BEYOND TORRES DEL PAINE: On the Ultra Fiord Route
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Justin Lotak · 12 min read
During a few days in April each year, the wild mountains and fiords outside Puerto Natales are crossed by some of the most intrepid runners in the world. In their quest to make the best times, these runners are confronted with the true face of Chilean Patagonia, which is as merciless as it is stunning. The Ultra Fiord, a race that has become a pinnacle of extreme trail running since its inception in 2015, is what brings them there. Earlier this year we hiked and talked about the character of an event like the Ultra Fiord with Stjepan Pavicic, the mind behind this and other iconic adventure races in Chilean Patagonia. What we learned from the conversation is told in the story below, together with our own experience of backpacking on an amazing portion of the route. The central idea of the whole experience is that events like the Ultra Fiord can inspire a deep connection with nature.
The Ultima Esperanza province, with Puerto Natales as its capital, is probably the most visited in all of Chile. The main reason for this is a charismatic mountain range which has been making the covers of adventure publications and guidebooks of the world as a natural wonder that must be seen at least once in a lifetime. That mountain range forms the Torres del Paine National Park, Chile’s incredible treasure that bears a heavy environmental burden. Overexploited by tourism in the past several years, this place is becoming a hard-learned lesson of what happens when a place is promoted too much. As the numbers of annual arrivals are starting to be controlled and limited, the good news is that the province has much more to offer beyond its famous national park.
Última Esperanza fiord
On of the many spectacular views along the Última Esperanza fiord
"That aspect of the pampas with mountains in the background, that’s different than the reality of southern Chilean Patagonia. We wanted to show a Patagonia that is greener, rougher, with forests, lakes, and fiords"
One early morning we arrived in Puerto Natales just in time to catch the ferry that would take us through the fiords to the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers, in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. That would be the drop-off point and the start of a steep uphill hike with extraordinary views of glaciers and snowfields. We were accompanying Stjepan Pavicic and his fellow explorer, Sebastian, for a 30 km trek to inspect the state of one portion of the Ultra Fiord route before the event would start in April. We had known Stjepan from the 2013 edition of the Patagonian Expedition Race (PER), the first introduction we’ve had into the world of adventure racing and a lesson on the role that such an event can play in promoting the natural heritage of a region.
“Since we started the Patagonian Expedition Race, we wanted to show the true face of Patagonia. Nothing else can show it more genuinely. That aspect of the pampas with mountains in the background, that’s different than the reality of southern Chilean Patagonia. We wanted to show a Patagonia that is greener, rougher, with forests, lakes, and fiords, with the purpose of increasing awareness of the potential for tourism and, in this way, bring a more sustainable economic development to the region. As humans, we’re used to taking things out of nature: oil, timber, water, all sorts of resources, graze sheep, cattle, take, take, take; it’s always been about exploiting nature. The positive side of sustainable tourism is that it involves experiencing nature and to do so it needs to be protected and remain pristine. So, that was one thing that the PER was looking to generate”, reminisces Stjepan. In parallel with the expedition race, the organization that he runs, NIGSA, started creating running events: first the Patagonian International Marathon in 2012, then the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine in 2014, and finally the Ultra Fiord in 2015. “The idea was to create events that bring the benefit of promoting the region while at the same time generating a significant [tourism] occupancy while they unfold for the local economy to truly benefit. With these type of running events, one can modify the dates as desired to do something in the low tourism season. The marathon in 2012 was not an event where only about 80 people would partake like the PER; with this we were looking at some 1,000 or more runners plus the people that would come with them for support. For the location, we looked at places in more remote areas, like Tierra del Fuego, but it’s logistically impossible. So finally, Torres del Paine was selected due to its proximity to Puerto Natales where there’s already an infrastructure, and it worked well. And then we wanted to take steps towards trail running so we created a “sister” event, the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine”, Stjepan continues. As we listen to him talk about how he strategically chooses the best dates to generate the biggest positive impact for the region in terms of its tourism economy, we gain consciousness of the concept of extreme sporting events as both engines of sustainable regional growth and as wilderness ambassadors.
