January 3, 2009 - The Accident“Stefan, Stefan” I cried out as I approached his body, my mind trying to comprehend what had occurred. In the snow below lay my partner who had fallen during his descent of the Polish Direct route. This shouldn’t have happened. Death in the mountains was something we read about in books and magazines not something we expect to experience. In the days preceding the accident circumstances had conspired to place us in a position where we could climb the route together but never did such an outcome ever occur to me. As I continued my descent I again called out to him but no reply ever came. When I finally reached my new friend he was gone. There was nothing I could do but sit beside him and mourn his loss.
December 23-25, 2008 – Trekking in to Plaza Argentina
I first met Stefan Jeromin, a 42 year old architect from Köln, Germany, at Pampa de Lenas during our trek in to Plaza Argentina. Stefan was climbing solo and was making his second attempt on the mountain after poor weather turned him back at Camp 2 the previous year. For me it was my third time on the mountain and the second time leading a large, 10-member private expedition. I had already made the summit in 2006 via the False Polish Traverse and was back with a friend to attempt the Polish Direct, a route I have always wanted to ascend. The first thing I noticed about Stefan was his gregarious, outgoing personality that allowed him to befriend every climber he met along the way. There were several other private groups in the valley along with us and we got to know each other during the three day trek in to base camp. There were the big backpack boys, Tyler, Tyson and John carrying impressive 90+ pound packs, young Dan and Dalton with an ambitious climbing schedule where they would move from Base Camp to Camp 2 in only two days and Frank, a fellow countryman of Stefan’s, with whom he would often converse with in German. We were all excited about the upcoming climb and looking forward to sharing our adventure with one another.
December 25-26, 2008 – Plaza Argentina (13,780 feet)When we arrived at Plaza Argentina I immediately headed for the Daniel Lopez Expedition mess tent. On my previous climbs, Daniel’s tent was the place to go to buy good food, beer and sit around chatting with climbers from all over the world. When I entered the tent I was glad to see Stefan sitting there as he had contracted Daniel’s firm to his supply his mules and food services. Over the next several days we would often sit together eating meals and chatting about the mountain. Like me he was very interested in attempting the Polish Direct route and we both shared a particular interest in the history of the North Face of the Eiger which we would often discuss. Also in the tent that afternoon were fellow Canadians Jim Ongena and his climbing partner Shawn. Jim introduced me to several friends of both his and Daniel Lopez who were there, Argentineans Daniel Placci and his friend Dioni who would later go out of their way to assist me after the accident.
December 27-29, 2008 – Moving to Camp 1 (16,500 feet)Over the next several days our group began to ascend the mountain. The first day we hiked up to 15,000 feet to aid in the acclimatization process. On the second we carried loads up to Camp 1 and returned to base camp to sleep. The third day we moved everything up to Camp 1 and remained there. Our days were uneventful but this was the first extreme altitude climb for my climbing partner Randall. He was beginning to feel the affects of altitude and his body was having some difficulty adjusting but he wasn’t the only one. Other members of our group were also feeling the effects and one had a lung infection that would keep him and his partner at base camp for a few extra days. Some of our new friends were also feeling similar effects but Stefan seemed to be adjusting well. I later learned that he had ascended a nearby mountain in the previous week to pre-acclimatize before attempting Aconcagua.
December 30, 2008-January 1, 2009 - Moving to Camp 2 (19,300 feet)Our move up to Camp 2 was made in a similar fashion. After making an acclimatization hike up to the Aconcagua-Ameghino Col, Randall and I were ready to make a carry up to Camp 2. Unfortunately, 300 feet above camp he began having problems and had to descend while I completed a carry to Camp 2. Later he would decide that his climb was over and would return to base camp the following morning. I offered to go down with him but Randall was adamant that I should continue upward and we discussed my options. The first was to hook up with the only other climber in our group that had the skills to climb the Polish Direct route, Little Mike as we called him, but he was stuck at base camp due to his partner’s lung infection. My other options were to climb the route solo or hook up with Stefan. Later that evening my first option disappeared when we received a report that Little Mike had injured his knee carrying a load up to Camp 1 and was being evacuated from the mountain by helicopter. The following morning Randall descended and, after a brief discussion, Stefan and I agreed to climb the route together. Stefan later joined me in my tent and the following morning we moved to Camp 2. I had selected a site for our tent about 250 meters outside of camp that provided better protection from the wind and gave us easier access to the route. When Stefan arrived he was ecstatic and immediately thanked me and gave me a big hug.
January 2, 2009 – Preparing for Summit DayAfter spending the night at Camp 2 we made an acclimatization hike up to 20,000 feet to mark out our approach and to get a feeling for the condition of the route. We were both well rested and climbing well but the névé was very firm which prevented us from kicking good steps. In other areas we encountered deep, loose snow slabs and hard glacial ice that forced us to climb in a switchback pattern slowing our ascent. With this information we decided we should begin our summit attempt earlier than we originally planned the following morning. It was a brilliant day with light winds and bright sunshine so we sat there for quite some time chatting about various things, eating, drinking and taking photos of the surrounding mountains. Later we descended back to camp and prepared our gear for our summit attempt.
