In memory of Victor Correa of Guican

It made me very sad to hear about the last fatality on Manaslu this year before the weather closed in and the Himalayan climbing season ended for the winter. Eleven people had already died in a huge avalanche on the 8163m peak in Nepal, the 8th highest mountain in the world, when the Colombian climber Victor Correa set out on 2 October from Camp 1 to Camp 2 at 6400m. He never returned, and it is likely he died from altitude sickness.

Victor Correa at Bellavista in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (Photo: Thierry Levenq)
Victor Correa at Bellavista in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (Photo: Thierry Levenq)

Victor called his girlfriend from Camp 2 on 3 October, and a group of Brazilian climbers said they saw him there on 4 October, but this was the last time he was seen alive. Two more South American climbers, Hernán Wilke from Argentina and Santiago Quintero from Ecuador, set out from Camp 1 on 6 October to try and look for him, but were forced to turn back due to avalanche hazard. Two Sherpas then tried to climb to Camp 2, but could get no higher than a large crack which had opened up among the seracs above Camp 1. Victor’s friend and mentor Juan Carlos Gonzales arranged for a helicopter to fly over on behalf of his family on 8 October. Rescuers flew all the way up to Camp 3 and tried to land at Camp 2, but were unable to do so due to the conditions. They could see no sign of activity on the mountain, and no teams were able to get to Camp 2 after this. It is unlikely his body will be found until the climbing season begins again in the spring of next year.

Victor had been one of my guides when I trekked Colombia’s Cocuy Circuit last year. He came from the town of Guican on the fringes of El Cocuy National Park, at the northern end of Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental mountain range, a beautiful remote mountainous area of glaciers, lakes and high altitude grassland characterised by dramatic rock walls. He had climbed from an early age, when Juan Carlos used to take him into the mountains with trekking and climbing groups as a boy, and he became the first person from Guican to become a professional guide. I remember him as a very outgoing and cheerful person, who was popular among the people of Guican, as you might expect. Although his English wasn’t grammatically correct, he spoke it well enough to communicate easily with his English clients; he always made an effort to improve it, and I remember a few amusing misunderstandings over language. He had a great sense of humour, and I think he was a bit a talker, who was forever trying to fill gaps in the conversation. On our return to Guican after the trek we stayed in the family hostel he had opened for his guiding business. He will be a huge loss to the local community. He was the second climber from the Boyacá area of Colombia to die on Manaslu, after Lenin Granados in 1998.

Victor (left) in Kathmandu with other members of his Manaslu expedition (Photo: Hernán Wilke)
Victor (left) in Kathmandu with other members of his Manaslu expedition (Photo: Hernán Wilke)

Sadly, unlike the 11 deaths in the freak avalanche on 23 September (see my posts The Manaslu avalanche and In defence of Manaslu for more information) it seems Victor’s death was preventable. At Camp 2 on 27 September he showed unmistakeable signs of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and descended to the village of Samagaon to recover. He was told by his doctor he should not ascend again, but for some reason he went back up alone from base camp on 1 October.

It’s possible a lack of team coordination may also have contributed to the tragedy. Victor, Hernán and Santiago were travelling together on the same climbing permit and using the same base camp services provided by the trekking agent, Thamserku Trekking, but it’s unclear whether they were team mates. It’s common practice for many trekking agents in Nepal to allow independent climbers to share the same group permit. Although each expedition permit is supposed to have a named expedition leader, in reality there is little or no coordination between different members of the team in these circumstances, and this can become a problem if one of them has an accident and needs help. I don’t speak Spanish and have used Google Translate to read the expedition dispatches of Hernán and Santiago. They appear to provide conflicting information about whether the three were a team, but it’s possible I may have misunderstood. In fairness to both climbers it seems they did all in their power to try and rescue Victor, but stronger team cohesion may have prevented him climbing alone against doctor’s orders.

