Field Notes: Aconcagua Rescue


2/25: Right now we’re resting in the tents and hydrating. This morning Jason, Spencer and I chopped a large bag of snow and ice to melt. Tim has the stoves going and slowly we’re filling our water bottles. I’m really enjoying the routine of high mountain expedition. Today we’ll make a carry from Camp 3 to our High Camp. Weather permitting, we might be able to summit on the 27th or hang tight if need be for the 28th.

2/28: It has been a while since I’ve written.

So, it’s probably best to go back to where I left off. And I’ll try to recall the events and dialog to the best of my ability.

On 2/25, Tim, Henry, Jason, Spence, Paul and I set off from Camp 3 to complete a carry to High Camp. Justin wasn’t feeling well so he took a rest day. Early afternoon we got to High Camp, left our gear in a duffel bag, weighted it down with rocks, took a group picture and came in for a group hug. We were all in great spirits. On the descent, Jason and Henry took the lead with Spencer shortly behind them. I turned on my music, enjoyed the view and began my descent. The rock formations were stunning and before me were layers of mountains. Tim and Paul brought up the rear.

Tim, Paul, Spence, Bethany, Jason and Henry at High Camp (19,500 feet)

Almost back to Camp 3, Jason, Henry and Spence had taken their packs off by a large rock and Jason was bouldering. I stopped and got some water. Then I walked over to the rock and tried a few moves. I laughed at how awkward and uncoordinated I felt in my cast-like mountaineering boots. We started to pack up. I needed to pee, so I excused myself and tucked behind another large rock. When I got back it looked like all the guys had headed down. I grabbed my pack and glanced back towards the High Camp to see if I could spot Paul and Tim. Instead I saw Henry was standing in the trail with his pack to the side, looking up the trail as well. I went up to him and asked if he was alright.

“I can’t feel my arm,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t we sit down?”

I grabbed his pack and walked him over to the rock we’d gathered around. First responder training I’d had kicked in and I went into an assessment. Took his pulse and noted his respiratory rate, asked him his name, the date, and where he was. His pulse and respiratory rates were elevated. He knew his name and that he was on Aconcagua and when he’d said he didn’t know the date, I’d realized I wasn’t completely certain of it either. So we’d laughed at that. His vitals and level of consciousness seemed okay and I wondered if he was having an anxiety attack. But the right side of his face was drooping. That’s not good, I thought to myself. I asked him to squeeze my hands. He had good strength in each limb.

“Am I having a stroke?” he asked.

“No, nope.” I’d smiled. But I wasn’t sure. “Just breathe.”

I reached into his pack and pulled out his jacket. I helped him put it on and noticed his motor functions were a bit slow. I layered up too. Then Henry reported that the numbness was traveling from his arm to his leg. I glanced around. I could’ve tried to get him down to Camp 3, but right then he was stable and we were closer to Paul, our team doctor, if we stayed put. I jogged up the trail and searched for Tim and Paul. I called out, “Paul! Tim!” But my voice was horse and lost to the wind. I waved my arms back and forth, but I saw no color or sign of movement.

I ran back to Henry. I tried to keep him focused on eating, drinking and breathing.

“I don’t want to die,” he sniffled.

“You’re not,” I said. I took his buff and helped him wipe his nose.

I told him about a severe migraine I’d had when I was 19 that presented very similarly to his current condition. It was 2006. College finals had just wrapped up and I was home for summer break. One morning I woke up with a numb arm and leg. Thinking it was just “asleep” from having slept on it at a weird angle, I tried to stand and fell out of bed. The numbness didn’t subside. I stumbled downstairs to tell my mother, but I couldn’t speak. Well, I was speaking, but it was all nonsense. I saw the words in my head and knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t formulate them. My mother thought I was having a stroke and I clearly remember the panic that ensued in my mind. In the end, it turned out to be a migraine and I’d made a full recovery by the next day. Maybe Henry’s just having a migraine.

