We recently received an email from Eric Tomczak, who was one of the original 3 members of the search and rescue team that went out to find Ben and Gil in Peru. We published his email below in its entirety along with his account of the search.
————–Email to Pullharder from Eric on August 2, 2012——————
Let me start of with my deepest condolences to all who were close to Ben and Gil. I hope everyone has had a chance to have a quiet moment somewhere in the mountains to say goodbye to our friends.
My name is Eric. I didn’t know Gil very well, just well enough to like him quite a bit. You could see his enthusiasm for life in the mountains, as well as the yearning to share it with others, right away. I knew Ben even less, but he struck me as a committed, determined alpinist whose goal was to get out and get up. I wish I had more time to get to know these two. Life, or more accurately death, works in unfortunate ways sometimes.
I was on the rescue team that went out to find out what happened to Ben and Gil. There has been a lot of speculation and questions about their passing, and I feel it’s my responsibility to tell some of the story. If my best friend died in the mountains, and someone had the answers to my questions, I would want them to tell the story.
I’m writing to ask if you will publish this for me. I think your site is a central location for those who knew them to be able to see it. If you would rather not, that’s entirely alright. I just need somewhere to put the story. What follows is what I’m looking to publish.
Two and a half weeks ago, the climbing world lost two dedicated, enthusiastic and driven alpinists. The whole world lost two amazing people, and many of us lost two friends. Ben Horne and Gil Weiss passed in a climbing accident in mid July, and a rescue team found their bodies on the 28th.
I was part of the team that went in to find Ben and Gil, found them, and consequently accompanied their bodies out of the Cojup valley. I’m writing this article to hopefully answer some questions that their closest friends have about the accident. I’ve only just arrived back in the United States, and I can see that the information about the accident has been limited. This is a short personal account of what happened. None of the conclusions I’ve drawn are fact. They’re just what I think based on what I saw firsthand. I hope the information helps. The following is an adaptation of an email I sent out to some others as to what happened.
The alarm was raised two days before Gil’s flight was set to go back to the states. Asa Firestone, (who I had met earlier during his trip) and I talked about it and decided to assemble a search team and go in. There’s an American guy here, Ted, who got involved that same day. Ted is extremely experienced in these mountains, as well as very good with logistics. He runs an adventure company here in Huaraz, and has lots of connections locally. He took this thing and ran with it. He’s in the middle of recovering from some burns so he ran our Huaraz home base. While being in surgery for aforementioned burns! The guy is amazing.
After talking with me and Asa, Ted arranged for two guides to join the rescue team. Hector would be the leader of the team, with the most experience. I was in charge of communications and logistics, carrying a satellite phone with me at all times. Henry was the link between the two of us, speaking both English and Spanish, as well as being an experienced climber. The three of us would be accompanied by a porter and an arriaro (cowboy, or burro driver). The five of us would make up the rescue team. We left that afternoon, and were in base camp in the Cojup valley that night. The videos you may have seen of the “rescue team” leaving to look for Ben and Gil is stock footage of some south american policemen walking around in the mountains.
We left early the next morning (3:00 am or so) to look for Ben and Gil’s camp at the base of Palcaraju Oeste. After several hours of hiking, we found their camp near the West end of the glacier. Their things were strewn around almost exactly like they had left for a climb and simply never come back. We left their things and went onto the ice. We spent the rest of the day walking around on the glacier, following tracks and looking up various potential routes with binoculars. At this point we had almost nothing to go off of except some 2 week old tracks. Mid afternoon, I got information from Asa (via Ted, via sat phone) that he thinks they got into trouble on the decent, via a ridge to the West of us. We hiked up into a col to look at the ridge. Immediately, we saw tracks leading from the summit, and disappearing halfway down. The end of the day was drawing near, so we descended to Ben and Gil’s camp, packed up their things, and descended to the valley floor.
The next day, we were almost out of food, and by that point had gone about 25 kilometers with probably 1800M of vertical gain in the past 24 hours, so we were tired. We took a day to wait for more supplies, and prepared to move our camp higher, closer to the mountain. 7 Peruvian Policia also showed up on this day, and joined the search effort. Food came in, we got more sleep, and left early again the next morning.
