Journey to Another Planet

An aerial view of the lake at Licancabur’s summit.
Image Credit: Michael Endl, UTA McDonald Observatory

Some of the highest lakes in the world can be found at the summits of volcanic mountains in the Andes, straddling the border between Chile and Bolivia. The High Lakes 2005 research team has just completed an expedition to explore two of those lakes, one on the 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) Licancabur, the other on the 19,200-foot (5,850-meter) Poquentica, 700 km (435 miles) to the north of Licancabur. The lakes offer researchers an opportunity to study life in an extreme environment on Earth that in many ways mimic conditions on Mars. At these heights, it is arid, the air is thin, UV radiation is intense and temperatures range from balmy to bitter cold. Studying how life adapts to these conditions helps scientists develop ideas about how to search for life on Mars.

Astrobiology Magazine is posting log entries from the expedition leader, Nathalie Cabrol. Cabrol works with the SETI Institute and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) at NASA Ames Research Center. NAI provided funding for the High Lakes 2005 expedition.

This, the fourth in a series of five entries, was written during the team’s journey across the Bolivian altiplano (high plateau) between Licancabur and Poquentica. The first three entries can be found here. A complete expedition log, including many more pictures, can be found at online.

High Lakes 2005: Captain’s Log #4

November 9-15, 2005
Journey to Another Planet

Click here for larger image. Nathalie Cabrol with Edmond Grin, who working together proposed that Gusev crater, the Spirit rover’s Mars landing destination would make a good exploration site
Credit: Seth Shostak

How many planets have we traversed in the past few days? I try to think back, and it is just blowing my mind away. Are we still on planet Earth? Is it possible that extreme science takes us literally beyond the realm of our own planet … still walking its land? Billions of images, smells, impressions, feelings, the products of a 5-day journey through the altiplano … memories for a lifetime, fantastic science for the generations to come, unforgettable meetings with other human beings, so different but still so close to us.

We left Licancabur on November 8th and crossed the altiplano to Laguna Colorada. There the water is red and borax islands are white. Hydrothermal waters shoot freshwater into this laguna’s salty mix and 40,000 flamingos come to reproduce every year. On the shore, while sampling sediment, algae, and water, we saw ancient eggs from last year and dead flamingoes. The circle of life was expressed right there, without words, in an instant.

Crossing the altiplano to reach the Salar d’Uyuni [the largest salt flat in the world] was one of the most intense experiences of my life. There was a sense of limitless freedom: no road, just tire tracks on an immense desert where the vision is only limited by towering volcanoes on the horizon, all between 5,000 m (16,400 feet) and 6,000 m (19,700 feet) high. Passing by the "Arboles de Pietra" (trees of stone), one could have imagined that this rock formation was the remnants of an old Inca City. They were there 500 years ago. When I think about the 30-minute walk we took to visit it, I certainly felt that they were still there: the power of the place, the immensity of the site. It is just about rocks and sky, Earth and space and a sense of belonging.

Lost in the Pampa de Siloli, this site is a short-cut for our astrobiological quest. We, too, are wonderers between Earth and space trying to understand where we are coming from and what is to be our next step. The answer seems obvious in Siloli: We are very small giants… open-eyed, wondering, like children and discoverers, by nature. The altiplano is a constant reminder of this. In the middle of nothing, one of the most magnificent civilizations on Earth was born, and reborn several times. It ended up disappearing in the end, at least physically. The spirit of the Incas and their history are still deeply present in "Incahuasi", the house of the Inca. I left this place with regret, and once we passed the "Paso del Inca," we were on our way to yet another planet called Uyuni.

A view of Laguna Verde (front) and Laguna Blanca from the slope of Licancabur.
Image Credit: Peter Coppin

The Salar d’Uyuni is a 12,000-square-kilometer (4,630-square-mile) ancient inner sea or giant salt lake which was linked to Lake Titicaca and Lake Poopo 6 million years ago. The salt flat is completely white and the salt depth is over 6 meters (about 20 feet). Springs are bubbling, algae and other microorganisms are living in orange streams. Of course, we stopped and sampled, also looking around in complete awe. There, the curvature of the Earth’s horizon is so clear. Earth and sky, once again, meet – but where to? We keep going with our 4×4. Distant ancient islands seem to be so close, and we never quite get to them. In which dimension are we traveling here? We are definitely going back in time. The Isla de Pescados seems like a giant fish on the white expanse of salt, but this is not our destination. We are heading for Incahuasi, the house of the Inca. I referred to that name early on as a symbol of this entire region of Potosi, where the Incas ruled for so long.

