No one knows the dead guy's name. Some people believe he is a Spanish mountaineer. Others say he's American. To most climbers, he's simply the dead guy.
The dead guy's grave is located at 5,800 metres on Aconcagua, in the Argentine Andes, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. The grave is just around the corner from our tent. The corpse is covered by a pile of rocks and some discarded mountaineering gear. The grey foam liners of the dead guy's climbing boots stick a few centimetres out of the grave but that's about all you can see of him. Nearby stands a little cross made out of wood. He died on Aconcagua sometime in the 1980s. Two helecopters crashed in an attempt to rescue him and his two friends. His climbing companions decided it was easier to bury him near the spot where he met his death rather than attempt the Herculean task of transporting his body down the mountain.
When I go to get ice from a nearby glacier to melt for drinking water, I occasionally walk over to stare at the dead guy -- or at least the tips of his boots. I want to remind myself of what this mountain can do to those who underestimate it. I've heard the 6,962-metre Aconcagua referred to as a lot of things. Many label it an ``easy'' high-altitude mountain to conquer. Of course, it isn't. The dead guy would probably attest to that, and so would I.
In 1989, when I last stood on Aconcagua's summit, I was a prime candidate for a spot right beside the dead guy. After 13 hours of hard climbing, I came down with cerebral edema, one of the deadliest forms of high-altitude illness. In my 20 years of mountaineering, it would be my closest brush with death.
To my climbing teammates, I looked fine. But my mind was swirling, my hands had started to tingle and my legs were ready to buckle. It was like being drunk. I desperately wanted to lie down and drift of to sleep. It would take superhuman effort by our expedition leader, Laurie Skreslet, to carry my limp body safely off the mountain.
Now, in the days leading up to the new millennium, I once again joined one of Mr. Skreslet's adventure travel expeditions to Aconcagua. As the first Canadian to climb Mount Everest, Mr. Skreslet, who is 50 and lives in Calgary, finds himself in great demand for such expeditions, particularly among North American business people.
Things on Aconcagua have changed radically during the past decade, fuelled by the sudden popularity in mountaineering. People stand in line to see the IMAX film on Mount Everest. Documentaries on climbing are standard fare on television these days. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's book about the 1996 deaths of eight climbers on Everest, is a bestseller.
Mountains everywhere are seeing a burst of activity. And none more so than Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits of the World. During its short climbing season, which lasts from December to late February, more than 4,000 climbers -- many of them going to high altitude for the first time -- will try to reach Aconcagua's summit. During the three weeks I am on the mountain, six people will die. This, I think, is Aconcagua's hard message: that on its perilous slopes, there is no such thing as an easy climb.
Aconcagua is not a beautiful mountain. From a distance, though, it is deceiving, nestled in the Andes along the Argentine-Chilean border, its massive bulk looking like any other major peak. Its upper reaches are covered in snow and the northeast slope of the mountain is dominated by a glacier. But up close, Aconcagua resembles a slag heap of broken grey and brown rock.
Often, high winds strip the mountain of snow on its lower levels, accentuating its starkness.
Despite its status, for more than a hundred years Aconcagua attracted relatively few climbers, losing out to the Himalayas and Mount Everest. Then came novice mountaineers, American millionaires Dick Bass and Frank Wells, with their 1985 quest to climb the highest summits on every continent.
That highly publicized undertaking sparked a boom in mountaineering and put the focus on Aconcagua. Mountains that were once only the domain of small groups of intrepid adventurers are now normal fare for pre-packaged expeditions designed to cater to the affluent and the bored. And they caught on. In 1981, a mere 500 climbers tried to summit Mount McKinley in Alaska. By last year, those numbers had more than doubled.
Yet these figures pale beside the increase witnessed on Aconcagua. In the mid-1980s, a little more than 300 climbers tried to summit the mountain each year. This year, almost 4,000 climbers, most part of professionally guided adventure-travel groups, will attempt to scale the peak. Five thousand are expected next year.
