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Discussion: Patagonia Ultrafiord Tragedy

in: Adventure Racing; General

Apr 20, 2016 4:16 PM # 
Stjepan Pavicic, RD of the Patagonian Expedition Race, is also the RD for the Ultrafiord trail running race in Patagonia. Its first edition last year got headlines for the wrong reasons when experienced ultrarunners Nikki Kimball and Kerrie Bruxvoort dropped out while leading the women's race due to safety concerns over unadvertised, unroped glacier travel, boulders crashing down near racers, inadequate mandatory gear requirements, competitors getting lost and chilled, limited course markings etc.

Some people thought they were overreacting when they expressed fears that fellow racers could be lost or even dying on the course behind them. However, Nikki Kimball is a tough lady so I crossed this race off my list.

Tragically, her fears came true when a runner died in this year's Ultrafiord. Reports are still trickling in and it's not over yet. The runner's daughter has said on social media that her Dad's death was announced before his body was found. It appears that he set off an emergency call on his tracking device between two "camps" that were only 5 km apart but it took several days just to find his body, let alone reach him while there was still time to help.

The course had been shortened and reduced in altitude due to bad weather. There are reports that other racers spent up to 3 days at a remote camp (aid station?) before hiking out to safety when a helicopter rescue proved impossible.

The police had been concerned about the event beforehand.

Here is my translation of the quote from the chief of police: “There was a feasibility report prepared, and based upon our risk analysis it was recommended that the race not go ahead. That decision was supported by the government but something happened that the organizer did this, and there were people who went along with it. It also has to do with the decisions of the racers, whether they account for the risks or not.” There is growing criticism of the race organization by racers and others on the Ultrafiord Facebook page and elsewhere.

This is food for thought for those of us who entrust our lives to RDs, particularly people we don't know or in countries we don't know much about or while doing activities we don't normally do. When there is a tragedy, some people - like the police above - will say that racers are responsible for the risks they take. Racers read the waiver (ha!), choose their clothing, decide to go out into bad weather, claim to have particular skills etc. But how many racers have you seen who go into races unprepared, under-equipped, unskilled in whitewater rescue or mountaineering, because they have blind faith that organizers won't put them into seriously dangerous situations and that they can just push the emergency button on their tracker if things get crazy?

As an RD and racer myself, I know racers need to take some responsibility for their/our risks but I also believe the RD needs to try to mitigate or avoid unreasonable risks, and to communicate accurate expectations to racers beforehand. Also, a good safety/rescue plan is important for when things go wrong.

More to come on this, I'm sure.
Apr 20, 2016 6:43 PM # 
afsheen: across glaciers...cough.
Apr 20, 2016 7:16 PM # 
They weren't told about the glacier ahead of time last year, apparently. This year they knew and it was "recommended" that they wear climbing helmets and crampons for that section. They didn't end up going there because the race course was rerouted due to bad weather a few hours before the race.

Here is a Trail Runner Mag article. Sounds like the news of a missing runner was announced during the awards ceremony, then all hell broke loose.

Some runners were angry to be informed so late. Although police and helicopters couldn't get up there, they say they would have been willing to return to search for him. He was recovered from under a meter of snow several days after pressing his tracker emergency button. Tragic and disturbing.
Apr 20, 2016 11:31 PM # 
Bash, I was referring to my armchair review of the pathway that the Alaska Expedition took the other year, when the race was across the glaciers and some got hurt. In reference to your point that RD's should try to avoid unreasonable or unnecessary risks, I absolutely agree.
Apr 20, 2016 11:48 PM # 
There were definitely some safety issues with Alaska, but one key difference is that we all were required to have the appropriate gear to be up there, and at least a little bit of training on how to use it.
Apr 20, 2016 11:57 PM # 
Afsheen, I definitely recognized your reference! I was highlighting the differences in the way it was handled at the two events, as Abiperk pointed out. (I should have said so directly.)

