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Asia, Nepal, Annapurna I, East Ridge, Tragedy

Annapurna I (8,091m), east ridge, tragedy. At the start of spring the famous Spanish mountaineer, 41-year-old Ignacio Ochoa de Olza, known to the climbing world as Iñaki Ochoa, had only Annapurna I and Kangchenjunga left in his campaign to reach the summits of all the 8,000m peaks. He came to the seldom-attempted south face of Annapurna I to climb the long east ridge. His body is still high on mountain, outside the tent at 7,400m, where he died on May 23 despite the efforts of his Romanian teammate Horia Colibasanu, two Swiss climbers, a Kazakhstani, a Russian, and a Canadian.

On May 19 Colibasanu and Ochoa were at 7,850m, near the east summit’s north ridge, when Ochoa contracted acute cerebral edema. Colibasanu telephoned down to Swiss climbers Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten to ask for help. Three days earlier Steck and Anthamatten had retreated from their first attempt on an unclimbed line up the south face, in heavy snowfall and high wind. The Swiss had no high-altitude equipment at their base but by 9:00 p.m. had packed medicine and started up Ochoa’s route on the right side of the south face. Two Sherpas from Ochoa’s base camp showed them the start from Camp 1. At 1:00 p.m. on the 20th they reached Ochoa’s camp 2 (5,800m), but snow was falling and they were in cloud. The route from camp 2 to 3 had been fixed, but there were avalanches in the afternoons, so they slept that night at camp 2.

At around noon on the 21st they reached camp 3 (6,800m), below the crest of the ridge. They couldn’t reach Ochoa in camp 4 that day and didn’t have high-altitude boots. But Alexey Bolotov, a Russian member of another expedition, who had already summited Annapurna I and descended to camp 3, gave his boots to Steck in exchange for Steck’s lighter pair. With warmer boots Steck climbed alone to camp 4 (7,400m) on the 22nd, requiring eight hours because of considerable fresh snow. Colibasanu descended part way to break trail for Steck. When they met on the ridge, Steck learned that the Romanian had cerebral edema as well. Steck gave him medication, Colibasanu improved, and after Steck descended with him a way, Colibasanu continued alone down to camp 3, where he met Anthamatten. When Steck arrived at camp 4 at 4:00 p.m., he found Ochoa seriously ill with both cerebral and pulmonary edema.

Ochoa recognized Steck and spoke to him, but his speech was not clear. His mind came and went, and he was not moving. Steck spent the night of the 22nd with him, giving him injections and sips of water. On the 23rd Ochoa seemed a little better and was able to take an energy bar and more water. However, his condition again deteriorated. When he stopped breathing, Steck administered CPR and artificial respiration. This worked at first, but Ochoa died at 12:10 p.m.

Meanwhile, Ochoa’s Kathmandu trekking agent and his brother Pablo in Spain had made hectic efforts to get more rescuers to the stricken climber. A highly experienced Kazakhstan mountaineer, Denis Urubko, was leaving Nepal on the 21st after his own expedition, but he abandoned his flight home and agreed to go by helicopter to base camp, from where he would try to carry oxygen to camp 4. Alexy Bolotov’s team leader, Sergei Bogomolov, who had come back to Kathmandu with minor frostbite, joined Urubko. Their helicopter flew first to Pokhara, where they picked up Canadian Don Bowie, who had been with Ochoa’s team in its early stages before they had a disagreement. Bad weather intervened and they were only able to climb to 7,200m before Ochoa died.

Elizabeth Hawley, AAC Honorary Member, Nepal