In little more than a decade, Aconcagua has become the poor man's Mount Everest. Not only does Aconcagua have its ``Seven Summits'' status, an attractive attribute to those who want a yardstick to measure their accomplishments, but it also gives climbers the opportunity to go to high altitude for a fraction of the price of an Everest expedition. Permits alone on Everest cost $10,000 U.S. per climber, and come with the stipulation a team consist of at least seven people. A place on an Everest adventure travel expedition will cost at least $70,000.
But anyone can walk into the Aconcagua Park office in the Argentine city of Mendoza, plunk down $120, and walk out with a climbing permit. Guided expeditions on Aconcagua cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. Aconcagua's other key draw is that many of its routes do not require a great amount of technical skill. One exception is the South face where only seasoned climbers attempt its massive wall of rotten rock and avalanche dangers. Another is the Polish Glacier, which leads up a massive ice wall and requires classic climbing techniques using ropes, ice axes and crampons. But for the most part, many other climbs on the mountain -- including the so-called Normal Route and a traverse along the glacier tha joins with the Normal Route -- require only great physical endurance. It's only during the last 400 metres to the summit that crampons and ice axes may be required.
Newcomers mistakenly believe Aconcagua will be an easy ascent requiring only minimal equipment. Some show up at Base Camp, located at 4,350 metres, in light wind jackets and regular leather hiking boots -- the type you'd use for a day of rambling in the Gatineau Hills. After realizing their mistake, they begin a mad scramble to try to purchase basic equipment. In 1989, I received offers from people to buy my high-altitude climbing boots and parka; this yea the unprepared were looking for a deal on crampons and wind jackets.
High-altitude mountains rarely offer climbers an easy go of anything. On Aconcagua, the biggest obstacles are the physical effects of excessive altitude and the wildly unpredictable weather. I've watched a sunny, balmy day on Aconcagua's slopes change within minutes to a total white-out where you can't see your tent only a few metres away. Temperatures dip to -30 C. Winds have reportedly reached 240 kilometres an hour on Aconcagua's upper levels. Some mountaineers have had their tents shredded by the gusts, a potentially fatal event as hypothermia can quickly set in for those caught in the open.
For good reason, the heights above 5,400 metres are referred to by climbers as the "Death Zone.'' The most deadly illnesses caused by altitude are cerebral edema, which is a swelling of the brain first manifested by decreased mental capacity and then possibly by a coma, and pulmonary edema, in which excess fluid collects in the lungs, making breathing more difficult, eventually killing the climber if untreated. A third high-altitude illness, retinal hemorrhage, occur when excessive pressure is placed on the optic nerve, causing temporary blindness or reduced vision.
All this gives Aconcagua a robust fatality rate. Everest claims anywhere from six to 10 lives annually, the unusual year being 1996 when 15 people died. On Aconcagua, five to eight people die each year, succumbing to altitude illness or exposure often alone, or in pairs.
Typical is the 1987 death of a professional mountain guide. That year, Laurie Skreslet reached the summit only to discover the corpse of a guide propped up against a rock. The guide, who had ascended the Normal Route, had told his clients he wanted to rest a little and that they should proceed down the mountain on their own. He then fell asleep and never woke up, likely succumbing to cerebral edema.
A year ago, a Japanese woman, a client on an adventure expedition, died on the Normal Route just 30 metres feet from the summit. She had become separated from her guide and instead of turning back, continued climbing. Exhausted, she sat down on a rock and died from exposure. Around the same time, another Japanese climber also died on the Normal Route, succumbing to altitude illness. His friends, exhausted from their climb, didn't have the energy to carry his body down, so they decided to roll the corpse down the slope. It bounced from rock to rock and by the time it was rolled into camp it was battered beyond recognition.
Aconcagua also draws those who attempt risky stunts they would never consider on any other high-altitude mountain. Still talked about in mountaineering circles is an American nicknamed Crazy Larry.
Last year, he set out to spend a night on the mountain at high altitude without a tent -- an obviously treacherous, if no potentially fatal, undertaking. He set out at 9 p.m. and climbed to 6,300 metres where he discovered two climbers huddled against the elements. They had reached the summit late in the day and, without headlamps, couldn't continue down the mountain. Crazy Larry decided to huddle with them before continuing in early morning. They later credited him with their survival, since they spent the night laughing so hard at his foolishness that they remained warm. Crazy Larry was lucky - he reached the summit and returned to Base Camp, exhausted from his 24-hour ordeal.
