Captain’s Log No. 4 – Training Day

November 16, 2008

The team has come a long way from a challenging start of illnesses and delays to being in the field and doing non-stop science in Laguna Lejia and Salar de Aguas Calientes for close to two weeks now. Still, the next big step is the ascent of the volcano Aguas Calientes, also known as Simbad. Its large crater hosts a ~100 m diameter, round, and deep red lake. We went to Simbad for the first time in 2006 and left an Eldonet UV dosimeter there. In 2007, we came back to retrieve the dosimeter and barely had time to do anything else as a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the area at about the same time we were reaching the summit. This year, we do have a science outline for Simbad which is located in an area with exceptional UV flux and yearly ozone evolution. I have to say that I am pretty excited about it.

However, before we can get to the lake, we have to figure out how much damage the various viruses, bacteria, and other cold, dust, and fatigue have done to us. We are all fine now but who knows. It is with that question in mind that I prepare my backpack for today’s exercise, which is to climb to mid-camp on the slope of Simbad and come back to Chillyfornia at night. We will see how much energy we have in reserve. Annoyingly enough, this question is very much of an actuality for me too. A suite of health issues, both small and big, has not spared me and I’ve have a hard time shaking off the fatigue. In this perspective, it has been probably the most challenging expedition since 2002. We’ll see.

That’s well worth it, though, as the science results are unfolding every day in front of us, intriguing in some cases, but deeply interesting all the time. The composition of the team is also helping to make this expedition uniquely exciting. I am always looking forward to our late afternoon and dinner discussions where ideas and theories about our daily findings are shared. Often, ideas for experiments stem from those discussions and they are tested the next day in the field. Science live - nothing can beat this!

Nights are busy with note writing for everybody, watching the slides that the microbiologists make and projecting on the computer screen using our field Proscope microscope, watching the many photographs taken during the day, for science or for simple pleasure of capturing the shear beauty of this primordial landscape. This is our version of the outdoor movie…kind of extreme but frankly, much more fascinating than anything that Hollywood has to offer these days! Of course, that’s a question of personal preferences…. We are missing popcorn, though.

Training…Here it comes. I wake up not really feeling like I want to climb that slope for 3 hours. Not a good sign. Then breakfast and preparations with the porters laughing. Today, only some of them will come while the others will rest at camp. We are the ones going up, maybe some sort of altiplanic justice. At any rate, they are having a good time seeing us pack and that’s fair enough. Beside, we are all good friends and it is really more a game than anything else. Macario is always ready. Our faithful guide since 2002 is especially in shape this year. It looks like he has added a turbo to his engine. He climbed Simbad from bottom to top the other day in less than three hours, to the point than even the three porters accompanying him quit at mid-camp! When I think that we will be happy to cut our climb in two with a night sleep at 5,400 m. All right, time to go. Everybody jumps into the pick-up trucks after having piled up the backpacks and poles in the flat beds.

We are on our way now, the trucks raising clouds of dust all around us. We are looking around for nandus and pedris (small birds perfectly camouflage with feathers of the same color as the dirt and a little bit of yellow to mimic the bushes around). They are there and they are abundant this year.
The weather is good. The cold wind of the previous days seems to be calming down. Two nights ago, we had a large black cloud dumping a load of snow on Chillyfornia. The flakes were very small and that did not last more than an hour but was enough to have me worried than an early altiplanic storm could surprise us at mid-camp or at the summit when we will be making the final climb. I am not so worried about the snow but certainly a lot about possible electrical storms. Today is nice so let’s take one day at the time.

It takes us about one hour to get from Chillyfornia to the bottom of the slope. The last kilometers are in very soft terrain and the drivers of our 4x4s have to use all their talent to get us to destination without getting stuck.

We are now on our own. Backpacks and poles, a line of 10 and here we go again…rocks, scree and…good surprise too. The two weeks spent working at 4,500 m in the altiplano seem to have worked their magic for our acclimatization. We climb fast, very fast. The rhythm is good and everybody is in a good mood. At the end of it all, it takes us only two and half hours to reach mid-camp and we stopped only a minimum amount of time!

