- 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
They proceeded to take photographs. One of these, still preserved, shows a snow dome looming up not far away and blotting out a section of the distant horizon. My father was worried by that neighboring peak, but after sighting along a pocket level, he persuaded himself that the bothersome dome was really 250 feet below him. Convinced that he had climbed the highest peak, he put up an American flag.
Many travelers on the road below had heard of the ruins.
Bingham’s story of the ascent of Coropuna was the first of his four planned articles to appear in Harper’s; his account of the discovery of Machu Picchu was not published till a year later. He felt he had achieved a major climb, perhaps the greatest feat of his expedition. The American Alpine Club, to his satisfaction, denied Miss Peck’s claim and gave him credit for a first ascent.
Unfortunately, much later and after his death, an official survey by the Peruvian government found that the nearby snowy dome he had photographed, which neither he nor Miss Peck had climbed, was the true summit of Coropuna. topping the peak he had climbed by fifty feet. It was finally climbed in 1952 by an Italian. Piero Ghiglione.
But that was in the distant future. Back in June 1911, having made no change in his plans after his encounter with Annie Peck on the steamer, Bingham had taken his party on to Cuzco the base he had selected for the exploration of the Vilcabamba region.
He divided his party into three working groups. He himself would do all the archeological exploring. The others would make maps of the areas explored or carry on with their scientific specialties. On July 22, with all supplies on hand and a string of mules for transport, he set off down the Urubamba canyon road, taking the doctor and the naturalist with him.
It was a surprisingly good road, one of the best in Peru, wide enough for two mule trains to pass. It had been blasted out of the cliffs to provide easy access to the vast haciendas of the lower Urubamba Valley, whose rich plantation owners had previously had to send their produce to market via the high and sometimes snowy pass of Panticalla. Many of the travelers on the thoroughfare had heard of the ruins on the ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. Some of them, crossing the river on the San Miguel bridge, had even noticed a building that notched the skyline fifteen hundred feet above them. But none of them had been moved to climb up the cliffs to see what was there.
Just two days after leaving Ollantaytambo and five days after leaving Cuzco, my father camped at Mandor Pampa in the canyon below Machu Picchu. There in a primitive hut he found a mestizo named Melchor Arteaga. My father had heard about Arteaga in Cuzco. He kept a small tavern for travelers and did a little farming on what level land there was at the bottom of the canyon. Some months earlier he had told the rector of the University of Cuzco, who was making a trip down the valley, that there were extensive ruins on the top of the ridge. The rector, Dr. Albert Giesecke. had planned to visit the ruins during the dry season, which was now at hand, but gladly passed the information on to Professor Bingham.
So now, on the morning of July 24, 1911, the professor, not expecting anything special, set out alone with Arteaga as guide to have a look. Arteaga led the way across the Urubamba River on a primitive log bridge, not far from where tourist buses now cross on a steel bridge.
My father told the story of the discovery many times, in books and magazine articles and on the lecture platform. I have had access to his pocket diary and the letters he wrote my mother at the time. I have been able to reconstruct the events of the day with precision, and it is clear that his published accounts, while factually accurate, are likely to leave a reader with some erroneous impressions.
For instance, he frequently described the site as one of the most inaccessible in the Andes. Before the building of the canyon road in 1895, it was indeed inaccessible. Not only were the canyon walls too steep for any trail along the river, but the overland trails connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the Inca road system had long been severed by landslides. However, thanks to the modern road, my father came upon Machu Picchu almost inadvertently.
Even the climb up to the ruins from the river was hardly perilous. The trail was used regularly by the three families of tenant farmers he found living in the ruins, and it took him no more than an hour and a half, after leaving the river road, to negotiate the steep path up to the first of the tenant huts. The buses that carry tourists up that same slope today, on a series of hairpin turns, make it in ten or fifteen minutes.