IN THE BELLY OF THE EARTH
By Andrzej Piętowski
Translated by Dark Oglaza
Perhaps George Mallory characterized the sensation best when, asked why he had set sights on then unconquered Mt. Everest, he replied,“Because it was there.” His terse, seemingly whimsical answer is now legendary —perhaps because it symbolizes the quasimystical lure that the unknown, the unconquered, has on all of us. Looking back on the events that led me and my companions —then residents of Cracow, Poland— to the Colca Canyon in the Peruvian Andes, I get the impression that a similar mystical spirit was at work. But unlike Mallory, who found himself drawn toward the crest of the world, we were lured to the deepest canyon on the planet, the belly of the earth, from which cliffs rise more than 10,000 feet.
At first all we had to go on was the suggestion of my friend Piotr Chmieliński — who later became the first man to kayak and raft the Amazon from its source to the sea— that we explore a number of rivers in South America. The idea appealed to us immediately. At the time we were completing our studies in Cracow and I think we all sensed that an era in our lives was coming to an end. We would soon have to accept the “adult” responsibilities of work and family; in short, though we felt confident in our abilities —we had had by then extensive river experience on our native Dunajec and also in many other parts of Europe— we also realized that the moment was at hand for an exceptional adventure. It would be now or never, but where to begin?
In Poland, to even mention that we were planning to explore a river in South America was grounds for institutionalization. Along with the customary obstacles one faces while preparing for such an expedition —plotting courses, gathering supplies— one also has to take into account any number of political obstacles. Poland is, after all, behind the Iron Curtain, with all the attendant problems. Similarly, the political upheavals that constantly plague much of Latin America further complicate matters, a fact well illustrated by the many problems we encountered obtaining entrance visas.
Our first contact with the Colca came in 1978 when we came across an article describing the region. It had been written by Professor Jose Arias, a Spaniard who had developed an interest in the river based on the work of a colleague, Professor Gonzalo de Reparaz, who lived in Lima. The canyon itself was first “discovered” in 1929 by two American airmen who had cleared a small airstrip and flown several exploratory missions over the canyon in a single-engine plane. The airstrip was near the place called the Condor’s Cross, where we would later begin our journey.
The entire region was largely uncharted, despite the fact that during the Inca Empire, the Colca River Valley was a vital and thriving center, laced with a network of irrigation channels. Even today one can make out remnants of steep stairways cut into the bare walls of rock, the famous Inca Trail that was used to move armies from one corner of the empire to another, as well as to transport fresh fish from the Pacific to remote Andean areas.
Reparaz, we later learned, had had a keen interest in the canyon for several decades. His interest in the Colca was contagious. In 1978 Doctor Arias as well as Professor Max Weibel of Switzerland made their own cursory explorations of the canyon. Still, their party hadn’t included any experienced river runners and thus almost the entire canyon remained unexplored.
Once our initial, vague plans of running rivers in South America crystallized, we set our sights first on the rivers of Argentina. No sooner had we done so when, because of a dispute with the Chilean government over a number of small islands in the Beagle Channel, the Argentine government summarily revoked our visas. We then changed our plans, looking toward Peru and its rivers, especially the Colca.
Already booked on a ship out of Gdynia, we found another unexpected obstacle. This was in the winter of 1979-80, the one winter in a hundred when the Baltic froze. We resigned ourselves to waiting until the sea was once again navigable, but then the military junta governing Peru abruptly revoked our visas. For the first time, after two years of exhausting preparations, we talked of giving up the whole affair. Still, we went on, now looking toward Mexico. As luck would have it, the government there granted us visas almost immediately.
We arrived in Peru in February, 1981, via Central America, but we still didn’t have a clear idea of how to approach the Colca. The river was there, so were we, but we had little else to go on. It was then that we happened to meet Professor Reparaz himself. He asked us to stay in his home in Lima and, once there, allowed us to examine all of his maps and diagrams. He also infected us with his fascination with the Colca. He was enthusiastic and encouraging, yet we sensed his apprehension about the risks we would face.
