4 Refugios Race – Bariloche, Argentina – March 1st 2015
By: Amy Sproston
Perhaps there are races in the US like 4Refugios Nonstop (The Rut and Speedgoat 50K are probably most similar, but both are 6 miles longer with slightly less vertical), but I’ve certainly never done them. 4Refugios made every “technical” trail race I’ve ever done seem tame in comparison. The race is advertised as 42 Km (26 miles) with 3500 meters of elevation gain (11,500 feet) and 3700 meters of descent (12,100 feet). When you factor in that the first 3 and last 3 miles are relatively mild and don’t go up or down that much, it leaves most of that ascent and descent crammed within the middle 20 miles, which makes the average 15% uphill grade and 18% downhill grade even steeper. If you like to bomb wildly down steep insanely technical descents, or scramble up slippery talus slopes at 60% grade then this is the course for you. Add it to your bucket list. Or, if you’d like to be surrounded by grandeur so amazing that it makes you forget that you don’t like really steep insanely technical slopes, then this might also be the course for you. 4Refugios is tough, but so beautiful you won’t regret that face plant down the steep scree field. And, you’ll be wearing a helmet, so at least you won’t damage your head if you do fall.
4Refugios is challenging not just because of the grade, but the technical nature of the trail, many parts of which are hard to distinguish as a true trail, but rather an exercise in heading in the direction of red painted dots which blaze the way over talus-covered passes. An indication of how poorly I followed this “trail” would be that my Garmin registered 29 miles for the 26 mile course. The shortest point between 2 red dots is indeed a straight line, but this was for me, easier said than done. I also spent some time off course on top of La Navidad, which probably added on a mile, and I potentially took a slightly longer route to the finish, as I passed the same person twice during the final 4 miles, flying by each time, the second time 20 minutes after I passed her the first time. So, my mileage totals were potentially wonky for more reasons than my inability to hit the tangents.
2015 was the 10th year of 4 Refugios, but only the 2nd year of the version of the race that I was entered in, 4 Refugios Nonstop. 3 races happen during the weekend, 2 Refugios on Saturday, 4 Refugios Classico on Saturday and Sunday (2 Refugios each day), and then the 4 Refugios Nonstop on Sunday. A refugio is basically a mountain hut that provides lodging and meals to backpackers/climbers/skiers. The race passes by 4 scenic mountain huts, which double as aid stations. The event is capped at around 600 runners in the 3 events, somewhat equally distributed among the 3 races. Unique to this race is the requirement to wear a helmet the entire race and carry a harness and 2 locking carabiners to clip onto a fixed line during one of the 2 “tiempo muertos”. The required gear includes an additional long list of items including a somewhat extensive medical kit and enough layers to keep you warm were you to get stranded/injured along the way, or survive in the case of inclement weather. The “tiempo muertos” or dead times are designed such that during zones that are particularly tricky/dangerous were you to try to race through them, you’ve got sufficient time to pass carefully before “racing” on. There’s one 30 minute dead time on the climb up out of the 2nd refugio (Jakob) where you’re required to clip onto a fixed line and it’s a one-at-a-time deal. Another 40 minute dead time starts the final descent, to encourage folks to not kill themselves getting down to the last refugio (Lopez) where there’s someone in charge of telling you when your 40 minutes is up and you can start running again (based on the time that was sharpied onto your race bib at the pass above).
A short summary of my race: I was with the women that finished 1-3 (all previous winners of various versions of past editions of the race) on top of La Navidad (on the elevation profile, it’s what looks like the middle high point), where we got somewhat lost, and struggled for 10 minutes or so to find where the trail descended off the side. It was clouded in up top, and getting cold, so I stopped to take a jacket out of my pack right about the time the group (including several guys) found the trail, and everyone took off down the side of a very steep slope. By the time I got my pack back on, they were already disappearing into the distance, and I stood there momentarily jaw dropped watching them fly down the very technical descent. This descent was my low point in the race, as I couldn’t stay on trail, and struggled to try to run over terrain I wasn’t comfortable moving fast on. Losing the group so quickly left me deflated. The trail eventually became one with a river that descended down the valley and at times was the river, and at other times skirted along the sides. At one point I came to a waterfall, which seemed unlikely to be the trail, but not impossible based on the trail to this point. About halfway down the waterfall I came to a point where I would have had to have made a bit of a jump so stopped to reassess the situation. I could jump down the falls, and perhaps pummel myself on the rocks below (wasn’t that far, but would have hurt), or turn around and climb back up and go back to find the trail. As I sat there, I looked up above and could see the trail off to the side of the river on the opposite side, so realized I needed to back track. It was during this descent that I really lost any competitive drive I’d had, and also realized I just didn’t have the technical skills and/or confidence to try to keep up with the women in front who were able to push the pace over terrain that I would prefer to butt-scoot across.