Specifically, Expedition Alaska participants were told in advance that glacier travel was included in the race and could make some of their own decisions about that - including whether or not to go. The mandatory gear list included crampons, ice axes, ice pickets, GPS, map, compass, rope and crevasse self-rescue gear - also sleeping bags, tents, etc. in case they had to camp out. Racers were required to arrive early to learn how to do crevasse self-rescues, amongst other things.

In spite of all that, there were times when it looked too dangerous and there were some incidents.

Ultrafiord participants didn't learn about the glacier travel before the race in 2015. This year they knew about the glacier but there were only a few extra items of "recommended" gear. And most were not adventure racers or navigators. And they were solo.

The thing that blows me away most - and granted, I wasn't there and don't have all the facts - is that someone could be left on the race course for more than 3 days on a 5 km marked section between staffed checkpoints AFTER activating an emergency signal that showed his location.
Apr 21, 2016 12:19 AM # 
I should have recognized that. I guess I'm still upset about all the potential disasters that did and didn't occur that day. To all the RD's listening, please don't race across a glacier field. You're asking for trouble. It'd be like having a surfing competition in a hurricane. Sure, some of the best can pull it off, but it's not for most to try.

And yes, there's got to be a story behind the 3 day delay. It seems that perhaps the weather was so bad that even the organizers couldn't ask for extra help.
And he was found under 1 meter of snow. That's a big weather event that came upon them, not some "chance of snow flurries" deal.
Apr 21, 2016 2:25 AM # 
I wonder whether the snowfall was that heavy or whether the poor runner eventually fell into a depression or got caught in a small snow slide. When he first asked for help, there were other racers on the course and apparently the weather was not considered bad enough to stop the race or even to tempt many people to quit. The finish rate for the 100 miler (actually closer to a 90 miler on the shortened course) was very high.
Apr 21, 2016 6:26 AM # 
Good points, Bash.
Apr 21, 2016 7:46 AM # 
Why do you entrust your life to a RD? Surely you are responsible for looking after yourself and making sensible decisions about what you are and are not capable of. Just because it's a race it doesn't mean you have to do it, if you wouldn't do it during a normal outing why would you consider doing it under race conditions?

As for mandatory gear, surely that is just the minimum required gear and that it is up to the individual to decide if they need more equipment. If it's going to be cold and you are concerned that you might struggle to survive if you were injured without more clothing then it would make sense to carry more. The same with glaciers, if you weren't happy crossing glaciers without ice axe and crampons then take them, if you weren't happy on a glacier without a rope then you can decide the race isn't for you.

The biggest issue appears to have been with the lack of information about the course prior to the 2015 race. But even then you don't have to continue to cross a glacier if you think it's too risky, you can always turn around. Again what would you do if you weren't in a race? If you went on an adventure yourself there will always be unknowns, you have to treat the race the same. The other possible issue is that people made the assumption that they could easily be rescued or evacuated from the course. In the outdoors this is never a certain thing, winds can be too high or visibility too low for choppers, terrain can be too rugged for vehicles and weather and rivers can prevent foot rescue.

The thing that really appeals about the Patagonia Expedition race and the Alaska adventure race is that they are proper adventures and not a glorified multisport race. There is no tape to follow so you can't get lost, and a chopper isn't going to collect you as soon as something goes wrong. Just like a proper adventure should be.

The word adventure sums up exactly what these races are

To the RD's please continue to provide adventurous races. To the racers please don't over extend yourself just because you are doing a race.
Apr 21, 2016 8:07 AM # 
Maybe a better way to run these types of races is for the RD's to be more explicit that there will be no support out on the course and you're on your own. At least that might resolve some of the expectation issues.
Apr 21, 2016 1:02 PM # 
Out of curiosity, does anyone actually know what was published or said before the race? Website? Racer Updates/Emails? This is such a tough situation to follow as a racer and as an RD. Obviously, the most important thing is that someone has died and all the personal ramifications of that for the people in his life. Just horrible.

I can also imagine countless scenarios that either condemn or defend the RD. It seems like almost everything is speculation right now, and it does feel like a fair bit of the reasoning in focusing on the RD revolves around poor decisions from two years ago.