But I don’t mean to point the finger of blame at anyone else, and nor should I. Victor’s decision to continue climbing was his own. Santiago made a very pertinent statement in one of his dispatches, when he said he reached his “summit” by returning safely. Victor was very attentive about the safety of his clients when I climbed with him in Colombia. Unfortunately, yet understandably, like many guides it seems he was prepared to take more risks when it came to his own life. Whatever the reasons, he will be sadly missed.

I wrote about him often in my Cocuy Circuit trek diary, and he made a brief appearance on our Ritacuba Blanco summit video (below), which left behind many happy memories.

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10 thoughts on “In memory of Victor Correa of Guican

  • November 7, 2012 at 6:37 pm
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    So sad to read of Victor’s death. It is so sad and can’t help feeling “What a tragic waste of such a young life” even if he was doing something he enjoyed. Read the signals and act upon them. The mountain will still be there to climb another day.

  • November 9, 2012 at 12:30 am
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    Muchas gracias por tus palabras… conocí a Victor en Guican y cruce muchas veces palabras con el… incluso un 31 de diciembre me invito a cenar a su casa. Era una persona muy emprendedora… tenia muchos planes a futuro, muchos de sus sueños ya los estaba realizando, creo que fue necio al subir… pero el queria demostrarse a si mismo que podia llegar. La verdad creo que el sigue vivo!!! Jeimmy Barrera de Bogota Colombia

  • November 9, 2012 at 10:23 am
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    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Victor, Jeimmy.

  • November 12, 2012 at 5:56 am
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    I saw Victor at Camp 2 when we camped there on our descent from our summit attempt with my Brazilian friend (there was just two of us and I am from Australia). Whilst my friend agrees that altitude sickness may have paid a part in Victor’s disappearance I have my doubts. Victor seemed fine and in good spirits with no sign of altitude sickness when we left him around lunchtime the next day. He had spent a night there and was determined to spend a second night to prove he was acclimatizing.
    We encouraged him to come down with us as we (especially me) did not like the conditions the icefall (between camps 1 and 2) was likely to be in the next day. We descended in a snow storm that continued into the next day. It sounds like nobody made it back up to Camp 2 after our descent so perhaps my fears were well founded. Crevasses were widening, new crevasses appearing, the fixed lines and path were been buried in deepening snow, visibility was very low and the chances of avalanches very real. Not good conditions to be descending alone if at all.
    To me it sounded like Victor chose to climb to Camp 2 alone without his two companions to prove that he was acclimatising. He seemed very determined. He also seemed to be a very nice chap and I was saddened but, unfortunately, not surprised by his disappearance.
    My condolences to those of you who knew him well!

  • November 12, 2012 at 10:37 am
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    Thanks, Paul. What you say makes perfect sense. It’s possible that he felt better after a few days rest at Samagaon, and although Camp 1 would have been a safer place to acclimatise, after what happened the first time he may have felt he had something to prove by going up to Camp 2.

    The steep serac section betweens Camp 1 and 2 is not a place to be in bad whether. I was there myself last year and know how dangerous it can be, not only because of the risk of avalanche and serac collapse. Like you say, fresh snow will have buried the fixed ropes, digging them out will have risked triggering further avalanche, and new crevasses were opening which may have been too wide to cross. Victor may have believed a better option was to wait for the weather to improve rather than descend, but this didn’t happen and conditions were getting worse. He may well have had an accident in this section rather than succumbing to altitude sickness. Thank you for providing fresh insight – if only he had accepted your offer to rope up and descend.

  • December 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm
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    Mark,

    thanks for your words. A lot of people shared friendship with Victor, me too.

    Only to be clear about facts: Victor was the first to decide to go to Manaslu, even alone. After that, I was invited by Santiago to make a team of two (he had the money, but no partner). They didn´t know each other before the expedition.

