We climbed San Bernardo in beautiful weather and headed further up the valley in central Cordon del Plata. The next target was Adolfo Calle, a 4300 meter high peak with mixed easy climbing. Before heading there I talked a little bit to Remo, a Swiss climber. He was looking at the same things as I did; the ominous clouds. They were not large. Just some small wisps up high. We agreed on keeping a close check on the weather the next 24-36h. We made a successful attempt on Adolfo Calle. Nadios, I and four clients reached the summit and returned to the camp at 3600m. We decided to head higher the day after. The ominous clouds were a little bit larger and still very high up.
We said au revoir to Peak Freak, who left for Aconcagua and started our walk towards camp Salto. The team had acclimatized well and everyone was happy to head higher for new targets. We went up to 5000m when I realized things could get worse quickly. An ice cold wind swept down the hill sides of Platita and Vallecitos. In half an hour conditions had gone from OK to threatening. Another ten minutes later, the horizon line over the peaks had become completely white. We had to get down. Fast. We did, secured our tents and waited for a rough night. It started fine, even if the wind started to pick up a little bit. I asked Remo if he was ready for the worst and he said he had pinned down his tent as good as he could. He looked worried and his facial expression was probably a mirror of how I felt. I was fine, but I was responsible for 12 paying clients. They were all quite experienced, but I feared a bad old father of a storm was approaching.
Just before midnight something woke me up.
Not enough snow anywhere close to the sound. I was all of a sudden wide awake. It was the wind, rushing down the valley at an enormous speed. I sat up and waited. The sound got closer, fast. Nadios woke up just in time to realize what was going on before the first squall hit. The tent took the beating well. I heard people talking in the other tents. They were now all awake. The next gust hit without much warning. I heard the big restaurant tent take the brunt seconds before we were blasted. I was satisfied with how we had pitched the tent. Something was flapping in the wind. I guessed one tent had been damaged but wasn't sure. The squalls arrived at uneven intervals and they got stronger and stronger. I could now hear worried voices in between the blasts. The wind all of a sudden died. It was completely silent. It gave me the chills.
Camp Salto seen from above. The restaurant tent is the largest one and the kitchen tent is the one just below it. Most of our team's tents were pitched to the left of the two larger ones. Some behind the larger tent. Photo shot in last season in Januari.
I went out in the dark, but starlit night. Torbjorn, the guy in the next tent was hauling an enormous rock of probably 60kg towards his tent. I giggled. That's the way. Better safe than sorry. I started to put even larger rocks on the storm mats of our tent. Nadios looked up the valley and asked if it was over. Torbjorn, laughed and said it didn't matter anymore and pointed at his tent which now was nothing but a fortress. Remo popped by and said his tent couldn't take another beating, even if he had a good wall of rocks around the it. I went up and checked the other 6 tents of the team. They looked OK. I got a lot of questions about what to do if the wind came back again. Just make sure the tents are pinned down to the max and we'll be fine, I answered. When I went back my tent, I heard Torbjorn telling the wind to come and get him. The Spanish climber, who had a little tent next to mine was staring unhappily at the large restaurant tent. His tent, as well as ours were in direct line of with the big tent. Down wind. He shook his head and gave me a grim look. I didn't answer. We both knew the wind itself wasn't the worst threat at the moment.
When the next squall hit, I was taken aback by its ferocity. It was a long time back I had experienced anything like it. Our tent was flattened and I got one of the poles in my face. It bounced back up and stood strong. Nadine wondered if we were OK. What if we were swept over the edge of the cliff which was only five meters away? It was a 40 meters vertical drop. I morbidly wondered how far horizontally we would fly before hitting the ground further down the valley. I heard people screaming all over the place now. We heard a roar many times worse than before and I hardly had the time to get down flat before the tent was hit again. This time it stayed down for minutes. It rattled, vibrated and shook like mad and I wondered how long it could take this insane beating. Loud rattling sounds caught my attention.
The restaurant tent!
We should get the hell out.
I told Nadios to get her sleeping bag and bivy pad and pack them in the ruck sack.
- I'm fucked! My tent is fucked!
Remo was screaming just outside our tent.
- We have to abandon our tent!
No reply, Remo had already gone somewhere else.
I heard Torbjorn scream to his girlfriend to stay down on the ground. I don't know if is main concern was the debris flying around or if he was afraid her being blown off the plateau. It then struck me; what were they doing out there in the wind? One look at their tent told me the whole story. It was dying and beyond salvation. I saw head lamps further up. Some persons were desperately trying to crawl around their tents and peg them down harder. In the corner of my left eye, I saw the Spaniard sitting behind a rock looking at the restaurant tent.
The large white tunnel tent was about to go. We rushed out of the line of danger and put large rocks on our back packs.
The other tents.
We had to help the other ones out and try to save as many tents as possible. Three of the M-25's looked OK and they had a little advantage of being pitched half a meter lower in a little depression.
The VE-25 looked like crap. It was wobbling insanely in the wind and it was no question about it was about to go.
- How are you in there, I screamed?
- Not that good I'm afraid. Rami's voice was incredibly calm. The floor is shot and I think the whole tent will give in soon.
I later learned Rami and Martin had waited too long with going out and pin down the tent. All of a sudden basically all the pegs had been ripped out of the ground and after that they hadn't dared to go out as their weight was holding the tent in place. They knew the tent could be airborne any time and they were ready for it. With knives in hand, they had been sitting waiting for a fast exit if, or rather when, another hard gust would doom the tent. Nadios, someone else and I held the tent until they were out and then we pulled out the poles and put large rocks on it.
I went for the two sleeping bags and started to bring it towards the kitchen tent, which still stood pretty strong. A crazy gust hit and I knew I could never stand its force. I threw myself forward. The feeling of not hitting the ground when expected was surreal. I was kind of hanging there in the air. It was like an eternity passed before I hit the ground. Remo screamed something from the restaurant tent. I crawled there and when I entered through the damaged door I saw four persons hanging on the thick metal poles on the tent's side. It was about to either lift into the air collapse from the wind. Some of the poles were already badly damaged. The caretaker of the place was in panic. He was screaming into his walkie-talkie telling his friends in BC to come and get him down. I was amazed the clients kept it so well together, when a person who lived up here cracked up like this.
The wind did its best to push us over the edge. We struggled to keep the tents down and to keep out of the way of the restaurant tent which all the time threatened to take off. The wind finally died off a little bit and the four still standing tents had to take more inhabitants. I saw the Spaniard walking back to his little tent, still suspiciously watching the restaurant tent. Remo peeped out of the smaller kitchen tent. Nadios and I bivouacked under a fly sheet from the VE-25. I was really happy we all had made it through the night.
At six a clock in the morning we all gathered and had a little meeting. There were no objections when I proposed Platita had to wait for another time.
Where do I find spare parts for a Prinston tec..? My headlamp is still crashed sins that night. It flow of my head while I was trying to secure the tent and landed 20 meters out in Remos stonewall. And I haven’t seen the innerbag for my sleeping bag after that night so it must have got blown away somehow!
//Erik – One of the clients
ps. I might also have used one or two incomprehensible words that night...