The Long, Long RoadFrom The Field
In October 2017, James Whittle and Tom Caulfield, the Tempest Two, completed an ultra-triathlon through the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile. They completed a 1,600km cycle, 65km world-record mountain run, and a 100km world-first stand-up paddleboard down the La Leona River. Here they tell their story
Where are you right now, and how do you feel after your challenge?
James Whittle: We are now back in London, which is where both of us are based. A stark contrast to the environment in Patagonia. I feel incredibly proud of what we accomplished. During our expedition, the feelings were mixed; intense fatigue, mixed with awful, unpredictable weather, meant that enjoying the experience at the moment was a little bit tougher. But in hindsight, it is one of the greatest things that we have accomplished. Patagonia is such a raw place, so to experience it in the manner that we did will stay with me forever. I am now quick to recommend Patagonia as a place to go and explore for outdoor enthusiasts – just don’t expect great weather.
Why did you decide to do this challenge? How did the idea come about?
Tom Caulfield: Like the majority of adventure ideas, the concept for Patagonia started in a pub. We were sitting over Google Maps, dragging the pin around various locations on the planet. Measuring distances for swims, researching weather seasons and world-first opportunities. As our eyes strayed upon South America, it suddenly became obvious. Patagonia is somewhere we have both longed to visit, the infamous land of fire and ice, and an adventure Mecca. Next was to concoct an expedition that was worthy of the environment. We had heard of the various options via bike and foot, so decided to combine three varying disciplines into a world-first adventure triathlon.
What did you hope to achieve? What was the key aim?
James: As always, our main aim was to push ourselves to achieve something extraordinary, that we had no previous experience in. In this case, we would take on an ultra-triathlon including a bike, run, and a stand-up paddleboard. We were new to all three, so we knew it was going to be tough. We put some rather large expectations on ourselves regarding times and records and trained beforehand accordingly. We wanted to tackle the 1,600km cycle from Esquel, Argentina to El Chaltén in 10 days, be the quickest ever to complete the Huemul Circuit – typically a four-day hike – in less than 24 hours, and be the first to SUP the La Leona River between lakes Argentino and Viedma. We would do all of this completely unsupported.
What were the biggest challenges?
Tom: Throughout the three weeks, we were challenged in a variety of ways. First, the weather was not kind to us. We had arrived in October to avoid peak season, and hopefully find a dry spell with quieter winds. We could not have been more wrong. For the first week on the bikes, we rode into gale-force winds, sideways blizzards and freezing rain. We were constantly drenched and freezing cold, and the simplest tasks like cooking or sleeping became an absolute nightmare. The cycle was bleak to say the least, and considering this was the leg we were most confident about, we were humbled by the environment immediately.
The physical wear and tear was also a challenge. Maintaining our bodies across the three legs was crucial, and we knew going into it that a 1,600km bike ride is probably the worst preparation possible for an ultra-marathon! After the run, we were beaten. Mentally we were drained and physically battered beyond repair. This made interesting viewing as we tried to stand on paddleboards, 48 hours later, with concrete legs and agonising blisters. Pain is always part of these challenges, however, and it is something you can learn to overcome – still, it’s never fun!
What were the scariest moments?
James: The scariest moments, for me, were being isolated on the bike, where we rarely got GPS signal, let alone any phone coverage. We had hit the desert plain in Argentina and there was absolutely nothing there. No change in landscape for 600km. It got incredibly boring out there, and we were always conscious that if something were to go wrong, or one of us got a bad injury, it could be days before we got to a hospital. We expected to see multiple cars on the road (Route 40), due to this being the main link between north and south Patagonia, but it was limited to about 10 per day at a maximum. It was an incredibly bizarre feeling, especially when we are so used to being connected to the internet and others the entire time
Second is something that I am far more aware of in hindsight, and that’s the sheer exposure we were open to on the Huemul Circuit. We were driven by the clock on this part of our triathlon and were trying to make as much progress as quickly as possible. So perhaps this is why we didn’t comprehend the level of risk that we would have otherwise. But the path climbed and fell along the mountainside consistently for about 10km. There were points when we were getting lazy with our foot placements, and one wrong step or a trip could have sent us 1,000ft down to the glacier below and ended a lot more than our hopes of a record-breaking run.
Tom: During our run on the Huemul Circuit, the park rangers told us beforehand that there were two major traverses across rivers that we would need to overcome. Both are made of steel wire strung across the expanse. We would have to clip ourselves into harnesses that we carried in our bags and haul ourselves across. There is no budget for ongoing maintenance or mountain rescue, and if we made a mistake and fell into the roaring rivers below, we were told with the utmost certainty that we would die.
