DEATH IN THE ANDES 1/6 Death in the Andes Uno ‘Otra muerte en las montañas’ declared the front page of Mendoza’s daily newspaper, Diario Uno. If there was any uncertainty about the meaning of the headline, the full colour photograph of the body, lifeless in a pool of blood on the snow, erased it. Vale Shigeru Kimura of Japan, found dead at 6000 metres above sea level at the base of the rocky and difficult canaleta. He came to Argentina to climb Cerro Aconcagua, 6962 metres, roof of the Americas, second highest of the Seven Summits. I translate the article as best I can with my beginner Spanish. I may have misread bits, but I got the gist of it: his death was the first for the season, but the god- mountain still needed to be appeased. It was sobering news. The group I had joined in Mendoza would depart tomorrow for our three week attempt on the mountain. Dos ‘Three years we have been coming here,’ declares guide Brigitte Muir as we near Puente del Inca, a small village in the mountains and the starting point of our 3-day walk to base camp, ‘and not once have I been in there.’ Her gaze falls briefly on the village’s small cemetery as we pass by. Her husband and fellow guide, Jon, points out the cairns of several new burials. As we dismount the bus, Jon receives the latest news from the mountain. A 25- year-old Swiss man pushed himself too hard on the trek to base camp yesterday. During the night he developed pulmonary oedema, coughing up frothy pink spit, and was evacuated by mule to lower altitude. He died about one kilometre from here. Otra muerte. DEATH IN THE ANDES 2/6 Tres Ten days later, death is far from my mind. Laughter lingers in the base camp dining tent with the fuggy smells of a dozen well-fed men. Tomorrow, soon after sunrise, after four long, grinding, and headache-inducing days of ferrying equipment up the mountain and two days of feasting and recuperating at base, we begin our push for the summit. The laughter fades; so too the footsteps and ‘goodnights’ of the team shuffling over the moraine to bed. I stay, wanting to know what Jon thinks of our chances. ‘Not everyone will make it.’ I recoil as if slapped. If Jon had gone to the milk bar and asked for a bag of mixed lollies, he would have been handed us: a white paper bag filled with jubes, mates, strawberry creams, jelly babes and freckles; ordinary working people; not one serious climber. Two had been as high as 6000 metres, but the previous high for most was Mt Kosciuszko, 2228 metres. Our base camp at Aconcagua is at 4200 metres, Camp 1: 5000 metres, Camp 2: 5800 metres! ‘Not everyone will make it,’ I repeat to myself. I feel, in some way, he is referring to me. Does he doubt my ability? My resolve? Do I have the same doubts? I take the questions with me out into the frozen air. We walk the rocky path to my tent, perform my nightly victuals, snuggle into my warm sleeping bag, and share my nightly 200-gram chocolate bar. Snug in their tents, cocooned in their insulating down, how many of the others have doubts? Over 5000 people attempt Aconcagua every year, yet less than one-third stand beside the large cross at the top overlooking the distant Pacific Ocean. Will I be among the fortunate? Or join Shigeru Kimura, the Swiss man, and the many others DEATH IN THE ANDES 3/6 marked by cairns in the valley? In the morning we will move inexorably up the mountain—three days later, on top of the Andes—so why am I concerning myself with my frailty now? The lack of oxygen at high altitude induces strange thoughts. After a fitful night, I feel sluggish, heavy in mind and body. Far from feeling strong, I want to remove the heavy plastic boots and crawl back into my warm cocoon. The ill feeling continues during the slow plod up to Camp 1. We halt and step aside for a group descending the narrow trail. After the plodding ascent that takes five hours or more, groups generally race downhill in less than one hour. But this group hobbles in descent, nursing their aching joints, limbs and bandaged heads. They look like casualties of war returning from the front. ‘Mucha suerte,’ they mutter, wishing us good fortune. They reached the summit three days ago in white-out conditions. Separated on the descent, the last person returned to Camp 2 at midnight after 18 hours and a fall into some rocks. Exhausted and unable to walk the next day, they spent an extra night up high. I feel torn, wanting to assist them down to base. They finally pass by. We turn and resume the slow climb. I wonder: what sins we will absolve by submitting to this penance? Climbing the