Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Friends missing on Palcaraju

Friends Missing on Palcaraju
July 28-30th

It is difficult to put in the words the past couple days and finally I am able to summon the physical and emotional energy to document it.  Many of the finer details of the search and rescue of Ben and Gil are recorded in a personal journal entry and will not be shared with the public out of courtesy of their friends and family.  What I can say is that Eric’s contributions were top notch, Hector and Henry provide an invaluable service and we were able in combination with others to get the bodies and belongings down the mountain and soon safely home.

The Development:
Adam and I had just gotten off Ranrapalca when we heard the news from Tony.  Adam had connected with Ben’s dad on the phone and he had asked him if he could put together an American team to aid in the recovery.  Adam approached me and asked if I would join.  There is something about the sport of climbing that you have an instant shared brotherhood. You don´t think, you act.  I didn’t know Ben and had briefly met Gil the night before he left, but I somehow felt connected to them – I instantly agreed.  Tony came aboard as well.
Adam on the phone at Cafe Andino with Mr. Horne
Our Plan:
Our plan was to get into the Cojup valley as quick as possible.  We would rent mountain bikes and bike into base camp and then in the same day ascend to high camp at 17,200 feet to supply the rescuers with food.  We were fit and acclimatized but were not very well rested.  We met with Ted, who was the rescue coordinator and he notified the team via a satellite phone that we would be there the next day.

The Wakeup:
The 5am alarm beeped loudly on my watch.  Tony and I got out of bed and headed downstairs to the front door.  Adam met us and we jumped in the two cabs and rode up on hour to the entrance of the Cojup valley. With us came Rosario, who was one of Gil’s Peruvian friends.  As we exited the cab, she was full of sadness.  She gave us cocoa leaves and candy to perform a ritual for them and she gives me a whistle to blow in search of them if they were still alive.

The Gate:
The Cojup Valley is blocked by a gate that you have to pay $11 to the town president and then wait for him to come and open the gait.  We were told of this ahead of time and it was an annoying hurdle, but we paid our money, packed out gear on the donkeys and were read to cruise our mountain bikes into base camp.

The Ride:
“Are you fucking kidding me” I muttered under my breath as I pushed my 25 pound bike up the hill.  We were all pushing our bikes up the rocky trails because riding uphill at 12,000 feet of elevation was much harder.  I was moving much slower than Tony and Adam and I felt like I was working twice as hard.  I was ready to pick up the bike and throw it in the river when I realized the front break was locked.  That made sense.  I unlocked it and although still drowsy and tired, I was exerting much less effort.  The bikes proved to take additional effort to push uphill but were an amazing time saver on the way out of the valley.

Base Camp:
We arrived at base camp and had a quick lunch.  Tony decided that he would stay in base camp and meet us at high camp the next morning.  Adam and I had a decision to make.  We could either bring technical gear and assist on the glacier if needed, or haul up a new food resupply for the rescue team.  We choose to bring the food.  Our packs were absurdly heavy.

Our Lunch at Base Camp
The Burros Lunch at Base Camp
Fly Bye:
On our way up to the high camp, you could see and hear the ordered twin wing fly bye.  It was flying very fast and was very high and there was cloud cover.  But at that exact time the plane was flying over, Erik had found Ben and Gil.

After 9 hours, we made it upto 17,200 feet and saw the three rescuers coming down. 

Eric, Henry and Hector hiking down
Eric described the incident to us...

He asked if we could help participate the next day in the body recovery and personal belonging inventory.  We agreed.  I have copied and pasted Tonys account of the accident that he posted in supertopo:

"Ben and Gil left their tent about 3am. They climbed their new route to the summit of Pulcaraju Oest and reached the top at around 4pm. The last time stamp on for a summit photo was 4:01pm. Kind'a late in the day, but it was a new route and it takes time to figure things out. There are some photos of the descent, but only a few and the last time stamp is 6pm, near the top of the serac from which they fell. Few photos can be interpenetrated as the descent was problematic. Their tracks, going up, down and around obstacles attest to this theory. I imagine they were tired, dehydrated and just wanted to get down to their tent. Ben was leading down the ridge. Gil was following. They were moving together in classic alpine style without intermediate points of protection. It is a very complicated descent that cannot be fully appreciated from below. Their tracks show they made many detours and end-runs to get around crevasses and séracs. The tracks end abruptly at the edge of a sérac. It is supposed that Ben could not see where he was on the edge and as he walked to further out to investigate, the lip collapsed, falling away , taking Ben with it. He would have fallen about 10-15 feet down onto a sharp knife edge ridge. Then it was a coin toss as to which side he slid down. He slid down the southern side. He would have had about another 15 to 20 feet of steep, crappy snow to self arrest before he went over the edge of the rock band and into a tumbling fall down this rocky face. He did not arrest and the rope yanked Gil forward, face first, after Ben. Both went over the edge and fell, tumbling, down the rocky face to come to rest on the glacier a below. Estimates as to the length of the fall vary from about 150 to 300 meters. Gil had about 12 feet of rope tied to him, where at that point it was severed. Ben was wrapped in the remainder of their rope. Length of time would have been measured in seconds and death was mercifully quick. These are the details as I know them to be. There are facts that I have mentioned that cannot be explained without going into graphic detail. I reserve the right, out of respect to family and friends who were not their, not to be specific on this forum, as it relates to their deaths. I hope this is understood and respected."  -Tony Yeary

At night:
We made a full dinner.  Oil, Pasta, Sassage, Tomatoes etc...We slept at Gil and Bens final high camp...but something didn’t sit right. 
Cooking dinner at high camp
Was it the knowledge that Ben and Gil were resting just on the glacier, I had only rested one day after Ranrapalca, I had just climbed 5,000 feet, I was sleeping at 17,200 feet, I had a fatty meal for dinner – not sure if it was a combination of all of those but at 9pm, my stomach started to churn and by 10pm I was violently vomiting. 

The next morning:
I had to get down the mountain, so I packed up and took off to base camp.  At the same time Tony ascended and he and Adam ran the satellite phone and assisted in itemizing and protecting the Adams and Bens valuables.  The bodies were taken to basecamp.  Below is a video of Hector explaining the fall.  
WARNING:  The end of the video contains an image of a body

Hiking out:
I hiked down to base camp and then biked out to catch a 7pm taxi that never came.  I was lucky to have my sleeping bag but no food.  I looked like shit – especially since I fell into the river trying to ford it with my bike.  Some native Peruvians took pity on my situation and invited me into their brick and straw house and fed me trout and tea. I ate two bites but couldn’t stomach anything. They showed me to a private brick and straw house for me to sleep.  I crashed.
Inside Juans Casa
My lodging for the night
Breakfast with my new friends
Juan hooked it up with food and lodging
The next day:
I awoke the next day and met Adam and Tony at the trailhead.  Gil and Ben’s bodies made it down on burros soon after and they were taken by the high altitude police to the morgue. We were all physically and emotionally exhausted but we all felt as though we had done the best that we could.  We took their belongings to Ted and headed back home for some rest.
We met later that night with Ben’s dad and best friend Liora to discuss the events.  They had flown into Lima that morning and taken a direct car from the embassy (8hrs) to Huaraz.  Tony, Adam, Gary, Erik and I all sat around the sofa and recounted the events.  There were moments of realization, moments of sadness and moments of pride.  It was a factual as well as an emotionally charged meeting that put all of the pieces in place.  They thanked us all for our efforts and the night came to an end.  They would wake up early the next morning to identify Ben’s body and try to transport him back to the states as soon as possible.

The News:

Climbing is such a unique addiction.  There is something to be said about sport where a single false move or misjudgment could lead to death.  Everytime we go out to climb, we roll the dice.  We assess the risk involved, draw upon our experiences but in the end life and death may be a simple matter of luck.  Some climbers choose to embrace the modern ethics of climbing and rise up to the challenges of pushing limits and setting new routes.  Some climbers embrace the social aspect of the sport and enjoy casual outings with friends on easy terrain.  Some climbers lie in middle.  The truth of the matter is this sport is dangerous and at whatever level you climb, there is always risk involved.  Gil and Ben pushed the limits of climbing to the extreme.  They embodied the mentality of fast and light and if something was too hard, you pulled harder.  They served as an inspiration to all climbers at every ability level.  When I climb now, they climb with me. Their memory will live on and inspire even as their time on this earth has passed.  

A Personal Account from Eric Tomczak: 

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