I'm not suggesting that the RD is without fault here. I'm simply imagining being in his shoes as someone who has directed races and considered safety scenarios. Granted, in far less rugged and volatile environments, but I can imagine that things are not nearly as simple as they might seem. I can imagine that he and his crew did in fact do more than it might appear and that for all sorts of personal and legal reasons they aren't sharing all of the information right now. And yes, I can also see that maybe he didn't do enough.

I'll also say that as someone that signed up for and raced XPD Alaska, we were very aware of the risks that were ahead even before any communications or briefings were given. This was simply because we signed up for a rugged race in the Alaska wilderness and environment. Didn't need to read anything more than "Alaska" to know it was going to be riskier than most. It's one thing if you show up having no clue at all about a glacier crossing and then you're sent out on a glacier. But it doesn't sound like that was the case, at least not this time. Sounds like this was a case of rugged terrain, some sort of accident and weather.

I agree that people need to be wise about the decisions they make in signing on for these sorts of things. No matter how well prepared or communicative an RD is, in these environments, one needs to accept that the RD might not be able to help for all sorts of reasons.

Ultimately, I am just sad to hear all of this. Sad for the man and his family and friends. Sad for the RD who has a long history of putting on incredible races, one of which is arguably the most iconic AR of the past 10-15 years. I hope something comes out that ideally "exonerates" the RD in this case (I'm not suggesting that 2015 was OK, I'm just not clear on how transparent 2016 really was). Not that it shifts blame to the racer, but maybe just that this is a tragic example of the extreme sports we pursue and follow.

Ideally, this is no one's "fault". I'm certainly not going to suggest that the racer is to blame. But I also hope we learn and come to understand that various factors were in play that limited or prevented the RD from finding him. If not, then yes, he deserves blame, but then he has to live with this, and I feel horrible for him for that.
Apr 21, 2016 5:10 PM # 
Great discussion. First @Greig, I agree with much of what you say.

Why do you entrust your life to a RD? Surely you are responsible for looking after yourself and making sensible decisions about what you are and are not capable of. Just because it's a race it doesn't mean you have to do it, if you wouldn't do it during a normal outing why would you consider doing it under race conditions?

If any adventure racer is reading this who can honestly say they have never done something in a race they would not do in normal conditions, please speak up! I'm one of the most cautious racers around, partly because I came to AR with years of outdoor experience and training, and also because I've been present when accidents and death have occurred during outdoor activities.

In one AR, ours was the only canoe of 90 teams that went ashore when a thunderstorm rolled in and lightning struck a hilltop beside the lake. The race rescue boat came to ask what was wrong even though it was the *rule* to go ashore in that situation, aside from any safety considerations.

I doubt that all 267 of the other racers would have stayed on the water if they were on a canoe trip instead of competing in a race feeling peer pressure not to let their teammates down, surrounded by other adventurous people making the same poor decision. That is the norm. Some adventure racers have minimal wilderness experience outside of AR and don't know what they don't know, so they can't assess their own risks.

This is even more common among trail runners who travel marked trails, normally with a sweep runner at the back looking for racers in trouble. I'm not saying that's good but it's reality.

Even as a cautious racer, I've entrusted my life to RDs and staff. I've done a mandatory cliff jump into a lake at a designated spot without checking for underwater rocks. I've descended a rappel rope (supervised by "experts" at the top) in the dark and discovered that it stopped several meters above the pile of jagged rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The team ahead of us in another race made it partway down a 300' rappel to discover the rope frayed down to a few strands. I've gone down stretches of whitewater relying on the RD's assurance that volunteers have been placed or takeouts marked before any rapid that requires scouting or portaging. I've done whitewater at night a few times (while swearing at the RD).

We all do stuff like that in AR and we couldn't race if we didn't trust RDs to some extent. There is one RD whose races I stopped doing for that reason.

I totally agree with you about mandatory gear but as an RD, I could tell you about the debates we had with racers - including very experienced ones - who disagreed with our requirement to carry an extra shirt in October in Canada. That's a common racing mentality, unfortunately.

Maybe a better way to run these types of races is for the RD's to be more explicit that there will be no support out on the course and you're on your own. At least that might resolve some of the expectation issues.