It was on May 13, 1981, in a small Andean village, Chivay, 3,600 meters above the Pacific Ocean, that we first heard of the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II. We managed to get our hands on a battery-operated radio and, in the night’s cold —our tea freezing up in our canteens— we listened silently to news bulletins coming across in what seemed all the world’s languages. Looking back on it, I believe we formed a pact in the silence of the night. In short, any of us who still might have entertained doubts about taking on the canyon dropped them then and there.
To understand what the death of John Paul II meant to us —we inferred from those early communiqués that he had been killed— I suppose you would have to be Polish. Here was the man who had been raised and later served as a priest and a bishop in our home town, dying at a pivotal moment of our nation’s history. And I now realize that perhaps much of our resolve to go ahead, to take on the canyon, was a kind of self-defense. We believed that through physical exertion we might get our minds off the tragedy unfolding half a world away.
At this time, Solidarity, the movement that had arisen in and spread through all of Poland, seemed to be altering the state of things not only in our homeland, but in a good part of Europe as well. Since we had left Poland we had heard stories about its ascendancy from broadcasts and from sailors, and, to tell the truth, we felt like deserters. But that wasn’t unusual considering that, given our nation’s history its shocks and misfortunes, a tradition of social responsibility has become quite pronounced. And it was in the spirit of answering for our actions, I’m sure, that we decided to go on with our plans, to do what we knew best; in short, we would run the Colca, conquer the unconquered.
The next morning, still believing that the pope had been killed by an assassin’s bullet, we took a brief, exploratory excursion down to the mouth of the canyon. The river seemed shallow, uninviting. But, by then, it seemed nothing could dissuade us from continuing.
Judging from the charts Reparaz had shown us, the first stretch of the journey would be the most difficult. Here, we faced 44 kilometers of uninterrupted river with no hope of turning back. At the end was a small Indian village, the Canco. From there we had another 56 kilometers to go, though this second stretch, unlike the first, was punctuated with gorges and tributaries that made it possible to leave the canyon. In spite of the fact that the first stretch sloped approximately 800 meters —and this no smooth gradient but a rough course of sudden, sharp falls and cascades— we believed we would finish it in five days.
Looking back on it, I’m convinced that no American explorer would have even glanced at the Colca had his party been as ill-equipped as we were. We had two rather flimsy kayaks, a smattering of pine paddles which, through the run, snapped like so many match sticks. Our headgear consisted of Soviet hockey helmets. No one had brought a waterproof camera, nor had anyone thought of bringing along a radio. Our most valuable possessions, our movie camera and other photographic equipment, we wrapped in sheets of plastic, convincing ourselves that these were waterproof. Our raft, on which we would pile all of our supplies —a weight of about 500 pounds— was a good one. But worst of all, we hadn’t brought any warm clothing, reasoning naively that, after all, Peru has a warm climate.
It was no wonder that, when we packed our supplies and returned to the mouth of the canyon, the German backpackers we met there examined us suspiciously, No wonder when they learned we were about to run the river they began snapping photographs of us, as if we were some peculiar natural formation.
Our first day out was idyllic. We made about eight kilometers, photographing and filming at our leisure. We moved haltingly. The canyon walls at our sides rose three to four kilometers straight up above us, the rock striated, eroded heavily. The landscape, barren and unearthly, reflected an ongoing geological process that probably had begun 10,000 years before with the eruption of a volcano near present-day Arequipa —an explosion that threw into the air a million tons of rock, dust, and lava and subsequently covered the riverbed. Slowly the river, undaunted, began to break up the thick layer of rock, pushing it out into the Pacific. The signature of this process is found in the striation. Avalanches are common every year, during the rainy season. The settled debris often dams the river, leaving a series of natural lakes. It doesn’t take long, though, for the river to push past these dams, to carry the debris out into the Pacific, and in doing so, to pound out new openings in the canyon walls, hence creating new channels along the length of the canyon.
Inside, it’s beautiful. One canyon wall is brightly lit, the other left in deep darkness. The temperature difference accounts for the strong air currents that wind through the canyon. They kicked up spray in our faces, at times holding our raft still despite the river current.
