Captain's Log No. 5 - A New Universe Unfolds

November 18-20, 2008

The previous days have been very cold with high winds and low temperatures. Macario and some of the porters reported the summit lake of Simbad being, in great part, frozen as they visited the crater a few times for equipment rotations. If the lake is frozen, that will limit the amount of science we can do up there this year. Simbad is certainly a tough volcano to get to, to stay on and to study. Its proximity with Lascar makes it dangerous as well; we cannot build a summit camp anywhere near the summit. Lascar vents continuously, most of the time water vapor but from time to time, sulfuric acid as well. Not a good place to be if the clouds sink into Simbad’s crater. Our mid-camp is half-way on the slope, leaving us with 600 m to climb on summit day and a few hours only to focus on science before descending. This ascent is hard in scree and ash. I’ll have to think about something for the future. Maybe a small camp below the red rocks about 40 minutes from the summit would do the trick. They are on the opposite side of Lascar and somewhat protected. That’s for the volcano itself but for now, I have other worries in mind.

Up to now, Edmond was among the very few not being hit by some sort of bug during this expedition. That’s not the case anymore. On the day planned for our ascent to mid-camp (November 18), he wakes up complaining of abdominal pain and nausea. Considering the history here, we cannot take any chance. This is a trip to the Calama hospital, four hours away. That means that our doctor is going with him and that we will have to wait for her return to go up. She should be back by the end of the day.

I see the car leaving the camp and disappearing on the horizon. I have to be with the team and organize an impromptu day of science. Some of the crew will take advantage of this additional day to finish their science at Lagunas Lejia and Aguas Calientes. The logistics team now has a bit more time to finish the preparation for the ascent with only tomorrow left for the team to start the ascent. This is our last buffer day. Once everyone is organized, I go back to my tent, my thoughts wandering beyond the altiplano, somewhere on a road between Chillyfornia and Calama.

The day unfolds, windy but eventless after that. Jeremy and Kevin are happy with their experiments. Lee and Cookie have joined them. They are back a little after one o’clock; I am sorting out the last details of the ascent with Cristian. Claudia should be back from Calama tonight around 8:00 pm. If Edmond is fine, he will stay in San Pedro to recover. He did not plan to climb this year anyway and his stay in San Pedro was on our schedule. However, it was not planned for him to be there and sick. Now, if he needs to stay in hospital, then, Victor will go there to be with him. He offered this without hesitation. The reason he gave me was that he has family in Calama. He smiles…He knows. We have known each other for too long and I cannot hide my thoughts from him and do not want to. He just points at the guys and the mountain and then points at me and back at the mountain…Nice short cut. He wants me up there. His friendship touches me deeply.

It is not even dinner time when Claudia is back. She was fast and news is good. It is only a bacterial infection, nothing really serious. A few days of antibiotics and Edmond will be fine. Some of the team members have shown symptoms in the past few days and it is a bit depressing to see this thing propagating although we are doing our best to maintain good hygiene. I suppose that a weakened immune system at high altitude is to blame more than anything else. Edmond will recover in San Pedro while we climb. Victor can stay with us and I feel a bit better. We plan to call Edmond tonight. Apparently, he was better already before arriving to the ER department and actually stopped at the hotel in San Pedro to take a shower before heading to Calama… I can’t help but laugh after all this worry. At least, he is fine.

Tomorrow we go up. Night falls on Chillyfornia. The next one will be spent at mid-camp. From tomorrow on, we will be climbing, sleeping, and working on that mountain. Two hard days are in sight. I see the backpacks getting ready near the tents. I’ll finish mine tomorrow. Not too much to add in it. We will still have to take our sleeping bags and a blanket but for now, we certainly can use them in the tents.

