Philippe Gatta
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Atacama Crossing
250 km running race in the Atacama, Chile

Atacama Crossing Race: 250 km running race in Chile (© P. Gatta)
Atacama Crossing: 250 km running race in Chile (© P. Gatta)

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The Atacama Crossing Race

The Atacama Crossing is a 250 km (155 miles) running race which takes place in the Atacama desert, around San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. There are 6-stages in 7 days: almost 4 Marathons in 4 days, then 74 km, a rest day and a final stage of 11 km.

The Atacama Crossing race is self-supported, which means that we have to carry all our clothes, sleeping bag, mandatory equipment, medical/safety kit and 7 days of food in our pack. The race organizer only provides us with water (10 to 13 liters per day) and the tents for the nights. So choosing the right kit and food is a real challenge as everything has to fit in a relatively small pack. The goal is also to keep to the weight of the pack below 9 kg, without water.

So overall the concept and difficulty of the race is very similar to the Marathon des Sables and all 4 Deserts races organized by RacingThePlanet: the Sahara Race, the Gobi March, the Atacama Crossing and the Last Desert in Antarctica. Many competitors think the Atacama Crossing is the hardest one.

The temperature is also a difficulty to consider as it reaches as high as 46°C in the day (recorded on my watch during the long stage) and goes down to 6°C during the night. That means the nights are cooler in Atacama than they are in Marathon des Sables and the Sahara Race, so we have to bring more clothes. Also the ground is more rocky at the camps so we have to bring a mattress too. Last but not least, the race takes place between 3,500 m and 2,400 m of elevation but we can't do much about it...

Anna Gatta and Philippe Gatta decided to stay the entire race together and run as a Team.

Laguna Chaxar, Salar de Atacama (© P. Gatta)
Laguna Chaxar, Salar de Atacama (© P. Gatta)



Video of the Atacama Crossing Race


Video of the Atacama Crossing Race (© P. Gatta)


Itinerary of Atacama Crossing Race

The Atacama Crossing Race lasts 10 days. Competitors have to reach San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) at least two days before the race. On the Saturday there is the race briefing, equipment review, check-in and the drive to the first camp. The race starts the Sunday morning and ends the Saturday.

The race starts in the Rio Grande Valley, 40 km Northwest of San Pedro de Atacama at an elevation of 3,050 meters. Then it goes toward the Southeast through some open terrain and nice canyons.

The second stage starts in a canyon and crosses a river multiple times, then it follow a fantastic ridge above the Valley of Death and finished in the nice Laguna Cejar (lake) in the Salar of Atacama (salt flat).

The third stage continues in the same direction, crosses some difficult salt flat, goes up toward the ALMA observatory, passes a beautiful oasis before reaching the camp.

The forth stage crosses the village of Toconao before going back in the Salar of Atacama. The camp is located at the Ojos del Salar, two small lagoons.

The long stage makes some kind of U shape in the Salar of Atacama, then it crosses the Cordillera de la Sal and goes North to cross the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna).

The last stage is short and goes from the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) to San Pedro de Atacama.

Competitors run on various grounds ; salt flat, sands, rocks, dirt roads for a total of 230 km and an elevation gain of 1,510 m, elevation loss of 2,210 m measured with a Suunto T6d. The altitude ranged from 3,050 m to 2,320 m.

Valley of the Moon / Valle de la Luna (© P. Gatta)
Valley of the Moon / Valle de la Luna (© P. Gatta)

Kit and food for the Atacama Crossing Race

Anna and I spent lots of time to choose our kit and food for the race.

Here are the kit that each of us brought for the 7 days of race:

Kit and food for the Atacama Crossing (© P. Gatta)
Kit and food for the Atacama Crossing (© P. Gatta)

The second challenge has been to choose the food. Based on the rules, we have to bring 14,000 calories but that's not enough for me. For the Marathon des Sables I brought 22,475 calories (4.47 kg), for the Sahara Race I brought 21,925 calories (4.48 kg). For the Atacama Crossing I brought 21,435 calories (4.2 kg). Unfortunately I had to take less food to compensate the extra clothes and mattress that I had to take. Anna brought 18,075 calories (3.625 kg). It has been even harder for her to decide how much food to take as she had not done any race like that before.

