Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Patagonian Expedition Race Part 2: Breakfast of Champions- "White bread and Jam"
On the morning of the race, we woke up to a breakfast for champions: white bread and jam with instant coffee. … we headed for the bus that would take us to the start of the race at the “end of the world.” 4 hours later, after driving 2 hours and taking a ferry across the Magelean Straight (kayaking across it was canceled due to 50 mph crosswinds) we arrived at the starting line.
The barren rocky beach looked like it belonged in a scene from the post-apocalyptic film, "The Road". The austere desolation was not without a wild beauty. Race officials gathered the teams for the final briefing. They warned us in their non-native english - "you must stay on beach until until checkpoint one. Up on grass it look nicer, yes, but there are booms. And no eating fish, deadly muscles." As we stood confused, trying to make sense of the important cautions we'd just recieved, the race director shouted “Welcome to Patagonia!” and fired the gun. (Turns out there were old land mines littering the shoreline right off the beach, and it was the time of year called "red tide" so mussels were poisonous to eat...)
The first 36 hours were windy, frustrating and hungry. The landscape of Northern Tierra De Fuego is a lot like North Dakota, only with stronger winds. I literally got blown off my bike at one point, and had to crawl across a ridgeline another time because the winds were so crazy. At the 2nd checkpoint, our food and new maps hadn't arrived. For the next 18 hours, we subsisted off of the support crew’s food donations as we struggled to find the final trekking check point without the right map. Navigating off trail with the 1: 200,000 overview map was something akin to finding a little brown needle in a large brown haystack.
Physically, I was feeling weak and Stephen had carried my entire pack the first 13 miles. Emotionally I was frusterated at my weakness. By the time we finally got to the checkpoint, we ravished through the food bag, put our bikes together and were off. Oh, the bliss of using new muscle groups and having food! I was a happy girl, and was starting to feel my “zen” zone come.
The start of this long bike was amazing. We followed rough muddy trails downhill for miles, racing against the quickly coming darkness. When the shadows started playing games with us and our eyelids could no longer stay up on their own, we squeezed into a 2 person tent for a few hours. Just before sunrise we were on our bikes with 70 more miles to go. The further south we rode, the better the scenery got, which made me more and more excited to crest the upcoming hills. Stephen on the other hand, was singing a different tune. “I don’t know what hurts worse” He said while lying down on the side of the road “my body, or the fact that the girl who had a miscarriage 7 days ago is taking weight from me so I can keep up with her.” I smiled, knowing I was just repaying his kindness from the start. 120 miles after we left the last checkpoint, we had made it to our food bag and the start of the infamous monster trekking section.
With only 5 hours of daylight left, we set out with enough food and gear to sustain us for 2 and half days in the mountains. Jason, in his optimism, assured us that we would be done in 48 hours. After bushwhacking straight up (literally technical and dangerous jungle cliff climbing) for 5 hours, I had a strange urge to paint mud stripes on my face as if I were about to go to war. My handholds had been either a trekking pole, Daniels shoe, moss, or tree roots. The bushwhacking continued on for the next 3 and half days. There were times when we would be averaging 1 km an hour. We hiked up and over countless mountain passes, crossed countless rivers, balance beam walked across 100’s of beaver dams and trudged through miles and miles of turbal. Turbal is the Spanish word for peat bog. It is really squishy moss with random pockets of mud that could swallow me whole. This was my greatest fear. The quicksand scene from the Princess Bride with the “rodents of unusual size” waiting for me at the bottom of the sink hole was on repeat in my mind for a good portion of the turbal sections. After mile 20 of the turbal however, I'd mastered all of it’s levels and was ready for a new game.
The ropes section on the course wasn’t quite the game I had in mind, infact, I wasn’t even planning on it being a challenge for me. When we showed up to the rappel station and they proceeded to give me an XL harness and a grigri (a device generally used for belaying and not rappelling), I felt a little twinge in my stomach. I proceeded to go along with it until I was stopped in mid rappel by my own hair. It had gotten stuck in the grigri. There I was screaming, suspended 50 feet in the air on a single rope rappel. There was only one thing for me to do. I pulled the full lock of my hair out from my scalp, and watched it fall to the ground. The guys had a better trip down. Luckily at the next ropes section, my luck was better.
At midnight that same day we showed up at the checkpoint with a tyrolean traverse that went across the river. Since Daniel was the youngest, we made him test it out first. It was cold, we were tired, and the guy manning the set-up only spoke Spanish. Before Daniel could even figure out what was going to happen, he slid down the line and was in the river attached to the rope. All we heard was his screaming, while the guy on the other side pulled him slowly through the river. When he made it to the other side, he was sopping wet. I was next, and I was terrified.
I stripped down as much as I could and prepared for a cold plunge. Without much warning, I was pulled off from bank I was on, and preparing for the shock of the icy water. Before I knew it though, I was across the river completely dry! Apparantly the weight limit was 105 pounds. Jason and Stephen didn’t fare as well, but thanks to Daniel, they knew what to expect. That night, after trying to navigate and bushwhack in the dark, we passed out in the forest on the side of a steep hill.
Jason’s 48 hours had come and gone. Despite being able to find and follow the Guanaco (a streamlined energetic lama like creature) trails as well as master the art of bushwhacking and turbal trudging, we were still only half way through the trekking section. We started to ration our food to 100 calories per hour (normally 250) and picked up the pace as best we could.
By dark thirty on the third night, we had scrambled up to the highest checkpoint of the race, an alpine lake just over 700 meters in elevation. One more treacherous pass awaited us and then, according to the maps it was mostly flat or downhill. A cold rain started to fall so we decided to pitch our tents and wait until first light thinking that the pass would be safer in the morning. Little did we know, things were about to get real.