|By Eli Helmuth
From Estes Park, CO
Aug 17, 2012
|2 fatalities in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru
By Ted Alexander
Written July 31, 2012
Introduction: This narrative was put together based on images found on Gil and Ben's cameras with the time the pictures were taken; by careful study of the tracks left by the climbers and the terrain that they were traveling across; information contributed by the air search tea; satellite imagery; and by what the rescue team found when they recovered the bodies and equipment of the two climbers. Some of it is speculation based on the best information and educated guesswork.
On July 11th
US Climbers, Ben Horne and Gil Weiss, loaded up a taxi organized through a local company Andean Kingdom and drove one hour to the trail head of the Cojup valley where a donkey driver with two donkeys were waiting to help lug their heavy climbing packs up the 15km approach trail to the base camp located at 4300m at the head of the valley. A few weeks before, Gil had made this same hike with another friend, Asa Firestone, with the same objective in mind, the unclimbed South Face of Palcaraju Oeste. Asa and Gil had made it to the rocky high camp 2 hours away from the base of the South face when bad weather had forced them to return to Huaraz empty handed.
Now Ben and Gil, with the promise of better weather ahead, made the approach again.
On July 12th
The two climbers left their base camp on the valley floor and worked their way up the steep grassy terrain to the rocky moraine and pitched their “advanced camp” at the side of the glacier on a small flat and rocky area with stunning views of their objective. The two men took a few photos of a perfect Andean sunset, with deep red sky and perfect pink alpine glow before turning in for the night.
On July 13th
At around 3am, the two climbers packed the equipment they would need into their climbing packs, some food, water, a stove, two ropes, climbing tools and ice screws and pickets and set off through the night. At 6am the sun was just beginning to light the sky overhead. The men were between 2 and 3 pitches up on the face. They continued to climb swapping leads as is customary for two equally skilled climbers to do. Around 2:26pm the two climbers “topped out” at the top of the ridge just a few vertical meters shy of the summit. The two worked their way over relatively straight forward terrain and a few minutes after 3pm were celebrating on the summit. The celebration did not last long and at 3:40 they began working their way down the SW ridge – their planned descent route.
At 4:45 they ran into an obstacle, a large unstable serac balanced over an impassable crevasse feature. They tried weaving their way through the feature but soon decided that their best course of action would be to re-ascend and traverse well above the serac and descend down the other side. This maneuver took them a little over an hour but placed them on the downhill side of the previous impasse. Their next challenge was a crack in the glacier that ran at 90 degrees across the to the ridge – they traversed above this feature to what appeared to be a connecting bridge close to the south edge of the ridge. The bridge appeared to connect with the rest of the descent route. The bridge proved impassable and the climbers began exploring options, a thin snow covered ice rib paralleling the south wall which dropped some 300 vertical meters to the glacier below. At 6:00pm one of the climbers took the lead with the other some 20m behind on a tight rope in typical glacier travel formation. What would be difficult to tell from their position, was the unstable overhanging nature of the ice feature they were exploring.
At 6:10pm, out near the edge, looking for a way to connect with the rest of the descent route, the unsupported ice gave way beneath the climber causing him to drop straight down, The rope went tight on the second climber behind pulling him off his stance and dragging him over the same edge where his companion had slid moments before. The added momentum from the rope caused the second climber to launch far enough that he missed the ledge immediately below. With nothing below, he fell down the face pulling the other climber off the ledge and down the 300m vertical face as well. Both climbers perished in the fall.
SEARCH AND RESCUE EFFORTS
On July 25th
Skyline Adventures received a call from a good friend Gary Sorenson, a local expat climber, who asked if anyone had heard anything from Ben Horne or Gil Weiss who were reported to have left on a climbing trip 14 days prior. Ben’s father and several friends were worried after not hearing any news from Ben in quite some time. Later that night Gary Sorenson called again to let us know that Gil’s plane ticket home was scheduled for the 26th and that if he was to make his plane, he would need to already be out of the mountains and en route to Lima. This was the swing piece of information to initiate a rescue. On a climb, things can take longer then planned and being a few days overdue is not unheard of or highly unusual, but for climbers a plane ticket is something that is not squandered.