In every event that NIGSA has developed, the untamed nature of southern Chilean Patagonia has been at the core. Through imagery and documentaries, it has inspired communities of athletes and their supporters to come closer to these mystic lands and their unforgiving climate and terrain. Some have paid a very high price and left the world while doing what they loved. Most seem to have carried with them a deep love for the landscapes through which they raced. While we were hiking with Stjepan and Sebastian through a portion of “the heart of the Ultra Fiord”, we could see Stjepan’s sheer excitement and happiness of being there and of sharing knowledge about this place with us. To get to the “heart” we went up some 1,000 meters from sea level in a rough ascent. After getting to a windy ridge we descended into the valley they call “La Fortaleza” (The Fortress) where we were left speechless. It was a dark, eerie valley swept by strong gusts that can send one’s tent flying (pictured in the header above). Its strange beauty is at the border between dream and nightmare, an impossible place where a human feels privileged and humbled to be. The mountains and their rugged peaks surrounded us like walls. Some were covered in a thin layer of snow. Others, by a glacier. Only one narrow pass could be seen, which was where we would cross the next day. They had named it the Byron Pass, which crosses the Chacabuco Glacier. We set the tent inside a naturally formed shelter between three giant boulders that had reached the valley during some geologic event. Overnight, strong winds still made their way inside, forcing us to keep adjusting the tent poles and stakes. In the morning, we saw that more snow had fallen but the wind had finally taken a break. All packed, we started making our way up to the glacier, scrambling over rocks of all sizes. As we reached the border of the ice covered in a very thin layer of snow, the wind picked up again. While putting the crampons on, one big cloud filled with snow settled upon us. Ready to start the hike up the ice, the wind slammed us in the face, bringing snow and sleet. Throughout the whole glacier crossing, up and down across the ridge, Stjepan was explaining about how crevasses form, pointing out geological aspects of the valley and the alterations they’ve been noticing due to climate change. Sebastian was getting the rope and carabiners ready to tie us together. Neither seemed phased by the glacier and the rough weather. Getting to the top we were surrounded by incredible beauty. Standing there, the view of the Cordillera Paine was astonishing. It seemed unconquered and untamed, otherworldly and with no sign of the crowded trails that have now become the subject of regret for many. Continuing onward with more rock scrambling and precariously hiking up a steep rock wall, we couldn’t stop wondering what kind of DNA strain the super humans must have that run this trail, given that walking it seemed such a challenge to us.
"In a way, I didn’t create the level of difficulty; it was made by Patagonia itself"
The dedicated and intricate trail design by Stjepan always shines a light on the best and most raw landscapes of Patagonia. There are probably few people that can create more pure adventure than he does. He seems to be one of those explorers for whom nature isn’t an unfriendly place even when it shows its worst side. Instead, it’s a source of inspiration to keep pushing boundaries and limitations. Back in the office in Punta Arenas we had to ask him more about what goes into making up these intense routes. “It’s complex. People have asked me if I was trying to find the world’s hardest racing route. The reality is different. Through such routes I’m only trying to show the true heart of Chilean Patagonia, and its heart is this way. So, if I really want to show what Patagonia is, the route had to go through peat bogs, through those old-growth forests, go across mountains, go across a glacier, cross a river…these are at a minimum what had to be included. In a way, I didn’t create the level of difficulty; it was made by Patagonia itself”, says Stjepan. As for the family and friends that accompany runners to the Ultra Fiord, there is a vision to create in the future an infrastructure that would grant them access to strategic points from where they can watch the race. For those that stay at home, they can keep track of the runners through the social media channels of the event and get inspired by the photos with incredible natural backdrops.