Piotr and I are out in front in our two kayaks, like scouts. We stay ahead of the raft, feeling the river out, testing approaches, anticipating rough spots. The kayaks are truly indispensable. They even tow our raft when necessary. And I’m sure we both had every intention of staying in them throughout our run. After all, unlike the raft, a kayak gives one a feeling of safety —its maneuverability promises quick escape, its frame a buffer against the river.
On our second day out our raft overturned suddenly in what seemed a relatively easy rapid. It floated upside down towing the raftsmen behind it right through progressively stronger currents. Reaching down from my kayak, I managed to grab hold of a line and, bracing against a boulder, pulled the raft toward the bank —effectively grounding it. It took me a second to realize that the raft had been towing only three raftsmen and that our fourth, Stefan, was missing. I paddled upstream quickly, blindly, until I finally spotted a yellow helmet, then a red vest, and Stefan himself, naked from the waist down —the force of the water had torn his pants and shoes right off. He was hanging precariously from a rock under a cascade, red-faced but intact.
That was the first lesson. Our second came two days later, on our fourth day out, when the kayak I was paddling was wrecked in the rapids. We hadn’t brought any resin with us to repair the damage so, sadly, I left its corpse on an outcropping of rock and took my place in the raft. No safety there. No buffer.
The days passed quickly. We grew more and more tired, realizing that our estimate of five days was way off the mark. Many cascades were simply too risky and we ended up portaging our supplies around them. In addition, the river widened at points to about 20 meters and narrowed to as few as 3. At times, our raft was caught between boulders and took in water while we frantically tried to work it back into the current. I was afraid to even think of what would happen to us if the raft were punctured or if we lost our other kayak.
The landscape was truly dazzling. Somehow, I find it impossible to describe —no totally suitable metaphors come to mind. Perhaps “mythical” and “primordial” come closest. Later, on a subsequent trip, we would take a number of geologists with us through the Colca and they wouldn’t be able to take their eyes off the canyon walls —those living testaments, those striations that impassively wear the history of our planet’s formation. Era after era. Age after age. Period after period. Unlike those geologists, I took a more active interest in the many rock towers thrusting out from the river, stretching for kilometers at a time, seemingly frozen in space. A number of these resembled sculptures. I made out a child’s head in one, a camel in another and, the most mysterious, a remarkably intricate castle with two rocky towers.
Often we spied steam rising from a hot spring. Geologically, the area is full of activity, despite its barren appearance. One familiar element was the strip of blue we saw above, very high up, but too often it took on a strange character, dotted more and more with the craggy silhouettes of condors.
It was on our fifth day out, after a particularly grueling experience portaging our supplies around a cascade, that the stark reality of our situation dawned on us. By three o’clock the sun dropped behind the peaks to our right, it grew cold and we decided to bivouac. Our clothing, light as it was, was sopping wet. Hanging our supplies out to dry, we fixed supper from the assortment of powders and dried goods we had brought along -mixing them in a large kettle. Our fuel had long since given out and we had to resort to gathering whatever sticks we could find for a fire. It seemed that nothing grew along the Colca —for five days we hadn’t seen a single scrap of vegetation— and we knew that we would have to rely on our own provisions. But this had been measured out with a druggist’s concern for quantity, and it was on that day, wet, tired beyond belief, that we realized that if we didn’t pick up our pace we could simply die of hunger.
Our talk, as it often did, turned to food. Someone reminisced about some wonderful pastries he had had at a hotel in Cracow. Talking about food seemed our favorite pastime, besides, perhaps, keeping our eyes fixed on the sheer walls above, whenever we stopped, watching for the first signs of an avalanche. A minor tectonic nudge would have meant the end of us.
During that time, two dreams kept recurring in my sleep. In the first, we are being buried in an avalanche and in the second I’m drifting down river and unable to stop, and I can hear the roar of a waterfall, growing louder at every instant. My companions reported similar dreams.
As time passed, the condors grew more and more daring. Our only consolation was that if we died these huge birds would hardly have made a meal out of the six of us; we looked like walking skeletons.
