Will Gray reports from the finish line of a wild race that takes adventurers into the heart of spectacular Patagonia
For the past ten days, the ‘Last Wild Race’ has been living up to its name, taking a group of 76 international adventurers on a spectacular but arduous journey by foot, kayak and bike through Patagonia to the ‘end of the world’.
For most competitors, winning is not the target. In fact, even reaching the finish is a lofty ambition, given the event is recognised as the toughest of its type, with a typical completion rate of less than 50%.
The old cliché ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ never rung so true than here, where for most the target is simply to stay on the course for as long as possible to get the most that they can out of this incredibly unique – some might say insane – way to visit a popular destination with travellers.
The race attracts an incredibly diverse range of people, drawn not by prize money – there is none – but by its spirit of adventure, emotion and conservation.
Teachers, lawyers, nurses, yoga instructors, army sergeants and dentists all sit on the same level, with backgrounds quickly becoming irrelevant as the simple human tasks of eating, drinking and finding the way, take centre stage. In a race where the only core element many try to do without is sleep, the mental strength of competitors is as important as their physical fitness.
Since the previous race blog, which caught the teams on the third leg of the journey, having already knocked off a 46-mile mountain bike and a 53-mile kayak to ease them into proceedings, it’s been wild in more ways than one.
Already by then two teams had turned back to Punta Arenas. By the time everyone had made it out of the Karukinka forests and biked down a long stretch of Chilean Tierra del Fuego, a few more had bitten the dust. But that was really just the start.
From there, the teams set off into the mighty Darwin Range, on a 100-mile trek through an unexplored world of ice-capped summits that marks the end of the Andes. This is going remote, even for Patagonia: think back-country Alaska... and then take two steps beyond.
Aside from the single new trail through the Karukinka reserve, this is a massive expanse of wilderness only reachable on its edges, with paths in the interior marked only by guanaco footprints.
Deep in the bush, teams had to hop, swing, push and claw their way through the thick forest and often found themselves 10ft in the air without knowing they had been climbing.
When the weather is as good as it was this year, the high mountain regions become a landscape of sparkling lakes and glistening untouched snowfields, while condors glide through endless stretches of open sky. It truly is as wild as anything on Frozen Planet.
For the teams trekking through, days passed without any human contact other than the occasional relieving sight of checkpoints, where race staff were stationed to check for safety and supplies.
For those who join the field for fun, the opportunities to visit such unique locations are worth all the physical and mental endurance it takes – but for those who want to win they almost pass without second glance.
In the Valle Profundo, for example, soon after the start of the Darwin range, a giant 70m abseil took teams down into a deep valley, offering a stunning vista and a truly wild experience.
When the lead team arrived, with the soft falling snow turning to light refreshing rain, they didn’t drop a stride, easing smoothly down the ropes then pushing on steadily through bush, trampling through icy rivers and moving with undaunted persistence through soggy forest.
Even they would have been stopped in their tracks by the view, had they not been racing through in the pitch black of night, guided only by their headlamps.
After hiking across a snowy pass, through the magnificent valley and over a narrow mountain range, the teams had to swim an icy river to reach a lonely yellow tent on the sandy shore of Rio Azopardo that marked checkpoint 12. For some it proved too much, but for others sheer persistence and determination kept them on track to beat the cut-off times set by race organisers.
So this incredible journey headed towards its conclusion on a boat, with teams and their kayaks ferried to the final destination at magnificent Glacier Pia, a giant trail of ice that appears on the main tourist routes through this fjordal wonderland.
But true to the race’s spirit – so strong it has gained recognition from the Chilean Olympic Federation – that was not the end.
When winds eased and waters calmed, the racers, who had spent the final two days taking some unplanned wilderness R&R, were champing at the bit for more action. And so, after travelling 375-miles south through the lowest latitudes of the great American continent, the 40 exhausted souls who made it all the way to the end jumped back in their kayaks to paddle over the finish line.
For the second year in a row, British racer Nick Gracie was part of the winning team, this year made up of him, two New Zealanders and a Spaniard. Racing off from the start at an uncatchable pace, they had soon left the strong challenges from Japanese, American, South African and Croatian teams in their wake. And they were never caught.
At the end of it all, there were varying levels of exhaustion, elation and relief as the teams returned to civilisation in Punta Arenas – but the over-riding emotion was one of admiration, for the Avatar world they now had to leave behind...
Will Gray reports from the finish line in spectacular Chilean wilderness. To find out more about the race head to www.patagonianexpeditionrace.com. Or to find out more about the region go to www.chile.travel/en
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