A mountain of memories in Peru

By Graeme Dingle

Adventurer Graeme Dingle returns to the mountains of Peru, where as a young man he made his name with some spectacular climbs, and finds a lot has changed, much of it for the better.

Graeme Dingle in front of Peru's 6500m mountain Yerupaja Norte, which he was the first person to climb 40 years ago. Photo / Graeme Dingle
Graeme Dingle in front of Peru's 6500m mountain Yerupaja Norte, which he was the first person to climb 40 years ago. Photo / Graeme Dingle

Forty years ago, when Wellingtonian Roger Bates and I made the first ascent of the 6500m Yerupaja Norte in Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash, the mountain seemed less lofty than it is today. The surrounding area was much cleaner because foreign tourists, and the litter that accompanies them, had yet to arrive.

As my partner, Jo-anne Wilkinson, and I discovered to our astonishment, even this most-isolated global backwater has changed dramatically in the intervening years.

For more than a decade from the early 1980s Peru was essentially in a state of civil war as the revolutionary movement, the Shining Path, tried to right the awful disparity between the country's rich and poor. As a result, travel was unsafe.

But since the imprisonment of the revolutionary leaders (in an underwater military prison) Peru has returned to a state of relative political stability and the economy has strengthened.

Our arrival point, the capital of Lima, did not seem particularly different from what I remember from 1968, although it is said the population doubled during the civil war from an influx of people from the countryside to the urban slum areas.

What had changed was the style of transportation to the mountains.

Forty years ago our transport was mainly local buses, an agricultural form of transport where you were likely to share a seat with various farm animals as well as people, or the collectivo, a sort of long distance taxi.

Local buses are still an option. However, the collectivos, which were so practical, seemed to have gone.

Instead, we bought tickets on a super bus, Cruz del Sur, where we queued with modern trekkers and climbers from every country, had our packs searched for guns, sat in a cabin securely separated from the driver and were video-taped several times.

As the bus cruised through the slum areas on the endless outskirts of Lima, a loud and crude American movie blared incongruously from a television screen in the front of the cabin. If it was supposed to soften the impact of the poverty on the other side of the glass, it had the opposite effect.

Slums gave way to the stunningly dry Atacamba Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. When I was last here it hadn't rained for 30 years and global warming had apparently made little difference to this situation.

To our right, immense arid hills of sand rolled inland while, to the left, the grey sea fog, caused by the cold Humboldt current, added little joy to the scenery.

Like most deserts, where mountain streams provided irrigation, the land was rich with crops and a village of mud brick houses was the norm.

The road into the mountains was once lined with crosses, a reminder of those who had been the victims of failed brakes or driver error. The crosses were now gone and the road, once desperately rough and dusty, was well sealed with smooth tarmac.

In 1968 the driver had to stop regularly to adjust the carburettor as the bus gained altitude and the air became thinner. Now the super-bus cruised on to 4000m without interruption as most passengers, except those on the wonder-drug, Diamox, became pie-eyed in the thin air of the alto plano.

Here, as the dramatic white peaks of the Andes thrust above golden grasslands reminiscent of Central Otago, I began to sense the most dramatic difference that 40 years had wrought: the local people we passed looked prouder, more optimistic.

I remember as an idealistic young man being depressed by the deadbeat look in the eyes of the mountain folk who looked like a people with no hope.

In Huaraz, the capital of the Cordillera, this positive change was confirmed. The place was buzzing, with clear evidence of greater wealth, health and well-being.

Local mountaineers, unknown on my first visit, had taken control of their industry and were prepared to guide anyone up anything. They were clearly tough and competent and Huaraz had become the Queenstown or Wanaka of Peru.

In 1968, the locals were often quite disparaging as they shouted "gringo" at us in the street. Now I didn't hear this term once. People also used to often shout "Che" (Guevara) after us too, with a clench fist raised, but these days Che has been relegated to T-shirts and bumper stickers.

To the south of Huaraz rose the remarkable wedge of Yerupaja - as appealing and inspiring as it had been 37 years before - although undoubtedly considerably higher now than it had been in my youth.

Jo-anne and I caught the bus, El Rapido, to the village of Chiquian, the road end in 1968.

Little had changed in the village except the people appeared happier, young women wore disturbingly tight jeans, small rustic cafes had become popular and the village boasted a four-storey hotel.

Gran Huayhuash was owned by Freddy Valdez Garcia, an energetic and generous man, who had fled the Shining Path to work in Buenos Aires for several years. With Freddy's help we engaged an arrieros (donkey handler) and caught the bus to Llamac.

In 1968 Llamac had been a gruelling day-long trek from Chiquian and our expedition had been the guests of honour at the opening of the first tap.