It is as cold as ever. I get out of the dinning tent. Everything is dark in the camp. The crew is in bed early, most likely thinking about tomorrow, I assume. I had hoped to talk to Edmond tonight but the satellite phone is disconnected and the generator off. I do not want to wake up everybody. I get in the tent, strangely quiet. I have placed Bongo and GB in Edmond’s sleeping bag. Tomorrow, I’ll take them with me and hopefully the day after tomorrow, they will be at the summit with us. Those two little mascots have accompanied us every single expedition. I look at them; I smile, but still, they cannot fill the empty space tonight.

November 19 - I talk to Edmond in the morning. His voice is tired or maybe this is just the satellite phone but my worries are back and that puts me in a dark mood. Getting ready to go up is hard when so much is calling me down in San Pedro. I’ll have to make that choice clear in my head really fast. By 10:00 am, the pick ups are here and we pile up on equipment on the flat beds. The ascent team is composed of me, Cookie, Claudia, Jeremy, Jut, Kevin, Eric, Gordon, Cristian, and Victor (who will stay at mid-camp for logistical support). Macario will guide us and will climb with three porters to the summit while two others will break camp at mid-slope with Victor as we are going up.

We are following the same dirt trail with the pick up trucks as during training day. We should be a little slower than during that day because our personal load is heavier but we have lots of time in front of us and this is a good feeling. No rush. Juan, the driver of our car, is once again displaying all of his talent, to the point that I am asking if he really plans to take us to the summit with the car. He stops at 4,800 m and it’s finally time to get out. The team is spread between the three cars and not all of those made it as high as ours. We will have to wait for them. Meanwhile, Gordon, already camera rolling, has climbed a bit more to catch us starting on the slope. That takes another 20 minutes but we are finally all on our way, one long line. Macario is first, I am behind him and I already have locked my eyes on his footsteps.

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The team on its way up to Simbad, November 19th

This team has rhythm. I already could see that during training but today, everybody is again doing well, to the point that it takes us only 30 minutes more to reach mid-camp than two days ago, with additional load. We also stopped a few times. We reach camp around 3:00 pm and start setting up the tents. This is not the vast summit camp of Licancabur. Each tent is nested on a small space that was flattened for that purpose and we have barely the space to fit each tent’s footprint.

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Mid-camp

The view is breathtaking (literally !). I open my backpack to see that Bongo and GB are here and my mind wanders back to San Pedro. Hope everything is okay down there. I get into the tent that I share with Jut. He is helping out somewhere else. I can use some time for myself. The temperature is also falling pretty fast. I grab something quick to eat and drink and just rest. A couple of hours possibly pass before Jut comes back to settle down for the night. In the meantime, I shared some thoughts with Claudia. Now it is time to try to sleep. Unfortunately, the emphasis for most everyone tonight will be put on “try”.

November 20 - I lost track of how many times I woke up, maybe 30, 40 (??), how many weird dreams I had. This is the strangest night I ever had at altitude. When we talk in the morning, I realized that this experience was shared by most of us. Claudia has a theory. Apparently, the barometric pressure went down 200 mb last night as a storm was cruising nearby in Argentina and clouds were surrounding us. This means that, although mid-camp is at 5,400 m (5,363 m to be precise), the atmospheric pressure was equivalent to that of over 6,000 m, a rather big jump when trying to acclimatize. Net result: little headache, little seasickness, and little stomach ache. Right now, I do not want to get out of the tent. For the first time in seven years, I am contemplating the real possibility of staying at mid-camp and not make the summit. I ask for a couple of Tylenol, an antispasmodic for my stomach and start drinking everything I find i.e. tea, juice. Getting liquids down is an issue. I do not even want to think about food at this point. One hour after waking up, I am still in the mode of staying at camp. In the meantime, Macario and the porters have arrived. There is still time. They need to have breakfast and I need to think about how I want to deal with this. I feel sick and I know that it is better for the team that I stay here if this does not improve rather than becoming a problem somewhere on the slope.

