It was like a tree falling…. We both reached out but to no avail. At 6’2” and over 200 lbs at 19,000 ft. I doubt that we could have caught him. J. D. however managed to wedge himself between L and the slope.
It was not supposed to be like this. The three of us had done everything right, or so we had thought. It had taken us the required 12 days to get into position for the summit. 4 days to base camp at a gentle pace. Three days to Camp 1. Three days to camp 2. One day of rest and reconnaissance to where the traverse meets up with the “Normal Route”. We had gone to bed early for an early start for the summit. The weather was cooperating as well. While it was cold, it was clear and the wind was still for a change.
For J. D. it was his second time on the mountain. He had hired us in 1999 to guide him to the summit. There had been seven of us on that trip, but it had not worked out for J.D. Reaching his limit at the end of the traverse at 20,000 feet and knowing himself well he turned around at that point. While he was disappointed, he vowed to return and finish the last part of the mountain soon. For him his first trip was a learning experience.
Now it was December 2001 and J. D. had hired L and myself to help take him to the top. He could have done it alone with L as a private party but to hedge his bets he had asked me to come along for insurance should one of his guides become ill. But guides don't get ill right.
At age 51 L climbs like a 30 year old. His long strides quickly move him along at a pace that most of us who know him only dream of. While having the occasional nagging headache he has always been a tower of strength at altitude. His natural leadership skills, motivating manner and 30 years of mountaineering experience has made him a much sought after guide and climbing companion. In all our eyes L is indestructible.
Yet here he was lying before us on the frozen slopes of Aconcagua. Not half an hour into our summit bid he had suddenly collapsed. He was out before he hit the scree. Because of this he landed face first, with no outstretched arms to block his fall. He is a big man and he landed hard. The blood started flowing almost instantly. J. D. had seen him going first and had cried out a warning. But it all happened to fast. We both got between him and the icy slope that would have carried him down to his death. J. D. looked at me in disbelief. My eyes returned his thoughts. What has happened here and how do we get this 200 lb man to safety. All thoughts of the summit are forgotten and replaced with the urgency and seriousness of the situation.
L and I had been climbing together in Argentina for almost 15 years. He had first invited me down in 1987 with three friends. It was a trip of many adventures and exciting events, especially for me. It was my first big mountain. While I had traveled for many years to mountainous regions I had never tried to actually climb one. Laurie had opened my eyes to the possibility. Having met briefly in 1982 near Everest base camp. He the successful Everest summitor and I the wide-eyed trekker. We had kept in touch through a mutual friend Ron Diamond. When L returned to Everest in 1986 this time on the north side, we had been invited to visit him at base camp and stay and perhaps get as high as camp two. We never met up due to the fact that the Chinese prevented Ron and I from crossing the order into Tibet. So we ended up on one side of the mountain and L on the other side, him unaware how close we were. When L found out what had happened upon his return to Canada he perhaps out of pity invited us to Argentina with him the next year. We struck up a friendship and I had returned with him to Aconcaga and other areas of Argentina each year since as an assistant.
L gradually regained consciousness and after a few moments was able to sit up. He was confused and wanted to know what had happened. We stopped the blood with spare fleece gloves and made him aware of what had transpired. J. D. and I split the contents of L’s pack and after getting him to his feet we slowly retreated to our tents at camp 2. The fact that he could walk was key.
J. D. gently removed the pieces of rock and dirt from L face and bandaged what he could. I broke camp and prepared us for the move down. We would have moved down immediately but felt L need a few moments to hydrate and for us to ascertain whether or not he was able to get down on his own two feet. We were ready to move in 20 minutes.
It took us about 5 hours to get down to base camp to the doctor. Pretty good time considering. L got progressively better with each 1,000-foot drop in altitude. J. D.’s pack was monstrous. Mine was too I suppose. I did not notice. My thoughts we occupied with how did I miss L being ill.
Looking back at the situation there were many signs and explanations as to why it happened. The first one the fact that we brought 2 tents for 3 people. While J. D. and I were able to watch each other, L was mostly alone in his tent. This was his preference enjoying some alone time at the end of each day. Not the best choice in hindsight. The second, the fact that for the first time on our Aconcagua trips I had beaten L to camp 2 on two of our three carries. While he had gotten there first on the day we moved up. He was tried and needed to rest to get rid of a headache. This is not unusual for most people but for L it was and I should have taken it as a sign. But he was after all the “Man”. The third and most obvious one, L was sick the evening before last but we had all put it down to something he ate. His pulse was normal and energy level normal. Hay the Pulse Oximiter said he was ok! He was in good spirits and chatted normally. The last small sign for me was the fact that he seemed underdressed when we all emerged from out tents on the summit morning at 4:00 am. He was dressed only in his heavy fleece instead of the normal down parka. He had all this in his pack and was warm he said so I let it go. It was not very cold but I knew once we turned the corner at Indepencia it would be bitter. He had his parka so this would have not been a problem. But this was not his normal behavior.
The doctor at base camp advised us to go directly down to Casa Piedra another 3,000 feet lower than base camp at Plaza Argentina. L had both cerebral and pulmonary edema. He was lucky to be alive in the doctor’s opinion. L at this point was doing well and we broke camp and took the doctor’s advice moved to Casa Piedra and made it to Mendoza the next day.
Aside from a few broken teeth, which were, repaired L recovered well. We helped him to organize for another guide to take his second set of clients who were arriving in 10 days.
We returned to Aconcagua in 2004 and L was his regular self on the mountain. I watched him like a hawk. Hopefully he was watching me.