On this festival occasion I had played centre forward for the local team against Chiquian but even at the peak of my fitness, the altitude had taken its toll, and I was relieved to be subbed at half time.

The new road to Llamac was a terrifying drive, a rough ledge clinging to steep mountainsides above awful drops. It continued beyond Llamac but we were relieved to continue on foot in the wake of two gentle burros that we had acquired at the village.

Our arrieros, Jesus Carrera, spoke no English, which was a challenge given my dreadful Spanish.

The challenge reached a climax at a place called Pallca, where Mitsui Mining was sucking the ore from the mountains.

Our trusty MSR primus blew a seal which, in spite of much bad Spanish and English, I failed to fix.

Carrera was dispatched back to Llamac (two hours' walk away) to try to find a replacement and, to our amazement, returned late that night with an ancient, badly behaved kerosene stove. He was appalled to find we had stacked all our gear outside the tent and gave us a lecture about the danger of bandits.

Next day we crossed a 4700m pass in the shadow of a mountain called Rondoy, first climbed by New Zealander Peter Farrell in 1963.

On the way up the pass, Carrera set fire to some dry grass while our burros stood by enthusiastically sniffing the smoke. He explained (with much gesturing) that it helped their breathing in the thin air. We tried it too and there was no doubt it helped.

Over the pass we followed a trail of litter, tissues, empty water bottles and chocolate wrappers discarded by the Israeli trekkers ahead of us.

At the next camp I gave them a talking to and later threatened to jam an abandoned coke bottle where the sun doesn't shine.

The business of waste is one of the most important issues to be solved with the new popular wave of trekking. It is not unlike the situation in the Himalayas 20 years ago.

Next day we camped beside the idyllic Lake Carhuacocha. Above the blue-green waters, Yerupaja's east face rose dramatically to a corniced summit.

In 1968 it had been an ice face, now the ice had shrunk back and only sheathed the top 600-700m. I filled a large bag with plastic washed up along the shoreline of the lake.

Still, I did catch a very healthy rainbow trout, which made a wonderful evening hors d'oeuvre, while above a storm raged on Yerupaja. Just as it had been on my previous visit, the weather was bad at the full moon.

Next morning we left Carhuacocha with mixed feelings: the scenery was gorgeous but we walked through a field of human waste and toilet paper.

Each day we crossed a pass of around 5000m revelling in the superb mountain scenery and irritated by the apparent lack of environmental concern of other trekkers.

At regular intervals park fees would be collected (from us as foreigners) by apparent officials and we hoped the money would be used to solve some of the issues.

Regardless, we felt New Zealand could benefit from a philosophy of charging foreign visitors to our national parks.

The mountain dominating our view on the fourth day, immediately south of Yerupaja, was Suila Grande, made famous by the book and film Touching the Void.

It is a dramatic tale about two bold English climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who had a mishap while descending Suila.

Joe was forced to cut the rope connecting him to Simon, who in spite of the ensuing fall and a broken leg, demonstrated true British grit by crawling for several days down the glacier to base camp, just as Joe was about to report his death.

On the morning of our eighth day we passed a donkey bleeding from the mouth. Carrera explained it had been forced too hard by the party ahead and had haemorrhaged.

A solitary condor circled lazily above. Carrera said within minutes of the burro's death, hundreds of condors would dismember it.

The plight of the burro seemed to symbolise a lack of concern with other life and the natural environment in general.

An hour later, we passed a cross marking the place in 2002 where two American women were murdered for their money. Smoke wafted from a stone-walled hut nearby. Carrera said the men who committed the murders were doing 25 years in jail in Lima while their mother still lived in that house.

In 1968 we had had our base camp at a lake called Jahuacocha. It was an idyllic place where I supplemented our meagre expedition diet by catching trout from the lake. In our two-month stay in the valley we had seen only two other foreigners.

On the last day of our return visit we avoided the place.

It had become the most popular spot in the Huayhuash, with sometimes more than 100 campers each night, and we couldn't face the crowds.

To avoid Jahuacocha we trekked through a wonderful garden of mountain forest and plants to the village of Pacllon.

High above, Yerupaja's summit appeared, an evil cloud over it signalling another storm. Yerupaja and nearby mountains, Suila, Jirishanca and Rondoy, were soon consumed in cloud and we could see snow falling in the valleys.

Rarely, it seems, are we satisfied when we return to a place, particularly after it has been so special to our youth, but four decades on I felt the changes to Peru had been mainly good.

The issue of rubbish and human waste from trekkers was a big one to be resolved, but I was delighted to find the people of the mountain regions so much better off and happier. Pity the mountains were higher than they used to be.

- NZ Herald

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