22 Years Ago, He Disappeared in an Avalanche. His Body Was Just Found.

by Pelican Press
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22 Years Ago, He Disappeared in an Avalanche. His Body Was Just Found.

Two decades after Bill Stampfl went missing during an avalanche while climbing Peru’s highest mountain, his daughter, Jennifer Stampfl, had more or less accepted that he was gone forever.

Sometimes she still had dreams of him, alive in Peru, amnesiac and unaware that he had family in the United States. She knew he had hated the cold, so the idea of his being trapped in ice was unsettling. But she thought she had made her peace with the mountain keeping her father.

Then, one Saturday last month, she got a call from her brother, Joseph Stampfl. He began: Are you sitting down?

“He told me that they found Dad,” she said. “And I said, ‘What?’”

A fellow American, Ryan Cooper, had tracked down Joseph Stampfl to tell him that he and a group of climbers had stumbled upon his father’s body on Huascarán, a 22,205-foot peak in the Andes range. As climate change helped melt the mountain’s glaciers, Bill Stampfl’s body emerged from the ice that had preserved it since he went missing during an expedition with two friends in 2002, the Peruvian police said on Tuesday.

On June 27, the climbers were descending Huascarán when they saw a dark shape that stood out against the snow, Mr. Cooper, 44, a personal trainer from Las Vegas, said in an interview on Tuesday. As they drew closer, they saw that it was a body, curled in a defensive position, like someone trying to protect himself during an avalanche, he said.

The body was completely exposed atop the ice, Mr. Cooper said. “Not like half of him was under the ice or anything — he was on top of the ice,” he said. Judging by the outdated clothing and the mummified condition of its skin, Mr. Cooper said, it was clear that the body had been there for a “really long time.”

In a fanny pack, they found a still-legible ID card and passport. Mr. Cooper and his brother, the only two Americans in the group, knew that they had to find and notify Mr. Stampfl’s family, Mr. Cooper said.

“He still had his wedding ring on his finger,” he said, “So I knew he was married, and I knew he probably had a family and somebody was expecting him home at some point. And he didn’t come home.”

It was by sheer coincidence that Mr. Cooper’s group had stumbled upon the body. His group tried to make it to the summit but turned around after determining that the conditions were too dangerous. On the way down, they took an older route that is rarely used now because of how the environment of the mountain has changed, he said.

Mr. Cooper was initially deeply disappointed by failing to make it to the summit, he said. “But after things worked out the way that they did, I realized I wasn’t meant to summit,” he said. “I was meant to find Bill.”

Before the group had even finished descending, Mr. Cooper contacted his wife in Las Vegas to help track down Mr. Stampfl’s family. With the help of old newspaper articles, they began to piece together the story of his disappearance. Two days after discovering the body, Mr. Cooper was on the phone with Joseph Stampfl, now 51.

In June 2002, Bill Stampfl set off from California with two friends, Steve Erskine and Matthew Richardson, to summit Huascarán. But while climbing, they were caught in an avalanche. Only Mr. Erskine’s body was recovered.

Bill Stampfl, 58 at the time, was the oldest of the three friends. He’d only taken up mountaineering in his late 40s or early 50s, Joseph Stampfl said, but he trained and prepared intensely for his expeditions. Jennifer Stampfl, now 53 and a teacher in Paloma, Calif., recalled how her father and Mr. Richardson would race up a local mountain with 60-pound bags of cat litter in their backpacks as part of their training.

When her father went missing, she said, “it almost was kind of surreal.”

“One day he’s here and one day he’s not,” she continued. “And we don’t know where he is.”

Over time, the family had come to accept that Mr. Stampfl was lost forever, Ms. Stampfl said. So when Mr. Cooper got in touch, “I think it was more of a shock,” she said.

She even wondered at first if the call was some sort of scam. But when Mr. Cooper told them the details of his experience and sent photos of their father’s documents, it finally sunk in, she said.

After they absorbed the news, Jennifer and Joseph Stampfl hired an alpine rescue team to retrieve his body from the mountain, which they did on Friday, accompanied by the Peruvian authorities. Mr. Stampfl’s body will be driven nine hours to a morgue in Lima, Peru’s capital, where he’ll be cremated, Ms. Stampfl said.

As on other peaks around the world, melting glaciers may lead to more discoveries of long-buried bodies on Huascarán, Lenin Alvarado, an officer with the High Mountain Rescue Department of the National Peruvian Police, said in an interview.

Mr. Cooper said the effects of the changing climate were apparent when he was on the mountain. “It’s basically falling apart, it’s just crumbling,” he said.

Once Mr. Stampfl’s remains are returned to the United States, his son and daughter are hoping that they will be able to scatter some of his ashes on Mount Baldy, the peak where Mr. Stampfl used to train.

For Ms. Stampfl, seeing her father again, frozen in time, has reopened old wounds. But it’s also brought some closure.

Now that she knows for sure what happened to him, she said, she hopes that her dreams of him still being alive and lost will end. It’s a relief knowing that he won’t be alone in the cold anymore and that he’ll be with his family again.

“I don’t want him on the mountain; I want him back with me,” she said. “He belongs with me.”

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