Above Quito, getting acclimatised on the volcano Pinchinca
Most of you will have read that we had to pull out of the Huairasinchi Adventure race in Ecuador last week. We were not the only top international ream to have to do so, which softened the blow a little, but not by much. Below is the report on our race, and also what happened after we had to pull out.
We got up and into the support vehicle at 4am to drive to the start in the small town of Aloisi, just off the Pan American Highway. The start was set for 6.15, and true to their word the klaxon sounded bang on time.
A short spin around the town square then we were off on the first 26km bike leg up to the base of some volcanoes, a height gain of around 1000m on the bike. It was going to be a tough start to the race.
The race maps - Start on the right, race south, then north to near the coast.
Team Ecuador set a blistering pace that no one could match, so we sat in the peleton with most of the International teams, Tecnu (USA and Canada), Merrel (South Africa) Lafuma Vibram (France), and a lot of the local Ecuadorian teams both doing the elite non stop race, and the Adventure category, where they get to do sections, but rest overnight. A great way to get more people involved, and no more logistical issues.
The first half of the ride was flat(ish), then we hit the hill, and with the snow capped volcanoes rising high above we knew it was going to be gruelling. The pace slowed right down, and then we started to drop back down the pack, and Bjarke really started to suffer. I hung back for him and helped push his bike up the hill so he could recover. Last year when he’d been racing out in Ecuador he had been fine, and he couldn’t understand why he felt so bad.
Nearing the end of the gruelling bike ride
After about 2.5hrs of riding we reached the transition. To make the ride harder still, we had had to carry all our kit for the trek as well, due to the road being very small and there being no way our support vehicles could get up to help us at the transition. They had to wait till all the riders had arrived, then they went up to get the bikes.
After a smooth quick transition we set off. Bjarke was still feeling a little bad, but he thought he was ok, he just needed to get some energy inside him. 10 minutes up the hill though Thure shouted for Susanna and I to come back, we were 50m ahead. Bjarke had done some spectacular projectile vomiting, and was lying in a foetal position on the floor, it didn’t look good.
Bjarke then got up, and carried on up the hill, he seemed to be better, but weak, so Thure grabbed his pack, and I grabbed the tow, and put Bjarke onto it. We steadily climbed up to the highest point of the race, swapping the tow and bag between Thure and I, and getting Bjarke up and over the top.
All my race food, packing into 6hour bags.
The first checkpoint was at the col, at around 4800m asl, which I think is the highest I have ever been, and boy was it hard work walking up there, especially with an extra pack on (not something I’d recommend!). We had been passed by a number of teams on the climb, but soon began to pass them on the decent, no one seemed to be able to run down rocks and scree!
The nav after the next checkpoint was tricky, the clouds were down, and visibility was down to maybe 50m. As we sat on a bearing getting lower down the mountain the clouds finally lifted, and we were able to get onto the correct ridge to drop down to the next checkpoint.
We were in a group of teams, but Susanna had stomach issues, and a short stop meant we lost sight of the others. After the first section through the forest we struggled to find the next path. The map certainly wouldn’t have troubled an OS map in a contest, and seemed to show the path going right on top of the ridge. We found a small trod, that we thought was it, but it got smaller and smaller, and soon we were fighting our way through. Joined by some other teams we made slow progress, and finally decided to back track, this wasn’t the path, and even though we were headed in the right direction we were going no where fast.
Heading over the col at 4800m
We headed back to where we had been maybe an hour before, and after a short look we found a flagged route to a path! We hadn’t been told that we were looking for any flags – had that have been the case we’d have known we were wrong a long time before. This was quite frustrating, to have known we had been so close to the path, but had then gone a slightly different route and lost a lot of time.
We ran down the hill to the ropes section, slipping a sliding down the muddy path, past a very remote farmstead with pigs, alpacas, sheep and a donkey, and an old lady.
The ropes section was cool, an abseil off a bridge into a cold river, although i managed to escape getting too wet by swinging, and also pulling the other guys away from the deep water. A short river walk and then scramble up out of the gorge brought us back to the transition after a short run past an amazing waterfall.
