by Chris de Serres

Necessita Agua

Jose refilling water bottles

Many years ago I was climbing in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru.  One of my partners was having difficulty with the high altitude, so we hired Jose, a porter, to carry her backpack higher up the mountain.  As we wound our way up the mountain trail the porter and I got out ahead of everyone else.  With little else to do but suffer together we started talking.  He told me about his life.  His wife and kid.  He was still a kid, but he started young.

Carrying loads for foreigners like me paid good money.  He didn’t mind the physical toil even though it took him away from family for months on end.  He was providing for his child, so he was happy.  What he really wanted to do was to be a mountain guide.  Guides get paid the best money.  If he could be a guide then it would change his life.  Plus, he would actually get to climb to the summit, not just haul loads back and forth to the basecamps.

I asked him, in my broken Spanish, what does it take to be a guide?  In my country, if you really want something you can do it.  You just make a choice.  He said he would love to but he did not have a proper harness, and without a harness it was impossible for him to do it.

It was as simple as that.  It was acceptable to him.  There were no REI’s in the Peruvian mountainside.  No REI’s in Lima either.  It was not a choice he had.  Yet, to have that choice would mean everything in the world.

Our climbing party brought an extra harness on this trip.  On the last day, climbing down to basecamp we found the harness and searched for Jose.  We could not find him.  So we gave the harness to his friend and told him to pass it on to Jose.

I imagined the look on his face when he received the harness.  I sometimes think about Jose high up in the mountains, providing for his family and climbing to the top of the many beautiful mountains in his country.  The summit shouldn’t be a place only for the people who can afford it.

Choice is very powerful.  We can never truly understand the magnitude of it living in a country of abundance.  We underestimate it.  We have so many options that we can’t even choose one.  Imagine if you could provide just one choice to a person who has lived life with very few.

We climbed some beautiful mountains, but the most important thing I did that trip was to provide access to a new life.