IMG_8611 Log 5 mid camp Claudia morning (Large)
Claudia preparing breakfast at mid-camp, 11/20

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Claudia and Jut at breakfast;

IMG_8617 midcamp breakfast (Large)
Breakfast time for the team, from l to r: Ingrid (a.k.a Cookie), Kevin, Eric, Nath, and Gordon

Another 30 minutes pass and there is some improvement. I do not feel all that strong but the overall feeling is better. Maybe I will give it a try. If that does not hold, then, I can get back down to mid-camp which is easy to reach. It is 9:00 am when we start our way up. As usual, I am behind Macario who has taken my backpack and does not seem to be willing to give it back to me. I never asked for that as I am used to carry my load but Macario is most likely right. With that on my back today, it is unlikely that I could make it to the summit and he probably knows it better than anybody else. I have known him for a long while too. Wherever I turn, I see friends and their support. No matter what or how I feel, this is the best adrenaline shot in the world. Claudia had a rough night too and Eric and Jut are still a tired. We go up. I have to admit that in the first hour, I probably thought about going down a couple of times. But then, there is always the next step, the next switchback, still the possibility of feeling better. I haul myself to the red rocks this way. In the previous hour, I have started to be able to drink more at once. I take this as a good sign. I am on electrolytes thanks to Claudia. They do not taste all that good but they are getting the job done. I am still here and feeling better, light, but better.

We stop at the red rocks for a little while. That gives everyone the time to catch their breath, hydrate, and for those who want/can, eat something. We are only 40 minutes away from the summit and I start to believe I can make it.

IMG_8649 Log 5 team break during summit ascent (Large)
The team taking a break in the red rocks, from foreground to background: Jut, Kevin (standing), Ingrid, Eric, Macario, and Nath

We are on our way again. The summit is now a reality.

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The team arrives near the summit of Simbad at about 12:30 pm, November 20th

The whole team is making it and that’s definitely a highlight considering all that we went through. Eric has some difficulty about 20 minutes away from the goal and needs a little bit of assistance from Claudia to get back on track. Both will meet us at the summit within 15 minutes escorted by Cristian who closes the trail. We are there, all of us. I feel deeply happy for Jut who had such rough start, for Jeremy, Kevin, and Eric, for whom this is their first summit that high. Cookie is having a great day as is Cristian. Macario is showing a thumb up. It took us only three hours and half to reach summit from mid-camp – and we stopped --. This is our best time ever, which means more time for science. However, this will mostly depend on the lake, not on us.

I now walk the little ridge that still hides the lake from me. I get to the top and look down. What I see just finishes uplifting my spirit and rewards us for all the difficulties we had. The lake is mostly thawed, keeping a center core of ice glittering like diamonds surrounded by ruby red, almost purple, waters.

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The summit lake from the rim of Simbad

I do not know who to thank for that but I give thanks anyway. We spend 5 minutes for photos, we deserve it. I also ask Cookie to take a photo of GB and Bongo with the lake in the background. They are not so foreign to the fact that I made it to the top. Usually, that’s Edmond who carries them in his backpack.

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The first part of the team at the summit



They are soon joined by;


IMG_8675 Claudia at summit (Large)
Claudia

and

IMG_8676 Cristian at summit (Large)
Cristian and Eric (lower left)

We will stay close to three and a half hours at the summit and complete all the science we could that day. Jut is launching the Eldonet UV dosimeter successfully with the help of Cristian and Gordon.

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Jut (left) and Cristian (right) launching the UV dosimeter

Jeremy is collecting samples and Kevin tries unsuccessfully to boot his computer. The low pressure at 5,870 m is playing tricks on the system and there is nothing that Kevin can do about it, and that means that will we have to do the UV profile of the water with the water samples back at home.

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Kevin tries unsuccessfully to boot his computer with Macario watching

I have donned the waders and entered the purple water. I am taking water samples.

