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Portrait of an Explorer: Hiram Bingham, Discoverer of Machu Picchu

Portrait of an Explorer. Hiram Bingham, Discoverer of Machu Picchu. Alfred M. Bingham. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, 1989. 141 black and white photographs, 6 sketch maps, 382 pages. Hardbound. $29.95.

Although Hiram Bingham was not the discoverer of Machu Picchu any more than Columbus was the discoverer of the New World, it was he who put the last Inca capital on the map and who gave it back to the world. The book, written by Bingham’s third son, is an efficient biography that, without omitting the necessary detail about the personal life of the person portrayed, goes to great lengths to describe the job he did. The work is divided into four parts with 27 chapters. There are also an epilogue, appendixes, bibliographies and an index.

Born in 1875, Hiram Bingham earned a doctorate at Harvard and became a lecturer at Yale. In 1906-7 he made his first South American expedition, repeating across Venezuela and Colombia the route of Bolivar’s liberating army (1821). In 1907 he carried out his second South American expedition, or rather, travels. It was then that he became convinced that “the last Inca capital” remained to be discovered. This led to his 1911 expedition to Peru, his most famous one. Archaeologist A. Bandelier had written that Nevado Coropuna could very well be “the culminating point in the continent,” and placed it at over 23,000 feet. Bingham, even if he actually had not been a mountaineer, had exploration in his veins and managed to set up an expedition to climb Coropuna and also to search for the last Inca capital. Unexpectedly he had to compete with another American, Annie Peck, who in 1906 had climbed Huascarán Norte. Bingham decided not to race for Coropuna and instead, to survey the land as he worked his way toward the mountain. In the end, Annie Peck climbed the easternmost peak of Coropuna (6303 meters) and Bingham’s party, the highest, which his surveyor put at 6617 meters. Bingham undertook yet two more trips to Peru. In 1912 he did discover, or uncover, Machu Picchu and in 1914-15, more ruins.

This book is definitely of interest to all mountaineers fond of Peru and of South America. Of the 27 chapters that form the book, twelve deal directly with the Andes and the rest, with travels elsewhere as well as with the life of Bingham himself. A number of photos, taken some seven decades ago, will be of interest to climbers.

This book shows an involuntary mistake. The 1985 Peruvian chart (sheets Cotahuasi and Aplao) led the author, and others too of course, to believe that the north peak of Coropuna (or Coropuna Casulla), with 6377 meters, is the highest in the massif and that the dome climbed by Bingham in 1911 is 6350 meters high. This is wrong. Bingham did climb the highest peak (locally called El Toro), which later Peruvian surveys have placed at 6425 meters. This was confirmed by Mike McWherther, who in 1984 ascended Coropuna Casulla and wrote in Summit (no. 5, 1984, p. 21-22): … when we reached the north peak’s great summit plateau … we looked to the dome peak. It looked about 300 fit higher.

We had been misled by the topographic map and climbed Coropuna’s second highest summit.

The text is complemented by quotations from Bingham’s writings and from his personal letters, by adequate maps and, above all, by photos taken by the explorer himself. To summarize, then, this is a biographical book about the life and times of a well known explorer, who was besides a pioneer mountaineer.

Evelio EchevarrÍa