This story first appeared in Issue #32 of Like the Wind – In partnership with The North Face
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”– Theodore Roosevelt
The opening scenes of the new film from The North Face transport you into a world of towering rock spires, thundering waterfalls and miles upon miles of glacial ice. The film is called HIELO, named after its principal character: one of the largest ice fields in the world, located in the heart of the Patagonian Andes. As the introduction to the film explains, the Hielo ice field is immense, dangerous and remote. Not a place where adventures should be taken lightly.
Set alongside the ice field are two other characters: The North Face athletes Fernanda Maciel and Kaytlyn Gerbin. And, as we will soon discover, if anyone is capable of taking on a challenge in such a wild place, it is these two.
As Theodore Roosevelt suggested back in the 19th century, activities worth pursuing are those that involve pushing yourself. And it is in this spirit that Fernanda and Kaytlyn travelled to Patagonia to take on an expedition that Fernanda had been thinking about for years.
A decade ago, Fernanda came up with the idea that she wanted to run La Vuelta al Hielo – a famous 78km hiking route that skirts the Hielo ice field. But wanting to do something and being able to do it are not the same thing. For a start, the traverse that captured Fernanda’s imagination is fraught with danger. To take on this challenge would require huge amounts of planning and logistical support, for which it was not easy to find the time and resources. And at the same time, life sometimes – or should that be, often – gets in the way. Fernanda has been a professional athlete since 2009 and has always had a long “wish list” of races and other challenges she wanted to undertake. In fact, Fernanda did try the traverse once – but the technical nature of the route and consistently bad weather meant she was not able to complete the challenge. So the idea for the Hielo traverse remained a dream in the back of Fernanda’s mind.
Then came a traumatic moment. One that almost cost Fernanda dearly. And that ultimately led her to take on the challenge she’d long dreamed about.
In 2020, while climbing with her partner, Fernanda was pulled off her feet and suffered a hard blow to her head. Initially, Fernanda thought she had escaped serious injury. But a few days later she began to lose sensation in her left side and eventually was unable to move.
“The injury could have been worse,” Fernanda says. “I didn’t have bleeding to my brain. But there were a lot of symptoms that have taken a long time to resolve.” Thankfully, Fernanda did make a good recovery. And she knew she wanted to get back to one of her true passions: running. What Fernanda needed was a challenge that would push her and announce to the world that she had returned. La Vuelta al Hielo was suddenly back on the table.
One thing Fernanda knew was that taking on the Hielo route would be very difficult – if not impossible – alone. She had tried before and had to stop. So this time, Fernanda called her friend and fellow The North Face athlete Kaytlyn Gerbin to ask if she wanted to be part of the challenge. As Kaytlyn describes it, Fernanda’s plan was perfect for her. Because while Fernanda had been dealing with her head injury, Kaytlyn had been recovering from a stress fracture. Both athletes had been unable to run for more than a year. Kaytlyn and Fernanda had been forced to step back from their passion for pushing themselves physically and both were ready to see what they could do.
“First of all, we wanted to do something particularly for us,” explains Fernanda. “We wanted something that was not a race. There was a mutual excitement about doing something really cool.”
The two athletes knew they needed to prepare as thoroughly as possible for the challenge that lay ahead. They met in Chamonix, France – where Fernanda lives – for some intensive training. Still, it was hard to replicate what they would face in Patagonia. The Hielo ice field is fed by 35 glaciers and the route would require Fernanda and Kaytlyn to cross hundreds, if not thousands, of crevasses.
To add to the technical challenge of the route, the location of the Hielo ice field posed an even greater potential risk. Rescue in this part of the world is not easy. Indeed, the only option – if Kaytlyn or Fernanda needed help – would be mountain rescuers, who would only be able to travel by foot. Essentially, if something went wrong, the two athletes would be on their own – at least, for a significant amount of time. The two women knew that no matter how much training they could accomplish together, they would need to rely on their many years of experience to be both safe and successful.
And so it was that on 4 February 2022 at 4am, Fernanda and Kaytlyn pulled on their backpacks, switched on their head torches and made their way to the Río Eléctrico bridge to start a challenge that would – hopefully – see them circumnavigate the Hielo ice field, in the shadow of the iconic mountains of the Torre and Fitzroy Massifs, on the classic 78km U-shaped route to the finish in El Chaltén.
The two runners set off under cloudless skies. Perhaps after all the trials that Fernanda and Kaytlyn had faced in the years leading up to this moment, they would have luck on their side. The weather forecast certainly looked good. And they had prepared well for the dangers that the glacier and river crossings posed. But still, this would be a challenge in the high mountains. There was a chance the weather would turn, or that either athlete would struggle after so long out of the sport. Only time – and 78km – would tell.
To find out how Fernanda and Kaytlyn did, watch the film HIELO at www.youtube.com/TheNorthFace
Adventures – big and small – require several elements to guarantee success, including the right apparel, equipment and footwear. For their challenge on La Vuelta al Hielo, Fernanda and Kaytlyn needed to carry everything that would allow them to stay safe, but their baggage also had to be light enough that they could move quickly. As Fernanda explains, one of the biggest challenges was that on the glaciers which make up a significant part of the traverse, they would need to cross thousands of crevasses, large and small. So the right footwear would also be essential.
The VECTIV™ range from The North Face has been designed to provide athletes with the perfect shoe for whatever they are taking on – from an everyday training run to a multi-day adventure or an ultra-marathon. One of the shoes in the range – the FLIGHT VECTIV™ – combines a 3D plate between the midsole and the upper for stability, a rocker midsole that delivers propulsion and a surface control outsole to ensure grip and traction… all in a shoe that weighs less than 285g. The FLIGHT VECTIV™ is The North Face’s most responsive shoe and sits alongside the other models in the range: the VECTIV™ INFINITE, ENDURIS, EMINUS and the FLIGHT GUARD (which features in the HIELO film) to create a range that has something for everyone and for every adventure.
Find out more at www.thenorthface.com/vectiv