Opinion: Climbers Are Dying in Patagonia and It Seems Different Than Before
"Honestly, the frequency with which people die and the extent to which the mountains are decomposing within each warm weather window, amounts to climbing here feeling almost suicidal" - Jacob Cook
Maybe it’s just me, but the number of climbers dying around the world, in particular in Patagonia, is hitting a lot different this year. In the past decade, I’ve written about over 60 climbers who’ve died climbing, and have personally lost several close friends to accidents in the mountains. Climbing’s annual “Climbers We Lost” included 50 climbers who died in 2022 – the most they’ve ever written about, and they didn’t mention everyone.
A climber has died during nearly every good weather window in Patagonia this season. Yes, climbers die and we accept that as a possible consequence to our actions – but our families and friends probably don’t. After a buddy died climbing in Peru in 2014, I spent several days over many years talking to his mom about why he died and the things that could’ve been done differently to prevent him from dying. Everyone in the climbing industry deals with this, from brands to sponsors to clubs to professionals to media to guides and to rescue teams.
I had a close friend die in Patagonia in 2012 and I know her loss is something still so deeply felt in the community and I’m certain by her family. Every year that goes by, more climbers die in Patagonia. Area expert and author Rolando Garibotti, who runs the Patagonia Vertical social media, has done an exceptional job at promoting safe climbing and keeping climbers from around the world informed. He recently talked about a rescue and reminded climbers that they should be up-to-date on their rescue skills. But it isn’t his responsibility to keep climbers safe, so who’s is it?
There are now organizations that help people grieving in the wake of mountain accidents, such as the American Alpine Club Grief Fund and Mountain Muskox, who’s mission statement is, “The Muskox provides safe, supportive, professional and peer facilitated, group circles for anyone who has experienced loss or trauma in the mountains.”
Several climbers died in Patagonia last year, including expert alpinist and mountain guide Korra Pesce who was hit by rockfall on Cerro Torre. This year, a climber died from exposure while soloing – I’ve heard second hand from a reliable source that, while they were knowledgeable about rock climbing, their previous alpine experience was possibly only one trip to the Bugaboos. Both veteran and novice climbers are dying in Patagonia.
Last week, Basque climbers Amaia Agirre, 31, and Iker Bilbao, 29, died in an avalanche/crevasse accident on Fitz Roy. It was too dangerous for a rescue team to go look for them, so word was sent out to those in the area to keep an eye out. Highly experienced climbers Jacob Cook and Tyler Karow were on Fitz Roy when they got the word to look for Agirre and Bilbao. After descending, Cook shared this on social media:
That night while all bivvied on the summit, we got news that two climbers had died descending from La Brecha that day (part of our descent). This combined with our friend John Bolte’s death in the same place last year lead to an extremely stressful next day. That evening as we rapped into the gulley I was literally shaking with fear, until we found ourselves running along the glacier through the avalanche debris that had swept two climbers into a crevasse the previous day. Honestly, the frequency with which people die and the extent to which the mountains are decomposing within each warm weather window, amounts to climbing here feeling almost suicidal. It’s hard to reconcile this with the beauty and meaning to be found in peak experiences like this. That being said, I don’t think I can handle that degree of psychological stress on a regular basis and have decided not to climb here more this season.
Two Canadians, Ripley Boulianne and Mateo Esposito, just climbed a new 600-metre line up Aguja Poincenot’s north face at 5.9+ in Patagonia. They’re stoked, relatively new alpine climbers who were on a trip supported by the John Lauchlan Award. During our conversation about their new route, I asked Boulianne if they were going to continue climbing, and they said, “I’m genuinely not sure for this season. It’s been a really hard year down here and with warming temps things are only getting worst. I’m thinking if just heading home honestly, I put myself and my loved ones through a lot of risk for this ascent already and I don’t know if I’m still psyched enough to keep going this season. I’m thinking of using the next window just to go scope out future objectives and learn more about the area.”
Colin Haley, one of the world’s most experienced alpinists, recently repeated alpine-style rope-solo the classic Goretta Pillar. In his post-climb write-up, he said, “Warming climate has made access to the original Casarotto route more difficult and dangerous,” so he opted to start on another route. There’s no doubt once-reliable mountain routes are changing due to warm weather faster than before, which can create more unpredictable conditions than previously considered safe.
Mark Twight, an accomplished alpinist with bold ascents to his name, has presented about climbing hundreds of times around the world, and said, “I used to end my shows with a tribute to dead friends and climbing partners. No one left these events unmoved. Especially as the tally of dead topped 40 and I couldn’t leave the list on the screen long enough for people to read it. Now that list has more than 50 but probably less than 60 names on it. I stopped keeping count when the memories made me sick.”
I’m not in Patagonia, but have heard from a few climbers that it seems grim and that the local search and rescue climbers are overwhelmed. I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is an answer, but many communities and families are left grieving the loss of a loved one after yet another deadly Patagonia season. All climbing styles are dangerous, but alpine climbing is likely the most dangerous. I love hearing about new routes, hard repeats and bold ascents, but this is getting crazy – no? Climb safe and make conservative decision in the mountains this year.