Commentary: Death on a Bolivian mountain

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Latin America Correspondent  |  June 17, 2003 at 12:29 PM
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SAO PAULO, June 12 (UPI) -- The news of two American climbers dying on the slopes of a famous Bolivian mountain barely registered a blip on the U.S. news radar.

Despite the fact that two of the victims were members of the of the U.S. mission in La Paz – Col. Paul Kappelman and Maj. Kenneth Miller -- nary a word was written in the English press, not to mention my own.

This seemed strange to me for many reasons. Here were two highly decorated, respected soldiers, who along with their Bolivian guide, were killed while pursuing the 21,200 ft. summit of Mount Illimani, a spectacular, snow-capped peak visible most days from downtown La Paz.

The scenario had all the making for U.S. interest. Men who'd face countless trials and tribulations in the military ultimately undone by a pile of ice and rocks. Local reports, which were extensive in their coverage of the accident, had Kappelman and Miller dying alongside guide Vicente Perez sometime on June 7, their bodies dangling from ropes for three days until a retrieval operation could safely recover them.

Maybe the lack of coverage could be attributed to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz being particularly closed-mouthed about the ordeal until the bodies were recovered, stymieing overseas interest. But that doesn't seem right considering the pages of press the accident and recovery effort received in the pages of such newspapers as Bolivia's leading La Razon, which week featured a special section dedicated to the accident and recovery mission.

While the accident didn't make the cut in much of the mainstream press, what struck me at even more odd was the fact that it wasn't mentioned in a number of online mountain publications or Web versions of popular outdoor magazines.

Considering that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the greatest mountaineering feat in history – Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay's first ascent of Mount Everest – you'd think everything remotely mountain-related would make the editorial cut.

And it has, for the most part, as long as it has to do with Everest. A quick perusal of the online edition of popular adventure publication "Outside" features, count 'em, five articles referring to Everest. References to the recent Bolivian accident – zero.

It's not like "Outside" or others adventure publications don't report the grim side of climbing. They do. In May, "Outside" recounted the deaths of a German climber who expired from either altitude sickness or a blood clot while descending from the summit of the world's 6th highest mountain -- the 26,902-ft. Himalayan peak Cho Oyu.

And who can forget veteran "Outisde" reporter Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of nine climbers on Everest, which he later expanded into his bestselling book "Into Thin Air."

The amount of in-depth reporting on every facet of Everest possible – from the recent setting of a new speed record for its ascent, to cleaning up climbers feces – is understandable given the anniversary this year. But the lack of coverage of the Bolivian accident is telling of something severely lacking in one of the most pontificated upon and grueling of sports.

So why was the Bolivian accident largely ignored? And why am I particularly fixated on it? More on the latter later.

As for the former, I chalk it up to man's inherent quest for everything grand. It is at times a noble quality that pushes us to pursue what was once thought to be unattainable. Before the Hillary-Norgay ascent of Everest, many climbers thought that the peak just couldn't be bagged, that the height, which at 29,035 ft is just about cruising altitude for many commercial flights, would prove too high to survive.

But the "go for the gusto" attitude hardwired into renowned adventures like Hillary and Norgay thrives on defying doubters. And for that, they should be revered. "Everest for me, and I believe for the world, is the physical and symbolic manifestation of overcoming odds to achieve a dream," once said Tom Whittaker, the first physically disabled man to summit Everest in 1998.

Yet it's that same reverence for men willing to push the extreme limits of human endeavor and the obstacles that they seek to overcome that sometimes blinds us to the notion that greatness is not just a matter of climbing the highest or being the best. That's why more wasn't made of the deaths of Kappelman, Miller and Perez in the climbing community.

Sure, Bolivia's Mount Illimani isn't one of the world's tallest peaks, but its ranks among the highest in South America and is considered a dangerous climb by even the most experienced mountaineer, as proved to be the case for the American climbers and their guide.

But just because it's almost 8,000 feet short than the world's highest mountain, the accomplishment of climbing it, or tragedy of succumbing to it, is ignored. That it seems contradicts the spirit of climbing, the reason why mountaineers take to the hills in the first place and the reason why I recently decided to give high-altitude climbing a try.

Last month, I traveled to Bolivia and saw firsthand the awe-inspiring sight of Illimani. Its peaks, blanketed in snow and shrouded in a thin vapor of clouds, scream beauty and danger.

My guide tried to convince me to go for Illimani based on my telling him that I had some climbing experience, albeit in the much lower and safer summits of Colorado's Rockies. He assured me that I was fit enough to tackle the ominous summit, but very the sight of Illimani from the relatively safe confines of La Paz's bustling streets had me saying "no way."

Instead, I opted for a relatively more sedate ascent, the 18,799 ft. peak of Pico Milluni, which proved to be the most grueling and mentally taxing task I've ever undertaken. And when I stood on the summit, arms outreached to feel the swirling winds whipping the peak, I doubt that any Everest climber ever felt a greater sense of accomplishment or pride than I did.

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