In November, two months before Brazilian ultrarunner Fernanda Maciel attempted a speed record up and down 22,841-foot Aconcagua—the highest peak in the Americas—she had a conversation with Karl Egloff.
Egloff, the fast-rising Ecuadorian mountain guide and runner, had recently broken Spaniard Kilian Jornet’s speed record on the peak, which covers 50 miles and 13,000 vertical feet, by nearly an hour, completing it in 11 hours and 52 minutes. Maciel asked Egloff if he would accompany her up and down the mountain in late January.
Egloff had planned his honeymoon in Chile then, so he recommended Maciel hire another Ecuadorian guide named Nicolás Miranda, a virtual unknown in the small world of professional mountain running. Miranda, 38, had helped Egloff to the top of Aconcagua on his record run the prior year, filming his ascent and cheering him on, and among core Andes guides, he’d built a reputation as one of the strongest athletes in the range. Five days before Egloff set the record on Aconcagua’s better-known west side, Miranda set his own speed record on the east side. He also held the record on 19,347-foot Cotopaxi for three years—until Egloff broke it.
Ultra racers have pacers, climbers and skiers have guides, but where running meets mountaineering at 20,000 feet, the role of a helper becomes more expansive. As a high-altitude security blanket for the man who has the fastest known time (FKT) on two of the world’s Seven Summits—Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro—Miranda performs a unique function: part coach, part guide, part pacer. He's the guy you never hear about. “It’s not important to be recognized,” Miranda says.
“From the outside, it looks like you don’t need anyone,” Egloff says. During a training day, Egloff will just take an MP3 player. “But on a record day, you don’t want to have anything on your mind that could disturb you. [Miranda] is going to give me the pace, the motivation. And in the worst case, if I ever had to give up because of a health problem, I’d be in big trouble if I was alone. But if you have someone up there who’s trained as a mountain guide, he will know what to do.”
Egloff, 34, and Maciel, 36, are not the only record-setting adventurers to use guides, precaution or not. When Kit DesLauriers became the first person to ski the Seven Summits by sliding off the top of Mount Everest in 2006, Dave Hahn, one of the most successful Everest expedition leaders in history, guided her group. The Patagonian Benegas brothers, Willie and Damian, guided Johnny Collinson up the Seven Summits, helping him become the youngest to complete them in 2010, at age 17. And in ultrarunning, perhaps the ultimate unsung hero is Dusty Olson, who paced Scott Jurek to mainstream stardom for more than a decade.
Maciel, an explosive, Red Bull-sponsored mountain runner who won the 100-mile Everest Trail Race in 2013, hired Miranda to guide her on Aconcagua. The tailor’s son from Quito got $1,000 for six days of work. He carried water, Maciel’s extra jacket, and fuel like figs and whey protein. Maciel didn’t have much experience at altitude, and Miranda knew his role would be different for her than for Egloff a year prior. When Egloff set the record, he and Miranda summited the peak three times in eight days, once with clients and once at maximum speed from each side. Miranda was employed by Egloff to guide the commercial expedition; he helped him set the record for free. With Maciel, Miranda says, “My principal job was to not expose her to the altitude more than she could handle.”
As it turned out, Maciel got altitude sickness during her attempt on January 22 and turned around just below 20,000 feet. Miranda led her down to base camp then continued home to Ecuador to find more guiding work. When Maciel was ready for another attempt in February, she couldn’t afford to fly Miranda back to Argentina. But she knew a local porter who had just started guiding and was known for his strength on the trail. His name was Ale “Cabeza” Pereira, and on February 21, he led Maciel from base camp to the summit before she raced all the way back to the park entrance, where she’d started 22 hours, 52 minutes earlier. At least a half-dozen elite women have tried to break 24 hours on Aconcagua, but Maciel remains the first and only.
As for Egloff and Miranda (who did not join Egloff when he set the Kilimanjaro record, breaking Jornet’s mark once again), the hierarchy is clear yet mutually beneficial. Egloff is trying to get Miranda his own sponsorships, doling out free gear in the meantime. This year, they have plans to attempt a speed record on 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus in Russia before doing the same on 22,205-foot Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru. If all goes as planned, Egloff will someday hold FKTs on all Seven Summits as well as the highest mountains in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. And Miranda will have been his secret weapon.
“He deserves a lot of recognition,” Egloff says of his friend. “I will never do a project without him.”