A detailed account of the accident

There have been a lot of comments and opinions in relation to this accident. I feel that it is time for everyone to receive an accurate account of the events that occurred, and then hopefully you will understand why I am doing what I need to do and will help me if you so desire.

The accident that occurred on Aconcagua in 2009 was tragic on many levels. Federico Campanini, my husband and an experienced and certified guide, died on Aconcagua in January, 2009, after more than two days of fighting for his life and that of his clients.

The team, Federico and four Italians, reached the summit at some point between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on January 6, which is not too late to summit. Federico radioed down to his assistant, who had turned back with one of the clients several hours earlier, to notify him of their arrival. Federico also told his assistant that the descent was going be difficult because the weather was deteriorating. The storm moved in rapidly and, due to this storm, Federico and his clients became disoriented and descended the wrong way, via the Polish route. Soon after, one of the clients (Matteo Refrigerato) fell and Federico used a rope to save him, expending a great deal of energy in the process. After saving this client, Federico radioed down to his assistant, telling him that everyone was fine but that because of the poor visibility, he was unsure of where they were. He said that according to his altimeter, they were at 6800 meters (22,300 feet). His assistant advised the rescue patrol of the emergency, but due to the storm, the rescue patrol did not try to move up the mountain to Federico and his clients. His assistant attempted to summit, taking with him food and water, but he was unable to reach them because of the storm and had to turn back. It is understandable that the storm impeded summit attempts; however, very few people were notified of the situation, therefore there was no initial organization of an integrated rescue plan on the park level, which is clearly what this situation required. This was the first major mistake because a rescue plan at altitude requires extensive logistical planning, so even if the storm was preventing rescuers from getting to the victims, the organization of volunteers and equipment could have begun. Therefore, while they were waiting out the storm below, there were four individuals who spent the night of January 6 at more than 6700 meters (22,000 feet).

At approximately 5 a.m. on January 7, Federico attempted to make radio contact with anyone; the park rangers in Plaza Argentina received the call and asked him where he and his clients were. He gave a description and they assumed that the party was probably on the Polish glacier side of the mountain. Federico also informed them of the death of one of his clients, Elena Senin. Shortly after, a radio call was made by one of the Italians because Federico was unable to talk. At Plaza Argentina, there were four volunteers who were waiting for the weather to improve to try and attempt to summit. They were able to climb to Camp 1 where they waited that night (January 7) because of continued bad weather. However, there was still no organization—on the park level—of equipment and logistics to search for the party.

Later on in the morning of January 7, the park service used a helicopter to try and locate the party so that the rescuers could use this information to develop the best strategy. However, the park ranger who went on this flight was not very familiar with this side of the mountain and was unable to tell the rescuers the exact part of the glacier where the victims were seen during the fly-over. In fact, it ended up being necessary to do a second helicopter fly-over in order to confirm where the party was; therefore not until THE MORNING OF THE NEXT DAY were they able to confirm the exact location of the party. This was the second major mistake as much time was wasted because no one knew if they needed to summit via the normal route or via another route, nor what kind of equipment was needed for the rescue. If a guide or someone who was much more familiar with this part of mountain had been in the helicopter during the first fly-over, much time would have been saved.

Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on January 7, several mountain guides with climbing groups arrived at Horcones, the entrance to Aconcagua Park. At the park ranger station, the ranger told the guides that a climbing party was lost in “the canaleta” (the “big couloir” on the upper part of the normal route side of the mountain), but that the rescue patrol was taking care of the situation. These guides were not told that there was an Argentine guide involved, nor were they asked to help participate in the search and rescue efforts. Therefore, the guides assumed that the situation was under control, and continued walking with their groups to Confluencia Camp (at 3500 meters/11,500 feet and 12 miles before Plaza de Mulas Base Camp). These guides were only made aware of the seriousness of the situation when they arrived at Confluencia Camp some four hours later. One of the guides was a friend of Federico’s, and he called the main ranger station at Horcones to get more information, but they also didn’t know much! The fact that there was a serious situation about which the park service had very little information was alarming to several of the guides. They decided that they weren’t going to wait for the park rangers or the Search and Rescue (SAR) team to resolve the situation because it seemed that not much was being done.

