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“Searching for Adolfo,” A Decades-old Disappearance of Two Climbers On Aconcagua May Be Solved

March 2019 article prompted a report of bodies high on the South Face, one matching the description of missing climber Adolfo Benegas.

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On the South Face of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalaya, Adolfo Benegas and Eric Bender vanished in 1990. Their disappearance stunned loved ones in Mendoza, Argentina, the town at the mountain’s base where Adolfo grew up, as well as in the United States, from which Bender hailed. Friends and family members hastily organized a search. The expedition lasted weeks, until most gave up hope. But not Juan Benegas, Adolfo’s younger brother. Thirty years later, he’s still searching for the missing climbers.

[Read the original story Searching For Adolfo]

In 2019, Rock and Ice published “Searching for Adolfo,” an account of Juan’s decades-long hunt for clues and closure, in which he’s turned up plane wreckage, remains and even a haunting on Aconcagua’s slopes. A few years ago, I accompanied Juan on one of his annual searches for Adolfo’s and Bender’s bodies. I went in wanting to understand the practicality and obsession of his quest, but found the journey to be more an exploration of grief, mourning and ritual when there are no answers.

Rock and Ice published the print article in February 2019, and an online version in August.

Since then there have been developments, especially after the online piece went up.

It started with this message on Rock and Ice’s Facebook page:

I got in touch with Petter Støle, who told me that in 1997, along with climbers Hans Lochner, Wolfgang Schultz and Walter Hadersdorfer, he climbed Aconcagua’s notoriously difficult South Face along the Messner route (named after Reinhold Messner’s first ascent in 1974), a variation of the Direct French Route on which Adolfo Benegas and Eric Bender started their climb.

I asked Støle if he could provide more information about the bodies he encountered during his ascent all those years ago.

Remarkably, he still has his climbing diary from the time, in which he wrote an extemporaneous account of his South Face expedition.

Here is an excerpt of his translation from Norwegian to English:

12. Jan. – Day 5 on the Wall – We had passed the point of no return as we climbed through the icefall the day before … . we were way behind schedule. With food rations for 5 days, we were eager to climb the last section in one push.”

Støle writes that in its “push,” his climbing party crossed the Superior Glacier and reached an ice climb marking the beginning of Messner’s route. During the ice ascent, a loose rock fell and struck one of his partners in the arm, but fortunately the rock didn’t knock the climber off the wall or break his arm. Støle continues:

After 6 rope lengths, we reach the snow flank leading us to Messner`s finish. The time shows 1900 hours (7:00 p.m.). The terrain gets easier with 50-55 degree snow. Obvious avalanche terrain. We unrope, spread out a bit, and continue. After a while, I spot 2-3 ice screws in the snow. Then a Friend. The climbing equipment looks shiny and new. In my tired mind, I think the owner must have been really exhausted to drop that expensive equipment to lose weight. Further up, I see a backpack. Then an ice axe with a glove attached. 100m higher up, to left of us, there is a body. His dark hair moving in the wind …We are above 6,500m (21,325 feet), in a dangerous place. It is about to get dark. Whoever they are, we have to leave them in peace.

The original diary entry doesn’t say much more about the bodies, but today Støle adds:

“I remember there was a climbing rope tangled around [the first body]. There was a second body quite close, but deeper in the snow… I have an image of blue jacket, red trousers and plastic boots. Then again, that was what I wore myself, so it might very well be a false memory…When we were back at base camp, we contacted a park ranger and reported about what we had found. He mentioned it might be two missing Japanese climbers, who had disappeared two years earlier. Afterwards, we had some thoughts like: We could have searched them for ID. We could have taken photos for identification. However, being there, young, unexpectedly finding a dead body, that would have felt kind of morbid. Sadly, it’s different from how I feel now … I would’ve taken a photo … ”

Støle sent me this picture of Messner’s route with his drawing of the bodies’ approximate location:

“This is pretty much our line from the big glacier,” he wrote. “The red X is around where we found the two climbers. B is where we bivouacked the last night in the dark. We climbed the icefield above the X with headlamps.”

After Støle and I concluded our correspondence, I looked up Aconcagua’s death records and discovered that there hadn’t been any Japanese climbers reported dead or missing on the South Face since 1987; Bender and Adolfo were the most recent climbers to disappear, in 1990, on the South Face before Støle’s climb in 1997.

Støle’s account was enough of a lead that I decided to contact Bob Cenk, a guide who was close friends with Adolfo and Bender, and who’d also lent them a few items of equipment just before their ill-fated climb. In an email, I forwarded him everything Støle sent me.

Later, Cenk and I spoke by phone.

He was excited.

“I don’t think it’s much of a question: it’s them,” he said.

Adolfo Benegas on the summit of Aconcagua in 1987. Photo: Juan Benegas Collection

Cenk told me that Adolfo and Bender had in fact been considering the Messner variation. And when he read Støle’s description of the brand new ice screws—similar to screws he’d sold Bender—as well as Støle’s description of the first body’s long dark hair (which fits Adolfo), and the blue jacket and red trousers (also what Adolfo wore on his mountaineering ascents), the clues clicked into place.  The photo included here, of Adolfo on the summit of Aconcagua in 1987, shows him in exactly that attire, blue jacket, red pants.