The other difficulty was to choose the right balance between Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat. Here is the breakdown: 16.5% of Protein, 57% of Carbohydrates and 26.5% of Fat. We also had to find food that can resist 7 days at temperatures up to 40°C, that can fit in a small pack without being totally smashed, that is light (freeze dried food) but still is pleasant to eat as the race lasts 7 days. Just look at your trolley out of the supermarket when you shop a week worth of food and try to fit that in a small back pack.

The Atacama Crossing Race 2012

March 3: Briefing and transfer to Camp 1

The 160 competitors coming from 35+ different countries arrived in San Pedro de Atacama the previous days.

The last day before the race, Anna and I had a good breakfast, enjoying the comfort of a nice hotel before leaving for 7 rough days. Then we met with all other competitors and the race staff for the briefing, gear and medical review.

We left at 3pm to the camp 1 which was 1.5 hour from San Pedro de Atacama in the Rio Grande Valley.

Philippe at camp 1 (© A. Gatta)
Philippe at camp 1 (© A. Gatta)

Because of the flooding that occurred two weeks before, the dirt road was too muddy to reach the normal site of the camp 1. This new site was very nice as well, close to a lake and a canyon.

During the full week we shared the tent with two French; Cécile Bertin and Fabrice Trioullie and five Germans. Cécile is aiming for the Grand Slam; running all 4 desert races in one year.

The rain arrived in the afternoon so everybody rushed to cover the tents with some plastic. We also did the first weight control and blood tests since we participated in a medical research project analysing the changes of sodium levels in multi-day endurance sport athletes.

Anna eating her first diner at camp 1 (© P. Gatta)
Anna eating her first diner at camp 1 (© P. Gatta)

March 4, Stage 1: "Navigation by Rock" - 33 km

The storm we had during the night went away and the sky was totally clear when we woke up. At 3,050 meters it was pretty cold and we appreciated our Down jackets. Like every day, we had a course briefing at 7:30 and started the race at 8am.

Start of the stage 1 of Atacama Crossing (© P. Gatta)
Start of the stage 1 of Atacama Crossing (© P. Gatta)

The race started off by an open desert, quite rocky and some nice narrow canyons.

Stage 1: the first section (© P. Gatta)
Stage 1: the first section (© P. Gatta)

The temperature was pleasant the first two hours, then it rose progressively and went above 30°C by mid-day.

In a hot canyon (© A. Gatta)
In a canyon (© A. Gatta)

We ran all this section with Cécile and Fabrice, talking about various races and having fun.

Half way through the Stage 1 (© P. Gatta)
Half way through the Stage 1 (© P. Gatta)

After the last check-point we entered a red Gorge. It was very warm at this point and it was quite weird to suffer from the heat while having the snow on the slopes of the Licancabur volcano in front of us, just 30 km away.

Anna in the last Canyon, Licancabur Volcano in the background (© P. Gatta)
Anna in the last Canyon, Licancabur Volcano in the background (© P. Gatta)

We ran pretty much during the 4:40 hours and Anna ended up with four blisters and Philippe (who had the "role" as photographer) was ridiculously fine.

Arriving in camp 2, we had a wind storm and we had to hold the tent to not loose it all! As always on this kind of race, it is not finished when we pass the finish line because we have to take care of the blisters, cook, eat, etc. And at the arrival we had to do the medical control - being picked in the finger to leave blood even before sitting down…

At 6pm, the last competitor arrived after almost 10 hours of effort, respect!

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 2h42, we finished in 4h49 and the last one finished in 9h51.

March 5, stage 2: "Slot Canyons" - 34 km

After yesterday's heat and the hot winds at camp, Anna started wondering what she was doing here...
She got the answer that day with a FANTASTIC stage of 34 km.

