Searching for Adolfo
Adolfo Benegas and Eric Bender vanished without a trace on Aconcagua’s South Face in 1990. After 29 years of searching, Benegas’ brother has found plane wreckage, stranded climbers, other remains and even a haunting. What he hasn’t found are answers.
Juan Benegas stood in bare boot soles above the icy Polish Glacier side of Aconcagua, the crown peak of the Andes and the tallest point in the world outside of the Himalaya. His partner, Gabriel Cabrera, stomped his crampons into the ice and braced to belay.
Juan, 24, was desperate to reach two climbers he’d seen and knew were stranded, and perhaps dying, on an ice shelf just below the summit of Aconcagua.
Juan had known he would be climbing above 22,000 feet, but his ascent route, the “trekking” or Normal Route on Aconcagua, is rocky and doesn’t require crampons, and in his haste to pack and get to the stranded climbers he’d not bothered with crampons.
Fortunately, his older and more experienced climbing partner, Gabriel Cabrera, had brought his crampons.
“Ready, Juan?” shouted Cabrera, poised to belay Juan as he downclimbed to the climbers.
“Yeah!” said Juan, cautiously stepping onto the Polish Glacier.
Almost instantaneously his feet shot out from under him, and he careened down the 45-degree slope. Cabrera, caught by surprise at the immediacy of the fall, fumbled and lost his grip on the rope.
Juan rocketed almost 40 feet before Cabrera regained control of the belay. The rope pulled taut, snapping Juan upright and raking him across the ice face.
Unhurt, Juan struggled back to his feet. He and Cabrera knew that this was a harebrained way to descend, but Juan remained adamant that they continue. Juan believed that one of the stranded climbers was his brother Adolfo, and the other was an American, Eric Bender. The pair had been missing for two weeks. It was now mid March, an unusual time for anyone to be up on the mountain. Typically, climbers attempt Aconcagua during Argentina’s austral summer—late November to late February—to catch stable weather. But Adolfo and Bender had insisted on going up late in the season when everyone else would be on the way down.
The climbers on the ice had to be Adolfo and Bender, Juan Benegas reasoned. Who else would be stuck near Aconcagua’s summit at this time of year? It was spring 1990.
At 22,841 feet, Aconcagua reliably kills at least three climbers a year, giving it the highest average annual death rate of any mountain in South America.
Famous as one of the Seven Summits, Aconcagua claims many victims for the simple fact that 3,500 people, mostly inexperienced climbers, attempt it each year. Of these, 30 to 40 percent are successful, hiking the Normal Route, a trail that has been “climbed” in 11 hours 15 minutes.
Aconcagua’s South Face, however, intended by Adolfo Benegas and Eric Bender, is the stuff of legend. Nine thousand feet high, laced with difficult rock and ice, and pummeled by avalanches and collapsing seracs, the wall is so dangerous the local search-and-rescue team refuses to deploy there. Reinhold Messner spent a week just studying the wall before establishing, solo, a new route in 1974.
Andrea Di Donato, an Italian guide who in 2012 added a major variation to the Direct French Route on the South Face, notes that some years no one succeeds on the wall, and that aborting an attempt midway up is daunting since down climbing would be riskier than going up.
Adolfo and Bender had intended to climb the South Face via the Direct French Route, an ascent that begins with 14 exposed pitches over a difficult rock barrier first climbed by a team of French alpinists in 1985, five years earlier. Adolfo and Bender set off to attempt the route, and were never heard from again.
After learning of their disappearance, Juan Benegas raced up the Normal Route to look for them. He figured that his brother and the American had found the South Face too unstable or difficult, and changed course, possibly moving onto the East Face and the much easier Polish Glacier Route.
Juan’s search for the pair had commenced weeks earlier with a gut feeling that hit him during a training run in Buenos Aires, where he lived. At first, everyone thought Juan was crazy to insist that Adolfo needed his help, since Adolfo had only been on Aconcagua for four days and had said that he might not be back for a week. But Juan couldn’t shake the sense that something terrible had happened. He immediately booked a flight and hiked to the base of Aconcagua’s South Face to look for his brother and Bender. He found some cereal and cooking equipment the pair had stashed behind a rock, but couldn’t see the two up on the South Face, now enveloped by storm clouds.
Instead, at the very foot of the rocky face, he found a hand sticking out from the snow.
