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Appetite For Destruction: The Mine That Eats Mountains

High in a remote alpine valley in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, the most pristine limestone in the Americas is at risk of being swallowed by a colossal open-pit mine.


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When Felipe Proaño and Austin O’Brien topped out their new 10-pitch line, Euphoria (5.10+; 1,600 feet), in June 2021, they also made the first ascent of Chaupi Jirca (16,444 feet) in Peru’s rugged Ancash region.

Chaupi Jirca and its sister summits, crowned by Cerro Tornillo (16,460 feet), a gray-white prominence jutting out of the highlands like a colossal incisor, offer perhaps the best limestone in the Americas. Nestled high in the eastern Cordillera Blanca, the rock is all but untouched; as of press time, there were only six documented climbs, with potential for hundreds more, from single-pitch routes on bullet-hard sport cliffs to 2,000-foot walls. The region appears plucked straight from a fairy tale. Seen from the west, Tornillo’s continuous runnelled slabs rise into the sky like the ramparts of some eldritch fortress, while verdant hills unfurl below, dotted with shepherd’s huts and small potato farms.

But the landscape on the massif’s east side couldn’t sit in starker contrast. From the summit, Proaño and O’Brien laid eyes on a hellish vista. “Like looking down into Mordor,” Proaño says. He was seeing Antamina, a copper-zinc mine that’s one of the 10 largest mines in the world by production volume. Sitting at over 14,100 feet, it’s also one of the highest.

Antamina is a spiraling gray scar half a mile deep and over 10 square miles around, with a crater lake of toxic water in its nadir. Villagers in the Callejón de Conchucos, the river valley west of the mine, blame Antamina for poisoning the rivers, poor air quality, health issues, livestock deaths, and crop failure. They tend their farms to the daily accompaniment of explosions rocking the mountain.

Furthermore, according to rumors about Antamina’s expansion, much of the climbing may soon be dynamited into oblivion. But Proaño and the slim list of other climbers who’ve explored here, along with local villagers, believe climbing and other forms of outdoor tourism could save these peaks.

Villagers from Huaripampa helping Felipe Proaño’s team portage into Cerro Tornillo basecamp in June 2021; above them, from left to right, are Huanka Punta, Chaupi Jirca, and Cerro Tornillo. (Photo: Nicolás Davalos)

 

A Future Mecca?

The climbing around Antamina was discovered by the Basque brothers Iker and Eneko Pou, who FA’ed walls on Cerro Tornillo and nearby Huanka Punta (16,017 feet) in July 2019 with the Spaniard Manuel “Manu” Ponce.

The trio established the bold 2,300-foot Burrito Chin de Los Andes (6b/5.10d) on Tornillo, sending it in a single day; and the 1,500-foot Cabeza Clava (6c+/5.11c) on Huanka Punta. “We believe this is the first time we have opened a route of such quality and beauty in the mountains,” Iker Pou wrote of Cabeza Clava on social media. The route ascends a face riven by hundreds of vertical folds, like the paper edge of some monolithic textbook. On their ascent, the shady wall was brutally cold, with temperatures as low as 23° F. “It was like being in the fridge for 10 hours,” Pou wrote.

They returned to Tornillo in July 2021 and opened Leire, a 1,000-foot 6b/5.10d on a wall between Huanka Punta and Tornillo; and Super Canalizos, a 1,550-foot 6c+/5.11c immediately right of Cabeza Clava. Like many of their first ascents, the Pous and Ponce’s lines around Antamina have scant pro and few bolts. Burrito Chin and Super Canalizos went entirely clean, all on gear, while Leire had only three bolts and Cabeza Clava no more than a dozen.

Ponce, who has been living and climbing in Peru off and on for years, said he and the Pous were tipped off about Tornillo by a Peruvian climbing guide, who showed them a photo of the formation in 2018 but had not climbed there himself. “We arrived in San Marcos [the neighboring village] with only this bad photo,” he recalls. “We didn’t know anything about the wall. We arrived and found this incredible beauty, this classic area. It could be a new mecca.”