January 3, 2009 – Summit Day
We left camp at 1:15 AM on a perfectly starry night. There was no wind to contend with but the cloudless night resulted in lower than expected temperatures. As we ascended the glacier it soon became apparent that the route was not getting any better above the high point we had reached the previous day. The climbing was slow, tiring and our feet began to get cold forcing us to stop frequently to warm them up. When we reached 20,600 feet Stefan suggested we rope up and start placing protection. As was our agreement whenever either of us felt we should protect the climb it would be done, no questions asked. We had shortened our rope to 30 meters so it would be easier to communicate should the conditions be windy and switched leads as the sun rose until we arrived at a rock band just a few hundred feet beneath the bottleneck. We were at 21,000 feet but it was already 8:00 in the morning. I belayed Stefan up to the rocks and noticed he appeared tired. When he finally arrived I told him the time and asked him what he wanted to do. Stefan said he was too exhausted to continue and that he had decided to descend.
After resting at the rock band for a brief while Stefan asked me what I wanted to do. Since I was prepared to climb the route solo I told him I would like to continue so we placed the rope in my pack in case I needed to descend through the steepest section of the climb known as the bottleneck. We rested for a few more minutes and just as I was about to leave Stefan told me he was going to continue climbing in the area for a while and then descend. As I continued upward Stefan popped out of the rocks to my right and yelled over to get my attention. We waved to each other and a few minutes later I lost sight of him as he began his descent and disappeared beneath the band of rock where we had just rested.
I continued upward where the condition of the route remained the same and I did not appear to be advancing as fast as I had hoped. For five minutes I stood motionless beneath the bottleneck calculating my rate of ascent against the time of day. I decided I would probably not make the summit before the afternoon snows came so I elected to descend. I had been on the summit two years ago with my wife so it wasn’t that important to me. I thought that if I went down now maybe Stefan and I could rest up and ascend the False Polish Traverse the following day so he could at least get to the summit.
As I turned to go down I quickly noticed the descent was going to be difficult but not something I couldn’t safely manage if I belayed myself securely with my axe. I continued down on the hard névé trying to avoid the unstable slabs of fresh powder and sheets of ice that sometimes required me to down climb on my front points with the pick of my axe firmly embedded. I returned to the 21,000 foot rock band we rested at previously and as I scouted my descent soon realized there was something lying at the base of the glacier. My initial thought was that something had blown out of Camp 2 but when I failed to see Stefan on the route below I began to worry. Slowing my descent out of concern for my safety I continued down to the next rock band at 20,400 feet where I rested. It had taken a long time to descend and my left shoulder was painful from the constant plunging and re-plunging of my axe into the hard névé. While sitting there I looked to my left and my worst fears were confirmed when I saw evidence of the accident in the snow five meters away. At this moment I lost all track of time and it seemed to take forever to descend the remaining 500 feet to where Stefan lay.
After checking Stefan and sitting with him for a while I continued down to Camp 2 to find the place deserted. All the climbers from the previous day had either left for their summit bid, were moving to higher camps or had gone down to base camp. I frantically searched through a couple of the tents used by the professional expedition outfits for a radio or satellite phone but to no avail. I was about to give up when I noticed an Aymara guide and a porter had come in to camp to assist one of their clients. I quickly filled them in on the situation and they contacted the authorities. Being exhausted from both the climb and the emotion of the situation I sat outside one of our expedition member’s tent while the two Aymara employees climbed up to Stefan to confirm his passing and take pictures for the Mendoza Police. Later that night I packed up Stefan’s gear and buried it at the side of our camp so the police could pick it up later.
January 4-6, 2009 – Descending to Base CampI descended the following morning to Camp 1 where I was met by one of the members of our expedition, Todd Gilligan, who had walked up from base camp with an empty pack to help me carry down my gear. I hadn’t eaten or slept for some time now and his help was greatly appreciated. When I finally arrived at base camp I was warmly greeted by members of our expedition with hugs all around. Apparently the initial report they received on the day of the accident indicated that both Stefan and I had perished in the fall but the next day park authorities corrected the report to my team members’ relief.
I spent the next two days in base camp re-telling the story and waiting for the Mendoza Police to take a statement. When the police finally arrived we gathered in one of Daniel Lopez’s tents where my new friends Daniel Placci and Dioni translated my story and helped me answer the police officer’s questions. The following morning Stefan and I were flown out to Confluencia where the police took down my formal statement and later transferred me to Penitentes so I could rejoin my group.
At the time my decision to partner with Stefan didn’t seem unwise though some of you may see it that way. Although we had never climbed together previously, the Polish Direct route is not technically difficult and I was confident in my abilities to control the situation. We began our ascent unroped posing no increased hazard to either of us, there were no crevasses where our lives would depend on a partner’s ability to arrest a fall and effect a rescue and when we did rope up we always had at least one piece of protection between us. In the end, I do not believe our joining as partners in any way led to the accident.
What happened to Stefan during his descent was unfortunate. He was a young, vibrant person who was passionate about climbing. He always greeted fellow climbers with a smile and truly enjoyed being in the company of others. Although I only knew him for a brief period of time he will be deeply missed. My heartfelt condolences go out to Stefan’s wife, Dagmar, and his family as well as all his associates at the firm Anin Jeromin Fitilidis & Partner.
Since the accident I have received a lot of kind words and support and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the following people for everything they did:
Daniel Lopez, Daniel Placci and Dioni,
Gabriel of Aymara Adventures and Expeditions,
Climbers Jim Ongena, Shawn, Laurie and Natasha Skreslet, Tyler, Tyson and John,
AAI guides Dave Gruss and Lhaka Gelu Sherpa,
Mauricio and Carlos of Fernando Grajales Expeditions,
All the Aconcagua Park guards at both Plaza Argentina and Confluencia,
The members of the Police of Mendoza High Mountain Rescue Team,
Expedition members Aneta, Adrian, Piyush, Big Mike, Ron, Little Mike, Nate, Todd and Randall.
I really appreciate everything.