Episode 25: El rescatado (The Rescued)

Cristian Gorbea had been running long-distance races for 20 years when he decided to enter his first ultramarathon. The race would begin at the base of a mountain in Argentina and last 24 hours — at least, in theory. For Cristian, the experience would last much longer, and test much more than his physical endurance. He’d test his faith, patience, and capacity to cede his fate to someone other than himself.

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Martina: On a cold night in September, 2010, Cristian Gorbea was 12 hours into a 24-hour race when the ground gave way beneath him.

Cristian: Caí sin saber cómo o cuándo iba a parar. Hasta que toqué el suelo.

Martina: The night was pitch black so he couldn’t tell that he had fallen down a ravine, and had miraculously landed on a rock ledge. He was suspended 150 meters up in the air.

Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again — and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: When Cristian Gorbea wants to relax he runs marathons. In 2010, he was a human resources manager at a bank in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had already been training as a runner for 20 years.

Cristian: La competencia tiene un rol muy importante en mi vida. Siempre trato de ser el mejor en el trabajo y también en el deporte. Y para poder serlo, trabajo muy duro. Corro carreras de aventuras durante noches enteras. Vi muchos documentales para preparame.

Martina: These documentaries featured competitions under extreme conditions, where the runners risked injury and even death.

Cristian: En 2010, yo tenía 49 años y quería participar en una carrera de 80 kilómetros en un cerro.

Martina: Un cerro is basically a mountain.

Cristian: Pensaba que estaba listo para ese tipo de aventura. Yo ya tenía experiencia en otro tipo de carreras, pero nunca corrí una distancia tan larga.

Martina: 80 kilometers is nearly 50 miles. Races that long are typically called ultramarathons, and this one would have 300 runners competing.

Cristian: Yo quería llegar entre los primeros 30. La carrera era en un cerro que se llama Champaquí. Tiene una elevación de casi 3 mil metros y está lleno de bosques.

Martina: The race is called “The Half Mission”, and it takes place in Córdoba, Argentina. The competitors have 24 hours to finish it.

Cristian: El día antes de la carrera yo viajé a Córdoba con un amigo. Nos quedamos en un hostal en San Javier, la ciudad más cercana al cerro. Esa noche hablé con mi esposa y con mis hijos. Nosotros estábamos todos emocionados por la carrera.

Martina: Cristian’s family knew the drill — this may have been the longest distance he had ever tried to run, but it wasn’t his first extreme race. They were confident he had it in him to finish it.

Cristian: Al día siguiente mi amigo y yo nos levantamos temprano, tomamos desayuno, caminamos hasta el cerro y al mediodía empezamos la carrera.

Martina: All 300 runners kicked off the race at an even pace. Imagine, they’d be running for the next 24 hours, on mountainous terrain and in the dark. This required them to wear many layers and carry extra gear, which only added to the difficulty of the run.

Cristian: Yo tenía una luz alrededor de mi cabeza y llevaba una mochila con el equipamiento básico para este tipo de carreras.

Martina: In his mochila, or backpack, he had cereal bars, fruit, chocolate, and energy gels packed with nutrients for long runs like these. He also had a canteen, a survival blanket, replacement batteries, and an emergency whistle.

Cristian: En este tipo de carreras largas el principio puede ser un poco complicado porque hay mucha gente. Además de los corredores hay personas que los acompañan, periodistas que están escribiendo sobre la carrera y también los organizadores.

Martina: But soon after the race kicked off, people started spreading out, leaving each runner more or less on their own.

Cristian: Después de correr una hora, yo decidí dejar atrás a mi amigo y seguir solo.

Martina: The course varied in altitude as it wound up and down the mountain. It was marked by a few colored flags and reflecting lights for when it got dark, but neither were that easy to spot.

Cristian: Después de 11 horas de carrera llegó la noche y yo no veía a los otros corredores. Yo estaba completamente solo.

Martina: Alone and in complete darkness, Cristian kept running, and at some point it seemed like he had gotten off course. But he could still see the headlamps of the other runners in the distance.

Cristian: Un poco antes, un asistente de la organización me dijo que yo iba en el lugar 32.

Martina: But Cristian wanted to be among the top 30 runners.

Cristian: Así que decidí correr en otra dirección para volver a la ruta correcta. Me puse un poco nervioso, pero me repetí que mi objetivo era correr una buena carrera.

Martina: He went down ravines and crossed meadows. He ran through a forest, and stopped to drink from a stream. Then, he noticed that he couldn’t see the headlamps from other runners anymore.

Cristian: Me puse muy nervioso porque estaba perdido. Ya no me importaba estar entre los treinta primeros; solo quería volver a la ruta correcta.

Martina: He continued running, but more carefully, as he tried to get back on course. And then, all of a sudden, the ground gave way beneath him. He couldn’t see anything; all he knew was that he was falling.

