For Montana wilderness vet Marie Griffis, winning Gaucho Derby horse race was ultimate survival test

For Montana wilderness vet Marie Griffis, winning Gaucho Derby horse race was ultimate survival test

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BELGRADE – As a horsewoman who’s as comfortable with a pack string in the wilderness as most of us are in BarcaLoungers, Marie Griffis is unfailingly guarded against any imaginable calamity in the bush and welcomes those inevitable challenges.

Then she did Argentina’s Gaucho Derby in early March.

Oh, Griffis also was prepared for the 300-mile horse race through the wilds of Patagonia – indeed, the professional pastry chef from Manhattan won the inaugural event – but after 10 days of pelting rain, snow, sleet, scree-laden hillsides, racing rivers, jungle-thick brush and bogs deep enough to sink an Arabian to its shoulders, it’s safe to say the Gaucho Derby isn't the re-do list.

“No,” Griffis, who cruised through the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby in Mongolia in 2016, said flatly when asked if she’d do it again. “It was a very dangerous race. It wasn’t just a horse race. It was a huge test of survival skills.”

Small wonder that the Derby's creator, The Adventurists, calls it "The Greatest Test of Horsemanship and Survival Skill on Earth."

Take Day 3, for instance.

An intense storm rolled off the Andes, bringing a downpour at first and then a snow squall as Griffis and her friend/competitor, Corie Downey of Whitehall, settled in for the night with their 22 pounds of gear in a wooded meadow where their two mounts and their two pack horses could graze after a brutal afternoon of traversing a boggy forest. Pummeled by wind and snow through the night, they departed in similar conditions the next morning to slog eight miles to Vet Station 3.

Upon arrival, they discovered they were leading.

“That put us in a really good mood,” Griffis said. “A little more zip in our step.”

Behind them? As they ate a warm meal, the duo learned that the race was on hold -- ultimately for three days -- because 18 riders were stuck in the thickening snows. Five had hypothermia. One was kicked in the face by a horse. Yet another was suffering from kidney failure. One competitor walked into camp without a horse, which had gone lame.

Five helicopter trips were required to fetch riders off the mountain. Of the 24 who started the race, 18 were rescued. Of the six who actually rode into Vet Station 3, only Griffis and Downey did so without assistance and the resulting penalties.

And they weren't even half done.

“It took several days to get them all of the mountain,” Griffis said.

From there, race officials removed the pack horses, turned the event into daily time trials and gave each rider GPS. They added a loop ride and eliminated an even more challenging section, known ominously as the Plateau of Death. After the loop, the riders were driven to Vet Station 7 and on Day 9 began the last leg.

The drama wasn’t over.

On what was to be the final day, one rider and her horse tumbled end over end down a steep incline about 100 feet, both somehow emerging with little more than nasty gashes and bruises.

“It’s probably one of the worst things I’ve seen in life when it comes to horseback wrecks,” said Griffis, who started packing with her family on elk hunting trips at age 12 and does wilderness treks with her sisters and other women every summer. “I still cannot believe she and the horse lived through it.”

Three miles from the finish line, while on foot, Griffis’ horse slid backward down a hill and landed on a pile of rocks. She was able to guide the shaken but uninjured animal out of trouble.

“It was a reminder we weren’t done with a very dangerous race,” she said. “We had to stay on our toes the last little bit. We were maybe taking chances we all shouldn’t have been.”

Griffis trotted to the finish line, where she discovered what had been her hunch: She had won. Until then, she wasn’t certain if another rider had passed her while she spent two hours rescuing her horse from the ravine.

Downey was fifth but one of only two riders not to be assessed penalties. Those who were rescued were allowed to continue the time trials because they’d paid exorbitant fees for the experience.

“I was really, really happy and absolutely astonished," Griffis said of winning. "I couldn’t believe something so big I had accomplished. It was a big test of horsemanship.”

Griffis credited her preparation, starting with those early elk hunting trips and learning to tie a diamond knot. She and nieces and nephews practiced on a 20-mile course on their Manhattan property, which included crossing the Gallatin River and riding to a friends' ranch in the Horseshoe Hills. A cartographer brother-in-law and her husband helped hone her navigation skills. And she is thankful for for her state-of-the-art equipment, most notably waterproof clothing from Stone Glacier and durable halters from Steel Halters.

Griffis saluted Downey as well.

“I am super proud of her accomplishment,” she said. “She was a fantastic riding partner, especially when the terrain got tricky. She didn’t think twice about going over, through, up or down tough obstacles and that is the real reason the two of us made it through the forest. When the storm blew in and the weather got nasty, it was so nice to be with a fellow Montanan.”

Now home in quarantine, Griffis hasn’t fully celebrated her feat.

Before she and Downey began the Derby, they were aware coronavirus was an escalating story. In fact, once they arrived from Buenos Aires in the Patagonia gateway community of El Calafate, Downey felt ill and was told to endure the eight-hour ride to the starting line in the baggage bus; Griffis joined her for company.

Upon arrival, they were greeted by a medic, who pronounced Downey fit but discovered Griffis had a temperature of 102 and an elevated heart rate. They were immediately put back on the bus to be checked out in El Calafate for coronavirus. By then, Griffis was still battling a cold but pronounced coronavirus-free, and the two reversed course to the starting line.

“So we missed the whole first day of start camp, we get there and I’m not feeling that great because we’ve been on buses for, like, 24 hours,” Griffis said.

Getting home was equally draining. By the time the Derby was finished, COVID-19 had changed the world almost overnight. 

“I merged off the grid at the finish to warnings of the sky is falling,” Griffis said. “And guess what? You have to get home as fast as you possibly can.”

A few days later, Griffis secured flights from El Calafate to Buenos Aires to Houston to Bozeman. She arrived March 20, six days after winning the Derby, and has been in quarantine ever since, enjoying a few moments six feet apart from her husband on their porch.

The self-imposed seclusion will end April 7 and provide an opportunity to relive her one-time adventure with photos and conversation.

Griffis said she will forever have fond memories of the Montana-esque terrain of Patagonia, the welcoming people and highly intelligent Cicero horses – “phenomenal; if I could get my hands on one I’d get one in my pasture very, very fast” – and appreciates more than ever her three decades of riding horses and guiding pack strings through Montana wilderness.

“I don’t think I would have made it through without having all that experience,” she said. “I can say that about a lot of that race.”

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