Ted Alexander called the hostel where Gil and Ben had spent their last night in town to see if they had heard anything from the missing men. There, he met with Eric Tomczak, another climber who had spent the last night in town with Ben and Gil. Eric had a fairly good idea of which mountain they were hoping to climb but as Ben and Gil had talked about climbing another mountain, Nevado Huantsan, no one was completely sure which climb they ended up committing to. Eric and Ted then went to the local agency Andean Kingdom which had supplied them with logistics services on their previous climb and spoke with owner Andreas Saibene. Andreas clearly remembered arranging their transport to the Cojup trailhead and arranging the donkeys for the same trail head which ruled out that the men were on Huansan and were indeed on Palcaraju Oeste, an objective that Gil had scouted a few weeks prior with climbing partner Asa Firestone. Asa, one of the friends who was already concerned by the overdue climbers, had emailed valuable photos of the route that he had scouted with Gil and additional information that would prove essential to the rescue efforts.
Ted phoned Hector Tueros a UIAGM certified mountain guide with well over 10 years guiding experience and multiple rescues under his belt and Henry Moya, a UIAGM guide from Ecuador, fresh off a climb and Eric Tomczak a solid alpinist and a friend of Ben and Gil. These three men would make up the light and fast ‘hasty team’ and they were charged with the task of getting to the area as quickly as they could and do an initial search of the area, find the tent and campsite of the climbers, do an initial search for evidence of an accident and report in as to what additional resources would be needed to enlarge the search. They were also charged with the task of retrieving and inventorying the personal effects of Ben and Gil that they may find in the tent.
After a rescue briefing, the rescue team left at 2:30pm with food and supplies for a three day initial search. They carried a satellite phone for constant communication. At the trail head of the Cojup they met the donkey driver and a porter who would accompany them for the duration of their time on the mountain. At 4:15pm the team hiked in to the base camp and by 9pm were in place for the following day’s search.
On July 26th
At 3:30am the rescue team headed out of camp up towards the moraine and the glacier. Following information provided by Asa Firestone they worked their way towards where they believed the tent would be. At 7:00am the team called in with the news that they had found the climbers empty campsite and that they were now headed out on the glacier below the looming South face in search of evidence of what may have transpired. At two hour intervals the team would call in with what they were seeing. After several hours of searching the glacier, the only possibility that was found was a slab avalanche which had slid down directly above the bergschrund and had emptied itself into the looming bergschrund in a place where they thought the climbers may have been trying to cross. There was no tracks to indicate that the climbers had indeed crossed the bergschrund at the place of the avalanche but the tracks were described as being “faint and very hard to follow in places”. It was a plausible theory and with the day beginning to wane it was all the team had at that point.
Ted, who was keeping friends and family updated on the progress of the rescue team called the family to let them know that we had one possible theory and that we were continuing to search for more evidence. Ted calls again to Asa Firestone to hear more of where he thought problems may have occurred. Asa indicated that he had a “gut feeling that they got in trouble on their descent” The rescue team retraced their footsteps out from under the South face and worked their way to a low spot on the ridge just above where they had found the tent of the two climbers. From that vantage point they scoured the SW ridge looking for tracks. Shortly thereafter Eric Tomzcak called in saying “…. we are very certain that we see two sets of tracks coming down the ridge, 100m from summit. The tracks break into a ‘Y’ 1 side is short –can’t see very clear’ the other cuts skier’s right around the large serac then cuts back skiers left onto platform – after that can’t see where they went”. This finding led them to believe that they had indeed summitted and as Asa’s hunch suggested, they had got into trouble on their descent. As it was mid-afternoon the team descended down to the camp of Ben and Gil, took an inventory the equipment, packed it up and descended to the base camp at the foot of the valley.