The first death of this year's climbing season comes on Dec. 23 during an ascent worthy of Crazy Larry. I am hiking in a valley leading to the mountain and have stopped in at one of the camps occupied by Aconcagua's park wardens. They are huddled around their radio, listening to details about the death coming from Base Camp.
A Spanish mountaineer had set out to climb the Polish Glacier at 2:30 p.m., a late start that would be his fatal mistake. It takes about 10 to 12 hours to climb the route, depending on one's skill; at best the Spaniard would have arrived on the summit at night and have to find his way down in darkness, nearly impossible since he was not carrying a headlamp. Incredibly, he had done the same thing last year and had to be rescued by park wardens. This year he would not be so lucky.
At about 2 a.m., on Dec. 23, American climber Roy Smith was at Camp Two at 5,760 metres near the Polish Glacier. He awoke to a voice yelling for help. In the roaring wind, the screams were faint and it was impossible to pinpoint the Spaniard's whereabouts on the ice wall. Since he hadn't a headlamp, there was no way he could signal his location. Mr. Smith, who is 59 and was a mountain warfare instructor with Britain's Special Air Service, began to signal with his own headlamp, hoping the climber would see the light and move toward it. He moved his lamp up and down for an hour. The yelling stopped and Mr. Smith thought the Spaniard had moved down the glacier.
An hour later, the voice began pleading for help again. This time another climber tried to direct the Spaniard with his headlamp; that effort continued until about 4 a.m., when the Spaniard went quiet. He is believed to have died from exposure.
When I talk to Roy later about the Spaniard's death, it is obvious he is wrestling with his emotions. He is frustrated that he could do little to rescue the mountaineer. It would have been too dangerous to begin climbing the glacier at night searching for someone whose location was not known. At the same time, it is hard to be sympathetic - and equally difficult to risk one's life -- for someone who seemed to have brazenly courted disaster. "A climber who behaves like that has to accept responsibility for themselves,'' Mr. Smith says. "It was almost self-destructive behaviour.''
After a 45-kilometre hike through the desert surrounding Aconcagua I reach Base Camp for the Polish Glacier Route on New Year's Day. There are several base camps on the mountain, each for a different route. At the camp for the Normal Route on the other side of the mountain there are about 200 climbers. At the Polish Glacier base camp, it is less crowded, with about 70 mountaineers making their preparations for ascent. Bright yellow and blue tents dot the large rocky plateau and people are busy sorting their equipment and food.
There is a whole range of skills and experience. Mike Brown, a professional climber and outdoor adventure filmmaker from Vail, Colorado, has recently finished climbing on Shishapangma in southern Tibet where he was filming the expedition for NBC Television. It was during that expedition that celebrated climber Alex Lowe was killed. Mike has come to Aconcagua to prepare for an expedition to Everest.
Those with a moderate level of experience include a group of 11 Argentine friends who have come to attempt two climbs. A group of four will attempt the more difficult Polish Glacier; the others will take the glacier traverse. The plan is for them all to meet on the summit. The group, mostly university students, has a variety of skills; one of the more experienced is 21-year-old Walter Toconas, who has been on the Polish Glacier before and is looking forward to another attempt on the ice wall. Walter, the group's most outgoing member, has a ready smile and with his deeply tanned face looks like he spends a lot of time outdoors. Since he can speak the most English among the Argentines, he's the one that American and Canadian climbers have the most contact with. The others, including the group's two women, are in their early to mid-20s, except for their leader, 35-year-old Antonio Rodriguez. They are a tight-knit team and seem to have a good time together, often singing Argentine folk songs as they prepare their gear and sort their food for the climb.
Among the several adventure-travel expeditions at Base Camp is Laurie Skreslet's group, who are actually learning how to take care of themselves on the mountain.
His eight clients pitch their own tents, chow down on freeze-dried food and haul their own gear up the mountain. They are mostly successful businessmen seeking new challenges; most grew interested in mountaineering after reading Into Thin Air or seeing the IMAX Everest film.
