The accident

We got back to base on the 12th August, and settled in for a rest. The others had done quite a bit of climbing, Steve and Paul B on the Viluyos group and Hankopiti 3, 4, 6 and 7, Nev and Paul Mac on Buena Vista 1 and 2, Hankopiti 1, Kimsakolyo and Kunotawa 2, and Dave on Rog had done Hankopiti 7, a peak near the Canyon and Pico del Norte. The latter had given them fine views of the East face of Illampu, which, with Ancohuma, were the highest peaks in the range and our main objectives. On the 14th, despite some snowfall in the afternoon, they set off for the face with a good stock of food for 8 days.

The following day it snowed again, but the 16th was fine and we should have left for Ancohuma, but we didn’t. It snowed the next day, was overcast on the following, on the 19th we were ready to go but we put it off to the following morning (20/8/72). Finally, Rich, Paul B, and I set off up the valley South West of the Green Lake to a col between Buena Vista 2 and Hankopiti 1 which had been reconnoitered as being the best way to the glacier plateau below the East face of Ancohuma. We had a Vango tent (a three man tent, as used at base camp) and plenty of food to set up an advanced base camp from which the face could be attempted collectively, we anticipated this being more serious than any of the other climbing we had done up till now. We intended to make the dump and return to base camp the next day. After 5 hours we had reached the previously decided bivi site. Rich and I had the additional amusement of watching Paul floundering through a bog below, a short cut, he said, while we sat watching him and laughing from a higher, drier spot. We enjoyed the luxury of a real tent, and had a pleasant night.

Next morning, we headed up over the col onto the glacier, and there before us was the awesome sight of the East face of Ancohuma. It was over 3 000 feet high and made up of many pillars, some of which appeared to be detached from the face. Between them the gullies were blocked in many places by ice-cliffs, and at the foot of each the snow was stained by large fan shaped grey stains of fallen rocks and debris. To top it all what must have been a very large cornice ran nearly the entire length of the summit ridge, with a few line of seracs for good measure. We sat on our rucksacks looking at it, trying to find a reasonably safe line, and, in my case at least, wondering if we couldn’t back out of it in an honourable fashion. In fact, fate was to make the decision for us.

We left the gear in a hollow, returned to the tent, which we left in place, had a brew and went back down to base camp (21/8/72). We were surprised to find the place deserted. Then we found a message saying a red flare had been seen the previous evening high up on Illampu, which is visible from base camp, from Rog and Dave. The others, Paul Mac, Steve, and Nev had left that morning. A quick calculation showed that they had left base 7 days before, so they should have been all right for food but it looked serious all the same. These days we would undoubtedly have been in radio contact, but we had no such equipment. Neither could we telephone for help, the nearest phone was at the mine, itself days from La Paz. If they were in difficulty at 20 000 feet, no rescue services or even military helicopters capable of operating at such altitudes existed in Bolivia in those days. It was up to us to do what we could to help them.

With all these thoughts, and certainly many more, racing through our heads, we set off in the morning to Illampu with what we hoped would be the appropriate gear. It was a long slog and I was soon well behind the other two, up the steep grass slope, then following cairns in the cloud, then up a rock ridge. I passed a first bivi site then caught sight of Paul and Rich so I continued up onto the glacier. It was getting dark and I was beginning to mutter to myself about why they hadn’t stopped yet. Finally, I met Paul Mac on the glacier who had come down to show me the way to the camp. We arrived at 8.00 pm and set up the Vango flysheet with its poles to sleep under.

The blue bivi tent that Dave and Rog had taken was there on the glacier, with spare down gear and food in it, and, I remember well finding a book by J P Donleavy called “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B” which I had lent to Dave after reading it myself, it must still be up there. There was little news except that they had sighted someone moving on the summit ridge, which seemed encouraging, and that Steve and Nev had tried to climb straight up the face but had had to turn back, which was less so.

The next morning (23/8/72) we set off to climb Illampu by the left hand (South) ridge, which came right down to the glacier not far from our camp. Rich and I were to lead, backed up by Paul B and Steve, while Paul Mac and Nev stayed on the glacier. We took the minimum of gear in the hope of reaching Dave and Rog in a day, an optimistic plan. Getting up the steep end of the ridge was hard and dangerous, consisting of thin ice on rock. I lead off round the corner and it was a bit of a struggle. I soon found lengths of nylon rope frozen under the ice, probably left by a Japanese expedition the year before, and I didn’t hesitate to use them. Even so the others were beginning to wonder what I was hanging around for, they soon found out. Rich and I got up on the ridge, leaving ropes here and there for the others to prussic up to save time, even so we were going far too slow. Once on the crest it was technically easier, but still exposed and dangerous. In places we were climbing along actually inside the ridge, in strange galleries between the granite and the ice cornice. We bivied in one of these caverns and, as we had the only stove, Paul and Steve, who were two pitches behind, had to do without.

