National Geographic Adventure—Discoveries Above the Clouds

Discoveries Above the Clouds

National Geographic Adventure

March/April 2000

In the cloudforest realm of Chachapoya, travelers can plumb Peru’s forgotten past.

Howells and Wiltsie trekked to a little-climbed summit in Peru.

Photo by Gordon Wiltsie

The Gringo isn’t happy. He doesn’t like what he sees. Me, I’m delirious; the sight is stunning. After four hours of traipsing up sheer pitches of slick stone on which there is too little purchase, and slogging through knee-deep pits of mud in which there is too much, we’ve at last emerged from an oozy cloud-forest shroud into a sun-drenched mountain-top meadow. Suddenly we can see where we are: on a narrow, grassy ridge that drops off on either side into river valleys 6,000 feet [1,830 meters] deep. The view is all wild Cordillera Central, row upon row of parallel ranges thickly wrapped in cloud, as they nearly always are, even in Peru’s dry season: thus, “cloud forest.” Straight ahead, several miles north, is a shadowy rectangle outlined against a backdrop of cumulus formations. It’s 12,400-foot Mount Shubet, our destination, site of recently discovered ruins “of a mysterious religious nature.” Ours is to be only the second known ascent of the mountain in modern times.

But the Gringo—archaeologist Peter Lerche—scowls. It’s not easy being an expert on the Chachapoya of Peru. After two decades in the country, the expatriate German—who is married to a Peruvian, speaks perfect Spanish, and farms a high Andean valley—is still known by locals as the Gringo. The northern Peru department of Amazonas, where he lives, is an archaeological feast, but only for a scholar fit (and loony) enough to spend long days trudging cruelly rugged pre-Hispanic trails, scaling cliffside funeral sites, and machete-hacking through dense, mucky forests to uncover ancient cities of stone. Or to scale mountains deemed unclimbable by locals.

But such efforts bring little reward. In the ancient-peoples-of-Peru hierarchy, it is the Inca who are sexy. They built Machu Picchu. Tourists flock there. The Chachapoya sites 600 miles north have long languished in unprotected oblivion. A few years ago, this site, Talapé, was entirely cloaked in cloud forest. Now a huge swath of west-facing slope—and the pesky stone structures thereon—have been cleared to make way for a small farm. Soon, even more ruins will fall to agriculture.

So it’s not easy being Peter Lerche, archaeologist. Which is why on this trip, he’s Peter Lerche, tour guide. Each of the trips offers a rare opportunity in the mapped, tourist-tracked world: the chance for ordinary travelers to participate in genuine exploration. We’re here because we heard about those mysterious mountaintop ruins on Shubet’s summit. I have a private reason, too. Before we left, I faxed Lerche a question: What is the chance for further discovery on this trip? His answer: 100 percent.

Three days earlier, we’d convened in a place called Chillo Lodge, about 90 bouncy bus minutes south of the town of Chachapoyas, which itself is about 90 jet minutes northeast of Lima. Lerche offered a Chachapoya chalk talk. Their heyday began circa 800 A.D. and lasted until the more powerful, centralized Inca conquered them in the 1460s. But during their prime, the Chachapoya put up some numbers, so to speak, to rival even that ballyhooed Inca shrine, Machu Picchu. Besides the trademark round houses (called shunturhuasi) within hundreds of loosely confederated llajtas, population centers, the half-million-strong Chachas also built an awesome mountaintop citadel called Kuelap, and stuffed numerous cliffside funeral caves chock full of mummies. Still, they’ve remained the province of but a few dogged scholars and crackpot explorers.

The trek began south along the Utcubamba Riverin a lush 5,600-foot valley, then east into the roadless mountains. Most of my fellow trekkers rode horseback. I walked with Peter as we continually surrendered hard-won high ground—up out of one valley, steeply down into another. Late in the afternoon, we reached the cloudforest zone, about 9,000 feet. Tufted trees sent spindly shafts skyward beyond the undergrowth, supplicants begging for cloud moisture. The lower trunks and branches looked gaunt and haunted, an effect enhanced by cobwebby beards of moss. At about 11,000 feet we popped out of the forest. It was raining, dark, and we’d hoofed more than 20 miles, gained over 8,000 feet. None of us had energy to do more than put up tents and eat PowerBars as the clouds swallowed us whole.

The next few days, we continued to trudge down into deep humid valleys, through cloudforests, and back up to high bunchgrass ridges, pitching camp in villages where some children had never before seen gringos. All this was a 40- or 50-mile preface to the business of exploring Chachapoya ruins—which illuminated what Lerche told me about the tricky trade of being a Chachapoya archeologist.

“It’s not a job for desk jockeys. It’s why Chachapoya studies are so neglected. To get here takes time, and apart from the financial aspect, you need certain physical abilities. Plus you have a long rainy season and a short dry season.” (These trails, some eroded into grave-deep grooves, would be slick mud-flumes during rainy season.)

“And what can you know of the Chachapoya? What you get out of archeological investigation is very reduced. You have to combine it with ethnohistorical studies, anthropological studies, oral tradition, religious feasts and so on, to get close to prehispanic reality. But you never find out definitely.”

