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Mountaineering in the Andes



The Andes were the sacred mountains of the Incas. To this spiritual tribe, which originated in the high altitude of Lake Titicaca, snow-clad peaks and mountain passes were places of veneration. At the height of their conquests, the Inca empire stretched for almost five thousand kilometres along the chain of the Andes, from southern Colombia to southern Chile. The Incas’ famous network of roads skirted the flanks of the great mountains. Whenever a traveller climbed a pass, he or she made an offering to propitiate the mountain deities: a pebble, scrap of clothing or an eyelash left on a sacred mound. The pre-Inca Nazca people of the coastal desert worshipped mountains as the source of precious water: many of the mysterious Nazca lines point towards distant peaks.

When Francisco Pizarro’s ruthless conquistadores marched into Peru to plunder and subjugate the Inca empire, they were appalled by the sight of the mighty Andes. Spanish men suffered from mountain sickness and their horses slipped on steep ascents or panicked when crossing swaying suspension bridges. The Incas used their mountain terrain to destroy some contingents of invaders trapped in defiles under a barrage of boulders. One conquistador lost hundreds of men frozen to death on the passes of the Ecuadorean Andes.

After the Conquest, it was Spaniards who, in Elizabethan times, made the first recorded ascent of an Andean peak. As early as 1582 a group of enthusiasts described climbing the Ecuadorean volcano Pichincha to observe its crater after an eruption. Andean mountaineering really began in mid-eighteenth century, with a number of climbs by scientists who were sent to Quito to try to calculate the earth’s diameter at the equator - their measurements formed the basis of the entire metric system of weights and measures. In 1802-3 the German geographer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt climbed to the snowline on Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. And in 1880 Edward Whymper carried out the first major Andean climbing expedition, ascending Chimborazo and a series of other Ecuadorean peaks.

Climbing in the Andes thus long antedates Himalayan mountaineering. Although the Andes are second to the Himalayan ranges in altitude, their many beautiful and dangerous mountains have been tackled by most of the world’s great mountaineers, including Lionel Terray, Chris Bonington, Reinhold Messner, Peter Habeler and Eric Shipton. Stretching from the Caribbean to the Antarctic Ocean, the Andes still offer many challenges and unclimbed peaks, with approaches through remote and often forested terrain. They are attracting an increasing number of climbers, particularly those who like the freedom from bureaucratic control and absence of peak fees in the South American republics.

Such a great mountain range deserves a reference book of appropriate excellence. Jill Neate with her unrivalled combination of mountaineering experience, meticulous historical research, familiarity with all the mountaineering literature, and command of the appropriate languages, has produced a compendium that must surely be the definitive source of information about mountaineering in the Andes.

John Hemming, Director and Secretary Royal Geographical Society


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