Patagonian Expedition Race: a wilderness adventure in the Southern Hemisphere

There are hard races, there are wild races, and then there are hard wild races. The Patagonia Expedition Race falls most definitely into the latter category. The ultimate adventure, this race takes teams of four through the pristine wilderness of Southern Patagonia. The 11th edition started on February 12, 2013, just outside Torres del Paine National Park. As with all adventure races, the course included sections of hiking, mountain biking, and sea kayaking. Unlike other adventure races, competitors often traveled hundreds of kilometers without seeing another human being or any sign of civilization. In 2013 the winning team covered the 700 km course in eight and half days, and only three out of the eleven registered teams finished. Not just along for the ride, photographer Alexandre Buisse imbedded himself with the teams along several sections of the race in order capture the heart of the action.

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse


Orienteering, no easy way

We had been looking for over a half-hour, and we just couldn't find PC2. The crude 1:50,000 map indicated that it should have been somewhere on the edge of the ice cap, but we had been warned that they had been drawn from decades old satellite images, and global warming had taken its toll in Chilean Patagonia like everywhere else.
Resorting to desperate measures, the American team I was following decided to put on their 10-point crampons and step on to the ice itself. The flatter terrain meant moving faster and would perhaps provide a new point of view from which to search for the elusive checkpoint.

I weighed my options. Like the racers, I had walked 30+ km to this point in a few hours, most of it scrambling and route finding on loose scree. My feet were still wet from the river crossing four hours earlier. The wind, while not particularly strong by Patagonian standards, was still blowing at more than 30km/hr, bringing cold air from the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field on the edge of which we were standing.


A stroll through the Patagonian countryside

Cold, wet, and tired: standard conditions for racers in the Patagonian Expedition Race, now in its 11th edition, but also for those of us from the press. With the course stretching over 700km in 10 days, navigated by racers on foot, mountain bike, and sea kayak, with preciously few roads and too few resources to afford helicopters. The best means of transportation was also the oldest, walking. Being a photographer at the race translated to either staying put at a checkpoint, waiting for teams to briefly come through before continuing on their way, or racing with them, enduring the same hardships while taking photos.

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse



Misery loves company

My day started shortly after midnight in Puerto Natales, the gateway town to the famous Torres del Paine National Park, and the starting line of the race. The first stage was a 108km bike ride on dirt roads, usually a mere warm-up, but which turned into 6 to 9 hours of misery with 50+km/h headwinds. I photographed their struggle from the comfort of a pickup truck.

At the next transition, the beginning of a 3-day, 110km trek into the wildest corner of the national park, I started with the leaders, the four-time champion Brits from teal Adidas-Terrex Prunesco. In spite of the morning ordeal, they took off running at a fast pace and I only managed a few shots before being left in their dust. As the day progressed, I managed to tag along with the Japanese from Eastwind, the Germans from Berghaus and the Americans from Gearjunkie, covering the wild terrain of the first section on foot.

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse


Ice fields may prove longer than they appear

We finally found PC2, hidden behind a rocky outcrop. Worried about my wet shoes on the ice, I left Gearjunkie and elected to rest until the next team arrived. It turned out to be good friends from last year, Americans from NorCal, and we set off for what was described to us as an easy 11km crossing of the Tyndall glacier, an arm of the gigantic Southern Patagonian Ice Field, where only the last 2km showed real crevasses. The supposedly easy jaunt turned into a 27km, 7-hour nightmare of steep terrain, a maze of crevasses, and at one point searching for over an hour to find a way across a raging river in a deep ice canyon. By the time we reached the PC3, the wind was so strong that we could barely stand up straight, night was falling and everybody was soaked to the bone. I was done.

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse


I left the brave racers to continue through the storms in the swampy ground ahead, and spent a bad night, without food, with friends from the press team. The next morning, walking back across the glacier, we picked up three teams who had been forced to bivy on the ice during the storm, and led them back to the starting line over the following two days.


Beyond difficult

I shot more photos of the race, mostly biking and kayaking from the back of a truck, but this was the last section of hiking with reasonable access. The race turned out to be the hardest edition to date: within 36 hours, there were only three teams out of eleven still participating! Team Adidas had expected to finish in approximately five days, but it took eight and a half instead, several without food and in the worst weather Patagonia had to offer.

Patagonian Expedition Race © Alexandre Buisse

The last wild race, indeed.


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