Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The last Wild Race - Wilder than Wild

At 12 midnight on the 12th Feb, we set off at speed through the night leaving from Puerto Natales heading North towards Torres Del Paine National Park. Our team strategy was to go hard for the first 2 checkpoints and as we (Team Berghaus) sped off we found oursleves as the front of the field with only the 2 clear favourites ahead, Team EastWind from Japan and Team Adidas Terrex from the UK. The 108km cycle on a very bumpy track took us 6.5hrs and as dawn broke we rolled into the first transition in 3rd place, only 10 minutes behind the Japaneese team.

We had to breakdown out bikes before putting them in their boxes and feed ourselves before setting off on the next stage, a 28km trek. This was beautiful and fairly easy going despite some steep assending. For the only time on this expedition there would be a path to follow. After 6km, however the path disapeared and the fun began. We pushed hard in order to try and catch our nearest rivals. Our first river crossing soon came into sight but i was not ready to wave goodbye to my dry feet so decided to take off my shoes and socks and cross barefoot. Looking back this was the best thing I did as I then had dry feet for the next section which was a Glacier crossing.

The trek went on and large slabs of rock began to appear out of nowhere, we climbed and descended, sometimes on very steep rock. I was delighted to be wearing my OROC inov-8´s as they quite simply loved any terrain I put them on. By now we had a swarm of photographers following us capturing our every moves. They were really nice guys from all over the world who had heard about the race and wanted to have the opporutnity to take amazing pictures in an amzing part of the world. As a photographer not only do they need to search out the best shots they also need to be very fit in order to keep up with the teams whilst carrying very heavy camera equipment. I admired them for their work.

After 6hrs of trekking, we reached Glacier Campo del Heilo and check point 2. It was the most wonderful sight I´d ever seen. Birgit and Stjepan were there also and seemed very suprised to see us come in in 3rd place.I was feeling very strong and raring to go. We put on our C1 crampons and headed off over the Glacier. At first is was flat but after only 10 minutes cracks began to appear which gradually became larger and larger turning into great big cravasses of over 40m´s deep. It was very frustrating not to be able to walk in a straightline to our next check point and instead and to weave in and out of cravass fields. At first the cravasses were small so we jumped over them, sometime helping to catch each other as they got bigger. I was preparing to leap over a particularly large cravasse and planted my poles but as my crampon landed on the near verticle slope my ankle gave way and I began to slide. I kicked out my other leg against the opposite wall to stop myself from sliding and Fred, my team mate managed to grab the hood of my jacket before I slide any further. I had sprained my ankle badly and it began to swell.

I got up immediately and carried on cravasse hopping. In the briefing we´d been told it would be a 10k crossing but ended up being 17k. Seeing check point 3 half way up the mountain was great and it was at this point that we´d learned that 1 team hadn´t made CP1 with a further 3 not making CP2. We knew cut offs were tight but this was very tight. It turned out that later that night another team missed check point 3 also. There were now only 4 teams left in the race and we were in 4th position. Another team had managed to pass up on the Glacier....route choice was very much down to luck.

It was beginning to get dark and we were now onto a 35km trek stage and this was where the definition of trekking begins to be re-defined. We were on a step mountain side in dense forest. The maps we had were very basic showing a suggested route which took us straight through this dense forest, which mean´t if we parted by more than a few meteres it would be very easy to lose each other. Our pace slowed at times to 500m per hour as we fought to get through trees, swamp, bogs and almost verticle terrain. The light had now gone and we were going up and down, up and down. We lost a little confidence and decided to put up our tent for the first time in 36hrs. We shivered for 4hrs until the light came and were on the move again.

Re-setting our bearing we then headed off, still in dense forest to check point 4. The trek went on and on and after having negotiated a river crossing by zipwire, crossed dense forest and made full use out of my trekking poles we caught up with the Gear Junkies, the American Team that passed us on the Glacier. We were now back in 3rd position. We managed to find ourselves perched yet again on very unsuitable terrain as night fell and so we all decided to set up camp for a 4hr sleep before sun rose again. Once again it was a freezing night and now my sleeping bag was soaked through. I even took to sleeping in my full waterproofs. First time for everything!