As we approached the first crossing, around 20km in to the run, we could see what all the fuss was about. A 10m gorge lay before us with a 5m drop into a raging pit of rock and white water. A quick game of rock-paper-scissors decided that I would go first, and as I pulled myself along the wire it was hard not to think about the worst-case scenario. The first crossing was more of a thrill than real fear – but on the second traverse, we arrived in the dark of night, delirious with exhaustion. Looking back now, we were lucky to avoid disaster. We both had to climb up a 3m totem pole to attach ourselves to the line, and then slide into the darkness. This river was around 20m wide. As James landed on the other side, it was so dark I couldn’t make him out at all. Due to our state, there was no panic or real care for the danger ahead, but this could have been a nasty end to a brutal run.
Another moment that stands out was following the night-time traverse. We finished the 65km Huemul Circuit in a record time of 17 hours 22 minutes and were elated as we arrived at the boat terminal on the edge of Lake Viedma. This was the official finish line for the circuit, and we had hoped that we would simply ring a taxi and get a lift back into El Chaltén, the nearby town where we were staying. As we arrived, at 11.30pm, it became clear how naive we had been. The boat terminal was deserted, our phone and GPS had died, and we were now stuck 17km from El Chaltén with no way of getting home. We soon realised – with absolute dread – we would have to walk the 17km.
By this point, we were in the worst state I have ever seen us. We could barely walk, hadn’t said a word in hours, and our minds were beginning to play tricks on us. With no options, we trudged forward into the darkness. Soon enough, the wind picked up into full force, blowing us backwards off our feet on several occasions. Our eyes were peppered with dust and sand, our shoes were full of blood, and we had reached our limit.
It is times like these when you value having your mate by your side. We pushed each other forward, forced food into the other’s hands, and moved one step at a time, as a team. As we literally crawled back into El Chaltén, the time was 4.30am, and we had been in the wilderness for 25 hours straight. We arrived at our hostel and realised we had lost our key, so slept on the porch.
What was the most important thing you learnt?
James: You can’t control everything. As frustrating as things like the weather and baggage delays can be, they are totally out of our control – the sooner we realised that, the better. It’s hard to remind ourselves of that at times, but it was very easy to begin to get frustrated with the consistent bad weather, multiple punctures and the ever-changing plans due to road closures. But all of the frustration didn’t help the situation at all; it only added unnecessary stress. As soon as we reminded ourselves that we had to embrace whatever was thrown at us, we started to enjoy the journey far more. Even though the fatigue was biting at us, that was far more in our control.
Tom: We always arrive home with some new insight about ourselves and the challenge at hand. Aside from pretty much learning how to paddleboard on the job (we had only been on SUPs once before), I learnt just how far we could push ourselves. This was the hardest trip we have ever undertaken, and we were pushed so far outside our comfort zone and perceived capabilities that there were times that I genuinely thought we would have to call it a day. But, as ever, we persevered and were successful. This is one of the real benefits of adventure: those times when you wish you were warm at home are the ingredients for personal growth, and you come back stronger and wiser every time.
To someone hoping to embark on their own expedition, what advice would you offer?
James: Two pieces of advice here. Firstly, do the expedition that you want to do. Not because it will look cool, or make for a good story. We always pick expeditions based on places and journeys that have been eating away at us for a while; they become an itch that needs to be scratched. Patagonia was no exception. This means that when it gets tough and brutal, as it so often does, the core purpose remains solid and true. If you take on an expedition with the wrong intentions, when the pressure builds, and the tough questions are asked, that’s when it can all start to crumble!
Second, if you are planning on doing this with a friend, or a group, then make sure those people: a) share the same intentions, and b) have a good sense of humour. The enjoyment of a trip will be made by the people you share it with, and when times get tough, those relationships get tested. So you’d better know that you can be honest with each other and have a bloody good laugh together. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Finally, if you could go back in time and tell yourself something as you were setting off what would it be?
Tom: To have a plan B. The episode at the end of the Huemul Circuit should have been avoided, and we were furious with ourselves for not having a plan B. We were incredibly lucky that temperatures were mild on that particular evening. If we had been in that position on virtually any other night we were in Patagonia, we would have faced sub-zero temperatures, and with a wind that strong, would have been vulnerable to exposure. The consequences could have been very different, and we got lucky. A lesson learnt for us as we plan our next adventure: always have a contingency, don’t rely on a random lift or taxi in one of the most sparsely populated areas on the planet!