- Historic Sites
Raiders Of The Lost City
In July 1911 the author’s father climbed a remote ridge in Peru to discover, amid an almost impenetrable jungle, the fabled lost city of Machu Picchu, last capital of the Inca Empire. Or so the story goes.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
By 1911, when he organized the first Yale Peruvian Expedition, he was the father of six little boys. He did not care for babies in the diaper stage, and as the number of his small children grew, he eagerly sought escape from domesticity. That explains part of his urge to go exploring. In addition, being ambitious and proud, he had no intention of coasting along on his wife’s money. Driven to make a name for himself, he sought hardship and danger as a way to preserve his self-esteem. And of course, he would not have become an explorer had he not been adventurous. However, the particular promptings that led him to explore the Urubamba canyon in July 1911 were fortuitous—almost trivial.
The promptings that led him to plan the trip were almost trivial.
He himself wrote that his interest in looking for a lost city of the Incas began with a chance invitation from a local Peruvian official a couple of years earlier. He had been on a trip across South America, investigating economic conditions that might prove favorable to expanded American trade and investment. Passing through Cuzco, he was persuaded by an official to visit a newly accessible place called Choquequirau, where there were ruins believed to be those of the fabled lost city to which the last of the supposedly treasure-laden Inca rulers had fled from the conquistadors. My father was not impressed by what he saw at Choquequirau. But contrary to what he implied in writing about it later, neither was he then moved to look “behind the Ranges” for the lost city. Returning to his teaching duties, he soon became restless and eager to go exploring again, but he thought of Central America and Brazil, rather than Peru, as possible targets for a new expedition.
It was a woman who steered him back to Peru. Her name was Annie Peck, and she was a famous mountain climber. For years Bingham had read accounts of her exploits. In 1895 she had made news by climbing the Matterhorn, not quite the first woman to do so but the first to set off boldly in knickers rather than a long skirt. On some of her later climbs she wore a mask to protect her face from snow burn; the mask had a mustache painted on it.
It was easy for a male chauvinist like my father to make fun of her, but she was a brave and gallant lady. After some years as a classical scholar, a college teacher, and a travel lecturer, she conceived the idea of making a first ascent of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere—the “Apex of America,” as she called it. Aconcagua, which at 22,834 feet actually was the highest, had been climbed; however, Annie Peck believed Mount Huascaran, much farther north, in Peru, was higher. After several unsuccessful assaults on the mountain, she claimed success at last on her sixth try, in August 1908. In an article in Harper’s magazine the following January, she boasted that she had reached an altitude greater than any man or woman before her. Bingham must have read her account with distaste. His male pride was undoubtedly offended.
Miss Peck’s claims were, however, soon challenged by another woman mountain climber, Fanny Bullock Workman, who said she had climbed higher peaks in the Himalayas. She sent a team of surveyors to Peru to determine the true height of Huascaran. They found that it was not as high as some of the peaks Mrs. Workman had climbed, its elevation was definitely less than that of Aconcagua, and furthermore, the peak Miss Peck had climbed was not even the real summit. Miss Peck conceded that her estimate of its altitude might be wrong, but she still claimed she had climbed higher than any other American, man or woman.
That might have settled the imaginary feud between my obscure father and the famous woman explorer had it not been for a book that was sent to my father for review in the summer of 1910. A footnote caught his eye. It mentioned a mountain in southern Peru named Coropuna that, with an estimated elevation of more than twenty-three thousand feet, was now presumed to be the “culminating point of the continent.”
My father observed that if the author was right, Annie Peck’s claim to have reached the “apex” might finally be put to rest, and he decided he’d like to climb the mountain himself. To reach the highest point in the Western Hemisphere would both win him fame and meet that aggressive female’s challenge to male supremacy. The fact that he had had no experience with serious mountain climbing did not deter him. But it did make him realize that to raise funds for an expedition and win academic sponsorship, he would have to have a more scholarly objective than an unclimbed mountain.