Perilous escape was 'longest 5 minutes'
In Argentina: A Sandy man was among six people trapped on a mountain for five days
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was Thanksgiving and Sandy mountaineer Dan Smith had spent five days trapped in the Andes on the fourth-highest mountain in South America.

He and five companions were stranded at a demolished mining camp after a flood swept down the northeast side of Argentina's Mount Mercedario, destroying everything in its path for miles.

Part of the trail they had taken up the mountain was a narrow stretch between a high rocky wall and the Rio Blanco. Upon their return, the mountain wall was crumbling, with falling rocks making the path impassable.

Helicopters had unsuccessfully tried to reach the group, but on Nov. 24 three rescuers appeared on the other side of the treacherous pass.

Smith decided to make a run for it.

Golf ball- to Volkswagen-size rocks threatened to smash him as he dashed the quarter-mile length for safety. At one point a softball-size rock whizzed five feet from his head.

"So I basically go sprinting across this straight and it's just a nightmare," Smith recalled Saturday from his Sandy home just hours after arriving back in Utah.

Navigating the slowly crumbling wall had only taken about five minutes, but to Smith it felt like a lifetime.

"That was the longest five minutes of my life," he said.

That was how Smith, a 45-year-old mountaineer with 25 years of climbing experience, spent the holiday. After he reached safety, the three would-be rescuers gave him something that tasted like wine, a loaf of bread, a can of Spam and an onion. Thanksgiving dinner was served.

Smith's trip to 22,205-foot Mount Mercedario, with his five mountaineering friends from Iowa, was an adventure to say the least.

The group arrived Nov. 12 at the base of the mountain without difficulty. They passed the copper mining camp of El Molle and ascended from an altitude of 7,200 feet to base camp at 11,200 feet by about 3:30 p.m.

It was around this time that a natural dam about eight miles upstream broke, sending a mountain of water reported to be as high as 30 feet down onto El Molle. The flood claimed no lives but destroyed the mining camp's three buildings and washed out a bridge the climbers used to get to the mountain. Several trailers farther downstream were also destroyed.

Smith, a geographical information systems programmer, and his entourage didn't see the actual flood and therefore continued to climb as high as 17,000 feet over the next few days as planned. Four days later, one of their wives called on a satellite phone to tell them about the flood. Upon hearing the news, and because of bad weather, the group turned around without reaching the summit and returned to El Molle only to find their path blocked.

From Nov. 18 to the 24th, the men camped at what was left of the now-deserted El Molle. Each day heavy winds prevented a rescue helicopter from landing. Some days it didn't even show up.

Temperatures reached the mid-80s during the day and dipped into the upper 50s at night. To kill time between rescue attempts, the men read or wrote or broke out the only deck of cards they had and played poker for rocks.

Waiting "was the worst part because you had nothing to do," Smith said.

The group snacked on granola bars and ate one small meal of pasta or freeze-dried food each night. Food wasn't scarce, but they were slowly running low.

"We were more worried about getting out and making our flights on time," Smith said.

It was Thanksgiving when Smith spotted the three men he described as national guard types on the other side of the decaying cliffs and decided to make a run for it. Once he was across, the other five men followed.

"Everybody is making the mad dash and you're just sitting there with your fingers crossed," Smith said.

It took about two hours, but each man arrived unscathed.

On Nov. 25, Smith's group and the three rescuers hiked 16 miles without much food or water back to the town of Santana. They were met by a pickup truck that bumped them over dirt roads for three hours, and then they got into a military van that took them to the town of San Juan.

That was the day from hell, Smith said.

Smith's long "vacation" ended after he caught a plane from Mendoza, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile. From there he went to Dallas and then Salt Lake City.

"It's good to be back," he said.

jbergreen@sltrib.com