Agreed and that is true at PER. The problem at Ultrafiord is that expectations weren't set quite that way. Here is an excerpt from the rules:

"[Runners are] Fully acknowledging that there are some sections of the route that are not easily accessible for medical personnel. Nevertheless, the organization will have specialized personnel in the most complex and isolated areas along the course."

Here is an excerpt of the detailed instructions from the section where the accident apparently occurred.

"2km further, you will find the CP Chacabuco 1, where you MUST register yourself and request authorization in order to continue. From this CP, you will begin a mountain section of six kilometers, which includes two passages of the highest altitudes among the entire Ultra Fiord course (Paso Byron at 1,250 m and another at 1,100 m). [Note: It sounds like the last minute re-route skipped these high passes but the runner was reportedly between Chacabuco camps.] Along this section, there will be steep slopes in an area enclosed by peaks, snow, and glaciers. This high mountain section includes about two kilometers through two glacier passes, usually covered by snow, and finishes in CP Chacabuco 2, where you MUST register yourself again as well. In this section, you will encounter technical personnel, who will be supervising your security, in addition the route being clearly marked. It is FORBIDDEN to leave the line marking the route."

To an experienced trail runner, this probably sounded like a terrific adventure with decent safety measures in place. It doesn't sound like the kind of event where it would take 2-3 days to get assistance, especially with other racers nearby.

In other pre-race info:

"The organization will distribute specialized personnel in rescue and first aid assistance along the course, including more at fixed points, such as a part of mobile teams, and increasing in numbers along the most complex course areas. Furthermore, a satellite communication network and VHF will be established, further generating a evacuation plan for each race section. However, the runner should assume that the assistance will be delayed, and thus, is why it is very important to both carefully select and carry all required equipment."

From the limited information online, much of it unverified comments from runners and locals, the registration system for this section may not have been managed properly, and the organization wasn't sure how many people were missing. Some runners report that they didn't see any medical or technical personnel in areas where they were promised. There are claims that police were brought in too late. Some runners have posted on Facebook to say that the race was very poorly organized while others have claimed it was an amazing adventure.

The victim's daughter has posted on Facebook to express concerns about poor communications and rescue efforts. She was upset that she was told he had died of hypothermia when he was still only missing. Hopefully the truth will emerge so everyone can understand what led to this tragedy and what, if anything, could have been done differently by all parties involved.

@Broots, yes, there is a lot of speculation right now and no single person bears responsibility for the incident. The runner was reported to be dressed inadequately for the cold. A disturbing thing is that "passing runners" reported him sitting on a rock in shorts with no hat in stormy weather. Should they have helped?

The RD was reported to have promised specialized personnel in places where runners didn't see them. If there were indeed technical personnel travelling these few kilometres of the route "supervising racer security" as promised, it is confusing that it could take several days to find a racer who transmitted his GPS location - unless that part of the report turns out to be false. Since other runners saw him, he appears to have been on or near the marked route when he got into trouble.

I posted about this here, not to place blame on anyone but in the hope that both racers and RDs can learn from this tragic incident as more details emerge. Hopefully, it can help us all make adventure events safer, whether we're participating in them or managing them.
Apr 21, 2016 7:28 PM # 
Great information, Bash, and thanks for the race-specific info. Obviously this is the sort of thing, that as you say, raises really troubling questions for everyone there. And honestly, I wasn't actually thinking that you or anyone else on this particular thread was placing any blame anywhere. More the stuff coming from other places that I have seen since learning about it. I'm more reflecting on the public reaction to it than our own here on AP. I think most of if not all of us probably understand or can imagine better than most both sides of this story. And unfortunately, it seems like there were indeed bad decisions from everyone up on that stretch of the course.

Thanks again for sharing everything. I'll be interested, sad, but interested, to hear more as it becomes clearer.
Apr 21, 2016 11:55 PM # 
Article in Canadian Running Magazine by a writer who did Ultrafiord last year and is following the story this year.
Apr 22, 2016 5:25 AM # 
Thanks, Bash.

This discussion thread is closed.