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From almost anywhere in La Rinconada, you look up and you see her: La Bella Durmiente, Sleeping Beauty, an enormous glacier beetling above the town. We were standing at the precipice of a trail, known as the Second Compuerta, that tumbles into a narrow valley north of town. Yes, now I could see the feminine outline, a mile long, possibly two. It was magnificent. And when the snow melts, exposing more rock, I said, the glacier turns into a skinny old hag called Awicha.
Ilasaca gave me a look, slightly surprised, unimpressed. Really, I was just trying to buy time. I was out of breath, and the steep trail below us was full of miners, descending and ascending. I doubted my ability to join the traffic flow and keep up—down slippery rocks, through icy mud, between frozen piles of garbage.
But the gold mines I had said I wanted to see were all down this trail, in the valley between town and glacier. La Rinconada, population roughly fifty thousand, is a ramshackle pueblo clinging to a mountainside at the end of a long, bad road in southeastern Peru.
The town is seventeen thousand feet above sea level—the highest-elevation human settlement in the world. The next highest is in Tibet. Above it rises the Cordillera Apolobamba, an ice-capped Andean range that runs southeast into Bolivia.
The Incas mined gold in these mountains, as did many people before them, and the Spanish after them. Gold-bearing quartz veins— quijo, in Quechua—were first exposed by Pleistocene glaciation, and signs of ancient hard-rock gold mining have been revealed by the retreat of the glaciers. We had reached the bottom of the Compuerta, I was sucking wind, and he was indicating the south wall of the upper valley, which is now bare rock pierced by mine shafts and pocked by slopes of scree.