Packing boats and dive suits for an expedition to explore the arid Altiplano and high volcanoes of the Andes might seem certifiably insane. The Speedo-clad European tourists lounging around Le Hosteria's pool last year certainly seemed to think so when the High Lakes dive team practiced their moves in the pool's shallow, chlorinated waters. Nathalie tells me that one German asked her, "Where are you planning to scuba dive around here?" She pointed at Licancabur, a dim but dominant volcano on the horizon, and said with a wild grin, "See that volcano over there?"
Insane, perhaps, but also irresistible: the lakes that loom startled and electric out of the smoke and ash backdrop of this volcanic world offer alluring opportunities for boat- and scuba-oriented science. Though no diving is planned for this year's expedition to the summit lake of Agua Calientes, yesterday Clay and Nathalie braved the brisk, briny waters of Laguna de Lejia in a tiny inflatable raft in order to collect bathymetric data. In a landscape that can only be described as oceanic, and on a lake that at its maximum dimensions spans two by two kilometers, the tiny vessel was reduced to the scale of a floating fleck of dust. Propelled by humanpower, a wimpering electric motor, and 40 km/hr tailwinds, Nath and Clay made a successful transect across the lake and emerged safe if salted on the other side, where we welcomed them with hot cocoa, hugs, and junk food.
Today the porters are hauling gear up to mid-camp on Aguas Calientes, and the rest of the team is packing gear, resting for the ascent, and collecting some more samples from local lakes. Tomorrow we climb up, up and away, and with any luck, in few days I'll report back on the view from the top.
Quotes of the Day
"Have you guys heard of the Llamas and the Papas?"
-Nathalie on her favorite band.
"Drink now, pee now. Drink later, pay later."
-Clay, on his strategy for avoiding late-night baños breaks.
Photos and Captions
The team launching the boat into Laguna Lejia.
Clay and Nath paddling for the shore on Laguna de Lejia.
Grinning and glowing after a successful, salty lake crossing.
Infrared photo of the team. Guess who's the hottest?
The search for life on Mars is guided by the philosophy, 'follow the water.' In the Andes, however, the search for microorganisms in high lakes is guided by the philosophy, 'follow the flamingoes.' Today we set off on a three-truck expedition to check out Laguna Aguas Calientes, located about an hour's worth of bumping and bouncing away from base camp. On the way there Clay took some infrared photos of Laguna Lejia, and Ingrid, Nath and I bashed some basalts for sampling purposes. We startled some nandoos, ungainly ostrich-like birds, who scurried away from us across the desert, clumsy and astonishingly fast. Then we reached the Laguna, and the flamingo scouting began.
The idea behind following the flamingoes is that their sustenance of choice conveniently coincides with Nathalie's sample specimens of choice - copepods, algae, and other microfauna. When we saw flamingoes, we scared them away from their aqueous dinner table, and then Nath waded in the water with sample bottles and a plankton net in tow. Hunting for tiny, camoflaged microorganisms is no easy task, particuarly in black soupy waters/muck as was often the case (see photo of suctioned Ingrid), but we managed to snag some beautiful bugs thanks to the keen eyesight of the porters and Nathalie's skills with sample bottles. We also collected a random, wayworn sheep that had somehow wandered up onto the Altiplano - Clay threatened to "baaaaabeque" it when we got back to camp, but in the end there was no need, for back at Chillyfornia a feast of roast chicken and french fries was waiting for us, thanks to Carolina and company! The wind might be ruthless and the nights might be cold, but we are certainly well taken care of up here.
Quote of the Day
"Darn biology, this would never have happened on an ignimbrite!"
-Ingrid, stuck in microbial muck.
Photos and Captions
Ingrid being rescued from the muck by gallant Macarios.
The otherwordly waterscape of Laguna Aguas Calientes.
Nathalie happy and dirty after a successful sampling session.
Copepod seen up close and personal through the our digital microscope.
"Le vent se lève. Il faut tenter de vivre."
(The wind is rising. We must strive to live.)