However, here, we reached the real Incahuasi, an ancient island where the Incas lived and left artifacts, such as wells and houses. The most striking is that, in the middle of nothing, we discover an island completely covered in stromatolites and giant cacti. There was nothing and now there is life. So much to think about, so little we really know about the power of life and its potential on other worlds. If one thing, this journey is making me a fervent optimist… Our way back that day to Uyuni filled a little girl’s dream in me. Our drivers stopped near sink holes in the salt. They showed us how to pull magnificent crystals of halite from them. A treasure trove… and a very happy team. Astrobiology is never far from our mind, especially when amongst the samples we pull there are several with pink, purple, and orange pigments in them… They are heading for the lab right now.

Laguna Verde and Blanca seen from the Licancabur summit.
Credit: Marko Riikonen

Oruro was our next stop. A large city with noise, light and too many people. The team is happy. I wish we were heading back to the desert right away. I am not ready to go back to so-called civilization. This city looks more alien to me than anything we have crossed before. Astrobiology might be turning me into an hermit, but I like that. In the mountain, there is no red or green light to tell me to go or to stop (actually, believe me, the inhabitants of Oruro do not care about that either…). I just look at the sky, the clouds, the wind direction — and I know.

This town is really not the team’s ally. A visit to a local restaurant results in 2 severe and 3 mild cases of food poisoning. Our two team members most severely affected by it stayed in Oruro another 24 hours to rest and get back on track. We leave another teammate with them to make sure they are okay. In a good hotel room: this is the best possible place to be to recuperate. The rest of the team heads off… on Cipro (an antibiotic).

Our trip to Julo, our destination at the foot of Poquentica, is also filled with unforgettable landscapes made of dunes, lava flows, canyons, thousands of llamas, alpacas, cows, sheep and vicunas. The geology is so strong and the biology so interesting: pink lichens, grass that rolls on itself and keeps low to the ground. On the horizon, Sajama, the master of Bolivia, a magnificent volcano reaching 6,500 m (21,325 feet), is covered with glaciers, crevasses, and cliffs. Further off in the distance, a volcano is erupting gently. This one sounds a lot more accessible, though probably in the 6,000-meter (20,000-foot) range also. It would probably be very interesting to go and sample gas, water, and life over there. Next year, maybe.

This year, our destination here is Poquentica. After a 9-hour drive, we enter a dirt trail at night. Sajama in the background is raising a storm. Our 4×4 drives through a torrent. No trail anymore. Julo is a very small pueblo nested at the foot of Poquentica. We are hosted by the inhabitants. Warm rooms, warm-hearted people. The deputy mayor is very happy to see us. However, he presents me with a little and new problem. I might have to buy a llama as a sign of friendship… That’s a new one. I do not think that there was anything at home to prepare us for that. I have a few days to find a solution :)…

Several members of the High Lakes 2005 expedition practice their mountaineering skills on Juriques, a peak near their base camp in the Andes.
Image Credit: Peter Coppin

Like Licancabur, the summit lake of Poquentica is still largely frozen, but somehow the situation is better because we are further north, and the overall climate is milder. I have delayed the ascent by 24 hours to redesign our summit plan and pack in as much science as possible. Overall, the team spirit is excellent. We still have one lingering case of food poisoning but it’s getting better. We have time to do things well. I am really looking forward to climbing this volcano for the first time. At the summit, a new world is waiting for us. We will compare it to Licancabur. So far, although the weather has been an issue, this expedition has already shown some very promising results.

Tomorrow we go up and will stay two nights and days at the summit. Preparations are on the way, everybody focused on the objective. I could never have imagined that astrobiology would take me so deep into Earth’s heart. I am thankful for that every day. As we will soon be returning, we will share the science results with all, of course, but the human experience as well. Both are profound and have probably changed many of us to various extents. The way we perceive the world and the universe is also the result of who we are. This experience has taken us closer to the sites we explored, maybe putting us in a better position to understand them and to understand what they mean for our perception of the universe.

The team is heading up tomorrow. When we come back, I will share our impressions of this new volcano. Poquentica was our final destination for this year. We are here, ready to climb.

Best wishes from up high!

Related Web Pages

Licancabur Expedition Home
Michael Endl’s Journey to Licancabur
What’s Living in the World’s Highest Lake? (Licancabur Expedition Journal: Part I)
Licancabur Expedition Journal: Part II
Dry Limit of Life
Interview with Nathalie Cabrol
Follow the Sun
The Edge of Life
Life in the Atacama, 2003