Con­fronting our sport’s true im­pacts on the road to La Es­finge, Peru.

Con­fronting our sport’s true im­pacts on the road to La Es­finge, Peru.

Climbing - - CONTENTS - By Matt Spohn

"Should we cross?” my friend Shan­jean Lee asks. We’ve just walked through the vil­lage of Huan­chac, sev­eral miles east of the city of Huaraz, Peru, to a stream where a tan­gle of vines, yucca, and Polylepis branches con­ceals a bro­ken fence. Eu­ca­lyp­tus trees sway in the wind com­ing off the Cordillera Blanca. The guide­book says this area is pri­vate prop­erty; it also says that some of Huaraz’s best boul­der­ing, 75 prob­lems from V2 to V11, sits just be­yond. Huaraz has long been a jump­ing-off point for alpin­ists headed into the Cordillera, but it’s more re­cently be­come known as a rock-climb­ing des­ti­na­tion too, thanks to big walls like the 3,200-foot gran­ite mas­sif of La Es­finge, crag­ging venues like Los Olivos, Chin­cay, and Hatun Machay, and boul­der­ing ar­eas like the one we’re try­ing to ac­cess now.

Jump­ing the wa­ter, we land in a field with sev­eral tall gran­ite boul­ders. There, an old Quechua woman dressed in bright lupine, car­ry­ing a sack of corn and tend­ing to a cow, sees us, points, and screams. She grabs a rock and runs at us. “We are here to climb,” Shan­jean says. Mikey Schae­fer and I hold out a few Peru­vian dol­lars, but the woman lets the rock fly any­way. It hits a Polylepis tree a few feet to our side. In sec­onds, we jump the stream, hur­ry­ing down the dusty road back to Huaraz. “I guess peo­ple don’t al­ways want climbers around,” I say.

At 10,000 feet, Huaraz hangs in a val­ley built on the shad­ows of moun­tains. To the east, the Cordillera pushes to over 22,000 feet, and to the west, rolling hills rise to over 14,000 feet. The city teeters above the Rio Santo, which cuts a path through the earth and avalanche de­bris that buried Huaraz in the 1970 An­cash Earthquake and left around 70,000 dead through­out the re­gion, in­clud­ing 20,000 in Huaraz. To this day, cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods, es­pe­cially those on the north side of town, re­main un­touched. In the decades since, most of Huaraz has tran­si­tioned to­ward be­ing re­built. It bus­tles with ac­tiv­ity: Ex­posed re­bar sways from rooftops; jack­ham­mers echo through nar­row streets; scoot­ers buzz by, pick­ing up pas­sen­gers; and shops are filled with mer­chan­dise.

In Au­gust 2016, I trav­eled here with two friends from my home­town of Port­land, Ore­gon: Mikey, a pro pho­tog­ra­pher; and Shan­jean, an or­tho­pe­dic res­i­dent. Our main ob­jec­tive was the 17,470-foot La Es­finge. Two hours from Huaraz, La Es­finge houses at least 24 routes, in­clud­ing the 1985 Route, a 2,300-foot 5.11; and Cruz del

Sur, a “5.13a” es­tab­lished in 2000 by Mauro Bole and Silvo Karo. La Es­finge sits on a talus-strewn plateau, ris­ing un­til the gray and gold gran­ite meets the sky in a stack of house-sized blocks.

With a pop­u­la­tion of 120,000, Huaraz has long served as the gate­way to the Cordillera—trekkers, moun­taineers, and climbers con­verge here, gather sup­plies, and ac­cli­ma­tize. It’s the pic­ture-per­fect set­ting for the “out­door life­style” be­ing man­u­fac­tured back in the States, one built in part on con­sump­tion, both of con­sumer goods and of the nat­u­ral places that sup­port our pas­sions. As a climb­ing-gym owner, I’m part of the prob­lem. I tell peo­ple about Smith Rock, sell them gear, and en­cour­age them to go out, adding impact at the crags. I’m ex­cited to climb La Es­finge, yet on this trip I will come to re­al­ize that we climbers, whom I long be­lieved were some­how bet­ter, were

care­ful war­dens of the land, are not spe­cial. Mikey, Shan­jean, and I will in fact find that some lo­cals don’t even want us around.

