Sunset on Licancabur

Epo #10 - November 19th

The High Lakes expedition is over. The team reluctantly dismantled Hotel Chillyfornia into boxes, packed our temporary home into the backs of pick-up trucks, rescued a couple of wayworn backpackers who fortunately (for them!) stumbled on us after their car got stuck in the sand, and then drove down to the land of hot showers and salsa. One minute the Altiplano was our home, and the cold and winds and dust were the defining elements of our lives; the next, we were sweating in the relatively balmy heat and sun of San Pedro.

There we spent a day relaxing and exploring the surrounding area, including a revisit to the Valley de la Luna. Then we spent a day traveling as tourists around Bolivia, scoping out the far side of the Andes and Altiplano. We drove past Licancabur and marveled at the neon blue lake at its base, which shifts color in the changing sunlight. Then we drove to the Sol de Manana, a grotesque, gurgling land of geyers - a landscape more repulsive and yet more riveting than perhaps any other I've ever seen. Through the sulfurous fog, our serene, solid planet was revealed as a live, liquid, pulsing thing, a thing oozing primordial muck through gaping pores like a bad case of Achaean acne. You can't help but be equally horrified and fascinated by such a vision, straight out of a science fiction novel. We continued on to Laguna Colorado, where Nathalie was ecstatic to be reunited with Maxima, who had been camp cook on previous expeditions. True to her reputation, Maxima whipped us up a massive meal out of thin air, and we feasted in a building beside a bright pink lake where flamingoes go to get their feathers dyed.

And now we leave this otherworldly land of the Altiplano, and we trade the thin air and wide open spaces of altitude for the oxygenated, crowded world below and beyond Chile. This has been one extraordinary adventure, and in closing all I can say is this: we came to the Andes seeking insight into the alien, but in the end, we find that the only aliens here are the lot of us. For the microorganisms, the llamas, the nandoos, the gatos andinos, and all the other creatures that call the Andes home, what we consider extreme is for them simply business as usual.

Until next time, I wish you happy trails and happy exploring,


Licancabur and Laguna Blanca.

Dusty Kate, desperately needing a cleaning only civilization can provide.

Geysers at Sol de Manana.

Epo #9 - November 15th: Strange Rumblings from the Deep

"I think gschhhhh Lascar gschhhh erup gssschhh!"

Seven of us - Macario, Wilder, Clemente, Nathalie, Clay, Ingrid and I - were just beneath the summit of Aguas Calientes, the nearly 6000-metre volcano whose crater lake we intended to sample and study on this expedition. We had been climbing up a steep scree staircase of fractured basalt and volcanic ash for the past four hours, the kind of slope that sends you sliding one step back for every two taken forward. We were woozy and weary, but in just a couple more minutes we would be at the lakeside, with a two-hour window to complete all our scientific and engineering tasks. Or so we thought.

Nathalie grabbed her radio. "Cristian, I did not copy. Please repeat."

This time Cristian came through loud if not exactly clear. "Gschhhh I think Lascar is erupting gschhhhhh!"

When you're on the lip of a volcano that's planted in a landscape pocked with dozens of other volcanoes, this is precisely the last thing in the world you want to hear. Lascar is Aguas Calientes' neighbor, though Siamese twin is a more accurate description. The two mountains share a mutual slope, but Lascar blew its top off years ago and has been fuming sullenly every since, making it the shorter, meaner dynamo of the duo. Every seven years or so Lascar erupts, spilling its igneous guts across the Altiplano. The last eruption was in 2006, and since day one of the expedition we've noted a constant cloud of vapor frowning over the volcano - not that this is unusual behavior for the surly volcano. In a place like Chile, particularly in the volcanic Andes, you have to gamble on geology being gentle.

Normally statistics are on our side, but today all safe bets were off. The porters - usually unflappable - glanced nervously at the fractured wall of breccia hanging above us and motioned us toward the open gully. Meanwhile Nathalie tried to pry more details from Cristian on the shaky state of Lascar. Through the static on our radios we gleaned words like, "earthquake", "rock avalanche", and "huge dark cloud." We scrambled up to the summit proper - the least vulnerable place for us on the volcano - and sure enough a bruised, malevolent cloud was rising on the opposite end of the summit crater. Whether dust or smoke, we couldn't tell, but it definitely didn't look friendly. After consulting with Cristian, who confirmed the plume was starting to dissipate, Nathalie said, "Ok guys, I think we have time for some quick science. Let's grab some lake samples, swap those dosimeters, and then we're getting the hell off this mountain!"

The Altiplano is a riot of jumbled rocks, piled haphazardly and poised to tumble at the slightest provocation - entropy postponed, but just barely. Volcanoes surge to sky in all directions, some slumbering more soundly than others. Scree covers the land in a soft and shifting skin, but like the slack scruff of the wildcats - gatto andinos - that roam the Altiplano, all that looseness paradoxically conceals muscles taut with an unreckoned power, tensioned somewhere between grace and violence. This landscape is a bad temper made topographic. And yet it is incredibly, terribly beautiful.

This, bizarrely, was what was going through my mind as we rushed off that volcano: how awesomely, unspeakably beautiful it all was. I didn't see my life flashing before my eyes, and I curiously didn't feel fear or panic about possible annihilation by eruption. Perhaps a certain fatalism had taken hold, but what I saw was a world infused with wonder; what I felt was adrenalin and intense, unadulterated awe. The lake at the top of Aguas Calientes was filled with water so implausibly ruby red that it resembled either a gem or a raw, crimson wound - I waver on which, but regardless it belonged in the realm of dreams, not reality. As we skied down scree during our fast-as-safely-possible descent, catching whiffs of rotten egg fumes on the way, the sun ignited the Altiplano beneath us, and in the strange slant of light the land burned like brittle straw beneath vast indigo skies. I couldn't swallow such immensities; when I tried, the world got stuck somewhere between my throat and my heart.

And there it lies lodged still. Needless to say (since I'm writing this), we made it down the volcano, and we all made it back to base camp, exhausted but exhilarated. There we heard the full story from our camp-based porters: A Richter scale 7.8 earthquake had rocked the coast of Chile just 150 kilometres away. The concrete walls of Hotel Chillyfornia had wobbled like wet noodles, Lascar had let out a sulfurous belch, and rockslides were triggered on all sides of Aguas Calientes except for the gully we happened to be climbing. In the end, we were miraculously, unbelievably lucky. Elsewhere others were not so fortunate: two people died in Tocopilla, hundreds more are injured, and buildings have been flattened in numerous towns throughout Chile. One of our porters, Hernan, is from Tocopilla and his parents' home is destroyed; fortunately, his family is safe and sound.

On a planet we love to cement with our certainties, this rude shaking of the South American continent reminds us how frail and fallible human constructs and truths and lives really are. But knowing this - living this - all we can do is keep on exploring this turbulent world, and try to see the beauty through the power, and the grace through the violence.

Safe and happy trails,

Quotes of the Day

"Lascar is erupting!"
-Cristian calling Nathalie on the radio from the base of Aguas Calientes

Whatever you had planned to do in 45 minutes, do it in 5!"
-Nathalie before bailing everybody out of the crater