Sunday, March 23, 2003

Aconcagua diary, continued:

Part 6 of 7

March 23rd: It is a beautiful day. The cirrus clouds are fine, and scud far above us, stretching their tails to the far horizon. We will begin to pack in the camp and move down within the half-hour.

09:00: It is terrible. We thought of it below, before starting, but on the climb it was forgotten, or never mentioned. The circumstances join, and the unthinkable occurs. The belayer is off-balance. Bundy and Vélez were partners, with Vélez belaying He was moving a wafer piton when Bundy's grip crumbled. He shouted "Falling!" and Vélez grabbed for the line in the chock to his right. His fingers just missed, and his anchors took the shock of two men falling. They held for an instant, but the temporary relief left and gave way to horror as the mother rock around the wafer crumbled and the anchors sang. We were too far away to catch a line, and could only stand with our faces against the granite, not wanting to look and see the twirling bodies, but unable to look away. They fell out from the face, and disappeared into the snow at the base. We immediately set some special lines to lean out for any signs, even though we knew there would be none after that fall. We are in a rush to get to the impact point, but now we must be even more careful than before.

Later: On our way down the face, blowing snow obliterated all traces, and we are left only with our judgement. We moved horizontally many times, and so we are unsure of the exact site. We could find no trace of them, and erected a cairn with the scattered talus where we thought they had fallen. Bundy was carrying some of our food, so we must get to the first camp to replenish our supplies. There is not much worry, for we have food for three, and are only four. But the sickening thought of their fall! We cannot erase the sight of the crumbling wafer. Nothing much is said, but we all see Aconcagua in a different light.

Later: We passed across the field, and arrived at our camp. We could not help but think that there would only be two pup tents up tonight, instead of three. The snow is annoyingly deep again, with some dangerously deep powder pockets.

It is this sort of jolt that makes one realize exactly how fragile a man's life is - a constant process of accumulating and correcting errors, with the balance liable to tip at any point. We think of those waiting for Robert and Alberto back in Santiago, who at the moment think of them as they were, and who are hoping, praying that a disaster will not occur. I cannot even begin to think of how I am going to break the news to them. We do not talk of it, but sit on our haunches, drinking coffee to keep from dropping of exhaustion, for we must prepare the camp for our departure tomorrow, doing the work of six packers. We will have to abandon some equipment here, for there is too much for the four of us.