Be­fore Shan­jean ar­rived and we had our “in­ci­dent,” Mikey and I ex­plored the climb­ing around Huaraz. A taxi took us two hours west to Chin­cay. When the crag came into view, our driver pulled off the high­way and left us above sum­mer-burnt fields. Farm­land, sec­tioned by short, crum­bling rock walls, cre­ated a patch­work down to where Huaraz spilled out of the val­ley 4,000 feet be­low. Named af­ter the nearby vil­lage, Chin­cay is a clus­ter of four sharp-edged lime­stone blocks with a hand­ful of stout, tech­ni­cal routes from 5.10 to 5.13. To­gether, the rocks re­sem­ble the prow of an ocean liner. All around Huaraz, new ar­eas are pop­ping up. David Lazo and Marie Tim­mer­man’s 2014 The Climb­ing Guide

Huaraz Peru af­firms that the re­gion is be­com­ing a ma­jor des­ti­na­tion. Mikey and I scram­bled up one block and took in the view. To the east, the Cordillera faded into clouds. Af­ter climb­ing at Smith for over two decades, I’ve come to un­der­stand how quickly these views change. From the van­tage over­look­ing Smith, climbers and chalk speckle the cliff. Whoops, grunts, and the clang­ing of quick­draws drown out the golden ea­gles. In­stead of sage and ju­niper, the scent of urine from climbers and hik­ers un­will­ing to use the self-com­post­ing toi­lets wafts through the gul­lies. In the Di­he­drals, at the base of the Alan Watts guide­book cover climb Chain Re­ac­tion (5.12c), a climber screams in rage af­ter fail­ing, her send botched by a bee, the wind, the sun, or some other nat­u­ral “in­con­ve­nience.”

Later that af­ter­noon, af­ter climb­ing, Mikey and I walked through farm­land, head­ing to a road where we hoped to hitch a ride back to Huaraz. We shared the path with two boys and their goats. The dirt trail branched back to a small house, and I imag­ined farm­ers with shot­guns back in the States, “No Tres­pass­ing” signs

nailed to ev­ery tree. From what we’ve gath­ered, Peru doesn’t have a “free­dom to roam” pol­icy, and most of the climb­ing is on pri­vate prop­erty. The guide­book au­thors in­cluded many ques­tion­able-ac­cess crags, be­fore climb­ing be­came more pop­u­lar. Lo­cals who’d de­vel­oped the ar­eas didn’t mind a few other Peru­vians trick­ling in, but now there’s a rel­a­tive flood of climbers, chalk, trash, and noise.

The boys smiled, con­tin­u­ing on their way, and Mikey snapped some pho­tos when a dog emerged from a shack and growled. In the door­way be­hind the dog stood a man, hands stained with dirt, slacks faded at the thighs. He eyed us from be­neath the brim of his tra­di­tional Quechua hat and gave a slight nod, in­di­cat­ing a weary kind­ness. His eyes fol­lowed Mikey and I as we walked past his sheep.

Back in Huaraz, we found Gringo Square, a small, bustling plaza hid­den down a wide al­ley­way. We sat among other climbers and hik­ers, and or­dered beer and burg­ers. Dogs chased a hand­ful of boys around a foun­tain un­til the boys turned and chased the dogs. Af­ter din­ner, at the moun­tain shop Monta–as Mag­i­cas, we rented a sleep­ing bag for Shan­jean. It was late, just be­fore 9 p.m., and the shop seemed to be clos­ing. “Thank you, gringo,” the young, be­spec­ta­cled shop­keeper said. A smile fol­lowed her words, which were laced with fa­tigue and a hint of re­sent­ment. The sun had set, the lo­cals were eat­ing din­ner, and I sensed she wanted to leave. As we left, a group of Euro­peans en­tered, prolonging her de­par­ture.

