Monday, February 19, 2007

Ghost Stories of the Sierra. II: The Mummy Juanita

For any visitor to Arequipa, one of the recommended highlights is a visit to see the famous "Mummy Juanita" in the Catholic University's Museo de Santuarios Andinos, about one block from the Plaza de Armas.

In a temperature-controlled glass case, huddled in richly decorated Incan rugs, Juanita stares out at the visiting tourists. Her skin is showing the effects of 500 years without moisturiser. Her long hair has split ends, and time hasn't been kind to her gums. But she's recognizably, remarkably, the fourteen year-old girl of royal blood who was sacrificed on the icy summit of 6,300 metre Nevado Ampato, five centuries ago.

Juanita was discovered in 1995, when ash and smoke erupting from neighbouring volcano Sabancaya melted part of the ice cap on Ampato, and the seismic activity shook apart her snowy tomb.

The mountain guide who discovered Juanita, along with American archeologist Johann Reinhard, was Mickey Zarate. Though you won't hear anything about him when you watch the National Geographic video that they show at the museum; Reinhard's is the only name mentioned.

These days Mickey has a little hole-in-the-wall office on the calle Santa Catalina - directly opposite Incaventura's office, and next door to Blanca's internet cafe. He's still a mountain guide, but has been completely overshadowed in the business by his brother Carlos, who occupies an entire courtyard a couple of blocks further down Santa Catalina, with a shiny 4WD often parked in the interior.

Mickey is often to be found drowning his sorrows, lamenting his problems with women. He's bitter about the lack of recognition he received in relation to the discovery, and is keen to tell his story to anyone who'll listen.

He had an article written which tells his version of events leading up to the discovery of Juanita
Last time I was in Arequipa he showed me an English translation. He wanted me to check and see if it was alright. There wasn't time on that trip, but when I got back to Arequipa recently Mickey was still waving the translation around, and this time I had a chance to take a look. The translation he'd had done was indeed deeply flawed, so I redid it for him.

The below text is the completed translation. The last sentence is something of a rhetorical flourish, but in an ironic way, it's true that the discovery of Juanita was only the beginning of the story. In a further entry, I'll attempt to relate the tale of the "Curse of the Mummy Juanita".

More Plaudits for Famous Guide Miguel Zarate

At the peak of his guiding career, together with the archeologist Johann Reinhardt, Zarate discovered the tomb of “Juanita” on Nevado Ampato (6,380 metres).

The beginning of the adventure, which culminated in the discovery of the Nevado Ampato mummies, dates from 1989, when Miguel Zarate, heading alone towards the ice cap, came upon a ceremonial plaza at around 5,000 metres above sea level. At that time, the first gassy emanations from the volcano Sabancaya were beginning to melt the ice around the summit of Ampato.

The experienced mountain guide then organized a return expedition with a German group, which opened a new route towards the peak. There they found the “Altar” at about 5,800 metres above sea level, bringing back samples of bone and ceramic fragments.

In 1991, Zárate met up again with his friend and climbing partner Johan Reinhard, whom he had known since 1979, and they spoke about the theme of Andean sanctuaries. The archeologist indicated that he would undertake expeditions to the mountains of Coropuna, Sara Sara, Hualca Hualca, Calches and Huarancante. Ampato wasn’t considered of sufficient importance to be included in the project at that stage.

In Feburary 1992, when Zárate again visited Ampato with a French friend, a storm prevented them from ascending beyond 5,850 metres, where they found scraps of wood and ichu, indicating the construction of a stepped pathway towards the summit.

From 1992, Zárate waited for Johan, to encourage him to ascend the peak. He described his work to many who understood the subject. Some believed him; others no, but for lack of finance and permits, it wasn’t possible to continue with the excavations. Zárate continued patiently waiting.

“I saw a young girl fall, and she called out to me. When I went towards her, I took her in my arms and ran down some stairs, and she said to me: 'Mickey, please, don’t leave me!', and I answered her 'I’m not going to leave you'. 'Promise me!'. 'I promise you'. "

Such was the recurring dream that Zárate had in the days prior to the expedition that discovered the body of Juanita, the “Ice Princess”.

