Saturday, November 19, 2011

In the Mines of Potosí

One week while Andrew was tied down by work in La Paz, Tom and I wandered off to see something of the country’s rugged Central Highlands. We traveled mostly by bus, except for the initial flight out of La Paz, which we were forced to take because the Aymara of El Alto were blockading the highway heading east out of La Paz. From Cochabamba we meandered to Sucre, and then we made our way to Potosí, one of the oldest cities in North America. It perches just above 4000 meters. Our bus ride up was entirely at night, winding along the side of vast gulfs and broad, treeless plains, all indistinct in the starlight. We hadn’t made a reservation in Potosí, which made me more nervous than usual about our arrival, but we found a cold, quiet hotel as fans were leaving the bars at the end of a Copa de Oro game.

The Spanish founded Potosí in 1545, shortly after silver was discovered in Cerro Rico, the tall, triangular peak that lies just north of town. The mines were extraordinarily productive, with hundreds of shafts sunk into the mountain once the surface deposits were exhausted. The crown took a fifth of all production, and its share was brought to the Caribbean by mule train and boat, where it became part of the fabled Spanish “treasure fleet” that sailed across the Atlantic once a year in a massive convoy. Francis Drake made his name by raiding these ships.

The conditions of mining were brutal. The Spanish imported millions of African slaves to work in the mines, of whose descendants, the Afro-Bolivianos, only 35,000 survive (they’ve mostly moved northwest, into a fertile, quiet valley of the Yungas Province). The imperial governors also conscripted millions of indigenous people to work in the mines as part of the mita system, a required annual stint of labor that the colonial administration adapted from an old Inca policy. Perhaps as many as eight million men died in the mines over the centuries (many secondary sources assert this number, though I have to admit that I have yet to find a convincing explanation of the estimate). The silver eventually ran out during the eighteenth century, but miners later dug for tin and, nowadays, lead and zinc.

While most of Cerro Rico’s wealth was exported, the city itself did grow to as many as 160,000 people, making it the largest city in the western hemisphere in its 16th century heyday. Tom and I wandered its streets for a day, taking in the small but ornate churches. At the Convento de San Francisco, we climbed to the top tower, from which we could take in the whole of Cerro Rico’s ochre and gray bulk. Its top half is so riddled with mineshafts that miners may only dig on its lower sections, where the roofs of the passageways are less likely to cave in.

Both the guidebooks I had on the trip (the first, sadly, left on the back seat of a La Paz taxi) strongly recommended but also sternly warned their readers about a visit into the mines. Of course, I was deeply intrigued. I made arrangements to enter a cooperative mine with a reputable tour group, Greengo Tours, the next morning. Then Tom and I went out for dinner at a rollicking café whose owner was probably the most extroverted Bolivian I met during the entire trip. We eventually left when he began to exhort us to dance to the music of a local band.

I rose early to meet my guide at the tour office. He was a short, stocky fellow named Julio Morales who spoke decent English, and he endeared himself to me with a number of off-color jokes. We were joined by a pair of Belgian girls who had traveled all over Bolivia for the previous month. They seemed remarkably sanguine about our trip underground.

We took a bus up the side of the mountain to a small office owned by the tour company, where we donned mining outerwear and boots to keep our clothes from getting all wet and dirty. This included putting on a hard hat and a miner’s lamp of the kind that clips right onto the helmet itself. Next, we walked to a small mining market, where we bought coca, orange juice, and several sticks of TNT to give to the men we would meet inside the mountain. According to Lonely Planet, the owner of Greengo Tours is fighting against incorporating dynamite explosions into tours, but apparently this ethic did not extend to actual use of the device.

Another bus took us up onto the mountain itself, where we dismounted by several shacks, one of which had a sign inscribed Cooperative Minera. Several men were sitting around, apparently on their lunch break. One of them couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old. Julio stopped to chat with them, seemingly making a joke or two at our expense, as they all laughed together heartily. Here and there around us were empty carts, some turned over on their side. A small-gauge railroad track ran through the carts and into a small, dark hole in the side of the mountain.

Julio eventually collected us, and, after going on at length about the challenges of the darkness and confined space that would soon engulf us, led us into the hole. On this first section, we had to move fast, as the railway sloped downhill and, every so often, a cart would come hurtling along, loosely guided by a pair of miners (the most junior of the workers, according to Julio). If we were caught on the track, it would have been very bad news indeed.

