Vilcabamba 1963
Republished from the Peruvian Times March 26, 1965 Vol XXV No 1266 Courtesy The Peruvian Times


Pichari River - Vilcabamba

The First Recorded Ascent into the Northern
Vilcabamba Cordillera


The first recorded penetration of the Northern extension of the Vilcabamba Cordillera between the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers in south central Peru, east of the Andes, was carried out by a National Geographic Society (Washington) and New York Zoological Society Expedition, led by Brooks Beakeland and Peter Gimbel between early August and the end of October 1963. They were accompanied by Peter Lake and Jack Joerns. Landing by a parachute at an elevation of around 10,000 feet, they climbed to a high camp at some time 12,000 feet elevation, from where they descended along the Picha river quebrada or valley to the Urubamba. The account of this expedition was published in the National Geographic magazine of August 1964.

Later Nicholas Asheshov, a young English writer and explorer, then on the staff of the Peruvian Times, who had been connected unofficially with the Beakeland-Gimbel expedition, improvised a second expedition. With two native guides he climbed from the Apurimac river to the expedition's parachute Drop Zone and High Camp, returning over the same route. The first instalment of Asheshov's account of this climb is published herewith. It will be followed by four or five additional instalments, and, with Beakeland's report published in the National Geographic constitutes the first reported traverse of the northern Vilcabamba Cordillera.

This first instalment deals with a preliminary attempt by Asheshov, accompanied by Dr H. W. Koepcke to ascend the Pichari valley. As it soon became evident that the climb would take much longer than had originally been estimated, Dr. Koepke decided to drop out Asheshov the recruited two native guides, Angel Soto, a veteran river and mountain man, and Policarpo, Campa Indian, with whom the climb was eventually made.



On Monday August 5th, after five weeks of preparation and aerial survey G.M Brooks Baeklande and peter R Gimbel, co-leaders of the 1963 Vilcabamba Expedition,parachuted onto the isolated norther outcrop of the Vilcabamba Range. The jump made onto a saddle between two valleys at just over 10,000 feet, marks the first recorded penetration of the high mountain and plateau country lying between the Apurimac and Urubamba rivers, which unite to form the Ucayali river, and which in turn - some 400 miles to the north - joins the Marañon to form the Amazon.

Parachute Drop

After eight days of continuous fine weather, during which the site for the drop zone and projected airstrip was established and confirmed, and the cargo parachutes rigged and packed, Baekeland and Gimbel climbed into the cabin of one of the expedition's two Helio Courier airplanes just after 11 a.m. The day was muggy and overcast with only a bare suggestion of sun. The plane climbed over the Luisiana base camp for twenty minutes, gaining the 11,500 feet necessary to reach over the mountain ridges to the Drop Zone about 15 - 18 miles away in direct line.. Reaching the DZ under 10 minutes later, pilot Dick Tomkins, himself an experienced parachutist, circled for nearly an hour, testing for wind strength. The new and still experimental Paracommander parachutes being used by the expedition are controllable to a considerable degree, but their forward speed and rate of descent must be balanced by a wind, preferably of between 5 - 12 miles per hour. This applies especially in the thin air of 12,000 feet elevation. There was no wind so the plane returned to Luisiana. At 2.45 p.m. that afternoon, after lunching, resting and watching the weather clear, the plane set off again. Baekeland jumped first. It had been feared that the Drop Zone was hard - good for an airstrip, but not so good for the jumpers - but Baekeland landed with difficulty and showed the appropriate sings of life when the plane buzzed low over him. Gimbe jumped and landed close to him. Pilot Tomkins immediately left for base in order to load the first essential packages for dropping to the two men alone on the Vilcabamba. The plane returned an hour later, when it was discovered that Baekeland and Gimbel were moving away from the Drop Zone airstrip, so there was some uncertainty as to where they wanted to have the cargos dropped. Prearranged signals from the men on the ground indicated the airstrip originally chosen was unsuitable, probably because it was too soggy. Definite signals as to desired location of the supply drop not being received, the pilot and the cargo kicker, Peter Lake, dumped the load somewhere in the vicinity and hied for home as he last rays of the sun were setting across the valley of the Apurimac.

