On December 18, I read that additional search and rescue teams were deployed. On December 19, many volunteers, including local Chileans pitched in to find Ronan. Thinking of my beloved nieces and nephews, I quietly agonized with his family, some of whom flew to Chile and were leading the search. My eighty–five–year–old mother kept emailing me for reports, and I questioned the wisdom of having involved her. On December 21, I read that helicopters and sniffer dogs were being used. On December 22, the Chilean Army joined the effort. I shared the family's hope that by Christmas Ronan would be home with them.
The focus of the search was mainly throughout Chile's national park, a place about the size of Texas and California combined. But since he was staying in El Calafate, too, it seemed likely that Ronan would visit Mount Fitz Roy, a stark, soaring peak that is among Patagonian features not to be missed, along with Torres del Paine and the Perrito Moreno glacier. Fitz Roy, a jagged shard of the Andes, 3,405 meters high, even now makes me feel both exhilarated and nervous. Here one could vanish without a trace.
The day Dan and I reached the viewing area on a seven–mile trek, a dozen hikers sat quietly on natural rock benches just staring in silence. Craggy Fitz Roy capped in snow and blue glacier ice, towered several hundred feet over a lake, perhaps a half–mile distance, on the other side of a lake. The lake, protected by fiord–like walls, was strewn with chunklets of crushed ice that came flying every few minutes off the face of Fitz Roy. The thunderous rumble of a calving glacier was not new to me, but it always has this apocalyptic sound, adding to the tingle of my weak knees.
Dan stood at the edge of the cliff to look down, and I had to look away with un–abating dizzy spells. I wanted to shout, Dan, get back from the precipice, please! But I didn't. Whenever I worry aloud about Dan's getting hurt doing risky things, he reminds me what my psychologist sister has told him, "It's a wish and a fear."
The end of the search
Come December 23, I was still preoccupied with Ronan and sure he'd be found bivouacked somewhere, laughing, telling great stories of survival to his rescuers, which he'd post at his blog. Heck, the park is 242,242 hectares (Cal and Tex) so, if one were determined one could find that fabled isolation. Surely, that's where Ronan was. Lost in the emptiness somewhere, whether by design or miscalculation. Soon he'd be rescued.
I thought that after the holidays, I would fly back down to Torres del Paine—easy to do from Buenos Aires—and join in the effort. I opened the topographical map I had of the park and studied its features and all the places I had seen. Gray's Glacier at the mouth of Lake Pehoe. I had hiked alone to where there is a seam in the lake far below the trail, where it goes from translucent to smoky with glacial flour and you start seeing little baby bergs that have floated away from the big mama. I couldn't recall any menacing parts on the trail.
Late on December 23, I checked the Web site and read the post that now seems was inevitable, "It is understood and accepted that Ronan had unfortunately fallen into a river and drowned. We also understand that it has not been possible to recover Ronan's remains." Not anticipating this sad ending, I wished for more details, but of course, would not badger the family. I emailed Dan the news and my mother, too.
On January 7, 2008, I was relieved to read that a body had been found in Torres del Paine National Park, and that it was probably Ronan. On January 8, surfing fruitlessly for more details on the location where he perished, all I could find was this at the Irish Taxi Homepage: "It has emerged that (Ronan) was attempting to climb a steep incline when he slipped and fell into a crevasse. Rest in peace, I guess you experienced more in your short life than I ever will. Roy, Dublin taxi Driver."
It felt strange, Dan and I being perhaps the last people known to have spoken to Ronan, before he was swallowed up by this huge landscape. I like to think of it as a gift—that I was given the chance to know him at all—and not a what–if message: What if I had told him he couldn't make the Towers that late afternoon? When I say Torres del Paine was mean and unforgiving toward Ronan, Dan disagrees and says Ronan would have embraced and loved whatever he saw before his fateful fall. Yeah, that was Ronan.
Ronan's blog has been left up and is full of well–written accounts and details of his South American adventures, complete with his rich humor and charming Irish expressions.
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Camille Cusumano is the author of several cookbooks, one novel, and has written for many publications, including Islands, Country Living, VIA Magazine, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. She has edited anthologies on France, Italy, Mexico, and Greece. Her new book, Tango, an Argentine Love Story will appear in October. She lives between San Francisco and Buenos Aires.
Photos by the author except the shot immediately to the left, with her friend Dan.
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