We woke this morning to the flapping of tent flysheets. Our camp is like a sailing flotilla that took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up grounded on the Altiplano; now these stranded sails are working mighty hard to get back on track. Yesterday when I wrote that so much had to go right with so many people for the science to happen up here, I neglected to mention another major factor that has to "go right": the weather. Maybe this windstorm is karma kicking me in the butt for such a blatant omission, for nature is both the focus and most fierce adversary of our scientific work. And on days like today, when the wind whips the breath out of your mouth before it can hit your lungs, science is a slow and breathless and dusty endeavor.
This we discovered when we decided to do battle with the wind for a few hours of fieldwork. Nath and Edmond went back to Laguna Lejia to keep fishing for algae and plankton, and Ingrid and I continued exploring the fossils located at the old lake levels. Leaning into the wind, we walked across a swath of desert paved with a geobiological gravel of crushed fossils - "ramen noodle" worms, brainy-looking bulbs, and writhing tubes twisted together in a permanent mineralogical embrace. I could almost envision the electric blue water that might have lapped gently on this ancient shoreline; just beneath the water, stromatolites would have massed like colorful cumulus clouds, while above and beyond, then and now, volcanoes stand sentinal on the horizon: the source of heat and ashes, of sustenance and obliteration for the microbial ecosystems that dare establish themselves in Andean lakes.
With pockets and bags stuffed full of samples, we returned to Chillyfornia coated in a crust of dust that made us look like fossils ourselves, more mineral than human. But there's no power like a hot meal (huge thanks to our camp cook, Carolina!) for bringing even the most dessicated desert lifeforms back to life. Now I'm once again tentbound, listening to wannabe sails frantically beating the desert air, seeking more hospitable waters. I guess I can't blame them, but right now I'm happy to be well-anchored in the Andes.
Quote of the Day
"Do you have a quote of the day yet?" asks Nathalie. Kate replies, "Nope, but I'm just waiting for Ingrid to open her mouth."
Photos and Captions
Stromatolite fossil on ancient shoreline of Laguna Lejia.
Ingrid hitching a ride on the Altiplano.
So writes Annie Dillard, but I'd amend her statement to "there"s no such thing as a solitary explorer, period." Whatever the context and whatever the goal, most feats of exploration are accomplished by teams, even if a single person ends up standing solo in the spotlight. The scientific exploration of these Andean volcanoes, lakes and deserts is no exception. An international crew comprised of scientists, porters, drivers, guides, and the ever-important cook are all central to the High Lakes Project, and individuals from America, Canada, Chile and Bolivia are working and living together on this mountainside. This is science no single person could do - the logistical challenges of such a hostile environment demand a diverse and dedicated team.
Because we're working in such a tough "laboratory" for science, it means that so much has to go right with so many people for the science to actually happen. This morning half the team took off for a recon climb of Aguas Calientes, while the rest of us did some work at Chillyfornia while we waited for a second truck to return from a supply run to San Pedro. This truck was supposed to bring some equipment essential for the next few days' activity - mapping the bathymetry of Laguna Lejia - but unfortunately it brought the wrong box, so plans and schedules have to be reworked. And everything, absolutely everything, takes time.
We enjoyed a fantastic afternoon of fieldwork, with Nathalie, Clay, Carlos and Edmond sampling the microfauna of the lake, and Ingrid and I doing some more fossil and rock hunting. We found some more striking fossil deposits, and then tried to reach a particularly compelling rock mound in the distance. We failed to get there, however, because distances are near impossible to gauge due to the lucid air, the sweeping emptiness of the land, and the absence of anything to serve as a scale or reference point. Though we didn't achieve our intended destination, we enjoyed the ramble and collected some beautiful basalts along the way.
Now we're back at the base camp and the sun is setting, hinting meanly at the cold night to come. I woke up late last night desperate for a banos break, so I reluctantly crawled out of my sleeping bag and tent and stumbled into the -20 C air of the evening. Above me was a sky so salted with stars I felt suspended among them, and the Milky Way streaked icy across the black vault of the universe. I saw four shooting stars before the brisk air forced me back to my sleeping bag, but somehow after seeing that night sky, I was warmed through and through.
Quotes of the Day
"I don't mind fossils because at least they're dead. That brings them up a notch."
-Ingrid, who prefers rocks to life.
