National Geographic : 1992 Mar
THEY LIVED AT THE MERCY of the soaring peaks, and they knew it. The magnificent Inca acknowledged a power surpassing their own-the mountains themselves. And on pinnacles piercing the skies of Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru, they made obei sance and even living sacrifices. For the moun tains were not merely the home of the gods: They literally were the gods and could kill with avalanche, rockfall, lightning, blizzard, and wind or bless with rain-filled clouds pouring life into rivers and lakes. Some Andean people still regard the mountains as their actual ancestors. Many call them "father." It didn't take me long to understand why. As a cultural anthropologist, I have spent the greater part of the past 12 years studying high altitude ceremonial sites in the Andes. During that time I have made more than a hundred ascents above 17,000 feet, and the more time you spend with a mountain, the more it seems A RESEARCH alive. You begin to personal- PROJECT , SUPPORTED ize it. "I'm not going to let it S IN PART beat me," I would sometimes B YOUR think as I forced myself to SOCIETY push on toward the looming summit. I could feel the moun tain resist me; after hours of climbing rocky, desolate slopes alone with the buffeting, whis tling wind, I could sense its changes of mood. Many times, climbing at these altitudes, I would have the uncanny sensation that some one was with me. As I climbed, I couldn't help marveling at the Inca genius for mountaineering. Every time I discover a ruin atop some pinnacle, I'm filled with admiration. Not only did the ancients climb peaks more than 22,000 feet high-heights that wouldn't be scaled again for another 400 years - but they also managed, with extraordinary logistic skill, to build cere monial centers there. It is apparent that they built base camps and additional camps ascending the mountain, At 22,000 feet an Inca ceremonial platform near the summit ofLlullaillaco is the world's highest ritual site. By investigating scores of suchAndean peaks, the author has helped pio neer the field of high-altitude archaeology and gained new insight into Andean religion and folkways that have persisted for centuries.