Patagonia is one of the wildest places on the planet, with harsh weather conditions, strong winds, and inhospitable glaciers. Brazilian ultra-runner Fernanda Maciel experienced this 12 years ago when she attempted the famous traverse Circo de los Altares, also known as La Vuelta al Hielo, but was turned around due to bad weather.
The traverse around el Hielo Continental, the third largest icefield in the world, takes six to eight days and ends in El Chaltén, Argentina. Maciel, also an environmental lawyer, returned to Patagonia with the aim of completing the route with North Face teammate Kaytlyn Gerbin.
“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.”
Kaytlyn Gerbin, an American runner, added: “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, and enters a forest passing through Piedra del Fraile, and then crossing 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 infinite 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 amphitheater 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,” said Gerbin.
Maciel added: “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 in safe condition we can run, and when not, we are testing the terrain and crossing with caution. Crevasse rescue was something we practiced 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 grueling final climb before finishing at the entrance of the National Park of Glaciers, for a total of nearly 50 miles distance.
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 “fastest known times” 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 is one of the few places like it on the planet. This is truly a special place,” said Maciel.