Adventurers back for more in wilds of Chile

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile Tue Feb 9, 2010 5:59am GMT

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PUNTA ARENAS, Chile (Reuters) - After risking his life in freezing waters and on steep cliffs last year, American Druce Finlay returns to the annual Patagonian Expedition Race this week with two new weapons -- his ex-Marine father and a nurse.

Both should prove invaluable in an event regarded as the wildest and toughest adventure race in the world.

Finlay and compatriot Valentin Chapa, who is also back for more, were on a team last year that lost their way in the Chilean wilderness for three days.

"We ended up getting lost in the mountains and we had to go down to the Straight of Magellan and hook around," said Finlay as he prepared for Tuesday's start of the 2010 race.

"We tried to swim around the cliffs, and it almost killed us. It was freezing, and when we got out I was shivering so much I couldn't operate my hands.

"One of our team mates became like an uncontrollable animal. I've never seen anything like it. He tore through about two kilometres of bush desperately trying to find a way out."

Unable to contact race organisers after accidentally draining their satellite phone of power, the team were stuck on the shores of the Straits of Magellan hoping a passing ship would rescue them.

Finlay had other ideas, however, and decided to try a hazardous climb with former team mate Sara Percy which eventually allowed them to call in a rescue helicopter.

"There was a chance we wouldn't have been found," he recalled. "I thought it may be life threatening to go, but it was life threatening to sit around there and freeze to death too.

"The very end climb, we got a lucky path. We were on some slippery, steep cliffs, no ropes, teetering on the edge with just enough to hang on to, but we made it.

ARMY DOCTOR

"It's hard to predict what will happen because you only have so much control in this type of race," said Finlay, who hoped to put the ordeal to the back of his mind when his Eddie Bauer team joined 14 others on the start line on Tuesday.

The all-American team also includes Finlay's 56-year-old father, Robert, and 51-year-old nurse Paulette Kirby.

They are among 60 international athletes who will compete on bikes, kayaks and foot over more than 600 kms of pristine wilderness in southern Chile.

Rivals to the Americans and Britons this year come from Canada, Japan, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Brazil and Chile.

Only three of the nine entries made the finish last year, with British squad Helly Hansen-Prunesco winning in just over six days -- four days before the American team were rescued.

The Britons, led by army doctor and adventure racing world champion Nicola MacLeod, hope to become the first team to retain the title in the eight years of the race.

"There is a bit of pressure on us going back this year," admitted Edinburgh-born MacLeod. "But we enjoyed racing as a team last time and the team worked very well together. It was a real high to win the race as it was definitely the hardest we had ever done.

"It is always a really tough race," added MacLeod. "But that's what is so good about it -- the chance to pit your wits against other competitors and against the unpredictable climate in such a beautiful wilderness place.

"The two things we were not so keen on last year were paddling against the winds and battling the impenetrable forest.

"Unfortunately, from what we have heard, we don't think they are going to hold back on the forest and the paddling looks like it might be shorter, but I wouldn't be surprised if that means it's tougher."

NATURE RESERVE

Finlay is hoping his new team can take the challenge to the reigning champions and added: "Last year I didn't force my will on the team when it came to making important decisions.

"This year the team dynamics are different and my dad and I work very well together, especially when it comes to navigating."

The race marks the bicentenary of Chilean independence this year and follows the routes of explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Charles Darwin. Organisers hope to raise awareness about protecting the future of the region's fragile environment.

The course runs through the Karukinka nature reserve on Tierra del Fuego, where peat bogs are under threat from mining.

"The value of this race is not only in the physical and mental challenge, its value is also in spreading a message to preserve this region," said race organiser Stjepan Pavicic on the event's website (www.patagonianexpeditionrace.com).

"Every year we explore new areas of Chilean Patagonia to make the race as scenic, wild and unexplored as possible, always at the limit of the possible."

There is no prize money on offer; the winners get carved wooden medals.

"We are not in it for the money," said Finlay. "We are in it for the small victories that happen along the way, and for the sheer sense of accomplishment that comes with crossing the finish line."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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