Cerro La Campana is a locally famous summit of the central Chilean region for its view above Aconcagua, as well for its microclimate born from the union of the ones coming from the Andes and from the Pacific coast. With 13km and 1400m of elevation gain, the trail heading to the summit is a solid family objective, especially with a 20kg baby pack on your shoulders.
A major drawback of this iconic place is its manager, CONAF, having a set of rules to restrict people access to the trail. With two cut off times, a maximal time to begin descent from summit and the interdiction for kids under 12 to have access to the final section, you really need to be a peaceful person to enjoy the ride. But let me be honest here: they do a great job, most hikers not being physically prepared and not being aware of the technicity (even if it is light) to the trail. All these rules reduce accidents and rescue numbers per year but aren’t strong enough to avoid people with poor shoes pass. That said, it is frequently painful to get blocked when you are a professional looking weird to CONAF rangers.
Of course, with our one-year old twins, rangers told us summit was not allowed to us. I had so to use all my negotiation skills and my mountain guide business card to change his mind. We could pass, at the condition that all could happen up there would be my own responsibility. As if I would risk my family life for a summit… Nevertheless, rangers would tell me later that they were happy with their decisions at this moment.
Hike was going great for us, we went up slowly but surely, and clouds were nice enough to let us have the iconic view over Aconcagua peak. This perfect day would eventually change during the descent, when we encountered a group of people gather around a person lying on the ground. I thought it was a rescue simulation for a WAFA, this basic rescue training for outdoor people. But as I got closer, I could see tense faces and blood everywhere. The guy just felt from 3 meters and hit him pretty bad.
With my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) in the pocket, I told myself I needed to get involved in the rescue and asked who was in charge. It was Bruno, with just small knowledge of urban rescue, who told me he would happily give me the lead for this one.
And so, I proceeded: on my knee, facing my patient, I introduced myself and asked him permission to help him, while putting on my only vinyl gloves available in my very small medikit. At that time, I could see that the head was hurt, but I kept it for later, checking first airflow and his breathing, and checking the rest of his body. Nothing serious, time to go checking the head. I removed the shirt that people have placed before to see a huge wound, 50cm long, bleeding as hell, and another one between his upper lip and his nose. I will remember for a long time the sound of sticking blood when I removed the towel from his head. “Holy shit, this guy is going to die here!”. I checked immediately his pulse: 120, regular and strong. That’s good sign. But what to do next? My head was just blank.
I looked at Mathilde and she has already understood the gravity of the situation. I couldn’t let him down even if I felt totally useless. She decided to go down with our twins and our au pair to La Mina, a safe place where rangers were checking people before going up. A man offered his help to carry my pack and she accepted and left. Now that my mind didn’t have to worry about my family, it was time to find what was next. Cleaning and stopping the bleeding! I took all gazes I had and started the work.
Minutes later, three CONAF rangers arrived with a stronger medikit and a stretcher. One of them was also a WFR but he was very happy to see me in charge and to stay in that configuration. I totally understood as I was also happy to see him arrived and very found on letting him in charge. We continued to wash and stop bleedings, while I stopped every strong guy descending from the summit in preparation of the evacuation. We put some stiches that I had had and created a system to maintain the head in position. In the meantime, a woman shouted at me because I trashed the place with my gaze’s packaging… it was such a big mess.
Once his head full of bandages, it was time to evacuate. It had been already 30 minutes at least since he felt. After argued about the right way to put him on the stretcher (no, we don’t lift him and put the thing under!), Bruno, in contact with bomberos (local firemen), told me it was asked to stay on position and to wait. No fucking way, I had heard sirens quite a while now and they still weren’t with us. Probabilities that they were not in shape were high, and my patient wasn’t in a great day.
There were three kilometres between us and sector of La Mina, where ambulance should probably wait. I succeed to gather ten strong dudes and once I explained how to create a chain to be more efficient, we were going full speed. I mean really full speed. The stretcher was not the best on the market, but hey, happy to have it. It was just only two people per side could carry the thing, plus one guy at the head. Patient was of the heavy lifter kind of guy; ten men were not too much. We took one hour and a half to move two kilometres in complicated rock terrain. Afterward, it was the best part of the rescue. Patient was stable, blood was hidden, and humanity was intense. I mean, few moments before, we didn’t know each other, we didn’t the patient and now we were caring other stamina, with tap on shoulders and words of encouragements. A true warm moment between human brothers. The group took care of me by not letting me carry the stretcher too long, by listening what I had to say and being sure I respected time intervals to check patient status. My job was more guiding the group, shouting when patient’s head was under his feet, and checking patient’s vital signs. Which was not evolving in the right way: pulse was weaker and weaker, and irregular. Septic choc was not that far, so I kept putting positive pressure on my folks.
Finally, we met firemen, at 400m only from their vehicles. All obese and sweating like crazy. It was the weirdest moment of the day, when intensity transformed in uselessness in seconds. They told us we could leave, without asking any information about patient’s status. I didn’t ask why now that I remembered my family was waiting for me. Before leaving, CONAF rangers gave me a huge thank you and told me they were happy to let me pass this morning.
To be honest, it is not a story about bravery or courage. I tell you this to wash my brain and to deal with post traumatic stress. I struggled days after, when it was impossible for me to have a good sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, images of the wound and sound of drying blood was in front of me. I needed this writing, as well as long talks with my wife, NOLS instructors and other specialists to heal. Knowing also that the patient finally made it to the hospital hours later and fully recovery was key in my healing process.