- 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
A fortunate coincidence helped him: Choquequirau, where he had failed to find the lost city of the Incas, lay a hundred miles due north of Coropuna. He conceived the idea of an expedition that would link those two objectives; he could include them both in a geographic and geologic survey along the seventy-third meridian of longitude, south from the Amazon basin to the Pacific. This would take him straight across the Andes, which here turn in an easterly direction. As he neared the Pacific, he could make the climb that might put him on top of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. It was a daring concept, and if he carried it out, he would put to rest forever the pretensions of Annie Peck. In his view exploration was a man’s prerogative.
By March 1911 the plan for what came to be called the Yale Peruvian Expedition was shaped. With a party of men from various scientific disciplines, he would head north into the wilderness from Cuzco, exploring the lower Urubamba River and the ancient province of Vilcabamba, and so on to the head of canoe navigation in the Amazon basin, then would turn south up the valley of the Vilcabamba River and over the Cordillera Vilcabamba and continue over the central and maritime ranges of the Andes to Coropuna and the Pacific. One additional objective not far off the seventy-third meridian was the mysterious Lake Parinacocha, reputed to be the largest lake entirely in Peru.
The plan was approved by the Yale Corporation, thanks partly to the interest of its secretary, Anson Phelps Stokes, who was a personal friend of Bingham. By late spring of 1911 the young Yale professor had raised enough money to pay the expenses of a geologist, a topographer, a naturalist, a “surgeon,” and, last but not least, an experienced mountain climber—designated “engineer.” At the last moment a Yale undergraduate, whose father offered to pay his expenses, was added with the title of “assistant.” The total funding for the seven-man expedition came to just under twelve thousand dollars. Included in that sum were eighteen hundred dollars contributed by my mother from her Tiffany funds. My father was able to raise an equal amount by selling a building lot he had inherited in Hawaii and getting a five-hundred-dollar advance from Harper’s magazine for four articles.
Harper’s seemed most interested in the projected climb of Coropuna, perhaps because of the controversy over Annie Peck’s claims. She now heard of my father’s plans and wrote him that she had been intending to climb Coropuna herself but was willing to let him accompany her. He was furious and wrote an insulting reply.
His party sailed from New York early in June. With the Panama Canal still unfinished, the group crossed the isthmus by rail and caught a West Coast steamer at Panama City. My father was outraged to find that Miss Peck, apparently out to beat him in a race for the summit, was a fellow passenger. He had planned to make his assault on the mountain in October, after the other objectives of his expedition had been completed and when he believed he could expect the best weather for the climb. He was not going to demean himself by changing his plans now and entering into a race.
In a letter to my mother he professed to find Miss Peck amusing. He described her as a “hard-faced, sharp-tongued old maid,” at least five years older than the fifty years she had given the purser as her age. Actually she was over sixty. He was a young man, but hardly in a mood to admire the courage of an elderly woman.
Miss Peck lost no time. In Arequipa she found two men willing to join her, obtained equipment, and hired mules to carry her party to the foot of the mountain. With four Indian porters assisting, she set off for what looked like the highest peak of the massif. On July 16 she climbed two of the mountain’s several peaks. On the higher of the two she raised a banner emblazoned with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN. Her instruments gave an elevation of barely twenty thousand feet. She could see other peaks of the range that might be a little higher, but she was certain none of them reached the height she had estimated for Huascarán. On her return she claimed a first ascent of Coropuna but, comparing it with her previous more difficult climbs, made light of the achievement.
Two months later, after his notable discoveries of Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba, my father made his far-better-prepared assault on the mountain. He was sure that Miss Peck had climbed the wrong peak. He took a different route and headed for what from another direction looked like the highest peak.
He and four companions established a base camp at the snow line. Then, after two days of grueling work, mostly over soft snow, they camped at twenty thousand feet, which my father thought was a record for a mountain bivouac. They reached the top the next morning. Their instruments showed they were well above twenty-one thousand feet but, to their dismay, far short of Aconcagua’s height.