Typical of the group is Rob Langford, a 34-year-old entrepreneur from Vancouver. A self-described type-A personality, Rob is determined to get to the top. He has prepared for a year for the climb, consulting a nutritionist and personal physical trainer for advice. Alan Patte, 46, who owns his own company in Toronto, admits he is drawn to Aconcagua because of its status as one of the Seven Summits. His philosophy is to live life to the fullest, experiencing as much as he can.
Paul DeAngelis, a 28-year-old engineer from Oakville, became fascinated with mountaineering after following the media coverage on the 1996 Everest deaths and later reading Into Thin Air. For him, the trip to Aconcagua is appealing because of the challenge and, he readily admits, the possibility of danger. John and Janet de Bruyn, a Calgary couple, have the adventure-travel bug. Last year, they were on an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Rainer in Washington State. John, 53, is fascinated with the mountains and has stacks of climbing books at home. Janet, 45, acknowledges she wouldn't even be thinking of climbing mountains if she hadn't married John two-and-a-half-years ago. Like the Argentines, Laurie Skreslet's group also plans to climb the glacie traverse.
Most of the other adventure-travel groups on the mountain offer more catered trips. Meals, such as steak and pizza, are provided by a cook, and their tents are set up by the guides. Clients have little to do but try to get to the summit. Then there are the Deliverance Boys, who I first meet while hauling gear up the mountain to Camp One. The boys dropped their heavy packs back at 4,800 metres and now are taking a cigarette break before tackling the steep slope before them.
Morris Deaver, 34, towers more than six feet and is dressed head-to-toe in U.S. Army camouflage clothing. He sports a full beard and a beer belly and has a long-bladed hunting knife dangling from his belt. Just what he intends to hunt on the mountain is never clear. His buddy, Mark, has stringy black hair and uneven teeth and could be a poster boy for the tobacco industry. He takes deep drags on a Marlboro at an altitude where there is but a fraction of the oxygen found at sea level. The boys got their nickname from someone in Base Camp because of their heavy South Carolina accents and their somewhat unsettling resemblance to the malevolent hillbillies in the movie Deliverance. They, though, are friendly, thoroughly politically incorrect and a great source of amusement when they recount their trials and tribulations on the mountain. They've already gotten grief from the Argentine park wardens in Base Camp because of their camouflage gear; most climbers wear brilliant colours and the wardens are concerned that they will be next to invisible should they require rescuing, which Morris insists they won't be needing.
A more pressing problem is that some of their equipment was lost on the trip from the U.S., including their stove, which is essential to melt snow and ice for drinking. Morris's plan is to go from tent to tent to see if anyone has a stove to sell.
They also haven't decided which route they'll take on the mountain although Morris informs me he has "read the guide book'' and has looked at a photo of the Polish Glacier on a Web site. It's a toss-up between the Polish Glacier and the glacier traverse.
The Deliverance Boys notwithstanding, most in Base Camp are betting that the prime candidates for death and destruction will be a 12-member Japanese team. The park wardens, who believe that some climbers from the Pacific Rim countries push themselves beyond their limits and either end up dying or requiring rescue, are eyeing the team nervously. The Japanese team is made up of men and women who, attired in light wind jackets and carrying day-hiking packs, look best prepared for a tour of the Eiffel Tower. One climber has already reported to Base Camp that he saw two members of this team, who had been moving equipment up the mountain, so exhausted they were crawling on their hands and knees. "It's going to be a spectacle,'' warns one Argentine mountaineering guide.
In the end, the predictions about which group would perish on this unforgiving mountain would prove to be far from accurate.
During the next two weeks, the teams move food and equipment up the mountain and establish their camps. It is slow work. Because of the lack of oxygen, the effort it takes to operate at altitude is huge and even climbing with a light pack is an enormous effort. Some people experience constant nausea. Others have pounding headaches make most migraines pale in comparison. The first stage of the climb is from Base Camp at 4,350 metres to Camp One at 4,950 metres. After several days -- many of them 10 hours long -- of moving gear and returning to sleep at Base Camp, a group climbs to live at Camp One. The camp is spacious and relatively flat at the base of a steadily rising slope that leads up to Camp Two at 5,760 metres Groups usually rest one day at Camp One before beginning to shuttle equipment to Camp Two.