Our support team were ready and waiting, and had begun to worry about what had happened to us as a number of teams had already passed. We were pleased to hear that we were not too far behind them, seems that many teams had problems on the first leg. We were very much still in the race, and with a smooth transition, and getting some proper food into Bjarke, we could start to make inroads on the other teams.
The bike leg as going to be really tough, the profile showed that it was up, up and up, with a few little downhills. To make matters worse, the rain started to fall, soaking us as we crawled up the steep hills, past the many landslides from the steep banks of the roads.
Thure struggling with 2 packs on
At the start of the ride the team wasn’t feeling great. Bjarke was still recovering from his sickness on the trek, he’d not eaten much, and was tired. Susanna was still having stomach problems, and more worryingly, Thure was beginning to have breathing issues. Initially didn’t really think too much about this, as we were climbing a lot, and Thure wasn’t slow at all.
The bike leg climbed and climbed, it was on tarmac to start with, so that was a relief. The rain finally eased, but then the wind picked up. This was a mixed blessing, it dried us out but got us really cold at the same time, especially as the skies drew darker as night set in.
We hit some rough roads, and decided it was time to get all the lights out. We didn’t want to stop in the cold winds, so found a tiny hut to huddle into. This was filled with potatoes, and we crammed into it out of the low temperatures, and got our kit set for the 12hours of darkness.
We had seen a team just ahead of us as we stopped, but they had disappeared when we came out of the hut. We jumped back on the bikes, and our problems started, but unknown to us at the time.
We took a wrong turn on the bike, up a road that wasn’t actually on the map. I’m not totally sure how this happened as I wasn’t navigating, but Bjarke seemed to be happy. We continued to climb, took a right turn, after the junction we had a small chat, and Bjarke seemed happy with where we were, and then we came across a small village. We thought we had to head south at this point, and as we did the corners seemed to match until we got to a hairpin bend.
We had quite a discussion about where to go at this stage, and ended up taking a small track, that didn’t feel right, but Bjarke, who had the map, seemed happy we were going the right way. It then seemed to dead end, and after another slightly heated discussion, we headed back to the village to start again. However, we thought we were somewhere different, so trying to navigate from that point was always going to fail.
We went back up the same little track, and hiked up a hill and found a bigger track. This matched the direction/altitude of where we wanted to be, so again Bjarke was happy we were back on track. After a short while the track went down to a single path, and a short hike up a steep hill brought us to a mountain house. Something wasn’t right.
This whole time Thure was getting worse and worse with his breathing, having to stop every few minutes to recover his breath before pushing on very slowly. It was now about midnight, and I felt we should try and get Thure to get some rest, especially when we were unsure of our exact location.
We got into the mountain hut, a very basic stone hut with a mud floor. No one seemed to be in the living part of the hut on the other side of the courtyard. We settled down for an hours sleep to see if Thure would feel any better. Upon waking he was no better, if not worse, and hanging around at 4000m asl would likely not help matters.
So after a few minutes of discussion we decided to pull the plug, Thure needed help, and we couldn’t carry on with the race. I got the radio and phone out of my pack, and took ages getting the tape off it, then got on the phone to the race organisers to report our issue.
We gave them our co-ordinates, we couldn’t confirm them as the gps couldn’t get a fix, but we felt reasonably confident. It should have been easy then, a short drive for the medic car to come grab Thure and the rest of us. If only…
They got the on the radio to say that they were close, and that we should be able to see/hear them. We couldn’t, but weren’t too worried as there were lots of valleys that the road went in and out of. Bjarke set off on hie bike to lead them in, but failed to see anything.
After some shouting across the valley to get Bjarke to come back, some locals appeared out of the darkness, no torches, just the light from their mobile phones (which looked very out of place compared to the rest of their outfits), some of them shoeless, and crucially speaking not one word of English!
They seemed a little agitated, and were quite clearly wondering what the heck was going on. I was unable to tell them anything, I tried to explain that my friend was ill, but that didn’t seem to work, and I got a bit worried they would be angry that we were using one of their friends huts to shelter in.
