Belgian climber summits Huascarán 32 years after his father lost his legs on the same climb

The following story is an emotional and inspiring one that involves a Belgian family. The story begins in 1985 with a group of four ambitious young Belgian climbers (Pierre Gobbels, Philippe van Rillaer, Patrick Tinteler and Jean Garcia), who had the intention to summit Mount Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak at 6,768m. During the expedition on Huascarán, Jean Garcia, the father of Thomas Garcia-Cabale, suffered a serious accident while trying to avoid a crevasse. At approximately one hundred metres from the top, the leading member of the expedition of four, slipped, fell and broke his leg. Consequently, two members of his expedition decided to descend the mountain to get help. Thomas’ injured father and his godfather remained on the mountain for an astonishing three days and two nights at an altitude of approximately 6,600 metres above sea-level. Despite facing many difficulties due to the intense cold, altitude, and lack of food, the two Belgians eventually managed to get off the mountain, and were taken to Lima for medical help. Sadly, due to complications, doctors had to amputate both legs of Thomas’ father and ten toes of his godfather. Thirty-two years later, Thomas, son of Jean Garcia, is back in Huaraz to complete the mission his father and godfather had begun, and also to try to close the chapter of a book that has left deep marks and caused, understandably, many family difficulties during his youth. We met with Thomas in Huaraz prior to and after his expedition to Mount Huascarán and are happy to share his life (changing) story. A story with a happy ending.

Thomas, please tell us briefly what happened 32 years ago with your father and godfather on Mount Huascarán and what this has to do with you being here in Huaraz at the moment

I hope to finish the adventure my father and godfather started back in 1985. I hope to summit Huascarán later this month. In that year, back in ´85, my father suffered a terrible accident in the mountains where he first broke his leg due to a fall, and later had both legs amputated due to complications. My father was leading a four-membered group and leading the rope; he slipped and broke his leg. As there were no helicopters at that time (incredibly there still aren´t in 2017), two team members decided to descend and get help. My father stayed with my godfather for three days near the summit, and they lost about 15 kilograms each due to the lack of food. They eventually managed to descend from Huascarán and were taken to Lima for medical care. However, given that their insurance Europe Assistance was based in Belgium, they had to be flown to Belgium to get operated on. Sadly, on the 10th of July of 1985, doctor had to amputate both of my father’s legs, whereas my godfather had his ten toes amputated. My father was only 23 years old and my godfather 21 at the time. At the moment of speaking, I am 23 years old too. I am here in Huaraz because I hope to conquer Mount Huascarán, but mainly, to understand what happened to them 32 years ago. As you can imagine, when you´re only 23 years old, an accident like that changes your life. Not only your personal life, but also the lives of your wife and children. It´s important to me to understand what happened at approximately 6,600 metres  above sea-level. These were difficult times; however, my father has always been a sporty person and years after the accident, he started to practice sports such as cycling and water sports. I was born when my father was 27 years old and although the first couple of years were more or less fine, as my father received a lot of help from friends and family, later on depression set in. Understandably, losing both your legs has a huge impact on your life. This depression led to alcoholism and a lot of family troubles, as you will understand. My father is aware of the fact that I will attempt Huascarán and he thinks that I am crazy. However, he told me he understands my reasons for doing it. My father loved the mountains, and so do I. As far as I can remember, the mountains have always attracted me and since I became aware of my father´s accident, I have always wanted to climb Huascarán. I would call it a life dream. I was in South America in 2015 and I climbed Mount Urus and Ishinca that year; apart from that I had previously summited a couple of mountains in France. I can´t recall the exact moment I told my dad that I wanted to conquer Huascarán, but I am sure he knew it many years back. I guess this year, just after I bought my plane ticket for Peru, it got confirmed officially, it became a reality.

How have you prepared yourself for climbing Mount Huascarán, Thomas?