I immediately was aware of just how small the tunnel was, as I had to constantly stoop as we trotted along. The hard hat came in handy when I smacked my head against a wooden buttress supporting the roof of the tunnel. It was very tiring keeping up with Julio – we were at 13 or 14,000 feet, now, and I hadn’t eaten much breakfast.

When we did stop, it was to duck into a side chamber where three or four miners were operating a gasoline-fueled winch. A wire ran down (out of sight) eighty or one hundred feet to the bottom of a shaft, where other men were using pickaxes and shovels to load rock into a bucket at the end of the wire. When the bucket was lifted back up to top, the waiting men unloaded its contents into a cart, which they hustled out to the surface.

The miners were happy enough to chat with us, or were at least pleased to get their present of coca leaves (as with Luis on Huayna Potosí, they seemed to consume little but coca - notice how many in these pictures have a solid wad tucked into a cheek). Then we headed on, further into the mountain. We descended several wooden stepladders to see what the operation was like at the end of a winch. The Belgians and I took a turn shoveling rock into a bucket. Julio often stopped to tell us about some detail of the work in the mines. He had spent three years as a miner but quickly grew restless. Judging by his clothes back in town, he had done well for himself on the outside, but he still seemed acutely aware of the social hierarchy within the mine. Everything on the inside works on the basis of seniority, and we ran into one foreman who was miffed that Julio had not taken us to see his own operation because he wanted a share of the gifts we had brought into the mine.

At one point while Julio was talking, we heard a distant pop-pop-pop, like fireworks across a large lake. It was dynamite going off somewhere not too far away. We stopped midway down one shaft because there so much silica dust filled the air. Most miners get silicosis pneumonia after a decade or two of work in the mines and die; indeed, I only saw one or two men in the mine who appeared to be older than thirty. All of them seemed to be short, efficient, and cheerful – content in relatively good-paying work that allowed them to realize their masculinity. I tied my bandana over my mouth and tried to breath lightly.

On our way out, (we were all exhausted by the bending and hustling, not to mention the air) we stopped in a small passage occupied by a grotesque figure carved to represent some sort of underworld god. It sat by the edge of the wall, taller than any human, looking like a cross between the Minotaur and a Rastafarian. It was covered in silly string and had coca leaves and a cigarette dangling from its mouth; in its hand was a plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid that must have been grain alcohol. The miners try to keep this creature pacified with such gifts, for they believe that when he is angry, fatal accidents occur. Julio also made a veiled but meaningful allusion to its appetites, which are voracious and undiscriminating.

In fact, women are rarely allowed into the mine. Miners believe they bring bad luck, but exceptions seem to be made for foreign tourists, about whom the miners are, unsurprisingly, very curious. I bought Julio lunch when we were back in Potosí after the end of the tour (at an exchange rate of 7 to 1, I could afford to be very generous with my guides), and he was eager to tell me about his odd situation mediating between the hard-bitten miners and his relatively affluent clientele. He was an opinionated, prejudiced man, but it was unfair to judge him by American standards, and I found his direct honesty appealing, as he found my expressed desire to relate the experience to my students at home.

Daylight and space to stretch my legs were bliss once we were back outside.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Huayna Potosí

After acclimatizing in La Paz and elsewhere for more than two weeks, I decided to look into climbing a big peak. While in Ecuador during college, I got fairly high up on Cotopaxi and did well with the altitude, so I’ve since eagerly sought to return to the Andes. Not far from La Paz rises a peak called Huayna Potosí, well known as a relatively easy 20,000 footer. After my bus trip with Tom finished up, I went down to Calle Sagarnaga, the backpacking district of La Paz, and made a reservation with a guiding company.

A couple days later I showed up at the office at 9 AM. Luckily, they provided me with most of the gear I needed, including ice axe and crampons. All told, the three-day venture only cost $150. After a brief delay while I ran out to get a scarf – the office manager assured me I did would be okay without it, though I decided differently – I met the guide, Felix, and we piled into a van, where a young Scot and Polish pair were already ensconced. We drove to a storehouse, where we collected and fitted our gear, and then we were off in earnest, climbing up, up, and finally over the lip of the canyon to El Alto. Beyond its outskirts, we bounced across the altiplano towards Huayna Potosi, an imposing pyramid of white. When we stopped to take a couple pictures of the mountain and a lake in the foreground, the wind was steady and brisk.