The plan was for me to stay in Ben and Gil’s high camp, while Henry and Hector took climbing gear and climbed the ridge to where the tracks ended. We had radios to stay in communication, and I had the sat phone. My plan was to get back on the glacier while they were climbing, and inspect the base of their decent ridge on the South side. While I was waiting for the sun to rise, I inspected the ridge again from the camp and saw tracks that we hadn’t seen before going further down the ridge. They ended at the edge of a hanging serac, and there was evidence of sliding leading towards the cliff on the South side of the ridge. With something to go on, I headed onto the glacier.
About this time, an airplane to look for the missing climbers showed up overhead. I made my way to a vantage point on the glacier where I could see the base of the ridge. I saw one spot that looked as though something large had fallen in the snow, with something dark showing in it. I made my way up and around the crevasses, via a safe route, towards the base of the ridge. The plane continued to make close passes overhead. I came over a rise, and had a better view of the first thing I’d seen in the snow, and saw a second one closer. I made my way towards them, and Ben’s backpack came into view poking out of the closest impact point. As I approached, I could see Gil’s boot sticking out of the second impact point, 30 meters further. Their things were scattered all over the slope, and Ben’s backpack was shredded.
I called it in on the sat phone, and made my way back down to the glacier to radio Hector and Henry to descend. They came and joined me and we went to document the scene. After doing so, we exhumed the bodies of Ben and Gil. It was late by that point, so we left the glacier. Waiting for us at the edge of the glacier were Adam and Jared. Friends of the boys who had come to help us out. They decided to stay at the high camp and join us in our work the next day. We descended to middle camp, where the porters had moved all of our stuff to. The 7 policia were also there, and we prepared to get them to help us move the bodies down the next day.
Another early start, and we had both bodies off the glacier by about noon. Adam helped me inventory all the things found on, with, and around the bodies. The police helped move Gil from the glacier to our middle camp, and we loaded him onto a donkey around early afternoon. By this point, I was trying to leave the valley to get to my bus and get to Lima for my flight home. I accompanied Gil’s body with the arriaro and the donkeys towards base camp with the intention of getting to base and out that night. However, about halfway down, it got far too steep for the donkey and I had to call in more people to help us get Gil down. We used ropes to lower him down the grassy slopes, and finally had the body in base by about 6:00 that night. Having taken far longer than expected, I stayed in the valley another night.
At around midnight or 1:00am, Henry and Hector showed up with 6 new porters (who were supposed to show up sooner) and Ben’s body. They had descended about 1000 meters over terrible terrain, late into the night to finish the job. The next morning, we loaded up the donkeys with the bodies and were on our way. I accompanied the first, and we both arrived at the road around 9:00am in the morning. I caught a taxi that had been arranged for me, and went into Huaraz to debrief with Ted.
Our best theory of what happened, based on where the tracks end, where the faint sliding marks are, and where we found Ben and Gil, is that they were descending the ridge on the Western side, above the cliffs. From the Western side, it would have been difficult to see how overhanging and fragile the ridge they were on actually was. The tracks end in the bottom edge of the ridge where I believe part of the snow may have collapsed. If that happened, it would have dropped the leader (Ben) about 6 meters, pulling the second forward off his feet. Gil would have had less than 20 meters on very steep terrain to self arrest before dropping off the cliff side of the ridge. The rope was severed, probably quite high up, and both climbers tumbled an estimated 200 meters coming to rest in the snow below. Judging by what I saw, I’m pretty sure they were both dead before they hit the snow. It all must have happened very fast.
I hope this sheds some light on the events that took place in the Cojup valley. Some sense of closure certainly helped me get through this dark time, and my best wishes go out to those still dealing with this. For what it’s worth, I’m not religious, but I asked for a moment of silence and said a few words for each of my friends after digging them out. In ancient Egypt, they would place a coin in the mouth of one who had passed, payment for the boatman to take them across the river Styx to the next world. Adam gave me a Snickers bar and a bag of peanut M&Ms to throw into the crevasse below their final resting place. Perhaps this is our modern equivalent; snacks so that our friends can keep on hiking, wherever they go.