PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (Reuters) - Four American adventurers had to live on berries during three days lost in the wilderness, a Briton and the French defending champion suffered hypothermia, the Canadian team fell into an icy river with their equipment and a Spaniard got attacked by mosquitoes.
Welcome to the Patagonia Expedition Race, 2009.
The annual event, regarded as the wildest and toughest adventure race in the world, was won this month by British team Helly Hansen Prunesco in six days after an epic 600 kms of mountain biking, kayaking and trekking to the southern tip of the American continent.
More than half of the 16 four-member teams failed to reach the finish at Cape Froward after battling 100-kph winds, driving rain and snow.
American team Calleva lost their way after deciding to take a short cut because they had run out of food.
“We were exhausted from bushwhacking in the valleys so we tried to go above all the brambles and pop down on the other side but it left us a bad, bad connection to the finish,” team member Sarah Percy told Reuters.
“The only way was through the coast but we were two miles from the finish for the last 48 hours and we just couldn’t get there, whatever route we tried.”
While the British foursome reached the cape to claim the Wenger ice-sculpture trophy, followed home 19 hours later by last year’s winners Easy Implant of France and by Team Spirit Canada the following day, the Americans had to feed off the land to stay alive.
Druce Finlay, who was drafted into the team two weeks before the race, said: ”I know the human body can survive for about 11 days without food or water and we could find water out there and there was a berry that we came across.
”We were eating as much of that as we could because it was better than nothing.
”We tried to swim around the coast but in freezing waters we could only do a couple of hundred meters. I was nervous after that because we were very cold but getting in the tent and back in the sleeping bags warmed us up enough to be survivable.
“We were so frozen on the last night we left the satellite phone on and drained the battery, so the situation was getting worse and worse. But I have a lot of rock-climbing experience and I knew I could get us over to the trail, one way or another, so Sarah and I went for it.”
The pair climbed, un-roped, around sea cliffs to reach the Cross of the Seas at Cape Froward, arriving 10 days after the teams had set off from Torres del Paine on February 10.
Helly Hansen Prunesco, a late entry, became the first British team to win an international expedition race in the sport’s history, organizers said.
Their youngest member Bruce Duncan, 28, suffered hypothermia early in the race as the team tried to navigate through a forest at night after taking the lead during the initial 90-km kayaking and 100-km mountain bike stages.
“It was fantastic to win such a tough race and it means a lot to be the first British team to win something like this but it was really tough and in the first trek I almost gave up because I was hypothermic,” said Duncan.
“We were pushing on as hard as we could go and the rain was pouring down so I got cold and wet and really tired. I was ready to stop and I expected to be in last place but we were first. I had to be told ten times before I believed it.”
The team took little rest. “We would have 15 minutes’ sleep every now and again and if I was ahead of everyone I would lean on my trekking poles and grab 30 seconds,” Duncan said.
“It is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. I was hallucinating in the night, getting ‘sleep monsters’, and I saw loads of electrical components and stick animals. At times we were all thinking there was five of us and someone was missing.”
Team Buff, the 2006 winners, were forced to pull out while they were lying fifth, after an attack by a swarm of mosquitoes.
”At one point we had to carry the kayaks through bush and we stopped to eat,“ said team member Chemari Bustillo. ”There were lots of mosquitoes and they bit me everywhere. When I got to the checkpoint my face was totally swollen.
“I had to have two injections to control it. We had motivation to continue but the doctor advised that we should not go on,” the Spaniard said.
Experienced team Spirit Canada came third despite an incident in the first trek when they all slipped while crossing an icy, fast-flowing river with much of their equipment.
”We got two-thirds of the way through the river but then it dipped down a bit quicker than we expected and it is a stiffer flow and it flipped us over,“ said team member Jim Mandelli. ”It was a fairly fast current and we could have been swept down hundreds of meters before you knew it.
“It’s a shock to the system and you don’t want to get totally soaked but we did. You just shake yourself off, go ‘ah, that was fun’ and go on. The problem was one of our guys banged his knee pretty good and he had to do the rest of the race with an enlarged kneecap.”
The race proved too much for 2008 champions Easy Implant, whose captain Bruno Rey suffered three days of severe hypothermia and had to spend a day in a hospital tent at Cape Froward before moving to Punta Arenas for further checks.
“I had a tough time and went through some difficult hours but I have been helped by so many incredible people and I have to thank them for saving my life because I feel there was a danger there,” said the Frenchman, who recovered in time for the closing ceremony.
Mandelli said the Patagonia race was unique. “There are many races in Europe where when you are tired you can call to be picked up, but here there is no way to call from the forests. This is a real adventure -- there are simply no other races out there like this one.”
Race director Stjepan Pavicic, an experienced mountaineer who has explored the Patagonia region for more than 20 years, said: “This year’s course was made particularly difficult because of the weather, which saw a lot of rain and wind. Without such professional racers, we could not do this.”
Editing by Clare Fallon