This morning I woke up in the tent Ingrid and I share, and the first
thing I did was check my watch because I never heard the ring of my
alarm. It read 1:26 am on January 1st, year unspecified. I had either
jumped forward to the future or zoomed back to the beginning of '07,
but regardless, it was a rather unsettling temporal transition. For
future reference, the conditions conducive to time travel are as
follows: high altitude, and nights so cold they freeze digital watches
into confusion. We have now amended the name of our homestead from
Hotel Chilefornia to Hotel Chillyfornia to more accurately reflect the
climatic conditions, and if we truly "can check out but can't ever
leave" as per the Eagles song, it'll be thanks to the freeze/thaw
cycles of our watches that cause us to lose track of the days
After everyone dethawed over breakfast, we set off in the trucks to
begin the morning's fieldwork. Nathalie and Edmond sampled Laguna
Lejia for plankton and algae, while Ingrid, Carlos and I prowled lava
flows for rock samples. Ingrid is a well-trained rockhound who can
spot an interesting stone out of a sea of identical-to-my-eyes stones
from an impossible distance, and no boulder, however dense and
daunting, stands a chance when targeted by her expertly aimed rock
hammer blows. Ingrid was particularly keen on finding samples of mixed
magma compositions, and as we walked along ("hiking always with your
eyes on the ground, geologists are so strange!" exclaimed Carlos, the
expedition doctor), she described in vivid, dramatic detail the nature
of the landscape on which we trod. It was difficult - if exhilarating
- to imagine the dynamic origin and evolution of the terrain
underfoot, which seems so solid and so safe now. Yet it once spewed
inhumanly hot from the volcanoes that surround us, and one of them,
Lascar, is fuming even now, producing an ominous cloud in an otherwise
blue, sunny sky - a reminder of the volatile nature of this world
Back at the truck with bags loaded with rock samples, we got a call on
the radio from Nathalie who gushed, "We found fossils! You must come
see this!" Sure enough, lodged into sediment marking the shoreline of
an older lake level was a forest of fossilized algae. In a lava-paved
landscape seemingly desolate of life (except for the lake itself,
where flamingoes contentedly suck salty water through straw-thin
necks), these remnants of microbial communites from ages past screamed
out "LIFE!" at us. Check out the photo a fossil for yourselves, but
beyond being a source of scientific intrigue, to me they also
symbolize the haunting beauty and fragility of life on a changing
planet. Lake levels drop, habitable turns inhospitable, life turns
mineral, and through it all, the Earth keeps spinning. So in many
ways, the enduring theme today was time - from waking to a watch gone
haywire to confronting the transcience and dynamism of land and life
in a world of turbulent geology. Whether we're talking about
microorganisms or mammals, as writer Annie Dillard put it, "We are
sojourners here, soft blobs on the rocks."
Quotes of the Day
"Come to me, I will heal you."
-Carlos, the expedition doctor.
"Nathalie just can't resist a good-looking laguna."
-Ingrid, after Nath's jeep did a massive u-turn and beelined toward the lake.
"I am Clay con gas. Lascar, Clayscar."
-Clay, who thankfully has a tent all to himself.
Photos and Captions
No rock escapes uncracked and unsampled
when Ingrid sets
her mind and forearm to the task.
Carlos holding fossil algae from ancient shoreline of Laguna Lejia.
The milky waters of Laguna Lejia;
Lascar is the
flat-topped volcano smoking subtlely on the left.
This morning we checked out of La Hosteria and this afternoon we checked in to Hotel Chilefornia, our adopted homestead on the Altiplano. As we drove away from civilization and climbed into the Andes, the atmosphere in our vehicle was electric with excitement, so bristling with energy that even a brown, bruised banana was discovered to have a raging pulse (250 beats per minute) and a pretty impressive O2 saturation (84%), and this despite the fact that the fruit was actually bubbling - or undergoing a "catastrophic degassing" according to volcanologist Ingrid. So think twice before you bite into a banana, because advanced medical experimentation has conclusively proven that bananas have hearts too. This might well be the first significant scientific discovery of this expedition, but it probably won't be the last.
