High on Pico de Orizaba glacier.
Pico de Orizaba glacier.
Is this where and when I die? This is NOT where and when I die, this where and when I live!
This past november 18 (2017), the unthinkable happened and my cherry was lost.
I had my first mountaineering accident in 27 years and literally almost 300 ascents on mountains of over 5000 metres, spanning across 6 continents.
In fact, I had my first mountaineering accident, period. And it was sobering and unsettling to say the least. Perhaps distressing is the better word to describe it.
I especially include Montblanc and Mount Cook on the above list because in spite of not being 5 thousanders (they´re both lower than 5000 metres), I have climbed them both and, they´re big, tough and hard mountains with many objective dangers, and both are more serious undertakings than many 5 and 6 thousanders (mountains above 5 and 6 thousand metres high).
I have also climbed several Eight Thousanders (mountains over 8000 metres high) rather dramatically, albeit uneventully.
In the case of the event in question, it happened on said date on Pico de Orizaba (5700 metres), a dormant volcano with a 40° 1200 metre-long glacier hanging on its northern flank. It´s a route I had safely ascended to the top more than 80 times in the 14 years I have been guiding it.
I have to mention that around those days conditions were tricky, as some 10 people had fallen (slid) down the glacier with 2 fatalities and at least 4 people with severely sprained ankles and other fractures (the rest escaped with bruises and sprains), just in the week surrounding the date that we went up there.
What happened to them was that as they ascended, the hard snow on top of the glacier beneath hardened, and it became icy and harder still, due to the windy and cold conditions and they just slipped, fell and crash landed.
I must say that on other occasions that I have climbed it, I have found the cold and the wind simply harsher than on the aforementioned date, with quite uneventful results to report.
That day I went up with a client from the central american country of Costa Rica, a 42 year-old who had never ever set foot outside his country and who had never seen or stepped on snow or ice before.
Just 5 days before, on the 13th, we had set foot on top of Iztaccihuatl volcano, which at 5200 metres, is a rather brisk and long trek, but with no considerable snow or ice fields to traverse and no technical nor tricky conditions to ascend and descend.
On that hike, my client proved to be quite up to the task in the aerobic department, thus, I considered, he was ready and acclimatized for Pico de Orizaba.
Without further needed description of the uneventful events that took us up to the snow line, we found ourselves ascending the glacier (after having given him quick lessons on cramponing and self-arrest glacier techniques), and we came to a point about 200 vertical metres from the summit when my assessment of the snow pack conditions had changed, and it was no longer safe to continue with a rookie and neophyte like himself.
Fearing a fall on his behalf (as I was well aware that his cramponing and ice axe use left a lot to be desired, especially in those conditions), I instructed him that it was time to go down since it was unsafe to continue, the summit would have to wait for another occasion. To which he hesitatingly agreed.
We began down climbing (I had the foresight to give him 2 ice axes precisely for such an action), and even though we were making slow progress, we seemed to be doing alright in getting down safely.
The glacier gradient at that point was the steepest, around 45°, and I wanted to get further down to a point where it waned down to about 40°, so we could stop down climbing and could walk down to the easiest section of the climb where the slope eased to about 30°, from there, to the end of the glacier, it was an easy 15 minute hike.
And that´s precisely what we were accomplishing. The snow was hard, but doable. About 30 minutes had passed with both of us down climbing, which is a knackering and hard activity. I kept looking down to find the point where the slope below us eased a bit, we were near. I was reminded of the oxymoron phrase “far away, so close” at that moment.
We finally and painstakingly came to that easing off point, and I instructed him to walk down with one ice axe on hand in case he needed it. We were making some progress and managed to walk down for about 10 minutes when disaster struck.
I was above him (as is the common guiding practice during descent), and had given him about 3 metres rope length to allow him movement and keep him close at the same time.
I was above and to the right of him instructing him where to go, when I caught him just out of the corner of my eye slipping and plummeting down. In the first few micro seconds it was like slow motion, then, I could feel him violently tugging me through the rope with great force, as we both began to hurtle down at an incredible speed.
My first instinct was to twist my body around and try to self-arrest the both of us with one of my 2 ice axes. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. And again and again and again. And again. And again. We were hopelessly helpless, falling, sliding, but not tumbling as I tried to gain control by spreading my legs and arms in an X pattern, which is what you should do in those cases.
At certain times, I changed ice axes and also positions, sometimes I was going down head first and sometimes feet first, but always facing the slope, yet, it was a desperate situation. My client acted as a pendulum, and he was dead weight. I was sure that if I had been alone, a) I wouldn´t have slipped, and b) I would have stopped myself quite rapidly.
