Chile From Within

Death and the Mountain, Aconcagua, highly detailed incident report

Posted in chile by tomasdinges on March 11, 2009

The debate over the correct rescue response to the death of a certified mountaineering guide during the course of an expedition to the top of Mt. Aconcagua, in Argentina, rages on in US and South American mountaineering and climbing bulletin boards, like Supertopo and Tricuspide.

Funnily enough, it takes a video of this death to fire our imaginations and our hearts into unleashing the torrents of opinion, often uninformed and based solely upon these 2.5 minutes. This video came out a month after the death of the guide. No video, no discussion.

The only parallel I can think of is the war in Iraq and the videos of torture and maiming that float around in the web and sold in marketplace. Or maybe the dead American soldiers who just a week previous were allowed, unphotographed, into their country to be buried. Death was sanitized for political purposes. Now a certain reality about the war can begin to wash over the American public inured only to a sanitized representation of the consequences of war.

It seems in other countries, like in the Middle East, torn by violence, death is witnessed by us all and not just the precious few, like here in the United States. I would argue this is better, like this video is better.

There is something important in viewing reality and thinking of consequences of our actions on this earth, like in the video of Campagnini, a guide who made a decision of sacrifice for his clients and suffered death. But also in looking at the response by rescuers and understanding their perspectives in a challenging situation, even when distorted in a fragment of time.

I picked up this comment by Facundo Garcia, a Captain and member of the board of GOER, Grupo de Operaciones Especiales en Rescate, from the Backpacker Magazine blog.

It is an apparent translation of the incident report of the Campagnini rescue as well as a list of comments on the rescure provided by Garcia. Worth reading in it’s entirety.

For a delirious rendering of what it’s like to barely climb Aconcagua while dehydrated and on an empty stomach, and then be present when someone has died, go to

Mt. Aconcagua incident

TYPE OF MISION: Search & Rescue / Search & Recovery.
LOCATION: Mt. Aconcagua / Mendoza Province / Republic of Argentina.
ROUTE: Approach from Normal route (North Face) and from the main peak, down to the Polish Glacier route (South-West Face)
ALTITUD OF OPERATION: 6500mts. (21.325ft.)
RESPONDERS: UPRAM (Mendoza Police Mountain Rescue Team) / Civilian climbers on scene (Volunteers).


Wednesday, January 14th. 2009. After the conquer of the highest mountain in the American continent, the Mt. Aconcagua, an Italian climbing team leaded by an Argentinean mountain guide (UIAAGM-IMFGA) named Federico Campanini (31), were trapped into a big storm right on the top of the mountain at 22,841ft. at 4:30pm.

With below cero temperatures -24°C (-14°F aprox.) and the sun coming down, the team had to descent as soon as possible to camp Berlin at 19.127ft. During the way down and with a snow tempest on their backs, the guide missed the track of the Normal Route, and leaded the team to the Polish Glacier route. During this attempt to descend in a wrong and more difficult route, an Italian member of the team named Elena Selin (38) fell down a slope angle and rolled down the mountain aprox. 984ft. dyeing later by diverse wounds that immobilized her, entering in shock and later dyeing by hypothermia. (Coroner´s report)

Due the situation, the rescue team received the emergency call out from the mountain guide in distress but due the terrible storm happening, the rescue command advised to deploy the rescue team as soon the storm calm down. Meanwhile, a 14 men team was moved from Camp 1 to Camp 2 to stay ready to attack the peak when there was a chance.

The Italian team survived the night by staying together to keep the warmth, eating a few raisins, chocolates and mixing urine with ice to drink. The guide Campanini, in a heroic act, gave his gloves, jacket and half of his meal to the Italians. This accelerated the hypothermia process to his body.

Next day (12 hours later) the storm continued and the rescuers decided to move up at no cost arriving to the scene after climb 4921ft. aprox. from camp 2 (Condor´s Nest) in the middle of the storm to the top of the mountain to then turn down to the Polish route in the search of the victims.

During this time, a rescue helicopter operated by Horacio Frechi fled over the top of the mountain near the Polish Route trying to locate the victims, finding one climber alive who was making signs of their location. This helicopter fell in free fall almost 980ft. due the storm and lack of visibility and hopefully the pilot controlled the machine and returned safe to Camp 1 after report the location of the victims.

After being 24 hours in the mountain, the victims were located by the rescue team who encountered and evacuated the Italian climbers Matteo Refrigeratto, Mirko Afasio and Marina Atanasio who were all in very bad physical condition such as mountain sickness and severe hypothermia. The victims could climb up to the top again to then were packed into 2 stretchers and slide down the normal route to Camp1 when they were evacuated to an hospital in Mendoza DC by helicopter.

The rescue team made a subhuman effort by staying almost 12 hours at 21.325ft. at -22°F to perform this mission saving the life of the 3 Italian climbers and leaving behind the body of the dead climber Elena Selin who wasn’t located until 12 days after by a private rescue team formed by local mountain guides who were hired by the Selin family.

Meanwhile, the life of the mountain guide who was suffering deep brain edema and hypothermia was located and the rest of the rescue team (6 men) remained with him trying to take him out for around 4/5 hours. They made all possible to remain with Campanini and evacuate him, but the time was running and there was no more time and was too late to keep the team at that height while 2 members of the rescue team were experimenting health problems as well.