Survey Flights

This day marked the high point of the expedition to date. The 3,000 square miles of territory roughly encompassed by the expedition's interest had been surveyed from the air and a general idea obtained of the outstanding topographic features. The final exploration flights were made in the last days of July.

These flights concentrated attention on the search for an airstrip site and Drop Zone, and upon the examination of the most advantageous route to be followed by those walking out from the massif area down to the jungle flatlands. The route examined with the greatest attention entails climbing p a couple of thousand fee from the Drop Zone to one of the principal ridges. From the ridge the projected route follows one of the main branches of the river Picha down through its precipitous gorges until flatter country is reached. At this point about 5-6,000 feet elevation the canyon opens into a recognizable river, where some Indian fields and huts had been located from the plane. A further five days from this point by trail, riverbed, raft and canoe should see the party at the mouth of the river Picha, where it runs into the River Urubamba. They were to be either picked up from there by one of the expedition's planes or continue on by canoe down the Urubamba to Atalaya, from where they would be flown out by chartered plane to San Ramón or Lima.

The day after the two men were dropped into the Vilcabamba, heavy rain, the first for over four weeks, fell during the first hours of daylight. Singularly ill-timed, the rain and the clouds persisted all day preventing any contact being made with Baekeland and Gimbel, who were therefore left to their own devices. The next day the weather was more promising and again the plane set off with a supply load for parachuting.

Second Parachute Drop

Through use of walky-talkies effective contact was made. They reported All Well, bvut confirmed that the whole area selected for the Drop Zone was completely unsuitable for making an airstrip. "It would take a battalion of engineers a month to make anything out of this", was Baekeland's comment to the airplane. Disappointing though this news was to the expedition, the eventuality had been foreseen and all necessary equipment and knapsacks had been packed for parachute dropping. It was decided, therefore, that Peter Lake and Jack Joerns should parachute in on Thursday, August 8, the third day after the first two had jumped. The party of four would then move up to the ridge 2,000 feet above and receive the rest of their equipment.

The cloud cover on Thursday was too low, but Lake and Joerns jumped successfully on Friday morning, August 9. They were in immediate agreement with the view of Baekeland and Gimbel that with the time and equipment available it would be impossible to construct an airstrip. People who have seen the Drop Zone only from the air were surprised to learn that what looks like a 10 minute walk is, in fact, a 1 ½ hour hike through high grass, rocks and brush. Contact with the ground party from the air was only intermittent, because of extremely difficult flying conditions. Progress appeared from the air, to be rather slow on the attempt to reach the ridge, but signals continued to report All Well.

During the five weeks that the expedition had spent surveying the Vilcabamba from the air and making preparations for the parachuting and ground exploring, I had played what part I could in these preliminaries. Brooks Baekeland and Peter Gimbel had introduced me to several of the different techniques which use of their equipment demanded. Principal among these efforts was the navigation, of an elementary sort, of light airplanes. In the course of this they allowed me to accompany many of their survey flights over the region. I was therefore moderately well acquainted with its lay-out , with the impression that the then unpenetrated area gives from the air.

But what is seen from the air and the hard bump of reality on the ground, as Baekeland and Gimbel might have said when they first arrived there, are very different. It is only possible to see anything of the Vilcabamba when visibility is good. As fair weather is not representative of normal conditions, many of the potential hazards of crossing the ground on foot are minimized from the outset. When on foot, visibility is usually minimal: either you are in a commanding position on a ridge, but in the center of a dense layer of cloud, or you are in a tightly enclosed valley trying to clear a way through dense screening bush.

One of the keenest pleasures to be obtained from exploring an unknown area is to find out where land marks and places re in relation to one another. More specifically, in the Vilcabamba, it is very satisfying to find out, for a change, where you yourself are.

At a Loose End - Further Air Exploration

When the four men had jumped in and established themselves in the mountains, I found myself at something of a loose end. The rest of us had been relying on the creation of an airstrip to provide our mode of entry, as it was then considered impracticable to enter the mountains n foot. However, Dick Tomkins and I had been given the pleasant detail of making a couple of further aerial surveys. It was withthese extended reconnaissance flights after the Ump-In that my own Vilcabamba story really begins. It was these flights that reopened the door closed by the dark red signal "Land-Strip Impossible," that Baekeland and Gimbel had been compelled to lay out upon the soggy ground of the drop Zone area.