steep scree slope to Camp 2, the horror show resumes. A bloodied man with a fractured skull is assisted down past us. We listen keenly for the grim news: another death. A group of three Argentine climbers was blown off the upper mountain by extreme winds. Roped together, they plunged hundreds of metres down the steep ice, dumping the body of the lead climber at the base of the glacier, close to Camp 2. DEATH IN THE ANDES 4/6 Finally we crest the steep scree. There they are one hundred metres away, two black smudges on the snow: a corpse and the pack the living body once wore. Mas In 1998, ten climbers perished on the mountain, the most on record for a climbing season. In 1985, the mummy of an Incan boy was discovered at 5300 metres on a ledge of the southwest face. In 1996, an American team rested on their descent and released—with a prayer to the summiting wind—the ashes of a loved one. Y mas The late afternoon chill descends on Camp 2 with a blast of katabatic wind like a train rushing past. I have another headache. Not as bad as before, but it shows that I am struggling to acclimatise to the altitude. At 5800 metres, the air pressure is less than half that at sea level, causing an increase in the blood’s pH level. The resulting signs and symptoms are headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and sleep apnoea, and if left unchecked, pulmonary and cerebral oedema, and death. In the morning, I rise gingerly. Three circles of yellow snow about an arm’s length from the tent show where I dumped over two litres of warm piss from my pee- bottle during the night. I can’t stomach breakfast. Finishing one brew is difficult. Like a continuation of last night’s bizarre dreams and howling, tent-shaking gale, the events of the past two weeks swirl around me. I feel low, a little dizzy. My hands are numbingly cold. No placing them in armpits can re-warm them. The traverse to Camp 3 is like being in a game of Minefield. The deep, soft snow is covered by a thin icy crust. With each step I trust that the crust will support my weight. Sometimes it does. Mostly, just as I transfer my weight, I crash through DEATH IN THE ANDES 5/6 unexpectedly. I lose balance, almost topple over, then step knee-high up from the soft snow onto the crust, balance, step … crash through the ice-crust again. Jarring, falling. Dislodging any vestige of reality. The clock stops. I cannot take another step. I stand there, a foolish statue in the snow. Four days later, the final three climbers of the team return to base camp with Jon. Like many other teams, we were unable to put anyone on the summit. Strong westerly winds continue to push plumes of snow off the peak, showing no sign of abating. But success stories trickle through. A South African team crawled on hands and knees to the summit in a howling whiteout gale. The dog that lives off scraps at Camp Berlin, the last hut at 5800 metres on the north-western approach, has been photographed on the summit at least seven times. A guide friend of mine is often asked: ‘Is it worth it?’ He has been there many times, is more than willing to return, but after some deliberation he gives the only possible response: ‘no.’ I believed I would get to the top but fell well short. I should be disappointed like some others in the team. But I’m not. All the training and preparation in the world cannot guarantee anyone standing atop a mountain. If anyone wants it enough to die for, then their death is almost predestined: an honourable folly. Y mucho mas As we depart base camp for the comforts of civilisation, two climbers from the local army base begin their march up to Camp 2. They have no interest in the summit. They have come to reclaim. DEATH IN THE ANDES 6/6 For more than a week the dead Argentine climber has littered the mountain. His family has arranged for his collection for burial in Buenos Aires. But his spirit has already flown. Food for the god-mountain, scraps for the condor, he will not be the last. Michael Giacometti is a writer and adventurer based in Alice Springs. His stories, poetry and essays have been published in several publications and anthologies including Meanjin, Island, Wild, 'Fishtails in the dust: writing from the Centre' (Ptilotus Press, 2009) and 'How to look after your poet in the event of a cyclone' (NTWC, 2009). He recently completed a Diploma of Professional Writing & Editing by distance through the University of Ballarat. The story 'Death in the Andes' was redrafted at Varuna - The Writers' House while the author was in residence for the LongLines Community Week.