Alarmed, Juan hurriedly unburied it to discover that the hand was not attached to a body. Rather, it was severed just below the wrist. It quickly became apparent that the remnant was too old to belong to Adolfo or Bender, so Juan stuffed the hand into his backpack. Local mountaineers would later hypothesize that it belonged to a French climber who’d gone missing on the South Face in 1987.
Juan’s next move was to push for Aconcagua’s summit—despite having just arrived from Buenos Aires and sea level.
Ignoring the risk of altitude sickness, he convinced a helicopter pilot to drop him off at nearly 16,000 feet. Juan figured that Adolfo and Bender might be holed up in one of the small emergency shelters that line Aconcagua’s Normal Route, which they would have descended had they crested the South Face.
Juan checked each of the emergency shelters along the way to the summit, but found them empty. Running out of options, he returned to Aconcagua’s base camp, Plaza de Mulas, to regroup and wait.
Another week passed with no sign of Adolfo or Bender. Then—just as things appeared hopeless—word came in that a pair of military jets that had been scrambled to look for Adolfo and Bender had spotted a red tent near Aconcagua’s summit. For the second time in 10 days, Juan set out for the top, racing up the Normal Route, this time with Cabrera, a mountaineering guide he had found at base camp.
Now that the red tent and two climbers were within sight, Juan was filled with optimism for the first time in weeks. One of the climbers was short in stature, like Adolfo, and the other was tall, like Bender.
As Juan and Cabrera finished their dangerous descent on the ice, they approached the climbers, ready to embrace them. Then one of the climbers removed his hood and his goggles.
Juan was stunned. He had to turn his back to hide his tears.
The man was not his brother. Nor was it Bender.
Jose Tancredi and Claudio Cavalini were young alpinists from Buenos Aires. Like many climbers at the time, they had not bothered to get a permit, so none of the local authorities or climbers knew they were on the mountain. The men were clearly in bad shape. They’d run out of water and fuel, and one had developed frostbite on his legs.
Despite Juan’s disbelief, he couldn’t abandon them, so he and Cabrera gave their best attempt at a rescue.
One of the climbers tried to follow Juan and Cabrera to the summit, but was too weak to make it, deciding to turn around and wait at the tent with his frostbite-stricken partner until Juan and Cabrera could send help.
When Juan returned to base camp, he had a radio dispatcher request a high-altitude helicopter drop off food, clothing and fuel to the stricken climbers. This was a risky proposition: At 22,000 feet, the helicopter was maxed out in the thin air, unable to take off if it were to land. Unable to pick up the stranded climbers, the pilot threw emergency supplies out of a window.
It took another four days to assemble volunteers who were fresh enough to hike up to the climbers. Too exhausted to go high on Aconcagua a third time, Juan stayed behind.
The rescuers set off, and when they returned they gave Juan the bad news: They had opened the tent flaps to find Trancredi and Cavalini dead inside their sleeping bags. The package of food and clothing dropped by the helicopter was unopened. It appeared that the young climbers from Buenos Aires had been too weak to leave their tent.
Juan wasn’t sure how many more emotional ups-and-downs he could handle. The 24-year- old Argentine was not used to death, and all the while his brother and his American friend were still missing.
Only after Adolfo’s birthday on April 5 came and went, with still no signs of the climbers’ whereabouts, did Juan accept that he was searching for bodies. He returned to the base of the South Face in December 1990 to resume his hunt, this time encountering the famous Austrian climber Thomas Bubendorfer. Then 29 years old, Bubendorfer had camped out below the South Face for most of the summer, training and studying Messner’s route before attempting a solo speed record (he was to climb the South Face in a record 15 hours, 30 minutes on January 3, 1991). Bubendorfer mentioned to Juan that he’d visited the South Face the year before, right before Adolfo and Bender attempted it, and had found it too unstable to climb.
Together, Juan and Bubendorfer combed the snowfield beneath the rocky wall, looking for any equipment or remains that might have been flushed off the South Face by an avalanche. They came up empty- handed. Juan had no interest in climbing up onto the South Face himself, but Bubendorfer promised to be on the lookout for any evidence during his ascent. Again, the Austrian climber saw nothing.
Disappointed, Juan made plans to return again the following summer. He vowed that he wouldn’t stop looking until he found them.
Twenty-nine years later, he’s still searching.