The first of these flights was made on Sunday, August 10, and was made with the object of finding out if anything of interest could be seen from the air at the headwaters area of the Eastern branch of the east Fork of the River Picha, a major affluent of the lower Urubamba. Dick Tomkins and I took off from Luisiana at about 9.40 in the morning, by which time the daily early-morning valley mist that hangs over the dry season Apurimac Valley had cleared. We circled higher and higher over the ridges that form the outer defending ramparts of the Vilcabamba. Twenty-five minuts from take-off we were talking over the walky-talky with the fellows on the ground. Everything was all rights there, although nothing much appeared to be happening - it hardly ever does from the air - so we circled over the Drop Zone until we were at 13,000 feet and were thus able to wend our way safely through or over the mountains to the North.

The Vilcabamba range - referring in general terms to the 10,000 feet contour and above, runs roughly SE for a distance of perhaps 25 - 30 miles and is about 10 miles wide at the widest point. The Drop Zone, where the parachutists had landed, is strategically sited in relation to the rest of the area, and later experience emphasized the importance of this. At 10,000 feet, it is on the upper limit of the dense forest that stretches down to the East and West to the jungles of the Urubamba and Apurimac Rivers. To the South of the Drop Zone rises a 40 square mile area averaging 11,000 feet elevation of open pampa and bush which drops off on all sides to the surrounding jungles in a series of high rocky precipices, except at the Drop Zone end.

The Mountains and the Picha & Mantalo River Basins

To the North of the Drop Zone lie the Mountains. Rising to three or four thousand feet above the level o the Drop Zone, they could apparently be reached via two ridges leading p into the high country. On this occasion we flew SE along the main backbone of the mountains. There were fe clouds and we were able to pick up a few landmarks which allowed us to establish in our own minds where we thought we were. Principal among these landmarks was the winding course of the middle section of the East Branch of the Picha, flowing Northeast to the Urubamba, and chosen by Baekeland and Gimbel as the route to be followed when the time should come for them to leave the Vilcabamba. However, as we flew along the main line of the mountain range, we gradually lost the Picha, and where the range began to lose height at its Southeastern end, crossed over from he Picha basin, into what was almost certainly another drainage system altogether. We sighted some Indian fields and huts quite soon after crossing the mountains, deep down in the valley of a river of moderate size. There was little doubt that this was the Mantalo river, but just to make sure, we followed it down - and it was a long way - to the Urubamba . The Pongo de Mainique to the North and the River Yaveros (Paucartambo) coming in from the East just opposite, confirmed that this was the Mantalo. It was a wild, heavily forested country, with extremely steep precipitous valleys through which wound rocky streams and river beds. The only natural clearings were very few and confined to some of the flatter or rounded areas near the tops of ridges. There were Indian fields and huts scattered at very infrequent intervals along the Mantalo valley; the deepest penetration appearing to be at a height of around 5,000 - 6,000 feet elevation into the Vilcabamba area, but always close to he river bed.

After investigating the lower Mantaro, and the whole upper area of the most easterly branch of the Picha, we flew up the Mantalo and confirmed what had become a growing suspicion throughout the flight - that the Mantalo source area was indeed the same as our Drop Zone. For the first time after many flights over the Vilcabamba area, a concrete picture of the general layout of the land from the Apurimac to the Urubamba was beginning to form itself in our rather cloud-befuddled brains. We headed for home.

But there was one soft spot in this concrete picture. I was generally thought that the Vilcabamba presented an unbroken line of precipices to the Western, Apurimac side. These we had seen. Wherever we had flown in the area where the Apurimac itself was at all accessible on the ground, the dense forest rose steeply out of the river valley. At the outer edge of the main valley, between 5 - 6,000 and 11,000 feet elevation, a series of precipices climbed in enormous guarding walls, whose upper limits were sometimes ramparted by small peaks and often hidden behind forbidding clouds. The area did not look inviting as a route into he mountains.

