Project Patagonia #1: In the saddle
The word ‘adventure’ means different things to different people. It is entirely subjective, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. Some see it as a form of exploration, finding that hidden beach or swimming to that deserted island. For others, it revolves around conquering the tallest, deepest and furthest. For us, we see adventure as a path to grow, learn and re-draw the line of what we perceive to be our limit. The past month has been an adventure in its purest sense. We have found ourselves on numerous occasions having to cross that line, and push past it and beyond into places we have never been before.
Project Patagonia was our most ambitious undertaking yet. A world-first ultra triathlon through what is widely regarded as one of the rawest, most abrasive places on the planet. Our journey would consist of a 1600km cycle, a speed record 65km mountain run, and the first SUP attempt between the two great lakes of Viedma and Argentino via the La Leona river. To add to the challenge, neither of us had ever ran more than 20km, are not elite cyclists, and had never paddle-boarded in our lives.
Given our lack of experience, preparation was a key component to assure success. We trained hard across the disciplines, kept our bodies injury free, and tried to absorb as much information about the area of Patagonia as possible (which was harder than expected, due to the lack of reliable information).
We landed into El Calafate at the end of September, with the aim of starting the first leg of our triathlon in the saddle, two days later via a flight north. Our plans were somewhat shifted however by our bikes and luggage being left in Miami, and then held by Argentinian customs. After 72 hours of stress, and recurring arguments with American Airlines, we were reunited with our belongings and headed North to the small city of Esquel, to start the long ride South.
Our plan was relatively simple, we would aim to ride approximately 150-60km per day, heading south down the famous Carretera Austral (Route 7) and then join the Route 40 until we reached El Chalten. From our extensive research (Street view on Google maps) we would pass through some of the most epic scenery on earth. Towering mountain passes, lush green forests and the contrasting barren desert of the 40. We were heading into the Patagonian spring, well outside of tourist season, but a time in which the weather should be stable, and the winds manageable (in the winter the region is covered in snow, in the summer the winds are off-the-charts). The bike leg of the adventure was the one we were most confident about, and we didn’t think it would offer up any issues….how wrong we were.
Day one put us firmly in our place. We had a lengthy ride to reach the route 7, and left in what can only be described as a monsoon, but the weather was the least of our worries. It soon became evident that the Chilean officials had heard of our arrival, and to greet us had decided to dig up every road on our route and replace it with sand and loose gravel. Our Trek 520’s, built for road touring soon felt the strain, as we trudged through the sodden turf (each were loaded with about 25km worth of kit). Our pre-conceptions were shattered, and a realisation of what lay ahead over the next 1600km soon dawned on us. To be honest, day one was probably a blessing, as it broke us and forced us to rebuild. With 30km left of our daily target, we found ourselves in total exhaustion. In our haste to make up time and battle the elements, we skipped lunch, and our energy levels crashed hard. With darkness falling we made it to our campsite for the evening, which we found to be under a foot of water. Luckily a local B&B was open, and we fell into bed with a feeling of defeat. Our conversation was not about how amazing the environment was, and the usual ecstasy found at the start of an adventure. Instead, we spoke only of our naivety of underestimating the task ahead, and what we had got ourselves into.
As we broke further South we passed through small towns, so remote and isolated its hard to believe they exist. Every time we cruised by we were met by a pack of local dogs who would playfully nip at our heels and chase us for as long as they could before getting bored. Occasionally one would growl, and we would bolt into the distance like all brave men do, taunting and mocking the hound as soon as we were out of harms way. On one occasion in the town of La Junta, we made the mistake of throwing a rock for one dog (as we rode into town he followed us with a rock in his mouth until we gave in). This dog (pretty sure it was a wolf) then took this slight interaction as a commitment between man and beast, we were now his masters. He followed us for 4 hours, and slept outside our tent until we woke up the next morning. We rode into the distance the next day riddled with guilt, as this dog reluctantly saw his two best-mates cycle out of his life. Moving stuff.
As we continued our journey, we hoped to escape the rain and to see some blue sky. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky. As we headed through small Chilean city of Coyhaquie and down the 7, we found ourselves ascending winding mountain passes, with this climb, came the snow. Riding a bike is said to be a form of fun that is universal. It’s enjoyed around the world by every culture, from the youngest toddler with stabilisers, to the old lady with her basket fixed to the front. What is not fun however, is riding a bike into a blizzard for eight hours, that is universally shite. Our hands and feet were soon frozen solid, our eyes bloodshot and stinging, but somehow we managed to laugh our way through it. There is often no other choice in situations like that, than to simply laugh at your own misfortune and crack on. Our humour soon died down though, as we hit our first major obstacle on day four. The route 7 south from Villa Castillo was shut. Roadworks (shock) were underway, and the road was completely impassable for our bikes. If a road is shut in Patagonia, they don’t put out little yellow ‘detour’ signs to help you on your way. In fact, when a road shuts in Patagonia, you simply have to turn around. We scrambled for the map to find an alternate route, anything that would mean we wouldn’t have to retrace the hundreds of kilometres North. We found a small road 15km North on the 7 which we had passed in the hours before, it lead to the lakeside town of Puerto Ibanez, and in Puerto Ibanez, was a ferry.