Since his brother and the American disappeared, Juan has traveled to the base of the South Face at least once a year—usually during Argentina’s summer months. In early 2016, I asked Juan if I could join him on his search. Juan agreed to take me along, and we planned a trip in March—the same month that Adolfo and Bender went missing decades earlier.
In preparation, I’d studied topos of the South Face, and anticipated seeing it with my own eyes. There were many questions on my mind before our trek: Why does Juan keep searching for Adolfo’s and Bender’s bodies every year—is it some kind of grieving ritual, or a deeper obsession? Will this be the year that he finds their bodies? Is that even possible at this point?
My reasons for going to Argentina also extended beyond Juan Benegas; I’d come to find out more about the 32-year-old American climber Eric Bender. I’d actually learned of Bender before Juan, because an acquaintance of mine grew up with Bender in San Francisco, and was shocked to find a 2007 issue of Climbing magazine reporting that Bender was specifically referenced as the “ghost” that haunts Aconcagua’s slopes. Bender was said to appear as an apparition near a part of the mountain called the Playa Ancha, and locals knew him as El Caminante, or “The Walker.”
Juan believes that Bender haunting the mountain is a “ridiculous” claim. But Willie Benegas, Juan and Adolfo’s cousin and an accomplished mountaineer who has summited Everest 11 times, made a first ascent of The Crystal Snake on Nuptse, and set speed records in Africa on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, told me over the phone that there is truth to the ghost story. He heard about Bender haunting the mountain from an elderly climbing guide named Obaldo at Aconcagua’s base camp in 1992—just a couple of years after Bender disappeared.
“This is how I came to know that he is the ghost,” Willie said.
Willie swore he even had a brush with the paranormal himself. In the early 1990s, not long after he heard about Bender’s ghostly presence on Aconcagua, Willie was attempting a speed ascent of the Normal Route, and as he was hiking through the windy Playa Ancha valley at 2 a.m., listening to Pink Floyd on a pair of headphones, he heard a strange buzzing noise in the background. He was so spooked that he began running, until eventually the noise went away. When he later relayed his story to locals, they also confirmed hearing strange sounds or seeing smoky apparitions in and around the same section of Aconcagua.
But Bender’s legacy reaches beyond campfire ghost stories and the pages of a magazine; I discovered that at New York University, the “Eric Dean Bender Prize” is awarded to one law student each year who displays a commitment to public service. Bender’s sister had set up the award using a trust fund after Bender disappeared in Argentina, and chose the public-service category in light of Bender’s writing on digital-surveillance issues for the NYU Law Review when he was a student at the school.
What’s surprising is that a spokeswoman from NYU, as well as a recent recipient of the prize, told me that no biography is given out with the award, and they knew nothing of its source.
As I’d find out, a similar dearth of information about Bender exists among those who knew him in Argentina. His time there remains a topic ripe with mystery, regardless of whether one buys into accounts of him “living on” as an apparition on Aconcagua.
What is known is that Bender had signed a lucrative contract to join a law firm in New York City just before arriving in South America, on the condition that the firm would allow him a gap year for travel first. According to Bender’s ex-girlfriend Anne Moylan Jones, South America was to be his “last adventure for a while.”
But within a year of ending up in Argentina, and befriending a young Argentine named Adolfo Benegas, he disappeared, the start of a mystery that has only intensified over time.
Today, Bender continues to haunt many people whose lives he touched, including a woman whom he proposed to in Argentina. But more than anyone else, Bender continues to affect Juan. Juan never met Bender; Juan had just moved hundreds of miles away to Buenos Aires for a job when Bender arrived in the Benegases’ hometown, Mendoza, in 1989. And once Bender and Adolfo became friends in Juan’s absence, they were a combination that some say was doomed—one that has forever changed the course of Juan’s life. He has never forgiven himself for his part in what happened to Adolfo, nor has he moved back to the city of Mendoza where he and his brother grew up. The memories are too painful there.
At the foot of the Andes Mountains, Mendoza is Argentina’s western gateway, resting along the careening Trans-Andean highway that connects Argentina to the Chilean capital of Santiago. Characterized by its temperate climate and high plains, Mendoza is primarily known for two things: wine production and being a popular stopover for outdoor adventurers.
