Patagonian Expedition Race 2012

“Absolutely amazing race, impossible to compare with any races which I’ve done before”- Maria Plyashechko, after completing the Patagonian Expedition Race, 2012.

After 6 years of racing, I eventually got there - to the finish line of the Patagonian Expedition Race; the Last Wild Race, the adventure at the end of the World. What else to say…. I have been dreaming about it since the moment when I first heard about adventure races.


The place and course.

Race HQ was at Punta Arenas, the southernmost city of Antartica Chilena, originally established as a penal colony but now quite a busy tourist place. The first impression I got when we landed there, was the chilly cold, the windy and that everyone only speaks Spanish. Even though it was middle of Summer and 7th of February when I arrived, I had on two fleece tops and a Gore-tex top as final protection, but still was shivering under the incredibly strong wind which nearly blew away my bike box. This was the 10th anniversary of the Patagonian Race and as far as I know, all previous Race HQs were at the same time but course is always different. 

This year the course was set in remote areas of Terra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) archipelago. It included crossings of the World’s roughest waters at Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel, passing the highlands of Cordillera Darwin - places where you are rarely able to get to other than by entering the Patagonian Expedition Race. The initial plan of the organisers was to finish in Cape Horn, but we were lucky enough to avoid that and instead the race was over an area slightly north of it. This part of the World is famous for wild nature, extremely miserable winds, fantastic landscapes, tough terrain and 150000 beavers, who literally created their own environment with massive dams and large areas of mowed forest.



The main feature of this race is that it's literally an epic. It's not just long, cold and tough - it's huge both mentally and physically. At first glance, distances seems to be reasonable - just 560 km and consisting of only 6 stages -  but it does not create the right impressions about the enormity of the race. Let's just say that in my racing career I've done races covering over 1000 km, with some stages around 300 km, the worst you could describe them as, was ‘long’. The Patagonian Race, on the other hand, is a true expedition style event in that it stops being a race for most of the teams - for us, somewhere around the first half of the race, it became a battle to stay alive. Yes, its serious!

 About my team

Days and hours of preparations passed quickly. Extensive lists of compulsory equipment were sorted out and my team Red Fox/Gore-Tex, after some difficulties travelling with the heaps of luggage, arrived in Punta Arenas. I raced with three of my good friends from Russia; not very fast racers but really nice guys, and experienced enough to deal with long distance, the cold, horrible map, lack of sleep, food and discomfort. The main thing that describes them – they are absolutely positive and have the right attitude. Our team's goal was to complete the course. Pavel was our navigator - very experienced in rogaining and adventure racing. Alex was our kayaking specialist - one of the most experienced Russian adventure racers, with a great deal of kayaking experience. The 4th member was Maxim - he is a very fit guy who lives in a very remote part of Central Russia, far from the adventure racing centres, but he 

still manages to finish most of Russian expedition-style events.

This was our team, supported by one of the best Russian outdoor brands, Red Fox who supplied us with multiple items that you need to survive in these conditions. Besides that, we were given support from Adventure Guide (if you decide to travel to Russia and want to organise something in the outdoors, you now know where to go and Explore Karelia (these guys are running sea, river kayaking and rafting tours across the North-West region of Russia Additionally, many of our friends across the globe helped us with some equipment and a lot of advice, which really was critical.

As for most international events, you have to pass multiple gear and skills checks, attend a number of ceremonies including a briefing and the handing out of maps, which were held during two days before the start. Again, we had a bit of rush with packing of boxes, sorting the right food, but it's a normal pre-racing process and you just need to get through it. In Punta Arenas, these ceremonies were held in a few different spots around the town, so we were lucky that I had spent a few days before the race getting to know the place.

Start, stage 1 and 2

The start was at 2:30am on Valentine’s Day, with 75 km of bike riding, where teams split in to three peletons, finishing about 40 minutes apart from the first to the last one. Then teams got out their dry suits and headed off to the Magellan Strait. This is 27 km of open water which ended up on Isla Dawson with 10 km of dragging the kayaks!  Organisers had warned us that this was a taste of things to come. Exhausted and after towing these Necky Amaruks (not the lightest boats around), teams reached CP3 by the afternoon. The next paddle was a bit easier - in

the waters of Fiorda Owen - about 26 km in length finishing at CP 4. Here the race was stopped until early the next morning, when it was another mass start leading to the next ‘big waters’ crossing to Terra Del Fuego Island. So teams set up their tents and most went to bed around sunset. 