The improvised plan

Slowly, as guides, porters, and others in different places in the park found out about the emergency, they tried to do something to help but these efforts were not yet coordinated. The many individuals (over 60) who participated in the rescue did not have a rescue protocol to refer to because Aconcagua Park does not have a formal rescue or medical protocol.

At Confluencia, the guides asked the helicopter to take them to Plaza de Mulas, the base camp at 4200 meters (14,000 feet), where they arrived the evening of January 7 and found that there were many volunteers there who were prepared to start the ascent to the summit. Because the weather up on the mountain was still bad, because they didn’t have the exact location of the victims, and because there was no plan or protocol to coordinate the efforts of all the people in different places on the mountain who were ready to help, a group convened at 9:00 p.m. in Plaza de Mulas to create a plan. This meeting was attended by a few park rangers, a couple of doctors from the medical team of the park, and a lot of volunteers: mountain guides, porters, and people who work supporting the expeditions from the base camp. As there wasn’t a protocol to refer to, this group started making lists of who should summit and what equipment was needed. In this meeting, it was determined that another helicopter fly-over was necessary in order to determine the exact location of the lost party, what equipment would be necessary, and what would be the best strategy to use to reach the victims and evacuate them. (Again, if the exact location of the party had been determined on the initial fly-over, a rescue plan could already have been organized.)

As this plan was being created, there was a guide, Willie Benegas, located at one of the higher camps (Camp Canada at 5000 meters/16,500 feet) who had “accidentally” learned about the emergency when he saw the helicopter fly-over that morning and began listening to the SAR on the radio discussing the situation. Benegas immediately told them that he was at Camp Canada and could therefore try and summit. There were also two members of the rescue patrol at Nido de Condores (5450 meters/18,000 feet) who were also moving towards the summit. In the meeting at Plaza de Mulas, the following plan was agreed to: the next morning (January 8), a helicopter would try to locate the team and then would take the strongest, fastest, and best-trained guides to Nido de Condores from Plaza de Mulas. From Nido, this group would climb to where the victims were located and, upon arriving, would stabilize the scene and perform triage. It was part of the plan for some of the volunteer rescuers who were being flown up to Nido de Condores to have oxygen bottles with them. However, for various reasons, including some technical problems with the helicopter, the volunteer rescuers who had the oxygen didn’t reach the rescuers or Federico.

At 12:30 p.m. on January 8, the chief of the SAR reached the summit and shortly thereafter other guides arrived. In order to find Federico and his clients they had to descend toward the Polish route. They found a few items on the ground and right after that they were able to locate the four victims, all of whom were still alive. The rescue team first stabilized the scene, moving the victims from the edge of a cliff where they were found, and then performed triage. (Triage is a process used in emergency situations to prioritize patients based on the severity of their condition. This process allows rescuers or medical personnel to ration patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.) Based on the triage, the rescue team realized that Federico was the most critical of the four victims. Federico and the Italians were all given Dexamethasone and water. The Italians responded well (all of them were able to walk with the help of one to three rescuers) and were assisted as they slowly moved towards the summit. Federico, however, was still very critical (he was not able to walk or stand up even with help). The rescue team did not have a sled, sked, tent, or sleeping bag to offer Federico. This was in part due to the fact that the park doesn’t have appropriate rescue equipment. The only thing the park has to move a victim who cannot walk is a make-shift sled made out of a 55-gallon plastic barrel. The other reason why the rescue team didn’t have any of these items is related to the park’s lack of a rescue protocol. The volunteers did the best they could, working against the clock, to put together a rescue plan, but under the circumstances, they may not have thought of every possible scenario.

