I went blind on my first assignment for National Geographic

I went blind on my first National Geographic Magazine assignment.

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A climber at 20,000 feet on Mt Ampato, Peru with Mt Sabancaya erupting a cloud of ash in the background.

I am definitely blind in my left eye ...I shoot with my right eye ...what could possibly go wrong?

The story was about high-altitude archaeology in Peru.

A National Geographic sponsored archaeologist had discovered the uncovered remains of a 500-year-old Incan sacrifice at the top of Mt Ampato in Southern Peru. The body was still frozen but laying in the open along with artifacts that had been interred with her. He collected the body and artifacts from the surface and took them back to the Catholic University in Arequipa.

The reason “Juanita” -as the mummy would come to be known- was uncovered is that nearby Mt Sabancaya Volcano was erupting. The eruption’s dark ash falling on Ampato’s glaciers made them absorb more heat from the sun. The glaciers melted quickly. Areas on Ampato that were normally covered by ice and snow were suddenly bare.

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The excavation at 19,000 feet site clear of snow for the first time in 500 years.

For the first time in 500 years evidence of what the Inca had done on Mt Ampato was visible. Andean cultures in general revered their mountains. As the Inca pressed their empire southward from Cusco part of their practice of spiritual domination was to perform human sacrifice (capacocha) at the summit of principal peaks. Ampato is one of the dominant peaks above the Colca Canyon.

After securing "Juanita" and her artifacts at a museum in Areqipa, the scientist’s plan was to return to Mt Ampato with a larger expedition and investigate sacrifice sites on the route to the summit. National Geographic Magazine sent me to cover the expedition.

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Expedition supplies on their way to base camp at 16,000 feet.

Mt Ampato is high, 21,000 feet high. At that altitude there is roughly half the oxygen that is available at sea level. The scientist was in a hurry. He wanted to return to Ampato before word of the discovery came out and others reached the sites before him. The Inca often interned sacrifices with valuable textiles and figurines. Grave goods like those could fetch astronomical prices in the private market.

The scientist had been climbing in the Andes for more than a month and was well acclimated to the altitude. On the other hand, I rushed from near sea level to 19,000 feet in a matter of days. Going that high that fast is a physiological nightmare. Even though my body deals well with altitude, that was too high too quickly for me.

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By the time we got to our work camp at 19,000 feet my left eye had started going dark. The next day I distinctly remember lying in my tent passing my hand in front of my face to confirm that I couldn’t see out of my left eye.

A blood vessel inside my eyeball was leaking into the space in between the lens and retina. What started as a spot of dark vision spread as more blood filled the space.

My thought process was something like this:

"Yep, I am definitely blind in my left eye."

"If I tell anyone about this, they will make me go down off this mountain and I will never work for National Geographic again."

"I shoot with my right eye."

"So what could possibly go wrong?"

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The excavation site at 19,000 feet on Mt Ampato.

Not the safest decision but it shows both how much I desperately wanted to work for “The Magazine” and how demanding a place it was. At the time I was the youngest photographer National Geographic had hired in years. Had I not performed I was certain they would replace me. The scientist told me directly that he felt the same way.

It was a lot of pressure. My way of dealing with it was to tough it out. Honestly, I didn’t realize it was that serious. My eye eventually cleared as most of the blood was reabsorbed into my body. 2 weeks later when the expedition was safely back in Arequipa, I mentioned the issue to David Breshears who was shooting a film about the find. David made the Imax Everest movie and had thousands of hours at altitude. I remember him saying, “you know those things can kill you.”

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Mt Ampato's summit ridge at 21,000 feet

I didn’t die, and the story went on to be very successful. “Juanita, the Peruvian Ice Maiden” became an international sensation. She was displayed at National Geographic headquarters in Washington. The President commented about her, the First Lady paid a visit. There was a line around the block to see her. Time Magazine named her one of the year’s top ten discoveries.

It was a very high-profile way to start my career. However, I have always had certain misgivings about the assignment.

It was a long time ago (1995). Today I wouldn't accept an assignment like that. Not because of the physical difficulty but because of the subject. The story centered around the body of a 15-year-old girl sacrificed at the top of a mountain.

At the time we all assumed she had died of exposure in the thin mountain air. I thought she had sort of gone to sleep. Later x-rays showed she had been violently murdered with a sharp blows to her head. That changed a lot about how I felt.

I was not offered, and I did not pursue the follow up stories that National Geographic did about Andean sacrifices. I had moved on to a long series of stories about the underground world and physical exploration.

As the years have passed, I am increasingly uncomfortable with archaeological projects that dig up the dead. “Juanita” was, after all, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. Wasn’t it disrespectful of us to treat her as an object rather than a person?

Admittedly we did not dig her up. The summit ridge collapsed. She tumbled out of her grave. If the archaeologist and his climbing companion had not picked her up someone else might have. But there were other bodies the expedition did excavate. Even 500 years later, those people certainly have living relatives in Peru. How would I feel about someone going to my great grandfather’s village of Bercio in Spain and digging up my relatives? Not so good.

There is a reckoning going on in archaeology. A recognition that many museum collections are grave goods, things buried with the dead for spiritual reasons. It seems disrespectful to display the objects much less the bodies. Entire collections are being returned to the people that they were taken from.

My reckoning with the story is complicated. Like I said, I wouldn't take that assignment today. I no longer show images of any of the human remains I have photographed. But if the archaeologist had not taken the “Peruvian Ice Maiden” and her companions back to Arequipa what would have happened to those Andean sacrifices? Would they have been looted? Would the bodies have been discarded and the objects spirited off to private collections? We can't know for sure but, I can’t imagine a more disrespectful fate than that.

And my eye? 90% recovered. There is still stuff floating around in there. I see it anytime I stare into space. It’s a reminder of the first assignment for National Geographic.

Stephen Alvarez

March, 2024

Climber near Mount Ampato