Lerche is the rare scholar with the chutzpah and fitness to probe the Chachapoya’s various hearts of darkness. When he came to Peru right out of school, he worked in fields with farmers to gain their confidence. He spent three years exploring a lowland jungle city called Chilcos, abandoned by the Chachapoya during some Spanish-imported epidemics. There he uncovered stone terraces, canals, and roundhouses; found Inca trails and baths, and even forgotten colonial churches.

It’s Lerche who gets the call during archeological emergencies like the doozy that erupted in 1997 when he was working with Peru’s National Cultural Institute as head of conservation of archeological monuments in Amazonas. A row of mummy-filled cliffside chullpas, funeral caves, had been found and looted above Laguna de los Cóndores (Lake of the Condors). The remaining mummies had to be saved. It was left to Lerche to organize and guide an exceedingly difficult mummy-rescue operation, which was documented by a Discovery Channel film crew: 160 delicate shrouds hauled out by pack mule over miles of muddy trail. The next year, Lerche led a Dutch team to even more-remote cliffside mummy sites that required technical rock-climbing skills to  reach. “We found 54 of them, hundreds of meters high. All had been looted. It was an impressive disaster.”

So it’s little wonder that Lerche is scowling at the clearcut Chachapoya neighborhood. But his mood improves when we turn back from the pasture and proceed, machetes in hand, into the cloudforest. I come upon a circular structure, raised, like a round stage. “It’s a ceremonial platform,” says Lerche. When we scramble up the wall, though, and stand atop it, Lerche is perplexed. “Usually there is a cylinder cut out of the middle of these platforms,” he says. Instead there’s a large stone there, with scraggly trees growing out of it like hairs from a wart. Human sacrifice? Lerche grunts a rejection of my theory and disappears into the cloudforest. I’m still standing on top when photographer Gordon Wiltsie clambers up, looks at me and asks if I’m cold. No, it’s a sunny, T-shirt afternoon. But the photog points to my right arm, covered with goose bumps; all my hair is standing straight up. Brrr.

We peel ourselves away from Talapé and begin our final northward climb toward Shubet. Lerche continually gestures into the cloudforest on either side of the trail: “Ruinas, ruinas, mas ruinas,” he says with no trace of surprise or regret. Ruinas everywhere.

Shubet’s summit block looks like El Capitan plunked atop a 12,000-foot-high knoll of uchu, bunchgrass. No wonder the mountain has long been deemed unclimbable by locals. As we move counterclockwise around the base, about 1,200 feet below the summit, Lerche recalls his 1991 Shubet climb and discovery. “I became curious,” Lerche says. “In other parts of Peru, people regard certain distinct mountains as an apu, the place of origin of a clan or a people. Shubet is so dominant in this district, and on most of the ridges near it are pre-Inca population centers. Could it be an apu?

“We found vertical incisions in the rock and attempted to climb them. Each time we met a high wall of stones and mud, obviously from very ancient times, and obviously meant to prevent people from getting up to the top.” Finally, they found a narrow defile on the east side where a wall had crumbled away. That would be our approach tomorrow, after a chilly camp about a thousand feet below.

The magic fissure begins as a slightly slippery 45-degree slope and leads to a vertical chimney in which we encounter the partially crumbled stone wall. A vaguely technical dynamic move to the right leads us around it and up another slippery ramp, which we scramble up and onto a broad shoulder of Shubet.

While Gordon fixes a rope and Peter waits for the others, I proceed by myself to the summit. It’s cold: 30 or so degrees, with a stiff wind blowing. About 35 feet short of the summit, a five-foot rock wall frames a round platform, Shubet’s penultimate layer—which in turn is crowned by a tower of limestone. The tower is about four feet high and wide, though judging by the jumble of rocks around it, it was once at least twice that size.

Unsure if I’m committing some archeological faux pas or apu blasphemy, I hop up to the top of the tower. Part of the thrill of standing on any summit is surveying the vast surrounding corrugated skirt of the place and feeling the engram of the terrain, the whole trip, in your legs and lungs. The mountain is as much mine as a piece of ancient geography can be. But I’m aware, too, that this one really belongs to the Chachapoya. I have no idea if this was their apu, their spirit mountain, their mythical place of origin, but its centrality to their realm is obvious. By Shubet’s sheer presence, its dominance, its visibility, and the sense of endlessness its perspective inspires, it’s easy to know that it held some central place in Chachapoya life and culture.

Peter and the others soon join me. Of the summit platform, Lerche says, “It had to be religious: What other reason to build such a structure on top of a mountain? For living? No. There’s no indication.” Peter then leads us 50 yards away to a ground-level petroglyphic inscription of a snake, its hind half coiled in a spiral, its upper half a tight zig zag pointing due north. Why? “It could have many meanings,” he says. What he utters next gets drowned out by a gust of wind, and that seems fitting. Archeology will always be a process of asking questions of people who can’t answer, and the responses we impose will always be blown away easily by the next stiff breeze.

There’s no time today to probe for answers. Peter Lerche, tour guide, seems content to point out landmarks, answer questions, pose for photos. Maybe he’s aware of the murkiness of his profession versus the tangible reward of guiding. He can’t reveal for us the secrets of the cloud people—those still lurk deep in the forests and buried in piles of limestone. But he’s led us to a place we’ll not forget, a place of beauty and mystery, and as he gestures across an infinity of landscape, I notice that Peter Lerche’s scowl is gone. The Gringo looks happy.