The following morning, we left the stove on the ridge for Paul and Steve, who soon caught us up. We carried on along the ridge, still climbing pitch by pitch on mixed ground, and still dangerous in places. In the afternoon we heard whistling and replied likewise, hope rose again but so did the frustration of such slow progress. We had one nasty moment when a cornice collapsed, then two hollow wind slab pitches, the first of which, lead by Rich was particularly dodgy (most of this is quoted from my diary, though I still remember flashes of images in places). We always climbed on the right (East) of the ridge, the left being very steep and windy. There were lots of little humps on the ridge which prevented a clear view ahead. We finally arrived at a major snow step, a complex structure that is clearly visible in the photographs, and found a snowdrift in a sort of hollow in which we dug some rather poor snow holes. This was the first bivi site we’d seen all day and we took what was to turn out to be the fatal decision to stop for the night. Steve and Paul arrived soon after in the dark.

It was a miserable windy night and the spindrift soaked everything. Rich and I got off first. The ridge had widened here and we went up the snow slope. Just a few yards along we saw a North wall hammer in the snow. Rich went up to it, still roped up, then shouted that he had seen a bivi bag. We both went over to it, feeling worried and found Rog inside, dead (25/8/72). He had no sleeping bag or duvet, just his usual Norwegian pullover, and was lying with his face in the snow. There was no sign of Dave. We went back and told Paul and Steve, then all went back up. Paul and Rich searched Rog but found nothing to explain what had happened. He was still slightly warm, and, in what was more a moment of desperation than a rational act, Paul tried cardiac massage, but to no avail. It became clear that we had been within 100 yards of him all night, our minds were filled with “if only’s”. Fortunately, in such moments, the necessity of the situation prevents dwelling on such things, there was still Dave and our own position to consider. We dug a grave in the snow and buried him with his ice axe like the Viking he resembled, childish perhaps but it seemed right to me at the time.

We looked for Dave but finally decided that he too must be dead for Rog to have left him for three days - there were three used flare cartridges. He had a film in his camera but when it was developed later on it gave no clues. The most probable theory is that Dave had fallen through a cornice, or slipped when unroped as Rog had their rope with him. He also had the stove and plenty of fuel, but no food. The question was how could he have survived at 6 000 metres for so long without a sleeping bag or even a duvet jacket? I think most likely, given the strong winds of the day before and the exposed snow platform where we found him that he could have lost it, blown away, just that day, and without it he had no chance.

The weather was getting worse and after all these considerations we finally decided to give up the search for Dave and try to get back down. Said coldly like that it sounds terrible, and for all we know it may have been a terrible decision, but in situations of danger such things must be done, and done quickly, the regrets come later, and last for ever. We climbed 3 pitches past our bivi site then started abseiling down the face, using the Dave and Rog’s rope. At least we were sheltered from the wind but it was snowing now and there were continual light powder snow avalanches down the steep face. After 4 abseils the inevitable happened and the ropes jammed due to the ice accumulated on it. We left them and using our own remaining ropes made one long abseil into the dark, and, as luck would have it, just reached the snow. We had a job to find the camp in the dark and snowfall but we did finally and all six of us slept (a bit) under the same Vango flysheet. It snowed all night, and, crammed together, we were soon wet through.

When the day came (26/8/72) we found ourselves in a strange damp, orange world, and after a quick breakfast, we left any spare food and set off down the glacier in windy snowfall and whiteout conditions. We were absolutely unable to find the way down and kept coming to ice-cliffs. Things were looking dodgy so we decided to go back for the spare food in case we were stuck on the glacier for some time. Rich and I just managed to get back to our dump as the footprints were disappearing under the fresh snow. We rejoined the others and tried again to find a way down, but still with no luck. We had no choice but to bivi again, 4 under the Vango flysheet and two in the blue bivi tent.

The night was miserable, very wet and cold. We finally got up to see that it had cleared a bit. We were feeling wretched as we trudged through 1 to 2 feet of fresh snow, but we eventually found our way off the glacier and onto the rocks leading down to safety. We were a bedraggled looking crew but, perhaps out of fear of something else going wrong, I insisted in taking photos of everyone, only Neville’s is missing. The expressions say more than words about our state of mind. Now that we were out of danger the awful reality of what had happened started coming through. Since finding Rog, the need for action and decision had anaesthetised our feelings, over the days and weeks that followed they returned. We then had a long and unpleasant trog back to base camp, and had to stop for a brew before we could face the final rise up to the camp, even then we left a load of gear at the bottom and arrived in pitch darkness.

Next day (28/8/72) we rested in base camp, feeling morose, and discussed what to do now. Clearly it was the end of the expedition and it was decided that Paul and Neville would set off for La Paz the next day while the rest of us cleared up and prepared for the return journey. It was now exactly 7 days since the first red flare had been seen and 13 since we had said goodbye to Rog and Dave for the last time.