Red Ants return from Argentina

Imagine a place where crystal clear turquoise lakes give way to dense montane forests and steep rugged mountains. Imagine a place where the light of billions of stars light up the high mountain peaks around you and where rolling wilderness extents further than the eye can see… Imagine Argentine Patagonia, and imagine doing a 500km expedition adventure race through this magical place!

When one thinks of the ultimate AR destination, this place must be near the top! Team Red Ants were privileged to be able to participate at the Tierra Viva AR, which took place in and around the town of Villa La Angostura in Argentine Patagonia, only a few kilometres from the Chilean border. Around every corner a picture postcard vista awaits you, but your legs certainly know that it isn’t all that flat either!

After deciding months ago that South America was the AR destination of choice, and top of the list of places we wanted to do an adventure race, we went on the hunt for an expedition style race. Tierra Viva jumped out at us, as it contained all the hallmarks of what could be an epic race, and the scenery and High Mountains in Argentina Patagonia were a huge drawcard!

Committing to a race of this nature is the hard part; from then on in it’s a case of slogging out the details! After weeks of preparation, packing, buying equipment (like a neoprene vest!), we were off to Argentina in a bubble of huge excitement.

Team Red Ants consisted of Alex Wagner, Tim Deane, Nicky Booyens and myself (Brian Gardner) and we were the only non?South American Team at this years Tierra Viva AR. Our interest was drawn to the Wegner Patagonia Expedition race in the weeks leading up to Tierra Viva, as we watched the extreme weather take a hold of that race, with our only comfort being that we were racing
2000km further north than the Wegner race. We could only hope that keeping dry and warm would not become the major factor of Tierra Viva…

Having had a day to kill in Buenos Aires, any notions that we would be going into the race undertrained were quickly dispelled when Alex (and his Lonely Planet) led us on an 8 hour sight?seeing tour of Buenos Aires, on foot. We literally walked the length and breath of the city, and didn’t heed any warning to stay clear of the neighbourhood’s around the Boca Juniors Stadium, where we actually encountered plenty of post?FIFA world cup goodwill!

A massive downpour on the morning we left Buenos Aires for Bariloche made getting taxis to the airport a mission, and we all ended up soaking wet, in 3 separate taxis, pretty stressed out and hoping that we would all make it to the airport. What a crazy few hours, but at least we didn’t miss our flight! Urban Adventure Race: Check.

After a short 2 hour flight from Buenos, we arrived at Bariloche airport, greeted by Sacha and Luis from the race organisation, who shuttled us the 60 odd km’s to a festive and warm Villa La Angostura (VLA). We got to know Sacha well, which proved really helpful, as his parents owned an outdoor rental shop in VLA, he had a car, lived across the road from where we were staying in VLA, and was always offering to help! What a bonus! Thanks for all the help Sacha!

Unbeknownst to us, the next 3 days in VLA was the annual fiesta! What a great experience to arrive in a Patagonian mountain village at fiesta time! Literally hundreds of Lamb on the spit, Quilmes beer, chimichurri salsa, emplanadas and churros! What a pleasure, carbo and protein loading like never before… 😉

With all our bikes surviving the aeroplane trip over, we wasted no time in assembled them, only to find that Nicky, Alex and I had issues with our tubeless tires, which meant a hike-a-bike to the garage to get some compressed air… Only then were we able to take a spin around VLA! We went north to Lake Correntoso to check out where central camp would be, and where we would return to the next day to set up our central camp transition and do all the registration necessities.

Having completed a painless registration process and collected our hire kayaks, we spent the rest of Sunday doing what adventure racers do best pre?race… packing, unpacking, sorting, fixing, fiddling and trying to get our hired kayaks into some sort of working order. Um, Ja, they needed some work! At least one of our new good friends and VLA local Alejandro from Team X Tres Toledo was on hand with fibreglass and resin to help us out. Muchos Gracias Amigo!

