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  • by Karen Cummings

An International Rescue in Peru

Something wrong in the neighborhood? Who're you going to call? Well, hopefully, you won't have to call the ghostbusters. Here in the Mount Washington Valley neighborhood, a select group of skilled technical climbers are often called upon when there's something wrong.

Designed to supplement the efforts of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the North Conway Rescue Squad, and New Hampshire State Parks, the all-volunteer Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) was formed in 1972 and is made up of approximately 25 climbing team members with another 20 members to back them up. They respond to help lost hikers, stranded climbers — they even once "rescued" a glider that crash landed on Middle Mountain.

Many of the MRS members are Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and the majority have extensive first aid training. Responding to calls at all hours of the day and in all types of weather, their expertise on the rocks, ice, and on Mt. Washington and the surrounding mountains is usually needed about 15 times a year. Their most spectacular rescue was in January 1982, saving the climbers Hugh Herr and. Jeff Batzer who were lost in a winter storm on Mt. Washington. An MRS member, Albert Dow, was caught in an avalanche during the dangerous rescue and lost his life in the effort. "We respond at any time to anyone who needs us," said president of the MRS, Rick Wilcox.

He should have added "anywhere they need us" because this past July, four members of the Mt. Washington Valley Mountain Rescue Service were involved in a dramatic rescue on Mount Huandoy, high in the Peruvian Andes. No, these competent local climbers weren't called in from such a distance — before this episode, their reputation had not extended that far. Rick, Mark Richey, Chris Hassig, and Dave Walters, all current or former members of MRS, were already at the scene, and the fact that they didn't leave their willingness to help and serve at home, helped to save a life in that far-off country.

In addition to his duties with MRS, Rick is also owner and president of International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. His business involves conducting guided climbs of the larger mountain peaks in the world. In July, he was in Peru with 10 clients and his wife, Brenda. Mark was serving as chief guide, and Chris and Dave were assistants. The group was planning to climb the relatively "easy" Mt. Pisco, a 19,000-foot peak that is part of the Cordillera Blanca Range, a popular area for the experienced mountain climbers of the world.

The group hiked into the base camp at 13,000 feet. "When we arrived at our camp, we were informed by the guardian of a Polish camp that two women who were with the group had been out 11 days, making them three days overdue from a climb of Huandoy North," explained Rick. "He was telling us just so we'd be on the look-out for them because their mountain was right next to ours. We shared the same advance base camp area."

Early the next day, the four New England climbing guides led their charges to the advance base camp, a climb of 4,000 feet. "It was a very difficult day's back pack," said Rick. "There was the consideration of the altitude gained, plus we had to carry very heavy packs." The terrain they covered was boulder-strewn glacier, and a tiring and unglamorous part of the trip. "It was late in the afternoon and the climb had given all of us a really hard workout," explained Rick. "We were all looking forward to a day's rest to get used to the altitude and to prepare for our ascent of Pisco."

They had left an alpine garden area with greenery, colorful flowers, waterfalls, and a beautiful mountain lake and were now camped on a glacier with towering rock and snow-covered peaks surrounding them. 'We were in the valley between the two peaks," said Rick. "The mountain we planned to climb was to one side, but the mountain the Polish women were on just dwarfed what we were climbing. Theirs was a very difficult climb -- all technical rock and ice climbing for the last part of it."

Instead of finding a peaceful setting upon their arrival at the advance base camp, the group was greeted by an "hysterical" English woman. "We were really tired when we made it into the camp," said Rick, "and this woman came running out to us."

On a recreational hike, the woman had travelled to the camp with three English men who had no experience in technical climbing, nor the gear necessary. As this group camped at the 17,000-foot camp, they had heard cries for help from the two Polish women from a trail high above them. The three men had bravely, if somewhat foolishly, set out across the glacier and up the mountain to help them. "She was really concerned about them," Rick explained, "because they weren't equipped for that type of climbing."

The fact that the two Polish women were in danger was still not known beyond the I.M.E. climbing expedition's advanced base camp. A runner was dispatched to notify the Polish camp at the lower elevation camp to send help as soon as possible, but the team of Polish men were climbing Huandoy South, a distance away. Though slightly lower than Huandoy their climb was even more technical than that of their female counterparts, with the Polish team needing to scale a vertical wall of 4,000 feet during their attempt. It meant that it would be almost impossible for them to be of any help in the rescue attempt.

