There were two barks that sounded like two shots. Romina Zárate woke up believing that she had dreamed it, that her head, dazed by her stress and an unfathomable fatigue, was beginning to play tricks on her. She closed her eyes again and then she heard another dog barking. If there was a dog there might be a rescue group. Only she didn’t have the strength to stand up, to scream, to save herself. Then, the fear of dying gave her strength: in a bad way she stood up on her bare, bleeding, semi-frozen feet and began to scream, she remembered that she was dressed in black and that no one would see her like that, so she grabbed her gray backpack and red and lifted it above her head, shaking it as if possessed. Then someone yelled behind her, “I see her.” A few minutes later, she was hugging a rescuer.
50 volunteers, inhabitants and climbers visiting El Chaltén, a tiny enclave lost in Argentine Patagonia, had spent three days looking for a needle in the immense haystack of land that surrounds the area’s iconic mountains: Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. . It is one of the wildest and most isolated places on Earth, a land also subjected to maddening weather. It is also one of the epicenters of mountaineering and trekking, a place that receives huge masses of mountain tourists who come and go, up and down, despite the fact that there is no professional rescue service or helicopters. The El Chaltén Relief Commission is made up of volunteers, and right now the hero of this heterogeneous group is called Rust and is an eight-year-old border collie dog trained to find lost people. Romina’s is his first rescue.
The dog’s owner is Carolina Codó, also the local doctor and the creator of the rescue service. With the help of professional trainers, Carolina trained her dog and has not stopped methodically training it for years. Just in case, because in this place all the help is few. But on the day when the labor of Rust, the doctor was far away, on vacation, and the dog, in the care of one of her best friends, Angie Felgueras, whose house is just a few meters away. “I have seen Caro train Rust so many times that she knew the orders I had to give her to start looking, so together with a friend we chose an area and started walking. Normally, the dog always tries to play, he brings us sticks, we throw them at him, but when he gives the order, he stops playing and searches tirelessly, ”explains Angie.
Romina, 36, went missing on Friday, April 21. She left her lodging in El Chaltén at nine in the morning and did not say where she was going, one of the most repeated recommendations by the bodies that govern the world of mountaineering: “It is an error that I assume,” she says. In the middle of the afternoon, after passing through the top of Loma del Pliegue, the hiker realized that she was not returning by the same path that she had used to ascend. She considered turning back, but she agreed that it would be very difficult for her to find the path she had been progressing on for some time. Soon after, she knew that she was lost, but she took comfort in the knowledge that the town was not far away and that she would be able to figure out a way to get back… before nightfall. Also, if she managed to find the Fitz Roy River, which is a tributary of the Las Vueltas River, which passes through El Chaltén, following it would be enough to return to civilization. Soon after, she saw a torrent and followed it, convinced that it would lead her to the watercourse. But the increasingly vertical and slippery terrain, coupled with the increasing rush to prevent nightfall, played a trick on her: she fell about twenty feet, bouncing off mossy rocks and hitting her entire left side violently.
When he got to his feet, his left wrist was broken. But the river was in sight. Crossing it nearly finished her off. Seconds after starting to splash, the benign-looking current was dragging her helplessly, so after losing her footing, she allowed herself to be carried face up. The water was frozen. “I was beginning to not feel my feet, since the force of the water had taken my boots. I told myself that if she didn’t make it to shore fast, she would never make it. I don’t know how, but I managed to stand up and save the final six meters, ”she recalls in a telephone conversation. She was on the other side, but in a terrifying terrain of bushes, rocks, dense vegetation, and with a small hill or mountain in front of her. She decided to go up, but barefoot, her feet were quickly a picture of torn socks and bloody toes.
Without knowing it, she was at the top of the Cerro de los Cóndores, from where she saw something that filled her with hope: the red light of the El Chaltén telephone tower. Miraculously, despite the bathroom, her phone was still working and had coverage. She was able to speak with her brother, in Buenos Aires, and with all the calm she could muster, she asked him to alert the Relief Commission. “And I made a big mistake again, because I forgot to tell him where she was, what excursion she was on, what would have speeded up my rescue.” She could no longer remedy it, because her phone stopped working shortly after making the call. From that top she also noticed a path (the one that leads to Cerro Torre), but when she tried to find a way to reach it, she verified that a cut from her erased her hopes. Besides, it was already getting dark, and she decided to wait right there for dawn.
Meanwhile, Angie and Rust They returned home without finding a trace of the missing person and driven away by a wind that barely allowed the rescuers to stay on their feet. Romina found a place among some rocks and lay down, also swept by a fierce wind that, at least, dried her completely. She had bound her feet with her trouser legs, but they were already pitiful shreds. She also put the gloves on her toes. Everything so as not to freeze. “The night was horrible, anguishing. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” she explains. The next morning her thirst made her retrace the path and go down to the river, where she might be more easily seen. She waited in vain for most of the day and decided to return to her bivouac at sunset. She didn’t come. The shattered feet, the rough terrain, the scrapes and blows to keep her footing soon exhausted her strength, so she threw herself in the least uncomfortable place she could find. She started to rain, he took her raincoat-cloak off her, but it didn’t manage to cover her completely: her feet were left in the air if she covered her head, and vice versa. The night was once again a nightmare.
Angie, her friend and Rust They left before dawn, this time choosing Loma del Pliegue. The dog seemed to have found a trail and when he reached the river he began to bark, looking alternately at the bank and at Angie until he began to play: his work was done. “It’s amazing: he found the exact place where Romina crossed the river,” Angie congratulates herself. “I left several traces of urine. maybe that helped Rust”, says Romina.
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