Quebec climbers sacrifice goal of reaching Mount Aconcagua summit – Montreal Gazette

April 28, 2012

Saving life of climber takes priority over reaching peak

By René Bruemmer, THE GAZETTE March 5, 2012
  “The summit isn’t as valuable as a life,” says Quebec climbing guide Dominic Asselin, pictured just after saving the life of U.S. police officer Bob Gabrych while attempting to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina on Jan. 25. Asselin’s clients had to forsake their chance to attain the summit.
Photograph by: Asselin family

Before he takes clients on mountain climbing expeditions, Dominic Asselin warns them that venturing into high altitudes can quickly degenerate into a life-threatening experience. If there’s a problem, the whole group might have to abandon their climb.

“They nod their heads, but you can tell they don’t really get it,” said Asselin, a 33-year-old Montreal native and founder of the Attitude Montagne climbing centre based in the Laurentians town of Ste. Adèle. “Death is not tangible when you’re sitting in a classroom.”

For his clients attempting to reach the top of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina in January, the concept of death would suddenly become much more concrete. There were five of them, all Quebecers, ranging in age from 25 to 49, four men and a woman. Three had some climbing experience, having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest summit in Africa, at 5,895 metres.

Like Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua is considered an easy climb in mountaineering terms, with no need for ropes, ice picks or supplemental oxygen.

While not overly technical, Aconcagua is 6,952 metres (22,841 feet) high – the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas, and the highest in the Americas. Altitude and weather are the most prevalent killers when it comes to mountain climbing. Climbers die every year on Aconcagua. Many are forced to turn back with altitude sickness, which can quickly lead to fluid in the lungs, known as a pulmonary edema, or fluid in the brain, a cerebral edema. Both conditions can quickly turn fatal. Only 30 to 40 per cent of climbers who set out will attain the summit of Mount Aconcagua.

Knowing that, Asselin has his clients carry gear, put up tents and push themselves so they learn something about what it takes to summit a peak. So that if they don’t make it to the top, they’ll have some sense of accomplishment.

Still, his clients have paid $4,895 each for the 23-day tour, not including airfare. About 10 of those days will be spent on the ascent, slowly plodding through the desert-like terrain of rock and sand in the thin air, trying to acclimatize so altitude sickness doesn’t kill their dream. They have been planning this for months or years, have told their family and friends about it, and spent a considerable amount of money. They want the summit. Asselin knows this, too.

Along with his 60-pound pack, he carries the weight of these expectations on his slight, 130-pound frame.

 As the Quebecers were ascending, eight U.S. police officers were climbing just ahead of them. Part of the Cops on Top non-profit organization that climbs to raise awareness of police work, the men were on Mount Aconcagua for Jonathan Schmidt, a Trumann, Ark., officer gunned down during a routine traffic stop in April 2011. Bleeding from a wound to the neck, the 30-year-old father of three pulled another officer to safety before dying.

Their climb was going badly. Four members had to stop because of altitude sickness. One was airlifted out with a pulmonary edema. On Jan. 25, two of the policemen set out from Camp 2 at 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) in the middle of the night to try to make the summit. Going from Camp 2 to the peak and back in the high winds and crippling cold takes 12 to 20 hours.

The remaining two officers, Ryan Hunt and Bob Gabrych of Arizona, were resting at Camp 2 and planning to make the summit push the next day. Then Hunt noticed that Gabrych, a former ski instructor with the U.S. Marine Corps, was ailing.

“He had a really glazed, blank look on his face. He was swaying in a circular fashion, like an intoxicated person,” Hunt said over the phone from Arizona. “I remember thinking ‘Bob’s sick. Bob’s got a cerebral edema.’ ”

In less than an hour, Gabrych went from being lucid and coherent to speaking with “extremely slurred speech and just wanting to lie down and basically die. It was amazing how fast it took effect,” Hunt said.

They didn’t have a radio to call for help. Even if they did, helicopters couldn’t come up that high because of the thin air. Hunt would have to get Gabrych to base camp, 2,000 metres below on a narrow trail. An Australian climber came across them and helped. There was no one else. They tried to walk on either side of Gabrych, but it was tough going. The trail was only about a foot wide, leaving little room for the men on the sides and Gabrych, who weighs 180 pounds, was weaving and stumbling like a drunk. Several times Hunt was sure Gabrych was going to knock him over the side, a 700-foot drop down a steep slope that would have resulted in serious injury or death. After two hours, the men had only covered 200 metres.