The lives of the rescuers were in clear danger taking in account that they spent almost 24hs. at -22°F and they climbed in 2 days and a half to the top and stayed there. A thing that most climbers do in 8 days.


Tired, exhausted and with no supplies, the rescue team cannot wait for backups cos´ there wasn´t. They were by their own and the tried to move up 1000 ft. the body of Campanini alive to reach the top again and try to descent him from the normal route were a team of civilian climbers were climbing up to help at the same time.

Without supplies to stay another night, a proper stretcher and oxygen bottles, they were in a clear danger and asking for permission to the rescue command first, they decided to leave Campanini where they were at 884ft. down the peak in order to evacuate their selves. Campanini was alive but hardly could make it out with his brain edema and sever hypothermia case.

1- Mt. Aconcagua has insufficient resources to perform a SAR mission successfully in some situations like this. The rescue teams that operate above 17.000ft. precise to have in both Camp1 and Camp2 supplies stored in deposits in order to attack the peak fast and light and re-supply in this high altitude missions.

2-All rescue teams in Mt. Aconcagua are fiscally fit, trained and are very experienced, but no one has an MD or EMT member in the team. Team members has strong PHTLS training, but a lack of elements such as collapsible/lightweight SKED/Sled stretcher (SKEDCO type) and lightweight oxygen tubes to carry at that heights.

3-The rescue teams did not carried basic personal survival equipment, snow shovels, sleeping bags, oxygen bottles, stoves, etc. in order to go lite and reach the victims ASAP.

4- Poor evaluation of the rescue mission. Good rescue strategy but bad evaluation of the logistic capabilities.

Typically found in many 3rd. world countries. Financial problems are also found today in the Argentinean rescue teams. Even with the lack of resources named before, the rescue teams at Mt. Aconcagua evacuated successfully a rate of 3 persons a day and in this season evacuated 240 climbers from the 3.844 climbers that were this season in the mountain. From 1926 to 2009, 126 climbers died trying to reach the top of Mt. Aconcagua, this season were actually 4 casualties in total.

The controversy around the video recorded in the last minutes of guide Campanini doesn’t reflect the real effort that those rescuers made for almost 24hs. Actually, after that heroic mission, 2 rescue members suffered lung edema and severe hypothermia en their hands.

A common question around the rescue community is why they pulled up the body of Campanini instead of made a rope-stretcher or utilize another lifting technique. For those who don´t understand, I must say that in those conditions, lift an stretcher by hand is almost impossible if you don´t have al least a 12 men team to lift in turns half of the team a couple of meters and then the rest of the team a couple of meters more and doing this to reach the top.

Due the slope angle and rocks, make a backpack stretcher to sled the body were impossible. The rescuers stayed 3 hours to lift with a rope the body of Campanini only 329ft. That can provide and overlook of the difficult terrain and body condition of the rescuers.

The right technique would be to pack the victim in an SKED stretcher, climb up 180ft. per lapse, and mount a ¨Z¨ rig or another hauling system to accelerate the lifting process to reach the top.
Today, rescue teams in South America are cutting in half climber plastic containers (those big blue colored ones used in expeds.) to use them to improvise and sled. But at those heights, carry that on the outside of the backpack or even sliding it over the ice will take down any climber/rescuer at high winds. Besides, take your gloves out to build some system like this with -29°F will chill and freeze your hands for sure.
If the team has a lack of technical rescue stretchers at least they would have to carry a bottle of oxygen, sleeping bags and snow shovel in order to extend the life of Campanini till the backups arrived.

Is absolutely understandable that at those heights, all rescue personnel needs to go light, but this is an example on how the basic personal survival equipment must be carried ALWAYS.
At that height, ask to the victim to walk by their own is impossible. The cold freeze your body, num your legs and the lack of oxygen make you dizzy and you lost the thinking capabilities.
In the video, you will note that the rescuers insult verbally Campanini. This is cos´ commonly at that altitude where there´s a lack of oxygen and you’re mentally incapacitated; your brain is hard to think and focused in a specific action. In general persons with acute mountain sickness tend to get angry sometimes, pull down the jacket´s hood and stay quiet remaining in on a place. The insults tried to break the apathy and sometimes rescuers need to shake up the victim’s body to make him release adrenaline and take him out of there.

In conclusion, the rescue team made the best they could and more. Their lack of recourses are not their fault, are the fault of those in the government who supposed to equip the law enforcement teams like this case.
This rescue team saved the life of the 3 other members of the Italian team. I don´t think their failed on the mission at all. They did all what they have on their hands to save Campanini also. Those rescuers took a hard decision that no rescuer wants to take, but also, they were ¨walking on thin ice¨ for hours. No rescue team needs to loose their men to save others life for an unnecessary reason. Is cold, tough to say, but here was the life of Campanini or the life of other 6 rescuers in play. The team leader took the right decision for sure.

For those who read this, sorry for my English. I tried to do my best to inform you about this controversy and gave you an example of a situation like this.

Inst. Facundo Garcia
Captain/Directive Committee
GOER – Argentina