The next morning we packed up quickly and headed off for the last 6hrs to check point 4. Shortly before arriving at the check point and still early in the morning, around 7am , we came across a torent of water gushing off the mountains. At first look it was far too dangerous to cross so we walked up river for a while until we found a large flat section. Still flowing at a very fast rate, we all knew that this would be our first swim. I immediately began to strip off leaving just my pants, race vest, gaitors and trainers on. I placed my rucksack into my drybag that I was carrying and with no though jumped straight in. I swam hard to ferry glide across to the other side of the 20m river and ended up 100m´s further downstream. I´d attached my rucksack with a strap around my arm and neck but somehow had managed to swim out of it. Luckily, Neil, my team mate had seen this and caught up with it before it was too late and the bag would be no more. After yet more early morning bush wacking we finally arrived at the edge of a lake and Check Point 4. Just across the otherside we could see the Gear Junkies having just made the crossing.

At first I didn´t even register but when I finally opened up my eyes and looked around, I saw that the lake was at the based of the Glacier that we have crossed earlier in the trek and there were massive icebergs floating around. I couldn´t quite believe what I was seeing. Admiration for the surrounding was quickly interputed as our next task was now to get to the otherside of the lake and to catch the Gear Junkies up. The organisation had provided blow up inflatable kayaks for us to cross safely to the other side and as I paddle with the great Glacier towering down into the water on my left and the large icebergs floating comfortably in the water on my right, I had a moment of amazement. It was almost too much to take in all at once. We each paddled across , one by one and having the Gear Junkies only about 20 minutes ahead of us at this stage we were determined to catch them up.

We began a very long ascent to reach check point 5 and the temperature was now right down to freezing point. The terrain was very tough going with a combination of turba (soft spongy like bog) and dense forest. Fred has slowed right up due to blisters on his feet. I was still feeling strong. Nearing the top of Mt xxx the wind was gale force and I had to focus to stay on my feet. We were now turely in a place were humans do not go. At the top of the mountain I could see a huge long valley disaperaing off to the South which we would now be negotiating. I could see valley after valley and mountain after mountain with absolutely no civerlisation for days. It was exciting and scarey and all I had in my bag was a wet sleeping bag and some very meagre rations. I was wearing all of my clothes so had no spares left.

Check point 5 was a virtual check point. meaning it was not manned and hence once we found the flags we stamped our card and began immediately the descent. The large valley opened up to our right as we traversed, initally at speed but soon slowing up as the terrain became steeper and far more technical. We´d been descending for over 5hrs when we once again hit dense forest. The ground began to fall away steeply to our left and soon we were balancing on trees branches on near verticle ground. To make things worse the light was fading and having now spent 3hrs covering 1km we were fully committed. All of a sudden we hit a cliff edge and began to panic. As our headtorches hurridly scoured out the options, we feared for the worst and even began to discuss calling in helicopter rescue. We knew we needed to get down but it was now far too dangerous to carry out without roping up. We quickly pulled the rope out of Neil´s bag and slung it around a tree. Neal then absailed first and after 5minutes of desending into the unknow, his foot hit horizonal ground, only 2m´s short of the end of the rope. He yelled up to us and Thomas went next, followed by myself and then Fred. We´d been very lucky on this occasion and as soon as we found a flat spot to erect our tent we settled in for the hours of darkness.

In the morning, after still not much sleep, I found myself lying in a stream! We had managed to pitch the tent on a low laying patch which after the overnight rain had become a stream. I was drenched, freezing and very raring to get moving. Our camp routine by now had slipped and we were spending far to much time sorting things out. I knew that I could get packed up and ready to go in less than 5 minutes but I didn´t want to be standing around waiting for the others so it was frustrating to be sitting in the tent every morning waiting for my moment to begin to pack up when I figured the others were about 5mins away for being ready to move. For me the stopping was the worst thing.

We trekked on and soon got to lower ground. My feet were beginning to freeze as the water was Glacial melt water and in parts thigh deep.

We soon reached check point 7, on day 5, and had completed the 118km foot stage which turned out to be more like 150km. As we arrived at the check point we were informed that we'd missed the cut off. We were one of 4 teams left on the course and in the end every team has to take a short course just in order to finish the race.

After a day of rest we headed back out on the course to check point 15 and 16 to climb Mt Tarn and were greated by the most wonderful views I have ever seen. The top of the mountain has deep in snow but my cold toes were now beginning to complain....I had mild forstbite!

On the 22nd Feb we attended the prize giving and we were delighted to be awarded 4th price. We were one of only 4 teams to stay on the course, which turns out to be the toughest race ever run.

Oh, and here'e my bad hair picture (compulsory part of every expedition I do!)