Before Bender arrived in 1989, Adolfo and Juan had explored the area extensively, forming an inseparable bond. The middle two of four children, Juan and Adolfo came from a well-known family; their grandfather, Tiburcio Benegas, founded the Trapiche Bodega in Mendoza in 1883 (the family sold the popular winery in 1960). And even as Argentina’s economy struggled under inflation and a military dictatorship in the 1980s, the Benegas family kept up a middle-class lifestyle; Juan and Adolfo’s father worked as an accountant and their mother as a clothing merchant. They lived quite comfortably, although the parents were strict and unsparing when it came to which of their kids’ hobbies they condoned and supported financially. Climbing was decidedly not one of them.
Adolfo, headstrong and rebellious, didn’t care what his parents thought. By the time he was 12 years old, he had become known among friends as the leader of their outdoor adventures, taking Juan and other Mendocino boys on short backpacking trips at every opportunity. It didn’t matter that they never had money to buy the proper equipment. What was important to Adolfo was that they always went just a little higher up a mountain.
The Benegas brothers’ ascents started getting steeper, too. In 1984, when Adolfo turned 23, he enrolled in climbing courses with the Club Andinista Mendoza—known locally by its initials, CAM—which since 1935 has been a central gathering place for mountaineers and climbers in Western Argentina. With CAM, Adolfo gained experience on rock and ice, climbing the Polish Glacier Route on Aconcagua, Cerro El Plata and other peaks in the Andes near Mendoza.
Juan, who was three years younger, never took climbing courses himself, but took instruction from Adolfo. He followed Adolfo wherever he went, no matter how far-fetched his brother’s plans. That extended into dreams for the future that mostly included mountaineering. In 1986, when Juan was 18, Adolfo decided that they should write to Nike, Inc., and ask for a sponsorship that would allow them to embark on international climbs.
Juan helped his brother draft the letter, which began:
“Hello. We’re two brothers from Mendoza who want you to sponsor us to become the first Latin Americans to climb Mount Everest.”
To their surprise, Nike actually responded, although the company suggested that the Benegas brothers try something less ambitious to start.
A few weeks later, Adolfo and Juan received a box containing 40 pairs of Nike Air sneakers, the signature design that was white with red swoops stitched on the sides. The company wanted Juan and Adolfo to help Nike expand its market presence into Western Argentina by forming a running team in Mendoza and taking publicity photos, an arrangement the brothers honored.
As a reward, Nike agreed to sponsor Juan and Adolfo as mountaineers, and in 1987, the company gave the brothers money to cover equipment and provisions for a mid-winter ascent of Aconcagua along its Normal Route. Adolfo wanted to be the first Argentines to pull off a winter summit since an expedition of Argentine soldiers accomplished the feat in 1951.
Juan remembers the trip as being the experience that drew him and his brother closest. Although they summited, Juan and Adolfo were caught in a storm during their descent and spent nearly 20 total days on Aconcagua, the last week without any food. Much of their time was spent in a small emergency shelter at Camp Berlin, 19,500 feet in elevation, where the brothers had to massage each others’ legs to avoid frostbite.
When the weather finally broke and they started down, the brothers found a chocolate bar that had fallen from one of their packs. Juan instinctively split the chocolate into two, but Adolfo felt paternalistic.
“You need to eat the whole thing yourself,” he said.
“No, Adolfo, c’mon! Half for me and half for you!” Juan pleaded.
The bickering went on, until it occurred to Juan that Adolfo wouldn’t eat the chocolate no matter what he said. Juan took both pieces and tossed them off the mountain.
In February of 1989, Eric Bender traveled to South America specifically to climb. He had first learned the basics of rock climbing as an Eagle Scout in San Francisco, and later honed his abilities in Yosemite and in the Cairngorms of Scotland when he studied law and business at the University of Edinburgh. By 1983, he broadened his skill set to include ice climbing in Japan’s Yatsugatake Mountains with a popular climber and guide in Japan, André Gardella.
But Bender ended up in Mendoza quite by accident. After touching down in Buenos Aires, he was passing through Mendoza on his way to Chile because he intended to climb Aconcagua, and believed the mountain’s access was from the Chilean side of the Andes. Once the 31-year-old American stopped in Mendoza, however, he discovered that Aconcagua is actually located in Argentina. This turned out to be a welcome mistake; he liked Mendoza’s laid- back atmosphere, malbec vineyards and tree-lined streets, and decided to stay.
Within a short time, Bender became a fixture of Mendocino social life. The six- foot-three, 200-pound American had an electrifying presence: His booming laugh enlivened conversations, and he looked like a vagabond. Friends in Mendoza describe Bender as typically having ripped pants, a bushy beard, ratty shoes, and a large, well- worn backpack in which he always carried a yellow legal notepad and coffee filters.
