We have come to Huaraz, Peru, to see Mike's mountains. They are in the Cordillera Blanca, great jagged granite things thrusting up more than 22,000 feet, capped in snow and draped with glaciers that glint in the Andean sun.
The Peruvian government created a national park out of these mountains in 1975 and named it for Mount Huascara'n, the loftiest peak in this part of the Andes and the highest in Peru, higher than any in the United States or Europe. As it did before there was a park, it lures mountain climbers, backpackers and nature lovers from around the world.
The Huascara'n National Park is located just outside Huaraz, a town of 40,000 about 180 miles northeast of Lima. The town square, Plaza de Armas, sits at 10,100 feet.
The park is 40 miles wide and runs the 120-mile length of the Callejon de Huaylas, the valley of the Santa River that separates the Cordillera Blanca from the Cordillera Negra. The difference between the two ranges is as plain as their names.
The Cordillera Blanca, westernmost, is first to catch the moisture-laden clouds from the Pacific. The mountains take the moisture as snow, and by the time the clouds cross the Callejon little moisture is left. The Cordillera Negra rises brown and forbidding.
Looking to the Cordillera Blanca from the Plaza de Armas, you seem to see it all -- Huascara'n at 22,205 feet, Huandoy at 21,088 and Chopicalqui at 20,800. The park embraces 22 peaks rising more than 19,500 feet. At sunset, the snow atop them turns pink. This is "the Switzerland of the Andes," and the mountains loom as close as an outstretched hand.
Mike and his friend, Curry Slaymaker, explored and mapped these mountains when they worked for the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture, which operates the park. They also were in the vanguard of conservationists urging that the park be created. Their dream of a park came true, but their last adventure in the area they loved ended in tragedy.
One of the eastern entrances to the park, the Llanganuco Canyon entrance, is on a narrow, unimproved road that twists sharply up the mountainside above the lost town of Yungay. Beyond the entrance gate, the road twists down again to 12,500 feet, to the shimmering glacial lake, Chinancocha, its waters blue or green depending on the sun's intensity and one's eye for color. From here, Mount Huascara'n offers the breathtaking illusion of being straight up.
The climbers, the trekkers, the untempered tourists all stop at Chinancocha. When not there, they are on line at the foreign exchange window of Banco de la Nacio'n in downtown Huaraz.
The banks won't exchange money without an application (original and three copies), plus rubber stamps on all the papers, plus a passport and the name of your hotel. You don't get the money at the window where all this takes place. Everyone waits at another window, with a different person in charge.
The Frenchmen from Chamonix, with the Alps in their backyard, have arrived for four weeks of mountain climbing. The woman from Belgium will go trekking. The New Zealanders call the Cordillera "a Mecca for climbers" and say they will stay two months. (They came up from Bolivia, where they traded their New Zealand dollars for Peruvian soles because the exchange rate is better that way.)
The white-haired Czechoslovakian from Manhattan, whose hobby is photography, is here to take pictures of the Cordillera Blanca, and if the light isn't exactly right, he won't.
(Mike had told us of the light at daybreak: "When you go out, the sun is just beginning to peek over the Cordillera Blanca, and the blue light silhouettes the mountains. You can't help thinking you're surrounded by some of the Father's finest handiwork.")
Architecturally, Huaraz is a disappointment -- undistinguished and new-looking, minus the narrow streets and overhanging tile roofs that make charming Spanish colonial cities. But one must be slow to criticize.
At 3:24 p.m. Sunday, May 31, 1970, while most of its citizens were in their homes listening to a broadcast of the world championship soccer match between Mexico and the Soviet Union in Mexico City, Spanish colonial Huaraz was destroyed by the worst earthquake in South American history.
Centered off Peru's Pacific Coast, the quake wrecked the coastal city of Chimbote and devastated the entire length of the Callejon. A piece of Mount Huarasca'n shook loose and started an avalanche that buried the town of Yungay. All that stands today are the tops of four palms that graced the town square and the monuments that mark where families died under 30 to 40 feet of earth and boulders.
During the quake, the prior of the Benedictine monastery was killed by falling walls. When finally the surviving priests were able to communicate with the outside world by short-wave radio, nobody believed them. Within a matter of days, the number of victims rose from a first estimate of 300 to a final toll of more than 80,000.
Huaraz is mostly rebuilt now. The concrete skeleton of a new cathedral stands behind barricades at one corner of the plaza. The plaza itself is flat, bare earth, like a parking lot under construction, but designs have been drawn for a fountain and gardens. Behind the colonnaded new buildings opposite the plaza are business offices, souvenir shops and a museum tracing the history of the Callejon.
Through the good offices of a friend, we are staying in the guest house of the Benedictine monastery of San Benito de los Pinos. It is only a mile or so up from Plaza de Armas, but the mile seems almost vertical. (The guest house was never open to the public, and the monastery has since closed; but there are a number of tourist accommodations in Huaraz.)
Instead of pines, Los Pinos has a forest of eucalyptus in groves that spread across the grounds and crowd down the steep rough road to town. The loudest noise is the rush of the Guilcay River 150 feet below. The Guilcay Valley is an eerie meadow of granite bolders swept down from the Cordillera in a landslide in 1941. Mike said this was his favorite view -- down the slope to the river, and up to the mountains beyond.
Tape-recording a letter here, he once said, "I guess in Indiana we'd call this a mountain, but it's so little compared to the other mountains that I just call it a hill.
"It's a nice place because you can see both of the mountain ranges and the river, and you're above the city of Huaraz. You can see the people coming back and forth from the market up to their pueblos in the valley. You feel like you almost have a godlike kind of position."
Three of us have come to Mike's mountains: his mother, his aunt and I, his uncle. Mike has been dead in these mountains since the summer of 1976.
He and Curry Slaymaker were exploring the side of a mountain no one ever had climbed. According to the Associated Press, "Two other Americans who saw the accident said Rourke and Slaymaker were roped together and heading up a 17,000-foot peak when Slaymaker lost his footing, slid down a steep slope, shot past Rourke and lunged over the cliff's edge. The line grew taut, they said, and Slaymaker's momentum jerked Rourke off his feet. Both men plummeted to the bottom of an almost vertical 500-foot drop."
Their bodies were never recovered.
Outside the park's gatehouse in Llanganuco Canyon is a small gray stone pyramid inscribed in Spanish: "To Curry Slaymaker and Michael Rourke, who offered their lives to conserve Huascara'n National Park. Disappeared July 13, 1976."
We don't know who to thank for the monument. But whoever erected it beneath Huascara'n, they've said it so softly that this is our best goodbye.