Three American climbers, twin brothers Eric and Greg Nourse, both 41 years old, and David Reinhart, 42, from Oregon and Colorado, attempted to climb 22,841-foot Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America and the Western Hemisphere, this season. On Saturday, December 29, two of them--Eric and David--tragically died on the mountain.
The experienced mountaineers had climbed many mountains, including Denali twice, Mount Elbrus, highest mountain in Europe, Mount Rainier as well as many other peaks. The trio went to Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits, in mid-December and by Christmas Day had reached 16,000 feet and were camping in high winds. Eric Nourse's wife Kandee at their home in Greeley, Colorado told the Greeley Tribune, "They were happy, healthy, calling everyone to wish time a Merry Christmas. He was awesome." Reinhart, however, felt ill so the team stayed put until he recovered.
On Thursday, December 27, they climbed to 19,200 feet and set up a high camp on the northeast flank of Aconcagua. From here they could climb the Polish Traverse across the Polish Glacier or the harder Polish Glacier Direct. They opted for the tougher alternative.
The Polish Direct route ascends over 3,000 feet up the right side of the glacier, climbing steep snow and ice slopes angled from 50 to 70 degrees. Many climbers do it unroped using technical ice climbing skills by frontpointing up the ice with crampons, using ice axes and ice tools for their hands, and stopping to place an ice screw when they want to rest. Otherwise parties have to do it in roped teams, which is quite a bit slower. The main difficulties are passing a couple rock bands near the top of the glacier. The route is not climbed too often and can be very dangerous in high winds or if a storm moves onto the mountain. Retreat down the route is extremely difficult.
On Friday, December 28, the team left camp at 4 a.m. to climb the Direct route to the summit. It took them all day to climb the ice wall, reaching the second band, just below the top of the face at about 22,000 feet, after dark. At that point, Dave Reinhart was ill and couldn't continue so they hunkered down. Eric Nourse then decided to climb to the summit in bright moonlight, find the easier Normal Route trail down the north face and get help. He climbed the remaining 700 feet but was unable to find the trail so he descended more directly down the steep north face.
In the early morning, Greg Nourse left his partner, who had altitude sickness, and went for help too. He waited at the summit for several hours for the first climber to show up. While on top, he called Reinhart's wife Char in Oregon and she was able to alert rescue personnel. Greg then took about six hours to descend from the summit to their high camp. Eric showed up 90 minutes later.
EMTs told the pair to quickly descend the mountain since both had altitude sickness and the best cure is getting down. Eric Nourse, however, wanted to rest and then carry his gear down so he crawled into his tent. He went to sleep and died. The EMTs were unable to revive him. Dave Reinhart tried to rescue himself high on the mountain, climbing 150 feet higher before dying. His body was retrieved two days later.
Both climbers apparently died of pulmonary edema or fluid in their lungs, a common symptom of altitude sickness, which can quickly strike anyone at a high altitude. The immediate primary treatment is to descend, but neither man was able to do that.
My sincere condolences to Greg Nourse and the families of Eric Nourse and Dave Reinhart. Rest in peace Eric and Dave.
Photograph above: Eric Nourse climbing Denali. Photograph courtesy Candee Nourse.