February 24, 2011
They call it “the last wild race,” and each February a group of international adventurers travels to southern Chile in an attempt to tame it. At hundreds of miles in length, and traversing some of the deepest wilderness on Earth, few succeed in subjugating the monster of a course that is the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race.
Team GearJunkie.com, a group of three guys and one girl, myself included, traveled to Chile this month for a second go around with the beast. My team had finished in 4th place in the 2010 event. The 2011 edition of the race, its ninth running, included trekking in swamps, mountain climbs, icy swims, kayaking in fjords, map and compass navigation, and mountain biking in and through some of the most epic terrain the planet can offer.
We packed bags of gear and food in preparation for the event. In the sport of adventure racing, you switch disciplines to traverse long swaths of wild land. You hunt for checkpoints along a vague course, a choose-your-own-adventure where a compass needle and a topo map are the only allowed navigational aids.
You get lost. In Patagonia, there are few trails and little sign of human passage. Teams are often alone for days on the race course, which has a nine-day limit from start to end. You follow animal footprints. You read the land.
You sleep in the woods. You eat on the run, thousands of calories a day. The race clock starts ticking at the “Go!” on day one, and it does not stop until your team — always together for the entire event — staggers a week or more later across the finish line.
Gear keeps you alive. This “last wild race” is also the world’s most ultimate gear test. You live out of a backpack. Base layers are your second skins. Waterproof jackets are thin, life-saving shells from the weather, which in Patagonia can be some of the world’s worst.
My team pushed our bodies and our gear to utter ends. We tore skin as well as nylon and wool. My shins swelled. I snapped two trekking poles in half. Our shoes and gloves were destroyed.
Team GearJunkie.com — comprised of myself, Jason Magness, Chelsey Gribbon, and Daniel Staudigel — took gutsy moves. Some paid off, others put us behind. We climbed an exposed mountain pass on day three of the race that all the other teams avoided, saving hours and getting ahead. We swam in a fjord, backpacks on, floating and pulling on kelp stalks for forward momentum.
Scouting the maps early on, we noticed a serendipitous river snaking along the course edge and immediately thought “shortcut!” After trekking for a day and a half, at the river’s edge we inflated our camp pads to float the whitewater. The current pulled us downstream on a free ride for 45 minutes while other teams struggled trekking in the muck.
On day five of the event, in second place, we made the biggest gamble of the race, swimming an icy glacial lake to avoid a mountain climb. The one-kilometer crossing would save us hours of time on the feet, inching us toward first-place Team AdidasTERREX/Prunesco.
On the shore of the lake, I squinted to see the far side. I blew up my camp pad again, the puffy NeoAir model from Therm-a-Rest, and jumped in. The pad, as well as a dry suit from Kokatat we’d hauled along on the trek, gave us float and protection from the icy lake.
But 30 minutes into the swim we were all screaming in cold pain. The water was zapping our core temps, hypothermia a real threat. We got out of the water and hurriedly pulled out our tent, wrapping up our four wet and frozen bodies for collaborative heat in the nylon fly.
We shivered and eventually recovered, an hour of time slipping by in the tent and then packing up. Our “big move” had been a bust, slowing us down and allowing the team ahead to gain more time.
In the mountains of Patagonia, egos crack and teams break down. Less than half the racers make it to the end. Despite the trials this year, Team GearJunkie.com kept it together for almost seven days straight.
In the end, damaged but not beaten down, my team managed to grab second place. The “last wild race” lived up to its promise. It was a ragged course that pushed teams raw. In southern Chile, near the tip of the continent and a literal end of the Earth, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
—Stephen Regenold is founder of Gear Junkie. Read more on Team GJ’s experience in the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race at GearJunkie.com/Patagonian-Race.
- Race Updates
- Patagonian Photo Gallery
Take a spin through the 2010 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race photo gallery.
- Meet the YogaSlackers
GearJunkie.com has teamed with three members of the YogaSlackers adventure group for the Patagonian Race. yogaslackers.com.