Key into the Vilcabamba - the Pichari

It was the second of the two flights that discovered the key to the entry into the Vilcabamba. A day or so after the Mantalo reconnaissance we were on a routine check flight over the main party and were about to return to Luisiana. For some reason we had never flown due West to the Apruimac from the Drop Zone. All we had seen was that there was a large forest-covered basin dropping away for about 4 miles to the West where it came up sharp and abruptly against an immense mass of mountain - part of the high Vilcabamba. It had a shut-in look about it.

It was not shut in. Through a narrow winding gorge of high white cliffs, the various streams in the basin converged to form a riverbed and a steep-sided densely-forested valley. From 10,000 feet we could see the valley continuing and in the distance the wide light blue-green valley of the hazy Apurimac. A few minutes later, we confirmed that this was the Pichari river. It had no several-thousand foot precipices. Instead it cut like a thin white scar through the steep thick jungle.

The jungle, the precipices, and the cloudy isolation of the Vilcabamba had prompted the imaginative and daring use of parachutes, and the hope of an airstrip. Both of these were beyond me now, and the Vilcabamba was, therefore, as far away as ever.
The white scar deep in the dark green valley broke the spell of impregnability. If anybody were ever to get into the Vilcabamba without a parachute, there could be little doubt that they would go up the Pichari valley. Dick and I had flown over the whole area and now knew what there was and what there was not. Where therer were no precipices, there were immense distances to be covered, whether from the lower Apurimac or from the Urubamba, or from the jungles to the South, between the two great rivers. The shortest of these immense distances would come to nearly 100 miles - along the ground; this would be up from the mouth of the Manalo, in itself a difficult place to get at, with no road or airstrip within less than 3-4 days' travelling by river or foot.


Dr Carl B. Koford and Dr H. W. Koepcke, the eminent biologists attached to the expedition were interested in getting up to the high country. Like the Galapagos Islands, off the cost of Ecuador, the Vilcabamba Highlands showed every indication of being an isolated region where species of animals could have developed different forms over a long period of time. The area of high mountains and puna-type country is durrounded on all sides by low tropical jungle. (Puna is the open rough gtassland plains of the high Andes). Dr Koford's main hopes centered on the finding of a new species of rodent, mouse at least, with an off-chance of the possible rediscovery of a specimen of the extinct royal chinchilla whose bones were found in a tomb at Machu Picchu.

Dr Koepcke's interest was directed more towards the study of the ecology in general of the region, with the principal hope of gathering enough data to prove or disprove the theory that the Andean puna of Southern Peru is naturally a forested area, but which has been cleared of all forest through many centuries of human habitation. The Vilcabamba heights, untouched by human foot, hoe, or plough, might well be comparable to the puna area climatically, and therefore would be the perfect testing ground for his theory that the puna was indeed forested. To those familiar with the sweeping barrenness of the puna country, and with appreciation that mose of the Andean area would be entirely devoid of trees were it not for the recently introduced Eucalyptus, this should be at least interesting and possibly of importance.

For a week after the "Landing-strip Impossible" signal. Pepe Parodi, owner of Luisiana and our invaluable host, sat by his radio-=transmitter and struggled with the intricate negotiations which surround getting hold of a helicopter from the Air Force squadron. It would be expensive but worth it to be lifted up to the high country, do the necessary hunting and collecting, and be lifted out again with the collection. I hung on too, because an unknown white scar through mountainous jungle is, whichever way you look at it, a less attractive proposition than a 20 minute helicopter ride. As an old golf pro used to say, "There ain't no obstacles in the air."

No helicopter came, and Dr Koford had to return to the States. But biologists, to judge from the two on this Expedition, are a tough, energetic breed, depending for their living, like forest Indians, on their skill and success at hunting. Both men are good shots, and the weeks they had spent at Luisiana waiting to get up to the high country had seen them roaming the fields, woods and riverbanks around the hacienda at all hours of the day and night, bringing in daily all manner of bird, beast and insect. In short, while Dr Koford had prior commitments, Dr Koepcke was excited by the idea of the Pichari and was prepared to do some walking to see whether or not it was feasible. I refer to biologists as a tough breed as Dr Koepcke is on the other side of 50, and being fit and energetic, did not considered that this made any difference to whether or not he might be able to get up and around any of the physical difficulties that are inevitably encountered on an extended trip in the forest.