Ultra Fiord race founder, Stjepan Pavicic, at the Byron Pass of the Chacabuco Glacier
"It was a sign that this was precisely the kind of place we were looking for. It had it all"
Beyond the romanticism of creating such daring trails, there goes a lot of planning and knowledge of the region through which Stjepan has been hiking and running for decades. “From a practical standpoint, with the Ultra Fiord I had to look for certain things when creating the route that are not easy to find. I was lucky too. I needed a place that was wild, accessible in terms of permits to obtain, plus it needed to be relatively close to a town with an infrastructure to support visitors. If you look at the region, the towns are Punta Arenas, where you must go far away to encounter true wilderness; then Puerto Natales. With the latter, unless you have a long-distance marathon, you can’t incorporate it. Its surroundings are spectacular, but if you do a 20k race around Natales you won’t see much in terms of wilderness. If you go farther north, through the Ultima Esperanza fiord and then head west, that’s where it’s all untouched. But it’s very far away. If you go east, you find yourself surrounded by farmland. But right in this triangle, between the fiord and the farms, we found a region within the Chacabuco Range where there’s no development. When we set out for this route and started to look for the right pass through the mountains, it proved to be much harder than we had initially thought. It was a sign that this was precisely the kind of place we were looking for. It had it all. So, that’s how the route of Ultra Fiord came to happen: a mix of looking for the truly wild within the reasonable vicinity of a town that could receive visitors”. The route has been altered a little since 2015, but the hopes were that this year’s additions and changes would become the permanent route.
"We’re far away from the world and we’re far away from Chile itself"
Curious to know what it means to put together such an event in an isolated place, we asked about the logistics behind it. With a sigh, Stjepan started, “It’s a complicated matter. We’re far away from everything. And I mean everything. We’re far away from the world and we’re far away from Chile itself. Basically, we’re almost 3,000 km away from the capital, so we’re like a distant country of Chile. Therefore, everything that goes into putting together the race, from more complicated resources to something as common as putting a number on a t-shirt, comes out significantly more expensive. Also, to bring human resources, volunteers, staff, and cargo, the costs are very high. For the route, we made months of expeditions in the Chacabuco Range with qualified individuals, and we had to bring serious equipment out there to cut paths through the fallen trees. Sometimes one chunk of a trunk can weigh 300 kilos. To move all that was extremely complicated. Creating and maintaining this route is extremely expensive. People think that it was already made, but that was not the case. You have seen the markers. There must be thousands of them along the route on top of the other thousand we’re now making. I’ve lost count, but there should be around 6,000 or 7,000 along the route. Then it’s not just about making them, it’s also about bringing them there and installing them. Every year some get destroyed or pulled by cows, wind, or snow, and they need to be replaced”.
The view from the bottom of the Chacabuco Glacier
"After seeing the impact it has on the people that come to do it, I want to keep going"
Setting an ultra marathon in remote, wild and unforgiving Patagonia comes with a lot of challenges. Security of the racers in a landscape where weather conditions and terrain can prevent timely rescue operations have been the subject of quite a few critiques nationally and internationally. The participants soon find out that as they start, there are few places where they can drop out within safety limits and are otherwise trapped in true wilderness with limited access to help, left entirely on their own and their capacity to survive. On the other hand, this is also the main driver for committed adrenaline seekers worldwide. While walking miles across a landscape for which we’ve yet to invent new words to better capture it, we were wondering whether running to make the best time allows participants to take it all in. We then read a book that Stjepan had where runners’ quotes were collected from just after the first race in 2015, and one thing was striking: a large majority of them were filled with praise and acknowledgement for the place through which they had run. Here are a few of the inspirational quotes taken from the official website of the event:
"This trail is unique. It’s hard to describe some emotions or sensations that you experience during a trail, because everyone has their own feelings and lives their own experience. Thus, I’m convinced that the only way to understand what a runner lives and feels during a trail, especially a trail like Ultra Fiord in Patagonia, is to take part in it yourself. Endurance sports are true introspection, not only on yourself, but also on your family, your environment, and the world you live in." - Xavier Thevenard (France), 1st place, 70k, 2015
"Loved it: mountain pass traversing, class 4 climbing, glacier traverses, mud & bogs to thighs, significant portions off trail, incredible mountain scenery, a true adventure! I got the win and 5th overall! Toughest race I’ve ever done and I want to go back!" - Candice Burt (USA), 1st place women's, 5th Place overall, 100 miles, 2015
"Every picture that appears, brings a story with it: fugacious passages from an endless story, as long as the distance you ran. A story that doesn’t want to end, a race that brings him to a new limit, that race that he had never run, that race with two nights, that race at the end of the World, this extreme and wild race in the land of the Patagonians... That race where Trail Running along with the runner would be carried into another dimension. His mind and body confronted a wild and extreme fight, as the race’s environment itself, where the mind must govern the body through the will to lead it to the finish of your dreams." - Jaime Hume (Chile), 7th place, 100 miles, 2015
"“Now that I have run by such beautiful places, which are worthy of appearing in Lord of the Rings, I am not able to, nor do I want to, erase them from my mind… Before Ultra Fiord…There were technical races, others fast, some beautiful, others that had a little of everything… Today, my concept of beauty in a race is pristine, wild, untamed, and demanding, which defined Ultra Fiord.”'" - Katherine Cañete (Chile), 3rd place women's, 15th overall, 100k, 2015
Seeing so many people moved and challenged by the landscapes that they had come to know intimately is a driving force for Stjepan: “Yes, that’s a major motivation for me to keep doing it. When things get hard, when there are obstacles in the community, with the authorities, with the issue of financial resources, sometimes there’s a thought to leave it all behind. But after seeing the impact it has on the people that come to do it, I want to keep going. At least a little bit more, and then more, and more. There are also people from Chile that come to know their own country through the Ultra Fiord. That’s what motivates me”.
"There are all themes here. The geological one, the ecological, the rare fauna and flora of the region"
With such power to inspire comes also the opportunity to take things one step further and generate awareness for conservation in the region and teach about best practices. The events in the past have teamed up with reforestation efforts, with the conservation of the iconic huemul (a highly endangered and endemic deer species), and with Leave no Trace practices. As the Ultra Fiord continues to evolve, Stjepan talked about wanting to do more in this direction and improve the experience in nature that participants and their supporters can have: “I think in the past we used to be stronger on this, in terms of specifically focusing on the conservation side. We have this idea that we want to put together a sort of manual of the route of the Ultra Fiord that explains beforehand about the ecosystems one crosses, about the trees that can be seen, about the environment and how it can be preserved. The route is perfect to do something like this. It has views over Torres del Paine and the Serrano River, where clear waters mix in with the blue water coming from the Grey Glacier. There are all themes here. The geological one, the ecological, the rare fauna and flora of the region: lenga, coigüe, ñirre trees in the mountainous areas, lots of cypress of Guayatecas, the Palo Seco of all sizes. There are calafate berries. We can talk about the water sources from rivers, glaciers and bogs. We can explain about the geology of Torres del Paine. I’ve seen mushrooms and fungi on this route that I haven’t seen anywhere else. There’s something of everything. The mushrooms alone could be an entire book or at least a chapter. You can also see towards the end of the route the areas affected by modern human developments as it goes through farmlands. It creates an entire picture of what’s intact and of what has been altered. I think a book on all this could be spectacular”.
At this point we were considering changing all of our plans to stay and work on this project. The potential of the region through which we were privileged to backpack for two nights is probably beyond anything we have seen so far. If the Ultra Fiord can create a bridge to connect a mass of people with the wilderness of southern Chilean Patagonia by bringing them there to experience it and be moved by it, maybe there is something to learn on the power such events have to promote nature conservation.
The rain and snow cleared long enough to welcome us into this valley just east of the Chacabuco mountains