The next day at the sport crag Los Olivos, which is walk­ing dis­tance from the climber’s hos­tel La Casa de Zarela where we were stay­ing, I strug­gled to climb on the slick con­glom­er­ate in the thin air. A rush of headaches hit with each arm­ful of slack I pulled up, leav­ing me gasp­ing. Nearby, a group of men who’d been har­vest­ing alders rested in a small cir­cle of shade. We played while they worked. That’s al­ways the case for some­one, but when I’m trav­el­ing I feel it more pro­foundly. Maybe it’s be­cause of what I have—and which I re­al­ize the rest of the world

wants, too: warm cloth­ing, a re­li­able car, cheap gas, un­lim­ited gro­ceries, free time to spend out­doors. One worker waved, and I be­lieved he was happy to watch two grin­gos hurl them­selves at a rock wall. It was funny. It was ex­cit­ing. But there’s no deny­ing that our sport has an impact—both at the cliffs and in terms of the re­sources con­sumed to man­u­fac­ture our gear and to travel. In town, Mikey and I passed shops sell­ing hik­ing boots, syn­thetic jack­ets, and posters of ad­ven­tur­ing. Back in Port­land, ev­ery day at the gym I tell peo­ple to get out­side. But ev­ery day I’m out­side, I wish there were fewer peo­ple. Shan­jean ar­rives the fol­low­ing day, and we ar­range for a taxi to Lake Paron in Huas­car‡n Na­tional Park, a UNESCO world her­itage site where the trail for La Es­finge starts. The park was given UNESCO sta­tus for be­ing the world’s high­est trop­i­cal moun­tain range, and for its pre-In­can Chavin sites, which date back to 900 BC. Aster, lupine, and gen­tian bloom around enor­mous yuc­cas. We head out boul­der­ing, and it’s then that we run into the an­gry Quechua woman.

En route back to Huaraz, we wan­der through more farm­land, some­what lost. I re­call the un­ease Mike and I had three days prior near Chin­cay. We cross peo­ple’s back­yards. We dis­turb their cows and don­keys. We make our­selves known. In our guide­book, it says to avoid trav­el­ing through fields and to be cour­te­ous of pri­vate prop­erty. But there’s no way around. It’s the only way to the climb­ing and it’s the only way back. Maybe, I think, not all rocks need to be climbed.

Back at the hos­tel, Zarela, the owner, tells us that climbers have re­peat­edly tres­passed on lo­cal lands, but adds that it’s OK. “If they ask climbers to pay, then just pay,” she says, adding that the lady who threw the stones was “crazy.” Yet Zarela, a won­der­ful host­ess, makes money from climbers, and I won­der if her views aren’t skewed to­ward our own. A lock and buzzer on her prop­erty keep ran­dom peo­ple away. There’s no way to es­cape my own hypocrisy ei­ther—I’ll walk through oth­ers’ back­yards to go climb, but then get an­gry when a door-to-door sales­per­son comes to my house.

“We were just too tired,” an Amer­i­can climber says in the hos­tel din­ing hall that night. Af­ter five days of bru­tal storms on Huas­car‡n and a bout of al­ti­tude sick­ness, he and his part­ner bailed, leav­ing a tent and other sup­plies. They were sim­ply done, had no in­ten­tion of go­ing back, their climb­ing ca­reers tested and then fin­ished right on the moun­tain where their gear still flaps in the wind. While it’s a com­mon oc­cur­rence on high-al­ti­tude climbs in the Hi­malaya, like Ever­est, this camp aban­don­ment has moved to less com­mit­ting ar­eas as well.

“An in­creased num­ber of climbers will un­doubt­edly bring money and growth to an area, of­fer­ing fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to the lo­cals (El Chal­ten, Patag­o­nia, is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple),” says the Colorado climber Josh Whar­ton, who first climbed in the Cordillera in 2005 and has free soloed the 1985 Route. Yet, he’s also seen first­hand the in­creased en­vi­ron­men­tal impact in Patag­o­nia and else­where: “The ex­treme weather tends to wash away signs of poo, but the im­pacts are in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous re­gard­less. Wind also catches gear and trash pretty of­ten, so through the years there’s been an uptick in trash.” Then there are all the “un­seen” im­pacts: All too of­ten, we’ll slap an Ac­cess Fund sticker on the bumper and then un­ques­tion­ingly drive or fly to the next des­ti­na­tion, bury­ing the knowledge that our travel it­self is im­pact­ing the planet. In the end, just for this one trip to Peru, I will have helped burn around 105,000 gal­lons of fuel, con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change on our rapidly warm­ing planet.