I could feel the hard, icy snow wreaking havoc on my knees and elbows and stomach, because in those conditions and at that speed, the protuberances of the glacier felt like solid rocks hitting me at that speed. At one point, I toyed with the idea of just letting go and becoming a passenger of the fall, like as in an out-of-control car skidding in the rain.
But no, I knew that if I gave up, the consequences would grave if not disastrous for the both of us. My client was simply dead weight. The first thing that he did when he slipped was fall. He didn´t even try to self-arrest, and that made him build up incredible sliding speed right away.
I am not attempting to lay blame on him since he was inexperienced and as my client, he expected me to keep him out of harms way. I mention it simply to illustrate what I was up against. I´m also not trying to self-glorify my efforts, I´m simply telling it like it was, something very hard and difficult for me to do: to single-handedly self-arrest two people falling down a steep and long glacier at a rather rapid rate.
As we fell, I kept exchanging ice axes and stuck them each onto the icy snow and we kept falling, careening down, it simply wasn´t working. So then I attempted something which I knew was very dangerous for me, which was to try and use my crampons to slow us down and help the ice axe do its job.
The crampons are the metallic spikes that one attaches to the boots to have traction on snow and ice and to avoid slipping. If properly used, they are quite competent in helping a mountain climber to ascend and descend any rock ace or ice wall.
However, when one falls as we were falling and one tries to stick the crampons on the glacier surface, what can happen is that they stick and then one could be catapulted backwards, snapping one´s spine and ankles, and keep falling all the same, in a cartwheeling fashion, in the best of circumstances.
As we fell I thought about that, and how I wanted to avoid fractures at all costs for the benefit and welfare of us both, for I knew we still had to get down a tricky and long section to get to the hut below.
So what I did is that I would put them down alternatingly to try to slow us down by sticking them on the surface, and then I would withdraw them to avoid the scenario I presented earlier.
This I did several times -especially with my left foot- without letting go of my ice axe, which I was still trying to bury (pick first and forward) into the icy slope. I remember that I was very tired because it was very hard trying to stick my ice axe into the glacier with all my strength, and to no avail to boot.
So I kept sticking my feet and digging them in several times…until, we finally began to slow down and eventually stopped. It was this action more than anything else, that aided the otherwise constant action exerted on by me onto my ice axe, and onto the slope. But it worked, although it came at a price: my ankles hurt like hell, especially the left one.
It was still icy and we had reached the 30° change of slope portion of the glacier, we were at about 5100 metres (he slid and pulled me down with him from about 5500 metres).
I yelled to my client below me to keep still while I was trying to secure a foothold and dig deeper with my ice axe to hold him as he just lay dumbfounded on the glacier.
A few minutes passed and we finally began to assess the damages. I was hurting all over, especially my knees and elbows, my stomach and my ankles. My right wrist was either dislocated or sprained or both (in any case I couldn´t use it), and I had a deep gouge in my right hand in the separation between my thumb and index finger.
But nothing broken, apparently. And neither did my client, who complained of a painful right ankle, but he could walk. And so could I.
We had fallen (slid) about 400 vertical metres down the glacier, and about 800 metres in total (in travel displacement), and managed to stop just before crashing with the rocks below which signal the end of the glacier.
We slid slid 80 percent of the blue line on the glacier, from the point at the bottom of the longitudinal rocky outcrops close to the crater above, where the blue line passes between them, until the point where it crosses with the red line below, which is almost exactly where I managed to arrest us both.
Needless to say the rest of the way down through the rocky labyrinth and the rest of the scree sloped trail was quite tough, as my client walked very slowly and I was carrying all of his and my kit, because he asked me to, we did make it on our own and under own power. We reached the hut at 9pm, when we were originally scheduled to arrive at 3pm.
At the hut were our things and the 4×4 transport to take us down to my car.
But those seconds falling down -because that´s all they were, seconds- not minutes, seemed endless, but at the same time, one thing stuck out of it all: never give up. Never. If you do, it´s game over.
I am convinced that if I had given up or not had the strength to not give up, the outcome of our fall would have been very different, for both of us.
In any case, we were lucky.
As I write this, exactly one month one day have passed, my ankles and elbows still hurt a little, but I can use them normally, the bruises have disappeared, my open wound has just healed (I never went to have it stitched), and my wrist is doing better, but it still hurts and I can´t fully use it. (I never went to have it examined nor x-rayed).