Back at the base Ted received the word that the family was rallying funds for a search plane and Ted began calling around to get a plane lined up for the following morning. He contacted a company called Unistar which specialized in SAR and med-evacs. The company said that a payment via credit card is acceptable and the forms were passed to the families who filled them out and it appeared as though the air search was all in place for the following morning. At 7pm Unistar called Ted and told him that they could no longer accept credit cards and the following day’s air search was called off.
On July 27
Realizing that the mission would exceed the initial 3 days, the team called in for more food and some more equipment. They decided that the following day Hector and Henry would make an ascent of the South West ridge, a formidable jumble of steep broken glacier while Eric would continue to scour below looking for evidence of a fall. The team spent the day preparing gear and food for this next mission.
Ted sent in another 4 days of food on a donkey, additional climbing ropes, a set of radios and another stove.
That morning Ted called around different airplane companies to line up an air search for the following morning. Due to the nature of the mountain-weather, the best and only time to do close quarter flying in the mountains is during the early hours before the winds get dangerous and clouds move in. It proved difficult to find a provider who could be paid with credit card and in the end it looked like the best way was for the families to western Union the funds to Skyline Adventures and then Skyline personnel would deposit the cash in the bank account of the air company. This plan was all in motion until at 5:00pm, Western Union, suspecting some type of fraud, canceled the money wire. With the banks closing at 6pm and the country’s Independence Day the following day, it appeared as though the efforts to get a rescue plane to launch had been impeded once again. Then at 9pm Mr. Gary Weiss, (Gil’s father) called Ted and told him that he had somehow managed to make $5000 appear in a family member’s house in Lima. Ted called the Atsa Air Company again to see if they could possibly pull a last minute search plane together for the following morning. At 11:30pm they confirmed that they could and Ted called a friend in Lima, Jim Sykes, to drive to the Lima address to collect the $5000 and bring it to the airport.
On July 28
At 3am the rescue team left the camp and re-ascended to the glacier. At 4am, Eric called in the current weather “starry skies and no wind” At sun up the team split and Henry and Hector began working their way up the ridge to where they saw the tracks “disappear”. Eric stayed below to search the area directly under the SW ridge. With Hector and Henry high on the ridge Eric began the traverse under the SW ridge and stopped under the notch on the ridge where the tracks “disappeared”. On the snow beneath Eric could make out two “impact marks in the snow with climbing ropes coming out of them” As he moved in closer it became obvious to him that he had found Gil and Ben. At 10:15am Eric called in the deaths to Skyline Adventures partner Jenn Hrinkevich and radioed up to Henry and Hector to descend the ridge.
The three rescuers returned to the two bodies and dug them out of the snow and then identified them as being Gil and Ben.
The team left the scene and descended to their advance camp where they met two friends of Ben and Gil, Adam and Jared, who had hiked in to assist with the search efforts. They encountered 7 rescue police men who had arrived as well and together formulated the plan for the following day. Hector called in and requested the assistance of at least 4 additional porters to help with the job of moving the bodies down to the base camp.
5:30am: Jim Sykes made the drive to the airport and was able to put the remaining $900 on his credit card. Miraculously at 8am the private two prop plane took off for Huaraz carrying Jim’s wife Gladys who is a Skyline Adventures guide. Equipped with high powered binoculars, 3 additional mountain guides were waiting for the plane in the tiny Huaraz airport. These 4 guides would provide the eyes out the window. After a briefing with the pilot to explain to him exactly which mountain and which ridge, the plane took off and headed into the mountains. For one hour they did fly-by's focusing on the area where the tracks had been spotted on the ridge. The guides saw the tracks and were able to piece together with greater accuracy what actually happened on that ridge. Their notes and input helped us greatly in understanding what happened in the final minutes of Ben and Gil’s lives.
