El Fede

Lunch and dinner are the same for five days: steak, Malbec, various potatoes, rolls pervading throughout. Occasionally, just to keep things interesting, we’ll visit the heladeria, order half-kilo Styrofoam bowls full of dulce de leche, chocolate, menta that take 45-minutes to consume while we’re splayed on shaded benches in the Plaza de Independencia, watching Argentine youths dance their bicycles over the umber tile. Jake Beren, who will be my guide on Aconcagua, is trying to regain the 12 pounds he lost during his last trip up the mountain. I too need all the energy stores I can get.

We’ll be working on the highest peak (22,841ft) outside Asia for the next two weeks. Although Aconcagua has a reputation for being a walk-up I’m not treating it as such. Altitude, weather and sheer size are dangers not to be overlooked. Aconcagua can and does kill climbers, even very experienced climbers, a fact I’m reminded of on my second night in Mendoza.

Tyler Reid, a hometown friend and RMI guide, is in Mendoza too—Port Townsend reunions are surprisingly common worldwide. Tyler, Jake and another guide, Gabriel “Gabi” Barral descended with their summit-smiling clients the same day I arrived from Santiago. Tonight, on a wish-I-had-flip-flops evening, they invite me to an asada that Gabi is hosting at the Hostal Alamo. I accept, excited to taste a traditional Argentine grill, mingle with thick-blooded locals, listen to embellished yarns about Andean rock, snow, ice.

Gabi, a young, balding man in his late thirties with a pepper beard, auroral eyes, the trunkish thighs and narrow calves of a runner turned mountaineer, taps the hardwood flame so that glowing coals drop beneath the grate. He scoops them up, spreads them under the thick-barred grill upon which heaps of meat—chorizo, flank, ribs, a whole fryer, rib-eye, sirloin, filet—sizzle and drip, fumigating the courtyard with odors to tempt even the most strict vegetarian. Bilingual conversations are aided by wine, beer and grappa, a sweetly powerful brandy that we mix with lemon and ice cubes.

“What kind of wood do you use?” I ask Gabi in Spanish.
“Basically, the harder the better,” he replies, beer in one hand, iron poker in the other. Gabi exudes a vibe of hospitality that permeates the party. I don’t feel shy or awkward even though I’m a complete stranger to everyone except Tyler.

Dinner begins when the meat is ready. Nine of us surround a cluttered table. Abundant food leaves no room for silverware. The word “Salud!” exhaled in unison, lights the fuse on this culinary explosion. Bottle after bottle is uncorked while teeth and fingers separate bone from meat. There are toasts and laughter while Gabi, the asadoro, continues revealing new cuts from the grill, each one more decadent than the last.

Somewhere in the midst of the Spanglish melee and Malbec guzzling, Gabi asks a serious question: “Where will each of you be, what will you be doing in ten years time?” It is his wish that we go around the table and answer the question one by one. Thank god he started on the other side of the table, I think.

Folks fantasize about boats, expect children and spouses, assure adventure. The question revolves to Amber, a red haired, pale skinned woman in her early thirties who wears Chaco sandals and a blue tank top. The table becomes quiet.

What happens next is difficult to relate and I must apologize to the readers of this blog for not telling the story in more detail or with better facts. Indeed, I have hesitated to write about this here because it is much deeper and more complex than I can hope to do service to with the impromptu nature of these blog entries. Still, it was a very powerful event and something that definitely shaped my experiences in Argentina, so I feel that it is important to briefly relate. I must also state that I have only respect and love for the people involved and that I hope not to offend any of them by telling this story, and telling it inadequately.

Amber is a widow. Her husband, Federico “Fede” Campanini, died on Aconcagua in a climbing accident in January, 2009. The accident occurred after Fede and his team of four Italian clients had reached the summit. Deteriorating weather and reduced visibility caused Fede and his clients to become disoriented and descend via the wrong route, the Polish Glacier. One of the clients fell and Fede was able to save them at the expense of much personal energy. Here, at about 22,000ft, the team was trapped in the storm for two nights while rescuers were unable to reach them. Fede and one of his clients died after struggling for their lives for three days.

Fede was an Argentine climber with years of guiding experience on Aconcagua and he began working for RMI in 2007. By all accounts, he was a strong, smart, conservative climber. And the kind of person whose positive energy affected everyone he knew.

I am the only person at the table that didn’t know Fede. He was Gabi’s close friend; he was the brother of the dark eyed man sitting at the end of the table; he was Amber’s husband. The ten-year question is, for her, a chance to unlock her heart and reveal its genuine contents to all of us. She talks about Fede, about the future, about still wanting kids, about not knowing why something like this had to happen. Her honesty hits a chord.

What follows is the deepest, most intense conversation about death, the afterlife, God, that I have ever experienced. Gabi speaks with eyes leaking onto the tablecloth. Fede’s brother uses words like “soul” and “spirit.” Billy Nugent, another RMI guide who will be leading a team alongside Jake and I, focuses on the word “energy.” With everyone listening, I clumsily speak about knowing Fede only through the stories told this night, but through those stories I can get a sense for what a wonderful person he was. Many people say that Fede will continue living in the actions and hearts of everyone sitting at the table. And the conversation is uplifting for a moment; the tears don’t feel so sad, although they are shed in full force.

Hours and hours fall and evaporate in choked laughter, furrowed brows, getting-cold meat. The heaviness of each word presses down on chests and heads. I feel like I’m part of something terribly beautiful that pulls me gently into a spiritual whirlpool, drags my emotions and preconceptions into the depths of a surprisingly tangible ether. I drift for a while amongst so much honest feeling and truly appreciate not finding answers but only more questions. One question may never have an answer: Why Fede?

Rising, I gather plates and cups, begin soaping dishes in the kitchen. It feels good to wipe grease and crumbs from the plates. It’s the least I can do after a night like this.
Saying goodbye is difficult in more ways than one. Extended hugs, cheek kisses, looks in the eye accompany merciful smiles. I’m not sure when I will see most of these people again, but I feel that sharing this moment has connected us indefinitely. I’m sure the next time I see them it will be with warm regards. Perhaps Fede’s legacy is exactly that.

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