Colonization Settlement

At the mouth of the Pichari, wher it runs into the Apurimac, there is a progressive settlement run by the Peruvian Government's Institute of Land Reform and Colonization. This had been established there for two years. On the other, Western bank of the river, the Franciscan Mission of Sivia maintains a padre, three nuns, in charge of the teaching at the children's school, and, of direct interest to us, a short airstrip. From Luidiana down the Apurimac to Pichari on foot would take a day and a half, or, from a riverside village along the way, Teresita, it might be possible to catch the Institute's outboard motorboat that arrives there from time to time during week. But it was only 15 minutdes by air from Luisiana to the Sivia airstrip. On August 12, Dr. Koepcke and I landed there, were ferried across the Apurimac by canoe and walked the mile remaining over to the Pichari camp.

We lunched with the members of the Institute's tehnical staff, who were most courteous and interested in our plan to walk up the Pichari. None of them, nor anybody that they knew of, had gone more than three kilometres up the river, but they would be pleased to supply a few peons to help carry our equipment and supplies and, in general, to offer any help and advice they could.

Dr. Koepcke and I returned happy satisfied and hopeful to Luisiana, packed some kit, got together some food, and next day we were back at Pichari, interested to see what sort of peons we should get from the Institute, and full of rather more confidence than was ustified. For in spite of several adequate warning experiences, we had still not grasped the fact that it is extremely difficult for inexperienced eyes to make a correct interpretation of what is on the ground from what they see from the air.

Air Views & Ground Views

We had flown up and down the Pichari a number of times since discovering its possibilities as a route into the mountains, and the impression gained from what we had seen was that nowhere did it look "actually impassable". We told each other confidently, "We can just ford the river wherever necessary and walk up the easiest side of the water; when we get to the gorge, we cut up into forest and go round it." Those were the days when we didn't know that you practically never know where you are, and before we realized how difficult it is to ut up round the gorge, if you don't know where the gorge is until you are right in the middle of it. I believe that all the members of the expedition were greatly deceived by appearances from the air at one time or another; certainly the parachutists had no idea before they jumped as to whether they would be jumping into hard soil, rocks or bog. When they landed and announced over the walky-talky that it took 1 ½ hours to get from point A to point B, everybody was astounded, because it looked little more than a ten minute stroll. In fact, the pilots whose flying exploits on this expedition are beyond praise, never really did catch onto the difference between what they saw, and what the people on the ground saw. They would calmly announce over the walky-talky that they preferred to make a food-drop "in that clear patch just to your right," when the people on the ground, stuck in the middle of overpoweringly dense bush, would have no idea that there was a clear patch to their right, and would have of necessity to take an hour to hack their way through to it.

The morning after Dr. Koepcke and I arrived in Pichari, we spread out all the equipment we reckoned necessary to the expedition upriver, sorted it into four loads, and found, as is usual in these cases, that it all weighed far too much for four men. The two peon assigned to us did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary and did ot seem too keen on overloading themselves, which was sensible enough. Men were in short supply, it appeared, as the available personnel were out working on the road that would link the 22 kilometres between Teresita and Pichari. Another man was raked up from somewhere, three-quarters deaf and well past his prime. By mid-afternoon we had got to the stage where everyone had got sorted out and their loads allotted, and the only thing now was to decide whether to put off starting till the next morning. Both Dr. Koepcke and I were agreed that the thing to do was to set off, even if we only got a couple of hours away from the camp. The two hour's progress would not be worth much, but making camp that night would show up any glaring defects in our equipment, and would allow an early start in the morning: we would all be in one place at the same time, and all ready to set out together, a situation of considerable advantage and sometimes difficult to attain.

Quechua and Campa Indians

Our three peons were Quechua Indians originally from the Andean highlands.

Quechua Indians comprise the major part of the population of nearly all the montaña - upper jungle - valleys which drain the eastern slopes of the central and southern Peruvian Andes. They have been established in valleys like the Apurimac for many decades now, and come down in increasing numbers every year, driven from their highland homes by lack of land, the prospects of a new and better life, and the knowledge that there is work to be had, or free, squatters'-rights land for the clearing. It coes not turn out to be paradise for most of them; but many of them do well and some of them have made comfortable and relatively prosperous omesteads for themselves even in areas which are only connected with civilization, outside markets and buying centres, by vie-day mule trail or isolated airstrip.