And that´s not all, on November 21 (3 days later) I had another guiding gig on Ajusco (3900 metres) with 10 clients, and another one on Iztaccihuatl on the 26th (just 8 days later) with 2 clients. Which I both guided uneventfully.
My client was less hurt than me, and he´s fully recovered (his inaction of not trying to self-arrest and just be a passenger through it all, actually helped him in not getting hurt more). I was more injured since I was the brakes!
To which I have no regrets, I did what I had to do, and I´m glad I did it.
So, learning outcomes of the main event are: never give up, for if you do, it´s game over. It´s like they say: it´s not over ´till the fat lady sings. And she didn´t sing for us. No hard feelings there, thank you very much.
However, my client´s wife (who knows absolutely nothing about climbing and who wasn´t even there), blamed me and has tried to discredit me. I had to tell her that it was her husband and not I, who pulled us both down when he slipped, and that we were both lucky I was able to stop us both since it could have been much worse, and that she should feel thankful, no matter how hard it was for her to grasp this.
Therefore, as a corollary, I also have to admit some climbing areas of opportunity for me: when taking complete inexperienced people, avoid that situation by either having them undergo previously a climbing and rescue course of my own design and making, or simply avoid the glacier altogether and go up the less challenging southern scree slope route.
And, if already in that circumstance, keep down climbing until we reach a truly safe spot, for you never can tell when a client might fall and take you along with him for the terrifying ride.
Another option to down climbing is the even slower belaying technique, which is futile if the client does not know how to self-belay himself (by cutting an ice platform as you come down to rejoin him and by putting an ice screw or an ice picket, or sticking his ice axes to the terrain to sustain him).
Not easy things to do when someone has absolutely no experience whatsoever. Safest and easiest thing to do is down climb when you have 2 ice axes, as we both did.
In retrospect, we can all try to be wise and know what´s best. Retroactively, we can´t. Done is done.
Was it my responsibility for taking him up so far up the glacier, or for not taking him up the safer and simpler south route instead, and not having him down climb further down? Yes.
Was it his responsibility for carelessly cramponing, not making sure his feet were safely planted coming down (as I repeatedly instructed him to do), and then falling and not self-arresting? Yes.
I certainly could have used his feedback in knowing that he felt it was too unsafe or tricky for him to come down, and that he felt safer down climbing and preferred to do that. But no such notice from him ever came.
In my mind, the trickiest part was behind and above us. Did complacency set in? Perhaps.
Once falling, did I save us both from further disaster? Yes.
Were either one of us liable for damages or at fault or to blame? No. Why? Because there was no foul play. We both acted in good faith. I wanted to give him the best chance to reach the summit, and I didn´t want us to fall, and I suspect he didn´t want to make us both fall and get hurt either. Also, I outfitted him with proper kit and equipment.
It was just something that happened as a cold, stark reminder that mountain climbing has its risks. And climbing is a dual responsibility, and just because you are being guided, it doesn´t mean that you as a client, can afford to be careless and reckless, because you put both lives at risk.
And a guide has a tough job because he ropes up with an unknown quantity, who may bring injury or worse to him if the client slips up.
In fact, in France, 30% of the mountain guides don´t make it past the 40-year mark because they die in mountain accidents, dragged down by their clients.
And in the greater Himalayas, Sherpa guides´ deaths account for 30% of all mountain deaths there.
The world-renowned swiss mountaineer, Erhard Loretan of 14-Eight thousander fame and an alpine legend, died (sustaining a precipitous fall) whilst guiding a client in the Alps (his client did not die). And another guide and mountaineer of similar feats, Norbert Joos, died in exactly the same way (guiding a client), and in the Alps as well (they both died).
And my friend and famous Sherpa, Lopsang Jangbu (of Everest ´96 tragedy fame), died on the west face of Lhotse when his client slipped and dragged him down with him, killing them both.
And in the Matterhorn, swiss guides die (dragged down by their clients) more than we´d care to know.
Which reminds me of british mountaineering pioneer and explorer, Edward Whymper´s famous quote: ‘Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.’
Which essentially means that hiring a guide doesn´t mean you can bollocks it all up and expect the guide to bail you out. The guide is there to help, aid, teach, rescue and risk him/herself for his/her clients, but not to carry them. And the guide is only human, just as exposed and vulnerable as any other person if the client plunges them both.
Of course steps can be taken and should be taken for this not to occur, and that´s why Whymper´s words are so to the point.
It took me this long time to comment on this, because I first had to come to terms with it, for me to gain the necessary calmness and perspective to write dispassionately about it. I´m glad I finally did.
Good luck, safety and success to all.
Pico de Orizaba.