“The wind is blowing cold, the stars are shining, and the teams are at the starting line!” That was the last missive, sent via Twitter, minutes ago before the 2012 Patagonian Expedition Race (PER) began. The week-long endurance event, which Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers has raced in for three years now, is often dubbed the “world’s hardest” wilderness event or, another option, “the last wild race.”
Those lofty monikers are pretty accurate (I’ve raced the PER twice, last year finishing in 2nd place). But those superlatives reference the venue of the race more than the actual disciplines of biking, kayaking, trekking, and navigation. In the 400 or more miles it often takes to complete the PER course, racers face serious open ocean with waves and swells; the region’s infamous gusting winds; constant rain and chill; fast, cold rivers; and (this is the most key!) the stupefying and unrelenting thick vegetation that must be negotiated on treks that can last for literal days between checkpoint flags.
I am staying home from the action this year. Family and other obligations are keeping me in the northern hemisphere for now. But Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers is racing again, including my three mates from the 2010 and 2011 races (Jason Magness, Chelsey Gribbon-Magness, and Daniel Staudigel), plus my friend and fellow YogaSlacker Paul Cassedy (who is taking my place).
Last year, in the 2011 race, Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers put up quite the effort, including winning the initial bike stage, free-soloing a huge 4th class wall (that all other teams avoided), and then trekking on the tails of the first-place Team Adidas Terrex for days. We inflated Therm-a-Rest camp pads deep in the Patagonian wilderness once to float a river (the video proof is here!). We then swam a mile-wide glacial lake and fought the near-hypothermia that was the result.
We never did catch Adidas Terrex last year, and in the end we had to settle for second place. GearJunkie/YogaSlackers is back now, squinting to see if they can take the win. Who knows, though. Despite the experience of two previous races, the PER can pick anyone up and spit them out. I talked to Jason Magness, who’s serving as captain again this year, a few hours before the race began tonight. “The race starts at 2:30a.m., or in about 6 hours from now, so I will be sleeping in a few. The field is stacked this year! Tons of super strong teams, the best field ever out here in Patagonia. Will be fun.”
The race this year begins on bikes. After a few hours, the teams (19 four-person squads) will transfer to kayaks and push off into the Strait of Magellan for a crossing to Tierra del Fuego. Trekking and mountain biking will lead the teams through the Darwin Mountains and finally to the Beagle Channel, a narrow fjord-like passage near South America’s very tip.
Jason continued, noting some pre-race troubles, “My RAB Neoshell jacket was stolen from the hostel yesterday, with my gloves… sucks. So I am going to wear Daniel’s backup size XL shell. It’s so big I feel like a clown.”
He noted some drama, too, and a close call: “Been SUPER windy all day today. Yesterday, while on a ride to test bikes, Chelsey hit a weird edge on the boardwalk and crashed at 15mph on the pavement. Cracked her helmet….but only has a really stiff neck today.”
Let’s hope the mal drama stops now for GearJunkie/YogaSlackers. But with this race, with this big open course, that is an unlikely hope to say the least. Jason noted a few details from the race maps before cutting out: “Big Kayak legs. Big portage. Time for sleep.” I say good night, too, and good luck guys!
The racers are on the course now, fighting the winds already. By morning they’ll be in their boats, paddling big water toward the oblivion of Tierra del Fuego beyond. 600 total kilometers and days of racing lie ahead. We’re with our team in spirit and with our friends on other squads racing now toward the end.
—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie.com. Follow the site this week and through February 22 as we report on the 2012 Patagonian Expedition Race.