We stopped at a pass between Huayna Potosi and another mountain. Just beyond the high point was a dam, behind which had pooled a lake with the distinctive light-blue tint of glacial sediment, or glacial milk, as it is sometimes called. At the lake’s edge was our first refugio, a cold, lonely building that nonetheless contained a friendly cook who provided us with some hot meals, as well as a relatively comfortable array of bunkbeds.

That afternoon, Felix, David, and Jacob, my Scottish and Polish companions, hiked up to a nearby glacier to practice our technique on the ice. Felix rigged up a belay secured by an ice screw, and we clawed our way up some short, steep pitches of ice, then rappelled down. It was great fun, but it did make me a little nervous about the terrain on the actual mountain. Felix, however, assured us that there would be no technical climbing.

We went to bed at 7:15 that evening. At 4,800 meters, I had a considerable headache, and it was difficult getting to sleep. However, since we went to bed so early, I did eventually nod off, and my headache was gone when I woke up.

Felix was nowhere to be found in the morning. I wasn’t sure where he’d gone until the cook informed me that he had climbed up to the second refuge, halfway to the summit, after dinner the previous evening. Evidently, he was accompanying other clients to the peak in the wee hours.

After lunch, Felix and the people who made the ascent in the early morning began to trickle down to our refuge, all of them worn out. Only a few had made the summit, some with the assistance of various remedies for the altitude, including, in one case, dexamethasone. Felix was tired but clearly used to the grind. At two, we started up.

Most of the afternoon was simply steady ascent up through fields of rock. It wasn’t particularly interesting hiking, but it was good to be on our way. We were in clouds most of the time, and I began to observe differences in the other two climbers. David, the Scot, was inexperienced but very strong, while Jacob moved more slowly, often coughing. Neither spoke any Spanish, nor did they make much effort to communicate with the guide. I became the de facto translator. Felix moved slowly, effortlessly, not wasting any energy. We were joined by a second guide, Luis, who, like Felix, was short and compact.

Along the way, we came upon a hut made entirely of stone but lacking a roof. Inside of it sat two Aymara women, who collected our fee of 10 bolivianos, as this was the entrance to the National Park. They were quite pleasant and up for a brief chat, but when I asked to take their picture, they declined. David persisted, and they turned away from the lens as he snapped the photo.

At the top of a particularly steep pitch, we came upon the first of the refugios halfway up the mountain. This one was open to the public, but we didn’t stay for long, as we wanted to reach our own, about 100 meters higher up vertically (perhaps half a mile further). At this point, we put on our crampons and got our ice axes out, and we began hiking up a snowfield behind the refugio. At this point, as the fog rolled in, Jacob really started to slow down, feeling the altitude and dismayed that we couldn’t see our destination.

The second refugio was not too far, however, and I was pleased to see it after 15 minutes, especially now that my head was pounding fairly hard. A simple affair of orange metal walls and two levels of bunks, we quickly got inside and started drinking water. The guides lit the stove and made a bit of dinner—Ramen and two hot dogs for each of us—but I couldn’t get it all down. At 5, about an hour after we’d arrived at the refugio, we slithered into our sleeping bags.

Sleep was elusive. I felt my headache acutely, and the other two, who had been arguing about not feeling the altitude, clearly were susceptible, especially Jacob. I barely slept and tried to decide whether or not to continue on in the morning (or rather, night, as Felix had informed us that we would be waking up at one AM).

It seemed to take ages to reach one o’clock, but evidently I did fall asleep briefly, because my headache had subsided considerably by the time the alarm finally went off. In fact, I felt pretty good, except that I couldn’t keep down a bit of bread I ate with my tea. However, I forced myself to swallow some more, and soon it was time to head off. To my relief, Jacob announced he did not feel up to continuing.

Without Jacob, David and I could each rope up with one guide. I was very pleased to get Felix, with whom I had developed a rapport. As we started up, it was extremely dark—we even lacked starlight, which couldn’t penetrate through the clouds. The two pairs hiked close to each other, headlamps all on. I found it very difficult lacking a sense of how far we needed to travel. I only knew that we had about 700 meters of vertical ascent remaining.

We were on glacier now, and from time to time, Felix would point out crevasses to the right or left. Some were small, while others gaped. One was named “the hotel.” The hiking wasn’t particularly interesting, just plodding along our route, known as the “auto-pista” due to its well-traveled, wide treadway. Below us, we could see a few lights from climbers who had started from the other refugio. Every now and then we would stop for a bit of water and banter. I ate a Snickers bar or two and hoped the tube of my Camelpak wouldn’t freeze (it did, eventually, much to my chagrin, but I at least had a wide-necked Nalgene).

