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The Race at the Bottom of the World

Alexandre Buisse | Written by Jamie Maddison

Patagonia Expedition Race
I didn’t want to be static at checkpoints. I had this feeling that I would only get the best photographs on this race if I actually stuck with the competing teams, capturing their weeklong purgatory alongside them right here in the remote harshness of Terra del Fuego, the backdrop of one of the world’s most extreme endurance events.

Capturing the true experience of the Patagonia Expedition Race was never going to be easy. I was one of only four photographers covering nineteen international teams of ultra-fit contestants racing on foot, bike and kayak across hundreds of kilometres of remote Chilean wilderness. The only way to really get a handle on such a vast project was to go from the beginning, and stick with the racers as much as possible as they competed against each other, the clock and their own bodies, over the upcoming eight days of pure hell in a beautiful setting.

The start of the event commenced at two in the morning. The racers eased themselves in gently with a bike-ride along the coast, whilst I shot some nice images from an adjacent moving truck. It was a pleasant and mellow beginning, marred four hours later when all our carefully prearranged plans quickly began to unravel as we reached the first big water stage.

Teams were already trading in their bikes for kayaks to cross the famous Strait of Magellan. I was supposed to be crossing via a Zodiac boat myself, but that was no longer possible as the waves were too big and the wind too strong for the craft to get across. The kayakers however went anyway, ploughing their way through the rough and turbulent waters and into the distance away from us.

Now we were stuck on the opposite bank to where we needed to be, and the only option was to drive the long road back to Punta Arenas and down the opposite side of the strait, some 16 hours of detour. And, of course, all the big logistic plans we had made concerning where our tents and food should be waiting for us had also gone out of the window. That night, through all the backtracking, I managed to sleep for a single hour.

When we finally arrived at the checkpoint – where the first main trekking section was due to start – many of the teams were ahead of schedule and had already gone past us. So, not only could I not get any sleep, but I was now faced with the decision of either going ahead with the remaining teams instantly without any kit, or waiting for all my camping and navigation equipment to catch up and probably let every contestant pass me by in the process.

And so I hitched myself up with a team, ‘NorCal’ from northern California, and headed with them into the meat of this hard two-day trekking section. A bit later, I joined up with another racing group called the Dancing Pandas, made up of members from Canada, New Zealand and the USA. They were the funniest team I met en route and became my friends and companions through the hardships of this stage.

Capturing the true experience of the Patagonia Expedition Race was never going to be easy. I was one of only four photographers covering nineteen international teams of ultra-fit contestants racing on foot, bike and kayak across hundreds of kilometres of remote Chilean wilderness. The only way to really get a handle on such a vast project was to go from the beginning, and stick with the racers as much as possible…
Patagonia Expedition Race
Then something I really dreaded started to happen, the team started running. To put this in perspective they had been going for two and half days, they had kayaked sixty kilometres across really stormy waters and had just slogged away on foot for over twelve hours and now – after all that – they started to run. Even though they were running on virtually no steam I could barely keep up with them.
The route was very challenging for everyone, both physically and mentally. We followed a big river at first, trying to find out on the map which bends went where, all the while attempting to locate timesaving shortcuts. We must have crossed that river something like thirty times in the space of a single day. My feet were constantly wet and the heavy camera equipment dug mercilessly into my shoulders.

Then something I really dreaded started to happen, the team started running. To put this in perspective they had been going for two and half days, they had kayaked sixty kilometres across really stormy waters and had just slogged away on foot for over twelve hours and now – after all that – they started to run. Even though they were running on virtually no steam I could barely keep up with them.

Thankfully what saved me was the night and the fact the team could not run anymore. At that point we needed to leave the easily identifiable river and head up into a valley for the next checkpoint, but the darkly anonymous landscape provided no clues as to where to go. Teams started amassing at the bottleneck, all with the same navigation problem.

Midnight came and went. Everyone was extremely cold, and in the end the Dancing Pandas made the decision to bed down and try to sleep, to my mind a really good choice as another team that kept on going got completely lost, went off the map and ultimately had to abandon the race. I had no tent, but I think the Pandas had it worse; all four of them were stacked up in the tiny compulsory tent each team has to carry with them. I have no idea how much sleep they got in there; it couldn’t have been much.

After two hours we were up again. That was one of the hardest bits of my race experience, getting up and out of that sleeping bag. But we arose, and eventually found the right valley to go through. Our world soon became one big grass field; idyllic to look upon but nightmarish for travel, as every time you stepped forward you would sink downward. Sometimes only to the depth of your shoe, but at other times all the way down to your knee, even to the hips in the worst moments.

At length, we arrived at a big lake, one of the most identifiable landmarks along this section of the route. What wasn’t so easy to find however, was the actual checkpoint, which the officials had decided to move without informing anyone. When it was at last discovered, there was little time to stop and rest. It was straight on to the next stage, supposedly easy in comparison to what we had gone through previously. In actuality this section was hellish, with extremely difficult navigation and the sometimes ambiguous maps a heavy burden on the already stretched mental endurance of every racer present.

We had no point of reference, and eight hours were lost trudging back and forth in the endless sinking grass fields. The exhaustion of the past few days was starting to show on the grim-set faces of the team. The Dancing Pandas, initially so upbeat as the race started, were getting gloomier and gloomier and if you knew those guys then you would know it takes one hell of a lot to get them down.