We had tried to get hold of Campa Indians. The Campas are the aboriginal tribe of jungle Indians who live in the Apurimac area. They are a riverside people, independent and freedom-loving in their customs, and completely versed in the ways and means of the jungle that is their home. For most of them, our ideas of reward for work, and money, mean little. Even though we realized this, and tried to phrase our inducements suitable, none of the Campas who lived near to Pichari could be persuaded to come. They were either ill, or had better things to do.

First Excursion Up-River

On Saturday, August 17, at 3 p.m. we set out. Ou new friends at the settlement gave us a fanfare of photographs, and we set off down the 1 ½ klilometres of dirt road which would lead us past a sawmill. From there on we did not know what our precise route should be in order to make progress up the vally. One of the Campas with whom we had talked had given us directions of the "take-the-second-path-on-the-left-then-turn-right-at-the-big-log, you-can't-miss-it" type, but as soon as we were past the sawmill, we found ourselves in a maze of paths that were difficult to pick out, and which tended to fade away after a hundred yards or so. We headed in the direction of the river, cutting our way through the bush. We found and forded the river, made some progress upstream and by that time it was five o'clock, and time to make camp. The riverbed was about forty yards wid, with water only covering half ot it in most places, so we had no difficulty in finding a suitable site on the pebble beach. Dr. Koepcke and I set up our jungle hammocks just inside the forest, then lit a fre and made a small hut-frame. We cooked some porridge for supper and followed it with tea. The afternoon had been fine, the night was as clear and fresh as the air, the river bubbled past and, most satisfying and promising of all, we were on our way.

In the light of our subsequent experience, it is quite obvious that this first expedition never had a hope of succeeding. The first mistake that we made was to think that we could rely on the shotguns for adequate additions to our food supplies.

Like fishermen, hunters are great talkers and optimists. I am not a hunter, and for my own part, having been deceived on more than one occasion, will never again listen to advice to carry only a little food because "we will be able to shoot all the meat we need as we go along." Especially along a riverbec with the all-embracing noise made by the water, it is either progress or hunting, and the two are not compatible. Even the best hunters need time to make their kills, and a whole afternoon or day can be spent with no progress made and no food to show for it. It is just not reliable enough to guarantee food while making planned progress as fast as possible. Dr. Koepcke is a good shot and has considerable experience hunting in the forest. Later on, with a Camp Indian, a crack shot and hunter by profession, the result was the same. No hunting was done while progress was being made, and to rely upon game for food is the quickest way to finding yourself on the return journey very much earlier than you had planned.

The three peons, Dr. Koepce and I continued upstream for three more days. We had fine weather, in mid-August the water was still low and there was little difficulty in fording the river where necessary. In those three days we covered about 2/5 of the total distance to the source area of the river. We reached a point a couple of hours upstream of a large beach which stands out well from the air, and which is one of the few landmarks that can be picked out with certainty and recognized immediately on the ground. The beach is flat, about 250 yards long and between 60 and 80 yards at its widest point.

Distance by Altimeter

Our only method of knowing what sort of progress we were making was the indication given by Dr. Koepcke's altimeter. After a day of very hard work, we were invariably disappointed by the daily log as registered by the amount of height we had gained. For distance we had no yardstick and no means of guessing. On this first trip we made about 300 meters altitude gain a day. As we had 2,500 meters height to gain between the Apurimac and the Drop Zone, this did not look too good progress, but we pinned our hopes on the idea that the riverbed would soon start to rise very sharply, and that we would have a much better height record to show ourselves the higher upriver we got.

Dr. Koepcke and I were both carrying about 35-30 pounds each. The peons were carrying rather more, but not enough, as instead of food, about 1 ½ lods' worth were made up of Dr. Koepcke's professional equipment of traps, cartridges of all types, plastic bottles with alcohol and other bits and pieces. These were needed to make the first steps in the preservation process of the birds, beasts and insects that would be collected in the higher country.