With the success of the bike leg riding on a roll of the dice, we headed to Puerto Ibanez, climbing hills and fighting through the snow. As we turned onto the new road, we decided to skip our scheduled lunch/coffee break and get to the town as soon as possible to enquire about the ferry service. As we neared the town the clouds parted and for the first time since arriving into Patagonia, we felt the sun on our face. Our smiles were back, and we put the gas on with a new sense of purpose. By a stroke of pure luck, we arrived at the ferry port 15 minutes before a boat was scheduled to leave, we scrambled into the ticket office and aboard the ship, over-the-moon that we had sacked off lunch! (The next boat across the lake was in 2 days time!).
A short 3 hour ferry-ride saw us land into the border town of Chile Chico. We crashed for the night on the edge of the stunning lake Gral Carrera, and first light the following day we headed East across the border into Argentina. Our destination was the route 40, the famous desert highway that snakes 1000’s of km’s from top to bottom of Argentina. Our route would take us through the Patagonian Steppe, a barren land of sand and stone, pummelled by the wind and totally unpopulated aside from a small town or settlement every few hundred km’s. This would be our home for the following four days.
We reached the 40 in good spirits, we had consistent sunshine and the wind on our backs, long gone were the memories of snow and frozen faces, we had done our time and it was time to enjoy ourselves. One of the most incredible things about Patagonia is the contrasting environments you can find yourself in. A days riding had taken us from the snow-crested mountains, littered with waterfalls, rivers and forest, to an orange desert filled with towering faces of rock. For much of the ride, we had passed some of the most breathtaking vistas imaginable, but were too engrossed in not freezing to death/falling off/crying, that we had barely registered it. There is a beauty to witnessing a place such as this on two-wheels. Sure, from a car you can take-in the same views and be far more comfortable, but upon bikes we were also feeling the environment. Every climb and descent was powered by us, and we were alone against the road ahead.
Once on the 40, we were in a total dead-zone for any type of signal. We were used to there being no phone reception by this point, but the fact our GPS device was out-of-action also was a little unnerving. The remoteness of that road is almost suffocating, and during the 4 days upon it, we saw no more than 10 cars. Given this is a ‘main’ road, we were in absolute disbelief. A nasty fall or a bad mechanical could spell a serious issue, and with absolutely no water for hundreds of km’s, a small situation can soon escalate. Aside from a couple of aggravating punctures, we passed through unscathed. We camped on the rocky shrubs to the side of the road, and lived in a state of repetition. The nights were cold, and the wind was playing havoc with our tent. Often we would spend the entire night awake, with the side of the tent horizontal against our faces, shivering until our alarm sounded and we groggily stepped out to start the days riding. Some people rant and rave about ‘camp life’, and how invigorating it is for the soul. We call bullshit, camping is rubbish.
On the eighth day of riding, we spotted the towering peaks of the Fitz Roy Range. These famous spires overlook the mountain town of El Chalten, our destination. Seeing the mountain range was a highlight of our trip, it was the boost we needed, and finally we had a reference point to ride towards, something we had not had on the 40 for some time. We pushed ourselves hard, and camped on the road-side of the 23, and stood alone in the shadow of mountains, knowing this was the last night on the road before this bruising first leg was over.
In the morning we pulled out of camp with vigour, and rode towards El Chalten. We had left ourselves a 40km glory ride into the town, and had to battle into some of the strongest headwinds we had faced. Patagonia was throwing one last obstacle in our way, but we knew we were within touching distance, and this saw us through. With red-raw faces, sore backsides and a deep resentment for cycling in general, we pulled into El Chalten and were swamped with an overwhelming sense of relief. For the past nine days we had overcome hurdles we could never have predicted, battled against the elements and come out the other side. We had been pushed so far outside our comfort zone, and relied entirely on each other to return from it. There is no doubt, as a ride it is one of the most spectacular on the planet, but my god do you have to work for those views! It wasn’t the distances, or physicality that made this endeavour so tough, instead it was the mental battle against the weather and the ‘roads’.
Our plan on arrival was to rest for 48 hours, and begin the preparation for the second leg of the triathlon. We were exhausted, and this window of rest was vital for our bodies. Whilst sitting down for a hearty lunch, we checked the weather report for the run ahead. The weather predictions were awful. Snow storms, fog and 100kph winds for up to a week. The only conditions that offered any chance of us taking on the Huemul Circuit, were the following day. Sometimes in adventure, you have to play the cards in front of you. So we accepted what must be done, packed our bags, and left for the 65km ultra-marathon 10 hours after arriving into El Chalten on two wheels. We had not slept, and our bodies were in a state of exhaustion, but we were ready to push ourselves on. So there we stood at the start of the infamous Heumul Circuit at 3am, in the pitch black, alone and in the snow. The next 24 hours, were the toughest of our lives….