|Yale junior Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins hopes that a mountain-climbing expedition he took over the winter break will put to rest a longstanding question about the world’s tallest volcano.|
GPS readings on the second highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, Ojos del Salado
“The big hills are not wont to give up their secrets without a fight”: wise words indeed from Freddy Blume, who served as scientific advisor for our expedition to Ojos del Salado. The part of the Andes that includes Ojos first captured my imagination and intentions from the moment I was first lucky enough to visit three years ago. After once being repelled by the formidable combination of bureaucracy and meteorology in June-July 2010, my climbing partner, Chandler Kemp, and I returned to January 2011 and we were finally able to uncover some intriguing Andean secrets.
First, we logged a first ascent on El Muertito (5,985 m), a volcano nestled between El Fraile and its bigger brother, El Muerto. El Muertito – albeit decidedly non-technical – was, depending how one defines prominence, theretofore the highest unclimbed peak in South America. We approached the mountain from Portazuelo Incahuasi and circumnavigated Muertito’s base, eventually climbing from the west, the shortest route horizontally and vertically.
At its summit we were stunned not by the view but what was hiding inside the volcano’s crater: a blood-red lake. I’ve since spoken with several volcanologists and while without water samples it’s impossible to ascertain the mediatory agent of the pigmentation, there are two general theories. The first theory goes that an abiotic process, probably something mineral related, such as iron cycling, accounts for the color. The second theory is that a biotic process is responsible. And that’s where things get exciting. Because of the lake’s altitude (nearly 6,000 m) and arid climate, it’s thought that the extremophile that might inhabit the lake would analogize life on other planets.
After Muertito we moved on to the main course, Ojos del Salado. Using high-precision GPSs from our sponsor, Trimble, and relying on technical support from Freddy and UNAVCO, we measured the altitude of Ojos del Salados’ Chilean and Argentine summits. With a margin of error of two centimeters, the Argentine summit is 6,892.12 m and the Chilean 6,891.81 m, what we believe to be the new measurements-of-record. While we hope this settles the long-drawn-out debate over which of Ojos’ two summits is tallest, I suppose partisan mountaineers are likely not wont to give up their fights about the big hills.