A camaraderie of discomfort develops as everyone seems to share the same pain. Every day, as I pass the Argentine group's tents, I greet them in rudimentary Spanish. My efforts usually send them into laughing fits or spark an impromptu language lesson.
"Yo es muy loco,'' is my standard line, signifying I consider myself nuts to be back on the mountain.
"We are all crazy,'' smiles Walter Toconas. Some climbers, including several of the strongest in the Japanese expedition, have quickly pushed on to Camp Two. Laurie Gaucher, who is 38, and his climbing partner, 27-year-old Dan Gallagher, who are both from Calgary, are also at Camp Two preparing for their second attempt on the mountain. They were trapped in their tent at Camp Two for four days during a massive storm in December. They're hoping the weather holds up so they can attempt the glacier traverse.
I spend six hours climbing to Camp Two with a load of equipment. The lack of oxygen takes its toll; for every few steps I take, I have to stop for a rest.
The first thing to greet you at Camp Two is a massive pile of human excrement. Toilet paper flutters in the wind. Every rock imaginable has been used for bodily functions. This is an image that those popular mountaineering documentaries neglect in favour of beautiful panoramic vistas. But it is the price a mountain pays for popularity, especially when thousands of climbers are crawling al over its slopes.
Camp Two is a small plateau protected by large rock pillars near the base of the Polish Glacier. Flat pieces of ground are at a premium so it's not unusual for climbers to situate their tents near a ledge overlooking a 50-metre drop.
I meet Dan Gallagher who looks drawn and tired. He and Laurie G. are going to try for the summit the next day.
Several hundred metres away on the Polish Glacier above Camp Two, three Japanese climbers struggle on the ice wall. "Check it out,'' says Dan. "They've been stuck there for three hours.'' Other climbers watch them, each grimly speculating if an accident will happen now. Heavy clouds are starting to form and begin to obscure the upper reaches of the mountain. I watch for a few moments as the Japanese climbers move perilously close to an edge of the glacier that drops off 2,000 metres. But worried a storm is coming in, I head back to Camp One to spend the night.
The plan is for most of Laurie Skreslet's group to rest the next day at the camp before moving to Camp Two. Laurie and a few of his stronger clients will go up to Camp Two to prepare sites for the tents.
At about 2 p.m. on the rest day, two figures stumble down the slope from Camp Two. One of Laurie Skreslets's clients, Paul DeAngelis, is slowly descending with a massive backpack. Behind him is Laurie Gaucher who is wobbling back and forth and occasionally stumbling.
We watch their progress through binoculars and within a half hour they have reached our camp. Paul is carrying Laurie's equipment and is exhausted. Laurie Gaucher, who had summited Aconcagua a year ago with no problems, has the beginning symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema. He has also lost vision in his right eye -- a temporary effect of the altitude. After lurching into camp, he drops to the ground and begins to dry heave.
We prop Laurie Gaucher up against a rock and ply him with cup after cup of hot chocolate to try to rehydrate his body. He and Dan Gallagher had begun their summit ascent around 1 a.m. but at about 6,300 metres, Laurie Gaucher began to have trouble and, soon after, began losing vision in his right eye. Dan took him back to their tent at Camp Two and, believing he was on his way to recovery, set out again. But Laurie Gaucher became progressively weaker and started to vomit. He decided it was time to descend.
Watching him was like reliving my 1989 experience with altitude sickness. Although Laurie Gaucher is not as far gone as I was, the situation is still serious. His motor skills are shaky but he is coherent. On the plus side is the fact that after descending more than 800 metres to Camp One, he has regained most of the vision in his right eye and some of his strength. The key is for him to keep moving down to Base Camp where a further drop in altitude will significantly help in his recovery. Laurie Gaucher insists he feels fine and can carry his 30-kilogram backpack down to Base Camp. I ask him to stand up and then with three fingers push his 90-kilogram frame onto the ground. Fortunately, he gets the point and agrees to leave his pack. After regaining his strength and drinking more fluids, Laurie Gaucher continues his journey to Base Camp where he would make a full recovery. Dan Gallagher, who successfully makes the summit, later rejoins his partner to take care of him.
