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

An international team of scientists has just completed High Lakes 2005, an expedition to explore some of the highest lakes in the world. Located in the Andes mountains on the border between Chile and Bolivia, the lakes are ideal locations to do research on the life forms that inhabit extreme environments.

In previous years, the team has scaled 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) Licancabur, a dormant volcano on the border between Chile and Bolivia. Licancabur’s summit lake, on the three previous visits, was melted, allowing the researchers to sample its water and lakebed sediments. This year, however, Licancabur’s lake was frozen over.

A second lake, at the summit of Poquentica, was also frozen. Poquentica is an extinct 19,200-foot (5,850-meter) volcano 700 km (435 miles) north of Licancabur. The team conducted scientific research at Poquentica for the first time this year.

Astrobiology Magazine is posting a series of log entries from the expedition leader, Nathalie Cabrol. The November 19 entry, below, is Cabrol’s final entry of the expedition, written just after the team completed its ascent of Poquentica. Previous entries in the series can be found here.

Cabrol is a research scientist with the SETI Institute and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) at NASA Ames Research Center. NAI provided funding for the High Lakes 2005 expedition.

A complete expedition log, including many more pictures, can be found online.

High Lakes 2005: Captain’s Log #5

November 16-17, 2005

I never had a feeling so profound, as though walking on another world. The ascent of Poquentica was harsh, terribly demanding, and so rewarding. Where Licancabur has the pure lines of a perfect pyramid, a shape belonging only to those volcanoes still to explode, Poquentica has the beauty that only time can give to a landscape. Are we walking on the Moon, on Mars? Certainly, at this altitude, we can claim that we are making headway in their direction.

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

Poquentica is an old exploded volcano. Towers of sulfur rise to the sky, defying 40 degree slopes of gravel and sand. They are defending the access to the crater. We will have to walk narrow ridges and find pathways to circumnavigate vertiginous deeps. Poquentica is no walk in the park. It commands respect.

Following Macario, the faithful guide of our team for the past four years, we make it to the towers. The morning is beautiful. The wind is calm until we reached that flat. There, we stop for a little while, a short breather in no air. We are close to 5,500 m (18,000 feet). At our feet, pure sulfur and other crystals cover the ground: A geologist’s wonderland. Our goal is still far, not so much in distance since Poquentica’s summit rises at 5850 m (19,200 feet), but in the will power that conquering those last ridges will require. The wind is up, cold. To our left, shear rock and sand slope; to our right, the nothingness of the deep void, 500 m (1,640 feet) down toward the foot of the volcano. This passage is a battle of mind against body.

Around 1:00 pm, we finally reach the summit crater after a 5-hour climb from 4500 m (14,765 feet) to 5850 m. Just viewing the inside of the crater makes us forget about the suffering of the climb: The lake is down below, most of it frozen as we already knew, but it has large enough spaces of free water. We will be able to do the science we came for. In the distance, the superb snow-capped Sajama volcano (6500 m, or 21,325 feet) appears in the opening of the northern rim: Just spectacular. As we are in awe, we realize something very unusual: our tents pop up on their own down below… or at least that’s what it looks like. Speaking of being efficient, our porters have been building camp while we were watching our new surroundings. That’s new and welcome. We are tired, but usually we build our own camp… The porters leave the five of us, Rob, Clay, Cristian, Peter and me, soon. They return to the village. We are on our own. It is time to get started. No time for tourism now…

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

We get to our tents and decide to get started on our job. The team is more tired than at the beginning of the expedition. We have spent close to one month now at high altitude and climbed two giants in 10 days. I do not want us to spend more than one night here. So we start investigating the area for a good site for our weather station. We have to cross field after field of penitent snow. We finally find a spot. We start hammering on stakes and… lucky us, we find the permafrost less than 10 cm (4 inches) from the surface! This promises to be a long endeavor. The wind has picked up also. It takes all that is left of our energy to continue on this. I am the first one to call it off. I start shivering and go back to the tent. I get warmer but it takes time. The team will come back about an hour later. It is time to call it a day. Warm soup, some sort of dinner of freeze-dried food for the most courageous, and we try to get to sleep.

A few hours later, a slight nausea starts bugging me. I do not know what to think: We climbed fast to avoid a mid-camp. That may be the cause. The other potential cause is the GI problem that has been taking turns in the team since the Oruro restaurant incident. Wait and see. Not much sleep but the nausea goes away. However, in the morning, I do not feel at my best.

