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Fowl Play in the Andes
"Chicken" in Peru's Cordillera Blanca

"You are what you eat," they say, and at 16,000 feet neither my nephew, Denny, nor I wanted to be called chicken. And so it is that one night's dinner in the Andes turned out to be "Lucky."

Dawn breaks over Lima's airport. Nine sleepy trekkers cautiously look each other over. Sergio, our bearded guide from Mexico, has guided one of our group to the summit of Aconcagua. The rest of us are impressed, a little nervous — we suspect Aconcagua isn't in our own future. Then it’s north by bus to Huaraz, a small Peruvian town in the shadow of 22,000-foot Mount Huascaran. Here we spend two nights at a small, chalet-like hotel and take a good day-hike to 15,000 feet. We are quickly growing aware that we share an intense curiosity about the world and an ability to laugh at our problems and our ourselves. Already we sense that we will be excellent traveling companions.

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Photo: Camilla Hvalsoe

After this short acclimatization we're off to begin our nine-day trek through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca range. Our bus climbs to the continental divide, a thousand feet higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier. We're made giddy by both the rarefied air and the panorama of uniquely spectacular peaks of snow and ice.

We make our first camp at over 12,000 feet and meet our army of attendants: the cook staff; burro tenders; a man on horseback who will serve as our ambulance if the need arises (it doesn’t); and, sixty-year-old Cerilo, whose shrill "Buenos dias!" wakes us each morning as he brings hot tea to our tents. Cerilo will out-hike us with amazing nonchalance in the coming days as we climb over each high-altitude pass. We speak only some high school Spanish, not the staff’s native Quechua, but we develop real fondness for these friendly, smiling helpers. We feel affection also for our non-human camp followers — a herd of patient, hard-working burros, a couple of horses, and a flock of chickens.

Chickens? You bet, a flock of plump tannish-white hens. They are a tight knit group, clucking and fussing in a matronly manner. They seem pleased to be included on the outing. We trekkers admire their insouciance . . . but we are, well, concerned about their future. We're not sons and daughters of the soil. "Chicken" to us comes in a shrink-wrapped package.

The hiking is strenuous. Each day we cross a pass above 15,000 feet and make camp above 12,000 feet. But our exertions bear sweet fruit — the exhilaration of the Andean peaks, crystalline lakes, waterfalls, lush green meadows, and a sense of achievement and growing physical endurance.

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Photo: Camilla Hvalsoe

We work hard; we burn a lot of calories; we look forward to every meal; and, we are not disappointed. Each night the staff sets up the dining tent, and we drift toward it from our tents, as dinner is prepared. The boxes lugged by the burros contain many culinary treasures. The food is impressive and plentiful, and the meals include meat, even… chicken.

The chickens continue to huddle together each night, usually on the leeward side of the cooking tent. They seemingly discuss the trip, and their soft background clucking becomes white noise, soothing and familiar. But it’s not a noise that increases in volume as the days pass. Like Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," the flock dwindles daily, hen by hen. Nothing unseemly ever happens in our presence. There is no obvious smoking gun — or, for that matter, bloody hatchet. But pollo keeps appearing on our table, and the hens' clucking takes on an increasingly edgy tone, or so it seems to us anthropomorphic city folk.

In the final days of any doomed civilization, there will be a few alert individuals who, sensing a new wind direction, shield themselves decisively from the coming storm. In 1789 the nobility of France had certain astute members who found it prudent to speak up for the Rights of Man. And so with us — one perceptive chicken wastes less and less time clucking with her old companions. This hen strikes out, seeking to form a network of human friends. Spying us trekkers discussing our day’s adventures, she toddles over to join the conversation. She follows us around in a flattering manner, looking philosophical and unconcerned. She seems to laugh at our most feeble attempts at humor. In short, she's got our number. We begin looking for her, discussing her, even enjoying her company. In time, we become concerned about her limited future.

When her sisters disappear one by one — providing our daily bread, as it were — only she remains. Now a philosophical cleavage appears among us trekkers, heretofore monolithic in our unity. We’ve got just two days before we finish our trek, but debate flares in the dining tent. We become divided into two camps — the "wets" who plead for her life, versus the "Hobbesians" who favor the axe. The debate begins at breakfast and continues at dinner. Emotions are intense, the issue touches on life and death, but decorum prevails — a vote. By a cliffhanger margin of one, we decide to spare the fowl and dine on veggies. chicken.jpg (5823 bytes)

She's a lucky hen, and, indeed, we name her Lucky. She no longer rides in a black box on the back of a burro. Lucky is carried personally by one of the burro tenders, and she now feels herself to be royalty. This is no dumb cluck — this chicken knows she has played for major stakes and won. Some of us sit cross-legged each evening and play hearts. Lucky now sits with us, studying the game. She cocks her head back and forth, following the play. She allows us, almost implores us, to pat her head and stroke her feathers.

The last night, camped at Hualcayan, Lucky makes the final leap from potential pollo arrosto to human companion. We gather to gaze one final time at the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, and the Clouds of Magellan, starry wonders certainly not viewable in Seattle skies. When Denny and I return to our tent, I find Lucky nesting coquettishly there. I regretfully draw the line and evict her. Later, however, I awake, puzzled for a moment, to find her sleeping contentedly, snuggled against me for warmth. She has squeezed back into the tent through a zipper gap.

However, the best of friends must part. There’s a final group photo, as Chris, my chief ally in the battle for Lucky's life, holds her under his arm. There’s a promise from the chief cook that Lucky will retire to his farm — her remaining natural life duties will be laying eggs. With a final farewell to Lucky, we clamber into the bus and make our way down a twisting road, passing through beautifully tended fields and picturesque villages.

Peru is never to be forgotten. The purity of the Andes touches the soul, and the blinding white pyramid image of Alpamayo Peak serves as a mystical, ethereal logo for the entire trip. Although we were only two-week companions, Denny and I still stay in touch with many of our fellow trekkers, a testament to the camaraderie of this magical trek. Ironically, for many of us, our most vivid Cordillera Blanca recollection remains "the time we saved that crazy chicken's life."

Article by Don Harrison
Don is a Seattle attorney, specializing in insurance law. His trek with his nephew in the Cordillera Blanca was his eighth adventure with Mountain Travel Sobek. Don's ability to empathize with a chicken's struggles for self-actualization (and life) is something of a recent development. Historically, he notes, he has preferred poultry accompanied by a good Chardonnay.

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Courtesy: Mountain Travel Sobek

[Mountain Travel Sobek’s "Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca" adventure is in one of the most stunning ranges of the Andes. Here there are more than 40 mountains over 19,000 feet high, linked by pretty valleys laced with ancient trading routes. This challenging trek in the Cordillera Blanca goes through the heart of the dazzling glacial mountain environs of Huascarán National Park, enjoying an alpine wonderland of pretty wildflowers, cultivated farmlands, and colorful villages of campesinos, hardy descendants of the ancient Incas].

Click here for more information on this adventure.

Mountain Travel Sobek U.S.
6420 Fairmount Avenue, El Cerrito, California 94530
1-888-MTSOBEK (687-6235) or 1-510-527-8100
Fax: 1-510-525-7710

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