lunes, 1 de enero de 2007

Running across the Atacama Dessert

Marketed online by an organization with an ambitious name,Racing the Planet , it seemed an impossible quest: “From earth to Mars” “An ultra marathon of 250 Km across the desert of Atacama. Seven marathons in seven days, self supported you will attempt to cross the Atacama dessert, the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of death, considered the driest places in the Planet.” They had definitively caught my attention, I had participated in the Eco Challenge New Zealand two years earlier, and the thought of desert seamed like a perfect balance to the Aussie mountains. “You will receive only a daily ration of water, NASA scientists, while testing equipment for their missions in Mars, were unable to register any signs of life along certain locations of the course… It went on….never have rained in the history of mankind.
...extreme temperatures……participants will suffocate during the day and freeze at night.”

Although it seemed irrational to even consider it, a week later, together with Carlos Lamarca and Fernando Mayorga, my inseparable adventure companions, we were registered as the only argentine participants. The name of our team: Espiritu Argentino.
On the freezing morning of July 4th 2004 , 66 competitors, representing 21 nations gathered near the town of Machuca at 4100 mts over sea level.
There, under the direction of a Yatiri, a chaman of Incaic rituals, accompanied by the music of half a dozen local atacamenian performers, led us to worship the Pachamama, name the locals give to mother earth. After the blessing, intended for a safe trip, we obtained from the Inca leader some coca leafs to chew during the first stages of the race. The coca leaf is used by the Puna people to reduce mountain sickness, fatigue and hunger.
That first day we ran a complete marathon, the running was tough, not so much for the distance, but mainly due to the altitude.

Carlos, Paco and self before the race

At 4100 mts there is 40% less oxygen that at sea level. We had arrived to Atacama only 36 hours before the race and had not had the sufficient time to acclimatize. We were paying the consequences. Every effort was extenuating. With nausea, headache and corporal fatigue we covered the first 42kms over an Inca trail, a rocky footpath that dated over one thousand years old. While our lungs got accustomed to the thin air and our feet adapted to the rocky mountain terrain we ran the distance that separates Machuca from the settlement of San Bartolo.
At sunset we arrived at a camp set on the margins of the Rio Grande River, a small watercourse that guides the melting snow of the high Andes down to its inevitable evaporation on dessert plains below.
We were greeted by our tent companions Kevin and Paul, two ultra marathon runners from Taiwan and Singapore. They handed us our water rations and guided us to some fires where we could cook our food.
Our rations were simple caloric and lightweight: dehydrated pasta, jerky, cereals, candies and dry fruits. Our carefully selected food rations proportioned exactly 2000 calories per day. Mindful of the weight of our equipment, this was considered the minimum intake to keep us going for a week under extreme conditions. Our daily caloric consuption surpassed 8,000 calories.
That night as enjoyed a cup of tea with Fernando around the fire, surrounded by several experienced dessert racers that had completed similar events in the Sahara and Gobi, we discussed our strategy for our next stage. Carlos, affected by mountain sickness had cocooned in his sleeping bag for the night.
The second stage was even longer, 47 km, mostly to be covered inside the canyon waters of the river, which due to erosion, were enclosed by overhanging cliffs.

The constant immersion in the gelid waters, sometimes up to our waist, not only slowed our pace but caused what we feared the most: the appearance of the first blisters on our feet.
That night after eight hours of hiking, we arrived to the campsite, this time set on the northern border of the Salar de Atacama.
While we prepared some macaroni and cheese powder for dinner we noted that the dessert temperatures at night were lower than those we had experienced in the mountains the night before. Our water bottles froze as our navigation watches recorded minus six degrees centigrade.
Next morning we traveled 34 km south, drawing an imaginary line that divided the desert from the shadows of the great Licancabur Volcano (5916 mts) arriving at our third campsite near a defying village called Toconao, a dry oasis that overlooks the huge salt plain. Exhausted and dehydrated we collapsed in our bags and attempted to maintain a strategy discussion for the next stage of the race, the 42 km of one of the most desolate and dry places in the world: the first leg of the Salar Desert of Atacama. The strategy we defined was as simple as one foot ahead of the other.
I think it was at noon of that fourth day when I entered the doors of the inferno.
The temperature of the dessert reached 37 decrees centigrade, and as we ran out of water, we became dehydrate. Boyd Matson and amusing American that trailed alongside us began urinating blood due to the lack of liquid.
The horizon was beautiful but hostile, identical and barren for miles in every direction. The fact that we would be probably the first humans to cross it on feet didn’t feel very encouraging.
We realized that if nobody had attempted it before, it was probably for the exact same reasons that we were experimenting in our own flesh.