Crossing a river at the beginning of the stage 2 (© P. Gatta)
Crossing a river at the beginning of the stage 2 (© P. Gatta)

We started off by traversing a river multiple times in a beautiful Gorges. It was fresh and fun but crossing the river then running in the sands was not a good mix for the feet.

Stage 2 (© P. Gatta)
Stage 2 (© P. Gatta)

A few kilometers further, we reached the top of a plateau above the Valley of Death with brown cliffs and a green Oasis at the valley bottom. We ran on the ridge of this plateau for while, enjoying one of the nicest sceneries of the entire race. At almost 2,700 m of elevation, we could see most of the Atacama region, the Volcanoes of the Andes and San Pedro.

An Oasis and the Valley of Death (© P. Gatta)
An oasis and the Valley of Death (© P. Gatta)

Then we entered the new extreme sport of sand-dune-racing-downhill! That made our day, happy for once that we had to run downhill and not uphill.

Descending a big dune toward the Valley of Death (© P. Gatta)
Descending a big dune toward the Valley of Death (© P. Gatta)

After the sand dune, we crossed the Valley of Death and entered in the Salar of Atacama (salt flat). The conditions were very different there, much warmer especially when we reached the Laguna Cejar (lagoon) at the end of the stage with its finish of a straight line of dirt road lasting forever…

Anna descending a big dune (© P. Gatta)
Anna descending a big dune (© P. Gatta)

Having the camp on the shore of this lagoon was another reward for the eyes. Unfortunately it was too salty to swim but the blue color of the lagoon, the pure white of the salt flat around and the Volcanos behind was just amazing. This stage is one of the best memories of the race.

As always on these races, there is a flip side; it was extremely hot in the tent, the wind picked up again shaking the tent like crazy. It was like being in front of a massive hair dryer for hours.

Then we spent 30 minutes to take care of Anna's blisters (thanks Fabrice!). When we add the time spent waiting for a free laptop in the Cybertent, cooking and eating – the day was already gone. We wished we had more time to rest as we knew that the following stage was longer and tougher, with more crusty salt flat and rough terrain...

Camp 2, Laguna Cejar and Licancabur Volcano (© P. Gatta)
Camp 2, Laguna Cejar and Licancabur Volcano (© P. Gatta)

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 3h25, we finished in 6h07 and the last one finished in 10h03.

March 6, stage 3: "The Atacamenos Trail " - 41 km

It is usually the third day that most people quit the race. It is because we are already tired by two days of race, the body is not fully acclimatized and mentally we know that we still have a long way to go.

Start of stage 3 (© A. Gatta)
Start of stage 3 (© A. Gatta)

We left the Laguna Cejar and started the stage by a difficult section across the salt flat. The ground was crusty, very rough and hidden by the high grass. There was no trail and running or even walking on this terrain was bad for the feet and especially for Anna's blisters.

Runners in the high grass of the Atacama Salar (© P. Gatta)
Runners in the high grass of the Atacama Salar (© P. Gatta)

After the high grass, we entered an easy section made of hard packed ground and dunes where we could run but not for long. Then we crossed another 9 km of very rough salt flat which has been hell for Anna again. There was no trail, the ground was a mix of salt and high grass. We couldn't see where we put our feet but for sure it was not a flat and packed surface. She was suffering and at 4.5 km/h it took forever. It was close to noon and based on my Suunto the temperature was between 38°C and 40°C.

Anna in the dunes (© P. Gatta)
Anna in the dunes (© P. Gatta)

We finally passed the third check point, close to the ALMA observatory. Anna took some painkillers to relieve the pain in the feet. The roadbook was clear; the next 12 km will be difficult, it was very hot and there was not CP or support until the camp. We have been asked to take 2.5 liters of water and we decided to go slowly, eat, drink and take it easy.

Sandra and Anna in the second half of the stage 3 (© P. Gatta)
Sandra and Anna in the second half of the stage 3 (© P. Gatta)

Finally these 12 km have been hard but very scenic. We had a new reward just one kilometer from the camp. After almost two hours of rocks and sand dunes we crossed a beautiful Oasis.