But this surprising discovery wasn’t just based on mere sentiments and dreams – there had been fifteen years of expeditions and previous discoveries which indicated that the 6,380 metre summit of Ampato was the icy home of the sleeping princess.

In September of 1995, Zárate met with Reinhard in the Le Bristol café in Arequipa, and convinced him to travel to Ampato. In 1963 Carlos Zárate Sandoval , Miguel’s father, had led an expedition to Picchu Picchu, where they found the tomb of another Incan princess at 5600 metres, but the body was damaged. In 1994, Miguel’s older brother Carlos returned from Ampato with photographs and a strange braided rope brought from near the summit.

The story began on the morning of the 2nd of September 1995. Miguel Zárate, Johan Reinhard and muleteer Henry Huamani departed from the village of Cabanaconde towards Nevado Ampato. The first results of this expedition were seen at 6,200 metres: on the frozen and pale ground they found scraps of rope, ichu, wood and pieces of ceramic. They were on the right path.

But it was Friday the 8th that was destined for the major discovery. Despite the lack of oxygen and the effort required to work at that altitude, they made it to the summit.

“While Johan took notes, I focused on inspecting, checking and cleaning the area - tasks that we always undertook when reviewing the sites that we visited”.

“Then I noticed that there were remains of a structure and I saw a small fan with reddish feathers sticking out of the mountainside. In that moment I let out a whistle, and raising my pick, called out to Johan”.

Zárate and Reihard embraced each other – they had uncovered the sanctuary.

“We also found pieces of wood, gold laminates, three feminine statuettes, silver, and spondillus (sea shells)”, recalls Miguel.

But its structure had collapsed and the body had fallen down the slope of the crater. Ingeniously, the explorers tossed stones wrapped in yellow plastic to observe their trajectory. The stones rolled and stopped 60 metres below. On descending, Miguel saw a bulky object and pointed it out it Johan, but the latter, not being able to see Zárate, stopped at his side where he gestured with his index finger and said jokingly “There it is, don’t you see; what’s got your tongue?”.

Close by the fallen stones, with her face exposed to the weak rays of the afternoon sun, a young Incan girl was seen by human eyes for the first time in 500 years. Juanita had been discovered.

It was 5:15 in the afternoon. They didn’t think twice about it. A precise blow of the ice pick from the mountain guide freed the Incan princess from her icy prison. “Your pack is bigger” indicated Miguel to Johan, who got rid of everything that was in his pack. While Miguel lifted the bulky object of almost 40 kilos in his arms, he remembered his dreams. He secured it in the pack and lifted it on to Johan’s back.

Time was against them; night fell and the temperature plummeted dangerously. They had to leave Juanita at 5,950 metres to shelter in the camp at 5,800 metres. That night they couldn’t sleep. They agreed to separate; Johan would climb up to collect Juanita and bring her back to the camp.

Very early on the 9th of September Miguel descended to base camp at 5,000 metres, carrying all the equipment from Camp One, and returned for Juanita at 5,800 metres. He brought up Humani for assistance, but the muleteer refused to help bring down the mummy, and returned to base camp, fearful of the curse of the sacrificed girl. Reinhard was very angry and threatened him: “If you don’t catch up with Miguel with the donkey; if you don’t help him, I won’t pay you a single cent”. The muleteer reluctantly agreed.

They descended to 4,600 metres, and there made the final camp, as night was rapidly falling. “I was afraid that if we left the princess to the elements she would fall easy prey to some animal or suffer damage from the weather, so I decided to place her inside the tent; by my side, to be precise”, recalls Miguel Zárate. “Henry didn’t sleep at all that night”.

The 10th of September, they arrived in Cabanaconde, from where Zárate left that same night at 11:30 pm, and on Monday the 11th at 6:00 in the morning, he arrived alone with the mummy in the city of Arequipa. There she spent three days in his house, in a new freezer provided by his friend Dante Lucioni. After that, Miguel and Johan decided to present Juanita to the Catholic University of Santa Maria.

The rest of the story began to be known on the 9th of October, when El Correo, a regional newspaper, featured the great discovery and Juanita the “Ice Princess”, the young girl buried in Nevado Ampato, became the world-renowned protagonist of a story that began 500 years ago - a story that is not yet finished.

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