Aconcagua Controversy: Was The Rescue Team Negligent?

There is another controversy that has been brewing in the mountaineering community, this time in regards to a death on Aconcagua back in early January. The reports were that Federico Campanini, an Argentinean climbing guide, and one of his clients, Elena Senin, had died on the mountain.

The pair, along with the rest of their team, reached the summit of South America’s highest mountain along the usual route, but while they were at the top, a fast moving storm moved into the area. Suddenly blinded by a snowstorm, the team attempted to descend, but accidently went down the more technically challenging Polish Route.

According to the story, Federico and Elena fell to their deaths, and the remainder of the team was eventually rescued by a helicopter that plucked them off the mountain.

Early last week a video made its way out onto the Internet that cast a completely different light on the incident. Appearing on YouTube, the video purportedly shows an Aconcagua Search and Rescue Team standing around, doing little to help, while Campanini struggles for his life.

There are some indications that he is being cursed by his “rescuers” and at one point, one of them radios back to base to ask permission to leave him behind. Federico also has a rope tied to him and is dragged through the snow, while he crawls on all fours.

Needless to say, I won’t link to the video, but you can find out more about it in this post from ExWeb and this story from the National Geographic Adventure Blog.

Of course, the story has once again divided the mountaineering community. There are some who say that the video shows just a small slice of the attempt to rescue Campanini, and that at that point the rescue team was exhausted after hours of trying to assist the Italian climber.

In order to get him down, the team was going to have to take him back up the mountain, and down the normal route, and it was proving very difficult to do so. Some would say it was impossible for them to save him at all. These defenders also say that while they do appear to be cursing Campanini, that that is just the manner of their speech and not specifically directed at him.

On the other hand, those critical of what they saw in the video say that the SAR team wasn’t doing enough to help Federico, and point to high altitude rescues on Everest, K2, and other major Himalayan peaks to show that it can be done. They also say that more could have been done to help his condition, and no matter what, he didn’t need to be cursed or treated poorly.

Over the past few years, following these events, I’ve learned to not be quick to judge, which is part of the reason why I haven’t posted on this story until now. When high on a mountain, with dangerous conditions, things are never black and white, and usually it takes awhile to get the complete story of what happened.

I do agree that this video is just a tiny slice of the events, and it doesn’t really show us the whole picture, but it doesn’t show us a good picture either. At the very least, the SAR team could have tried to make Federico comfortable and showed him so more dignity.

The events that occurred on Aconcagua back on January 8th were indeed tragic, and it’s a shame that two people lost their lives on the mountain. Hopefully, at the very least, this incident will shed some light on the need for better rescue training on the mountain, and work to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

My condolences to the families of the two fallen climbers. It is a shame that they have had to suffer this loss, and then to find out this controversy a month later.


9 thoughts on “Aconcagua Controversy: Was The Rescue Team Negligent?”

  1. Certainly a tough situation. However, I’ll side with the rescuers in this case. It appears most, if not all, of the detractors have never been to high altitude and really have no clue what it’s like up there. Given the circumstances, I think those guys did a commendable job, including trying to motivate the stricken guide. The video should never have been released–that is the greater indignity.

  2. I agree Clyde, it is underly shameful that the video was ever released, which is why I had no interest in linking to that video.

    And I agree that a lot can go on at altitude, which others can’t always understand. As I said, this video is just a slice of what went on.

    I mostly feel bad for the families, as always.

  3. Certainly, after watching the video, no matter what happened the past 6 hours, there’s seems to be a mobbing situation, in which the SAR are the mobbers and Federico is mobbed. The extensive use of slang and coursing in Argentina was probably used to try to motivate Federico to move.
    However, even with no sound, it’s clearly visible that there’s a real lack of preparation and professionalism.
    I would risk saying that for some reason, there was many other factors balancing the attitude of the SAR.
    The presence of the Italian Consul at base camp was a clear sing of pressure for rescuing first the Italians.
    The “forced” rescue of an unprepared team to save at all cost the life of the Italians might probably sparked the anger against a dying Federico and they made him “pay” for such a mistake at the mountain.
    The probably expected to find him dead, and he was not, so that turned out to be a much harder effort for the SAR team that was already exposed to high altitude.
    There might be so many other reasons, which probably for the outsiders are unthinkable, but no one can feel proud of the images. Even when 3 others members of the team were rescued.

    Additionally, as per the images, no one would risk that a protocol was applied at the rescue. Six men idle and pulling like if he were a dog is far from what anyone might expect could be a professional SAR rescue.
    The lack of Dex, oxygen and many other vital items is by itself the most visible proof of lack of preparedness.

    After knowing histories of successful rescue at much higher and tougher altitude, the facts shows a real story of a “bunch” of climbers trying to walk a climber in HAPO.
    Moving as he was, Federico might have had the chance to survive, for what experience tells about K2 and Everest. On the other hand, keep moving exhausted and lowered his blood pressure that contributed for a faster dehydration, and more edema build-up.

    The Idle SAR team was far from exhausted, and if it was, then shows that the organization of this kind of rescue was risky and put the rescuers in high or not calculated danger. As a sole proof, the lack of equipment, and the reason that the video was given anonymously is a clear evidence of a deep disagreement and profound pain between members of the SAR team.

    Saddly, Federico paid for the lack of commitment, and perhaps anger against him for exposing the situation that all lived at that mountain.

    Le Federico rest in peace, and let justice, if exists punish the minds and sould of those at that time in the mountain.

  4. I agree with anonymous. That SAR team wasn’t prepared at all and the lack of protocols or professionalism is obvious.

    Rescues can be difficult and life-threatening and often need to be abandoned due to conditions. But these so-called rescuers’ refusal to do anything at all in terms of even the most basic palliative care — is it too much to put your arm around Federico and say something encouraging as he lies in the snow? — is appalling and inexcusable.

  5. I am in Argentina right now and had a highly reliable contact on site. What happened is unfortunate but is not surprising, as it often happens with people of long experience who start to believe that they don’t oblige to being safe anymore. It was not the rescue team fault, neither the clients fault. It was a series of bad judgement made by the guide. On many occasions he was told not to go, but he did. Once the domino effects starts, it ends up in a tragedy.

  6. I tend to believe that the so called SAR expected to find a dead body and they found Federico aliave and fighting for his life. I don´t know why when I see the images what firsta comes to mind is a bunch of mobbers trying to exhaust a dying man on his fours.
    I don´t have yet an explanation, but the feeling is so powerful and sticks to my mind that way, that I can´t assume that the best effort was made to save him.

    I have suffered at school this kind of situations many times, and for some reason I developed this 6th sense that tells me that they were expecting the guy to die, but not to save him.

    You can blame me, but I went to the Aconcagua, and I know what is like to be at 17.00 pm at the top, risking the life. An I had an accident coming down solo.

    This guys exhausted Federico to death.

  7. 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.

  8. Great information and nice find Rick. That article certainly sheds some light on the subject.

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