Captain's Logs

Captain's Log #3, November 11, 2007:

Water and Wind

Saying that conditions are brutal this year is an understatement. Fierce winds gust at 40 km/h cut us in half but most of the time they will simply blow at that speed continuously. The fabric of our tent looks very fragile against such assault of Mother Nature. Still, it holds. The wind is one thing; the cold is another. Our camp is located at 4,200 m elevation and therefore we could not have expected tropical conditions. Still, this year's temperatures are unusual. The thermometer has been going down every night between -18C and -25C since we arrived. The toughest thing is to keep our feet warm but we are getting smarter at that game, which only means that we add layers of socks on top of each other and ask Carolina our cook to prepare Nalgenes of boiling water that we stuff into our sleeping bags... Right now, I am having dreams of Hawaii...I am wondering if Mars might even be warmer!

The days are easier, if not for the wind. Usually mornings are calm. The wind starts to pick up around 10:30 am to 11:00 am. When it does, we better find shelter. Going today on the slope of Aguas Calientes was very informative for what is to follow, namely our ascent in a couple of day. We took two 4x4s to reach the volcano since Ingrid wanted some fresh samples of lava rocks. We arrived at 4,800 m. As we descended from the car, the wind almost ripped the doors off the vehicles. Nice start...Wearing about 4 layers, I could still feel the windchill like a knife on my chest. To add to that picture, imagine the Lascar volcano venting water vapor like a heavy smoker just right next to Aguas Calientes and that sets the tone. Well, while I am whining, in fact I just find the landscape beautiful. The hardship is part of it. My only concern of course is our safety and beauty has nothing to do with it. I came back to the camp a little concerned about the current conditions and therefore, postponed our ascent to mid-camp planned for tomorrow to the next day. In fact, that will help the logistics. Adding a new rotation of equipment will allow us to climb lighter. For what the weather is concerned, there is nothing I can do about it. We will see. Macario, our guide, has decided to bring the issue to Pacha Mama, the Mother Earth of the Incas, and this afternoon he organized a little ceremony to ask for good weather and safe passage for all of us to the summit and back. It is a privilege for the entire team to be able to witness living history, rituals that ancient Incas still practiced only 500 years ago. They are still present through people like Macario. We will see what Pacha Mama can do for us. A little more warmth and no wind would be such a treat.

This morning weather was better though. Therefore, we took the opportunity to finally accomplish our bathymetric transect of Laguna Leija. This was an all team effort. Clay and I doned our dry suits and loaded the boat with the bathymetric equipment, radios, Nalgene with warm (not for long) tea, fins, and paddles. The boat was equipped with a small electrical motor to avoid polluting the lake and off we went. We had each 4x4s following us on the shore with the rest of the team and porters and our doc. It took us about 40 minutes to cross the lake. Flamingoes passed over our heads in formation in a background of majestic volcanoes, including one active, and blue sky. We were about 150 m from the North shore when the wind started to pick up, raising tiny waves that were enough to counteract the power of our engine. Therefore, we shut the engine off and started paddling. It required not too much effort to reach the shore this way. The bathymetric system also informed us about the depth of the lake at the time we decided to paddle. The depth was only 4 feet. It would have been easy, though not warm even with dry suits, to jump out of the boat and walk the rest of the distance if need be. It did not happen this way and we paddled until we reach the shore. There, our teamates helped us get out of the boat. They were waiting with warm tea and hot chocolate, the doc with O2. You have to choose your treat because you cannot fit a cookie into an oxygen mask. That does not work. I tried... The O2 was more for comfort after the 150 m paddling at this altitude than anything else. Everybody was in good shape and great spirit.

Infrared photo of the team. Guess who's the hottest?

Tonight, we have our first transect of Laguna Leija and a profile of water temperature, which will help us to calibrate the IR imagery we took in the past days. Our trip to Laguna Aguas Calientes (not to be mistaken with the volcano) was also a great success yesterday. Overall, we are starting to piling up results in this first phase of the 2007 expedition. The second one will happen in March. Now, we are all focused on preparing the ascent. If we can make it to the summit, that will be a fast touch and go considering the weather conditions. We will only sleep one night at mid-camp, which will be probably about 10 degrees lower than our current camp...and then summit the next morning, do our science and leave the crater to return to base at 4,200 m the same day. We did that once at Licancabur for the same reasons. I am still very concerned by the mixture of strong winds and low temperature. We will see what happens in the next 24 hours. We will climb only if the weather improves. If not, there is always another day...