After a short and sweet briefing session on Sunday evening (all in Spanish I might add), we finally knew what we were in for over the next 5 days:
Leg1: Kayak 35km (followed by a short run to get a new map)
Leg 2: Kayak 25km
Leg 3: Trekking 70km
Leg 4: Kayak 25km
Leg 6: MTB?O 36km
Leg 6: MTB 64km
Leg 7: Trekking 25km
Leg 8: MTB 125km
Leg 9: Trekking 45km
Leg 10: Kayak 40km
Total expected distance: 490km

Race day had dawned bight and sunny, with not a breath of wind, and 28 teams lined up to tackle the 500km course for the midday start. With paddling not our team strength at all, we were hoping to minimize our losses on the 60km paddle right from the start. We held our own well, coming into the map change after 35km in the top third of the field, and holding a top 10 place for the next 25km to the start of the first and longest trekking stage of the race.

This was where things started to go slightly pear shaped for us… we weren’t even 2 hours out of transition and in the fading light of day under a thick forest canopy, we struggled to find the path and ended up just off course in a parallel valley (perhaps also something to do with not being used to 1:60000 map scale, but that’s no excuse!!). With a thick canopy above, we couldn’t see any mountains around us, and slowly but surely the path disappeared, and we were forced into bush?whacking our way through the undergrowth. We were joined by another Argentine team, who, like us had taken the wrong valley. After a number of hours, we finally got above the tree line and onto a ridge, from where we attempted to place ourselves on the map…

But, in the pitch blackness of night, we couldn’t, and after some deliberation, we bedded down for three hours until it got light and we could see where we were and find a way off the steep and rugged mountain side.

With daylight brought a sense of relief, as we pin?pointed our location and set off back in the right direction, traversing steep cliffs and scree slopes en-route to CP A of the hike. We had lost about 12 hours, but rather that than being completely lost and having to withdraw from the race (like the Argentine team that was with us that night did!). Finally back on track, and making good time, we got CP A and CP B, and were moving quickly before nightfall to CP C. Once again the navigational challenges of the high Andes came to the fore in the dark, and we found ourselves in exactly the same place as 4 hours previously, having done a full circle around a mountain top and a valley… eish.  After that loop, and feeling deflated once again, we decided on banking some sleep high up on the slopes before attempting what was a fairly treacherous decent to CP C.

Daylight is a beautiful thing, as we were now feeling fresh after getting 6 hours of sleep in the last 2 nights, we were moving well and feeling strong. CP C came and went, and we were almost back at the kayaks to start the next leg. Having lost almost 16 hours in the mountains we were hoping that we may still be in the top 20, but were elated and buoyed by the fact that we were actually in 12th place (even if we were 21 hours behind the leaders…)!! “When you think things aren’t going well for you, just think how the other teams are doing!?” Knowing full well that most of the teams ahead of us had probably not slept for anywhere near 6 hours, we pushed hard and knew we could make up some time on them.

After negotiating the next 25km kayak back to central camp, we transitioned quickly to make the most of daylight to complete the next circular 36km MTB?O in and around the town of Villa La Angostura. We made good work of daylight, and hit all the CP’s spot on, arriving back to camp as the light faded, and passing a couple of teams in the process.

After wolfing down some superb ravioli and chocolate milk, we hit the road again to Villa Traful, a 64km MTB rollercoaster that would take us almost 7 hours to complete. Despite getting some good sleep in the previous 2 nights, we still needed a 10min power nap to curb some members seeing the dreaded sleepmonster! Arriving in Villa Traful about 2 hours before dawn we took an hour sleep before heading out on the next 25km trek in daylight.

Strategy played an important part here, as you could chose to do one of 2 things: either do a further 65km MTB to get another checkpoint before you started the hike, or you could do the hike first and then get the MTB checkpoint (the MTB was an out?and?back from Villa Traful, so it didn’t really matter what you did first). Wanting to make the most of the daylight for the trek, we decided to do the 25km hike first (hopefully be finished long before dark) and then do the out?and?back MTB. This strategy worked well, as we blitzed the hike in the fastest time of all the teams, passing and dropping the team who was in 2nd place at the time (Team X Tres). They were however still far ahead of us, as they had already completed the out?and?back MTB.

