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Two Helicopter Evacuations on the 76km Trek

Anne-Marie Dunhill / 22.02.2016See All Event Posts Follow Event
Team Sherpa on the 76km trek to CP7
Team Sherpa on the 76km trek to CP7 / © Anne-Marie Dunhill

Two teams were evacuated by helicopter on the 76km trek; Sherpa and Kaweskar.

The US team Sherpa made the decision to withdraw from the race because according to Elizabeth Moore, their tent was torn and they had no dry clothes. She added that they had been progressing slowly and as such were unable to elevate their core temperatures and the possibility of hypothermia became an overriding concern.

Talking about how she felt about the team during the trek, she said, “We’re like limbs on one body out there, at least that’s what we were saying. One of us an arm, one of us a leg, etc., so if one limb has a problem, we all have a problem. Adam had problems with his feet so we had to slow down.”

“Coming into the race I knew that we were here for a ‘suffer-fest’ but I’ve never experienced anything like this and I’ve been adventure racing since 1999. This race is different from any I’ve ever done and it’s the first of five expedition races I’ve competed in that I haven’t finished.”

Comparing her past experiences in expedition races she said, “Here I got the most sleep, the terrain is the slowest I’ve ever been on, we’ve had the least communication with the organization, most challenging treks, as well as the most bushwhacking. I mean it was all bushwhacking and I didn’t realize before that there were simply no trails, anywhere. The weather is the most wild I’ve ever experienced, It is definitely the most wild race in the world. It has been the most expensive race in terms of time and money invested. Here I’ve seen the least animals. I mean I saw a couple of skunks, rabbits and an armadillo on the biking section; no bugs!”

She concluded by saying, “It’s also been the biggest learning curve.”

The team had expressed frustration with the way their evacuation was handled. They said that they had tried several times to contact the organization on the emergency number for the teams and couldn’t get through. So one member of the team sent a message to his girlfriend in Connecticut and she contacted the organization. Several phone calls went back and forth and she gave the exact coordinates of the team.

Repeating what team captain Jean Paul Desrosiers had said in an interview, Elisabeth said, “We could order a pizza from New York and we couldn't even contact the organization on the emergency number.”

I was sitting on the floor in the same room as Sam of the race staff when he received the initial call from the team member’s girlfriend back home in the US. This is what I observed in the order in which it happened. The time was 19:35. He noted the team number and asked if there were any injuries. He asked for the exact coordinates of the teams location and the woman called him back with that information. He informed the race director.

At 08:30 the next day Camila Perez confirmed that a helicopter from the Chilean Air Force had been dispatched to pick up the team. At 07:30 an ambulance was dispatched to Rio Primero where the team would be dropped off. At 09:38 the helicopter confirmed that the team had been dropped off at PC7. Medics confirmed at PC7 that there were no injuries but that one team member had a problem with his feet. The team was transported to CP8 in Puerto Natales.
At the beginning of the race in the captains briefing, the race director insisted on the fact  that he expected teams to be prepared to manage situations such as hypothermia and that they were responsible for their own safety.

Speaking to the race director this morning to understand the evacuation process from the point of view of the race organization, he said that in managing an emergency situation, he must take into consideration the safety of all of those involved in the rescue. Analyzing the coordinates of the location of the team he decided that a helicopter was the only way to reach them. The weather conditions meant that a helicopter couldn’t be sent out until the next morning.

A member of the race staff filmed the helicopter landing with the team in PC7. The video showed tents flying away as the helicopter landed. One of those tents getting caught in the  helicopter’s main rotor blade could have caused the helicopter to crash.

According to the race director the Chilean team, Kaweskar, who were also still on the trek heard the helicopter and the captain called in saying, “I hope that helicopter isn’t looking for us. We know that we won’t make the cut-off but we still want to continue,”

The next day at 15:11 the Chilean team were also forced to call for evacuation. The team captain Abelardo Escalona stated that they had a medical emergency with team member. The team is composed of members of the Chilean military and according to staff member, Camila Perez the captain has medical training. Going through a list of questions by telephone with Camila at CP 8, the team captain stated that it was a suspected case of appendicitis.

The Chilean Air Force helicopter was dispatched and the team member transported to hospital. At 22:47 the race director received confirmation that it was not appendicitis.

As Elizabeth Moore of team Sherpa said earlier, “this race is definitely the most wild in the world.” The two helicopter evacuations on the 76km trek show that teams must fully understand what this means before they undertake the race; one team got out quickly and the other one had to wait for over 12 hours. Hypothermia and appendicitis both have dire consequences but the conditions of Patagonia dictate when help arrives.

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