On occasions our feet would break throw the thin salt crust and sink into the damp subterranean broth. Not the best medication for our bleeding blistered feet. It took all our energy to make the camp that night. Trapped in the dark gelid night of the Salar, several competitors had to be rescued by the organization. But the horses, the only means of rescued, sank due to their weight, and could only move on once the subterranean waters froze late into the night.

Over and over I have been asked to explain reasons that compel me to go through these expeditions. I have been asked to describe the fountainhead to the strength needed to complete such demanding contests. That night in my sleeping bag I pondered the same questions.
The answer came to me the next day during the toughest stage of the event: 80 km non-stop through the remaining salar dessert and into the Valley of Death.
My feet had blisters over blisters and no matter how I taped them, the dust, the sweat, and the irregularity of the terrain produced additional wounds over the existing ones.
My back, sore by the weight and friction of the backpack, was as blistered as my feet. My muscles suffered extreme fatigue product of the enormous effort and the inadequate calorie intake.

As we hiked, I struggled to abstract myself from my body pain. To do this I tried to fill my mind with diverse thoughts and memories.
Once I could identify and concentrated on a precise thought, I examined it from different angles in order to make it last as long as possible. In doing so, I avoided the connection between my conscience and the agony my body was experiencing.
I imagined I carried an jar full of all my memories, thoughts and dreams and whenever I wandered back to reality, which set off the pain, I extracted from this imaginary jar a new thought, and with significant concentration I was back to forget the pain in my feet. This work well for two days, but as the hours went by, the vase of thoughts began to drain and finally, when we were about to complete the 40 Km on the fifth day it was as empty as the location I was in.

Startled, I realized that my mind was unable to concentrate on any further thought or recollection.
I had drained my mind of thoughts in a way so profound that the interior of the jar was polished clean. I had revised and analyzed the total of my affective, family and work related relationships, all of my dreams and projects. I was experiencing a total absence of thoughts.
I was then confronted with the evidence that I would have to deal with my corporal agony, the dessert heat, dehydration and freezing nights, and as despair overwhelmed me, something extraordinary occurred.
My mind seemed to detached itself from my body, as it became one with it, I achieved a state of absolute concentration, a level of mental clarity I had never experienced before and my sufferings disappeared. I have since read that yogis achieve this state after decades of practice. The dessert had trapped me.
I was trailsetting through a place that nobody had walked before, and probably nobody would ever will. I had been trapped by the vastness of nothing. With no physical pain my only worries turned to food, of which we had sufficient macarrony powder.
Given the great distance to be covered, that night we did not make to the assigned camp and we had to sleep high on the Cordillera of Salt, a group of white mountains west of the salty dessert. The temperature that night was extreme, what was left in our bottle waters froze once more, but amazingly my smile could be measured alongside the vastness of the Milky sky, such was my peace. I had connected my body with my soul. I had accepted my body sufferings as a natural circumstance. They were there to be enjoyed.
It was a profound and intimate sensation that I did not at that time comment with my friends, since I came to believe they had gone through similar experience given that in the subsequent days the three of us only laughed and joked.
As I looked upon the jar once again, I discovered that it was not empty, but full of new, pure and constructive projects. I had deposited in it my dreams, inspiration and love.
On the seventh day we ran distance in record time, and as we hugged at the finish line we committed to repeat this experience in the Sahara desert.

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