If you go to Condor Valley and take in the view from La Bodega, the most dominating landscape feature you will see is the dark and jagged ridge of rock called Mount Creston. At 10,300 feet it is the highest peak around and stands out against the skyline dark and ominous as a funeral procession. It was on this magnetic mountain that I spent three weeks with Gustavo Maras searching for the elusive and endangered taruka (see taruka project summary and expedition timeline). To reach Mt Creston requires at least eight hours on horseback through thorny shrubs and cactus, up impossibly steep slopes and rocky trails. Upon approaching Creston, the mountain with its halo of condors appears ever more imposing. The last kilometer to the summit must be reached on foot as the route becomes even steeper and requires scrambling on sloping rock faces. Two hundred meters below the summit is a spring and la Cueva Chocovar, a large overhanging wall of rock that forms a protected cave large enough to sleep in. This cave became our high-altitude field station, and from there we would take day trips spotting for taruka, and getting to know the every cliff, crevasse, and condor of Creston.
The word traicionero translates to English as treacherous, which is an appropriate enough adjective for Creston; but when it is quietly intoned by a gaucho “traicionero, el Creston,” there rings something more profound in the term. Traicionero describes the animistic caprice of the mountain; the mystical power a dramatic landscape possesses. The features of Creston seem to be mutable, and when the mountain is wreathed in shifting mists, familiar landmarks become unrecognizable. Knowing full well where we were, we often found ourselves lost on Creston.
The south side of the peak is massive gendarme that stands entirely separate from the rest of the ridge and makes any approach from the south or east extremely difficult. So the best route from our cave on the north side of Creston to the south ridge is across the highly dissected west face. This route was peculiarly challenging and was never the same twice. We would descend into one of the many deep and nearly identical canyons and inevitably become disoriented. Upon climbing out of the canyon—which often required actual rock climbing, or at best vertical bunch-grass climbing—we would find ourselves on a different path. Unable or unwilling to back track, we would be once again be in the hands of Creston. Now the path gets more difficult; requires more risks; tempts us to try a dangerous leap; leads us up a cliff only to strand us on a ledge; at times we wondered with condors circling if Creston was trying to kill us. Creston, however, could just as well surprise us with beauty and generosity. Out of water, parched, hot, and tired we stopped to rest in the shade of a canyon. In the solemn silence we heard a faint trickle of water, and by following it we discovered a tranquil cool spring in the hollow under large boulders. Near the end of another day we were moving fast to get back to the cave before dark but we had lost the route we were on. Exhausted and frustrated we had reached a slot canyon that seemed impassable. Just when we thought we would have to back track a long steep route, we noticed a queñoa tree growing out of the vertical side of the canyon with its limbs spread in a bridge across the ravine.
We spent our days on Creston watching hummingbirds visit flowering agave; falcons mate by tumbling in free fall; green parrots chase the alpine-glow down to the darkening valley; and always the condors of Creston were watching us. At times Creston was all there was; the rest of the world below a sea of clouds. Some afternoons the mountain would be veiled in thick fog and we would spend hours in the cave waiting for the visibility to improve. During our weeks on Creston we not so much explored the mountain, as carefully observed while the mountain revealed itself to us.