Well, I had to do two types of preparations, the physical one and the mental one. Climbing a mountain is hard and requires a strong mind. Additionally, I did a lot of training – cycling, swimming and rock climbing. I arrived on the 5th of July in Peru and on the 6th in Huaraz. I first did a couple of day hikes to get adjusted to the altitude. Since I had completed the Huayhuash Trek back in 2015, this time I did the Santa Cruz Trek, it was enjoyable. I also climbed Mount Vallunaraju on the 13th of July and took a couple of days of rest and then went on to climb Mount Yanapaccha. Lately I have been suffering from a cold, but next Monday we will start the last preparation for Huascarán as I hope to conquer Mount Chopicalqui, my first 6000m+ mountain. My flight back to Belgium from Lima is on the 23rd of August so I believe there is sufficient time to make it. All this will hopefully become a moment of magic for me, reaching the top of Mount Huascarán South is not the ultimate goal itself, it´s also about the experience and my father´s past. I will go with a few friends I met here in Huaraz. I told them about my project and the three of them liked it a lot, so we´ll go together.

Do you feel ready?

Well, in the mountains you´re never ready. It depends on many factors like your mindset, for example. You´re not at home in your backyard, you´re in a remote area and nature is always stronger than mankind. So, with calm and patience we hope to make it. There´s four of us, like on my father´s expedition, although two are from France and one is from Switzerland. We will use no guides and head for the normal route. We will take decisions as a group and it will depend on the moment, it´s not a race. We will be careful. I am not sure yet whether I will call my father prior to heading for Peru´s highest mountain. Maybe I should call him when I get back. I don´t want to make him worried, on the other hand, I don´t want to think about my father all the time either. This might sound a bit selfish but I hope to enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment that 32 years after my father I am doing the same thing and at almost the same moment. My father is 57 years old now and like I said before, I hope to make it to the top, although this is not the most important thing. I hope to feel what he felt, it´s more than just a mountain for me, Huascarán is a mountain that has changed my father´s life, but also mine. I´ll probably cry when I manage to make it to the top. I´ll try to breathe and I hope to lose that huge weight I have been carrying for 23 years. It will be the highest mountain I have ever conquered so it will not be easy.

After the first part of the interview, Thomas showed us some pictures of his father´s expedition and the accident and informed us that his father currently has leg prostheses and is, according to Thomas´ explanations, lucky to be in Belgium. According to Thomas, the prostheses have to be changed every five years, but people not knowing about the accident will not notice that he has no legs. Thomas furthermore showed us his father´s original ice axe and said that it would be a dream to put the original tool in the ice as a symbol and memory. We wished Thomas all the best of luck in the world and left.

We met an emotional Thomas two weeks later after his successful expedition to Mount Huascaran.

Well Thomas, we´re back, please tell us how everything went

It went all very well, it was a great expedition. We ended up going on the 9th of August and returned to Huaraz on the 14th, I believe. We were very lucky with the weather as there was almost no wind. On the first day, we went from the village of Musho to the Refugio Huascarán at base camp at 4700m. In the end, there were just three of us – Thibauld from France, Vladimir from Switzerland and me. It was particularly tough because each one of us was carrying about 25 kilos on our backs, as we didn’t use any porters to help us. At the Refugio Huascarán we were able to leave behind a bit of weight and eat properly. We left early to get to the first high camp (Camp 1 on the glacier) early at around 7 or 8 in the morning. We then stayed the whole day at that camp. The part of the climb between the first and second high camps is the trickiest and most dangerous. It was a bit cold but a full moon created a fantastic spectacle at night. What´s also interesting are the dates of our climb. We conquered Huascarán during the night between the 11th and the 12th of August. I celebrated my birthday on the 11th and on the 12th is my mother’s birthday. I haven’t mentioned this before but she passed away in 2011. I felt strongly emotional, but the ascent was great. You can see the top from really far away and because of this, you´re actually able to enjoy it, as you know nothing can come in between you and the summit. I think that 150 metres from the real summit, I started crying. I was thinking a lot, about my father, my godfather and everything that had happened. I think I felt a whole bunch of emotions like happiness, sadness and maybe also anger. But above all, I felt that a huge pressure had left my body. Something I carried with me all my life had now floated away. Actually, we almost did not make it because Thibault from France felt ill at around 200 metres from the top, but thanks to a last and great effort, he was able to make it. It was an emotional moment for the three of us. There were in fact four of us who made it to the top together in the end because at the second  high camp, we met a German guy called Steffen, who was climbing on his own and he joined our group as his partner stayed behind in the refuge.