Visualization can be a strong tool, those in the sports psychology world say, but when I visualize myself running down a steep rocky slope, it’s never a pretty picture. It starts out OK, but then I always catch my toe and skid to a halt on my face. Lucky for me, I only had one real fall, which cut up my hand a bit and the side of my thigh. My lack of confidence perhaps slowed me on the descents, but looking back, spending extra time on the course was not all bad, as it was unforgettably gorgeous from the minute the sun came up. I don’t regret stopping to snap a few photos, and only wish I’d captured a few more at the hard-to-describe places. But being hard to describe, they were also tricky, and I was more focused on surviving them.
Going in, I knew that the race would not play to my strengths–more runnable courses are my strength, but despite that, courses like 4Refugios are more intriguing to me, and by continuing to run technical mountain races I hope to continue to improve at them. The race distance was also fairly short. Time-wise, no–I’ve finished 100Ks faster than I “ran” these 42K, but upon finishing I felt I hadn’t paced myself properly as I could have kept going for another few hours, held back more by crappy technique than fitness. Not the feeling you want to have at the end of a race. I wound up 4th in 9:47, a long ways off of the top 3 who came in fairly close together with Claudia Veronica Ramirez winning in 9:08, Sonia Boretsky in 9:11, and Lau Lucero in 9:22. Claudia won last year’s Clasico version, Sonia has won the Clasico 4 times in the past, and Lau won last year’s Nonstop in 9:40, which, without any other reference, was roughly the time I was shooting for, although I also hoped to be competitive. This is a race that I’d love to do again, not necessarily because I feel like I’d be any faster, but just that it was such a cool experience. The 3 local talents definitely showed the visitor who is top on these trails. I’d love to learn some descending tips from these ladies; they were fun to watch bomb downhill.
At times, such as the descent off of La Navidad, I got frustrated with how timidly I was approaching the race, but then would look up at the beauty around me, and acknowledge just how fortunate I am to have had the opportunities that I’ve had, and the good health to participate in events like these. Out there on course, it was easy to put myself back in a happy place by simply looking at the immense beauty surrounding me. So many highlights, including the reflection on the lake by Refugio Frey, the turquoise mountain lakes looking down from the first Tiempo Muerto, the views both arriving in and leaving Laguna Negra, the complete shock at looking up at Lopez and realizing we literally were going straight up that thing, and then the relief of coming down the other side in a tiempo muerto, and mainly on my butt.
One lesson learned if I were to do this again (and for UTMB later this year), would be to pack more carefully–I felt like I was carrying a ton of bricks, and others seemed to have better thought out the gear requirements and were carrying packs half my size. When you are doing that much climbing, a heavy load feels like a really heavy load. I was happy to finish with minimal damage: no blisters, no hot spots, all my toenails, my quads intact, and all fingers unbroken.
Bariloche was a place I visited back in 2003, and it left a lasting impression back then. During the course of the week, I’d get to a place and have one of those deja vu moments, and realize I’d been there before, like Refugio Frey. In returning to them again 12 years later I couldn’t help but reflect about who I was then versus who I am now and the adventures I’ve had in between. Kind of like the experience of the entire 4Refugios course—you finish not quite the same person at the end as the one who began it, but overall better for the experience.
4 Refugios was a memorable race experience, and I feel very fortunate and thankful to my sponsors, for allowing me the opportunity to travel down to Bariloche to participate. Many thanks to Mountain Hardwear Argentina for extending the invitation and for providing great support while I was down there. Petzl was also a huge help in providing me with a helmet, harness and new Nao light for the race–if I were to ever choose to run in a helmet again, the Petzl Sirocco is the one I would choose as it’s light as a feather. In the meantime, having some basic gear (helmet and super lightweight harness) and living next to Smith Rock has motivated me to climb again after a 20 year break. I’m heading out for my second time next weekend. Also, the organization that puts the race on, led by Martin “Cepi” Raffo, with a lot of assistance by Club Andino Bariloche, is top notch. Admittedly, some of the volunteer posts were downright dreamy (albeit a bit cold, windy, and exposed), as you’d run into volunteers standing in the middle of the most spectacular vistas. Many thanks to Cepi and all of the volunteers. 4Refugios is truly a unique event for its difficulty, design, and above all, for its beauty. If you have a bucket list, the desire and means to experience the beauty of Patagonia, and you like technical mountain trail scrambling, then 4Refugios should be on that list!
Words don’t really do the course justice, so some photos to fill in the gaps. Luckily I had the chance to be down there for an entire week, so many of these pictures from the course (or near the course) were from the days prior leading up to the race.