I’ve been waiting for weeks to share this with you, patient reader, but thought it best to report only the final outcome of this year’s adventure to Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world. In case you hadn’t guessed, team Illinois did not and will not make it to the lake near the top of the volcano. The climatic disturbance known as El Nino (the child) made the decision for us – and for several others.
A separate group of Argentinian scientists and mountaineers – intent on the same mission: retrieving microbial samples from the lake – also chose not to climb the volcano this year. Frequent bouts of cold and other erratic weather convinced them that this was not a good year for mountain adventure.
The team of European divers who planned to set a world record by diving in the lake made it to Catamarca in February and began their acclimatization hikes. To prepare for their dive, they climbed another, closer mountain with a high-altitude lake. They came back down to Fiambala exhausted, spent, telling the locals they would try again next summer, which in Argentina begins in late December.
Some people did make it this year, not only to the level of the lake, but higher still, to the summit of the volcano. Five climbers on a team of 11 from Colorado State University hiked to the summit of Ojos del Salado in early January, about the time we arrived in Catamarca. One of the five, Pat Rastall, an experienced climber and leader of the group, said it was one of the hardest climbs of his life. The top of the volcano is heaped in gravel, which gives way with every step, he said.
Rastall took a picture of the lake (see above), but he didn’t know this ice field with a bit of water showing through was the lake he'd heard so much about.
The road to Ojos del Salado.
Photo by Diana Yates
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Just this week I got an email from Francisco Seufferheld, our expedition leader, inviting me and my husband to try again for the lake next year. Although Seufferheld was able to convince the European divers to decontaminate their wet suits before going into the lake, he remains mindful of the risk that the lake could become contaminated if scientists don’t get there first.