After Laurie Gaucher leaves, I notice that some of Laurie Skreslet's group are noticeably quiet. Rob Langford would later tell me that Laurie Gaucher's illness drilled home the fact that this was a mountain where a person could easily get killed. Rob got little sleep that night as he wondered if a seasoned climber like Laurie Gaucher could come down with altitude sickness then what would happen to someone like him who had never been up that high before.
The next day, Laurie Skreslet's group, the Argentines and some South African climbers begin the move to Camp Two. On the way, we meet the Japanese moving down. The three climbers cleared the glacier without injury and now the team is headed home. They had contemplated doing the glacier traverse but abandoned the idea after a stove blew up in their tent injuring two of their members. One of the injured has a burn on her face covered with medical dressing. That same day we learn that the Normal Route has claimed another victim. On Jan. 5, a Mexican woman collapsed from exhaustion near the summit and died on the spot. Unlike the Spaniard, her body is recovered.
Our plan is to try for the summit after spending two nights at Camp Two. It's at this high camp that Aconcagua shows its true power. At night the winds pound the tents, the gusts so strong that at times it seems the walls are going to buckle or that the tent itself wil be lifted into the air and thrown over the ledge on which we are camped. Being inside the tent is like riding in an out-of-control freight train. The sound of the walls shaking is so loud it's impossible to sleep.
Summit day arrives on Jan. 9. We stumble out of our tents into the snow and darkness at 3:30 a.m. Using our headlamps to light the way, we begin our ascent of Aconcagua's final 1,200 metres. We make our way along the lower portion of the glacier, the crunching of ice and snow the only sound we hear in the darkness. The slope we are climbing is not steep; there is a well-worn path through the rock and snow.
The real drawback is the altitude. The amount of oxygen available is half that at sea level. Moving is physically exhausting, with each step requiring several breaths. Only 40 per cent of those who set out to climb Aconcagua make it to the summit and it is this portion of the climb where many mountaineers turn back after being physically drained by the altitude. As we climb, we are joined by others. A Swiss adventure-travel group seems to appear out of nowhere. The Argentines are also on their way to the top. Asplanned, they split their group -- one climbing the Polish Glacier, the other team taking the Glacier Traverse to the Normal Route. Their plan is to meet on the summit.
Some in our group soon start to feel the effects of the altitude John de Bruyn, along with one of Laurie's guides, turns around and heads back to Camp Two after several hours of climbing. Shortly after, another of Laurie's clients, Steve Davis, turns around. He is physically spent.
When the sun rises around 6 a.m., I am too tired to even notice how pretty it is. The wind has picked up and the cold bites at my face. At times we have to stop and drop to our knees to prevent the strong gusts from pushing us to the ground.
At 6,300 metres, after battling the winds and altitude, I decide I've had enough. My hands are numb but with only another 660 metres to go, I still have the stamina to make the top. But I have noticed my breathing has become more laboured and I am starting to fall behind the others. What I realize is that if I go to the summit, I likely won't have enough energy to get myself back down. Not wanting a repeat of my 1989 adventure, I signal to one of Laurie's guides, Bill Marler, that I am calling it a day.
I'm surprised how easy it is to make the decision. I would have thought that after the year I trained for this climb that I would have been sorely disappointed. But in my mind, I know instantly I've made the right call. To continue would have been irresponsible. Not only would I have endangered myself, it could potentially put Laurie and his clients at risk as any rescue would drain their energy. At the same time, since I've been to the summit before, there is less pressure, in my mind, to reach the top.
The others continue. Shortly after I turn back, David D'Angelo, a 20-year-old American who has joined our group, stops and heads back for Camp Two. Then, with about 260 metres to go, Bill Marler starts to go hypothermic, his body shaking uncontrollably. It's unusual for him; he had climbed to the summit on three other occasions and is admired for his boundless strength. Bill turns around as Laurie continues to the top with five of his clients, Alan Patte, Rob Langford, Paul DeAngelis, Janet de Bruyn and Bryce Hleucka. The six summit shortly after 2 p.m.