The way down was quite difficult because  it was long, especially because I felt tired and emotionally affected. I guess that a lack of concentration caused a small incident. Getting to the top is only the first part, getting off the mountain is just as important. Like I said, the way down was hard. On the way down, I felt happy, but maybe not that confident. We descended quickly and efficiently from Camp 2 to Camp 1, and once off the glacier during the early morning hours, some of the little streams were frozen. I don’t know why but I slipped and fell eight metres downwards. This explains the three stitches near my eyebrow. But I am absolutely fine, no headache or anything.

Apart from the stitches, how do you feel?

Honestly, I don´t know. My knee hurts a bit because of the fall but… I have no conscience at the moment. I guess that my real emotion will show up when I land in Belgium and get picked up by my father and godfather from the airport. I have called my father on returning from Huascarán and we both cried. He was delighted. I also told him I put his ice axe in the air and we can now hang it on the wall. It has completed its mission. I won´t stop climbing though, after conquering Huascarán perhaps I won’t be climbing such high mountains, but more technical ones. Maybe the most emotional moment was between Camp 1 and Camp 2 because I realised that I was finally where I wanted to be. I was thinking all the time about my dad. The 150 metres towards the top were also emotional and the moment that I could put my father´s axe in the ice on the top. I feel relieved now you know; a huge pressure has fallen off my shoulders. It´s not about closing a book, but more about finishing a chapter that has dominated about 15 years of my life. I will have to sit down with my father and godfather and talk about our experiences, with a couple of beers maybe. I am sure my mother watched and guided me from above.

As you might have been informed, this year three mountaineers lost their lives in the Cordillera Blanca. In  town, these three unfortunate foreign climbers were heavily criticized (mostly and as per usual by members of the Casa de Guias) for having taken the decision to ascend a mountain without the use of a professional guide. You´re not a professional climber, have limited experience and have now ascended the highest mountain of Peru without a guide. Despite a small fall which cost you three stiches, would you say that Huascarán South is doable without the use of a professional mountain guideand would the experience of ascending a mountain be different with or with a guide?

Well, for me personally, climbing a mountain should be done without a guide. When you´re with a guide, you cannot make your own decisions. This would be something I would not like. As there is no helicopter rescue service available in this area, ascending a mountain here is doing pure mountaineering, there is no easy escape if you get in trouble. It´s true that you might fall or have an accident and might eventually die. I guess that this makes it interesting too; it gives you something to think about, it forces you to concentrate much more. With the use of a guide, you might feel safer and have a person on your side. However, it wouldn’t be the same because part of the adventure is taking your own decisions and setting up your tent, for example. It would not be the same sport if you got to a point somewhere, guided, with your stuff carried and your food prepared by a person who has done it a million times before; this is not real mountaineering, it is assisted climbing, there is a big difference between the two. I guess, I wanted to do it on my own as a mountaineer, not as a tourist, but this is just my point of view on mountaineering. I believe every person has its goals and ideas on mountaineering and also some are prepared to take more risks than others. Bear in mind that although I might not be the most experienced mountaineer in the world, I have trained for many years for this expedition and I believe that preparation is key. Mentally I was prepared for it, so was I physically. I believe that luck might be a factor as well; however, an important part of mountaineering is also about planning. There are always risks, but I believe that if I hadn’t been able to summit Mount Huascarán, it would have been due to uncontrollable factors, such as weather or getting ill. Failing because of lack of preparation, such as insufficient fitness or acclimatisation, or material failure was out of the question for me. Some people get to Huaraz, as I have seen in my hostel many times, and get sick from altitude sickness. They aren’t even aware of the fact that Huaraz is located at 3,000 metres above sea-level. At the moment of publishing this story, Thomas has made it back to Belgium and celebrated his summit with his loved ones. We feel very happy for Thomas and additionally owe thanks to Marie Timmermans of agency Quechuandes who tipped us and set up the contact with her fellow countryman from Marchin (Liège) in Belgium.

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