Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca: A climber’s paradise
August 31, 2005
Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories by Tahoe Daily Tribune sportswriter Jeremy Evans, who spent more than three weeks this summer climbing, hiking and traveling in Peru. Next week is his story on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.
On May 31, 1970, a devastating earthquake shook Peru. It’s estimated that the 7.7 magnitude quake left 600,000 people homeless and killed about 70,000, qualifying it as the deadliest natural disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere.
The Callejon de Huaylas, located in the northern Andes, was hit especially hard. The quake caused a large glacier wall on the western face of 21,991-foot Huascaran Norte to chunk off, sending more than 50 million tons of ice, mud and rock on a precipitous slide.
The landslide raced toward the village of Yungay, situated directly beneath Huascaran Norte, which is part of an enormous massif that includes 22,234-foot Huascaran Sur, Peru’s highest peak. Residents barely had enough time to find their children – let alone evacuate – before being engulfed.
Seconds after the glacier released, the entire village was buried under 100 feet of debris. An estimated 20,000 people died in the Yungay area alone. The tops of a few palm trees and a mangled bus is all that remains of the old town.
Huaraz, the valley’s largest city, also suffered mightily. The majority of the city’s homes and infrastructure was destroyed, leaving residents with a rebuilding effort that continues today. A lot of roads are still unpaved. Rebar pokes out of mud and brick homes. Finding 24-hour hot water can be difficult. The sewage system can’t accommodate toilet paper, and the nearest stream or sidewalk is the preferred garbage can.
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While the earthquake was indeed tragic, in some ways it helped the Callejon de Huaylas. Guarded by the Cordillera Negra to the west, to the east by the imposing, icy crest of the Cordillera Blanca and split by the rough waters of the Rio Santa, the picturesque valley was exposed to the world. The prospect of tourism became the area’s foundation.
Whitewater rafting and kayaking can be found on the Rio Santa, two different hot springs bubble within an hour of Huaraz and more than a 100 miles of trails offer world-class trekking and mountain biking. But the Cordillera Blanca is still the magnet.
For almost a century, dreamy images of dramatic peaks, draped with fat tongues of glacier ice, have stoked mountaineers from North America to Europe to Asia. Although several peaks had been climbed as early as the 1930s, first ascents and new routes were established as late as the 1990s.
The rebuilding effort also included the construction of a recently paved highway, connecting the town of Caraz at the lower end of the valley and Huaraz at the upper end. Now more than three decades after the earthquake, climbers can fly into coastal Lima on Friday, bus to Huaraz on Saturday and sip tea at a 14,500-foot base camp on Sunday, preparing to tackle any of the range’s 75 peaks that rise above 16,500 feet.
No other mountain range in the world matches the Cordillera Blanca’s combination of height, accessibility and beauty. Once acclimatized, a process that begins with several nights in Huaraz (10,100 feet), climbers can scale several peaks above 19,800 feet in two weeks.
It’s quite common to summit 20,968-foot Chopicalqui in the morning, descend the route in the afternoon and be back in Huaraz, grasping a cold beer, that night. Climbing a high Himalayan peak usually requires a minimum of four weeks.
As the highest sub-tropical range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca also has the driest and most temperate climate of any major mountain chain. During the climbing season of May to September, long stretches of cloudless days and abundant sunshine rule.
The Callejon de Huaylas was ripe for a tourist boom. In fact, Huaraz’ charming local markets and friendly residents, including Indian women who wear traditional dresses striped with bright reds and yellows, made it a certainty.
But not long after the 1970 earthquake, Peru endured further hardship. The rebuilding effort highlighted the huge disparity between the European-based coastal cities and the Indian dominated Andean Highland regions.
Pockets of civil war developed in the 1980s and 1990s, spurred by the emergence of several terror organizations, the largest and most influential being Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). The group wreaked havoc on the Andean Highlands, particularly around the central cities of Ayacucho and Huancayo. It became so powerful that parts of the highlands were cut off from the coast.
Shining Path was also highly successful in waging war against the government, damaging the country’s tourist economy with stories of tourists being kidnapped and, in some cases, murdered. In a small town near Huaraz, located in the Ancash region, a British tourist was executed publicly in a town square.
Daring climbers, though, still traveled to Peru during this time. Establishing new routes in the Cordillera Blanca or the Cordillera Huayhuash, a smaller but equally rugged range south of Huaraz, could enter them in mountaineering lore. However, the security situation scared off most tourists.
More than 25,000 civilians were murdered during the terror years, causing further segregation among Peru’s citizens. Conflicting reports left people confused as to who was responsible for the human massacres. It’s been determined that the government and Shining Path were both culpable, but some bodies have still never been found.
These decades were also a time of economic downfall, with an inflation rate rising toward the 10,000 percent mark and a foreign debt that reached $24 billion. Then Alberto Fujimori entered the situation.
Fujimori, a son of Japanese immigrants, was elected president in 1990. Many of his measures were unconventional, including his disbandment of congress in 1992 that suspended most of the country’s foreign aid. But the economic situation steadily improved. By 1998, Peru’s inflation rate had dropped to almost 5 percent.
Meanwhile, widespread guerilla activity decreased significantly. Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992 near Ayacucho and, then in 1996, most members of the county’s next largest terrorist group were killed. It’s estimated that Shining Path has about 500 members left. But these final remnants are mostly concentrated on the cocaine trade business in parts of the Amazon Basin.
Not coincidentally, Peru’s tourist economy has flourished since its security situation stabilized. Most travelers head directly to Cusco to visit the ancient Incan capital and the surrounding ruins, including Machu Picchu. The climbers and scenery hounds, though, head for Huaraz and the impossible beauty of the Cordillera Blanca.
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