Oasis at the end of Stage 3 (© P. Gatta)
Oasis at the end of Stage 3 (© P. Gatta)

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 4h52, we finished in 7h23 and the last one finished in 12h01.

March 7, stage 4: "The Infamous Salt Flats" - 39 km

The beginning of this stage was pretty much like the end of the previous one; a rocky trail and sand dunes.

Sunrise on Licancabur (© P. Gatta)
Sunrise on Licancabur (© P. Gatta)

It was very scenic too, being on a plateau offered great views over the entire Salar of Atacama and the small Village of Toconao where the first CP was.

Sand dunes in the beginning of the stage 4 (© P. Gatta)
Sand dunes in the beginning of the stage 4 (© P. Gatta)

After Toconao, we had long stretch of 12 km on a flat, quite boring and not scenic. This is where the "mental" makes the difference. There was nothing fun there and we moved forward just because we wanted to. Philippe enjoyed it but Anna found it monotone and depressing.

In the Atacama salt flat (© P. Gatta)
In the Atacama salt flat (© P. Gatta)

We had a CP at the end of this long stretch, then we entered in the Salar of Atacama for a very long and tough section of salt flat. Here too the mental was important; the scenic volcanoes were behind us and in front of us there was just the salt flat, white, white and white.

We entered in the Salar at the warmest time of the day. Anna was suffering from the blisters, the heat, the tough trail and the monotone views. She found it painful and horrible. Philippe enjoyed it tough, this place is so different from everything else and that's why he came here. His positive attitude helped Anna to stayed focused.

Washing clothes and swimming in the Ojos del Salar (© A. Gatta)
Washing clothes and swimming in the Ojos del Salar (© A. Gatta)

After the pain came the reward. The camp was close to two small and beautiful lagoons called the Ojos del Salar. Unlike the Laguna Cejar, these lagoons were not too salty and were deep enough to swim in. Being in the water for the first time in 4 days after that heat was such a pure pleasure.

Later in the day we had another storm. It did not rain in the camp, but the lightnings were very close.

Last competitors arriving under a stormy sky (© P. Gatta)
Last competitors arriving under a stormy sky (© P. Gatta)

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 4h27, we finished in 6h53 and the last one finished in 11h54.

March 8, stage 5: "The Long March" - 74.2 km

The long march is the most feared day of the 4 Desert races. It is almost a double-Marathon after 4 Marathons already done the previous days.
Fortunately the nice camp and the swim we had the day before really helped mentally for this stage.

We started off this stage by running the first 20 km at around 8 km/h, taking advantage of the relatively easy trail and not too hot temperatures. Then after the CP 3 we entered the salt flats which was technically hard (crusty or soft salt) and very hot. The whiteness of the salt was intensively reflecting the light of the sun. The white ground looks like snow but it is just salt at around 40°C.

Anna in the Atacama salt flat, the Andes behind (© P. Gatta)
Anna in the Atacama salt flat, the Andes behind (© P. Gatta)

We had around 13 km of salt flat until the check point 4 on the other side of the Cordillera de la Sal. The Cordillera is not very high but we had to climb a 100 meters sand dune to pass it. We knew it and we could see this sand dune kilometers away. Fortunately the sand was relatively packed and the view was, once again, amazing.

Crossing the Cordillera de la Sal (© P. Gatta)
Crossing the Cordillera de la Sal (© P. Gatta)

We left the previous check point with 2.1 liter of water each but we were kind of short of water when we reached the top of the dune. We knew the next CP was not far away but because of the heat and our slow pace we started to worry a bit.

Climbing a big dune in the Cordillera de la Sal, Andes behind (© P. Gatta)
Climbing a big dune in the Cordillera de la Sal, Andes behind (© P. Gatta)

After the CP the trail was better, with more hard packed sand but it was the warmest time of the day. Philippe recorded temperatures around 45°C for 1.5 hours. We were splashing water on our clothes, head and face and Anna walked in the shadow of Philippe to try to escape the sun. This section was long too, 13 km. We went slowly, constantly eating, drinking and taking electrolytes.