This lower part of the river was beautiful, especially when the sun was shining, bringing out all the different sades of colour of the riverbank forest, the stone beaches and boulders and the smooth and rough of the water of the little river itself. The valley was narrow, the steep forest-covered slopes rising precipitously up and away for maybe 1,000 feet before the rounded edges disappeared from our river-bound view to continue, certainly, many thousand feet higher beyond our line of sight.

There were few flowers and blossoms, but only very few, though as we spent most of our time, in or near the riverbed, the incessant greens and browns of the forest were never too dominating, as to vary the scene there was always the blue and white of the sky and the light open space of the riverbed with its constant changes of view and aspect.

River Crossings

The higher we climbed, the more we found it necessary or convenient to cross from side to side of the river. This was a complicated operation at first, taking up at least twenty minutes to ford the 10-15 yards of water because everybody insisted on taking off their trousers, rearranging their loads, cutting a stout pole from the forest, and in general making a rest stop out of the fording. Later things speeded up on the crossings, as the peons preferred to go in shorts anway and Dr. Koepcke and I just waded across in our trousers. The water was about thigh-deep and it ran fast - being a mountain river - there was always some difficulty in keeping footing and balance. However, nobody ever fell in.

Some of the time we found it necessary or more convenient to cut a path through the forest in order to get round some obstacle in the riverbed. These obstacles would normally be in the nature of a short extent of vertical rock, making a cliff against tdhe water, or a series of large boulders around which the water was too deep to be waded through. But for the most part, the water being at its lowest point in the year, we were able to follow up dry paths of the stream bed, over boulders, small-stone beaches, or through the water itself. Progress was not fast, but this was as much due to the fact that it was hard tiring work as it was to the nature of the terrain presenting any special difficulties.


At the end of the fourth day, on August 20, we had passed the "Large Beach", making camp just as a shower of rain came at us about 4.30 p.m. The river was by then noticeably narrower, and in general the width of the stream bed was also much narrower being about 30-40 yards wide as an average, with the water about 10 yards wide. It was cool at night. Our diet had been very unsatisfactory, consisting of watery porridge for breakfast, and watery rice for supper, the day being passed in hunger leavened by occasional bars of chocolate tightly rationed, and cold Nescafe with sugar and powdered milk. A survey of our stocks showed we had enough rice for 3 - 4 days, porridge for 4 days, sugar for 3 days. Dr. Koepcke's efforts at hunting during the hour or so after we had stopped for the day had not resulted in ay success.

The peons, expecially the old man, were muttering about how they wouldn't have come if they had known that they would have to submit to the slavery of walking all day, with a not very substantial diet to help things out. Dr. Koepcke and I ate exactly the same food, both type and quantity as the men did - indeed the men cooked it and served it out, so there as no question of a difference there. They were also being paid 35% above their normal daily wage. There was no doubt that we had grossly underestimated the amount of food that would be necessary for five men, doing hard, demanding work for a period of time that would be at least 20 days. The ten days was to take us to the Drop Zone, and from there on, for collecting and the return, we would rely upon the goodwill of the pilots and their planes. We did not have any idea how long it would take us to reach the Drop Zone; we did not have a very good idea of distance, and we had no idea if the going upstream was easier or more difficult. The progress from the mouth up to our present point had not noted any significant change in the nature of the river and difficulty of ascending it. We decided to try our luck in a plan which involved returning to the Large Beach, and attempting to signal to the planes.

Dr. Koepcke decided that we had reached a height of about 1,400 meters - the Pichari settlement is at 550 meters. This put us out of the tropical zone and more or less into the subtropical zone. He would stay at the point we had reached, or go upstream a distance, make camp and do some collecting. Meanwhile, one of the peons and I would go back to the Large Beach, and put out a signal and hope that the pilots would see it and drop food. Nearly every day one of the planes had flown over, a form of routine check, and although they had never seen our signals, this was because we rarely had time to get to a suitable clear spot before the airplane had flown a long way out of sight of our paper-streamer-waving signals.

The next morning, Jesus, the youngest of the peons, and I set off downstream at about 7.30. Under two hours later we were back at the Large Beach and busy getting a fire going - a good column of smoke would be sure to attract the pilot's attention - and putting out a signal with yellow paper streamers - wind indicators from Parachutes Incorporated. The message read "FOOD", and was, I hoped, self explanatory. At about 10 o'clock Frank Hay flew over, circled a few times and buzzed off for Luisiana. A few hours later the plane was back and circled several times.

