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An Andean guide combines archaeology and tradition


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(Photo: Carlos Zárate)

In 1993, while climbing the 20,630-foot Nevado Ampato, Peruvian mountain guide Carlos Zárate spotted signs of what would turn out to be a sacrificed Inca girl, the now-famous "Ice Maiden." He later accompanied an expedition to the site and has since worked as a guide on other high-altitude archaeological ventures. In the city of Arequipa, where the Misti Volcano looms in the distance, he talked with journalist Janelle Conaway about following in ancient footsteps.

Why did you decide to become a mountain climber?
My father used to climb a lot. On one ascent, he made a promise that he would name his first three children after the mountains around Arequipa, so my name is Carlos Misti. As a boy, I was always surrounded by cameras, boots, and backpacks.

When did you realize there were archaeological sites in the mountains?
In 1965, my father belonged to a mountain-climbing club, and they discovered a tomb on Pichu Pichu. There wasn't much archaeological work being done back then. They opened the tomb, found some things, brought them down, and took them to the San Agustin Museum in Arequipa. From that point on, in my family we knew that there were other things on the mountains, that the Inca had made offerings. We always talked about this in my family.

Do you feel a strong connection to these sites?
It's moving to think about how the ancients got to these places. We have all this specialized clothing and shoes and tents to sleep in. They had these wool moccasins tied with cords of llama leather, which worked like the crampons we use today so we don't slip. They tied the moccasins tightly to their feet, and the wool would grip the snow.

What is your role on an expedition?
My job is safety, putting together the route so the archaeologists can climb without any problems. Also locating the camps in a safe place, getting the food together for the expedition, and providing support in the excavations. The work can be hard--very low temperatures and frozen ground. You have to boil a lot of water to be able to thaw the soil for digging.

Have you ever had a particularly difficult expedition?
Once on Ampato we had very fierce winds. There was ash falling from a nearby volcano, and it was difficult just to be in that environment. There's a custom here of laying out a "table" for Pachamama, the Inca earth goddess, to ask permission to go up the mountain so that everything will turn out okay. We had native people on our team from the Colca Valley who believe in that. I wasn't a believer, but they had asked me to take along the makings of this ritual--offerings such as coca leaves, the fetus of a vicuña or llama, alcohol, a whole series of things. Each person presents an offering, and at the end you burn everything. Once we did the ceremony, the wind died down and we were able to climb without any problems. Everything went smoothly and we found the tombs. Then the last day, when we were coming down off the mountain, the winds started up again.

Do you still prepare these tables when you climb?
Yes, I have a lot of respect for that now. I know that it works.

What projects have you been involved with recently?
I've been working with the Arequipa Center for Archaeological Research, which has been recovering pre-Inca roads that go from Cusco through the Colca Valley and then down to Chile. Once there are highways and buses, some of those roads start to disappear. We go out with a team of people to explore the roads and record what condition they're in.

What about future expeditions?
I've found another site, very high up. I sat down to rest on a climb and spotted something unusual on the ground. It turned out to be small pieces of textiles and some human tissue. I'm talking to an archaeologist friend about putting together an exploratory trip to see whether it's worth a full-fledged expedition. There could still be a mummy there.

You discovered the site?
Well, you don't really discover anything. The native people know about these places. They know there are offerings on the mountains because that's part of their culture. All we do is confirm that these things are there.

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