That's it for today from my "office tent" at 4,200 m. Send us good thoughts for good weather. We will be very grateful.

Nath, writing from the middle of the middle of nowhere, a very very beautiful place.

November 8, 2007: Altiplanic lakes

Captain's Log #2:

Out of nothing, something...I keep repeating those words to myself as I see this old abandoned building becoming home everyday. "Hotel Chilefornia" as become hotel "Chillyfornia" after a first night were outside temperatures plummeted to -25C. I am not sure that they were much higher inside our tents but at least, we had walls around us to cut the wind. The first night was freezing. We did not get too much sleep but it could have been much worst if we had ended up in the alcove next to the lake. Here, we are sheltered. As Kate wrote the other day, an old abandoned building became tent city in a matter of 2 hours upon our arrival. It's not just a bunch of tents together, though. We have a living quarter to the west of the building structure where 6 tents of various sizes lodge everybody (we are 16 in total, including porters, guide, drivers, and cooks); In the middle of the structure, we have our work and office area, a larger tent with some sort of a hallway with a table and chairs. It is also a place where we recharge our instruments, two generators supplying power. This tent also has 2 rooms and since I am known to stay late at the office at Ames, well I decided I would not change my habits here and I do sleep in this tent...Then, we have the "commedore", the dinning room and an outside stove where our brave cooks stand against the weather to give us regular meals.

The latest addition to our camp is a radio that can communicate with San Pedro de Atacama, about 100 km away; at least, this is the theory. This morning, I was awakened by Macario yelling in the radio and apparently speaking with the rest of the universe but San Pedro! He was able to reach the refuge of Laguna Blanca in Bolivia, as well as Laguna Colorada and Uyuni, all of that in Bolivia...pero Chile, nada, zilch! What a laughter. He finally got a hold of San Pedro.

In summary, we have a base about 15 minutes from our first field site and 40 minutes from Aguas Calientes, walls around us but no roof, which make the drivers say that this is the hotel of a billion stars. There is no need to mention that the southern sky is unique. Add on top of it that this is the time for the Leonids and Kate yesterday saw four meteors passing in the sky.

Yes, we could be in Laguna Blanca, at the refuge and preparing our climb for Licancabur but we are here, for reasons that did not depend on us and we are making the best of it. Out of nothing, something...And speaking of that, just in case we wanted to feel a tad blue because of having to focus only on Aguas Calientes for now, science just reminded us that it can bring joy and satisfaction wherever we are. Yesterday, we got a result that is confirmed today and just made the whole trip worth it. More in upcoming publications...

Yesterday was also some sort of an introduction to the area for us. Laguna Leija is a big lake, about 3 x 1.7 km in size. Its color is that of Laguna Blanca; the dynamic is that of Laguna Verde. There are a couple of fresh water ponds next to it. At least one of them could be hydrothermal. Laguna Leija is a strange mixture of Laguna Blanca and Verde but everything is complicated by the presence of a very temperamental volcano named Lascar. It is particularly active this year, sending big puffs of water vapor in the air. In the past years, it had serious eruptions and ashes and other materials fell into the lake, disrupting the ecosystem.

Laguna Leija is evaporating like many other altiplanic lakes. Flamingoes are coming back according to locals, which is a sign that the ecosystem is recovering. We saw them yesterday, as well as couple of ducks and a couple of other birds I could not identify. We also saw a small bird that drew our attention because he was feeding on a small pond next to the lake. I went to check and sure enough, there were tiny worms looking remarkably similar to those of Licancabur but bigger in size (not longer) and white instead of grey. There is an interesting variety of algae, although not as dense as Laguna Blanca. Some are similar, other different. This will be good ground for comparison. I made a quick dip of pH paper, which showed a close to 7 result.