The lay of the land here can be deceptive. From San Marcos, the rock around Antamina is accessible only by a single, tortuous road with the constitution of a saltine cracker. (A second road, in better condition, is restricted to mine vehicles.) The land is open and unfenced, with the massif’s limestone faces rocketing skyward to the east—and then the mine, out of sight behind. There are no “No Trespassing” signs or barriers, yet the mine claims a dubious ownership over many of the walls, including Tornillo. According to them, climbing is restricted.

As the first climbers to visit Tornillo, the Pous and Ponce managed to slip by without issue, but later parties weren’t so lucky. In June 2021, Proaño and his team—the Americans O‘Brien and Lee Krieger, and the Ecuadorians Simon Bustamante and Nicolás Davalos—were approaching by car when they tangled with Antamina guards on patrol. Says Proaño, “They were yelling, ‘Stay in your vehicle! You cannot be here! No questions!’ They told us to get the hell out.”

Retreating to San Marcos, the climbers met villagers from the small community of Huaripampa, who offered mules to help the team discretely infiltrate the mountains the following day. In addition to Euphoria, the crew opened Blood and Sand (5.11d/5.12a), freed by Proaño, a two-pitch variation on Cabeza Clava.

The potential here is monumental, Proaño says: “It could be a new Hatun Machay. It hasn’t been subject to much glaciation compared to the Cordillera Blanca granite, so the rock is pristine. The crack systems just go forever and ever, stacking off each other endlessly.”

In August 2021, the American climbers Scott Eubank and Forest Harmon visited, hoping to carve their own path on Tornillo’s walls. Though they set up basecamp far outside the mine itself, on land they believed belonged to villagers, they were accosted by a revolver-wielding mine guard and booted out before they could set foot on the rock.

“There are crags there that could easily have the hardest routes in South America, both single- and multi-pitch,” says Eubank. “There’s everything from 2,000-foot perfectly runnelled slabs with corner and crack systems and pockets, to single-pitch crags that are 45-degrees overhung, to 300-meter walls that are overhung the entire way with tufas.”

Simon Bustamante exploring new terrain on the immaculate limestone of Huanka Punta, at 14,000 feet above sea level on the Cerro Tornillo massif, Peru. This near-virgin motherlode of rock is threatened by an enormous, adjacent open-pit mine. (Photo: Nicolas Davalos)

Into the Pit

In September 2021, I visited Antamina. The mine is less than 200 miles from Peru’s coastal capital, Lima, as the crow flies, but entails a circuitous eight-hour drive, made longer by constant roadblocks. Traveling alone, I flew into Lima and rented a Honda CB500X dual-sport bike. After the better part of two days, I rode through Kahuish Pass (14,816 feet), the southern gateway to the Callejón de Conchucos, amid a blizzard. Sleet drove horizontally across the road. I couldn’t see more than 20 feet. Cars passed at odd intervals, headlights rearing up out of the gloom and whipping by at breakneck speeds. At one point, a bus came around a curve ahead, in my lane. I jerked the bike over to the narrow strip of icy dirt between the road and a 200-foot cliff below, my hands slick with sweat.

From the pass, the road spirals down into the valley, passing through the town of Chavín de Huántar and later, San Marcos, just west of Antamina. I would spend most of the next two weeks in these two towns, along with a third, Huari, to the north. Most of the locals speak some Spanish, but according to a 2007 census, over 80 percent grew up speaking the indigenous Quechua. (Antamina means “copper mine” in Quechua.)

The following day, I rode high up the mountain roads to Antamina, gray thunderheads swirling in the sky. Tornillo’s ramparts were largely obscured by fog, but what lay in view was awe-inspiring. It looked like you could squirm into those limestone runnels and climb forever.

Getting into the mine was surprisingly easy. I rode past several oblivious guards and checkpoints, my face wrapped with a keffiyeh and obscured by my helmet, yelling in Spanish that I had an appointment at the office, then roaring off before they could respond.

It was like descending into an anthill—one swarming with mechanical monstrosities. Dump trucks and backhoes and tankers were alive on the slopes, digging, digging, digging. The rock was blasted constantly, giving the miners access to new layers. Antamina is both a home and workplace for 3,000-odd employees, with enough infrastructure to be considered a small city. There are dozens of dormitories, offices, dining halls, and other buildings inside the sprawling pit, all laid out along the lake of toxic sludge.

