From a mountain pass 15,000 feet in elevation, I gazed upon Artesonraju, the pyramid-shaped mountain that inspired the live-action Paramount Pictures logo. Before anyone calls bullshit on the logo claim, know that it wasn’t shit from a bull that made this four-day trek a real sidestepping adventure.
Several months earlier, I uncovered a spot in Peru I missed on previous treks through the Andean nation. The 2010 Lonely Planet guide described the Cordillera Blanca as “some of the prettiest mountains in the world,” National Geographic listed it among the world’s 20 best hikes and besthike.com said it “just might offer the best alpine hiking in the world.” Huascarán National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, makes up most of the “white mountain range.”
And then there was this: Legend has it Artesonraju inspired a doodle by William Wadsworth Hodkinson in 1914 that became the Paramount Pictures mountain logo, which remains the oldest surviving studio logo. I had to go.
I arrived in Lima, Peru, in August, one month before the hiking season ended, and took an eight-hour ride to Huaraz, a provincial capital at 10,000 feet on the western edge of the mountain range. I booked the popular Santa Cruz trek through Huascarán and then spent the next few days acclimating to the altitude and eating at Cafe Andino, an American-owned coffee shop that helps hikers with logistics and supplies. On day three, I met the rest of the hikers in a van that picked us up and drove several hours up narrow, winding roads to the trailhead. Our six-person group included three Australians, an Italian woman, an Israeli man and myself.
“Are you ready?” asked long-haired Leon, one of the Australians on the trek. The other Aussies were his girlfriend Sarah and their friend Steve.
“I’m tired as hell,” I replied having woken up before dawn for the pickup. “I am just glad we don’t have to carry our gear.”
On most South American treks, hikers can pay extra for a porter to carry their backpacks, but our guides had donkeys that carried the tents, cooking items, sleeping bags and everyone’s personal belongings. During the day, it was often warm enough to wear shorts, and we started the ascent shortly after meeting the guides and donkeys at the start of the trail.
The Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range outside Asia, and the concentrated collection of peaks includes 33 summits that exceed 18,000 feet in height. Huascarán Sur, the tallest of the Andean towers, tops 22,000 feet. For such a beautiful trek, it was a shame we couldn’t take our eyes off the pathways ahead.
“Careful Nevo,” I said to a fellow hiker who trailed the donkeys. He was walking and talking without focusing on the road.
“Oh, thanks,” Nevo replied, carefully stepping over the mound.
For the entirety of the trek, we had to watch for donkey droppings, both new and old, which have inspired online travel comments like the highest concentration of donkey shit and “it was quite hard to find a flat spot to pitch a tent which wasn’t covered by cattle’s shit.” Still, the situation soon got worse.
“There are no bathrooms on the trail, so just find a private place to squat and go,” said the tour guide. “We will give each one of you a roll of toilet paper.”
“Where do we put the toilet paper after we go?” I asked sheepishly.
“Put it under a rock once you use it,” the guide responded.
“Oh,” said Georgia, the Italian in the group.
“We head out early tomorrow morning,” the guide continued. “Tomorrow will be the most difficult day of trekking.”
I lucked into having my own tent, but I soon became jealous of the Canadian couple who could keep each other warm. In the wee hours, the temperatures nosedived, which made it all the more uncomfortable to find a private place. With a flashlight in one hand and toilet paper in the other, I made off for a patch of grass behind some rocks, and soon all I could see were feces and toilet paper for as far as the flashlight could illuminate. It seemed no matter where I walked, the grass had already been visited, and it would be the same situation in each of the nighttime campsites. When I arrived back to the tent, I left my shoes outside because it was hard to imagine I navigated the field unscathed.
The next morning, the guides served breakfast and hot coca tea. For the uninitiated, coca is an Andean plant that contains the alkaloid cocaine. The coke content is minimal, but the U.S. prohibits it simply due to the association. Coca-Cola, which takes its name from coca leaves and kola nuts, reportedly contained coca extract with cocaine through 1903, and it remains the only company in the U.S. allowed to use coca leaves today, albeit after purging the coke. That said, coca leaves help with energy, focus and altitude sickness, and our group took the opportunity to drink lots of coca tea.
After breakfast, our group headed out on the most difficult stretch of the trek. We walked uphill for five hours to Punta Unión, the highest point on the Santa Cruz trail at 4,750 meters. That’s 15,580 feet for American readers, which is more than 1,000 feet higher than the highest continental U.S. peak, Mount Whitney in the California Sierra Nevada. From this elevated perch, Punta Unión offered beautiful views of a gorgeous glacial lake, the Santa Cruz and Huaripampa Valleys and towering Andean peaks like Paria, Taulliraju, Chacraraju, Rinrijirca and the stunning Alpamayo.
“Excuse me,” I said to one of the guides. “I’m not sure I can pronounce the name, but which mountain is the one that might have inspired the Paramount logo?”
The guide gestured for me to follow, and after walking past some large rocks, he pointed to a peak across the valley. “That one,” he said.
“How do you say the name?”
“Paramount Mountain,” said the smiling guide, who had obviously been told to work the logo angle.
William Hodkinson, who co-founded Paramount Pictures in 1912, drew an early version of the mountain logo two years later. His exact inspiration, however, is up for debate. The 2001 book Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood claimed the logo depicted Pike’s Peak in Colorado, which “Hodkinson had seen at the turn of the century when he was working as a telegrapher in Pueblo.” Alternatively, the 1976 book Mountain of Dreams said, “The mountain [Hodkinson] doodled on the back of an envelope was a memory of childhood in his home state of Utah,” which would most likely be Ben Lomond in the Wasatch Mountains near his hometown. Others, however, suggest Ben Lomond was the original doodle, but Artesonraju is the mountain in the live-action logo, if not in both.
As I gazed upon Paramount Mountain and thought about the logo, I marveled at the similarities, but I concluded the two were not the same. There is no record of Hodkinson traveling to Peru or how he might have seen a photograph or painting of the peak. The inspiration more likely came from Pike’s Peak or Ben Lomond, two mountains he saw with his own eyes, or maybe Hodkinson did not have any specific mountain in mind at all when he sketched the original logo. Whatever the case, Artesonraju is a stunning Andean giant worthy of becoming a logo.
The second half of the Santa Cruz trek involved mostly descents and a relaxing view of Laguna Arhuaycocha at the foot of the Rinrijirca and Pucajirca mountains. On the final day, the trek was almost entirely downhill lasting less than four hours. By this point, my shoes definitely had become tainted, and I wanted to clean them. After breakfast that morning, I pulled out an old shirt I didn’t mind ditching and made my way to a nearby stream. I dipped the shirt in the water and used it to clean my shoes, after which I put the shirt back in the stream for a moment, wrung it out and deposited it in the camp trash bag.
Back in the van, I felt proud having hiked through the world’s highest tropical mountain range, but I also felt a slight sense of trauma. Memories of the breathtaking alpine sights were marred by the feces-related horror that had me watching every single step I took for weeks to come. Despite all the tour guide praise for the hike, it is no wonder bloggers gave the Santa Cruz trek names like the donkey poo trails and the trail of donkey turds.
Artesonraju may or may not be the studio logo, but the need for a park cleaning is clearly paramount.
Image: Richard Droker, CC-BY