Climber Impacts and Access in Peru's Cordillera Blanca

Publication Year: 2004.

The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range, with the greatest concentration of 6,000-meter peaks outside the Himalaya. It has attracted climbers and explorers from around the world since the early twentieth century. In 1975, most of the range was designated Huascarán National Park (HNP), and has since become part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. The area surrounding the park is also home to an estimated 230,000 residents, many of whom are descendants of the indigenous cultures that have inhabited the region since before the Incas. Much of the area now encompassed by the national park has long provided for local livelihoods, and many residents still depend on park land for various resources and as dry-season pasturage for livestock.

In recent decades, traditional ways of life in the Cordillera Blanca have been significantly affected by the region’s burgeoning tourism infrastructure. HNP’s spectacular and accessible mountain scenery draws high numbers of both domestic and international adventure tourists annually, yet climbing and trekking have remained largely unrestricted and free of the red tape and expense associated with permit systems in other countries. While tourism brings important economic opportunities for local residents, it has also created highly politicized conflicts over resource distribution and management as well as increased inter- and intra-community competition and environmental pressure.

I first became interested in tourism impacts in the Cordillera Blanca in early July of 1999 when I observed staggering numbers of trekkers and climbers in the Santa Cruz Valley and Alpamayo base camp (73 tents in the base camp and more than 100 people and 60 burros on the trail over a five-hour period). Later reports, including one by Cameron Burns in the AAJ 2001, also indicated that popular climbing routes and camping zones in the region were often overcrowded and increasingly trashed by heavy use.

As a Conservation Fellow in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana and with the sponsorship of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and an AAC Research Grant, I returned to the Cordillera Blanca during the summer of 2003 to begin a preliminary analysis of climbing and trekking impacts in HNP. Working as a research intern with The Mountain Institute’s Andean Branch and under the auspices of HNP, I began collecting data on garbage and human waste accumulation, non-designated camps and trails, overcrowding, and the harvesting of fuelwood from native forests in a number of sites, including the popular Santa Cruz, Llanganuco, and Ishinca Valleys.

This research is, to my knowledge, the first attempt to gather ground-truthed data on visitor impacts in HNP, which is especially important at this time as park authorities are in the process of reviewing alternatives for new public-use regulations. Based on the language in the recent HNP Master Plan, there is concern among the climbing community that restrictions to access are likely to occur over the next three years throughout much of the park (see Jim Bartle’s article in American Alpine News, Winter 2004, for details).

The proposed restrictions seem to be based on the premise that restricting recreational users to popular areas will both streamline park management and protect untrammeled ecosystems. Yet, while these changes would minimize the area managed for public use by HNP, my research indicated that cattle and other livestock had already degraded many of the park ecosystems to an extent that impacts from tourism were clearly secondary to those from agriculture-related grazing. This is not to say that impacts from tourism are inconsequential, but that they are occurring in environments with a long history of human and livestock use rather than in pristine ecosystems. I also found that the areas most degraded by tourism were, not surprisingly, those where use is already highly concentrated, and that, in general, less-visited areas (those frequented only by independent groups) showed few impacts from tourism. Undoubtedly, certain areas, particularly remaining Polylepis (Quenoa) cove forests, would benefit from restricted access, but in much of the park it seems that responsible adventure tourism will cause little additional impact. Whether these observations will help to inform future park planning and public-use regulations is impossible for me to say; but I am hopeful that they may, at least, illustrate the need for reliable field data.

Overall, the impacts from tourism in the popular valleys I studied were less severe than I expected from my observations in 1999 and from word-of-mouth accounts of previous conditions. Exceptions to this trend were the heavily used Pisco and Ishinca base camps where garbage and, especially, human waste accumulation was a significant problem by early August. The dearth of previously recorded data on both impacts and tourism levels made it impossible to make thorough comparisons to other years, but, according to numerous interviewees from the tourism sector, levels in both categories were significantly lower during the 2003 season than usual. As a result of these low levels, I am hesitant to draw too many conclusions regarding the severity of tourism impacts in HNP from my preliminary research, but I hope my observations will serve as a baseline record that can be used in conjunction with further monitoring efforts.

Two conclusions, however, are easily forthcoming: First, due to the lack of previous research on tourism impacts in HNP and because reliable data are essential for sound public-use planning, it is important to continue the monitoring I began in 2003 and to expand it to other parts of the park. Second, if we climbers are to maintain the freedom of use that has historically made the Cordillera Blanca so appealing, we must carefully minimize our impacts and work to show park managers and planners that we are a valuable and responsible constituency of Huascarán National Park.

Adam French, AAC