I circled deeper into Mordor, thunder rumbling overhead, approaching the crater lake. Reaching the shore, I passed a portly, clipboard-wielding fellow in a hard hat and high-vis who was guiding a backhoe into a crater. “Sir! Sir! What are you doing?” he called out in English.

Manu Ponce on the wall in 2019, during his and the Pou brothers’ FA blitz on the Cerro Tornillo massif. (Photo: Manu Ponce)

I came clean, telling him I was a journalist.

The man, Ricardo, was a mine supervisor. He’d been working at Antamina for over eight years, he told me. I asked him about the mountains around the mine. “The mine owns Cerro Tornillo, yes,” he said. “Without question. It owns everything you can see.”

“And the formation will be mined soon?” I asked, pointing up to where Tornillo’s ramparts loomed against the angry sky. “Yes, yes, of course,” he said. “There are minerals in the heart of it, underneath, and so it will be mined. Blasted. Gone.”

At that moment, another man waved in our direction, pointing at me and jabbering into a walkie-talkie. He hopped onto the running boards of a passing truck heading up the road. I’d overstayed my welcome. I fired up the bike, skirted a passing steamroller, and sped off west along the rim of the noxious lake.

I thought of the verdant hills and virgin rock beyond the crater. The man’s words echoed in my head: Blasted. Gone.

Profit and Poison

Mining in Antamina started in November 2001 and reached full production in 2002. The mine cost around $2.5 billion to build; at the time, it was both the largest combined copper-zinc mine in the world and the largest mining investment in the history of Peru. As of 2021, it reigned supreme as the largest producer of zinc and copper in Peru, which is the second-largest producer of both minerals worldwide. On the global scale, Antamina is the seventh-largest copper and sixth-largest zinc mine.

After iron and aluminum, zinc and copper are the most widely consumed metals in existence. The former is widely used as a galvanizing agent (coating iron or steel to prevent rusting), as well as an alloy, combined with copper to make components for everything from automobiles to electrical components in household appliances and light fixtures. Zinc oxide also plays a critical role in rubber manufacturing, food supplements, skincare, and fire retardants.

Felipe Proaño on a recent expedition to a remote jungle big wall in his homeland, Ecuador. (Photo: Alexander Estrada)

Copper, meanwhile, finds use in construction, electronics manufacturing, and power generation and transmission. It’s used in numerous home appliances, as well as heating and cooling systems, and is also a major component in cars, from the motors to radiators, wiring, brakes, bearings, engines, and batteries. (Copper is a crucial aspect of the push toward electric-vehicle adoption.)

A mine of Antamina’s size, of course, is no domestic enterprise. It’s owned by the major global players Teck (22.5 percent), BHP (33.75 percent), Glencore (33.75 percent), and Mitsubishi (10 percent). In 2020, it recorded nearly $4 billion in total revenue—accounting for almost 2 percent of Peru’s annual GDP.  In a country where over 20 percent of the population sits below the poverty line, Antamina wields political heft. Undoubtedly, the mine provides much-needed metals and is a monolith of human achievement—especially impressive given that it’s operating at an elevation on par with Mount Whitney.

In addition to employing thousands, the mine’s presence has benefited the villages of the Callejón de Conchucos indirectly. Antamina has helped fund a new school, repair roads, and even construct new antennae to improve cell reception. As a result, many villagers see it as a necessary evil, an antihero of progress. They’re proud of Antamina, even if the services it provides are a sliver of those that the mine’s $4 billion in revenue should bring.

“They have lots of money,” a grinning teenage gas-station attendant wearing an Antamina T-shirt told me when I stopped to juice up my bike. When I asked him if he worked for the mine, he shook his head; the shirt had been a gift from a friend. “Do they have a good impact on the community?” I asked. He shrugged. “They’re very rich,” he said. Then, “Cash or credit?”

Profit notwithstanding, Antamina is a controversial subject in the region. Contaminated water, poor air quality, and a number of health issues have been reported by locals since Antamina took up residence. “There is nowhere to get clean water,” Ponce says of his expeditions to Tornillo. “It’s all poisoned by the mine. This is one of the biggest difficulties when climbing in this area.”