Rob is out at 6:00 am, ready to tackle what is left to do on the weather station. Clay and Cristian will be his assistants. I am staying in the tent for a while. I feel weak for now. I will wait until the sun comes a little higher in the sky, over the tent. Warmth will be easier to deal with. The strategy works. About an hour later, mostly passed sleeping (finally), I wake up feeling better. Peter and I head off to the lake shore. My plan is to sample water and sediment, ice, snow, and permafrost. Peter is also a little weak. Apparently from the same cause but the two of us have a very productive morning on the lake shore. All samples are collected. We then decide to head back to the tents and this is where it hits me that it is going to be a long day. The both of us have to stop every five meters, exhausted. We just take our time and make it to our tents. There, back to the sleeping bag and I drink about a liter of orange juice. Peter has another strategy that deals with food but just the idea gets me seasick.

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

Around noon, I feel better again. The rest of the team has come back. The weather station is set, the DNA experiment performed, and Rob is ready to go to the lake to make the last water sampling for geochemistry. I decide to accompany him. We will get the job done faster together. This is when I hear on the radio that our "second train" is close to the summit. Edmond, Melissa, and Mimi, who did not climb yesterday with us, are now arriving. This news brings a huge smile to all the faces, for many, many reasons. The entire team made it, and for some of them, this mountain was a symbol of renewal. Although tired, I want to greet them at the summit. Rob comes with me. He has worked so hard, too and could use a break, but he is by my side. A few minutes later, I see Edmond making it to the summit rim. I just say "Welcome to Poquentica." Melissa is right behind, and Mimi not very far behind her. Hugs, photos, and happiness. This is a very special day. This will be a very special photo.

Time is running short. We leave our newcomers to finish the job. Rob and I go back to the lake, sample and make measurements. Our little army of porters, who came back with the rest of our team, are disassembling the camp. Rob and I are slow to come back. I look at the crater rim which is not that far, and yet I wonder if I will even be able to get there. We take the time for a little rest. The porters have brought food (I am still not interested) but I drink a lot and fall asleep in the sun: The first good sleep I have had in the past 48 hours.

And then it is time to leave. I grab my poles and my backpack. Felix, the chief porter, smiles and say: "Just take my hand." I do not argue. We go up slowly. We make it back to the summit rim. I look at the vertiginous descent that is waiting for us. Everywhere we look, there are 40-degree slopes. I smile, I know the drill. As long as it is going down, I will be fine. What I do not know, is that I will beat my own record of the Licancabur descent in 2003, which was 2 hours. Poquentica does not have any trails. We will make them.

We go for it. My energy is back, thinking of the cars waiting for us in the valley, thinking about the courage of Edmond and Mimi who found their way back to the top of this mountain after fighting the other, much more perilous, mountains that sometimes life throws at us. I can do that, I know how to do that. Not complicated… Just run! It is easy that way: scree and sand. We eat mountains of dust. It is everywhere. We traverse back down this incredible landscape, passing through the "Sulfur Gates" and just still not believing how much beauty our planet offers to us.

Less than 55 minutes after leaving the summit, we are at the cars. Edmond has the tie for best time… Nothing can stop him. I have never seen him run like that. He is just happy. He made it. The entire team made it. Mission accomplished. The tasks we did not complete this year were only due to the weather and lakes frozen by El Niño. Everything else is done: Stations are logging; samples are heading back to the US. We added new tasks to take advantage of all the ice the weather threw at us. We will be now able to compare two extreme lakes.

Our destination this year was Poquentica. We crossed the altiplano and reached our goal, no matter the challenges. On the way, we also met wonderful people, saw unforgettable places, and soaked in the pure beauty of nature in this remote corner of planet Earth. The high lakes hold clues about our origin, adaptation, and the potential of life elsewhere in the universe. The irony is that these lakes are found on parts of the Earth that look so alien.

This is the end of this expedition, the end of the journey. The team heads to La Paz, and soon back to the U.S. It has been an incredible travel in science and time. Planet Earth has still a lot to teach us. Knowledge is out there. Take your poles and your backpack. Don’t be afraid to question the planet you live on. The answers will always amaze you.

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