While I was touring Laguna Leija with Macario, Wilder, Hernan, and Edmond, Kate, Ingrid, Carlos, and Hernan (#2) where on the alcove looking at volcanic rocks. We met again around 12:30 pm to go back to camp. On our way back, we stumbled into a golden mine of localized fossil stromatolites and algae siting on volcanic rocks. We did what geologists do and both Ingrid and I started to argue about why and what and where and who...and in the end, we agreed on the fact that hard rocks (Ingrid specialty) and soft rocks (my specialty) could coexist in peace and decided in a laughter to do the same! In reality, we are going along extremely well. We have known each other before the expedition, working together on the Life in the Atacama project. Being here and sharing this expedition is building something more, though, which is looking a lot like deep friendship.

Today, the porters, Macario, Victor and Cristian are on Aguas Calientes to start preparing mid camp and Macario will check the conditions at the summit. Clay is building our little bathymetric system and we will go map one of the hydrothermal (?) pond this afternoon. This expedition has turned out to be quite an adventure but in the very best sense of the word. We are exploring new territories, including our own resources to respond to new situations and adversity. The fact that we are settled in this camp and rolling says a lot about the maturity of this team. I can finally focus on science and on the beauty of the altiplanic lakes.

Quote of the Today:

"Yeah, that's here. Please, turn left after the bull skull!""
-Ingrid pointing the site she had chosen today to work in the field.

Captain's Log #1: A year like that...

Two days prior to field deployment, the team is based in San Pedro, the Licancabur watching us, tantalizingly close and yet so far. For reasons that have nothing to do with science or even with this project, it is not possible at this time to enter the field sites in Bolivia, this being postponed to early 2008. Therefore, this first phase of the expedition will focus on the ascent of Aguas Calientes and the exploration of Laguna Legia. Licancabur and the Bolivian lagunas will have to wait March 2008 during the second phase of HLP 07.

This is resulting in a year like none before it. It has to be expected at some point in a long-term project. Yet, it is still saddening. On the bright side, the team has the perfect attitude. I am discovering new team members, like our Chilean doc (M.D.) Carlos (ak.a. "pil-pil", which is now his radio code name - "pil-pil" is a Chilean hot sauce), always smiling and so very efficient); Kate, who just breathes exploration; and Ingrid, who I already knew before the expedition but this is the first time we are in "the wild wild south" together. She is a volcanologist so there is no need to mention that the trip to the Andes for her is just like taking a kid to wonderland. The team's bus is looking more and more like a quarry every day. And there are the veterans: Cristian, the logistic brain of the team keeping track of everything, which in an every day changing landscape like this year relates more to magic or maybe just pure talent; Clay, the "rock solid" field engineer; and Edmond, always smiling and silent who brings serenity to the team and laughter more often than none.

After our two days of logistics in Antofagasta, we headed to San Pedro. In normal conditions, the team would spend only two nights before heading toward the Bolivian refuge of Laguna Blanca but because of these changes of plan, we had to rework the logistics, and basically, create our own base camp. That requires time, that we have, since we are currently doing only the first part of our exploration program. So, 6 days in San Pedro that we are using to relax but also acclimatize and scout.

Our acclimatization program took us first to Laguna Legia to recon the surroundings at about 4,500 m for a day. We checked possible sites for our base camp there. Just to help us, the wind has been fierce for three days. We crossed the Atacama desert from Antofagasta during a sand storm. I those many years, I never saw anything like that. The wind at the laguna was cold. We tried to find sheltered spots with more or less success but have two decent candidates for when we move up on Tuesday.

  The following day, we went to 5,200 m nearby Chajnantor where the radio-telescopes of Alma are located. Stunning, beautiful... We hiked in the area for a couple of hours and then took the road that passes so close to the Bolivian border. We could see clearly Licancabur, Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde from where we were. I know that Mimi was an invisible speck out there. My little cat...I know she made it this winter too. I got some news about her a couple of days ago from someone coming from the refuge. We will see each other early March. I'll bring the sardines...Promised.

Today, we visited Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques, two deep blue lakes with all it takes to make them very interesting for the project. Will contact a few people...

On and on, we are making the best of a very strange situation but we are explorers. All the team is focused solely on that. Anything else would be a waste of time. Let's transform challenge into opportunity, hurdles into discoveries. These are the kind of things we are good at. The team I have is the best news I could have had. We might be cold out there, we might be tired but we have each other and the same spirit of exploration. What most people call extreme environment is home to us. Often, the hostile environment is man-made. Anything else, we can deal with.

Tuesday we are going up, finally into the heart of the altiplano. I'll be writing more from there. In the meantime, the whole team says hello from up high.