In summer 2009, an Antamina waste pond leaked massive quantities of copper, zinc, and lead into the water source of the nearby Juprog community, resulting three years later in a relatively meager $400,000 fine, which the mine contested. In 2012, an Antamina pipeline rupture (the mine uses a 188-mile-long slurry line to carry its product to the Pacific) in the community of Santa Rosa de Cajacay spilled nearly 100,000 pounds of mineral slurry. (Much of this was contained in holding ponds, but about 7 percent escaped.)

Hilario Moran, the president of Cajacay, told Reuters that the spray shot 80 feet in the air while he and approximately 200 other local villagers rushed to stop it from contaminating the nearby Rio Fortaleza. Over 350 locals complained of headaches, nausea, irritated eyes, and nosebleeds for weeks afterward. Antamina’s environmental manager at the time, ​​Antonio Mendoza, compared the contents of the pipeline to liquid soap. “Obviously if you get soap in your eyes it will irritate them, but it’s not really going to hurt you,” he was quoted as saying in the Reuters article.

The open-pit mine of Antamina, just behind the Cerro Tornillo massif; only a portion of the 10-plus-square-mile mine is visible in this photo. (Photo: Nicolás Davalos)

A leaked company document appeared to suggest otherwise, referring to the mixture as “very toxic,” containing sulfur, arsenic, silica, lead, sulfur, iron sulfide, and crystalline silica, among other hazardous substances. A state health study (only made public after the Peruvian newspaper La Republica filed a freedom-of-information request) showed that 25 percent of tested villagers still had toxic levels of copper in their blood three months post-spill.

“[Antamina] killed the animals. Their water killed the animals!” screeched Digberto, a farmer I encountered on the road north of San Marcos. He pounded his chest with a gnarled fist, garbed in a ragged poncho and muddy tennis shoes. He tugged a donkey down a scree slope, punctuating his statements with jerks on the donkey’s rope. “They poisoned the water, and my goats died!”

Other grievances have been documented, including a second pipeline rupture along the Huaraz-Pativilca access road in April 2017, but active spills or leaks from the slurry pipeline are far from the only negative effects.

The coastal fishing near Puerto Huarmey, where the pipeline hits the Pacific, was once known for the diversity and quantity of its marine life. Today, the sea lions, penguins, and fish have largely vanished, replaced by a conveyor belt that extends some 500 feet into the ocean, used to load ships with Antamina product. A January 2022 London Mining Network Report, “The Damage Done by Antamina,” alleged “constant and recurrent dumping of minerals into the sea and coast”—something observed by local fishermen and attested to by former terminal operators.

In late October 2021, Antamina was forced to shut down for over a week due to a protest. Villagers from Aquia, which the slurry pipeline runs through, had blocked one of the mine’s key access roads, accusing the mine of deceit and failure to honor its commitments.

“Our community does not have a framework to regulate what we get in return for giving you access [to our land],” community leaders wrote in a letter to Antamina. While mine spokespeople initially rebuffed the Aquia protesters as a violent minority, within a week they had agreed to come to the table, promising  to provide cell towers for the town, among other benefits. Each day of the shutdown reportedly cost Antamina some $14 million in lost profit.

A Bad Actor? Más o Menos

While there are documented issues like the spills previously mentioned, it’s unclear whether Antamina is directly behind the contamination of the water in the Callejón de Conchucos valley. A 2019 Science of the Total Environment study concluded that the contamination of the Rio Negro, on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, near Huaraz, may very well come not from nearby mines but from recent glacial retreat, which has “left massive amounts of sulfide materials exposed to weathering conditions, oxidizing naturally, and finally contributing to the contamination of the [river] through faults,” which carry the toxic water into the river.

“Yes, yes, the river is polluted,” a forlorn old man in a crumpled fedora sitting on a stone bench by the Rio Carash in Huancha, just west of the mine, told me one day. “But we polluted it, not Antamina! The people are the problem here.” Looking down at a riverbank dotted with beer cans, plastic bags, broken glass, and far fouler refuse, I could see his point.