After the fifth day, the rest blur together in my mind. The sameness of those days: holding the damaged raft back with all our might while it dances at the top of a falls, carrying our supplies around, making camp, breaking camp, dreaming of avalanches, filming the scenery, noting silently the beauty of the vista revealed past the bend in the river, anticipating danger, the relief of seeing it pass... Skinned knuckles. Sunburn. Our jokes, our conversations. Monotony.
We never spoke of those things closest to us. We never mentioned the most important things. The coldness of the night. Doubt. Faith. The meaning behind experiences. We never spoke; it was still too soon for these matters.
On the tenth day we spotted a number of hills resembling those we had seen in the photographs taken by Jose Arias —eroded hills marking the location of some waterfalls and then, hopefully, the first settlement.
On the eleventh day, I recall the three cascades over which we carried our supplies on our backs. It was probably the single most fatiguing part of our journey —our Calvary. Suddenly, I spotted vegetation in the distance, beautiful clusters of green. Is it a hallucination? No, it’s real. The end of the canyon. “Land, land,” I called to my companions.
We drew closer with what little strength we had left and landed on a small rocky beach. We immediately noticed that behind the foliage beyond, eyes were examining us suspiciously We understood their fear. These Indians, direct descendants of the Incas, have a marked aversion to water. It is believed that none of the ancient Incas knew how to swim —their mythology included a wealth of river demons. Some of these beliefs apparently persist today. More than once we noted that Andean Indians, leading a herd of llamas home from the other side of the river, would not cross a footbridge after sunset —rather they would make themselves comfortable on the other side, wrap their ponchos tightly around and wait patiently for sunrise. Now, confronted with six strange —looking bearded whites approaching from a side no one in their recollection had ever approached from, they were startled. They had reason to be afraid.
We removed our helmets slowly and called to the Indians in Spanish. This settled their minds. Where are we? In the Canco? Right, right in the Hacienda Canco! We are saved!
They greeted us warmly then, bringing food, as other Indians had centuries before to Christopher Columbus on the shores of America. Whether this was to placate us or if it was because we were so wasted away from hunger, I can’t say. There was sweet corn, a white cheese and, in the settlement where they had led us, eggs. Enough so that we had two each.
Later that evening we got our hands on a newspaper, only a few days old, and discovered only then that the pope had survived. Out of all the joy we felt in that moment we spontaneously named those great waterfalls we had portaged only that morning after John Paul II. Then, we also found a bottle of whiskey in our supplies (whether it was left to celebrate just such an occasion or reserved as a buffer against a worse fate, again I can’t say for sure) and drank to our new Indian friends.
After a ten-day rest during which we made repairs, the second 56 kilometers of our journey took us only five days. The terrain was kinder and we were delighted that the turquoise water of the Mamacocha covered boulders in the river, making our journey that much easier and faster. We relaxed, subsequently and letting down our guard, we were nearly killed in what turned out to be a very beautiful waterfall. Ironically, we named it after Professor Reparaz. Then, everything came to an end. Suddenly, the canyon walls drew back as easily as a theater curtain. The river ran along a flat surface straight to the Pacific. We have a few photographs in which we’re making faces at the camera. Was it over? The end? We look worn out, our clothes in shreds.
Before we knew it, we were at the press conference: photographers, microphones. Suddenly our pictures were in the newspapers. We were on TV People wanted to touch us; they were calling after us. We had an audience with the president of Peru.
Where were we in all of this? What I remember most is one fleeting moment when, floating out of the canyon, we all turned back for a last look, as if we wanted to call back these endless, vertical wall that had towered over us for almost a month. Suddenly, I experienced the feeling of longing, longing for the canyon. It was almost as if we had left something back there - something viable, breathing, some small but living part of ourselves. That longing has remained within me ever since. For this canyon, for another, maybe still unconquered one.
© Andrzej Piętowski
This story was published in the book titled First Descents. In Search Of The Wild Rivers.
Edited by Cameron O’Connor and John Lazenby
Menasha Ridge Press. Birmingham, Alabama. 1989