Mendoza was still a half decade away from becoming an international destination for climbers. As one of the few foreigners in town, the American attracted and formed multiple groups of friends, who helped him become fluent in Spanish within just four months.
Picking up Spanish also helped him strike up a romance with a local photographer named Silvana Margutti, whom he met one afternoon at her studio while he was seeking stock photos of Aconcagua for a memoir he was writing.
Margutti was intimidated by the loud, insistent American. She told him she was busy and that he could find photos of Aconcagua at other studios. But the guy kept coming back, day after day.
“Eric, I’m closing!” Margutti told him one afternoon, exasperated.
“Well, that’s great!” Bender said. “Then we can grab something to drink.”
By the end of 1989, Bender and Margutti had fallen deeply in love. Whenever Bender went away on short side trips to places like Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, he and Margutti wrote love letters every day that they were apart. Sometimes Bender’s letters would arrive in Margutti’s mailbox in bundles of 10, but he never missed a day.
One letter, however, was unlike all the others. In early 1990, while Bender was away on a trip to Peru, Margutti opened an envelope from him and was surprised to read a letter in which he asked her to marry him.
Margutti’s reaction was immediate: Yes.
It was Bender’s other infatuation— Aconcagua—that led him to the 26-year-old Argentine Adolfo Benegas. Both young men had already summited Aconcagua by its Normal Route multiple times before they met in early 1989 near the Aconcagua trailhead at Puente del Inca. The two clicked, and started going on climbing trips together.
Juan had recently moved away to Buenos Aires for work and to seek out athletic sponsorships. After the chance encounter with Adolfo, Bender became Juan’s replacement as a mountaineering partner. Friends of the Benegas family say that it was the first time that Adolfo really accepted someone as his equal.
Bob Cenk, an American climbing guide who became close friends with Adolfo and Bender during trips to Mendoza, said the two of them were like “bulls pushing each other—neither one knew when to stop.” And although Cenk didn’t consider either of them to have been particularly skilled at technical climbing, he estimated that Adolfo and Bender each had half a dozen summits along Aconcagua’s Normal Route before they disappeared.
Yet the South Face taunted Adolfo and Bender each time they passed it on the way to the mountain’s base camp. They both yearned to claim a more difficult route.
As Bender’s year-long sabbatical in Mendoza drew to a close, he and Adolfo couldn’t resist an attempt of the South Face, a big step up from their romps up the Normal Route, and a suitable capping to their partnership. Bender had already tried the Direct French Route with Bob Cenk earlier in the year, but turned around due to a storm. By March of 1990, Adolfo and Bender were aware that they wouldn’t have another crack at the South Face until at least the coming December—and who knew if Bender would be able to take off work and return to South America? Running out of time, they elected to begin their ascent on March 12.
On the night before they left, friends of Adolfo tried to persuade him to postpone the climb until the next summer. Adolfo’s answer to them was resolute: “In an easy year, anyone can do it. And we are not going to quit.”
When I arrived in Mendoza and met with Silvana Margutti, she didn’t hesitate to blame Adolfo for her fiancé’s death. She claimed that Adolfo wanted to use climbing gear Bender had on loan from Cenk—including high-quality ropes, a mountaineering pack, ice axes and ice screws—before Bender was scheduled to return with the equipment to New York. She said Adolfo pressured Bender to attempt the South Face at a time when he would not otherwise have gone.
Cenk, however, pushed back on that theory. While he has always regretted loaning his climbing gear to Bender, he said Bender was well aware of the risks, that the equipment really wasn’t the deciding factor, and that embarking on the climb was a mutual agreement between the duo.
“Them climbing that late in the year made me mad,” Cenk said. “Eric had just met the woman of his dreams. And Adolfo—his brother cared so much for him. They really ruined things. And all for a mountain? Seriously? No mountain is worth a life.”
Margutti described being broadsided by Bender’s disappearance. “I couldn’t wrap my head around how I didn’t say goodbye to him, and I was never going to see him again,” she said.
She was depressed for over a year, working incessantly at her photography studio to distract herself from her grief. Leaving the studio to go home each night, she’d don sunglasses to hide her tears.
Now 61 years old, she told me that she has never married, and was faced with a second trauma just a year after Bender went missing, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her battle with the disease lasted seven years, and treatment left her sterile.
