A Walk in the Andes

Continued from Railway in the Sky

The G&Q Railway in Riobamba
The G&Q Railway in Riobamba

When we arrived at Riobamba, the effects of altitude hit us as we stepped down from the train. The slightest exertion made us feel weak and unsteady. Obviously, we were in no condition to embark on a mountain trek. Carlos merely nodded, and made the necessary arrangements.

We rested two days in a primitive hotel, drinking cocoa tea to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. On the third day Carlos returned with three stout campesinos, each leading a comical, long-necked pack animal. Two of the animals were loaded with supplies, and the third was harnessed to carry our gear. By this time our heads were beginning to clear.

The first week passed without incident, as we wound our way through alpine fields and across mountain slopes. Our heading was South and then East, deeper into the Andes. We hiked in single file, with Carlos in front and the campesinos and pack animals behind. The scenery was spectacular; I’d seen nothing like it, except once on vacation in Austria as a boy.

We traveled further each day as our bodies grew accustomed to the altitude. After about 10 days the headaches became infrequent, and we started to truly enjoy the journey. Carlos proved to be an experienced mountain guide, and taught us to deal with the uncertainty of high mountain weather. The nights were quite cold, and we often found ourselves huddled together in sleep.

On the Andean slopes today
On the Andean slopes today

Carlos spoke English with us, and in a rapid, local dialect with the campesinos. Otto, Pavel and I used English for the most part, although Otto insisted that we switch to Czech from time to time.

There was ample opportunity to share stories of our war-time experiences. Some of Otto’s tales were quite fantastic, and I doubted there was much truth in them. I thought he was spinning a yarn to rival my accounts of aerial combat over the Channel. Of course, I discovered later that at least some of his story was true. In fact, I still have the evidence.

Otto was an expert machinist, and during the Occupation he was forced to work in a guarded military compound. He claimed it was a secret weapons lab, in a factory near Prague. The SS officer in charge was named Kammler.

Otto built several mechanical and structural components for a small, disc-shaped aircraft. The design had no wings and no wheels, and there was no obvious means of propulsion. This was in April of 1945, as Allied forces were steadily re-taking territory in central Europe. As the war dragged on towards its inevitable conclusion, the intensity of work at Otto’s lab increased. He described it as a last desperate attempt to complete a new weapon.

Finally one night, there was a sudden commotion of men shouting and running in all directions. Before he even knew what was happening, Otto was taken at gunpoint to accompany an officer who fled the compound. The officer carried a black leather pouch with technical drawings, while Otto hurried along with a heavy equipment case. A car was waiting for them at the gate, and the sound of heavy guns nearby punctuated the darkness.

Otto and his captors drove for hours, stopping once to refuel from gasoline cans that had been hastily loaded in back. One of the cans had leaked, and the rear of the car smelled so bad that Otto feared they would all perish in a fiery explosion. But luck was with them, and they traveled much further before taking shelter in a deserted farmhouse.

As soon as they had eaten what little food there was, the officer motioned Otto to the ground, gesturing with an automatic pistol. For a moment Otto feared for his life. He was told to lie absolutely still, and to sleep if possible. Heavy fatigue was upon them, and they would rest for a few hours. Although weary from stress and travel, Otto forced himself awake, while acting as if collapsing into a deep sleep.

The minutes dragged by, and Otto waited. At last the officer began to snore, and Otto leaped for the pistol. There was a struggle, but he ended up with the gun and the officer was left unconscious, or worse. Without firing a shot, Otto disarmed the driver and chased him off. Otto gathered a few useful items from the cottage, started the car and drove away alone, hoping to reach Allied forces before running out of fuel or driving into a battlefield.

Otto reached the American lines without difficulty. In a newly liberated town, he traded the car for a stay of several months in a public house. Some time after, Otto approached the commanding officer at the Army checkpoint nearby. He explained about the weapons lab, his flight, the drawings and equipment. The checkpoint officer was not impressed, but did finally send a dispatch. After several days, an intelligence officer arrived to hear Otto’s story. The interview lasted three hours. Eventually Otto sold the drawings and equipment to the Americans for a substantial sum.

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I was quite skeptical of Otto’s tale, and told him so. But he defended his account, and insisted that he would show us proof when we returned to Zurich. I began to wonder if there was some connection between his strange tale and the curious circumstances of our own journey. Indeed, the expedition itself was evidence that Otto had access to remarkable funds and resources.

At last we crossed over the highest mountain pass and into Peru. Carlos led us to a narrow, sloping valley where we camped for several days. It was a relief to finally have a respite from the arduous hiking and climbing since leaving Riobamba.

Otto set up his telescope and other equipment on a rock ledge, facing a magnificent view of the green lands below. In the thin air we rested and passed the time, while Otto studied his instruments. He made copious notes and sketches in a soft, leather-bound journal. Oddly, he made more observations during daylight hours than at night. At last we broke camp and began our descent into the interior.

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