Adventures In Peru – Working On the Chain Gang

For some time there have been plans to start a Christian radio station here in Cotahuasi. It took ages for the license to be approved but we finally have it. There is an unused tower up on the rim of the high plain, that belongs to some government agency. After of couple of years of trying to get permission to either rent or buy the tower, all of the positive promises turned to nothing, so the plan is now to build our own tower. Ironically it will be right along side of the unused one. Claro (cell phone service provider) has recently built a tower for their cell phone antenna, which is about ¼ mile away. Currently there isn’t any electricity up there, but they are working on that. As I understand it, the plan is to share the cost with Claro, and when they get the power line finished, we will have electricity.

Last Sunday in church, Fredy asked me if I would be able to help him and some of the other brothers who were going up there on Wednesday. I understood that they were going to gather rocks to use for the foundation of the radio equipment building, that will be at the base of the tower. I wasn’t sure what exactly would be involved but agreed to go and help, as well as provide transportation up there in my van. As we were loading the six of us and tools into the van, I soon found out that this was going to be a rock breaking expedition. The large pry bars and 18-pound sledge hammers were a clear confirmation of that. At least it gave me a great high-altitude workout to help prepare for my upcoming mountain guiding next month.

They loaded one other thing that didn’t have anything to do with breaking rocks. They said that the last time they were up there they saw four deer, so this time they were taking a gun along. On the switchbacks up to the rim, one of them shouted out that he thought he saw a deer. They all jumped out and Santiago grabbed the rifle. I couldn’t see the whole gun but saw him getting small pieces of cloth and then he stuffed them down the barrel – it was an ancient muzzle loader! We never saw the “deer” again but did see some cows and burros in the brush. I’m glad they didn’t fire that relic anywhere near me, I was afraid it might explode.

One of my summer jobs during college in Hawaii was with a masonry construction company. The company did everything from single family homes in subdivisions to large multi-story apartments and hotels. One of my favorite jobs was when I was helping a crew building a retaining wall out of large rocks. To get a flat face for the wall, the rocks had to be split in half. We would drill a hole in the middle of the rock with a pneumatic hammer/drill and then drive a splitting wedge in there and the rock would crack in half. We also used sledge hammers to break some of the smaller ones. As a 25-year old it was fun to see who could break the rocks with the least number of hits and with a nice even split.

As I learned last year on my PCT hike, I am not 25 anymore. Those heavy sledge hammers don’t swing as easily as they used to. I tried a 12-pound sledge but that just bounced off the rocks like a toy. Part of the problem is that they were all lava rock, most of which were quite porous, like petrified sponges. We also didn’t have an air compressor and a pneumatic drill. The next to the last nail in my coffin was the fact that we were working at an elevation of 13,630 feet! Needless to say, I spent more time carrying the broken rocks over to the road rather than breaking them.

I was able to get in four or five good swings before I was gasping for breath and had to take a break. I also learned that all rocks are not created equal. Some of them were much less porous and were a lot easier to break. Also the thinner flat ones were fairly easy to break. The hardest ones were the large thick ones, that were usually the most porous as well. I left those for the young ones.

Except that the best rock breaker wasn’t one of the younger ones. Santiago is about 45, probably about 5’3″ and solid muscle. I enjoyed watching him teach a few weeks ago when we went to San Sebastian; he showed another of his many talents yesterday. He would pick a rock about two or three feet in diameter and study it, rolling it over and looking at all sides. They came in all shapes, with dips, knobs and flat spots. I know enough to look for cracks and faults, which makes it easier to break the rock, but these rocks didn’t have them. I don’t know how he did it but he would break up a rock in about half of the hits of anyone else. And he rarely took a break like the rest of us. He would just keep on slicing off chunks until it was all usable pieces. We had two large sledge hammers, and I think he was using one of them for about ¾ of the day. The rest of us took turns using the other one, and his when he wasn’t using it. His hands were a bit chewed up by the end of the day, but no blisters.

There is a great lesson to be learned from breaking rocks. A easy small rock might break in just one or two well placed hits. The larger ones are a different story. You might hit it five or ten times and it doesn’t look like you are making any progress and you are ready to give up (or at least take a break or two). Then on the next hit the rock will split, as if by magic. But each one of those previous hits was needed to reach the point where the rock would break. Of course consistency is a key, you need to hit the same place or the same line, each time to make it count. Rarely, a fine crack would appear to let you know the next hit would break the rock. Santiago could sometimes tell by the sound change that the rock was ready to split.

The lesson? Keep on keeping on, watch for signs of hidden progress, and don’t quit one hit before the victory.