“It’s a decade I would have erased from my life,” she said.
Still, she added, “If I had to choose between a regular life and having a life that included the year I had with Eric, I would choose Eric, even though it was so painful afterward.”
When I mentioned that Juan still looks for Adolfo and Bender’s bodies every year, however, she was taken aback.
Although Margutti met Juan during the search in 1990, she had not kept in touch with him since.
“So … has he found anything?” she asked.
It took a day and a half for Juan and me to hike to the base of the South Face.
Our preparation for the trek had proven a curious mixture of mundane tasks—picking up hiking permits and camping supplies in Mendoza—and more solemn moments that lent the impression Juan was readying himself for a funeral or a wake. During video
calls with Juan, I’d noticed photos of Adolfo lining the walls of his Buenos Aires home. In Mendoza there were reminders of Adolfo everywhere. Juan drove me past their childhood home, sold long ago, and described the heartbreak that Adolfo’s disappearance had caused for his parents, both of whom passed away never understanding why their second child had been so obsessed with the mountains—only that the mountains had so suddenly and cruelly claimed him.
Juan drove us up to Puente del Inca, pointing out the Andinistas Cemeterio—a graveyard for climbers who have perished on the mountain—a few miles before the trailhead. Juan, who had been to the cemetery many times, was not interested in stopping, but I’d visit on my own later, finding the walled-in plot completely silent but for a few tattered flags flapping in the wind. So many dead, I thought, observing the scores of memorials and placards. Climbers from so many different countries and walks of life.
Next to some of the gravestones are climbing boots, slowly deteriorating in the harsh alpine climate, once filled with the flesh and blood of ambitious young men and women. Each memorial represents its own tragedy—and its own private haunting for family members and loved ones left behind. In that way, any one of the fallen climbers could substitute as the Aconcagua Ghost. But I did locate the memorial for the most popularized ghost; near the center of the graveyard is a plaque honoring Eric Dean Bender, July 14, 1958, to March 1990, installed by his sister and Margutti. Knowing Bender’s story, I thought his plaque almost seemed lonely without having one for Adolfo right next to it. I already knew I wouldn’t find one. Juan had told me that he and other members of the Benegas family always preferred to honor Adolfo closer to where he lies, near the South Face.
When Juan and I arrived at Plaza Francia, the 13,800-foot plateau at the base of the South Face, it was an unseasonably warm and clear March day. Such weather conditions make the South Face extremely unstable, but they did award me an astounding view of the face, which juts above the plateau at a nearly 70-degree angle and climbs skywards for 9,000 vertical feet. Standing within the wall’s shadow, you feel dwarfed by its immensity. To me, it also seemed impossible for anyone to ever find a human body among the dark rock with its innumerable cracks and crevasses, not to mention two giant glaciers.
“Stop here,” Juan instructed me at the edge of a snowfield.
With a bald head and barrel chest, Juan, 51 at the time, looked like a commando and had the intense demeanor and organized manner to go with it, which probably lend him authority in his day job as a motivational speaker and corporate team-building consultant.
“Mira,” he said in Spanish, directing my attention to a pair of steep avalanche chutes that converge at the base of the South Face. “Under that is what I call the ‘Avalanche Cemetery.’”
Juan explained that the snowfield underneath the South Face is where he’s found other remains besides the severed hand in 1990; in 1994, Juan found cow carcasses and part of the fuselage from a crashed plane that was transporting the animals in the late 1970s. In 2000, he found a piece of a tent (not Adolfo and Bender’s) that had been flushed down the wall by an avalanche.
More years than not, though, Juan hasn’t located anything. In the early years, disappointment used to get the better of him, but over time he’s learned to temper his expectations so that the real surprise is when he does find objects, organic or inorganic. He hasn’t always gone on these hunts alone, either; in 1991, his ailing father made the pilgrimage with Juan to Plaza Francia atop a mule, and Juan’s older brother Raul has accompanied him to the South Face multiple times.
My curiosity welling, I suggested that we go into the snowfield and take a look ourselves, but Juan told me that we ought to wait first, to see if conditions were safe.
Juan is by now well versed in extreme environments. Since Adolfo’s death he has committed himself to accomplishing the outdoor challenges that his brother had dreamed of carrying out. “I do these things for Adolfo,” he said, adding that he tries to live two lives—one for himself, and another for his deceased brother.
