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Saturday, July 23, 2011
Climbing out of the abyss

By Dana Beck

One moment can change everything. For high-altitude climber Isabel Suppé, that moment came on a brutally cold day on a Bolivian mountain on July 29, 2010. Suppé was a rope's length away from the summit ridge of Ala Izquierda del Condoriri's 17,761-foot peak when tragedy struck. Her climbing partner, Peter Wiesenekker, slipped on a patch of ice, blowing out their anchorage points and pulling down Suppé, who was tied to him.

"We kept on falling through what seemed an eternity. I was waiting to finally lose consciousness when I realized that I was slowing down," the 32-year old Suppé said from her home in Mendoza, Argentina. After alternately freefalling and skidding for more than 1,100 feet, the climbers landed at the bottom of the mountain face. Despite suffering severe injuries, they were miraculously still alive. Wiesenekker, who had broken his leg and taken serious blows to his head, was unable to move. Suppé had broken her right ankle, and her tibia and fibula bones had torn through her skin. Every time she lifted her foot, blood poured out of her boot.

Only three people -- a caretaker and two drivers -- had been told which peak the climbers were attempting, and to expect them back by nightfall. When Suppé and Wiesenekker failed to get back to base camp, it was assumed they were just running late. No immediate rescue was sent. Suppé stayed with her partner through an excruciating night. Temperatures fell to 5 degrees Fahrenheit and her clothes, soaking wet from the fall, kept freezing to the ice. "I knew that falling asleep meant death so I did everything in my power to stay awake," she said. During the night, she began to hallucinate, a symptom of hypothermia. "I saw people walking toward me bringing tents and sleeping bags. I knew it couldn't be true but they kept on coming."

After her first expedition to Patagonia, in 2003, Suppé began to build her life around climbing, spending all of her money on gear and all of her spare time in the mountains. Climbing has been everything to Suppé since she was 6 years old. Her grandfather, Walter Lenk, was a legendary figure in East Germany's climbing word. "During the post-war years, he climbed barefoot. He had no money and nothing to eat but he never stopped climbing, racking up first ascents whenever he could," Suppé said. He met her grandmother, Waltraud, while climbing a mountain and they passed their love of the outdoors down to Isabel.

"From the first summit I made with my grandparents, the pull of the mountains has been irresistible," she said. In 2005 she decided to focus on high-altitude climbing, and by 2007 she had quit her academic career and moved her base camp from Buenos Aires to Mendoza to be closer to the mountains. She has summited some of the highest peaks (over 22,000 feet) in the Andes, including the inhospitable and almost inaccessible Mount Pissis and the technically challenging South Face of Cerro Mercedario. In Europe and North America, there are dozens of female high-altitude climbers, but in South America, Suppé is one of the only women in this male-dominated sport.

When Suppé and Wiesenekker were still missing from base camp the following morning, the caretaker and drivers knew something terrible had happened. Rescue patrol was called, but no one could remember the name of the peak they had set out on, and time was slipping away.

By then, Wiesenekker was not coherent. Suppé knew she had to do something. Her plan was to somehow cross the glacier with only one good foot and reach a point where she could send a light signal to base camp. With painstaking effort and the few remnants of gear that hadn't been lost in the fall, she set off into the unforgiving Andean terrain. Walking on her injured foot was impossible and crawling across the penitentes -- tall, sharp ice-blade formations -- was excruciating because her knees were torn up. So, sitting on the ground, she carefully lifted her body weight with her arms behind her, moved her torso over the ice formations toward her feet, then carefully lifted her injured foot with a trekking pole looped through her crampon strap and moved it forward several inches. Suppé would repeat the inchworm-like process hundreds of times until nightfall.

"I was totally focused on surviving and was more lucid than I have ever been in my life," she said. After 24 hours of waiting to be rescued, pages from a physiology book appeared in her mind and reminded her how to stay hydrated -- by mixing the salt from her last piece of meat with water melted from the glacier. To stave off hypothermia while she rested, Suppé sat on her pack to isolate her body from the ice and continuously rubbed her arms and legs. She placed a trekking pole in front of her body and leaned against it at a precise angle so that if she fell asleep, her head would knock over the pole and she would wake up. The second night the hallucinations worsened.

"All of the stars in the sky looked like torches," she said. "I thought they were rescuers coming to get me. Then I thought I was sitting at my favorite café in La Paz ordering cinnamon café lattes and blueberry cheesecake. When I realized I was hallucinating, the disappointment was crushing."

Using her climbing philosophy -- take one meticulously executed step at a time and stay focused on each moment -- Suppé managed to survive more than 40 hours of forceful winds and below-freezing temperatures before a rescue team, including climbers who had given up their own summit attempts to join the search, found her. "Once I realized they weren't another hallucination, I asked them for something hot to drink," she said. "They hadn't brought anything because they hadn't expected to find me alive." She was taken down the mountain on a stretcher and placed on a mule, then rode in a Jeep to get to the nearest city. The entire process took another 18 hours.

The rescuers reached her partner too late. Wiesenekker had died of hypothermia during the second night. Suppé was taken to La Paz and rushed into surgery. Fearing that the fracture's open wound had caused irreversible vascular damage, doctors warned her that amputating her foot was a serious possibility and that, even if they saved the foot, she'd never climb again. Suppé refused to believe it. "The thought of losing my foot, of losing the ability to walk, was more terrifying than falling off the mountain. While I was waiting to be rescued, I swore to myself that if I survived I would dedicate the rest of my life to climbing."

Suppé flew to her native Germany to undergo complex surgeries to close the hole in her ankle and save her foot. One month after the accident, she climbed a rock wall in Madrid with her right leg dangling behind her in a cast. Eleven months, 10 surgeries and countless hours of rehab later, she is cast-free and climbing with crutches. In May, she knocked out the first female solo ascent of Mount Cachi in Argentina, a formidably high (over 22,000 feet) and cold (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) undertaking.

After the accident, Suppé met with Wiesenekker's mother, Nina. "It was horrible to have to look into her eyes and tell her I wasn't able to save her son's life." The two women have become close and Nina is the first person to cheer on Suppé's climbs and projects. "She is a very strong and generous person," Suppé said. "That is why I dedicated my [newly healed] foot's first summit to her." At the top of Dos Conos (19,242 feet), Suppé left a note:

Dedicated to Nina and to all those that care to dream against all probabilities of science.

Suppé doesn't climb as effortlessly as she used to and she has to deal with new fears -- hurting her injured foot or falling again -- but they aren't enough to keep her off the mountains.

"When I was in the hospital, I met so many people who were there because, after years of being careful, they had been hit by a car or had fallen over their own dog. I'd much rather die doing what I love than to live a long life not daring to believe that I can make my dreams come true."

Suppé's next mission is climbing in the Himalayas, a dream she has had since she was a child. She is planning an "Everest on Crutches" expedition to raise money for a cause that was close to Wiesenekker's heart. "When we were climbing together, he told me how much building a school for children in Pakistan would mean to him," Suppé said. "I can't change anything about the fact that he has died, but I can give [his life] a positive meaning."