Part of the compulsory equipment was a tent and 4 sleeping bags with comfort zone 0, so everyone enjoyed a great night on the shore. 

About hour before sunrise, we started the second part of the kayak leg (ok, it was actually the third if dragging them is considered as kayaking!) and after about 4 hours, and by late morning, we left the water on the windy shore of Terra Del Fuego.


At that moment, it seemed we’d done a serious part of the race – by crossing the Magellan Strait. However, we were about to find out that it had barely begun. 

As we approached the beach, close to the CP, one of our kayaks went to "right" place; my boat went to "wrong" place where flags and other boats were ashore. Anyway, Alex from my kayak, ran round to the "right" bay which was just around the corner, and brought the other two guys of our team and their kayak to the actual transition with a bit more of towing their kayak (a bit less significant though than the Dawson Island crossing).

Overall, the paddle was very pleasant, even though it was relatively long. 


Stage 3 

We were worried that we would be penalised by splitting up as we came ashore. But fortunately for us, the officials appeared to be more interested in problems with the transition gear. They were trying to sort out team gear, and did not have our transportation bags ready for the collection of kayaking equipment. 


There was a chilling wind. But there were some abandoned houses and some teams tried to hide from the wind there. We decided to just get changed out of our wet gear. The idea, to run a bit after the hours spent in the kayaks, seemed to be very attractive and after organising all our stuff, we headed off on the 4WD track along the coast, to the next TA, where we got our first gear box.

I can't say exactly what scale the map was (for different sections of the course we had maps ranging from 500m to 3 km in 1 square) for that leg, but a huge amount of generalisation was the main characteristic of maps used for this Race. They showed 20 metre contours, water bodies and very approximate borders of bush, turba and open areas. No roads at all - not even for the bike sections. However, this was not the time to complain about maps - we were on a road and we needed to run the small bits of the course where running was actually possible. We did not run for long, bearing in mind that backpacks were loaded with a massive amount of equipment, but we cruised the down-hills and along some flat sections. Arriving at the TA was really pleasant. We caught up few teams along the way and met others in TA - then we were provided with hot tea and cheered by the Navy and some local tourists. 

 After the TA, we expected to have around 55-60 km of trekking up to the next TA with gear and food. If you did not take into account the surrounding terrain, you might think that it would be a maximum 10 or maybe 12 hours of racing - but that's not possible in Patagonia. Massive bogs, beavers’ dams, rivers, unmarked gullies with crazy huge logjams make your progress incredibly slow. So we expected to spend about 20 to 30 hours on this trek. We had only one CP during this section and plenty of route choices.

Then more problems - after few hours of walking at night, we lost our second compass, and our navigator decided to try to find it. The rest of us decided do not waste the time and went to sleep. The compass was not found, but we slept for about 4 hours, so the next day we felt fresh and shiny. A few teams passed us during the night but not one of us really cared much about that. We still had at least five to seven days to go and with only one compass left - that bothered us much more than teams getting ahead of us.

Anyway, eventually we got to CP 7 (the only one on this trek) and we were told that trek, for some reason, had been extended by 17 more kilometres!!  “That's fine” we replied, “that’s what we came for, more unexpected challenges!”, and we headed off to do the last bit. The last bit was supposed to follow the walking tracks first, and then gravel road. The first track we could not find and had to resort to bush bushing for a few more extra hours. The next gravel road part was not bad at all, though, so we finished the stage by sunset.

 Stage 4


Again there was a horrible wind at sunset. We ate food, then mounted our bikes, and went off to the road, which seemed to be quite good and fast. However, although we slept the previous night, the long monotonous movement made us really tired again, so we decided to stop for couple of hours to look after our blisters (bearing in mind there was 140 km of trekking which laid ahead). And what a stroke of good luck we had at that point! There was a house near the road, with broken windows, but it was open and unlocked with a few mattresses inside. Of course, we took advantage of this situation and slept there, waking up warm and fresh again. We met the sunrise on the road as looked forward to starting a new exciting day. 

