Mexican racer missing, apparently dead of hypothermia at Ultrafiord

Mexican racer Arturo Héctor Martínez Rueda has apparently died of hypothermia while racing the Ultrafiord 100 mile ultramarathon in Patagonia this weekend. This situation is developing; Arturo’s body has not been recovered, and his family is still hoping that he will be found alive. Rescue efforts are in progress. It seems possible that there may be other racers still on the mountain, also in need of a rescue. [See updates, below].

Arturo Martínex Rueda

Arturo Martínez Rueda

This report is based upon information I can glean from Spanish-language news reports from Chile (from La Prensa Austral, from La Tercera, and from an athletes’ news site Atleta.info).

Apparently the forecast was for poor weather, so a decision was made to alter the race route two days beforehand: to around 140 km rather than 100 miles/160 km, and reducing the maximum elevation attained from 1240 m to around 850 m.

The race started on Thursday night at midnight. According to La Prensa Austral, Arturo was last seen around midway along the route: “Up on the mountain, he was seen by other racers wearing shorts and with no hat on, seated on a rock, while the area was affected by strong winds and snow.” (translated from Spanish).

This location would be near the highest point of the route, around 850 m elevation – and apparently between two “camps” (I’m not sure if this means aid stations?) that were only 5 km apart.

La Prensa continues: “Some time after 2:00 in the morning yesterday [Saturday], a message was received about the apparent death of the competitor. However, throughout the day it has been impossible to confirm that information, in spite of all of the evidence pointing towards it.”

Harsh weather conditions have hampered rescue conditions so far. Rescuers are hoping to reach the area where Arturo was last seen today. A news report just posted by RadioPolar implies that there are other racers still on the mountain, in need of rescue:

“Head of police, Colonel Rodolfo Lobos, noting the efforts of GOPE (Grupo de Operaciones Policiales Especiales) which has gone to the rescue of the Mexican citizen Arturo Martínez Rueda, 58, deceased, and of others who are still in the vicinity, says that although rescuers must now be close to their target, it has been impossible to be in contact with them. He indicated that the little information that they have about the rescuers’ whereabouts is via a GPS…”

At the Ultrafiord awards ceremony, Race Director Stjepan Pavicic informed competitors that Arturo had probably died, and called for a minute of silence. Ultrafiord has posted an official statement on Facebook:

The second edition of Ultra Fiord has been a very hard experience, marked by an exceptionally hostile climate and dramatic landscape that formed the backdrop of the race route, that was changed and shortened two days leading to the race to accommodate the impending bad weather. While some runners experienced and embraced the forces of nature, others were beyond their comfort zone. What impacted all of us the most was the loss of 100-mile runner, Arturo Héctor Martínez Rueda. Mr Martínez, 57-year-old from Mexico, had unfortunately passed on at an approximate 65km mark that is about 750m above sea level. Although the likely cause of his death was hypothermia, a confirmation can only be made in the following few days. The unfavourable weather has persisted in this mountain area since Friday, so the rescue team, awaits a favourable weather window to execute the evacuation. The race organiser takes responsibility and apologise for the poor communications to the outside world with regards to this tragic incident, simply because it is a step we could not execute without the confirmation of the status and private communications with Arturo’s family. In this difficult time, the organising team sincerely expresses its condolences to the family and friends of Arturo and ask followers for your cooperation to send peace and respect to them too.

This was the second edition of Ultrafiord, an ultramarathon which takes place in extreme terrain and conditions in southern Patagonia, Chile. Race distances are 100 mile, 100 k, 70 k and 30 k. There were 650 competitors registered for Ultrafiord 2016, and reports are that 480 of them made it through the area where Arturo was last seen. You can read my first-hand report of the inaugural edition of Ultrafiord here.

Update 1: New reporting by La Prensa Austral confirms that Arturo’s death, and that his body has been located. It also indicates that two female racers who were unable to continue in the race were located. They, along with 9 other people (including rescue crews), spent the night in one of the two camps at Chacabuco, near where Arturo was found. Two helicopter rescues are planned for today, pending favorable weather conditions, to evacuate them all. All racers are accounted for: no one else is missing.

Update 2: OvejeroNoticias reports that Arturo’s body was located at 1:30pm today (Monday), after a “super-human effort” by rescuers, under 1 m of snow. Helicopters were not able to get in today, but will try tomorrow. I see reports on Twitter that three racers are still up there awaiting rescue, whereas news reports have mentioned only two. As reported in NatalesOnline, the police commisioner states that no one is missing. All racers are accounted for and in the camps awaiting rescue by air.

Update 3: RadioPolar reports that the two female athletes who were still on course have arrived safely to Puerto Natales Monday evening. They spent three days at the Chacabuco camp awaiting rescue. It appears they had to come out by ground, not by air, presumably hiking out with GOPE personnel to Pueblito Serrano, then being transferred by vehicle to Puerto Natales. They are Micaela Schirinian of Argentina and Eliane Carvalho Dsouza of Brazil. Red Austral TVN reports that Arturo’s body was retrieved by helicopter today (Tuesday).

And Biobio Chile reports that there was a feasibility report prepared by the police prior to the race recommending that Ultrafiord not go ahead due to safety concerns. 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.

Update 4: Today, Wednesday, controversy continues on social media and in the press about Ultrafiord’s responsibility and actions. Although many are critical of Ultrafiord’s safety protocols, some racers – particularly elites such as Genís Zapater (who won the 70k) – have praised the organization, and suggested that some racers might not have been adequately prepared and perhaps should not have been at this race.

A Facebook post today describes a situation that is reminiscent of what happened last year at Ultrafiord: Nikki Kimball and Kerrie Bruxvoort helped a hypothermic racer they encountered sitting down on the course to the next aid station, losing a lot of time (and eventually dropping from the race) by doing so. They believe that racer would have died had no one helped him. This year, according to racer Eduardo Ripoli, there would have been a second death if not for the aid that he and fellow racer Frank Simunek provided. Here is my translation of Eduardo’s comment:

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 8.34.10 AM“Along with another racer, Frank Simunek, we helped a female racer. We took her with us for 4 km through the toughest mountain section. She had hypothermia, she wanted to sit down, if we hadn’t helped her she would have been another victim. In this case, the issue was the racer and her equipment, it is an extremely tough race. We lost around 40 minutes, but now, seeing what happened, we both have clean consciences. She is one of the two women who remained up there at the camp. As racers, we have to stick together, if we see someone having problems, we have to stop thinking about our speed or our ranking. More than anything, it’s the life of someone like us.”

Race director Stjepan Pavicic has spoken to La Prensa Austral. He defends the safety protocols Ultrafiord has in place. As for the police report recommending that the race not go ahead, Stjepan states that their reasoning was nothing to do with safety or weather conditions but only to do with legal issues about road access. He indicates that he believes part of the responsibility for the death lies with the racer himself, but acknowledges that his organization could do better by having stricter race entry requirements, checking that runners do indeed carry the obligatory gear, and improving communications along the course.