I asked Rodolfo, who I was speaking to on the radio, to chat to the locals, mainly to tell them what we were doing, but also to maybe see if they could help us. We clearly were not where we thought we were, too many things didn’t add up, it didn’t feel right.
After a long conversation between the locals and Rodolfo on the radio, Rodolfo came back to me and said that they thought we were in a different grid square. This was some 4km away from where we thought we had been, and Bjarke was not convinced with the locals, as they had been pointing at various different places on the map.
However as soon as they said where they thought we were, i knew they were spot on. Everything fell into place, and I realised most of what we had done to get there. The question about which track we had come up was still unanswered, but everything else totally fitted.
We quickly packed up our bags, and with an audience of the locals watching us clear out of the wee hut we’d borrowed I handed out a bag of cookies, which seemed to go down very well. In our best Spanish we said thank you, and headed down the hill on our bikes to get picked up from the village we were only a few kilometres from.
Thure chilling - In hospital with some gas!
As soon as we arrived in the village we were met by the medic team, and Thure was quickly taken into the car and checked over, then put on oxygen. They were happy to hear he had not coughed up any blood, and only some pretty impressive green and yellow stuff!
The race director (Santiago) arrived shortly after, and his wife acted as interpreter for Thure. We chatted to Santiago about what had happened and we still couldn’t quite work out which track we had arrived on. This would only become clear once we descended the main road (the one we should have come up on) to see a large hairpin not on the map, and our track, again not on the map heading up the hill.
Thure needed to get to lower altitude as we were still at about 4000m asl. The medic took Thure’s and Susanna’s bikes, but there was no space for Bjarke and I, so we rode down the hill, which was a lot of fun, until Bjarke’s light went out, and we had to ride side by side, so he could use mine – interesting when doing around 50kph.
Soon we were reunited with our fantastic support crew. They had only had to do one transition, but Pedro and Andrea had done really well. They packed us all up into the car and we headed back for Quito. Thure was still pretty bad, and when we got back to Andrea’s parents house they took him into Quito to the hospital to get properly checked out. It was a good job they did as Thure was kept in for the next 2 nights, on oxygen almost the whole time as his levels had dropped really low, and with Quito being at around 3000m asl he needed help to get the levels back up.
While Thure was in hospital, we were able to get all our kit dry and bikes clean at Andrea’s house, and also hear the dramatic stories of our support crew, who had got caught in a landslide, and almost lost the car down the side of a hill! Pablo had thrown all sorts of junk infront of the wheels to help him back out of the very sticky situation they were in.
So, a few days later, here I am back in the UK, totally recovered from our adventure. Thure is in Denmark with the others and he is getting better much quicker now at normal altitude, but its safe to say he won’t be racing up high any time soon.
It was an amazing trip, and such a shame that altitude sickness strikes so indiscriminately. Thure had raced the previous year in Ecuador (in the same race) and been ok! Many of the other top international teams had also had to drop out due to the altitude, which helps, but it still hurts deep down when you have to jack a race in, but I know we made the right decision at the right time.
As to the navigation errors. Maybe Bjarke with his earlier illness and lack of energy wasn’t as focussed as he normally is, and I know how easy it is to fit the ground to the map when you want it to be right – I have done it myself a number of times. When it is dark and you are tired it is so easy to make an error, and I think we both learnt a few things about relocating and when to stop and head back to a known location and try again.
The Basilica in Quito - It took 100years to build.
Quito and Ecuador were stunning. We did a small bit of sightseeing around town, involving the Basilica, and also the old town, in the middle of Carnival time! But I’m a bit gutted to miss out on the other beautiful locations we would have raced through, maybe i’ll go back, but with the constant danger of altitude sickness hanging over your head, you never know when it will strike, and is it worth seeing if you can get away with it or not, thats the big question?
Thanks to Team Skandia for a great (if short) race experience. I really enjoyed racing with you all – it’s only taken us 5yrs to sort it Thure! Thanks to all our other sponsors too, adidas, OMM, Power The Machine, Exposure and Nikwax.
Until next time…