This biking stage was about 140 km, and after pushing bikes for some of it, we had only 123 km left, with only one significant climb (the last one, where we climbed a Mountain Pass in the Darwin Range) but there was a nice descent to follow as compensation. 


Stage 5


At the penultimate transition, we again met the Dancing Pandas team, chatted with them a bit, and loaded ourselves with food. We took all we could fit in our backpacks (plus a few more items in our hands) and attached another bag to each backpack, to increase the capacity. We heard stories from other teams that had run out of food - and it did not make us feel comfortable. This upcoming 140 km trek was expected to take from 3 to 5 days, so we needed to take as much food as we could. I could remember that I had come out in a cold sweat when I first had a look at the maps of this trek leg, at the briefing. 

You could divide this leg into 10 separate sections between each CP, with 9 mountain passes, no trails, no paths, nothing in there. In fact, you could only rely upon Guanaco trails and the footprints of fellow competitors. You could not even imagine what was going to be coming up until you got to the top of a pass and had a look down into the next valley which you needed to pass through. As I mentioned earlier, these maps had 20 metre contours, and they were heavily generalised (ie no detail). You had to guess where canyons were according the bunching of contour, but it was not always right. And of course, there were plenty of 10 metre high cliffs, which nicely sit between the contours that were shown, but were big enough to be a major obstacle. 



The first key event for us on this trek was the first CP 10, which had been cancelled by the race organisers - and we were not told about it! After looking for it for 2 hours, we left in frustration thinking we might be out of the race. CP 12 was a nice river crossing. After watching Masha, from Dancing Pandas, nearly taken away by the current, I opted not to cross the river via the rope and instead was forced to swim across, further upstream. Nothing serious came of it, but I had to be caught by my teammates on the other bank. 

After CP 14 we took the wrong valley and a French team followed us (ok, that was a good lesson for them not to follow other teams, but I did feel very sorry for them). It cost us at least 5 to 6 hours. Arriving at CP 17, we met an American team, and felt all their pain when they were forced to pull out after 8 days of racing. The last downhill on the last leg to TA, was problematic too. It caused us so much pain after losing our way. Instead of going along a nice easy ridge, we went straight down and made a serious circle - all of it without map, which we had lost in a canyon a few hours before. 

There were a lot of incidents on this trek. We got lost, nearly ran out of food, lost our map, moved quite slowly due to different health issues, but ultimately we made it to the finish and achieved our goal - to complete the course. This 140 km trek took over 4 days to complete. It was a massive experience for us - to handle all the difficulties and still make it to the finish.


Stage 6


We arrived at the TA near sunset and to our amazement, we were told that all the teams were still there. The conditions had been too hazardous to allow teams to continue. There was only one day left to allow the paddle to go ahead - tomorrow. So all teams were kept at the TA until the conditions were safe enough.

The location of this TA was really amazing - a line of sandy beach with a bit of bush to set up tents. The camping area looked very quiet; everyone seemed to be sleeping in readiness for the race to re-start. The sea did not look too friendly and although I was looking forward to a few hours of kayaking among glaciers, I was also half keeping my fingers crossed that they might cancel this leg. The thought of being finished was something we all craved.



However, at 4:30am, the alarm went off and we put our dry suits on. All 9 teams (apart from Dancing Pandas who were still suffering out on the last trek leg, trying to find their way to TA) were messing around at the kayaks. Even though most of teams spend at least a day and a night at the TA - no one looked fresh. Then some relief! After loading the kayaks with our gear, we were told that the paddle was cancelled and were told to go to the organizers tent, then wait for the ferry to arrive and load boats on to it. 

At about 7:30am, Dancing Pandas made their way into the TA (now the finish). I've never seen such empty and exhausted people before. They had lost their way and walked through the whole night, with terrible skin rashes on their feet. But they did make it in time!

It was about 10 or 11am, I can barely remember, but we got the kayaks loaded and then spent about another two days on the ferry, travelling to Punta Arenas and back to civilisation.