“At what point are you past coincidence?” Cenk said.

Still, some of Støle’s information sparked painful speculation. Seeing as how a rope was tied around both bodies, Cenk believes it’s possible one of the climbers fell during the final ice climb on Messner’s route—just a couple of hundred feet below the top of Aconcagua—and that the fall pulled both climbers off the wall to their deaths. Perhaps a piece of protection failed, or a falling rock (similar to the one that hit a member of Støle’s climbing party) or avalanche swept them off the final few pitches.

Granted, Cenk says, all of this is guesswork. “I’m not 100 percent certain—I’m maybe at 95 percent—so this isn’t complete closure,” he says. But even so, the new information, he says, “gives me some peace of mind.”

But what would Juan Benegas think—a man who has dedicated a significant part of his life to finding Adolfo and Bender’s bodies?

I reached him next. And just as I’d found him during our trip to the South Face together, Juan was extremely cautious about coming to any conclusions. Over email, he told me he immediately consulted one of his friends, a veteran Aconcagua guide, about Støle’s information.

“Horacio Cunietti, who is a guide with 62 summits–one of them on the South Face in 2003—and is a teacher at Mendoza’s Alpinist school, told me yesterday that it is possible that in 1997, no park rangers acted on [Støle’s] information,” Juan wrote. “But Cunietti also assured me that the story of Adolfo and Eric is very present among guides and the climbing community … That if someone had seen something, he would have found out and informed me.”

Juan points out that other parties have summited Aconcagua along the Messner since 1997, and no one else reported seeing any bodies.

“So [Støle’s] story is impossible and possible at the same time,” Juan said. “We will never know for sure, until if by fate, some avalanche—similar to the one that may have buried them—will drag them to me when I return to the base of the South Face every year.”

Juan isn’t about to organize an expedition to look for Adolfo and Bender on the Messner, since there hasn’t been another report of bodies there since 1997, and it’s likely snow or avalanches may have obscured or moved the bodies since then.

“But I would like you to convey to [Støle] that I appreciate him sharing those details from 22 years ago,” Juan told me. “He does not have to justify not trying to identify the bodies or digging a grave. On the South Face, every extra minute can mean death. Speed is synonymous with safety.”

And true to his word, Juan still does his yearly search at the base of the South Face to scout for any debris or body parts that avalanches have flushed down the 9,000-foot wall since the previous season. In fact, just a few weeks ago, he sent me this message on WhatsApp:

Hola Chris! On 2/22 I was in Plaza Francia, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the disappearance of Adolfo and Eric. How time flies! This was approximately the 40th time that I’ve gone to check the avalanche chutes. When you see the video I sent you, you will see that avalanches at the base were a constant danger, even in a drought year like 2020! Obviously, I [couldn’t approach the wall] and didn’t find anything!!!!!!

Juan Benegas below the South Face of Aconcagua, February 2020. Photo: Juan Benegas.

In other words, the avalanche danger was just as prevalent this past February as it was when Juan and I made our trek to the South Face together.

And so, with this development, we’re left with two reactions to the bodies Støle spotted in 1997.

Bob Cenk leans toward them being Adolfo and Bender.

Juan leans the other direction, holding out on any declaratives until he has absolute proof.

But at least one thing remains clear: these two climbers left an indelible mark on everyone they touched.

After all, Støle’s message wasn’t the only surprising response to “Searching for Adolfo.”

Through my website, I also received this message and accompanying photos from Lisa Hart, who agreed to let me reproduce them in this update:

Eric Bender and I were involved several months before he went to Mendoza to climb Aconcagua (and met Silvana) … . we thought we might reconnect when he returned from Argentina. I know this will sound fairly random but it’s Christmas Eve and I’m waiting for my partner to come home and I had what I can only describe as a fantasy of Eric showing up at my door and imagining what I would say to him or how I would react after all this time. It prompted me to Google his name, which is how I came across your article. Which so struck me. Including the apparition piece. The narrative and timeline are exactly as I remember it. I received a letter from Eric in NY in February 1990 that he sent before setting off with Adolfo and I remember feeling such a sense of dread … There were multiple memorial services for him, both in NY and SF. And well, suffice it to say, it was a shock to the system. It took me a while to get my bearings. I was 30 at the time. Eric was, as you captured so accurately, such a presence. Smart, extroverted, so full of life with—as you said—a big booming laugh. I knew about Silvana but did not know he’d proposed. I know what a loss that was—and it can be difficult to get complete closure, especially—as in Eric’s case—without a body. Your article feels like little gift, tinged with love and loss, but a gift nonetheless—from someone special that graced my life so many years ago, even if only for a short time.

Eric Bender and Lisa Hart. Photos: Courtesy of Lisa Hart.