Cristian: Caí y seguí cayendo unos tres metros hasta que paré. “¿Dónde estoy?”, pensé con miedo.

Martina: His headlamp wasn’t working because the batteries were knocked out during the fall.

Cristian: No había luna. Yo no podía ver nada. Sentía dolor, pero no tenía nada roto.

Martina: He felt around and realized that a bush had broken his fall. He stayed very still in the darkness, afraid that if he moved he could fall even further into the void.

Cristian: Yo tenía que esperar la luz del día para decidir qué podía hacer.

Martina: Very carefully, he took his backpack off, put it to the side, and took out the emergency blanket.

Cristian: Me cubrí con la manta y cerré los ojos. Hacía frío. Miré el reloj. Eran las dos y cuarto de la noche, más de 14 horas después de empezar la carrera.

Martina: As he sat still, waiting for the dawn, Cristian could only hear the wind, a small waterfall, and his teeth chattering. He took a few sips of water from his canteen and tried to sleep. What seemed like a long while later, he looked again at his watch.

Cristian: Pasaron solo dos minutos.La noche fue como una eternidad.

Martina: Finally, when the sun rose, he was able to see where he had landed. He was on a ledge just a meter and a half wide, and two meters long.

Cristian: Cuando miré hacia abajo, vi que estaba a 150 metros del suelo.

Martina: If he had fallen even a few centimeters to the right or the left, he would have fallen another 150 meters and would have surely died from the impact.

Cristian: Tenía miedo y estaba feliz al mismo tiempo. Una sensación que no puedo describir. Tenía miedo porque podía morir, pero estaba feliz por estar vivo.

Martina: As Cristian stared out into the valley below, his mind started racing. At first, he was overwhelmed with anger at himself.

Cristian: Miré a mi alrededor y pensé: “¿Por qué no fui más despacio? ¿Por qué me salí de la ruta?” Pero en ese momento, yo no podía hacer nada.

Martina: Above him, there was a sheer rock face, about three meters high. It was almost entirely flat, meaning it would be very difficult and dangerous to try to climb it.

Cristian: Traté de escalar, pero era demasiado difícil.

Martina: It would be impossible to climb. So he was left with one choice. To wait for help.

Cristian: Pensé: “Yo fui imprudente una vez y todavía estoy vivo. No puedo hacerlo otra vez. Tengo que esperar. Necesito ayuda.”

Martina: It was already six in the morning, and there were still six hours left in the race. Afterwards, there would be an award ceremony. Only then would people realize that he was lost. It would be nighttime or potentially the following morning before they found him.

Cristian: Yo llevaba cuatro horas allí.Tenía mucho tiempo todavía. No podía hacer nada. Tenía que quedarme y esperar a alguien. Pero se me acababa la paciencia.

Martina: While Cristian was bracing himself for the wait ahead, his family was anxiously waiting word from him about how fast he had run the race. Once it had ended and they still hadn’t heard from him, they started to worry.

Cristian: Mi esposa Claudia llamó al hostal donde yo me estaba quedando.

Martina: At the hostel they told her that it was common for people to get lost on the mountain. Eventually, they would make it back safely as long as they had taken the necessary gear and precautions.

Cristian: Ella se quedó tranquila pensando que yo estaba bien preparado para una emergencia así.

Martina: But around 5 pm, the police called Claudia and asked her to report Cristian missing.

Cristian: Sin ese reporte, ellos no podían empezar a buscarme.

Martina: An hour later, they called her again.

Cristian: Cada vez que ella contestaba el teléfono, pensaba que ellos le iban a dar malas noticias sobre mí.

Martina: But no. They couldn’t report bad news or good. Nobody knew what had happened to her husband.

Cristian: Mientras yo esperaba, creé una rutina para no volverme loco. Examiné la comida.

Martina: Cristian had four cereal bars, various gels, chocolates and alfajor cookies. Rationed well enough, he figured this could last him five days. He found the extra batteries for his headlamp and put it on. Then he began what would become a routine.

Cristian: Cada diez minutos yo hacía ruido y gritaba para pedir ayuda. Cada quince minutos me acercaba con cuidado a una roca por donde salía un poco de agua.

Martina: The trickle of water was just within his reach. The canteen took 20 minutes to fill up. And then it was time to wait.

Cristian: Pensé que solo podía esperar mirando al campo que estaba 150 metros más abajo. Pero empecé a ver cosas que no estaban ahí antes.

Martina: In the distance, Cristian started to see horses. Four to be exact. And they were just in front of a ranch with a large window. Through it he could make out a Christ on the cross. He could also see five people who seemed to be looking for him.

Cristian: Pero en ese momento, algo se movió y todo desapareció.

Martina: That’s when he realized he had been hallucinating.

