Licancabur Ascent

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

The High Lakes 2005 expedition is the fourth annual scientific journey to some of the highest lakes in the world. Located in the Andes mountains on the border between Chile and Bolivia, these high lakes are ideal locations to do research on the life forms that inhabit extreme environments.

This year, the High Lakes team got an opportunity to see just how extreme one of those environments can be. Weather on Licancabur, a 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) volcano that has been the subject of research for the past three years, was brutally cold this year, forcing the team to modify its science objectives.

Astrobiology Magazine is posting a series of log entries from the expedition leader, Nathalie Cabrol. The November 2 entry, below, was written on the eve of the team’s attempt to reach Licancabur’s summit lake. The first entry 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 #2

November 2, 2005
Eve of Licancabur Ascent

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

So far, this year has been a trial year for the expedition. We had a taste of about everything one could experience in such an environment and which had spared us in the past years: harsh weather, the summit lake frozen, temperatures down to minus 40 C (minus 40 F), food poisoning, and a cold affecting many of the team members. Everybody is now fine but for those with the cold. We preferred not to take any chances and gave them a few days of rest and recuperation in San Pedro while the rest of the team climbed. They will join us again November 5th and will continue on the expedition with us. The rest of us, 8 out of 11, will head for the slopes of Licancabur tomorrow after a false start this morning, with the delay caused by a lack of porters.

To tell the truth, this small delay looked to me to be a very positive thing. Finally, for the past three days now, the weather has been stabilizing, and we are now seeing climate patterns that we recognize from previous years. The temperatures have been improving also. The net result is that the snow and ice that were sitting in the central gully of Licancabur, which we usually use as our exit route, have been significantly melting in the past days. This gives us a new option to return to the refuge that could save us up to two hours of descent.

So, tomorrow, November 3rd, will finally be the day for us. We have been patient with the mountain and this patience is now paying off. We will first ascend to first camp, leaving the refuge around 9:30 am, and will be at the foot of Licancabur at 10:00 am. Although we are light in terms of equipment this year (due to the lack of diving), we plan to climb slowly and take our time to reach mid-camp, located at 5400 m (17,700 feet). This is a vertical 900 m (2950-foot) ascent from our starting point and we plan to reach mid-camp around 2:00 pm. Then we will build camp and settle for a (probably cold) night in the mountain.

On November 4th, we will leave at first light and make a run for the summit. We will take with us some tents and stoves for safety, just in case weather delays us at the summit. However, if everything goes well, we will not have to use them. We plan to reach the crater around noon and work until 3:00 pm to sample, install our meteorological station, and retrieve the data from last year. If we find free water, we will sample it and also sample mud for the search for microorganisms and DNA. I also plan to sample the ice that is covering the lake. After a good discussion with one of our remote team members, Greg Kovacs, it became clear that a frozen lake is a great opportunity to study airfall deposits, which add to bottom sediments. I will collect some ice near shore and then send it to the lab for research on pollens, spores etc. As soon as our work is done in the crater, we will descend and hopefully will have enough time to reach the cars at the foot of the mountain before night, otherwise we will stop again at mid-camp and spend another night on the slope.

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

Although challenging, these first ten days have been already very productive in terms of science. I am especially happy about the finds we made sampling the sediments on the shore of the lagunas. I cannot wait to see our biologists to show them the interesting critters that live under several centimeters of rocks and salt. Apparently, colonies with different pigments (green, pink, and bright orange) thrive there. While there is not one sign of life at the surface, it’s everywhere as soon as we start turning rocks! Clay, Melissa, and Peter gave me a hand there both for the sampling of the microorganisms and for a transect we did on the paleoterraces of Laguna Verde.

In the meantime, Edmond and Michele, with the assistance of Melissa, found an ancient channel (now dry) that entered the lake during the Pleistocene and beginning of the Holocene. They sampled its terraces. It could give us some clues about the species we found in the fossils of the lake margin last year.

A new meteorological station has also been installed by Andy, Rob and Ross.

The past days also revealed a fantastic team spirit. My teammates have been making everything look quite easy in a challenging environment. There is a fantastic solidarity and friendship in this team, and lots of good humor, no matter what.

So, tomorrow we go… Another ascent on Licancabur. Every single one is unique. This one will probably stay in our memories as one of a kind for the way that led to it. For those who still would like to ignore it, the mountain is always the one to command; the wise mountaineer learns to listen fast!

We will be back on line in two or three days. Best wishes from the Andes.


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