When I re­turn to our room, Mikey tells me about a con­ver­sa­tion he had with Zarela; she said there’d been other con­flicts be­tween the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and climbers. One dis­agree­ment re­sulted in the tem­po­rary clo­sure of Peru’s prin­ci­pal sport area, Hatun Machay, a for­est of stone pil­lars west of Huaraz. The con­flict arose be­tween the Pam­pas Chico com­mu­nity sur­round­ing the climb­ing area and the hos­tel owner. When the com­mu­nity asked the man to leave be­cause he’d been re­fus­ing to col­lect from climbers and pay to the com­mu­nity the agreed-upon vis­i­tors’ fee, he al­legedly chopped most of the mod­er­ate routes. He also al­legedly dam­aged toi­lets, took doors out of the hos­tel, and heaped and burned garbage out­side. In the end, the hos­tel closed and the man left, forced out by the com­mu­nity. As re­ported by The Huaraz Telegraph, the refu­gio has been re­cently fixed up and some routes have been re­bolted. It is a strange story that il­lus­trates the in­san­ity of a climber claim­ing “own­er­ship” over the rock, a po­ten­tial risk that comes with com­mod­i­fy­ing a climb­ing area.

The next morn­ing, we take a taxi to Lake Paron, shoul­der our packs, and be­gin the steep two-hour hike to La Es­finge. I walk with the smells of burn­ing yucca and morti–o, the smoke from dis­tant farm­land set ablaze. The moun­tains Hu­nadoy, Pi­ramide, and Caraz ser­rate the hori­zon to the south and east. Long,

snow­less moraines stretch fin­ger­like down to the jade wa­ters of Paron. An avalanche bil­lows down Huan­doy, echo­ing pow­er­fully. In the Cordillera, the impact of global warm­ing, of burn­ing fos­sil fu­els, shows. In­stead of their for­mer snows, the moun­tains now wear a skirt of rub­ble. Many seem too dan­ger­ous to climb— rocks whis­tle down their faces, crevasses widen, and avalanches thun­der.

At La Es­finge base­camp, an idyl­lic spot of sand, grass, and loung­ing rocks at 15,000 feet, we set up tents. As we cook din­ner, we no­tice toi­let pa­per flap­ping in the grass and rustling from be­neath rocks. We’ve made our camp in a mas­sive toi­let. Hu­man fe­ces cover the area, lead­ing to the only wa­ter source, a brook run­ning around a large boul­der. We hop­scotch be­tween piles of shit to pump wa­ter. This was surely not the scene that greeted climbers when they first came here in the late 1950s. Be­gin­ning in the 1980s, there has been a steady rise in traf­fic at La Es­finge; word has spread—the routes are solid and are good en­try-level high-al­ti­tude rock climbs. But with al­ti­tude can also come tor­por; per­haps this is why so much trash is strewn about or why no­body packs out their shit.

That night, we watch head­lamps bob­bing half­way up the east face un­til they flicker out 800 feet from the sum­mit. We find out later that there were two teams, one of which spent 24 hours on the wall and the other over 38 try­ing to nav­i­gate the tricky up­per sec­tion of the 1985 Route. The wind turns cold; I zip into my sleep­ing bag and fall asleep un­der the sil­hou­ette of 3,000 feet of rock.

