Racing el Hielo ContinentalFrom The Field
Fernanda Maciel and Kaytlyn Gerbin set FKT on Circo de Los Altaras in Patagonia
The North Face athletes Fernanda Maciel and Kaytlyn Gerbin return from Patagonia after breaking the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Circo de Los Altaras – a traverse of the third-largest ice field in the world.
Patagonia has an outstanding reputation as a wild, rugged land for adventure, sitting literally at the ends of the world, covered in inhospitable glaciers and peaks, and affected by temperamental weather conditions. It’s no surprise that it captures the imaginations of the most extreme adventure athletes in the world, who test their mettle against first ascents, traverses, and speed records. The traverse around el Hielo Continental, the third-largest icefield in the world, is called Circo de Los Altaras (or sometimes La Vuelta al Hielo). This route captured the imagination of Fernanda Maciel 12 years ago when she first attempted the route but was denied by bad weather.
This month, Maciel returned with ultrarunner Kaytlyn Gerbin to attempt the route again and set a Fastest Known Time (FKT).
‘I returned to Patagonia to try again and experience the Hielo Continental. The traverse is brutal and challenging, and it will take a perfect window to be able to complete it with weather and logistics aligned. The harsh conditions here in Patagonia have taken the lives of numerous friends of mine, so I return here with so much respect for these mountains. I invited Kaytlyn Gerbin to be my partner on this route. We will be using ropes and technical gear running across the ice, so I needed a partner who has much experience in this type of terrain, who can handle tough conditions, and run for hours.’ —Fernanda Maciel
Kaytlyn Gerbin adds: ‘I have always wanted to team up with Fernanda for a project, and being in Patagonia is something I have always dreamed of. I accepted the invitation and we immediately started training, studying the route, watching the weather forecasts, and assembling logistics for this challenging traverse.’
The traverse begins at the Rio Eléctrico bridge, enters a forest passing through Piedra del Fraile, and then crosses the powerful Río Electrico. From there it continues to La Playita, followed by a Tyrolean traverse and a climb past ‘Laguna de los 14’ to reach the entrance of the Marconi Glacier. From that point it is another 20 miles on the ice field, navigating countless crevasses along the most remote part of the route. The most imposing point is in the middle of the Hielo Continental ice field: the famous amphitheatre Circo de los Altares. Circo de los Altares is located near the border of Chile and Argentina, with the famous big walls of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and Torre Egger as a backdrop.
‘The terrain here is wild. Running together on a rope while jumping over thousands of crevasses was an unbelievable experience. We were fortunate to have good conditions and a beautiful day after so many bad-weather days here in Patagonia,’ Gerbin says.
Maciel adds: ‘The conditions of the ice field change constantly. There can be blue ice or fresh snow hiding the crevasses, with snow bridges that become very dangerous in the heat of the day. When the ice is in a stable and safe condition we can run, and when not, we are testing the terrain and crossing with caution. Crevasse rescue was something we practised a lot before starting this route.
After leaving the Hielo Continental, the route ascends the famous Paso del Viento, passing along the edge of the Glacier Rio Tunel before crossing another Tyrolean traverse. From there, it passes Laguna Toro and a gruelling final climb before finishing at the entrance of the National Park of Glaciers, for a total of nearly 50 miles.
With a total time of 13 hours and 15 minutes, the two runners celebrated, exhausted but happy with the experience – and a new record of a long-awaited crossing through the land of glaciers. Their time is nearly seven hours faster than any previous recorded FKT on this traverse.
‘The Hielo Continental has a unique beauty and importance, and with the climate crisis the ice field can deteriorate even further. The entire Patagonian Ice Field is over 200 miles long, and there are few places like it on the planet. This is truly a special place,’ Maciel says.