Shared Territory: Auzangate (film)
Auzangate is the latest film in the Shared Territory series, following Justin Balog, Remi McManus, and a their guides along a harrowing route conceived to circumnavigate one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes. Watch the film here alongside an interview with the director and an excellent set of photos from Ian Matteson…
Photos by Ian Matteson (@analogstrikesback)
Among the many mountains in the Andes, Auzengate is one that stands out and beckons to many travelers passing through. At 20,945 feet (6,384 meters) it’s Peru’s fifth highest mountain and one of the best known peaks in the Andes. To the Indigenous pastoral society that calls the mountain home, and the Peruvians who live in the nearby city Cuzco, it’s “the guardian, the giver of life, the Apu of not only Cusco but all the communities that live in its shadow.”
Continuing their goal of connecting with others—and better understanding people and places through shared experience—Shared Territory’s Justin Balog and Remi McManus set out on an expedition to Auzengate with a team of Peruvians. Led by a local fortune teller, they circumnavigated the mountain to document the natural and cultural highlights they encountered along the way. As you’ll see, Auzengate had a different plan for them. Watch the film below, then scroll down for an interview with director Justin Balog.
It wasn’t about any specific route, it was about all of us, strangers up to this point, coming together and experiencing the best of humanity.
This is the third project from Shared Territory. How has your process evolved in both filmmaking and project conception?
From a conceptual evolution standpoint, not much has changed. The goal is, and always has been, to connect with others and share their perspective with the hope of promoting an understanding across the human experience. There really is no better way to do that than on the bike. You can cover a great distance, but more importantly, you retain the same intimacy with the world you would have had if you walked. That being said, we’ve tried to adjust our routes so we have more time to connect with people and experience the landscape. In Iceland, we were doing like 100 kilometers a day, which is great if you don’t care about anything other than pedaling. Now, we feel like 25 miles a day is the magic number.
The most evolution we are experiencing is in the post-production processes. We’re always evolving as filmmakers. It’s been incredible to have folks reach out to us and want to be part of the team. We’re now able to tell a much richer story because of the talents that believe in our message and want to be part of it. That process has become more and more refined. We have wonderful sound designers, composers, animators, and colorists who have joined forces with Shared Territory, and the future is very bright! We are very stoked and thankful to everyone. Shout out to Zach Voss, Guy Hand, Austin Mendenhall, Brian De-Herrera Schnering, Nick Couts, and Marcin Biegunajtys for all their efforts.
What drew you to Peru for this project and how did you decide on Auzangate as a destination?
It’s a small world. The main reason we ended up in Peru was because Manuel, who watched our first film from Iceland, reached out to us and invited us to Peru to circumnavigate Auzangate with him. The Apus call to you, and they are incredible mountains to witness firsthand, but this film was our first chance to actually join someone local. If Shared Territory is about connection, we couldn’t imagine a better way.
How did this film and project evolve as the trip and route unfolded?
Our goal was to experience firsthand one of the last pastoral societies in the world, and apparently, Auzangate was onboard with that idea. Without such rugged terrain and the threat the weather presented us, I don’t know if we would have had the same experience. The night that Florencio and Nancy took us in will always be a moment I’ll revisit as a karmic reminder to be a good human. That was very special. It seemed like the mountain itself wanted us to connect with others. Auzangate forced our hand.
It sounds like your route involved more hiking than biking. Was this a surprise? In the end, was Peter’s BMX bike the right choice?
Yes and no. We didn’t even really know the exact route until the night before. We were all at Ponchito’s farm, gathered around a big-screen TV looking at Google Earth, as Ponchito tried to explain the route to us. We were kind of flying blind. We just knew we were trying to visit all the lagoons that surrounded Auzangate and connect with as many villages as possible.
And yes, BMX is probably the right answer for most things! Peter is LEGEND.
Aside from what was documented, were there any other surprises about the riding or terrain along the route?
The biggest surprise—and I’m surprised it was a surprise—is just how absolutely incredible Auzangate is. It really is something to behold. I’m from Colorado, surrounded by big mountains, but there’s just something to Auzangate.
Did either you or Remi have any issues with the altitude? And how did you prepare for it in advance?
Thankfully no. Remi will tell you that one night he had some crazy dreams and thought he was worried he might need to abandon, but the next morning he was fine. The only thing that’s unique about that altitude is just how much everything slows down. It’s crazy. You just sloowwww doowwnnn. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Auzangate has a famous trekking route, and of course Cass’ Ruta de las Tres Cordilleras forms a loop around the mountain. Do you think this has had a positive impact on the area, infrastructure or otherwise?
It is definitely a famous trekking route. And apparently the route Ponchito put together intersected and shared points of the trekking route. I can’t really speak to the impact, because when we were there, we didn’t really see anyone else. We felt super remote. Outside of an occasional shepherd and Russian Oligarch on the first day, we didn’t see anyone at the higher altitudes.
What was going through your mind on the final summit push with a storm closing in?
I had several recurring thoughts. 1) Guys, you think we’re going to die? Like, can we survive another major storm at 17,000 feet? 2) My wife didn’t sign up for this. She definitely didn’t sign up for me dying from exposure on the side of the mountain. Even if it was a really great mountain. 3) Where did this dog come from? And where is it leading me? 4) Ancestors. I thought a lot about my ancestors. 5) Where the hell are Ponchito, Pedro, Manuel, and Peter? We need to regroup and ensure everyone is safe before we push on. 6) Fuck, I should be filming! But I can’t feel my hands. I can’t breathe. It’s cold. It’s starting to snow. I can’t stop, we need to get over the saddle. But I should be filming! Survival won that battle, and I missed the final miles in the darkness and snow.
You spent a lot of time with your expedition partners, the family you shared a meal and music with, and many other people local to this place. Looking back, other than what’s shared in the film, what moments and shared experiences/ideas are the most meaningful?
Wow, that is a tough one. Every single person in this film has a rich backstory and beautiful history. Fidelus’ grandmother, who repeats the Apus prayer in the film, is 90 years young and of Inca descent. Fidelus herself is a force of nature. She’s filled with passion and knowledge. Although we didn’t film it out of respect to the shamans, we participated in an ancient ceremony prior to our expedition that took our emotions to new places. Pieter is an absolute legend. He’s a geologist who was home on vacation and decided to join us a the last minute. That’s baller! When he wasn’t riding, he was at camp reading books on Emotional Intelligence. Just a super cool dude, who loved learning english. The craziest thing I’ve ever seen is Ponchito, in a soccer jersey and shorts, with his boots untied running down the mountain in a snow storm to try and find Pieter and Manuel. I mean, just legends!
Are there any resources or recommendations you’d suggest for others traveling by bike in this region of Peru?
We just started to scratch the surface. There are so many roads connecting small villages filled with generous people. I’d love to go back and just ride, connect, and learn. This film wouldn’t have been possible without the voices in it. So, if you find yourself planning to visit Peru, please connect with Manuel, Fidelus, and Ponchito. They are all incredible resources and wonderful humans. Not only did they help with the depth of this story, but they are also some of the greatest folks I’ve spent time with. They will take your journey in Peru to new heights.
Is there a fourth project in the works from Shared Territory, or any others beyond that?
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