Between check point 4 and 5 (© P. Gatta)
Between check point 4 and 5, temperature reached 46°C (© P. Gatta)

After the CP5 the wind picked up again and the temperatures dropped a little. Despite the fatigue we could run a little bit.

The wind was blowing like crazy when we passed the last CP, entering in the famous Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley).

Salt covering the ground in the Moon Valley (© P. Gatta)
Salt covering the ground in the Moon Valley (© P. Gatta)

Another storm came and there were plenty of lightnings around. The white salt on the ground, the orange color of the cliffs around and the dark sky made breathtaking scenery. Anna could appreciate it a little despite her fatigue, knowing we just had a few kilometers left to camp!

Amphitheater in the Moon Valley (© P. Gatta)
Amphitheater in the Moon Valley, 5 km to go (© P. Gatta)

Philippe could take several videos with the lightnings in the background. We were just 5 km away from the camp and we knew that we were about to finish this very long day and thus the race.

Lightning in the Moon Valley (© P. Gatta)
Lightning in the Moon Valley (© P. Gatta)


We reached the camp after 12 hours and 20 minutes, just before the rain swept over. Anna spent another 45 minutes to heal her blisters, we made the final blood test and weight control, ate a bit and went to bed. Even if we were exhausted it was very hard to sleep after such a long stage, especially with the rain and wind around.

The organizer was really worried that the lightnings would hit the competitors on the trail or the tents of the camp. When the storm became serious they stopped around 35 runners who were still on the fields and in the camp we were ready to evacuate.

We used a Suunto T6d with a Foot Pod to record the distance, altitude, speed and temperatures throughout the race. We can see in the graph below the steep climb and descend of the big sand dune (36th to 40th km). We can also see the temperatures between 40°C and 46°C (40th to 48th km). As for the Sahara race the T6d has been of great help, knowing the distance and especially how far we are from the next check point helps managing the effort and water. The log file of this stage (distance, speed...) can been seen on Movescount.

Distance, elevation, speed and temperatures recorded with the Suunto T6d (© P. Gatta)
Distance, altitude, speed and temperatures recorded with the Suunto T6d (© P. Gatta)

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 7h44, we finished in 12h22 and the last one finished in 18h01.

March 9: rest day

One more time we woke up under a perfect blue sky. In the morning we could see on every face the extreme fatigue and the camp looked like an hospital with people full of strapping and limping around.

At 10am, the runners who had to stop the long march because of the storm were brought back to where they stopped to finish the stage. For all other runners this day was a rest day that we spent resting and dreaming about the pizza and shower that we will have the following day in San Pedro.

Anna and Philippe during the rest day (© P. Gatta)
Anna and Philippe during the rest day (© P. Gatta)

March 10, stage 6: "Final footsteps to San Pedro" - 8 km

Today we had the course briefing at 10am instead of 7:30am and the good news was that we had only 7 km to San Pedro instead of the 11 km planned. In reality I measured 8 km with my watch and this extra kilometer has been horribly long.

Passing the finish line is always an intense moment. We got a medal and perhaps more important we got pizza's and Coca Cola... We also got the result of the medical research showing that we had great values. Whatever we ate and drank during the race was perfect. That was good to hear. We both lost two kilos each, but that's kind of normal!

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won this stage in 34', we finished in 51' and the last one finished in 1h03.

Finish line of the Atacama Crossing 2012 (© P. Gatta)
Finish line of the Atacama Crossing 2012 (© P. Gatta)

Photos Gallery of the Atacama Crossing 2012

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Atacama Crossing Race Results

Vicente Juan Garcia Beneito won in 23h46, Anne-Marie Flammersfeld won the women category in 29h49, Shrimathi Swaminathan -last finisher- finished in 63h06.
Anna and Philippe finished 57th in 38h26, and Anna won in her age group and was the 6th woman overall.
130 runners have completed all stages of this 2012 Atacama Crossing Race out of the 152.

More information and the complete results are available on The Atacama Crossing Race web site.

Atacama desert, San Pedro and the Andes (© A. Gatta)
Atacama desert, San Pedro and the Andes (© A. Gatta)


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