Iker Pou on the first ascent of Super Canalizos (5.11c; 1,550 feet), Huanka Punta, with Cerro Tornillo looming behind. The route, established in July 2021, has no fixed protection. (Photo: Alexander Estrada)

But whether or not the mine is behind the water contamination may soon become moot. Antamina recently began construction on a new clean-drinking-water system for San Marcos, powered by a self-sustaining solar-paneled electrical system. An 80,000-gallon reservoir, which Antamina claims will provide clean drinking water for over 100 families, was completed on March 11. They also announced a new “first-class health center” for the valley, among other development projects.

Many locals remain unconvinced, arguing that these are mere gestures to garner good press. Justino, a restaurant owner in Chavín de Huántar who served me grilled cuy (guinea pig) many nights during my time in town, despised the mine. “Antamina has been here nearly 20 years, but our situation has not changed much, because they do not make serious investments to improve the economic situation of my people,” he said. “When they have invested, it has only been political favors, to make friends of the officials. The money has never reached the community.”

Others were of starkly divided opinions.

Alejandro, an elderly, wrinkled wheat farmer with a wide-brimmed straw hat, showed me around his small plot of land one afternoon. His crops sit in the shadow of Cerro Tornillo, only a few miles from the mine. Was the mine a good or bad presence? “Más o menos,” he said. “I cannot say that the Antamina mine is one or another. They do some good; they do a lot bad, especially for the environment. [The mine] has changed things permanently here, that is all I can say.”

Later I pulled my motorcycle up on a street corner in Huancha, querying a sweaty, wiry man in a soccer jersey, who was wringing his arms spasmodically, as though he’d just snorted cocaine. “The land, the water—yes, it is contaminated! But overall, the mine is good. They bring progress! They bring future!”

Marco, a short, squinty-eyed individual in a cowboy hat and spurred boots, agreed. He’d lived in San Marcos all his life, and said that “Antamina, at least, has brought money and development, unlike in the years before. For that reason alone, I see her presence in a good way. Change is good.”

Others are adamant that the mine must go, simply due to its impact on the land. Vladimir, an energetic youth operating a shoe store with his family in Huari, relished each insult he hurled at the mine. “[Antamina] is totally abusive to the people, humiliating the farmers and the native Andeans,” he said. In addition to alleging that the mine pollutes the rivers, Vladimir said Antamina refuses to “collaborate with the community and with the Andean people,” and does not pay their fair share of taxes. (In fact, government figures show Antamina tax payments represented 4 percent of Peru’s total tax revenue in 2020, but it’s impossible to say how much of those taxes directly return to the communities.)

Nebulous Possession

The biggest question surrounding Antamina is “Outside the mine, how far does their territory extend?” In a developing country like Peru, it’s a complex question. Mines are often given “concessions” not just to mine a specific tract but to expand if minerals are found elsewhere.

All three parties of climbers—the Pous and Ponce, Proaño and his team, and Eubank and his partner—believed they were climbing on land that belonged to the villages. Many villagers also believe they own Cerro Tornillo, and some even approached Proaño at his basecamp, asking for photos and information about climbing tourism so that they could promote their land as a tourist destination.

Proaño finding the way on Blood and Sand during its first free ascent, June 2021. (Photo: Nicolas Davalos)

“We had a few conversations,” Proaño says. “Some people say the mine owns [Tornillo]; some people say the mine is only on the other side of the mountain. It’s sad—they don’t really know if the mine owns their land or not.”

The mine’s ownership of the open-pit itself is less spotty, but many relocated locals still view their decision to sell with regret. Some families, like the Marzano-Velasquez clan, sold their land to Antamina as early as 1999, signing with a thumbprint, as they were unable to read or write. Approximately 50 nuclear families were displaced by the mine upon its construction, booted down to San Marcos or other neighboring communities.

Former director-general of environmental affairs at Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines Ernesto Bustamante, a Johns Hopkins graduate who hoped to reform the industry but whose tenure lasted a mere quarter year, in 2011, told the AP that Peruvian ministry officials have “little interest in remediation or in protecting the environment.”

He relayed stories of mining-company employees clandestinely entering the ministry with flash drives to help government employees edit environmental-impact studies. Twice he discovered that major mining companies had proceeded with environmentally sensitive expansions before applying for the necessary permits. He suspected government employees of taking bribes, noting that “technicians who made a little more than $1,000 a month were taking vacations in Paris.” My own experience being stonewalled certainly lends credence to such collusion. In an effort to find definitive information regarding the ownership of Cerro Tornillo, Proaño and I spent the latter half of 2021 and much of early 2022 attempting to reach the mine via countless WhatsApp messages, emails, and other requests to their offices, all without response.