I reach Camp Two at about the same time and promptly collapse total exhaustion in one of our tents. I am so spent that one of Mr. Skreslet's guides, Peggy Foster, must remove my crampons. I slump into the sleeping bag and the headaches, caused by exertion and the altitude, begin. It feels like someone is performing open-brain surgery without an anesthetic.
A half hour later, I awake to frantic yells. Mike Brown, the American climber, has been watching the group of Argentines -- the four of them roped together -- move slowly up the Polish Glacier Mike looks away for a few minutes and when he turns back, the Argentines have disappeared. About 160 metres from the base of the glacier, he is horrified to see four brown lumps resting on a ledge. The men had just fallen about 600 metres to their deaths.
Camp Two erupts in confusion. One of the Southern African climbers becomes extremely upset, yelling for people to do something. He runs from tent to tent, telling people that the Argentines have fallen and asking if anyone has any medical training. He wants to organize a rescue.
Mike has already put on his crampons, grabbed an ice axe and begins to move quickly up the glacier. Several others follow. When Mike reaches the climbers, he signals for the others not to bother coming any farther. There is nothing anyone can do. The mountain has utterly pulverized the four bodies. One of the dead is Walter Toconas. The accident is truly preventable. For whatever reason, the four men decided to rope themselves together. They may have done this since one or more of the group was inexperienced and unsure of their ability on the glacier. But when one of the four slipped, the others -- for whatever reason -- could not stop their slide down the glacier. It probably would have made more sense to have roped-up in two-man teams which would have at least cut down on the risk. Other climbers at Camp Two say they would have tried the route without a rope as the glacier is not that steep.
"Three of those guys didn't have to die,'' someone says to general agreement of those at Camp Two.
The next day, we honour the four men. Most of Laurie Skreslet's group has already left the camp, anxious to get off the mountain and begin the trip home. But the few who remain, along with other climbers at Camp Two, gather rocks to build a memorial. We pile the boulders next to the dead guy's resting place.
I form two hunks of metal, salvaged from some climbing equipment, into a cross, and Mike Brown uses wire to lash the pieces together. Alan Patte, one of Laurie's clients, writes the four names with a black Magic Marker onto the cross. As we gather under the Polish Glacier, climbers from three countries talk about the four Argentines, how they cherished life, how they died doing what they loved.
I stare at the pile of rocks and at the cross. I cannot rid the image of Mr. Toconas's smashed body from my mind. I remember his smile and then I see his head split open. This 21-year-old didn't see all that much of life. Laurie tells us that if he were to die on such a mountain, he would not want it known simply that a Canadian had died at this spot. These men, he says, had names, they had families, they had identities.
Slowly, one by one, he reads their names: Walter Toconas; German Brena; Gustavo Martin; Daniel Morales. I carefully put a copy of their names in my parka, vowing to reproduce them in print so these people will not be totally forgotten. Moments later, the remaining Argentines arrive. They are in a daze. What was supposed to be a climbing trip with a group of friends has turned into an awful tragedy. After a few moments with the Argentines, I grab my pack and head down the mountain
David D'Angelo lingers longer at the memorial site. He would later tell me he wished he hadn't. The sun started to heat up the glacier and warm the bodies. He looked up the icy wall to see a small stream of blood trickling down the glacier. Although a distance away, the red fluid stood out on the white background. Thankfully, the Argentines had left before the gruesome thaw began.
As I move down the mountain, my strength begins to return. At about 5,400 metres, I spot a figure in camouflage, resting against a rock. The Deliverance Boys, who have managed to buy a second-hand stove, are on their way up. I stop by Morris Deaver, suppressing a smile as I spot the hunting knife still dangling from his belt.
"Hey, that's really shitty to hear about those Argentine guys,'' Morris drawls. Word has already spread down the mountain. "Guess they screwed up.'' "Yeah, Morris, really shitty.'' I look down at his massive pack and see strapped to its side a dozen or so lightweight poles -- the kind you'd use to mark a route if you were going to try to climb the Polish Glacier. Good luck, I think, as I make the descent. And I mean it.