Our first day climb­ing, we head up the 1985 Route, fol­low­ing a roof to a dou­ble crack, an easy chim­ney pitch, a per­fectly cut 5.8 di­he­dral, and 20 more pitches that fill us with ec­stasy. The route’s dif­fi­culty ebbs and flows, but it is al­ways fun; short, pow­er­ful sec­tions lead to long stretches of slab, be­lay ledges break the wall, and thrutchy chim­neys keep our at­ten­tion. Ten hours af­ter leav­ing camp, we’re back to our tents. The moun­tains crum­ble nois­ily; the loss of glaciers am­pli­fies

the sound. There is lit­tle left to hold the ex­posed rocks still. Rocks pound rocks, and grav­ity takes con­trol.

The next day, we fix three pitches on Cruz del Sur. The crux, third pitch is a zigzag­ging ro­pe­length that mixes face and crack. Near the top, I do a few ex­cit­ing face moves, fight­ing barn doors, and en­ter a short di­he­dral. A group of Euro­peans watches from a gi­ant cave be­low—their base­camp—un­til a cold evening wind pushes them in­side. Shan­jean sec­onds and then we rap­pel. On our walk back to camp, we stop at the lit­tle brook, treat­ing sev­eral gal­lons of wa­ter. The stream flows through the waste and then down into the val­ley. Even­tu­ally, it gets to the vil­lages sur­round­ing Caraz, a city of 20,000 that is the last hub be­fore en­ter­ing Huas­car‡n Na­tional Park. On the drive in, I watched farm­ers wash laun­dry in the streams, not know­ing of the con­tam­i­na­tion leach­ing into their wa­ter sup­ply.

Our alarms pierce the dark­ness, and by 6 a.m. we start on Cruz del Sur. We re­peat the first three pitches on Mini-Trax­ion. Red and or­ange streak the white gran­ite, while long stretches of knobby slab link dis­con­tin­u­ous crack sys­tems. Buried in the moun­tain, we find a sock, a weather-hard­ened be­lay glove, space blan­kets, web­bing, and lip balm. The climb­ing, how­ever, is good—Mikey likens it to Yosemite’s Middle Cathe­dral and says it’s no harder than 5.12b, not the given 5.13a. “I’ll take what­ever grade,” I joke, lick­ing my cracked, bloody lips.

When we re­turn to camp, I slide into my down sleep­ing bag and wait for wa­ter to boil for din­ner. I’m priv­i­leged to be able to come here and climb. Some­times I look at a moun­tain and I’m not sure if I should climb it. Some­times hold­ing the mys­tery of the un­known is bet­ter. For one, it’s great to think about what’s up on the sum­mit and not be dis­ap­pointed when all you find is rock. Sec­ond, it’s much more painful when you get to an area and it’s no longer pris­tine. I hadn’t imag­ined all the shit and trash, the con­flict at Hatun Machay, the woman with the rock. It’s not that we shouldn’t visit these places, but we must ques­tion our impact and try to in­te­grate our­selves the way we would want oth­ers to in our own com­mu­ni­ties. In the Cordillera, we wit­nessed our impact as climbers—in fact, we con­trib­uted to it. There’s so much joy packed into climb­ing, yet the ar­eas where we climb are frag­ile—how much fuel are we will­ing to burn to have these ex­pe­ri­ences? I imag­ine these places with­out us, left to the el­e­ments and the an­i­mals, just as they were un­til re­cent decades.

On our drive back to Huaraz, I watch the peaks sur­round­ing Lake Paron fade be­hind the foothills. We pass fam­i­lies work­ing freshly burned fields. Kids sit be­side the road and wait for buses. Old Quechua women dressed in vi­brant wild­flower colors, their high, feath­ered hats walk­ing shad­ows across the bod­ies of skinned chick­ens swung from the rusted hooks of stalls, set out blan­kets for trin­kets and pro­duce. Mon­grel dogs trot nearby, look­ing for scraps. I stick my hand out the win­dow and wave. Mikey and Shan­jean do the same. Some kids wave back. We’re just pass­ing through, but now I have ques­tions. The moun­tains are call­ing—should I go? Maybe this is a good place to be­gin.






Matt Spohn, a climber of 25 years and poet of 5 years, lives with his wife, Michelle, in Ore­gon where he runs Stoneworks Climb­ing Gym. When he’s not busy eat­ing cook­ies, he’s scour­ing the world for new routes to climb.

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