Magazine article The Spectator

A Moral Dilemma Involving One's Mule Fracturing a Leg in the Andes

Magazine article The Spectator

A Moral Dilemma Involving One's Mule Fracturing a Leg in the Andes

Article excerpt

Guanay, Bolivia

Picture yourself at 15,000 feet in the Andes, looking out across the high plain of Bolivia, a distant volcano, Sajuma, catching the early morning sun on the frontier with Chile, 100 miles away. The landscape at your feet is a composition in yellows and browns, dry rock, bare earth, sun-burned grass and ice.

Far from standing on a mountain-top you are at its feet! The massif of Mount Illimani rises another 7,000 feet behind you, her glaciers still in shadow. An airborne plume of snow whipped from the high ridge is caught in the dawn light. The plume looks motionless, but you know that up there is a raging, freezing gale in the eye of the sun. You know this because this is the mountain you have just climbed.

Imagine our mood. We felt an exhausted exaltation. We had arrived back at this base camp, a small flat pasture below the snowline, the previous evening, having risen hours before dawn from a higher camp, clawed and crunched our way in the full moon to the summit with ropes and axes, then descended all the way to base where now we stood. We had slept in aching triumph.

Now we were to make our way down to the nearest road. South American Indian porters had arrived at sunrise from a village below to help carry tents and equipment. Breath steaming in the frozen air, they stamped sandalled feet and drank tea as their mule and donkeys grazed, unconcerned at the bustle of breaking camp.

Or, rather, the donkeys were unconcerned. The mule was a troublesome beast. Mules are valued by the Indians more highly than donkeys (some $400 for a mule, $100 for a donkey) because of their speed and strength, but a mule lacks an ass's mute forbearance. Ours had already been vexed by a snapping dog which followed the porters, and now - the dog having been chased away with stones - the mule still bridled. When bags were ready for loading, a woman covered its head in her brightly woven blanket, but this subdued without calming the beast. Still agitated, the mule was loaded with a heavy rucksack and two big kitchen hampers.

The mule was still. All seemed well. Then all at once came a surprise attack from the dog. He darted in, snarling and snapping. The mule threw off its blindfold and bolted. The creature showed surprising power, accelerating away down a gentle slope from our camp, the dog in hot pursuit and barking wildly. All of us - climbers and Indian porters - were left gaping as the mule and its tormentor tore away from us across the broken pasture. There was a sense of impending accident.

Suddenly the mule was down. A bag had slipped, legs had become tangled in the rope, and the beast had nosedived at great speed into a gully. Everyone ran towards the flailing bundle of animal, straps and barking dog. Concern was at first for our belongings and the dog was chased away, but the mule seemed unable to get up, ensnared, it seemed, in its slipped load, legs kicking.

The animal was calmed, the baggage disentangled and carried away for inspection. But still the mule seemed to be struggling to rise. I thought I saw one front leg flopping uselessly. When, finally, the beast was pulled to its feet, it was instantly clear what the problem was. The right front leg had been disabled by a compound fracture of the knee. The fracture was complete. Below the knee the leg dangled useless, apparently hanging by the tendon. You did not need to know much about animal fractures to see that this was beyond remedy. The mule was a goner. It began to graze, standing on three legs, apparently unperturbed as the fourth hung limply from the knee. …

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