The clouds did eventually clear, and I began to get a sense of the large ridges around us. After a couple hours, I began to tire. My steps were harder, and I took longer breaks. Felix, however, seemed not to feel the altitude at all. I never saw him eat or drink anything during the climb save for coca leaves. Luis had a sip of my water, and that was all. I, in contrast, was constantly thirsty.

Step, step, step, step, rest… This became my rhythm toward the very top. The wind picked up, stinging my face. I had all my clothing on, and we took shelter twice in small dugouts next to the trail. Other climbers caught up and rested with us. The snow, which was soft lower down, became hard, and then shaped in nieves penitentes – formations that look a bit like people at prayer. They are a foot or so high and covered entire slopes.

Then Felix told me we were just below the summit. We climbed a final, steeper pitch, and then to my surprise, we stood atop a knife edge (the Polish Ridge, named for someone who fell off of it). There were serious drops on both sides, not quite vertical, but in the realm of 60-70 degrees. One side, I believe, was Huayna Potosi’s south face, which is a couple of thousand feet long. A small path ran to the official summit, a couple hundred yards away. Several other climbers and their guides were pushing past me to move toward the summit. At this point, I decided I had gone far enough, much to Felix’s disappointment. However, he obeyed my request to stop, and I sat, panting, soaking in the altitude and the sense of the void next to me. It was still dark, but the eastern sky was just beginning to lighten.

Soon, we descended off the ridge and into a bit of shelter, where we rested again. The sun came up, illuminating a cottony landscape of clouds and glacier. A few peaks poked up above the undercast. Then we started down, much more quickly. It was amazing to observe the difference between the effort it took to go up and the ease with which my momentum carried me down.

I didn’t stop to take many pictures; I was thirsty and didn’t want to delay. Now that the landscape was lit, I could take in the glacier and its crevasses in all their detail. It was beautiful, but the light was bright, even with glacier goggles, and I only wanted to get somewhere where I could drink as much water as I could hold.

It only took a bit more than an hour to descend what had taken us four and a half hours to climb up. By the time we reached the refugio, the clouds were lifting and the sun was shining with its full power. The sunlight gave me new energy, and it helped when Felix brewed up a pot of tea. I can’t ever remember being so thirsty, and the liquid going down my throat was an indescribable relief.

David and his guide made it down about twenty minutes later. Meanwhile, I packed up my gear, knowing that while he and Jacob got their things together, I would have plenty of time to gaze around at the surrounding peaks. We eventually got going, Felix and Luis anxious to get down to meet their new clients, and David falling rather quickly behind. His bag was poorly packed, but he was so tired, he didn’t care. When we stopped to take off our crampons, Felix simply shouldered his pack so that we could descend more quickly.

I scampered down behind Luis and, as we moved on ahead, got to know him a bit better. It was amazing how quickly we covered ground that had taken us three or four times as long to climb the day before. When we reached the refuge, fatigue finally hit me. I didn’t want to eat anything solid, turned down a steak proffered by the cook, and just lay around after eating a bowl of soup. A minivan arrived at noon, dropping off a new batch of climbers, full of eager energy. I said a warm goodbye to Felix and assuaged his evident worry that I would go off without tipping him (apparently, this was why he had pushed to complete the final hundred yards up top). I was back in La Paz by mid-afternoon, awash in the bustle of the city, while my mind still basked in an alpine glow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Afternoon on the Ridge

A couple of Wednesdays ago, I went for a hike with my brother, Townley Chisholm, an old friend from camp who teaches at Exeter, and Townley's daughter and her friend up Mt. Monroe. It was an absolutely sparkling day, the kind that only appears four or five times in an entire summer.

When I worked at Pasquaney, Townley and I took a couple of "nature hikes" to look for the Dwarf Cinquefoil, a rare plant that I have written about elsewhere. Because it is so small, barely larger than a quarter, we were never able to find it. However, AMC friends later pointed it out to me, and now it was my turn to show Townley. We also did some poking around at the top of Oakes Gulf and got particularly interested in the lichen thanks to Townley, who is truly a lifelong student (and teacher) of biology.

