Nineteen ninety nine was not a particularly unusual year for Ecuador. The President was about to be thrown out of office, the country was defaulting on international loans, indigenous groups were rioting in the streets and the value of the local currency was falling faster than a 10- pound Loonie. As a first year guide with the Spanish verbal skills of a rock, the situation was not quite ideal for my South American debut.
“Mountains are mountains; it’ll be fine,” I reassured myself. Of course, I was wrong. What I learned quickly enough was that in South America, guiding the peaks was the simple part. Logistics, health and the reality of political and social chaos would end up presenting much greater challenges to a northern guide and his innocent flock.
What skill-set best serves a guide when working in an environment as reactive as Chernobyl and as unpredictable as a harridan? How does one operate effectively in places where roadblocks pop-up like ground squirrels, where baggage disappears faster than a pickpocket, where every morsel of food is a potential time bomb, and where the answer to every question is: yes? Obviously, guiding clients to the summit of a 6,000-metre peak requires basic skills: glacier travel, crevasse rescue, short-roping, ice climbing, hazard assessment and good route selection are all part of the job. But a skill-set will only get you so far in South America. What The Freedom of the Hills fails to mention, and what every guide new to the region soon learns, is of course, how to dance.
The Dance begins when the organized planner, the well intentioned if naïve guide, meets the indifference of a continent that seems committed to a state of perpetual chaos. The Dance involves a curious, if not baffling, mixture of improvisation, madness and demonic possession. It’s what a guide does when a roadblock pops up on the way to an intended mountain, and there are 10 clients looking at you with an expression of, “Okay, now what genius?” Where the only appropriate response is to mirror yourself on the chaos that you wish didn’t exist. The Dance happens when it’s midnight at high camp, and you find yourself lying in the snow, curled in the fetal position, purging violently from both ends, and a client asks if you’re going to be ready for the summit in 20 minutes? “Aww, this is nothing, just a little uncooked meat in the system,” you say as you drift in and out of consciousness, determined to lead the group to the heights. And if it isn’t already clear, dancing like a monkey is the only response when the airline loses your bags, the hotel loses your reservation, the bank has no change, and the ATM machine eats your card all within the space of a few hours.
If I had to bet on one time and one place being particularly challenging, I would put my Bolivianos on Bolivia’s Festival de San Juan. This local celebration occurs in late June and like any noteworthy party, the shindig involves back-to-back days with a surfeit of fire and alcohol. Traditionally, the fires are lit outside, in the hills, in order to keep evil spirits away on the coldest day of the year. But in 2006, the rules of the game were suddenly changed. In that fateful year, the staff at the hotel we were staying at decided it would be prudent to light a massive bonfire in the hotel basement. I have no idea how many evil spirits fled the establishment, but I do know that every hotel guest was successfully smoked out of the building. “Andrew, what the hell is this?” I was asked by more than one client as we huddled together in the street, fighting to stay warm. “What kind of a staff lights a fire in the basement of an occupied hotel? Why the hell are we staying here?” The Dance happens here, at the moment when the guide is confronted with the impossibility of translating the chaos into a coherent narrative.
There is no single word in the Spanish language that will get a guide’s attention faster than "Bloqueo," (roadblock). The mere thought of this word is enough to make a guide's back hair stand on end, for it embodies all that is out of the guide's control. Steep snow, hard ice, challenging clients; all these can be dealt with safely. But the Bolivian Bloqueo is a stubborn situation that often refuses to be tamed. So when our private bus rolled to a slow stop on the outskirts of La Paz one day, and our driver sent his son outside to scout, I didn't know what to think. When the scout returned moments later and climbed aboard, shaking his head and muttering "bloqueo, bloqueo...." I cleaned out my ears and asked him to repeat himself. "Roadblock," he said, "the bus drivers from Coroico are striking...." At this moment, faced with only one choice, I stepped off the bus, put on my dancing shoes, and began to move to the beat of an imaginary tribal drum. In this lucid and flexible state, I spent the next hour gathering intelligence from various sources: the local ice-cream boy, the llama man, the soda lady, the chicken kid and other drivers, before formulating an ad hoc plan. Once it was determined that we could not A) ram our bus through the road block or B) take a side road around the obstacle, we decided on option C. Carrying nothing but our day packs and flanked by our local staff, we walked stealthily through the angry mob, around the roadblock, and hailed a cab once on the other side. Of course, that cab ended up breaking down but the next one we caught managed to work out.
You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind for South America. If you’re hell bent on promptness and organization, you’re probably better off going to Switzerland or Germany where you can spend your Sundays marching around the local parks. The Southern Continent has a unique ability to ratchet human folly up to the highest level, and the only surprising thing is that the Locals never seemed miffed. Don’t expect to manage the chaos. The best you can hope for is to ride it with grace. If you try to mould it or make it bend to your wishes, you will fail. Relax, enjoy the ride, and come ready to dance.