Harsh Footage from Aconcagua

Video and internet comments from a fatal accident bring home the typical quandaries of big mountains, weather, group size and rescue expectations.

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This last December-February mountaineering season on Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet) saw more than its usual two or three annual fatalities. As of press time, at least 5 people had died, one each from a combination of rockfall, crevasse fall, and a solo alpinist who disappeared on a tough route. And then there was the instructive – and tragic – mishap involving an Argentine/American guide working for Rainier Mountaineering, and a female Italian client, both of whom died in blizzard conditions near the summit, after an ascent of the normal Canaleta Route.

Aconcagua via the normal route is not technically difficult. Aside from the notorious Canaleta scree gully the final 1,000 feet, the standard route is mostly switchbacked trail. The major hazards are Aconcagua’s wicked storms, and a lack of technical barriers that makes it all too easy for people to outclimb their acclimatization pace. It is not unusual for climbers to try summiting Aconcagua on Day Seven from airport arrival.

Apparently, in this case, the blizzard struck just as the guided group as the group was reaching the top. Visibility quickly changed to nonexistent, and on descent the party veered onto upper sections of the Polish Glacier Route, where Elena Senin (38) fell into a crevasse and was killed, apparently by ice that collapsed on top of her. The guide then climbed down into the crevasse and worked strenuously to free her, which led to his collapse from altitude problems. The party was then pinned down by blizzard for two nights at the accident site. Shortly after initial rescuers reached them, the guide, Frederico Campanini (31) an Argentine living in Salt Lake City, died

Last week, video taken by one of the team members surfaced on the internet and Chilean news channels. The video, along with comment-board accounts from eyewitnesses and other guides on the Argentine mountaineering forum foros.tricuspide.com – assembled and translated on the excellent blog Chile from Within – provide us with a tragic timeline that illustrates the cascading series of events typical in big mountain accidents.

Warning: The footage of Campanini attempting to get up while dying is chilling, although far from graphic. The rescuers – basically nearby guides and climbers – are being criticized as ineffective. Some of the invectives hurled at the struggling climber (the scene is in Spanish) are considered harsh. However, berating altitude victims to keep them moving is a common desperation tactic. The climbers are trying to get Campanini upslope to reach the Canaleta Route, since descending the Polish Glacier would have required technical lowering.

Several things become clear from the message board comments of “Rockney” who was guiding a separate group on summit day:

[] The RMI group, mostly Italians, was slow, as are many large guided parties.

[] The group had two guides, but one lagged behind with a slow client who eventually had to be escorted back down, leaving the party with (I believe) five clients and one guide.

[] Rockney’s group summited around 4 p.m. and left before the Italian group had all arrived.

[] The storm “unleashed” just after Rockney’s group departed the summit. Winds were 50mph and temps -5F. Visibility was “half a meter beyond our feet.” The group got briefly off-route but corrected using a gps, and only managed to find the Independencia Refuge (hut) via a waypoint.

[] On descent Rockney’s group found all the Italian’s backpacks stashed in a sheltered area called The Cave. They summited with no emergency gear.

[] On descent, Campanini’s group apparently got off route and descended 1,300 feet down upper portions of the Polish Glacier Route.

[] There, Senin fell into a crevasse and died, and Campanini’s own altitude problems began.

[] Beginning on Monday p.m., the group was trapped at high altitude by the continuing blizzard. Rescuers didn’t leave until Wednesday morning.

Aconcagua guides and friends of the deceased are criticizing the lack of quick rescue, in part because Aconcagua Provincial Park charges a per-climber fee of $500 to $170, depending on the exact season. Since climbers must bag all trash and waste, and even pay a $100 base camp waste charge (addressing those potential expenses separately) they are wondering why no rescue caches, wheeled litters, or rescue teams are in place. The accident will probably result in improvements to Aconcagua’s paltry rescue infrastructure. Guide “Rockney’s” account raises questions about some of the Italian party’s decisions, but I see this tragedy more as an illustration of quandaries that are always present on big mountain climbs.

To wit:

[] Summit pushes in tight weather windows are inherently risky, especially with slow groups. Unfortunately, that’s also a staple of high altitude guiding.

[] Easy routes are only easy if you’re on the route.

[] Big slow groups should never leave emergency gear behind. With it, you’ve got safety in numbers; Without it, you’ve just got multiple victims.

[] Hope for, but never expect, quick rescue anywhere, especially at high altitudes. If you’re in trouble, rescuers are probably struggling too, and many teams won’t set out in brutal conditions because it’s dangerous and futile. That means you’ve got to be ready to sit it out.

[] Weak party members always create problems – or a revised itinerary. They are usually the most vulnerable to injury and death as well. Some of this tragedy was foreshadowed early, with the slow climber being escorted back down to high camp, leaving the group with one guide, then none. This is a good case for making summit-team choices before summit day, but that is a very difficult thing with paying clients.

[] The deceased were liked and loved by many friends, so the accident’s over, but the pain and loss isn’t.

Hike safe. — Steve Howe