This is the first report from the High Lakes 2006 expedition. During the next several weeks, the team will climb three 6,000-meter (nearly 20,000-foot) mountains in the Chilean and Bolivian Andes: Aguas Calientes, Licancabur and Poquentica.
The journey began in Antofagasta, a Chilean port city of nearly a quarter of a million people. It's odd to fly thousands of miles south and another thousand miles east of San Francisco only to end up looking out the window of our hotel at the rocky shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. It makes you appreciate how big the world's oceans truly are.
We spent almost the entire day at Lider, one of Chile's supermarket chains, shopping for food, water, and other supplies we will need during the next month and a half. The grocery shopping alone took several hours. (It didn't help that we left the list at the hotel and someone had to go back for it.) We filled 10 shopping carts to the brim.
Then, after a break for lunch - Chinese food at the food court - we went to the second floor for another round. This time we were after batteries, plug strips, AC adapters, coolers, duct tape, a bicycle pump, glue, sharpies, cardboard boxes, plastic containers - and the list goes on. By the time we were finished, it was late in the day and we were ready for a nap. Who knew shopping could be so exhausting? Some of the team members who have been on previous High Lakes expeditions say it's the most difficult part of the trip. Climbing the mountains, they say, is much easier. We'll see.
At any rate, there was no time for a nap. When we got everything back to the hotel, we had to repack all the food into the boxes and containers we had just bought. Later, as we eat the food, we'll use the empty containers to pack up the scientific samples that the team collects. The samples will then be sent back to laboratories in the U.S. and elsewhere, for analysis.
Tomorrow we will move all the supplies into a truck, we will all climb aboard a bus, and everyone will drive to San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town in the Atacama Desert. We'll spend a couple of days there beginning the process of acclimatizing bodies to high altitude. When people who are used to living at sea level go up to high altitude too quickly, they can get seriously ill. That's something we definitely want to avoid, so we're going to take it slowly. San Pedro is at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level, so it's a good first step in this process. It will also be our last chance to take a shower for longer than anyone wants to think about.
On November 1st, we'll leave San Pedro and haul everything up to a refuge just over the Bolivian border, which will be our base camp for the expedition. The refuge is at about 4,500 meters (about 14,750 feet), significantly higher than San Pedro. For comparison, Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the United States, is just shy of 14,500 feet. And from there, we will climb almost another 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet) to the summit of Licancabur.
Staying at the refuge for almost a week, which will include a couple of one-day training climbs, will help our bodies prepare for the adjustments they will have to make at the higher altitude. At the tops of the mountains we will be climbing, there is only half as much air pressure (and thus only half as much oxygen in every breath one takes) as at sea level. You heart, lungs and blood all need time to adapt. Everyone says to be prepared for possible headaches, fatigue, lightheadedness - and grumpy dispositions.
Meanwhile, there's been a slight change in the expedition schedule. Nathalie has decided to have the team climb Aguas Calientes first, and Licancabur second. The small lake at the top of Aguas Calientes is deep red in color, probably because of the organisms that live in it. This will be the first time anyone on the team has climbed Aguas Calientes, so it will be more of a reconnaissance mission than the work on Licancabur, where several team members will go scuba diving to collect a comprehensive set of samples from different depths within the summit lake.