It was terrifying, Hunt said.

“We were quizzing Bob on the names of his kids, and their ages, trying to keep him alert,” Hunt said. “At some points he was drifting off. I thought we were going to lose him, to be honest with you.

“Here I am climbing with a sole officer for this common goal in memory of Officer Truman, and we’re losing an officer on the mountain. And a friend.”

 Asselin is one of the few guides in Quebec who has taken hundreds of hours in courses to be certified under the American Mountain Guides Association. Climbers are trained to look after themselves and their partners, Asselin explained. Trained guides learn how to protect, and save, their clients and others.

Asselin’s group started well, traipsing up the lower elevations in the 30C heat of the Argentinian summer. Seven donkeys carried their 380 kilograms of gear as far as base camp at 4,200 metres (14,000 feet). After that they were the donkeys, carrying backpacks and trudging in the plodding manner of high-altitude mountaineers fighting thin air. At Camp 1 (elevation 4,930 metres or 16,000 feet) they arrived in a snowstorm. One client was suffering from hypothermia and would take two hours to defrost. They were on the mountain now.

The next day, Jan. 25, while Hunt was labouring to bring Gabrych down, Asselin would have to send his youngest and fittest client back to base camp with the group’s second guide. The 25-year-old had severe altitude sickness. There would be tears of disappointment.

Asselin and the remaining four donned their packs and started the slow climb up to Camp 2. It was only a two-kilometre trip, but they would ascend 900 vertical metres over that distance. The hike, with packs, would take five exhausting hours. Two hundred metres from Camp 2, they came upon Gabrych and his companions.

Asselin acted quickly. He radioed the resident doctor at base camp, who advised him on what medication to administer.

The helicopter, with a ranger and doctor aboard, could come as high as Camp 1, 700 metres below. Or the doctor and ranger could hike up from base camp, but that would take a day. A cerebral edema can kill within two hours.

Stash your gear, Asselin told his clients. We’re going down.

Using his guiding training, Asselin fashioned a makeshift gurney out of ski poles. He had the others drape Gabrych’s body over his back so he could carry him down the narrow path. Hunt used the ski-pole gurney to provide extra support.

Gabrych stumble-walked part of the way. Sometimes he lost consciousness, his feet dragging, and the slightly built Quebecer would support the 180-pound dead weight. They descended 700 metres in two hours and reached the doctor and the ranger waiting with more medication and oxygen. Video footage shows an utterly spent Asselin tottering with fatigue as Gabrych is taken off his back.

By the time they loaded Gabrych on the helicopter, the combination of medication, oxygen and lower elevation had helped so much he was able to take pictures through the windshield. Asselin’s 25-year-old client was on the same flight out.

“Wow,” said Roger, an anesthetist from Quebec, as the helicopter lifted off. “We just saved a life.”

“Without Dominic, I wouldn’t have given Bob much of a chance,” Hunt said.

 The other two police officers reached the summit that day, and took a photo of a plaque honouring Schmidt that will be presented to his family. The Australian who helped in the rescue, Andy Mulholland, also made it to the top.

But a weather report predicting a storm moving in would abort the summit attempt for the Quebecers. They missed it by one day. When Asselin told them their chance was up, they went silent and remained so for most of the day. Their summit dreams were over.

There are bodies of climbers on Mount Everest who were left to die while expeditions walked by on their way to the top. For Asselin, there was never a choice.

“When I hold our pre-climbing meetings, the first thing I say is my goal is to bring everyone down alive – it’s the same for you, and for all the other climbers on the mountain.

“The summit isn’t as valuable as a life.”

For the clients, the profound disappointment was tempered over time by the fact they had done the right thing.

“If it was us in distress, we would hope that others would do the same for us,” said Bruno Miquet, a 41-year-old computer software analyst. Miquet is planning to climb Mont Blanc in Europe, then return to Aconcagua next year for another try.

Bob Gabrych underwent a full recovery in the hospital in Mendoza, Argentina. He is back with his family in Arizona.

Asselin will return to the mountains in July, leaving his wife and his 3-year-old son for weeks to lead expeditions in Peru. Asked why guides choose to do this precarious work, he said: “Because it’s in our blood, the feeling of being able to control all the aspects of the mountain. And the job make us proud.”

rbruemmer@montrealgazette.com

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One Response to “Quebec climbers sacrifice goal of reaching Mount Aconcagua summit – Montreal Gazette”

  1. this is nice post!

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