Once the deaths had been reported in to base, Ted called the families of Ben and Gil to let them know what had happened to their sons. Then he began preparing for the next group of people who would help bring the bodies through the difficult terrain to the base camp where they would then be taken by horse down the valley to the trail head.
The ‘Casa De Guias’ is the association of certified guides in the area and usually involve themselves with the rescue in one way or another. When the news of the deaths spread throughout Huaraz, two high ranking men in the associations, Magno Camones and Alfredo Quintana, approached Ted and asked if they could be of help with some aspect of the retrieval. It was agreed that they would marshal a group of 6 porters and 2 guides to assist with recovering the bodies and that that would be a ‘subcontract’. Alfredo emailed Ted their price.
At 7pm via Satellite phone, the Doctor from the fiscal agreed to give permission to the rescue police to move the bodies.
On July 29
At 7am Hector, Henry, Eric, the porter and the 7 rescue police gathered around the bodies and prepared them for transport. Eric gathered and inventoried the gear that had scattered over the glacier due to the impact of the fall. With 5 people on each body the team began a slow descent off the glacier. The team arrived to the advanced camp with Gil’s body which gets loaded on a waiting Donkey. Eric, one police officer and the donkey driver depart for the base camp. After a few hundred meters descent the terrain becomes two steep and Gil’s body was removed off the donkey. Eric called to advanced camp for assistance and 3 more police show up. Together they devised a rappel anchor and lowered Gil’s body down through the terrain. At sunset they arrived with Gil’s body at the base camp.
Around 5pm the team from the ‘Casa de Guias’ arrived on the scene and along with Hector and Henry, they returned to glaciers edge and began working Ben’s body through the terrain and arrived at the base camp at midnight.
At 7am both bodies were loaded onto the waiting donkeys and begun their final descent down the Cojup valley. At 9am they arrived at the trailhead and were transported to the city morgue. At 1pm the last of the rescuers with all the equipment was off the mountain and transported back to Huaraz.
Based on all the evidence, it appears as though this accident was a result of a miss-step onto unstable and unsupported ice. From what we have been able to understand, through photographs taken from both on the ground, what the air search saw from above, satellite imagery, and the photos taken by the climbers themselves before they perished, it appears as though from their angle it would have been very difficult for them to see that the ice they were walking was over-hanging. Climbers assume certain unavoidable risks when climbing and especially with high end first ascents, these risks become much greater and despite previous experience, best judgment, and prudent climbing practices, these objective dangers do manifest themselves and accidents occur. In the case of Ben and Gil our conclusion is that two highly experienced climbers were climbing a beautiful yet dangerous route and had an unlucky accident which caused their deaths.
Timeline taken from the recovered cameras
• Last photo 13th of July 6:01pm
• Estimated time of death – 6:05 – 6:10 13 of July
• Time of summit – 3:06pm
• Top of ridge – 2:26pm
• 3am depart camp – (guess)
• 4:30 climbing the route (guess)
• 2 – 4 pitches (guess)by first light / first photo 5:57am
People who participated in the rescue:
• Ted Alexander
The Rescue Team
• Hector Reyes Tueros
• Eric Tomczak
• Henry Moya
Friends of Ben and Gil
• Tony Yeary
• Jared Vagy
• Adam Lawrence
Guides in the search plane
• Willie Beltran
• Peter Henostroso
• Alejandro Lazzati
• Gladys Jimenez
Team from the Casa de Guias
• Magno Camonez
• Holmes Pantoja Bajona
• Demetrio Tabio Bellen
• Teodoro Huane Torres
• Federico Huane Torres
• Eucedio Olano Jamanca
• Benjamin Mila Oromel
• Fredy Torres Morales
• Emiliano Torres Caldua
• Danato – Donkey driver
• Manuel Condor – Donkey driver
• Santiago Henostroza – porter
• Emilio – donkey driver
• Santiago Donkey Driver
• Cesar Camonez – Captain
• 6 rescue police