"It meant we were in the driver's seat for getting the rescue going," said Rick. The four men only hesitated because of their concern for their clients. "Our first responsibility is always with our clients," said Rick, "but they were in a safe place. They were resting in their tents, enjoying dinner and tea, and were in no danger." Another team of guides from another country were also bivouacked in the same area but they declined to help with the rescue. "Even though we could actually see the Polish women, they refused to go," said Rick.

The Cordillera Blanca mountain range is located right on the equator and therefore only gets 12 hours of daylight. "We had spent most of the daylight hours getting to the base camp," said Rick, "so we knew we would have to make most of the climb in the dark." Rick, Mark, Chris and Dave set out accompanied by Chris Dube, one of their stronger, more capable clients. "The five of us took head lamps, hot food, and started up," Rick related.

It took the experienced climbers about two hours to make their way over the trail cut by the English men, who had miraculously avoided crevasses and other pitfalls, to find their way to the Polish women. "They were very lucky," said Rick, "because they had no idea what they were doing. It was very brave of them to go up there, but it easily could have been considered very foolish if they had been injured." When relieved by the misplaced Mountain Rescue Service members, the exhausted English trio made their way back down the mountain to rest at their camp.

Rick and his compatriots found one of the Polish climbers, Ewa Szozesneak, to be in excellent condition, but exhausted from her efforts to bring her fellow climber, Aniela Tukoiszewskoi, down from the peak. "The two of them had made it to the summit, a highly technical route involving lots of ice and rock climbing," Rick explained, "but on their descent, they were caught in a snow storm which prevented them from moving for four days. During that time one of the girls had gotten a very serious case of altitude sickness -- pulmonary edema." An effect of a prolonged stay at high altitudes, pulmonary edema can strike anyone and is caused by an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. The victim is, in effect, drowning in her own body fluids. It is life-threatening and the only cure is evacuation to a lower altitude.

"By the tenth day of their climb, the weather had cleared enough for the two women to proceed, but by this time, the one woman was unable to move," Rick said. In an amazing exhibition of fortitude, her companion had lowered her painstakingly with ropes over 3,000 vertical feet of ice and rock, and rappelled down behind her. "She probably had to do that 20 times to get her down the face," Rick said, "and that took her two days. When she got to the glacier, she wrapped her in a sleeping bag and started dragging her through the snow."

Though hungry and exhausted, Ewa kept this up for an entire day, but had to rest overnight. It was during the next day that the English came upon her and with their help, the pace of progress was quickened. That evening, Rick and his party arrived to help. "With the five of us to move her, things went very easily," Rick said. "We were almost afraid to look into the sleeping bag. She looked pretty sad, but could still manage a smile and weakly said, 'I'm okay.' "

Tired from their own climb, the five men nevertheless carried the incapacitated woman over the snow and down the morain (rocky area at the border of a glacier) to their advanced base camp. During their climb and rescue, a medical tent had been prepared at the camp by clients Jim Fries, a doctor; Laura Reed, a nurse; and Brenda Wilcox, an EMT. "We had sent word ahead with the English and everything was ready for her," said Rick. "The best cure was to get her to lower altitude, but it was already 10 o'clock at night and we would have had to cross a difficult flat glacier and wouldn't have lost any altitude, so I decided to stay there for the night."

The decrease in altitude had already helped the unfortunate climber, so the three medical attendants proceeded to get her cleaned up and to make her as comfortable as possible. "The doctor and nurse stayed with her all night to monitor her breathing," said Rick.

That was not the end of the adventure. To the group's amazement, the Polish men's climbing group arrived in their camp with the dawn. "The Polish men had been notified by radio from their base camp," explained Rick, "and as soon as they heard they came down all that day, hiked all the way to the base camp and then up to our advanced base camp. It was an amazing feat," Still worried about their countrywoman's condition, the Polish team only took time for tea, rigged up an old frame pack to carry her down, then headed right back to the base camp. "Even more amazing was that the girl who had been solo-rescuing her friend for all that time," said Rick, "was in perfect shape. She looked as though she had just been out for a hike."

Following the departure of the Poles, all went back to normal with Rick's group. 'We were planning a rest day anyway," he said, "and the next day all of us, except for two of our clients, made it to the summit of Pisco."

Rick did collect one souvenir of the adventure. As with their rescues here in the White Mountains, the MRS members asked for nothing for their efforts, but the Polish women wanted to present their rescuers with a token of their thankfulness. "Though they had had to abandon most of their equipment during the descent, just before they left, the healthy one gave me an ice screw made out of titanium, which is only made in Russia," said Rick as he held out his prized possession. "It's really a unique thing, only 1/3rd as heavy as ours, and the only thing they had that we would love to have."


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