Up until the incident it was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Yungay. Most of the town’s 22,000 people were at home listening to the first game of the World Cup on the radio, while some 300 children had packed the local stadium to watch the circus. The 45-second quake was likely frightening, but the thunderous noise from the ensuing slide must have been horrifying. The wall of ice, mud, and rock arrived just minutes later, burying everything in its path. The only survivors were the 92 visitors at the elevated cemetery and the 300 children, who were at the stadium and outside of the avalanche’s path. 300 instantly orphaned children emerged from the disaster only to see miles of unsettled debris in their former town. Their families and homes were now buried some 20 feet below. Many survivors were trapped in mud, and earthquake damage prevented any outside help for several days to come.
A quick visit to present-day Yungay, and you might not even realize that such a tragedy took place here. But probe around a bit, and you will soon realize that this town and surrounding communities still feel the effects of the avalanche of 40 years ago. I met many of the surviving “children” who lost everything, some of them willing to share stories, others understandably standoffish. My tour guide in the old town, a 15-year old historian, who was full of facts passed down from him, was giving tours because his surviving mother, could bear to share the first-hand stories herself. While New Yungay has moved a few kilometers out of view of Huascaran, they still live and work in the avalanche’s path, and I wonder how she sleeps at night.
A visit to where Yungay used to be is an eerie experience, as you are walking above an accidental graveyard, with the most stunning views of scary Huascaran above. Few structures survived, but you can still see the remnants of a bus, the edges of the church which traveled 100 meters, and four sturdy palm trees, which instantly lost 20 feet of stature. Travel back to New Yungay, just a few kilometers away, but protected by an intervening mountain ridge, and you will find a pleasant town that exists just as any other in the High Andes.