P. Edronkin

Tips from a Mountaineer: This is the Cost of the Lack of Prudency.

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On February 2000, I was in command of an expedition group with the task of establishing two blizzard shelters on the Blanco Valley, at 42 degrees south, at the border between Argentina and Chile. We also had to perfect one shelter already existing at Lake Los Rizos, and to map the unexplored valley with a GPS system.

Reaching that valley is not a weekend stroll. It takes three days when you trek with a heavy load such as provisions for fifteen days, and quite an effort in physical terms. Each expedition as such takes from four to seven persons for two or three weeks to uncharted territory.

On the second night of our trip, we camped on the base of the Bolsón Glacier, on a very cold spot with few plants and almost no protection. That was one of the places where we decided to put up one of the prefab shelters that we took with us, and we did so in a couple of hours.

However, as we were arriving on the scene, Luciano Marcer, one of my companions, told me that he had heard a scream at 5:00 PM, approximately. Initially, we believed this to be a trick of the wind, but it was not.

Being this time of the years summer on the southern hemisphere, we had sunlight almost up to 11:00 PM, a time-span that we used to construct the shelter and prepare ourselves for the cold night at 1.800 metres over the sea-level.

At 11:15, we saw flashing light signals near the peak of Mt. Bolsón, repeated two hours later.

We could see the lights moving as we responded with our own flashlights. It was evident that something happened at tea-time, as we arrived.

Using the scope of my rifle (a "must" in Patagonia) I tried several times to locate and scan the source of the lights. I could see that the light was weakening, but could barely distinguish anything else because the dark rocks offered little or no contrast.

We considered climbing the glacier at night, but incoming clouds made the trip hazardous, so we decided to stay at our camp until dawn. At 2:00 AM the lights died. At 5:15 AM we woke up, and at 6:30 AM we started our climb.

Reaching the glacier and the crest of the mountain at noon, we began looking and calling. Nobody answered.

Suddenly, the clouds closed over us and rain, and then snow, began falling. The weather deteriorated and visibility diminished almost to zero metres.

We continued our search for half an hour or so, but then I decided to abandon our efforts and reach the existing shelter at Los Rizos, just an hour away to the west. I had to consider that it was better to let two people stay under risk than putting four more under similar conditions.

We reached our shelter, and waited until 5:00 PM, when the storm passed. In that particular region, storms tend to quieten somewhat at late afternoon, just to start again at night. Then, we packed the emergency kits that we had brought with us, plus those left as reserves at Los Rizos, and we quickly climbed the glacier again and continued our search until prudence called us back, at 8:30 PM.

Only a handful of footprints could be found. No one answered, and no one was to be seen. The following days we continued looking at Mt. Bolsón, but nothing happened. I decided to abandon those individuals when it became evident that they had perished somewhere in the glacier.

Then, when we returned back to El Bolson, a small town in the Argentine Andes, and we went to the local police station to report the incident.

They had no clue about anybody there, neither did the border patrols nor the local climbers' clubs and associations. They took our testimony, but without sufficient personnel to address it, the issue was left on a complete stand-by.

However, as I was talking to the policemen, an old acquaintance appeared. Sergeant Martinez asked me then to go with him to the forensic lab and showed me some pictures and evidence concerning a body found on another mountain.

He said that they had found a 22-year old man dead on a water stream just coming out of a glacier. This individual was lost a year before while walking alone, just 20 minutes away from the nearest human.

I could see in the pictures the cabin where he was staying for a couple of days.

Autopsy revealed nothing, but the man was dead, and the corpse had been left in an awkward position. No signs of foul play or criminal activity were found, the man had apparently no enemies, and consumed no drugs and no alcohol. Besides, he was an experienced mountain guide.

So, we began a reconstruction of the scene, looking at the rocks, the kind of fall that he experienced, the position of the body, his belongings, etc.

Nothing indicated any kind of violence, except for a fallen flock of hair and a napkin lying nearby. The only conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence was that the man suffered a fall of no more than two metres - enough to cause the loss of hair and leave them barely conscious or unconscious, but not enough to cause any permanent damage -.

Apparently, he suffered a fall similar to what anyone experiences falling into an empty swimming pool, and lost his senses for enough time as to start freezing. That night, it snowed heavily in the area, and the door of the refrigerator closed for him, forever.

Had this man followed the advice of his own experience, he would never had been alone there. Had he been with a companion, help could have arrived in less than an hour. Had he been prudent, he would still be alive.

In less than a month, I witnessed three deaths caused by imprudence. The two that we attempted to rescue at Mt. Bolsón did not think clearly and tried to climb down the glacier, instead of following an easier - an evident - route. Had they notified the authorities before leaving for the mountain, someone might have found them later. Had they followed basic survival techniques, they would have waited for us the next day. Had they been smarter, they would still be alive.

Prudence is a virtue, not a handicap. I see many would-be adventurers and climbers that gamble unnecessarily with their lives and those of other people. Mountain ranges and isolated regions are fine, but some kind of control over the people who want to spend their time there must be enforced.

If you like going outdoors, just remember that you go to have fun and live better, and not to risk your life for nothing. Be prudent, and stay so.

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