Fallen 25 meters into an icy cleft in the Peruvian mountain of Tocllaraju for 30 hours, Annemai Märtson tried to call for her fellows. «No answer, all remained still and quiet.» Allan Valge, and Jane and Tarmo Riga perished. To honor the dead and the helpers, she tells the story of her struggle.
-Annemai, would you tell us of why you picked this very mountain?
The idea came from a conversation between Kristjan-Erik Suurväli and Tarmo while mountaineering in Georgia a year back. The Rigas had been trekking Latin America repeatedly. Both Allan and Tarmo had been to the highest peak of the continent, the Aconcagua. For me, Latin America was just a long time dream.
Regarding the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca range, they say that every genuine mountaineer should at least once pay a visit. It’s an unique spot of natural beauty.
-What was the preparation like? Differing from other trips?
It happens all year round, actually. In summer, we mountaineers average a month on some mountain, followed by a little rest. In the fall, we begin the more focussed physical training. And thus this time as well. Early on, we divided the tasks between us and practiced for the glaciers including hauling each other up. We were prepared, both physically and mentally.
-Thinking back, was there anything special about this time? Weird?
Thinking back, we do attribute new meaning to words or events, as if to help digest what happened. There was this little incident of a mule running off with our equipment on the way to base camp at Ischinca and for half an hour we had a little time to regret to have to turn back. But beast and burden were recovered....
-What was the morning like? Were there others with you?
It was a starry night, no wind, about 7 degrees below zero Celsius. We tied up to a 60 metres rope. The men were at the ends of it. Before us, on a path well trodden, two Frenchmen were moving within eyesight in the same tempo.
We knew there were supposed to be two German guys coming also, with whom we had been talking at base camp. For them, this would have been their first 6,000 metres mountain. But we never detected their lamps behind us. We thought they opted out. Afterwards, we learned they had slept in and were on their way 1.5 hours later. One turned back half way, the other continued alone knowing we were on that path as well. These guys later proved key for my rescue in a way.
-Continuing on – what was the mountain like as you came to the accident site? What were you discussing, considering?
We had been going at a good tempo. The sun had just arisen as we came at 5,900 meter height and headed to a 60 to 70 degrees slope we decided to fasten a support rope. Tarmo climbed ahead and secured the rope with two spikes in the snow at the station. Me and Jane ascended along the rope. It was easy with ice pick. Ahead of us, we clearly saw the path and the Frenchmen some 60–70 metres ahead of us.
-What were you talking about at that moment?
As we felt fine and strong and the path featured no visible dangers not cracks in the ice, I felt to ask the boys if I could go ahead and wait for them over where the Frenchmen were. I clearly remember how Tarmo calmly assessed the plateau and without turning his eyes from the peak said I was free to go.
-So go you did...
I did. After three-four metres, the surface disappeared from under my feet. Free-falling, it felt this was the end...
-You ended up in snow up to your chest. What did you try to do first? Was there any trace of the others?
I landed half erect, buried up to the chest in snow and bits ice. I recall a chunk of ice falling onto my helmet, which fell off along with the sunglasses. Well the final reflex to hold on to life is taking a breath. I was gasping for air as the heavy snow that fell on top of me seemed to have hit the lungs empty. Having breathed again, I felt glad to be alive. I thought I alone fell in the cleft. I called for the others. Nothing.
-You realised what had happened.
As I looked up I realised they had to have fallen as well. The cleft was vast, like a cave widening towards the top and seven to ten metres at the widest. At the top the edges were inward so the opening was perhaps three metres. The ice bridge covered with snow had fully caved in.
-How did you try to stay alive, and awake?
With a pick, I dug myself out of the snow. It was thick, heavy and iced up fast. I was surprised that mu arms and legs were intact and I could move. The backpack had broken, the metal plate in it was bent altogether. I began to dig around looking for the others. After a while, I realised they were not in the same spot obviously. There was a heap of snow towards my right, I guessed they were there.
Initially I thought the French will hear my cry and we can figure something out, call for help. Not happening. My chest part had been severely injured and my attempts to climb to the heap with pick ended with standing up and doing a few moves. Also, I realised I was not going to get out. In shock, the body has its safety functions to keep alive. I felt tempted to fall asleep, but the cold and the pain would not let me. In the night, I covered myself with thermal film from the wind. I also had painkillers, in my bag.
-What did you feel?
How do you express realising you are alone in a crevice of ice, your loved one and friends under snow nearby, and there’s nothing you can do? All of a sudden, dying felt absurdly easy. This was the stillest thirty hours of my life.
-What was the process like of finally helped out?
The Germans, coming after us, realised something must have happened. Fearing to fall in, they never came too close to the edge. They said they had yelled but we never heard each other. They had a satellite phone which they used to call for help that very afternoon.
Next morning in the light I heard people talking up there. I sprang to my feet, suddenly able to move as if, and cried for help. They responded in Spanish. If were two rescuers from Peruvian Mountain Guides Association, Víctor Hugo Rímac and Tom Rodriguez Roller. It took some time until one of them was able to descend and I was hoisted up by a rope. It took three hours, and the edges were still dangerous. They acted very professional.
-Were they surprised to find you?
Sure, as the Frenchmen had said no one answered them as they called.
-We know nothing about medicine on a Peruvian mountain town. Did they take good care of you? Seeing they don’t speak English too much...
In Huaraz, at the San Pablo private clinic, the only doctor who spoke English just happened to be on duty. They checked me out and did a minor operation, after which I spent a week in intensive care and a week in rehabilitation. The treatment was adequate and I had plenty of attention. The nurses were very caring and skilled. I speak a few words of Spanish, we managed. My education being in medicine, I was aware what was being done to me.
-How is the health now, nearly six months later?
The fall was lucky. I will probably have spine problems for the rest of my life, rehabilitation continues. Having an active lifestyle, I work at my former load and live one day at a time.
-Forgive me for asking, but being the only one to survive, is there a guilt or some haunting thought?
I have thoroughly thought it over and discussed with experts. It was unpredictable. Sometimes the rope saves, sometimes it is fatal. The mountaineers have no illusions. Some are luckier than others. I have realised the fragility of life.
Feeling guilty would be so destructive in this situation. Better focus on being thankful. That I was able to be with people of such passion, maturity and focus. To be roped together takes respect....
-This will be the only time you share the story, to then carry on. Thank you so much.
I would extend my thanks to all the good people who have helped me, stood with me and supported morally and financially.
By my kind colleagues, a support account collected enough money for two family members to come help me with everything in Peru and get back home. Also thanks to donators, the search for the others proved possible afterwards, two weeks later in severe conditions. They did succeed to find two of my companions... That was helpful, emotionally and regarding clarity.
Thanks again to all the kind people. In addition to cover rehabilitation costs, I assume all agree that the money left over goes to support Maarja Miral, the daughter of Tarmo and Jane.