Tahoe/Chamonix resident Dave Rosenbarger recently returned from an epic ski mountaineering expedition to Bolivia. Check out is partner Giulia Monego’s blog at http://giuliamonego.com/ or keep on reading below for the final report from their trip. Photo’s courtesy of Christian Pondella.
Thanks to a new friend in town, the Aussie Jeff, we got hold of some recent photos of some possible ski objectives in the lower slopes of the impressive Illimani face. The plan was, to reach the base camp on Saturday, leave the next day to establish a higher camp, closer to the face, and camp on the foot of the glacier. Monday morning climb and ski what looked to be an amazingly esthetic line, steep and exposed, dropping down from a sharp ridge, connected to the real summit. We wouldn’t made the summit, ‘cause too far to reach from there, but it would have been an amazing ski descent. We had to be back in La Paz for Tuesday, since on Wednesday evening I have my flight booked to leave Bolivia, so it would have worked really good for timing and logistic.
Left La Paz with a 4×4 car, the first real good car we had in the whole trip, we adventure south along a beautiful dirt road that Carlos, our driver, show us proudly like a “crazy road”. It was the first time we went south of La Paz, and the first time in 3 weeks that we dropped lower than 3600 meters! As we crossed deep valleys, impressive canyons, and rural villages, we realized that the vegetation that we never saw in two weeks, it wasn’t actually far. Here the scenery was totally different from the Altipiano that we were used to. We saw for the first time, corn plantations, apple trees, flowers and greens that I wasn’t expecting to see. It was beautiful to smell again those nature tastes.
The BC on Sunday night was a real magic place. The west view over La Paz, offered us the most beautiful sunset we have seen in Bolivia so far, and put us all in a good mood for the next morning mission. In the camp there were other 2 groups heading for Illimani: a Canadian couple and 2 Austrian cousins, that with one guide each, would have gone up the regular route, from the west ridge, sleeping at the 5470m high camp of “el Nido del Condor”. .
Packed the tent after breakfast, we headed up with a porter to the unknown location where to have a better look at our objective. After a couple hours of walking we reached the tongue of the glacier we wanted to climb, but the closer we got, the worse the route was looking. The broken glacier was filled with nasty crevasses and hanging seracs above our heads. The steep face we wanted to ski, reveal itself highly exposed and with possible frozen snow. At that view, we all sat down and question our plan. There was a small chance to succeed in our intent, and the objective looked sketchier than expected. None of us wanted to risk so much, so we decided instead to go up the regular route, which looked as a possible fun ski anyway, and that would have set our new altitude record and higher summit ever climbed. We were stocked to have agreed easily in making that decision, and to not have to discuss any further.
After a struggle hike along the rocky steep ridge, we finally saw the first snow at 5400 meters, on top of which we set our tent. I’ve never had to climb so high, to reach the snow in my life!!
Another amazing sunset fired up Chris for many incredible scenery shots and the more time we looked at that mountain, the more beautiful lines we found and we thought: “… imagine ski that in powder?!!! “
The next morning as usual, and a little incomprehensibly, the other groups left super early, leaving us sleeping in a dead silent camp for few more hours. We left with day-light, around 7, and start cursing up the ridge line towards the summit. We all felt good, finally acclimate and strong and had no doubt of making the top that day. At about 5800m I was few meters on the left of the route, 10meters away from Chris and Dave, that suddenly witness something I didn’t see and exchange a worried look. They called me and start heading fast towards a crevasse below the big slope above us. Immediately I realized what happened. Some of the climbers that have left early that morning were on their way down, but slept on the firm snow, and slid fast, head first down the mountain. It was a guide and one of the Austrian, the girl. It was a real luck, for them, that we witness the accident from so close. As we lean over to have a look at where they stopped, we saw the guide, standing up, apparently not injured, but the girl, was screaming from help in a painful position crushed in the crevasse hole with both the legs broken.
As we hear the screams, we knew instantly that she needed serious help, and we couldn’t turn our back to her. With no hesitations and without saying much to each other, we shift our primary goal to the rescue, so that the think of skiing from the summit was suddenly far away from us. As we were on top of the crevasse, we needed to find a way to access it from below. The rappel to get to them wasn’t big though, and looked a safe way for me to get to them quickly and start putting together a rescue procedure while Dave and Chris were going from below, scooping the way out of there.
As I reached the girl, I tried to concentrate and act fast to give her the best support I could, and to get her out of there as fast as possible. Immediately I realized that the guide wasn’t conscious enough to help for the rescue, he probably was still in shock, and hadn’t enough experience to deal with such a situation. ( We found out later that he wasn’t an a qualified mountain guide!) The girl was conscious and beside some strong painkiller that we gave her, she was dealing with pain and cold the all time. Chris, Dave and I did the job to move her down the first section, the most complicated, moving down and sideways in order to reach the ridge, where luckily after few hours other 2 guides showed up to give a hand.
We immobilized her legs using poles, and built a sledge with my skis to slide her down the snow. We had to rebuild the sledge twice, but the second one came out solid and efficient, and became the key tool to get her down fast and safe. Without skis and poles I honestly doubt we could have rescued her, especially since none of the other guides in the mountains had any other useful tool to do so. When I saw her in that hole the first time, with the unnatural position of her broken legs, I convinced myself that we couldn’t leave her there, and we should have get her down, in any possible way.
Once reached the high camp, we were exhausted and drained from all the energies we had in the morning. We have made the hard part of the job, and amazingly we brought the girl safe down to the tent. Working that hard above 5500meters is tiring, and demanding, and staying focused for so many hours was an extremely difficult task.
There we only had to wait for the porters, whom alert by the other guide, hiked up the ridge to meet us up and carry her down on a “bolivian stretcher” which we could simply call it a “wooden ladder”!! Luckily there were 11 of them to do the job, so we were release to focus on going down to BC safe on our own. We arrived down in the dark and crashed into the tent with no energies left.
I couldn’t sleep well that nigh, thinking too much of the emergency situation just faced and worrying about the future of the poor girl.
The morning after every single muscle on my body aches, telling me that I really gave all my energies on saving that girl’s life. The failure on climbing the mountain was not even a disappointment compare of the reward on saving someone’s life. There is no doubt I would do that again for anyone else.
The Illimani experience it was a great teaching and an amazing step forward on the learning and understanding the mountains. It was a great lesson on how to not ever underestimate nature and how to be always prepared to be self sufficient in any situation. Especially in Countries where there is no helicopter rescue, ready to help in few minutes, like we are luckily used in the Alps, I realized how important is to be always careful and 100% sure of our own abilities. Be able to judge the difficulties and the possible consequences of the actions is part of the baggage of experiences that every alpinist should have to be ready to face its challenges. I surely didn’t want the accident to happen, and I feel immensely sorry for that girl, but in the other hand I’m grateful to have put myself in that situation and prove myself in a real rescue mission, thankfully, this time, successful.
Back in La Paz we went to see the Austrian girl at the hospital to be sure she was fine. She has fractured a femur, tibia and fibula and few ribs. She needs an operation on both legs, but overall she was feeling better than expected. She surely was thankful to be alive. The lucky circumstances that brought her to stop in that crevasse and not have fallen the entire way, and to have found 3 skiers on her path, that rescued her, in such a remote place, saved her life.
This was the conclusion of the Bolivian trip, really unexpected, but successful in many different ways. Thanks to Christian and Dave for the great trip! I hope we have many more to come like this!
Thanks for following the adventures!