Finishing the hike really amped, we completed the next MTB leg of 65km in 4 hours 20 minutes, once again setting the fastest time for that section. With plenty of daylight left, we grabbed a quick ‘jamon y quesa’ sandwich and chocolate cake in Villa Traful before heading back the 60 odd km’s to central camp at Lake Correntoso.

With only 2 legs left of the race, we knew we could catch more teams ahead of us, as we had now moved into 6th place overall. After getting lost in the dark mountains on night 1 and 2, we decided to play it safe and plan the next trek so that we got to the start of the technical section at daybreak. With that in mind, we banked some sleep in central transition and set out two hours before dawn on foot, hoping to make the base of the mountains by daybreak. The first two odd hours of the hike was easy navigation, with one CP along the way. This strategy worked out very well again, as we reached the trail?head at 6:30am and found the path up the mountain right away (which, I must add, would have been pretty difficult to find in the dark).

Just after the first CP on this hike we picked up our 5th member, a stray dog, who thought tagging along with us for
a ‘morning walk’ wasn’t too bad of an idea… Well, little did he know that almost 17 hours later, and a few mountain peaks later he would finally get to rest! It was a pretty cool experience to have a 5th member on this leg, but the poor guy had no idea how long his morning walk would be, although we must admit he was a pretty fit dog, and he did make it all the way back to central camp!

Our nemesis team who we had been racing neck-a-neck with for three days was also there at the trailhead, we dubbed this team “Team Een Been”, as one of the members was racing with only one good leg, and a prosthetic right leg! I really wish you could see this guy decent a scree slope on 1 leg, it was unbelievable, and truly inspirational to see him complete a 500km expedition race!! His team eventually finished in 5th place, after getting lost on this last trekking stage.

Once we had found the path up Cerro (Mount) John O’Connor, we moved well, and ticked off the next 2 CP’s without much trouble, except for a brief 30min session of insane bush-whacking to link two paths together. We thought there may be an easier way down, but after post?race discussions with the local Team X Tres, it was the only way, to bund-bash!

We were well on our way to the last CP of the hike, with dog still in tow, only to find it had been moved a few hundred meters from where it should have been, due to ‘safety concerns’ of the steep scree slope. At least there was a marshal, and showed once again the great race organisation by placing a marshal there! They should have seen the crazy scree slopes we had traversed before then, then maybe they wouldn’t have moved the CP due to ‘safety concerns’!

Regardless, we were grateful of the change, as it meant we could decent the mountain and make it back to central camp just as night fell on the 5th evening of the race.

Arriving back at central camp to find that we were in 4th place was an immediate boost for us! We knew that with only a 40km paddle to go, we had secured a top 5 (barring catastrophe on the kayak leg). The final leg of this amazing adventure race was all that it should have been, with glassy flat water, billions of bright starts illuminating the night sky, and with unbelievable team spirit, we crossed the finish line on the shores of Lake Correntoso in 4th place overall at 5:30am on Saturday the 26th of February, after 113 hours and 30 minutes of racing. We were only 13 hours behind the winners, after being 21 hours behind them at one point!

After our navigational shenanigans of the first night, we really had a great race from then on in, with only 1 puncture on the MTB, flat clam paddling conditions for most of the paddling legs (and when the wind was blowing, it was a tail wind) and beautiful blue skies and dry conditions for the entire race! The Argentineans are truly a warm and welcoming people, and the race organiser, Guri and his team of marshals, and medics did a superb job of pulling off an unbelievably well organised race. Thanks to all of you for making our journey unforgettable! To our new friends of local VLA Team X Tres, Sacha and Ines (our race briefing and prize-giving interpreter) thanks for all your help before, during and after the race!

The Team, having never raced in this combination before showed exceptional team spirit, true South African vasbyt and a never say die attitude! Alex, Tim, Nicky, it was an absolute pleasure to share this amazing experience with you!

Till the next one, keep living life to the fullest!

Author: Brian Gardner | Team Red Ants | Tierra Viva Expedition Race – Villa La Angostura, Argentina, 21-26 February 2011