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Team resting – training day

This is the best we ever did on that volcano. Even Macario had a whistle of approval. We now admire the view from what will be mid-camp in a couple of days. In the far ground, we see Laguna Lejia where Lee and Edmond are working today. I cannot help but to wave at them, as if they could see me. We are about 10 km away from them and something like 1,200 m above their head. A little farther away, here is Laguna Aguas Calientes nested between lava flows and ash deposits. It is interesting to see all of our study sites at once from this vantage point.

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Lagunas from midcamp

They look so close to each other but the difficult dirt trail makes it always a bit of a challenge to reach them. That’s part of the poetry of the whole adventure. Those trails are being crossed sometimes by humans who look a bit lost in here, and more often by herds of llamas, vicunas, guanacos, groups of nandus, pedris, flights of flamingoes and ducks, fast foxes and viscachas, spying on us behind the rocks. Those are funny. They have the head of a rabbit and the rear body of kangaroos. Their size is that of a rabbit though.

To our left, we have Pili, also known as Acamarachi, a perfectly coned-shape volcano of 6,150 m high which seems to have a little pond at it summit. As far as I am concerned, I have climbed enough for today…This pond will wait.

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Victor at midcamp with Pili in the background

We stay about 30 minutes at mid-camp, drinking and eating, and talking about the summit. The number of new bees in the team makes it more magical this year for me. I can see the excitement in their eyes and they are flooding me with questions. It is good to see passion and to share it. They want to know everything from how much time it will take us from there to reach the summit, how is the route, to how is the lake.

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Kevin, Jeremy, and Nathalie at midcamp

As far as the latter, I am trying to keep their expectations low since Macario told me that the lake was in great part frozen. As a result, I do not know how much we will be able to accomplish. Here too, we will take this one day at a time. For me, I am happy to have been able to make it up here today and I am also very happy for being with such a great group of quality young people. All of them have already changed in subtle ways since they arrived and it is good to see. Exposure to extreme, sense of duty and responsibility towards themselves, the group, and the mission’s objectives are turning them into a “band of brothers” (and sisters too!). But they have more. They are genuinely good-hearted human beings and show a rock-solid solidarity. No worries there.
Time to get down. We are taking the “highway” downhill, which means that we are making a B-line in the scree and it takes us about 30 minutes to come back to the cars waiting for us. This was a good day and the training has given me more confidence that the team has recovered and that we can think about making this summit. That makes me happy. All covered in dust, we jump back in the trucks and are hauled back to camp. Some of us will add another layer of dust during that ride. We are too many to all ride inside the 4x4s. Kevin is one of those making the ride outside on the flat bed…He probably will need a knife to remove all this dust from him tonight! .

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Kevin covered in dust after ride back at camp

At camp our cooks, David and Benita, have prepared a soup and chicken for us. It does not take long to clean our plates! Everyone is relaxed. The training has had the same effect on the team that it had on me. Tomorrow we have another day of science that will be also a way to recuperate and then, on the 18th, we should be on the slope for the final ascent.

Night has fallen on Chillyfornia, true to its name. We are piling on layers and all of us are now wearing headlights. The stars are as big as diamonds and they are rising very fast over the volcanoes. The moon is also playing games of white light and shadows on the surrounding peaks.

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Moonlight and shadows in the altiplano at night

There is so much magic around here and everything is a lot simpler, much harder, and so pure, from the rare air we breathe to the simplicity of life. It is far from being paradise, do not misunderstanding me. Every single living being around here has to fight to make it to tomorrow. We are just a little better equipped to survive than the wildlife around us but we are as fragile. I am thinking about this as I see the camp slowly starts falling asleep. The porters are already sleeping; many of the crew too. Somewhere in the “office”, Eric is studying.

It is time to retire for the day. I can’t stop thinking about the little nandus wondering in the altiplano, their mom being their only protection in a very, very, vast universe whose limits they do not know. Just like them, we keep going and just enjoy the next discovery. The next hill always brings a new perspective. Like us, they are explorers. I hope tonight they are under the warm protection of their mom’s feathers. We have our tents and will seek refuge there for now. Maybe our paths will meet again tomorrow.

Good night from up high,

Nath