I told him to keep sipping on water and I ran back up the trail. This time I saw Tim and Paul. I waved my arms and they moved faster. When Tim was within shouting distance I told him, “It’s Henry,” and relayed Henry’s symptoms to Paul. After another round of assessment, we moved Henry down to Camp 3 and into his sleeping bag. Henry went to sleep and we took a deep breath. Maybe it’s going to be alright. But when he woke up his symptoms had worsened. His speech was impaired. His words were jumbled and he couldn’t say my name. Paul asked Henry to close his eyes and he stared back at us unblinking. The energy in the tent shifted from hope to fear and the color drained from Tim’s face. This is serious. This is high altitude cerebral edema. Henry’s brain is swelling and his life is hinged on getting off this mountain. I got to the other tent and updated the team. When I came back, Tim was outside the tent on the radio.

“We need a helicopter.”

Another team on the mountain suited up and helped coordinate the evacuation. I helped Henry get his jacket and boots on. Tim assisted Henry into a standing position and they began to descend to the helicopter pad. Justin and a few international members ran after to help them. Paul, Jason, Spence and I looked back and forth at one another, unsure of what to do next. The helicopter pad isn’t far, Tim and Henry have support, should we follow? Do we stay put?

Then we got word that the helicopter couldn’t land. Now we knew what we had to do. We grabbed our packs, rushed to our tents and stuffed in sleeping bags, food, water, and put on headlamps. Henry needed to get to Base Camp. We needed essentials and to go as light as possible. Night was falling and time was precious. Tim and Henry would need a few things too. I grabbed Henry’s pack and entered our tent. I stuffed in extra clothes and began to fold a ground pad. Henry’s journal fell to the side. I sat back on my knees and stared at it. Oh God, what if he isn’t okay? My hands began to shake and tears rolled down my cheeks. I tried to refocus, but something in me broke and I began to sob. I was scared and sad and trembling. I stumbled out of the tent with my pack and Henry’s. A woman from the other team approached me. She had soft blue eyes and curly hair that jutted out beneath her hat.

“Hi, sweetie, I’m Emily. What’s your name?”

“Bethany,” I said, and pushed a gloved hand across my wet face.

“Bethany, it’s going to be alright,” she said before embracing me in a hug. I pressed my face against her down jacket and cried. It felt good to hug someone.

“Bethany, you’re going to stay with us tonight.”

“What, what do you mean?” I questioned and pulled away from her.

“You’re in shock and it’s not safe for you to go down the mountain.”

“But I have to. I have to get Henry his things. I’m not in shock, I’m just upset,” I protested. Anger washed through me and the tears stopped flowing. I was mad to be told what to do by someone I don’t know. But more so, I was disappointed that I’d fallen apart and was viewed as incompetent. Come on, get your shit together.

“Don’t worry, we can get Henry his things.”

“But, I want to be with my team.”

The leader of the international expedition joined our conversation. He spoke to me softly yet sternly. “I’m Mason. You’re staying here tonight. Emily’s going to take care of you. We have to get Henry down the mountain and we can’t have another causality.”

And then I recognized it. I’m a risk. I am in shock. And I could only help Henry and my team by staying put. I nodded my head and surrendered. I gave Mason Henry’s pack and tearfully watched my team descend without me.

What just happened? Is this really happening? Why does everything feel so strange?

“Do you believe in God?” Emily asked. I’d nodded. We prayed.

Emily put her arm around my waist and walked me to their cook tent. She brewed me a hot sugary drink and gave me a chocolate candy bar. Her kindness was absolutely beautiful and over the course of several hot drinks she guided my mind back to my body.

That night I stayed in Emily’s tent and we talked about our families and lives until after midnight. Then, a radio update came in that Henry had made it to Base Camp, was on oxygen and had been stabilized. I took a deep breath and let out a long exhale. I unzipped the fly and stepped out for some time under the night sky. The stars shone brightly. There was not a gust of wind. I was surrounded by empty tents. I stood there and stared at the Polish Glacier. All in one moment, I loved and hated this mountain. And then a soft wind brushed over me and I felt calm. I felt gratitude. I felt God. It was going to be okay.

Dawn broke. A radio call came up the mountain and let us know that a helicopter had just landed at Base Camp and evacuated Henry and Tim. Porters were going to help us get our gear down from High Camp and Camp 3. I packed my bag, hugged Emily and began the long walk home.

Tim and Henry on 2/24

A big heartfelt thank you to all that helped get Henry to safety. Emily and Mason, you know who you are. And we will never forget you.

Categories: Aconcagua Expedition, Field notesTags: , , , , , ,

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