 5 kilometers the next morning to get to their next transition point where their bikes were waiting for them. Even though that section of the route was apparently one of the more easy portions of the race and that they were already several hundred kilometers into the race, I had trouble keeping up. I’m not used to descending steep muddy ravines and coming back up the other side huffing and puffing only to see my fellow hikers already 100 meters away. The route constantly changed between bouncy wet turbal (peatbogs) and dense forest – long enough in each portion to make you appreciate the change to the different terrain. All in all, despite the sore legs, it was an incredible experience to join the team and film them in action, and I am very grateful to Gearjunkies for letting me tag along.

The race has several other volunteers who help during the race, mostly to tend the checkpoints, transport gear, and perform general organization. The volunteer group was fairly big, about 20 people or so from all over the world, and they were a lot of fun. The race provides food and accommodation (camping when you’re at your checkpoint) in return for your help, and I’d recommend it to anyone that has a few weeks to spare in February.

How You Can Help: The race is paid for by sponsors and that is the biggest way for people to help. If you know of a growing company that would like to put their name on one of the toughest adventure events in the world, set in pristine Patagonian wilderness, performing a variety of adventure sports in mountains, forests, glaciers, iceberg-filled lakes, fiords, and Patagonian steppe, please get in touch with Stjepan Pavicic, the race founder, or their organization at info@patagonianexpeditionrace.com.

Volunteering is another great way to help. The biggest times for when they need volunteer help is during the adventure race in February and during the marathon they put on each year in Torres del Paine National Park in September.