San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A strange experience on Mt. Ampato

From the print edition

Early on my 80th birthday, I found myself struggling to reach 3,350 meters on Mount Ampato in southern Peru. This is not so impressive as it is meant to sound; up to the snow line, Ampato is no more than a grade-three scramble, and I had no intention of going for the top. Even so, I was puffing like a grampus and wondering if I could manage the next 914 meters. In fact, the only reason I was there at all was that my climbing club had gotten wind of a happening at a stone hut overlooking the glacier lake just short of the snow line, and had asked me to investigate. The climbing bug is incurable, so up I went.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

As I lay getting my breath, a procession of odd-looking climbers passed, without so much as a greeting. From their homespun climbing gear, but more from the acrid stench of masticated coca leaf that floated after them, I judged them to be from the Altiplano, where the pitiful remnants of the once-proud Inca eked out a precarious existence. This was interesting, as Altiplano people don’t go climbing for fun. As soon as the coca fumes had gone, I took off after them.

I pretty soon lost sight of the group, and it wasn’t until midday that I reached the hut, where an astonishing sight met my eyes.

Overlooking the lake was a natural amphitheater, crowded with several hundred people dressed like the silent climbers who had passed me. On the floor of this primitive theater was a stone slab, and standing over it a tall figure in brilliant vestments brandishing what looked like a stone knife. On the slab, held spread-eagled by four acolytes, was a mountain goat, and as I watched the tall guy plunged his knife just below the goat’s rib cage and sawed away inside. Then, reaching inside with his other hand he tugged out the still-beating heart and held it above his head.

There is nothing unusual about sacrificing a goat – it is done every day in the Middle East – though tearing out the beating heart was more an Aztec than an Inca custom. So ignoring protests from the crowd surrounding the slab, I pushed forward to get a better look and promptly stumbled over the naked body of a young girl lying on the rock floor. She was trussed like a chicken, and in the brief glimpse allowed me, I guessed she was drugged to the eyebrows. Horrified, I recalled in a flash that this was the mountain where several years ago the mutilated bodies of four young girls had been exposed by the retreating glacier, perfectly preserved and obviously offered up for sacrifice. Then I was buried under an avalanche of furious acolytes, trussed up like the girl, and tossed into the stone hut.

It took me a whole day to get free of my bonds, and by that time no evidence remained of the barbaric ceremony. But I shall never get out of my mind the great shout I heard as I hit the floor of the hut, and will never know whether it signified divine approval of the goat heart or the sacrifice of the young girl.

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