Horror on the peak of Aconcagua
Canadian climbers beaten back by El Niño; several deaths on other teams
By Richard Getzkow
Special to Pique Newsmagazine
Six Canadians attempting an early February climb of Mount Aconcagua, Argentina, tallest mountain of the Americas, have now returned to Canada, deeply affected by the problems they encountered.
The Canadian team was forced back just below the peak, but they fared relatively well compared to other teams who lost climbers to howling winds, deep freeze and other mishaps.
The Canadian climb commemorates the 125th anniversary of the RCMP. The expedition's primary goal is to raise a dollar for every one of Aconcagua's 22,841 ft. that will go to the Children’s Wish Foundation.
"Against all odds we reached 19,500 feet," says team leader Constable Manuel Pizarro, of Gibsons. "After ferrying equipment and supplies to 16,000 feet at Camp Alaska, the team of Aconcagua '98, Climbing for Children's Wishes, faced some of the hardest decisions of the expedition."
Corporal Jacques Maillet of Regina, Sask., didn't seem to acclimatize very well and photographer Katherine Muller of Gibsons couldn't keep her hands warm, forcing them to descend.
Pemberton's Const. Cliff Chastellaine, with Const. Pizarro, and co-organizer Richard Getzkow of Gibsons pushed on to Camp Berlin at 19,500 feet.
"We had received bleak weather reports and heard of climbers dying all over the mountain," says Getzkow. "But we didn't expect to get what we got."
After setting up their only tent in high winds at the highest camp on the route, the team settled in to rest in preparation for the summit push the next morning.
"By midnight, the wind was blowing so hard that Richard yelled that the tent was about to explode," says Pizarro. Spending the night awake leaning against the sides of the tent, Getzkow, Pizarro and Chastellaine felt powerless.
"It would sound like a freight train was coming, then the tent would shudder in the turbulence," says Getzkow.
Const. Pizarro was forced to exit the tent to reset the lines.
"When I left the tent, I was overcome by fear. The wind was so strong, the cold was so intense and I just couldn't see. If the tent would have collapsed, I think we could have died," says Pizarro.
In fact, someone at the lower Camp Nido de Condores did die that night after their tent collapsed and ripped to shreds.
"The guy stayed in what was left of his tent instead of seeking refuge with any of the remaining tents at Nido. Maybe he tried and just couldn't see," says Getzkow.
The next morning, Feb. 4, the decision was made to abort the expedition based on reports that the weather system was there to stay.
But on Feb. 5, in the relative security of Base Camp at 14,000 feet, it was decided that, weather permitting, Pizarro would attempt to reach the summit solo, as he had done in 1995.
Later that day, Pizarro met with Armando Maguel Parraga, officer in charge of the Mendoza Police High Mountain Rescue Patrol assigned to Aconcagua Provincial Park.
Parraga proposed that Pizarro take part in their attempt to reach the summit and that he help in the retrieval of a deceased victim at Camp Nido de Condores.
The Argentine Police authorities were facing sharp criticism from the media after three Brazilian climbers died on the South Face of Aconcagua.
Before his death, the family of one member of the accident pleaded with authorities to initiate a rescue attempt. The High Mountain Rescue Patrol, however, was of the opinion that such a rescue on the route's 70-degree walls was impossible and would place six officers at unjustified risk.
Members of the press got a hold of Aconcagua Provincial Park Guardaparque (park guards) who formerly were in charge of all activities in the area and used the opportunity to make a political statement.
Guardaparque officials were themselves critical of the police decision, saying that the Guardaparque risked their lives on a regular basis under similar circumstances.
Mendoza police — under tremendous pressure after an overnight accumulation of one metre of snow, the death toll and the failure to retrieve a body at Nido de Condores — ordered anyone in sight to descend from the mountain.
According to officials, occasional deaths occur, but there has never been this many deaths in one season.
El Niño currents and the bad weather it brought to the region is partly to blame for the deaths.
Expedition guides are also blamed for billing the "Normal Route" and the mountain's second most popular route, the Polish Glacier route, as "easy."
Unsuspecting and inexperienced climbers are in turn encouraged to ascend unprepared and sometimes improperly equipped.
Deaths, according to police authorities, are:
o Gumpe Ho Kang, 46-year-old Korean. Blown off Gran Accareo by high
winds. Suspected cause of death: exposure.
o Captain Bazilan of the Brazilian Army. Died Jan. 28 on Polish Glacier. Suspected cause of death: exposure.
o Estephan Knoblich, 29-year-old German. Died Jan. 31. Separated from partner, suffered a broken leg after falling in a crevasse on Polish Glacier. Suspected cause of death: head injury or exposure.
o Unidentified climber in his 20s was found without boots at Nido de Condores during police search for Knoblich. Police suspect Guardaparque of taking boots from deceased climber.
o Three Brazilian climbers — Othon Learnardo, 23; Mozart Hastenretier, 35; and Alexander DaSilva Olivira, 24 — died on South Face, Feb. 3. Team swept by avalanche, two climbers killed instantly. DaSilva survived, hanging from a rope with a broken leg, for 48 hours. DaSilva radios for help shortly after the avalanche that was noticed by the fourth and fifth members of the same team. He isn't heard from again until 24 hours later when he makes final desperate call over police frequency.
o Miroselav Vit, 21, Czech climber. Died on the night of Feb. 3 after his tent was shredded by the wind.
Back in Canada, the Canadian team has now entered into the expedition's final phase. "There's nothing like an unusual event like this one to mount a fund-raiser and raise awareness for such a good cause," says Getzkow, also the team's treasurer.
"We want to remind everyone that our primary goal is to raise $23,000 and we're well on our way. When we reach that goal, we'll know that our work is complete," he says.
Any donations can still be made to: Aconcagua '98, Climbing for Children's Wishes, RR2, Gibsons, B.C., V0N 1V0; or at any Royal Bank branch in Canada in the name of the Aconcagua '98 trust fund.