Satisfied that we'd done enough science for one day, we settled in for the bumpy ride. Out the window llamas watched us pass with soft-eyed wonder, munching contentedly on - on what? From a distance, a five o'clock shadow of grassy stubble covers the face of this land, but close up the vegetation is sparse and spaced, each plant an isolated island surrounded by a small sea of sediment. The plants that thrive here are the defiant punks of the botanic universe; stiff-bristled blonde bushes boast spiky, untameable fringes, and arthritic bushes with knobby-limbed branches crouch close to the ground. But as inhospitable and extreme as the desert appears to us, for the animals that live here it is simply business as usual.
The minibus eventually arrived at Hotel Chilefornia and when the dust settled, we took a long, hard look at our new home. Picture a cinderblock skeleton of a building at the edge of a valley that swoops up on either side into summits. Now imagine a time-lapse of that empty, crumbling shell of a building transformed by busy human-shaped ants into a sheltered tent city that would do a desert nomad proud. This improvised outpost is our base camp for the duration of the expedition, and here we have all we could possibly want: food and shelter, good company, a wonderworld of high-altitude lagunas to explore and study, and an abundance of volcanic rocks to sample. And to top it all off, we have an endless source of entertainment and enchantment in the ever-shifting play of light and shadow on this landscape.
Tomorrow the scientific exploration of Laguna Legia begins in earnest, and I'll be helping out Nathalie and company wherever possible with whatever scientific tasks they undertake. Earlier this week, Nathalie, Ingrid, Edmond and I were hiking through the Valley de la Luna when Nathalie called me over to a curious chunk of "rock". Upon closer inspection, it was revealed as a piece of plywood painted blue, a mineral Ingrid wryly identified as "urbanite." But Nathalie had something else in mind. She asked me to simply describe the thing. I mumbled something about it being a flattened conglomerate of balsa wood or some such nonsense, but I utterly failed to mention that the object in question was blue, roughly square in shape, and had the approximate dimensions of a sheet of paper. The lesson was clear: observations must precede interpretations, and this holds true whether we're talking about a piece of plywood in a sand dune, or a striking rock on the surface of Mars. Rudimentary details matter. I hope I can keep this in mind from here on out.
Quote of the Day
"Nothing like shoveling some concrete to make you feel all feminine."
-Ingrid while cleaning out Hotel Chilefornia
Photos and Captions
Hardy vegetation of the Altiplano
The view across the valley from Hotel Chilefornia.
The otherworldly Hotel Chilefornia before renovation.
Hotel Chilefornia after renovation.
Less than a week into the expedition and already our days are busy and bursting, even though we haven't yet moved permanently into the field. The team has been admirably disciplined in adhering to the training prescribed by the expedition doctor: a grueling regimen of relaxing (for acclimatization), exploring the area on brief hiking forays at altitude (for acclimatization), and most importantly, bulking up by eating heaps of delicious Chilean food (for the increased exertion and decreased appetites we can expect at altitude). For six days total we are based in the charming town of San Pedro, bracing ourselves for the transition to the rugged lifestyle we'll soon be experiencing in the high-altitude heart of the Andes.
Check out Nathalie's Captain's Log for the full details, but the team is currently limited to exploring the volcanoes in Chile and not Bolivia. This basically means that instead of climbing two volcanoes on this expedition - Licancabur and Aguas Calientes - we'll be focusing exclusively on the latter volcano's summit lake, and also studying the waters of Laguna Legia. Though disappointing on some levels, this actually translates into a rather beautiful if unexpected opportunity for scientific exploration at its most elemental. We will quite literally be seeking out unfamiliar waters, and also diving deeper into waters understood only on, well, the shallowest level.
While the logistics for the change of plans are worked out, we have been exploring the local surroundings, truly a rocky wonderland. We hiked through the Valley de la Luna, where the terrain is "smooshed" (a legitimate scientific term, so Ingrid and Nathalie claim) into a geological meringue of slanted slabs of eroded rock. We drove to the base of Aguas Calientes, the volcano we plan to climb, in order to scout a sheltered site for our main camp - no easy task in a place where the winds were so fierce and fat we could practically sink our teeth into them.
