American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Bolivia, Cordillera Apolobamba, Cerro Presidente, Attempt and Tragedy

  • Accident Reports
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Cerro Presidente, Attempt and Tragedy. On September 25 at 8:30 a.m., Yossi Brain and a young Canadian woman, Dana Witzel, were killed in a slab avalanche on Cerro Presidente (5700m) in the Apolobamba range of the Andes. Four of us, Yossi, Dana, Eric Lawrie and myself, had gone into the range, near Pelechuco, the day before and set up a high camp on the long flat glacier below Cerro Presidente, Cerro Apollo 11 and Cerro Radioaficcionado. We had planned to attempt two or three new routes on these peaks during two days at high camp. The week before we had had an unseasonably long period of rains and snow in the high mountains, but the snow conditions on the glaciers were relatively good.

Yossi and Dana set out on one rope about five minutes before Eric and I and reached the base of the 300-meter headwall before us. They started up the lower low-angle wall on the right-hand side, encountering knee-deep snow some 50 meters up; at this point the wall had an inclination of some 30 to 40 degrees. Meanwhile, seeing the snow conditions, Eric and I circled around the small bowl at the base of the wall on firm snow to attempt the left-hand side. I yelled to Yossi our intentions. He then started moving to his left; I think that he was looking for firmer snow on steeper ground, both to make climbing easier and to avoid avalanche danger. About ten steps to the left, as I was watching him, he kicked into the still-deep snow and a large horizontal crack, about 50 meters above him and some 100 meters long, appeared suddenly. A slab avalanche engulfed them both and carried them some 50 meters down to the bowl below the wall. As the avalanche settled, we saw Dana’s lower leg rise up once and fall back down. We immediately headed for that spot and uncovered Dana within 15 minutes and started cardiopulmonary resuscitation until we were unable to continue. We were unable to resuscitate her. After resting, we followed the rope and uncovered Yossi, who was buried under one and a half meters of snow in the heaviest part of the avalanche. We moved the bodies further down the slope, covered them well to protect them from birds and descended the mountain.

The next day, a group of guides taking an annual course under the direction of two French guides from Chamonix arrived to effect the body recovery, which went as smoothly and efficiently as anything I have witnessed in Bolivia. Yossi’s remains are to be cremated in La Paz and his ashes scattered on Illimani, the mountain that is the symbol of La Paz and which rises majestically over the city. Dana’s remains are to be returned to Canada, accompanied by her brother.

Dakin Cook

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