The Woman Whose Husband Died in a Climbing Accident

Catherine McNamara


Helga Pfenning lost her husband Jan in an accident on Aconcagua. His companions told her Jan had been fretful and disoriented when they bedded down that night, and in the morning his sleeping bag was an empty, tousled shell. As it snowed heavily before dawn, there were no tracks.

The men were sorrowful and each man telephoned Helga from the country where he had returned to his wife and children or partner or solitary life.

Jan's body remained on the mountain.

Helga later wrote a book gleaning as much information as possible from Jan's climbing companions via email. She noted that they were reticent, and this tugged at her heart. Perhaps there had been a conflict? But a Frenchman called Claude, in charge of the expedition, said this had not been the case.

In her book, Helga portrayed Claude as a guarded man who undermined the men's psyches. But in her heart she knew that Claude was shy and admirable, where her husband Jan had been hot-headed.

In fact, the evening the news reached her that Jan had wandered from the tent and been slaughtered by the mountain, Helga had not been surprised.


Helga's book became a bestseller in Europe and she gave readings in bookshops all over the continent. In the beginning it was harrowing, speaking of Jan's last texts and photos (some had been explicit and she had put these in a secret file), especially when people in the audience asked her did she intend to retrieve her husband's body.

In Copenhagen a journalist asked her about the other climbers, whether she felt rancour towards them and if they had remained in touch. Helga thought of Claude running his abseiling business in the south of France, with his Spanish wife and two daughters. Claude and the other men no longer called her. When approached about Helga's book, Claude had refused to speak to the press.

Helga's publisher wanted a sequel to her book so it was suggested she develop a manuscript about bringing her husband's body home from South America. Jan's body had now been frozen on Aconcagua for five years. Helga hired an assistant, Pieter, to help with her research for the new book. Pieter thought that they would have to enlist at least one of the men from the fatal expedition, to help them retrace Jan's steps that night. In her hotel room in Zurich, Helga wrote emails to all of the other climbers, asking if any of them would join a possible expedition. Helga began to train, hoping she would be able to reach one of the base camps.

None of the other climbers replied.

That summer Claude was killed by lightning in the Pyrenees and Helga, though it involved an expensive battle with her publisher in court, abandoned her project.