The individuals who tried to help Federico were in a difficult situation as their resources were limited, the weather conditions were extreme, and they were above 22,000 feet. They spent several hours trying to assist Federico, who fought—truly fought—to move himself and survive. The guides also called several times asking for more people to help them, but everyone was either lower down on the mountain or already helping the other victims. The video of a part of the rescue attempt, which has caused so much controversy and anguish, was filmed a few hours into the rescue. What I see when I watch the video, which is shocking, is a group of people (most of whom were volunteers) who risked their personal safety and used their heart and will to try to save Federico.

Federico Campanini died on January 8, 2009, on Aconcagua. It was later determined that he died of pulmonary edema. The individuals who tried to help Federico—the volunteers that you see in the video, as well as others who helped him—are not responsible for his death.  The improvised rescue team worked together and did an amazing job in the given circumstances (saving the lives of three people), but a lot of time was lost due to the lack of an official and active rescue protocol.  Therefore, if a rescue protocol had existed, and if rescue resources had been available, Federico Campanini’s chances of survival would have been much better.

During the first 24 hours that the victims were trapped near the summit, there was only a minimal response by the official rescue patrol and park rangers. This kind of incident (multiple victims at such a high altitude in such bad weather conditions) requires a well-coordinated, large-scale rescue effort, which in this case was only undertaken when the news spread among guides and porters and others working on the mountain. All these people pulled together voluntarily and on their own initiative. They were not asked to participate by park officials as would have been the case if a proper rescue protocol existed. Throughout the three-day tragedy there was very little communication between the park, the SAR, the guides, porters, and other volunteers, and this, I believe, is because there wasn’t any protocol to refer to. There was a lot of improvisation, which was fantastic in the sense that at least people were trying to do something, but it also created a chaotic situation, and a lot of time is lost in chaos.

Professionalism and taking responsibility

I have talked to the Italians and they told me that Federico acted as a professional throughout the entire ordeal, giving them hope and telling them to not give up, as well as sharing his food and even his gloves with them. In fact, the Italians state that Federico is a hero and that they are alive because of his efforts and his professionalism until the end. Federico, as the guide took charge of the situation, and I believe that he lost his life as a result of his efforts to save the lives of his clients.

The issue is about taking responsibility. At present, people are looking for someone to blame. Some want to blame the six people in the video, others want to blame Federico. However, this isn’t the first accident to occur on Aconcagua, and Federico isn’t the first individual to lose his life in a negligent rescue. Therefore, I ask that we stop blaming the volunteers who participated in the situation and did the best that they could in the given circumstances. Rather, I ask that we look at the system, a system that is unprofessional on the administrative level and that doesn’t support the efforts of many of the individuals who work in this park. Aconcagua is one of the seven summits—an international mountain climbed by an international community. For a mountain that is so well known and is climbed by so many, a rescue protocol is crucial, and I believe that it is also the responsibility of the international climbing community to help bring about changes in Aconcagua.

Let’s change the system

At present, myself and other individuals (guides, companies, and medical organizations, both in Argentina and in the U.S.) are trying to create rescue and medical protocols to present to Aconcagua Park as well as organize training seminars and provide basic equipment to this mountain. In January, 2009, I lost my husband, but hopefully his death wasn’t in vain. Hopefully, because of it, Aconcagua Park will improve and will gain an organized rescue system that will ultimately save lives.

–Amber Christensen

Note:   The “El Fede” Campanini, with the collaboration of a few guide companies, the Search and Rescue team, Aconcagua park rangers, mountain guides, and porters, successfully installed three rescue caches on the mountain.

One comment on “A detailed account of the accident

  1. Marin Carroll on

    Although I have never climbed, and the highest I’ve hiked was to Camp Muir on Rainier a few years ago, I am moved by this account, and the strength of Federico Campanini’s dear wife to get rescue operations in place properly for this very popular climbing destination. I am glad to have dropped by their table at RMi’s Mountain Fest this year, and learn of this foundation. I will resolve to offer support in the future for this important project. ~Marin in Seattle


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