In the haunts of this city where climbers gather over plates of grilled llama and bottles of Paceña beer to swap tales of mountaineering derring-do, they feign boredom when talk turns to the 19,974-foot-high Huayna Potosí, a jagged Andean peak that looms over La Paz.
“A training climb,” scoffs Julio Choque Alaña, 32, who guides foreigners up the mountains of Bolivia, which boasts peaks higher than the Alps and the Rockies.
But such bravado fades when talk shifts to what climbers are discovering on Huayna Potosí’s glacier: crumpled fuselage, decades-old pieces of wings and propellers, and, in November, the frozen body of Rafael Benjamín Pabón, a 27-year-old pilot whose Douglas DC-6 crashed into the mountain’s north face in 1990.
“When I found the pilot, he was still strapped into his seat, crunched over like he was sleeping, some black hair falling from his skull,” said Eulalio González, 49, the climber who carried Mr. Pabón’s mummified body down the mountain. “There are more ice mummies in the peaks above us,” he said. “Melting glaciers will bring them to us.”
The discovery of Mr. Pabón’s partially preserved remains was one of a growing number of finds pulled from the world’s glaciers and snow fields in recent years as warmer temperatures cause the ice and snow to melt, exposing their long-held secrets. The bodies that have emerged were mummified naturally, with extreme cold and dry air performing the work that resins and oils did for ancient Egyptians and other cultures.
Up and down the spine of the Andes, long plagued by airplane crashes and climbing mishaps, the discoveries are helping to solve decades-old mysteries.
In one such find, in the late ’90s, climbers on Mount Tupungato in Argentina discovered parts the wreckage of the Star Dust, a fabled British aircraft rumored to have disappeared in 1947 with a cargo of gold.
The climbers found no treasure at the crash site of the Avro Lancastrian plane flown by British South American Airways. But they did discover a preserved torso and a hand with pointed, manicured fingernails, an eerie fashion relic of 1940s London that served as testament to the fate of the plane’s passengers and crew.
Scientists say the retreat of the ice is an unexpected boon for those yearning to peer back in time.
“It looks like the warming trend seen in many regions is continuing,” said Gerald Holdsworth, a glaciologist at the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, Alberta. “There are still some large snowbanks left in promising places, and many glaciers of all different shapes, orientations and sizes, so the finds could go on for a long time yet.”
Some discoveries are personal, allowing families closure after years of mourning loved ones who appeared to have vanished. Others have added alluring clues into the history of human migration, diet, health and ethnic origins, said María Victoria Monsalve, a pathologist at the University of British Columbia who studies ice mummies.
She said some of the most valuable discoveries in recent years include three Inca child mummies found on the summit of Mount Llullaillaco in northern Argentina and a 550-year-old iceman discovered by sheep hunters in northern British Columbia.
Younger mummies can also add to the historical record. In 2004, three well-preserved soldiers were found in a scene of high-altitude fighting from World War I in the Italian Alps. And in 2006, a military lab in Hawaii pieced together the story of a World War II airman found on Darwin Glacier in California. Identified as Leo M. Mustonen, he was buried in his hometown, Brainerd, Minn.
Even Mr. Holdsworth, who as a glaciologist is generally more interested in the ice itself, has been closely monitoring the Malaspina Glacier in southeastern Alaska, in part because he says he believes that it holds a plane that crashed near the Yukon border in 1951.
For the family of Rafael Pabón, the pilot found high in the Andes in November, the discovery was a relief of sorts. For two decades, his mother, Yolanda Galindo de Pabón, 69, had been tortured by thoughts of what had happened to him. She said she nurtured a theory that he might be wandering Bolivia’s provinces as a result of an accident. She wondered whether his plane could have been hijacked and flown across the border into Brazil.
The discovery of his body — still clad in the same white shirt and gray pants he wore when he lifted off with a cargo of beef carcasses from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands on Oct. 19, 1990 — at least put an end to the doubts.
“It took me a very long time to acknowledge he might be dead,” Ms. Pabón said. “Now we have a body. I can visit my son at his burial site and grieve like any mother has a right to do.”
The frozen corpse of Mr. Pabón’s co-pilot was discovered on Huayna Potosí in 1997. The cargo plane’s only other crew member, a mechanic named Walter Flores, has not been found.
Climbers here say they expect to find more remains as the country’s glaciers, like Chacaltaya — once said to be the site of the world’s highest ski resort — retreat. They speak with a certain reverence of glaciers guarding plane wrecks stretching back decades, including a Hercules military cargo plane from the 1970s and smaller planes that crashed into mountains after encountering storms and poor visibility.
In at least one case, the mystery is unfolding in chapters, as layers of ice slowly reveal an old tragedy.
In 2006, a climbing team on Mount Illimani, Bolivia’s second-highest peak, rediscovered the wreckage of a Boeing 727 operated by Eastern Air Lines that crashed into the mountain shortly after takeoff on Jan. 1, 1985, killing all 29 people aboard.
No bodies were found at the time of the crash or during the 2006 ascent. But Roberto Gómez, 28, a climber who retrieved part of the Boeing’s fuselage, said it was only a matter of time before they surface as the glacier on Illimani melts. He has already found photographs, children’s clothing and, strangely, what seemed to be crocodile hides from the cargo hold at the crash site.
“The bodies and the black box are still somewhere in the ice,” he said.
On another ascent, he found what he believes are the remains of a dead Austrian climber: a preserved foot still clad in a Salewa hiking boot.
Aware of the fate which has often met those who dare challenge Bolivia’s peaks, some climbing guides here respectfully refer to the mountains as “achachila,” a word from the indigenous Aymara language that roughly translates as “earth spirit” or “uncle.” Before each ascent, they make offerings of coca leaves to the peaks they depend on for their livelihood.
“The uncles guard many secrets,” said Mr. González, who found the body of Mr. Pabón, “just like the graveyards in their shadow.”
Romero, Simon. 2011. "Melting in Andes Reveals Remains and Wreckage". New York Times. Posted: January 15, 2011. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/world/americas/16bolivia.html?_r=1