After what seemed a lifetime we found the landmark we needed, pointing us towards the last checkpoint of this stage. Except a nice surprise lay waiting for us; the checkpoint had been moved sixteen kilometres further away.

Instead of starting a section of mountain biking (the bikes hadn’t managed to cross the river) the group had to walk all the extra distance on foot. You can never really rest on this race, but when you change activities it is almost a ghost of a rest. After all this time having to keep going on foot, when you’d set your sights on a easier cycle ride, was simple mental torture and many members of different teams told me afterward that dealing with this dashed hope was one of hardest moments of the entire event.

Patagonia Expedition RacePatagonia Expedition Race
So ended the first stage of the competition, and the temporary reprieve marked the first time I had seen a race organiser since I set off several days ago and a hundred kilometres away. I had been surviving with just my little sleeping bag and whatever spare food the teams could afford me.

But despite the cock-ups, I had managed to get some really unique photos of my comrades-in-suffering. Images that showed what I was looking for when I joined up to photograph this race: extreme challenge, extreme endurance, and a picture of those people who stood up and faced it all. In spite of absolute exhaustion these racers just kept on going, bore the pain and kept up the pace, all the while knowing in their heads that they were not even halfway through yet. For them, the next circle of hell lay just ahead.

Thankfully, my experience of the race’s second stage was rather more pleasurable than the contestants. After half-a-section trekking with some of the teams I headed back overnight to Punta Arenas to take a boat to the race’s ultimate finish line on the Beagle Channel. The vessel, unbeknown to me, turned out to be a big luxury cruiser; wealthy individuals were paying something like $4000 dollars for a four day jaunt. The contrast was ridiculous in its extremity, as us photographers received a two-day pampering that could only be dreamed of in the battered minds of the contestants slogging through their own personal nightmares to reach the same end point.

We arrived at the finish, well not quite the finish but the penultimate checkpoint, in good time. The last stage – kayaking across the expansive channel – had been called off due to high winds and the end of the trekking section became the de facto finishing line. The winning group ‘Adidas TERREX – Prunesco’ (UK) passed us by, completing the race in an incredible 147 hours and 39 minutes.

Other teams however had yet to arrive, the Dancing Pandas among them. The next morning I backtracked my way to a mountain halfway between the checkpoint and the finish, attempting to catch any contestants that might come through this obvious route. I was lucky; after four hours shivering in the cold I met a Danish team and went back with them, shooting some of my favourite shots of the trip; the really wild environment, crazy glaciers, untamed vegetation and murky swamps serving as the perfect backdrop for these images of extreme human stamina.

The race’s deadline for disqualification was at 8am the next morning. We had waited up all through the night for the teams to arrive, and the only one still unaccounted for remained my friends the Dancing Pandas. The tents had been packed away, the boat loaded and still there was no word of them; everyone was resigned to the fact that the event was truly over. Then with an amazing fourteen minutes to spare in an eight day race, the Pandas turned up.

None of them could walk. They stopped and they just couldn’t walk any further. Their feet had been ravaged, eaten out by river bugs, one member all the way up to his ankles. I have some bad pictures of feet, awful ones that would be censored if you ever tried to publish them. These racers had pushed themselves right to the knife’s edge of endurance, walking for the past 48 hours without sleep and without stopping just to reach this checkpoint in time.

I have a set of photos that have since become some of my favourite images. They are taken in the very instance that I told the team that the last stage of the race had been cancelled, that they’d done it, they’d completed it; they wouldn’t have to kayak another fifty kilometres to the finish line, it was right under their feet.

It only lasted a momentary instant but you could read on their faces what it had taken to get here. Those eight days of misery and suffering, the chronic lack of sleep, the crushing physical challenge of this wild place, the extreme mental exhaustion of such unsure navigation; everything built up within them and released itself in an expression of pure, utterly exhausted and understated relief.

The pictures I took of this moment were the whole reason I came to Patagonia. And, I suspect, that unknowable feeling I had seen through my lens on the racers’ faces was also the reason why these incredible individuals had come so far and fought so hard to complete this incomparable race, here at the bottom of the world.

The eight days of misery and suffering, the chronic lack of sleep, the crushing physical challenge of this wild place, the extreme mental exhaustion of such unsure navigation; everything built up within them and released itself in an expression of pure, utterly exhausted and understated relief.


Alexandre Buisse

The PATAGONIAN EXPEDITION RACE® is a true expedition, taking teams of four through lands previously unknown to the human eye. Racers receive minimal assistance as they traverse through the pristine southern Patagonia by means of trekking, climbing and related rope work, kayaking, mountain biking, and backcountry navigation. For more information visit www.patagonianexpeditionrace.com

Alexandre is a commercial mountain photographer with a double interest in adventure and landscape images. He is an avid practitioner of many mountain sports, especially climbing, but also skiing and paragliding. Mountaineering gives Alexandre unique access to some of the wildest and most beautiful places on the planet, and sharing those moments is one of his main motivations for picking up a camera.

You can follow Alexandre on Twitter @alexandrebuisse or on Facebook/AlexandreBuissePhotography

This article was written by Jamie Maddison. Jamie is a journalist and photographer by trade, an expedition-man and wannabe-adventurer by preference. His assignments have taken him far and wide: from the serene forests outside of Fontainebleau, France, to unexplored valleys in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains, through to adventurous climbing in South Africa’s Cederberg Rocklands. Find out more at www.jamiemaddison.com


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