Before beginning my motorcycle trip from Lima, I attempted to bluff my way into Antamina’s Lima headquarters, telling the guard at the front desk that I had a meeting. He grinned. “You have a meeting here today? That’s funny. Everyone from Antamina has been working from home since the pandemic.” I was promptly shooed out the door.

The following day, I visited the Ministry of Energy and Mines, twiddling my fingers outside the gates as two guards eyed me. When Kaimer Dolmos Vengoa, the Peruvian general director of mining promotion and sustainability, finally emerged, he said we could not meet because of COVID-19. Then he gave me a complimentary pen, notebook, and pamphlet and took a picture with me in front of a statue, smiling, thumbs up.

He assured me that he would respond to my emails and that we would talk on the phone. I emailed him countless times following my visit, but never heard back.

A Path Forward

In the courtyard of a small hostel in the climbing hub of Huaraz, on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, I sat down with the prolific Venezuelan climber, developer, and mountain guide Carlos Esteban Pineda Beyer. Wiry and clean-shaven, with his long black hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, Beyer exudes the tempered resolve of an alpinist. He has been climbing for over 35 years and living in Peru for nearly a dozen, so has extensive experience navigating complicated access issues in the Cordillera Blanca. “The real reason [the mine] doesn’t want people there is not safety, but because they don’t want you to see what they’re doing,” he said. “They don’t want foreigners taking photos and films.”

The Huaraz-based mountain guide Carlos Pineda Beyer, who’s optimistic that climbing tourism could help save Cerro Tornillo. (Photo: Carlos Solé)

His outlook for the future, however, wasn’t all bleak. “[In Venezuela] we had a lot of trouble protecting the natural areas for climbers,” he continued. “During the ‘90s, we found that the way to ask the government to protect [these] areas is to show them how much we have developed. They protect the areas in return, creating national parks and monuments. That could be done here also. [The government] knows that mining brings a lot of money, but mining is only viable until the mineral is gone. Tourism is sustainable; it lasts forever.

“Also, the culture around the area is extremely rich,” he said. “Those mountains [have been] sacred for many generations.” Chavín de Huántar, for example, is named for a neighboring archeological site containing ruins and artifacts dating to 1200 BC. These ruins were called “the birthplace of South American culture” by the twentieth-century Peruvian archeologist Julio C. Tello, the first indigenous archeologist in South America, and are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Publicizing this information, Beyer said, could stymie Antamina’s advances.

A Sustainable Connection

The anti-mine tale is one told throughout Peru, and violent clashes are a regular occurrence. Perhaps the most famous of these incidents in the last decade was the 2015 Las Bambas riots, which saw four protestors killed and nearly two dozen injured, including eight police officers, in spates of violence involving approximately 15,000 anti-mine activists, 1,500 police officers, and 150 soldiers. A Democracy Now! report claimed that police also shot at an ambulance carrying doctors, preventing other ambulances from reaching the hospital following the violence. Another farmer was killed in more Las Bambas protests the following year, and a smattering of deaths and injuries to anti-mine protestors and government forces are reported annually at a variety of mining sites around the country.

In recent months, the conflicts have surged, spurred by expectations from rural communities following the July 2021 election of President Pedro Castillo, a leftist who hails from a peasant background. Castillo ran on promises to foster local development in mining regions via increased taxes on mine operations, and rural communities are holding him to it. As of October 2021, 84 ongoing mining conflicts were reported in Peru.

At the same time as the anti-Antamina blockade in Aquia last October, roads leading to the copper mines of Las Bambas and Constancia were blocked by local groups. The Apumayo gold mine in Ayacucho was burned to the ground by protestors, leaving nearly a dozen injured. A few weeks prior, a protest blockade at the Antapaccay copper mine was tentatively lifted after the mine agreed to bring local representatives to the table. Some 200 indigenous protestors took over a pipeline station run by Petroperú, a state-owned oil company, around the same time.

