When Chris Peterson got the call informing him he had a spot in a 500-km race across the Patagonian wilderness in South America on horseback, he only had four months to prepare ‒ but he loves a challenge.
Having worked with beef cattle outfits off and on since he was a teenager, guided horseback trips in Wyoming and Banff where he had packed strings of four to eight horses and mules, worked as a farrier, and logged timber for a few years with draft horses in the East Kootenays of BC, he was also not afraid of hard work. In his ‘spare time’ he started colts for friends, enjoyed riding rodeo broncs, and competed in blacksmith contests on the weekends.
Chris graduated from veterinary school in 2017 and is now working as a vet in and around Calgary. Divorced with two children aged 15 and 19, the busy 44-year-old thanks the influence of a neighbour who is a keen endurance rider for getting him interested in the sport. Although he did not compete, he credits the hours and miles of conditioning he did aboard a half-Morgan in the mountains outside of Windermere for a few seasons with his ability to ride long distance in steep country without wearing out his horse.
In preparation for the race he ran and hiked in the Rockies, figuring that he would need to be able to get off and walk to save his horses. He spent time sleeping outside in his race tent and sleeping bag; the weight limit of 85 kgs for riders meant that Chris, at 6’3.5, would have to race skinny and he wasn’t prepared to skimp on warmth to save weight. He was totally focused on the challenge in front of him and completely unaware that a second race was waiting for him at the finish line…
They’re Off! … and bogged down…
The 24 riders set off on March 5th in bright sunshine, but as they headed into the mountains on the second day it started raining. By the middle of that afternoon the rain had turned to sleet and the wind had picked up.
“My little riding horse had fallen in a bog and had really had enough, so when the sky turned white I decided to set up camp in a clearing under some trees,” Chris recounted. “When I woke up on the morning of day three, everything was covered in snow. Someone told me later that at that point I was 300 metres away from another rider, but the forest was so thick I had no idea. The ‘forest’ was really just trees stuffed in a swamp and the swamp was everywhere.
“To make any progress at all, I had to tie the horses up, walk to find a trail that was rideable, walk back, ride to the end of the trail and repeat, over and over again. I was worried about the horses in the bogs, especially because my little riding horse had given himself such a big fright the day before. He wouldn’t lead, so I had to ride him and lead the other horse, but I couldn’t ride him through the bogs because the extra weight made him sink.
“I knew I was supposed to be going down the mountain, but the bogs seemed impassable. It was a big fight to get my horse into each bog and as soon as I got him in he’d start to sink … eventually I had to head back up the mountain. I found a fence line, but it stretched out across bright green fields which by this point in the race I knew were just more bog. I set up camp again at 8:30 that night.”
Things did not look much better the next day either.
“On the morning of day four, my little horse was exhausted but he still wouldn’t lead so I had to ride him up the hills. My pack horse was also lame and my tracker had been dead for some time by this point so no-one in the outside world knew where I was, or even if I was still alive.
“I reached the fence line and started down towards the river valley and checkpoint three, but it was up and down the whole way. Even worse, it looked as if the fence line ended in a cliff. I knew that if I got all the way down to find there was no trail past that point I wouldn’t be able to get my horses back up the mountain to try another route. Once again I tied my horses up, tagged the location on my GPS and hiked out on foot to check the trail was passable. I made it to checkpoint three on foot later that day.”
Despite battling challenging conditions for 10 days, Chris realized at the finish that he had done better than most, placing third overall. American Marie Griffis, a 2016 Mongol Derby veteran, crossed the finish line first; Clare King from the UK placed second.
The weather and terrain had knocked several riders out of the race: Chris Maude, veteran of the 2014 Mongol Derby and multiple Grand National steeplechases; international three-day event rider Annie Aul; and Warren Sutton, Thai military horse trainer, among others. Four riders had had to be medivacked out and everyone else had been guided off the mountain. Even worse, as riders and crew had battled to keep the race going, storm clouds of a different sort were rolling in over the rest of the world as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
The Long Race Home
The day the race finished on March 16th, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau closed the borders to non-citizens and non-residents, and international travel in general got very tricky. The riders came back to reality with a bump.
“It was a big shock to come back to society,” Chris admitted about finding himself 12,000 km from home. “I found it hard to adjust. The Argentinian crew offered to look after anyone who got stuck. I was tempted, but I couldn’t chance it.”
Chris raced for the airport at El Calafate three days earlier than planned. He spent an anxious day waiting there to buy a ticket before boarding a flight and skidding across a second finishing line into Buenos Aires, 2,000 km away, in the nick of time. The next day Argentina closed all domestic flights. From Buenos Aires, Chris flew to Santiago de Chile, then Toronto, and then, 56 hours after walking through the doors of El Calafate airport, Calgary.
Safely back at home in Canada, none of this has put Chris off wanting to return for another go. Look out, Gaucho Derby 2021!