Full Value

Posted on: May 19, 2008

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt


Light flickered through the fabric walls. It was well after midnight, and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) Jan Solov and I struggled to extract ourselves from our warm sleeping bags.

Again Dave shouted, almost in disbelief, "Fire—my tent's on fire!" A few moments later, the clattering of tent poles indicated he was trying to roll the flames out while still inside the flaming beast.

Jan and I emerged into the frosty darkness to find Dave crawling out of a smoldering wreck, his wooly hat squashed over his eyes. All I could see of his face was a mass of bushy beard, and in my sleepy befuddlement I concluded that his head was on upside down. He appeared unscathed, though he was obviously very shocked. So was I: he was using my tent.

In the most restrained manner I could manage under the circumstances, I said, "I say, old man, did you fall asleep with the candle burning?"

A stone ripped through the air, piercing our Vango tent fly.

"I heard something moving next to my tent," Dave explained rapidly. "It woke me up, but when I didn't see anything, I thought it was an animal. The next I knew, there were smoke and flames all around me."

I could barely comprehend Dave's words. We stood in the middle of a Peruvian night, miles from anywhere in the rarely visited eastern sector of the Cordillera Vilcanota. Up until now our base camp had been idyllic. Our two tents—well, one and a bit now—nestled in a flat, grassy hollow, protected by the moraine, beneath the fluted snow and ice spires of the Colque Cruz Range. Only a stream and the sounds of our voices had broken the quiet. I turned toward Jan. The night was black, but as I shone my headtorch through her long curls, her sunburned face appeared entirely confused.

Dave and I had just spent ten days hauling our unfit frames up two unclimbed peaks in the Colque Cruz, while Jan had grumbled about being left alone at base camp with an ever-diminishing stack of unread paperbacks. As both climbs had required long and arduous approaches over jumbled moraine, we had deemed ourselves fit and ready for Colque Cruz I, only to have a night of heavy snow thwart our first attempt and send us all down valley again. Predictably, Sod's Law dictated that by the time we'd made it most of the way to camp, fair weather had returned. We'd left our bags packed, ready to walk right back up the next morning, while Jan took stock of her remaining books. By the time we'd bedded down, Dave and I, at least, had become rather optimistic.

Two more rocks shredded the back of our tent. Dave, a college lecturer, was used to dealing with Birmingham's most errant. "Listen, chaps," he said, and wagged his finger at the darkness. "Stop this immediately."

The reply missed his right ear by centimeters. All three of us grabbed our helmets; I picked up one of my Forrest ice axes. Dave's pair was nowhere to be seen, having disappeared along with our gallon of kerosene.

We dove inside the Vango, which was beginning to resemble a mosquito net, and threw most of the remaining gear into Jan's extremely large rucksack, one of those 10,000-liter Lowe jobbies so popular in the early 1980s. Then, with the military strategy of stampeding sheep, we dragged it, plus our own two packs, down to the riverbank, where we made a barricade and prepared for.... Well, we weren’t quite sure.

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

It turned out we'd chosen the worst possible position: the middle of a bowl encircled by moraine slopes that provided our attackers with unlimited artillery. Any attempt to pop our heads above our packs provoked a fusillade. In the dark we had no idea of the numbers against us.

A couple of hours passed. Being British, I'd naturally changed into pajamas before retiring; the only thing I'd added in the interim was plastic boots. As we crouched behind our packs, First-World-War-trenches style, it became a trifle chilly. Then my heart rate sped up: two Peruvians in ponchos and chullos descended casually to the flat ground, only ten meters away. They held torches made out of surrounding vegetation and fueled—I supposed—by our kerosene.

We threw a few pebbles, wildly. Bad move. They snorted with what I presumed were expletives and pulled back for another throw. In a few moments they would reach our barricade, and I would have to stick my ice axe in one of them, something I wasn't quite sure I was capable of doing. For some reason all I could think about was a life sentence in a Peruvian jail.

Within the next thirty seconds, a rock hit Dave in the arm; I got a small graze to the forehead and a large stone to the sternum, which produced a fine array of blood; and Jan received several big blows to her legs. She let out a god-awful scream. It frightened me, and it seemed to have an effect on the assailants as well, who retreated slowly up the hillside.

Their next move was to set fires around us. Well illuminated, with nowhere to hide, we began to admit defeat. During a lull in the proceedings we made a dash for the top of the bowl, surmising, rightly, that they were just interested in our gear.

Fortunately, the bandits weren't that big. Unable to pick up Jan's huge rucksack, they carried what they could into the night and disappeared. When we were certain they were gone, we volunteered Dave to enlist help from a farm we'd passed on the approach. He set off at a run down valley; I descended to collect Jan's bag. Half a kilometer later, she and I got inside a small hole in the tussock and covered ourselves with grass. Once the bandits discovered they hadn't got our valuables, they might come looking. Ever practical, Jan mumbled, "Better go to the loo—this could be a long hide."

We played dead until 4 p.m., when another Peruvian appeared on the skyline, scanning the surroundings. I took a long, hard look at the axe in my right hand: I'd been dreading this moment for the last twelve hours. Then close behind the Peruvian I saw Dave. I jumped up to greet him, overwhelmed with relief. When he'd told the local inhabitants what had happened, they'd been outraged, and immediately set off with a couple of horses and some vicious implements. But of the bandits there was not a trace.

During our long nighttime walk to the farm, we proceeded in complete silence. Only starlight illuminated our way. I gripped the axe firmly, while Jan carried a large knife in her right hand. Regularly we stopped, listened, and peered up valley. It would take two years of climbing outside South America and considerable practice with a catapult before I could relax at another base camp.

SIX YEARS LATER I was in Kathmandu, chatting across a dinner table with our American cameraman (though our trip had been handsomely financed, our sponsors required a film), who began explaining that he'd spent some time just north of the Vilcanota. "I've been there once," I said, and I began to tell the story. His eyes widened. The incident, it appeared, had become legend, mainly because it was unique in the region and because it predated the days of the Shining Path. The residents had been deeply embarrassed that outside banditos had tainted their reputations.

At one point during his stay, my American friend had come across two farmers, tilling their fields with... Forrest axes. When questioned, they replied that they'd bought them from traveling campesinos and that, actually, the tools worked rather well for the job.

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