Climbing in Peru is equally mired with access conflicts, however, from Los Olivos to Hatun Machay to Rúrec. Perhaps the most notorious was at Hatun Machay, a sport Eden south of Huaraz that began to attract climbers in the early 2000s. By 2016, Machay’s volcanic spires saw as many as 150 climbers on any given day. At some point, Machay’s land manager, the Argentinian Andrés Saibene, became disgruntled, purportedly because he was required to provide remuneration to the Peruvian community on whose land the refugio sits (per a contract signed when Machay was developed in 2006). Eventually, Saibene chopped some 500-odd bolts, and in January 2017 the refugio mysteriously burned.

In light of fouled climber-local relationships like these, Cerro Tornillo presents a chance to create a new template, which is one reason Proaño believes it’s so special. “The local community wants to develop tourism here,” he says. “They could really use the money that climbing tourism, and other tourism, can bring. This place represents a chance to create a crag that has a positive impact not just for climbers but for the local people, too.”

Manu Ponce feels similarly, and argues for opening new climbs and exposing the area to “make tourism more important so that the community can see there’s money in it.” He also believes that “conserving this area as a traditional climbing destination” is crucial, opening new routes with little or no fixed pro. He and the Pous tentatively plan to return in July 2022. It remains to be seen if they’ll be able to. “Malo,” Ponce muttered when I called him to relay the mine supervisor’s claims that Tornillo would be mined. “It’s simply too big,” he said. Carlos Pineda Beyer was also skeptical about Tornillo’s destruction. “They may have told you they will blow up the mountain, just to stop other climbers from coming to the area,” he hypothesized. “Who knows?”

In late January 2022, Antamina’s president Víctor Gobitz alluded in a press release that the mine may transition to underground operations in the 2030s to maintain its production rate. “If the mineralization at depth responds to the company’s expectations, the construction of the underground mine would begin in 2031, the operation in 2036, and full production capacity in 2039,” he said. While the pit is currently projected to reach no deeper than 2,600 feet, essentially its current depth, drilling has revealed minerals 6,000 feet deep, according to Antamina’s release, pointing to the viability of a far-reaching subterranean operation.

Despite the offhanded words of the mine operator I spoke with inside the pit, erasing a 16,000-foot mountain like Tornillo is likely unfeasible. Still, it seems possible that once drilling begins beneath the formation, instability would render climbing unsafe. As climbers, we’re familiar with this story. Take Hetch Hetchy, which John Muir called a “remarkably exact counterpart” to Yosemite, lost beneath floodwaters after construction of a dam in 1923. Or the Austrian crag Lorünser Wändle, which a quarry may soon devour. Beat Kammerlander’s 5.14a Zukunftsmusik, one of the first routes at that grade when freed in 1988, has already been destroyed by blasting. When the rock is gone, it’s gone.

First Ascent, or Last?

Fortunately, there may be hope. Proaño, working through the Peruvian embassy in Ecuador, recently connected with Feliciano Gomez, the community leader of San Marcos, and other local leaders. Proaño was told that “preservation of tourism” is Antamina’s responsibility, a key stipulation in the mine’s land-use agreement. Gomez, in particular, was adamant that the mine did not own Tornillo’s walls and the surrounding region, and had no right to remove climbers. He was prepared to push back, particularly now that he was aware of the area’s potential for outdoor tourism.

The author on his rented motorbike in the Peruvian Andes. (Photo: Owen Clarke)

However, as of press time, Antamina had yet to come to the table with Gomez or other local representatives. “The local touristic office is trying to help declare this a touristic site, but they’re getting the silent treatment from Antamina,” says Proaño. “They’re being stonewalled.” Proaño was slated to meet with Peru’s ambassador to Ecuador on May 9, in Quito, to advocate for preserving the climbing around Cerro Tornillo. Later in the month, he plans to return to the Callejón de Conchucos to meet with local leaders in person.

Despite these positive developments, it’s unlikely that Tornillo’s access controversies will be solved soon—it isn’t yet clear what the future holds for these lofty limestone walls. “If we can develop this place,” says Proaño, “the first thing we do is make the climbing benefit the community. The climbing has to work for everyone, not just the climbers.

“If not, I fear ours may not only be the first ascent of Chaupi Jirca, but the last, as well.”

Owen Clarke is an editor at large for Climbing.