The jaunt also allowed for some socializing up at Lakes, where I had stayed earlier in the summer. It was the day before the end of the summer season, and the Huts Manager and his assistant were up training new fall croo. Townley actually ran into a former student, while I was able to horse around with my old croo mate, Nick Anderson, who was Hutmaster at Lakes this summer.

I'd never gone swimming in the Lakes before but was persuaded to go for a dip. My entrance was considerably more cautious than Nick's, however.

It was cold! But deeply refreshing.

This creature, Moseby by name, belongs to Townley. I think the hut naturalist should use him for a joke program, something along the lines of "Habits of the Alpine Deerhound"

On the far side of Monroe, we saw this fellow swooping in toward Eisenhower.

I assumed that someone was pretty badly hurt down there, but the chopper made a couple of passes, so its crew was probably simply training. Bad luck for anyone up seeking the freedom of the hills in its vicinity. Later on, the hut croo confirmed that, since their radio was quiet, nothing had gone wrong.

Seeing a helicopter up in the mountains still gets my pulse racing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Terraces and Raised Beds

In grad school down at UT, we read quite a bit about various agricultural adaptations in the Pre-Colombian Americas. Public knowledge about the sophistication of indigenous civilizations is improving (do elementary schools still teach, as they did when I attended mine, that all Indians were essentially hunter-gatherers?), but my sense is that people still do not appreciate the scale of development, especially in Central and South America. It was the article The Lost City of Z, published four or five years ago in the New Yorker, that opened my eyes. David Grann, an magician of an author who turned the piece into a book, highlighted archaeological finds in the Amazon that are consistent with an account by a Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, of vast settlements. After Orellana passed through, smallpox and other diseases ravaged the population, and since inhabitants relied on mud and wood as construction materials, decay erased the built record to all but the most astute eyes.

In the Andes, the Incas were only the last of several empires that flourished. One of their predecessors, based at Tiwanaku near the south shore of Lake Titicaca, developed into a city of 15-30,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more tilling the shores around the lake. Since Lake Titicaca sits high on the Altiplano, at 12,500 feet, well above the Andean treeline, these people had to develop incredibly sophisticated methods of farming to survive in the harsh alpine climate. And yet, they not only scratched out their existence but thrived, making Tiwanaku the seat of an empire that stretched up and down the Pacific coast for hundreds of miles and reached east into the lowland jungle.

When I took the bus to Copacabana, a touristy little town on Lake Titicaca just east of the border with Peru, I had ample opportunity to scrutinize the hillsides. At one point, we had to get off the bus to cross a small strait (the bus rides in one rickety wooden boat, the passengers on another due to an unfortunate capsizing a few years back). Above the dock, the hillside climbed several hundred feet, every inch of it covered in crumbling terraces. Nowadays, people only till the flat lands closest to the lake (though they don’t seem to have any mechanized system of irrigation). The amount of labor it took to carve the hillsides into terraces is mind-boggling: people must have swarmed across these hillsides like ants, once.

Proximity to the lake affords a major advantage for farmers, as the massive body of water acts as a heat sink, extending the growing season considerably by warding off destructive frosts. The locals further developed this system in miniature, in what is known as suka kollu or raised bed agriculture.

On the floodplain adjacent to the lake, farmers created a series of long, relatively narrow (several meters wide) beds, interspersed with channels fed by lake water. Again, the water served as a local heat sink, extending the growing season and, at times, mitigating the effect of the harsh Andean sun. Irrigation was easy, and when soil on the beds grew exhausted, farmers could reach to the bottom of adjacent channels and scoop up mud rich with nutrients from decaying plant matter. While crops such as potatoes were rich in carbohydrates, waterfowl and fish in the channel provided a convenient source of protein.

Contemporary farmers in the region have lost the knowledge to cultivate these fields, but a few experiments by social scientists have found that the raised bed system can yield ten times as much produce as conventional methods and one and half times as much as conventional methods supplemented with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. It is not easy to convince the local population to adopt unfamiliar methods of farming, however.

Back near the capital city, Andrew, Tom and I went for a walk along a ridge west of La Paz. Our perch had tremendous views of Illimani, a giant 6,000 meter peak that looms over La Paz, as well as the agriculture along the valley walls. Innumerable fields, most long abandoned, were visible. Since the climate is so dry, it takes centuries for wild plants to recolonize tilled soil.

The population pressure to cultivate such seemingly marginal landscapes must have been intense. That people did so and were able to build a thriving civilization seems to convincingly refute the Malthusian thesis.