Over the past 28 years, Adolfo’s dreams have taken Juan around the world. In 2013, Juan was the first Argentine to reach the North Pole. Earlier, in 2001, he reached the Hillary Step, just 279 feet below the summit of Everest, but turned around because a Nepalese Sherpa told him the weather was too dangerous to proceed. While Juan took the Sherpa’s advice, an Austrian climber he was with, Peter Ganner, did not, and died 100 feet above.
Sure enough, I heard a low rumbling and watched an avalanche cascade down the wall and blast the area where Juan usually conducts his searches.
“You have about 20 seconds to clear the area from the time you hear the ice crack above you,” Juan said. “We can’t go up to the wall—it’s not worth it.”
He looked dejected. This has also happened in other years, he said, and with climate change, he thinks weather patterns have become more unpredictable.
Having seen the avalanche, I realized that the idea of Adolfo and Bender’s bodies washing down the mountain one day is not so crazy. There are numerous examples of climbers who died in the mountains only to be found years later. George Mallory disappeared on Mount Everest in 1924 only to be found 75 years later.
Juan believes Adolfo’s and Bender’s bodies are inside one of the two glaciers on the South Face. With seasonal freezing and thawing, debris spits out of the glacier shelves each year. The plane wreckage that Juan found in 1994 appeared at the bottom of the wall nearly 20 years after the plane disappeared.
After we watched a second avalanche dash any chances of a thorough search, Juan and I resigned ourselves to sitting at the edge of the snowfield, scanning the rock wall with binoculars.
The landscape was otherwise serene and otherworldly. Juan would later say, “I’m the lucky one, because not everyone has such a special place to honor a lost loved one.”
Returning again and again to that special place is a way to feel close to his brother, Juan said. “There are plenty of people who think I’m crazy to keep searching, and I realize that the likelihood of still finding [Adolfo’s] body is practically impossible,” he acknowledged. “But when I’m there, for two or three days every year, I get the sensation that I’m going to turn around and there he’ll be. I don’t know how to fully explain it. If you don’t have a brother who you’re really close to, maybe you wouldn’t understand …”
As we sat a safe distance away from the rocky wall, warmed by the sun, we both fell silent. Then Juan spoke again.
“Back in 1987, when Adolfo and I were close to death and inside the emergency shelter during our winter climb [of Aconcagua], we made a pact,” he said softly.
“Yeah? What kind of pact?”
“To write a letter.”
He explained that the letter would be addressed to the other brother if either were ever again close to death on a mountaineering trip, assuming he did not die in an avalanche or a fall. The letter was to be folded in plastic and placed in the inside jacket pocket for the other brother to find. Juan is certain his brother would have honored this pact if he was able to, and if only he could locate Adolfo’s body, the discovery would also reveal Adolfo’s last, personalized message to him. The idea is not dissimilar to a tradition among miners who become trapped underground and pen goodbyes to their families (a recent example being letters written by miners who perished in the Sago Mine Disaster in West Virginia in 2006). If Adolfo’s body is preserved in ice, there’s a good chance his jacket—and a letter inside a pocket—would be preserved, too.
This, Juan said, is why he looks for Adolfo’s body every year.
“The letter might tell me how he died,” Juan said. “If he suffered. What he thought. Ifheknewhewasgoingtodie…IfhefeltI would look for him the way that I’m looking for him now …”
He choked up.
“I … I would like to read a piece of paper that says, ‘Juan, I’m sure you’re going to look for me forever.’ That would make me very happy.”
When it finally came time for us to leave Plaza Francia, I started hiking down the mountain before realizing that Juan was not with me.
I turned around, and saw that he still hadn’t moved, and was gazing at the South Face.
It’s not easy for him to turn his back on his brother.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 256 (March 2019).
Chris Walker is an award-winning investigative journalist, currently on staff at Denver’s alt-weekly, Westword. Since beginning his writing career in 2012, he has reported on stories from four continents and published feature reporting with The Atlantic, Playboy, the Atavist, Vice and NPR. Find more of his work at www.chrisallanwalker.com/.
Jon Reed photographed the 2016 trek to the South Face described in this article, and has a personal connection to the story because his father grew up with Eric Bender in San Francisco. Reed is a journalist and radio producer. A former film editor and post production coordinator, he has worked on feature films and documentaries for Paramount Pictures, HBO, and PBS. His website is www.reedjon.com.
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