CHAPTER II. Climbing Coropuna

The desert plateau above Chuquibamba is nearly 2500 feet higher than the town, and it was nine o'clock on the morning of October 10th before we got out of the valley. Thereafter Coropuna was always in sight, and as we slowly approached it we studied it with care. The plateau has an elevation of over 15,000 feet, yet the mountain stood out conspicuously above it. Coropuna is really a range about twenty miles long. Its gigantic massif was covered with snow fields from one end to the other. So deep did the fresh snow lie that it was generally impossible to see where snow fields ended and glaciers began. We could see that of the five well-defined peaks the middle one was probably the lowest. The two next highest are at the right, or eastern, end of the massif. The culminating truncated dome at the western end, with its smooth, uneroded sides, apparently belonged to a later volcanic period than the rest of the mountain. It seemed to be the highest peak of all. To reach it did not appear to be difficult. Rock-covered slopes ran directly up to the snow. Snow fields, without many rock-falls, appeared to culminate in a saddle at the base of the great snowy dome. The eastern slope of the dome itself offered an unbroken, if steep, path to the top. If we could once reach the snow line, it looked as though, with the aid of ice-creepers or snowshoes, we could climb the mountain without serious trouble.

Between us and the first snow-covered slopes, however, lay more than twenty miles of volcanic desert intersected by deep canyons, steep quebradas, and very rough aa lava. Directed by our "guide," we left the Cotahuasi road and struck across country, dodging the lava flows and slowly ascending the gentle slope of the plateau. As it became steeper our mules showed signs of suffering. While waiting for them to get their wind we went ahead on foot, climbed a short rise, and to our surprise and chagrin found ourselves on the rim of a steep-walled canyon, 1500 feet deep, which cut right across in front of the mountain and lay between us and its higher slopes. After the mules had rested, the guide now decided to turn to the left instead of going straight toward the mountain. A dispute ensued as to how much he knew, even about the foot of Coropuna. He denied that there were any huts whatever in the canyon. "Abandonado; despoblado; desierto." "A waste; a solitude; a wilderness." So he described it. Had he been there? "No, Senor." Luckily we had been able to make out from the rim of the canyon two or three huts near a little stream. As there was no question that we ought to get to the snow line as soon as possible, we decided to dispense with the services of so well-informed a "guide," and make such way as we could alone. The altitude of the rim of the canyon was 16,000 feet; the mules showed signs of acute distress from mountain sickness. The arrieros began to complain loudly, but did what they could to relieve the mules by punching holes in their ears; the theory being that bloodletting is a good thing for soroche. As soon as the timid arrieros reached a point where they could see down into the canyon, they spotted some patches of green pasture, cheered up a bit, and even smiled over the dismal ignorance of the "guide." Soon we found a trail which led to the huts.

Near the huts was a taciturn Indian woman, who refused to furnish us with either fuel or forage, although we tried to pay in advance and offered her silver. Nevertheless, we proceeded to pitch our tents and took advantage of the sheltering stone wall of her corral for our camp fire. After peace had settled down and it became perfectly evident that we were harmless, the door of one of the huts opened and an Indian man appeared. Doubtless the cause of his disappearance before our arrival had been the easily discernible presence in our midst of the brass buttons of Corporal Gamarra. Possibly he who had selected this remote corner of the wilderness for his abode had a guilty conscience and at the sight of a gendarme decided that he had better hide at once. More probably, however, he feared the visit of a recruiting party, since it is quite likely that he had not served his legal term of military service. At all events, when his wife discovered that we were not looking for her man, she allowed his curiosity to overcome his fears. We found that the Indians kept a few llamas. They also made crude pottery, firing it with straw and llama dung. They lived almost entirely on gruel made from chuno, frozen bitter potatoes. Little else than potatoes will grow at 14,000 feet above the sea. For neighbors the Indians had a solitary old man, who lived half a mile up nearer the glaciers, and a small family, a mile and a half down the valley.