Worshiping the Slopes of the Andes

Bumping along in our not-so-trusty four-wheel drive we curved and slipped down the icy streets of Valle Nevado, suddenly skidding to a halt as our Aussie driver spotted the frost-bitten thumbs of marooned hitch-hikers. One, two, three, four, they piled into the back of our truck traveling from Spain, Canada, Lake Tahoe and New York.

“Hey, thanks man, you guys are legends. We’ve been on that corner the past hour and its going to snow for sure. It will be a sweet ride tomorrow, at least two feet of powder,” said Tahoe.

“Really, you reckon? Man, even today we had some pretty awesome jumps where the track wasn’t too groomed. This place is sweet,” Australia replied.

“Yeah, no shit, I mean we’re in the fucking Andes,” observed New York.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Kavita Bedford

The white playground of the Andes draws people from all over the world in a modern-day pilgrimage to pay tribute to its slopes. It's an international mix dominated by the American and Canadian pro-boarders and skiers who come to train or test themselves on the legendary runs.

The Andes have been an inspiration for worship for thousands of years. The mood and ever-present power of the mountains have been read and invoked since Pre-Columbian times. As cultures have evolved and re-formed, they have also adapted their own style of Andes worship to suit their time and customs.

The first Andean civilization, the Tiahuanacos, revered the mountains both as gods and as the home of various deities. When the Incans first arrived to these areas where belief structures were already established, they constructed ritual sites within the mountains to gain greater political, religious and economic control over the people and land they conquered.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Kavita Bedford

Johan Reinhard, famed American archaeologist and prolific writer for National Geographic Magazine, has explored almost 100 mountains stretching over 5,200 meters and participated in research that revealed more than 50 ceremonial sites on the Andean summits in Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. From these high peaks, Reinhard says, the people believed the deities controlled the weather because they observed rain clouds forming and downward-flowing streams, which affected the growth of crops and agricultural productivity.

The early Andeans had carried out human sacrifices to appease these ambivalent gods, who were capable of both extreme punishment and reward. The gods of the weather were of crucial importance to the Andean people; the Ayamarans of Bolivia worshiped Tunupa, and the Peruvian Incas worshiped Illapa, along with other deities--Viracocha (the creator), Inti (the sun) and Pachamama (the Earth Mother).

Martin Gray, who photographs pilgrimage sites and Meso-American culture, says the Andean people had creation myths that attributed the mountains as the birthplace of their civilization. The mountains housed Incan ancestors’ spirits, were the dwelling place of Shamans (who were important to the indigenous Mapuche mythology and healing practices) and were also home to important animals such as the condor, which in Peru was seen as the manifestation of the mountain god.

Santiago Chile San Alfonso
Photo by Kavita Bedford

The sacred space of the Andes has been usurped by each conquering culture since the Tiahuanacos, writes anthropologist Deborah Poole, who specializes in Peruvian pilgrimage studies. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and toppled the Incan Empire under Francisco Pizarro, many of the sanctuaries again shifted from Incan control to pilgrimage centers. There the Christians worshiped idols of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The shrine of Qoyllur Rit’I, located in Peru's Sinkara valley, is an example of the way each culture has re-interpreted its sanctity for its own religion. On one hand, Pan-Andeans associate the site with the pilgrimage of the god Viracocha, and now they make annual pilgrimages to the shrine each June. Simultaneously, it has served as a Catholic pilgrimage site since 1783, when the clergy claimed Christ had been sighted there.

The next wave of re-definition for the Andes began with the construction of the Trans-Andean railway in 1910 along with the introduction of the skiing industry to Chile. In 1930, the South American company Hoteles de Cordillera opened a hotel near the legendary Lake of the Incas site, where the current Portillo ski area was eventually created. After the World Alpine Ski Championships were held in Portillo in 1966, the sport sparked national interest and the Andes once again loomed high as a sacred place for snow sports--but for foreigners this time.

When one visits the resorts that now share a place among the shrines, the culture of the snow junkie is apparent. Conversations revolve around the snow, and only the snow: Where one has boarded previously, where one will board in the future and what the current conditions are like.

As a first-time ski-goer I was struck by the snow-centricism of everyday interactions and of the motley group I was traveling with. But I was also struck by the constant awe and respect that the Andes commanded. It could just be that the American ex-pats, roaming Australians, Canadians and Chilean day-trippers who currently dominate the ski slopes of the Andes are the next wave of mountain worshipers.

(Ed. Note: Some of the information for this article was taken from Johan Reinhard's article titled "Sacred Peaks in the Andes" from the March 1992 edition of National Geographic Magazine.)

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