The landscape around Aguas Calientes is barren, desolate, and yet almost blindingly beautiful. These brief, day-hike flirtations with the area have only left me wanting more, and I can't wait to call that harsh world home. I'm not the only one. While we were out there, Nathalie said half to me, half to herself, "I feel so at home out here. I cannot explain it, but here I am at home." We are a peculiar bunch who feel most in our element precisely when we should feel most out of it. But as Wilfred Thesiger wrote in Arabian Sands, albeit referring to another desert:
"No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert... For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match."
Quotes of the day
"I'm getting in touch with my inner cow."
-Nathalie, while sipping a herbal tea native to South America.
"This is not a picnic, it's a volcano!"
-Carlos to the group while exploring Laguna Legia.
"A fork plus two straws equals a spoon."
-Clay at a restaurant, ever the engineer
Photos and Captions
Kate, Nath, Carlos, Cristian and Ingrid happy up high during
an acclimatization hight to Andes observatories.
Salty, microbial (we hope!) sludge from the shores of Laguna Legia.
The otherworldly Laguna Miscante, where the team went on an acclimatization hike.
The geological wonderland of the Altiplano.
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Kate Harris, and I'm a 25-year-old aspiring geobiologist and explorer who had the great luck to land a spot on the 2007 High Lakes Expedition. I'll be writing the daily expedition field updates which will be packed full of the latest news, science, gossip, alien sightings, and the ever-popular 'Quotes of the Day,' located at the end of every journal entry. Everyone is being suspiciously nice to me in hopes that I won't reveal any dirt on them, but have no fear - I am an unbiased, neutral reporter who is certainly not open to bribes (although chocolate 'donations' and other sugary 'gifts of friendship' are always appreciated.) So stay tuned, for this will be a no-holds-barred account of scientific adventuring in the Andes.
After 24 bleary-eyed hours in transit, I landed in Antofagasta, Chile, a city improbably planted in the baked brown earth between the arid foothills of the Andes and the salty Pacific Ocean. The team gathered at a hotel on the coast, and though I hadn't met anyone but Nathalie before, and Nathalie only briefly, it was soon apparent that we were going to get along splendidly: we all share a goofy sense of humor and a love for all things Mars, mountains, and microbes - the holy trinity of the High Lakes Expedition. We spent two days in the city organizing and shopping, and the stores of Antofagasta may never recover from the crater this crew left in their supplies of pasta, chocolate, oatmeal, camping cots, stuffed animals, and other essential expedition sundries. Then with bags finally packed and stacked in a minibus, we were soon screaming down a highway dissecting the Atacama desert.
Outside the cracked glass of the windshield was the lunar landscape of the desert, a sand-scoured infinity of dirt and dunes whose yawning wideness seemed to swallow us whole. The soundtrack for the road trip ranged from the sensitive crooning of Cat Stevens to the cheesy technopop of eighties hits like 'Gloria', only in Spanish - a mix of musical styles and eras that can only be described as idiosyncratic. Clay suggested that the motto of the radio station should be, "Music. We Play It." We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn to the beat of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' and took a break wandering through a ghost town and graveyard, where the intense heat and dry winds have mummified the bodies in open tombs. We might lack costumes and candy this Halloween, but we certainly don't lack haunted surroundings.
Photos and Captions
Ghost town graveyard
As we approached San Pedro, the town where we will spend the next few days acclimatizing and organizing the adventure to come, the desert glowed luminous in the slant of light of the sinking sun. We caught our first glimpse of Licancabur on the dust-smeared horizon, just a hazy suggestion of shape, a faint pyramid of possibility. As we drove closer the volcano loomed large to dominate the landscape, a violent, vertical puckering of the earth. When I think about the weeks ahead, weeks devoted exclusively to exploring this alien landscape to gain insight into an alien planet, I realize that there is nowhere else on Earth I would rather be right now. Mind you, I would take Mars if offered the chance, but in the meanwhile, this expedition promises to be as good and as close as it gets.
The altiplano outside San Pedro
Quotes of the day
October 30: "It's all downhill from here." - Kate, on the inevitable decline in the quality of our puns and jokes as the team ascends to high altitude.
October 31: "C'mon gals, don't get all sedimental on us now!" - Clay to Nathalie and Ingrid, who were passionately describing their intellectual love affairs with soft and hard rocks, respectively.