    Already in the monuntain, we decided to go toghether with Victor, so we would be a stronger team, and because of Santiago´s sherpa leaving, we could share a tent (after the big avalanche a lot of sherpas left)

    First time we reached camp 2, Victor suffered from altitude sickness (he wasn´t able to find his things, spoke about “beers” instade of his socks, etc.) Santiago an I helped him down to base camp (although our plan was reaching camp 3). There he decided to go to Samagaon. Russel Bryce´s doctor (Nima I think was his name) medicated him and told him not to try to go up again. The same was our recomendation, and also from other expirienced climbers.

    We left for camp 3, stayed 3 days in the mountain and were very surprised to hear (from santiago´s wife in basecamp), that victor was gonig up again. I called inmediatly to colombia, and asked everyone to ask his sponsor and family to tell him not to do so.

    On our way down, we met him. I personally asked him to come down with me, but couldn´t convince him. I used the old words (same like Kate above): The monutain is going to be there always. He told me he would only go to camp 1, stay there some days and only if he felt really good, go up further. And told me that from Colombia they had told him to try again, even a doctor.

    I kept asking everyone coming down about his location and health. The last people to see him where the Brasilians (really, as stated, one brasilian, one australian), they told me he was ok, but we where all worried about the conditions betwen camp 1 and 2. He told them, he was coming down next day, what he didn´t (I looked every day at the route in the morning, before the clouds came in, and couldn´t see anyting).

    Santiago and I decided to try to get to camp 2 and see if he needed help, but were caught in an avalanche near to camp 1.

    We paid (1.100 usd) to two sherpas from SevenSummits to try to go further the next day. They reached camp 1, but couldn{t get much higher.

    I arranged with his sponsor (with the help of Juan Carlos from Colombia) the helicopter search. I personaly flew over camp 2 and over camp 3, told the pilot to land, what wasn´t possible, unfurtanetly.

    Next day I went up again to camp 1, with the lasts climbers who still wanted to try a summit push. I brought all of our gear down, and stated the very bad conditions of the route above camp 1. Actually, nobody could reach camp 2 in the next days, and still nobody did.

    I think it´s it´s very probable he was ill again, and stayed in camp 2. Or maybe he went up higher. May be we will know after climbers go up next season.

    As you put in your blog,”stronger team cohesion may have prevented him climbing alone against doctor’s orders”. Unfurtunately, he didn´t take care about our recomendations, and didn´t understand how dangerous it was for him going up alone. And never saw in Santiago a leader (you are very right when you explain how this works, leader is only in the papers in this international expeditions).

    People who knew him agree he was very determinated. May be too much in this case.

    We all miss him a lot.

    I only would like that we all learn about what happened. For me, this was my strongest and saddest lesson in the mountains, one lesson I will never forget.

    I hope my english is good enough to you to understand my apreciations.

    Thank you for remembering him as he was, a very happy, friendly person.

  • January 1, 2013 at 12:30 am
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    Hi Hernan,

    Thank you for providing this detailed response in English. It makes everything much clearer and helps to confirm the information I’ve tried to piece together from your and Santiago’s blogs.

    I didn’t know Victor very well, but I can see him as someone who would have been frustrated at getting altitude sickness, and who would have wanted to return to Camp 2 to prove to himself that he could.

    I’m very sorry about what happened. I know you have lost a good friend, and I don’t think you could have done any more than you did to prevent the tragedy.

    It must have been a very traumatic experience, but I hope you will continue to climb big mountains.

    Kind regards for a happier 2013.

    Mark.

  • January 1, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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    Thanks for your words Mark, and congratulations for your very interesting blog

  • June 4, 2013 at 4:27 am
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    Hi i am from Colombia and today i saw a documental story about the life and tragedy of this climber. With all respect with victor´s family and friends…but it seems to me that victor was mulish and irresponsible with the decision of keep trying to reach the top of the mountain.
    RIP Victor… and please climbers! life is the most preciuos thing that really matters.

    Regards

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