The Large Beach - Lost Package

The Large Beach, from an airplane's point of view, is tightly encased in some high steep hills, with a tributary valley leading steeply up to the South-East. The plane appeared to come down this tributary and then just before it would have flown over us it banked steeply away and out flew a packet with a streamer attached, plunging straight down into the jungle on the other side of the river and on the other side of a small 50 foot ridged that formed the bank at that point. We were as prepared as possible for this kind of eventuality, Jesus being at one end of the Beach and myself at the other. Jesus got a line on where it appeared to have fallen, and so did I: we expected no difficulty. We spent the rest of the day hunting in the jungle on the other side of the river for the lost packet. The slopes were very steep and the jungle was dense and tangled. The next morning was also spent in search. I called it off in mid-morning, principally because I was not at all convinced that the packet contained food. To me - and Jesus did not contradict - it had looked very much like one of the small canisters that the expedition was accustomed to used for dropping messages. Much as I was anxious to see what Frank and Dick had to say for themselves, I was even more anxious to get at some good food, as we were hungry.

There was little point in waiting around at the Beach any longer, so I left a note for Dr. Koepcke, saying that we had gone off downstream to procure more food, and recommending him to make all haste, so that we could start off more properly the next time, and at the first opportunity. It had been arranged that if Jesus and I did not turn up with food by a certain time, then Dr. Koepcke was to come down in any case. We set off and thanks to the fact that I was carrying very little weight, and Jesus much less than normal, we made excellent and energetic progress. In 5 hours we covered what had taken us over a day and a half to make coming upstream. That night we camped at the same site where we had spent the second niht of our trip upstream. We cooked our remaining rice, enough to quieten our hunger, drank some hot coffee and bedded downon a sandy stretch between the rocks. I had left my hammock upstream so that I could travel light, and now without it, I found that it was not necessary. As it was a special waterproof, mosquito proof etc. device it weighed about 8 pounds. This was to be 8 pounds saved on the next trip.

It was a startling clear night, the air blowing light and fresh off the noisily flowing river,. I fell asleep but later on awakened and watched the most astonishing and brilliant display of lightning I have ever seen. There was forked lightning and sheet lightning, sometimes with thunder and sometimes without; sometimes it flashed and roared close by and then would run off towards the Apurimac and rumble away in the distance. It continued for several hours before at last I fell asleep, and for us at least there was no rain.

In the morning we cooked that last of the porridge and finished up odds and ends of tea and coffee before setting out. Now that we were close to food and comfort, we did not hurry, although we were both anxious to arrive. We felt lethargic, the sun was pleasant and warming, and as the walking was generally easy, with some trickier bits to keep us awake, we stopped and examined animal tracks, tried to manhandle a fish out of a deep pool, and in general wandered rather than walked. By midday we were on the Pichari Camp dirt road and a few minutes later back in the camp.

Our first trip had turned into what I now think of as a reconnaissance. Our equipment, supplies, the peons, and most of all our knowledge had been faulty or lacking. We were now in a position to treat the Pichari seriously. The two principal factors to be considered were weight of loads, and speed of progress. Bedding ad protection from the weather seemed to be secondary to the over-riding importance of the correct quanityt and type of food, and at the same time loads would have to be kept as light as possible, especially for Dr. Koepcke and myself. Generally the peons, with their surer footing and greater experience in carrying loads in difficult country, had had to wait for us, and I knew that if our loads were as light as possible we would be able to keep up with them and the whole party would make better progress.

Most important of all, we had to have better men. To have to push peons to greater efforts is a tiring and annoying business. If men could be found who were interested, energetic and experienced, there seemed no reason at all why we should not be able to get up this river.

In all this I was rather deceived by the excellence of the weather we had had, and by the fact that the part of the river we had covered turned out to be by far and away the easiest part. It turned out later that we had actually made our last camp at the point where the character of the river changed notably and made considerably greater demands upon the rate of progress. In retrospect these two factors only served to accentuate the importance of having good men.

Series editor for Nonesuch Expeditions: Tony Morrison

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