Patience with the Mountain

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

If you’re looking for the world’s tallest mountains, head for the Himalayas. But if your objective is to explore the world’s highest-altitude lakes, the Andes are where you want to go. That’s why, for the past four years, a team of research scientists has made the arduous climb to the lake at the top of Licancabur, a 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) dormant volcano on the border between Bolivia and Chile.

The tiny lake inside Licancabur’s summit crater presents some of the harshest conditions faced by life anywhere on Earth. The survival techniques employed by the organisms that inhabit the lake, mostly microbes, are what the scientists are interested in understanding. That knowledge may help shape the search for life in an even more inhospitable place: Mars.

In past years, Licancabur’s summit lake was thawed and some of the team members were able to dive in it to collect samples of its lakebed sediments. This year the lake was frozen over, forcing the team to modify both its ascent and descent plan and its science objectives.

Astrobiology Magazine is posting a series of log entries from the expedition leader, Nathalie Cabrol. The entry below was written just after the High Lakes 2005 team managed to reach Licancabur’s summit lake. Earlier 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 #3

November 3-6, 2005
Licancabur Summit!

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

Never before had I wondered so much whether or not we could make it to the summit of Licancabur. I have spent countless hours weighting various factors such as the unstable weather and the dangerous wind and cold, the frozen lake, and this fantastic team that I care a lot about. The answer has been patience:

First, patience with the mountain, looking, observing, listening to the wind, checking its direction, looking at the clouds, a sort of "smelling the air" thing that one learns with time. This is the fourth time in a row in four years that I have come here. I have learned…

Second, patience with my impatience… Make sure that a decision is not taken in haste. Many times I thought I would cancel that climb for this year, focusing the high lake science on Poquentica to the north.

Then, Cristian made a suggestion I could accept. I was struggling with the idea of having the team setting camp too close to 6,000 m (nearly 20,000 feet), with winds that could exceed 100 km/h. To me that was unacceptable. But Christian’s proposal made sense. What if we had our base camp at mid-camp, only 5,400 m (17,700 feet). There, conditions would be a lot milder, though still not a walk in the park, but if something was wrong, we could descend in one hour and half to the refuge. We would sleep there one night, and if conditions were good, we could dash for the summit, do our science, and head back to the refuge.

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

This was some sort of commando operation and for that, I needed the troops to be (a) in excellent health, and (b) show some great resistance. We talked this over as a group and everybody was excited about the possibility of getting something out of Licancabur this year while still following safe procedure. The only question marks were our two newbies in the team. Their experience on the mountain was the training we gave them in the previous week up to 5,200 m (17,000 feet). We performed well, but here we were looking at a sustained effort going from mid-camp, to the summit, and back. They wanted to do it, so each step of the way we thought about ways out. All factors being weighed, and after long discussions and suggestions, we decided to go for it. Ross, our M.D., would be watching people closely.

We did it… Our plan worked out very well. I would not recommend this kind of exercise every day, but on November 4th, after an uneventful night at mid-camp (under an incredible sky brightened by Mars big as a plane’s light, the Magellanic Clouds, and Orion upside down), we left mid-camp at 7:35 am. Then, the incredible happened: This team, with all our load, climbed at a rate of 200 vertical meters (650 feet) per hour, in an atmosphere that is between 550 mb and 480 mb. Newbies and veterans, we all climbed like a well-oiled machine. We took only a few breaks for hydration and food. That day, we reached the summit a little past 11:00 am.

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

For once in the past 10 days, the winds were low on the slope and the temperature acceptable. Was Licancabur again opening the door for us? I think that after four years of seeing this happen, I do believe this is the case. The weather had been nasty and cold in the previous days, except the three that preceded our ascent. Our patience was paying off.

Because our usual route was still covered in snow and ice, we used a longer, but safer, route. This one took us amongst blocks and required a little bit of climbing between rocks. Certainly not my favorite route but a safe one, and the only route available. At the summit, a sustained but low and cold wind greeted us. We took many pictures. We were all thrilled to be there, especially our two newbies and Ross, who although a veteran mountaineer and new to the team, had never climbed in the altiplano.

We knew that we were racing against the clock so we quickly descended toward the lake. There, the sight was just amazing. Although I regret not having been able to dive this year, the scenery that welcomed us left us breathless (maybe the altitude helped too!). The summit lake was totally frozen, very deeply, but not homogeneously. To the southwest side the ice was white; to the northeast side, the shallower ice was blue-green. Together, they formed what could be best described as some sort of a Ying/Yang symbol. It was very impressive.

We all went to work very quickly. Clay and I went to the south shore and found some free water near the shore. There, for the next hour, we took samples of sediment and water at different depths (though shallow because of the ice) and also took samples of ice. The challenging weather that accumulated so much ice there became a great opportunity. By collecting the ice, I will be able to study what part airfalls take in the lake sedimentation today. We will study which kind of spores, pollens, and other material end up in the lake. Right now, they are trapped in the ice. I could also immediately see that copepods were trapped in the ice, too. Some of them will travel back to the States with us.

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

Andy, Rob and Ross filtered lots of water, collected an experiment left the day before by our guide Macario for us and also collected one year’s worth of meteorological data on our station. We then took about 30 minutes to "refuel" (eating and drinking), and we pulled out from the crater. As we exited, we could see lots of clouds accumulating. The only thing that came to my mind at this point was "uh…oh!" I wanted to get us out of there fast. The weather was coming from Chile, not a good sign.

Unfortunately, because the east side of Licancabur was iced, we had to use the way we came up to go down. Well, not my favorite at all… It was a slower path down, but definitely the safest. Last year, we used the central gully to go down and it took us only two hours to go from the summit to the foot of Licancabur (not recommended for weak knees…). This year, it took us 4 hours by this other route. On the way down, we stopped again at mid camp to rest a bit, but we were back at the cars by 5:30 pm. We were joking with the cook (who was at the refuge) over the radio. As soon as we started on our way down, we asked her to get started on diner. She is a very kind person. When we arrived, we had an incredible meal waiting for us, including the best llama ever.

The Licancabur team place UV filtering plates in Laguna Blanca (above) to study how the UV affects the lake’s biology.

To summarize our ascent in numbers: we went up and down the slope of Licancabur in 10 hours with all of our gear, walking 8 hours, working 2 hours in the crater. We climbed 200 vertical meters per hour both November 3rd and 4th. The higher elevation did not stop the RPM! We did all the science that could be safely done this year and already have lots of data back. And once again, Licancabur helped us. The bad weather stopped for our ascent. As soon as we reached the refuge back on November 4th, I only had time to close the door before a ~100 km/h wind started. It lasted long hours into the night. The day after, it snowed all around us, not at the lagunas though. This is the fourth time in a row that this pattern has repeated itself.

I will have to put science aside for a second and just say that I do believe that the spirit of the Incas must be watching over us and must like us a lot… I am really thankful for that, especially seeing all my team in good health and high spirits, young and now somewhat experienced mountaineers with huge grins running from one ear to the other. They have it in their look: They did it. Mission accomplished on Licancabur this year, the toughest one ever for us. They were part of that climb and never complained. They have my total respect. They also now have a better idea of what "science of the extreme" really means. It took their courage and dedication to get the data back, data that may help us one day better understand our origin and the possibility of life on other planets.

Our destination is now Poquentica. Another mountain, another world to discover. We will leave Laguna Blanca on November 8th. I will resume the Captain’s log somewhere between Laguna Colorada and Salar de Uyuni.

Best wishes for 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