In episode 77 of the Dissect podcast I related a story to Ben Staley about a trip to Bolivia in 1996. Of course, we climbed some routes but the more interesting aspects of the journey had little to do with climbing — especially reviewed 23 years later.
The trip started with some thievery and a high altitude night marathon, which is described below. The article is my response to criticism of a rope manufacturer's use of photographs depicting torture in a commercial catalog. These events opened my eyes to the cultural gulf between "our way" and the local methods used to resolve differences in the remote, mountain communities climbers visit, often in the third world, or, if you prefer, less developed areas. Our very presence affects behavior. The whole concept of "take only photographs, leave only footprints" is quaint and impossible: we pollute with our presence whether we carry our litter out with us or not.
The rest of the story compressed time and juxtaposed experiences in a way I had never imagined and can barely fathom now when I recalled those events in the retelling. A new route that was a compromise, rushing to meet the departure deadline, a long hike out, a terrifying and seemingly endless drive back to La Paz, a city-wide party, psychedelics and a local metal band, poverty and celebration, a fashion show at the hotel, air travel and a punk reunion show followed by a shooting competition all flat packed into a 96-hour window that made assimilation nearly impossible.
Listen to the podcast and piece the puzzle together in your head using these words and images. It was one hell of a journey and has never stopped being so inside my own head.
Thieves struck while we dined in the kitchen-tent, stealing $1000, two Nikon cameras, a Walkman and our first aid kit. My friend Ed was quite angry. Scott and I knew there was only one way out of the valley so at 8pm, already an hour behind, we began chasing the perpetrators. Seven miles into the pursuit I was within fifty feet of my quarry. They had transitioned to bicycles. Once aware of my pounding feet, they stepped on it and wheels triumphed over sneakers. We continued following their tracks. A local guided us to a house where the thieves purportedly lived but it was abandoned. We were 15 miles from base camp. A shortcut shaved a few miles from the leg home and we reached base camp at 6am after a 27-mile ordeal that took place between 13,600' and 14,800'.
Four hours later the father of one of the thieves brought his son to base camp. He borrowed several hanks of rope, bound his son’s hands, and whipped him non-stop for 45 minutes. Scott retired to his tent and turned up his Walkman to muffle the cries. Ed wanted to do the same but I insisted he watch. The father was trying to recover Ed’s property and we had brought the temptation into the economically depressed valley in the first place. Whether I approved of backwoods Bolivian justice or not, I was not about to intervene because I did not necessarily “know better.” I would not impose my so-called superior values onto another culture.
The son confessed. His father and our cook raced away to apprehend his accomplices. Altogether there were three, ages 14, 15, and 16. The son was bound, hand and foot, and left in the dirt of our base camp. We were instructed not to touch him but at 10pm we pulled him into the kitchen tent to escape the wind. The father returned at 3am with the other thieves and their parents, whereupon a Tribunal of sorts took place. More whipping and beating inspired further admissions of guilt. Eventually, the money and equipment was returned. 34 sleepless hours after the chase began we put our psychologically emptied selves to bed.
Participating in these events exposed many facets of human behavior. That the American way does not prevail and other cultures resolve conflict differently had been ingrained by many trips abroad. This incident taught me that, while many people voice opposition to human rights abuses, few care to be confronted with the truth. They certainly don’t want to see reality presented in “inappropriate forums.” I believe no forum an improper vehicle to remind people that the world does not end at our borders.
Climbing in foreign mountain ranges exposes us to many cultures and events. Our presence inevitably affects attitudes and the fragile balance of power. I’ve visited regions governed by martial law, barely avoided armed conflict between religious factions, and seen some fairly horrible things, among them, the whipping depicted in the photograph. These events gave me perspective. My belief in an Old Testament, “eye-for-an-eye,” type of justice was changed by witnessing the real thing. Both Ed and I realized that we supported this kind of punishment with the caveat that rough justice be served by proxy. We want order but we also want clean hands.
Ultimately, the father did his son a favor. Had we involved the police, the young man would have spent at least a year in prison before his trial. If he’d survived, who knows what might have resulted from a conviction? By the time that happened I’d have been in my safe American home, ignorant of the events I’d helped bring about. Instead I watched the people resolve the problem based on their social structure. I feel partially responsible though not guilty. I consider it essential to communicate the experience to my fellow man. No outdoor magazines would touch the story; they too, believed the forum inappropriate.
The picture was not included in the catalog to sell products rather to communicate a particular experience had while traveling in the mountains. Not all climbing trips are fun and not all are successful, but powerful events associated with climbing cause us to think. And that’s what it’s all about.