Update 6: 15th April 2000

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To reach the next and most spectacular section of the Royal Road I made a long detour via the coastal city of Chimbote, which thanks to its sixteen fish-canning factories gets my vote as the smelliest place I’ve ever spent a night. My base for the next month was to be Huaraz, a small town in an almost Alpine setting reached by a road which snakes its way through no fewer than forty tunnels. When I last visited Huaraz in the 1970s it had barely begun to rise from the wreckage of one of the world’s most severe recorded earthquakes, which flattened the town and killed some 70,000 people in this and nearby valleys. I was very moved to see it now thriving again, though the older inhabitants still told harrowing tales.

To get back on the Inca road I had to cross the Cordillera Blanca, Peru’s highest mountain range. On the advice of a bearded old gentleman in Huaraz’s resplendent new fountained plaza I chose the Yanayacu route which would offer unsurpassed views of 22,000-foot Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak. Never trust bearded old men! Climbing steadily up a broad green valley I scanned the wall of rock and ice ahead for a sign of the easy way through he had indicated. It must be round some corner, I thought, hidden by one of the many protruding spurs. But the path climbed unwaveringly towards a lofty skyline now dipping in and out of mist. At 15,000 feet I reached the first snow patches and an hour later I was floundering in a world of white. At this dog-end of the rainy season the snow was obviously settling much lower than my gentleman friend had recollected; and it was the softest of snow, the sort in which you sink to your thighs.

A notch above beckoned me upwards, but the snow became softer still and at 15,500 feet I could go no further. I lay panting on the white mountainside, staring at my diminutive footprints receding down the slope and wondering vaguely how many days it would take to descend and find another route. Then I glanced up. There, soaring above the swirling mist into a clear blue sky, was the corniced summit of Huascarán, pride of all Peruvians and named in memory of the Inca Huáscar. Perhaps the bearded old gentleman hadn’t been such a bad informant after all.

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