Cristian: No tuve miedo porque eso me pasó antes en otras carreras.

Martina: Exhaustion and lack of food commonly cause runners to hallucinate during extreme races. At that point, Cristian had been on that rock ledge for 18 hours already. It was like time stood still. He started to pray.

Cristian: Le pedí ayuda a quienes siempre me cuidan: a Dios, a mis padres que están muertos, a mis ángeles.

Martina: As the sun began to set, Cristian started to feel desperate.

Cristian: Grité auxilio muchas veces. Me senté. El sol empezó a bajar. También la temperatura estaba bajando. A las ocho ya estaba oscuro.

Martina: Resigned to spend another night on that ledge, Cristian covered himself with the emergency blanket and laid down in a fetal position. He turned on his headlamp, thinking just maybe someone would see him. And then he closed his eyes.

Cristian: Pensé que esa noche tampoco iba a poder dormir. Pero lo hice porque estaba muy cansado.

Martina: As Cristian was passing out from exhaustion, a firefighter named José Luis Altamirano was just getting home after running the race. He looked up at the mountain he had just traversed and was surprised to see a dim light. He immediately called the race organizers.

Cristian: Unas horas después, José Luis, junto con policías y otra gente de la organización, fueron a la zona a buscarme.

Martina: The group went looking for Cristian in the general direction of the light, but it was a massive area to cover. They looked for hours, but had no luck. Then a thick fog rolled in.

Cristian: Decidieron parar la búsqueda y bajar a la base del cerro.

Martina: The next morning, Cristian ate one of his chocolates for breakfast and started his routine again: He yelled for help. He blew his whistle. He yelled for help. He stretched his legs. Again and again, until he started to panic.

Cristian: Pensé que no iban a encontrarme. Tenía mucho miedo y gritaba: “¡Ayuda! ¡Ayuda por favor! ¡Aprendí mi lección! ¡Voy a tener más cuidado la próxima vez!”

Martina: Cristian had now been on that ledge for over 40 hours. At some point he felt defeated and laid down… but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he started thinking through the good memories: the day he got married, when his kids were born...

Cristian: Pensé en mi mamá y en mi papá, en mi esposa y en mis hijos, en los buenos momentos que pasamos juntos. Pensé que yo tenía una vida feliz. Pensé que si alguien me decía que este era el final, no quería cambiar nada de mi vida.

Martina: This gave him energy to go back through his routine one more time. And then he heard a noise. He was afraid he was hallucinating again, but suddenly a black helicopter, a real one, flew right over his head.

Cristian: Cuando vi el helicóptero me puse nervioso. Empecé a gritar. Yo sabía que no iban a escucharme, pero empecé a gritar. Entonces el helicóptero se fue.

Martina: Just as the helicopter flew away, he heard voices. He couldn’t see them, but two men were yelling for him from a path below.

Cristian: ¡Alguien me gritaba! ¡Ya no estaba solo en ese lugar!

Martina: The men screaming for him were part of the original group looking for him. They told him not to worry, that they were going to call the firefighters to tell them where he was.

Cristian: Les grité que los estaba esperando por 42 horas. Ellos me gritaron que no se iban a ir sin mí. Yo no entendía mucho, pero no podía parar de llorar de emoción.

Martina: Forty-five minutes later, the helicopter showed up again. This time, they saw him. They dropped down a harness and lifted him out of that rock ledge. They took him to a nearby farm and immediately got him some food.

Cristian: Entonces llegó mi esposa Claudia y algunos amigos que viajaron con ella. Además, llegaron algunos colegas del banco y el amigo que empezó la carrera conmigo.

Martina: During the 42 hours Cristian had been stuck on the mountain, almost 50 people had been looking for him. He was in such a state of shock that he couldn’t bring himself to tell them about his hallucinations or his pleas for help. All he could repeat was this:

Cristian: “Iba 32 en la carrera”.

Martina: “Iba 32 en la carrera”, “I was 32nd in the race.” It didn’t take long for Cristian to recover from this experience. One year later, he ran that same race again.

Cristian: Alguien puede pensar que estoy loco. Yo le respondo que no, ¡que estoy vivo!

Martina: Cristian Gorbea lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His story was written by Federico Bianchini, who is a journalist also based in Buenos Aires.

This is our last story of this season, but we’ll be back soon with more new episodes. In the meantime, you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you can get the next episode delivered right to you. You can also go to podcast.duolingo.com to find transcripts and audio for all of the stories we’ve produced so far.

With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the podcast executive producer, Martina Castro — gracias por escuchar.


This episode includes recordings from tiotilo2003, Leandros.Ntounis, Benboncan, and jimsim under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Federico Bianchini
Narrator: Cristian Gorbea
Script Editor: Catalina May
Senior Editor: Martina Castro
Sound Designer: Claire Mullen
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro