It all started with a box.
“I found this big cardboard box at my door,” recalls Rafa Ortiz, an extreme whitewater kayaker from Mexico City. “No note inside – just a pair of red and black mountaineering boots. That was the first hint.” About the same time, three more boxes landed on the doorsteps of three other athletes: Matt Poole, a surf ironman from Sydney, big-wave surfer Ian Walsh, and multisport waterman Kai Lenny, both from Maui.
“Before that, all we knew was that we were going to be doing some training in Patagonia,” says Ortiz, compact and musclebound with a black goatee. “Seeing those boots was the first time I started to understand what we were getting into.”
There were a few more hints over the three months leading up to the team’s arrival in Patagonia, Chile, but they were mostly kept in the dark. Even as they were rousted from their cozy hotel beds just after midnight and loaded onto a van for a bumpy five-hour ride through the shadowy countryside, Ortiz and his friends had no idea where they were headed, or that they were essentially guinea pigs in a highly engineered and out-of-the-box athletic training experiment.
All the mystery and the unknown was part of Andy Walshe’s grand plan. Actually it’s a plan that’s been in the making for the past 20 years, slowly morphing over the time he spent training military special forces, the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and now, working as Red Bull’s director of high performance.
In the early 1990s, about the same time he first started training athletes, Walshe found himself drawn to books about Eastern philosophy, in particular the Shaolin fighting monks – Chinese Buddhist warriors known for their feats of strength and endurance and incredible tolerance for pain – and the culture of Bushido (“the way of the warrior” in Japanese) that’s the basis for samurai life.
“The fighting monks and samurais got to a level of mastery in their craft where they stopped swinging swords so much and spent more time working on inner spirit,” says Walshe, a gregarious 47-year-old Aussie who now lives in Southern California. “They picked these arduous challenges every two or three years just to see what they’re made of, to find the limits to their souls.”
“And so it got me thinking: ‘Why can’t we re-create that with a modern twist? Take that ancient idea of using a spiritual, physical challenge to find out what you’re made of and use that to become more masterful in your chosen craft.’ That’s where the genesis of the idea came from.”
Walshe reasoned there was little new he could teach the four elite athletes about their own disciplines. But what he could do was engineer a program so challenging that it’d yank these water-sports superstars out of their comfort zones, pushing their limits physically, mentally, and spiritually.
“Obviously my job is to help them with their sport,” he says. “But many times if you help them with their life they get better at their sport.”
Following a long, sleepless van ride, the athlete team was saddled with full backpacks and hustled onto a 21-foot fiberglass fishing boat. Through the cold darkness, the bow sliced the sheet-glass waters of Lago Bertrand. Above the lake rose snow-covered peaks and glaciers illuminated by a waxing moon and more stars than most city dwellers can claim to have ever seen. Just before dawn, the boat landed on a rocky beach. Shouldering their packs, the athletes tried to keep pace with Pete Naschak, a highly decorated former Navy SEAL whom Walshe enlisted to help create the training program. As they hiked up and over a steep headland, they bantered and cracked jokes along the way, but it thinly masked their uneasiness about what was to come.
“Anybody can come in and kick the shit out of people,” Walshe says. “We just wanted to make it a little more thoughtful in design.”
The next piece of the puzzle was to pick an environment and activities where at least some of these stressors would be present without presenting undue dangers to the athletes, whether from dangerous wild animals, infectious diseases, or criminal activity.
“The athletes have to get back to work afterwards, so we can’t destroy them,” says Naschak. “We want to press a limit but we don’t want to keep them from working when they get back home.”
After considering several different locations, Walshe and Naschak settled on the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in Aysén, Southern Chile, a very remote, wild place with steep mountains and dangerous, unpredictable weather, yet no real threats from animals, diseases, or nefarious activity.
Plus, despite the remoteness of the region, there’s enough infrastructure nearby to ensure medical help and evacuation if need be. For help on the ground they tapped Steve Sanders, also a former SEAL; spiritual adviser Jimmy Bartz; and veteran Patagonia mountain guide Jonathan Leidich. Together the group designed an epic eight-day training mission through the most desolate wilds of Aysén.
On Day 3, the team was awakened at 3:15 a.m. Destination: the base of a mountain dubbed the Shark Fin. The goal had been to reach the peak’s base, but Walsh’s knee deteriorated, so they changed plans, bushwhacking a 12-mile shortcut through thick brush and thorns and across a heavy talus field to reach Camp 3, where Walshe and his ground team were waiting. There the tough decision was made for Ian to be airlifted out the following day.
“I wish you were heading back out with us, but it’s just not worth your knee,” says Naschak. “You were gutting it out today, Ian. You had the warrior spirit, every minute, all the way.”
For Ortiz, Poole, and Lenny, a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call had them back on the trail in the darkness as spitting rain and heavy winds blasted the treetops. At the base of the trail, the team deployed small solo inflatable packrafts to paddle across an iceberg-filled lake to the edge of the Colonia Glacier. From there, they donned crampons again for the 8-mile glacier crossing. In a moment ironically reminiscent of Walsh’s injury, Ortiz’s right knee succumbed to pain from a damaged meniscus, slowing the team’s pace as he literally dragged his leg across the glacier. By 5 p.m. the team pitched a makeshift camp just off the glacier’s edge, where Leidich stayed behind with Rafa while the rest pushed on for Shark Fin.
“I knew physically I couldn’t keep going,” Ortiz said, frustrated to the verge of tears. “But at the same time I wanted to go. Waiting at camp while the rest of the team climbed the mountain was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Meanwhile, Lenny, Poole, and the SEALs marched on through impossibly thick underbrush, thorn bushes, and deadfall old-growth forests. Emerging from the trees, the team encountered a series of challenging rock-climbing sections, made even more difficult because of their 50-pound backpacks and sheer fatigue.
“I have no idea how to climb. This isn’t my forte,” says Poole, looking down at the cliff face below. “This is real. You fall off your surf ski and you hit the water. Here, if I let go and fall, I’m totally screwed.”
Prior to departing for Patagonia, each of the athletes traveled to the University of California, San Diego, where they were thoroughly pricked, prodded, and studied by scientists and psychiatrists to establish a physiological and psychological baseline pre-Project Acheron.
“The science is pretty aggressive,” says Walshe. “We’re doing one of the most comprehensive workups of any athlete group I’ve ever seen – all the nutritional panels, plus blood DNA markers, gut bioms, brain assessments – the list is long.”
The goal: to find out how Project Acheron may, or may not, have affected the athletes physically or psychologically, and how those results can help Walshe and others create similar projects beneficial to athletic performance. In particular, Walshe and the researchers want to see if a dynamically challenging experience permanently (or temporarily) alters the way the brain perceives and reacts to stress.
Though the post-Acheron test results are still weeks out, some of the scientists are starting to extrapolate based on initial output.
“I think we’ll see the brain is better, more quickly, and more adaptively able to process these stressors,” hypothesizes Martin P. Paulus, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego. “When you get to a certain level, what makes the really good athletes different from the OK ones is not athletic ability, it’s what’s above the neck.”
Exhausted both mentally and physically from 21 continuous hours of hiking and climbing, the team pitched a tarp shelter on a ledge around 1 a.m. Heavy snow fell overnight, and the team woke to thigh-deep snow, their sleeping bags soaking wet. The snow continued to fall throughout Day 5 as they pushed on along a sharp ridgeline toward Shark Fin, but eventually the weather forced the team to retreat.
The climax of the expedition came on Day 8, as the entire remaining team made a first-ascent attempt on an unclimbed peak. Waking at 3:15 a.m., they tackled steep forested and alpine terrain. Though Ortiz’s knee was feeling bad on the approach, as soon as they started the steep uphill section, something changed.
“It was magically feeling better,” says Ortiz. “There was a transition between pain and frustration to all positive energy. I really wanted to push it hard like that. Then it was on.”
After about six miles the team came around the corner and the summit was suddenly visible – and looked climbable. Despite the pain, Ortiz’s knee held up for the ascent, from the talus rock to the bushwhacking to the trekking through the snow, some 6,500 feet in 14 hours. Though they earned every bit of the climb, the team eventually pulled off a first ascent on a peak they collectively named Caña Brava.
“We basically fought for every f*cking inch,” says Poole. “The boys are really starting to gel. It’s not six blokes who climbed a mountain – it was a team. Being on top of that mountain felt like being on top of the world. That really does change you.”