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Nath entering the lake while Gordon (left) is filming from the shore. Eric is logging information about the water samples and Jeremy (right) monitors the operation

As I do this, I cannot help but notice that the red of the water is from particulates in suspension, billions of them. What are they? It is hard to imagine something mineral that could stay suspended and not dissolve. Maybe these are tiny living creatures, in which case, there is a serious crowd out there and that would make Simbad’s summit lake of top ranking scientific interest. I keep sampling. Eric passes me the bottles. Interestingly, the first 50 cm of shallow waters from the shore do not show any of these particulates and the water is completely transparent. Despite the altitude, my brain starts to click a bit and I am listing hypotheses, each of them more exciting than the previous.

Once I get all the water samples, I start looking at the sediment and…bingo! The first layer has the color and consistency of egg white and is few millimeter thick. Pass this layer and there is a lot of green, which I believe to be algae but the microbiologists will have the last word on that. There is also a pink layer in between that could be bacteria.

IMG_8682 Log 5 lake algae (Large)
Nath discussing the content of the sediment samples with Eric. Gordon still filming…

There is also a strong odor of sulfur coming out of this but I keep sampling. The crater is buzzing from all the activity. My head is buzzing too and my balance is hard to find. While I drank a lot, I was not able to eat anything since last night, which was already not that much. Dizziness is catching up with me while I am in the water. I walk slowly out and sit for a while and things are better within a few minutes. Claudia is joking but keeping an eye on everybody. She does not want to have to fish me in the middle of the lake and I can certainly understand that. The pH is 5.5 (higher than last year’s 3.9) and the temperature of the water is 8.3C. There are better places to take a bath.

Gordon films what he can and is running from one place to the next. He also gives a hand to install the Eldonet dosimeter. It is already getting late. It will take us close to two hours to return to the foot of the volcanoes where the cars wait. We cannot get caught by the night fall and cold on that slope as we need to exit through a ~50 degree sloping gully. Still, all of our findings are so exciting that it is with a heavy heart that I pull the plug at 3:30 pm. It is even harder because for the first time in the 3 years we have visited this volcano, there is absolutely no wind in the crater and the temperature is actually relatively mild. It is hard to leave in these conditions but we have no choice. Another hour and we would be in trouble on the slope.

We gather as much equipment as possible and leave. What we could not carry today down the slope, Macario and a couple of porters will come to retrieve tomorrow.

We leave the crater with a sense of achievement. We’ve come a long way to make this summit. This expedition was very challenging in many respects. We also know that we do have exceptional samples in our bags and because of the proximity they will be at the University in Antofagasta in less than 2 days, and therefore in excellent condition to start their analysis. We will finally know what they are.

IMG_8730 Log 5 team descend (Large)
The team leaves the summit crater with regret around 3:30 pm, November 20th

We jump in the gully. Gordon captures with his camera the backlit slope and the dust around us as we are descending, like skiers in powdery snow. We reach mid-camp where Victor has been waiting for us at 4:40 pm, very fast. Stopping there was a mistake, though, as far as I am concerned. The last 30 minutes of descent will be very hard. I believe I could add some definition to the word “tired”. Each step in the last 500 meters is excruciatingly hard and I’m almost nauseous. It is 5:20 pm when we reach the car. Below the crust of dust that covers us, we are only smiles. We made it. A station is logging again up there at the summit, we retrieved that of last year, and we have brought back very exciting samples.

The news gets even better than that. At camp, we receive two messages that complete that day in a uplifting way: (a) Edmond is doing great and will come up with a pick up tomorrow to help us break camp at Chillyfornia. We will all go back to San Pedro together; (b) David and Benita have cooked a wonderful soup and chicken dinner tonight! The dinner table is buzzing with laughter and tales, memories this group now shares, that of an ascent and a mission they made successfully together. As night falls, I head back to my tent. It is still early but I can use some sleep. My backpack is outside the tent. I open it: GB and Bongo are there. I put them back in Edmond’s sleeping bag and I get to mine. I look at them. Tonight they fill that space in my heart with joy. Tomorrow, their “dad” will come to pick us up and we will all get down the mountain together.

Good night from up high,

Nath