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The Ojos del Salado MedExpedition
Objectives: Highest diving (setting a world record), climbing the highest volcano in the world (on 75th anniversary of first summit by polish expedition), taking medical examination never done before.
We eventually did:
We are group of friends of different occupation – we are: medical doctor, psychologist, finance analyst and computer engineer – but of common passion – diving and adventure.
As high altitude diving (above 3000 m) is not a common thing as well as having doctor and psychologist on team we have seized an occasion to do something not only for ourselves but also to take part in a medical experiment – nobody has dove at so high altitude and made medical examination of human body at the same time. So we could bring new look into human physiology during both climbing and diving. This idea ecame to live as a project named Ojos del Salado 2012 MedExpedition
We have soon established that the highest body of liquid officially noted is a lake on slopes of the highest volcano on earth – Ojos del Salado. The mountain itself is located on border of Chile and Argentina, in Andes mountains. The volcano’s higher peek is at 6920 m. a. s. l. which it makes it the second highest peek in South America. As goes for the lake, it lies on Argentinean side of Ojos and is at altitude of 6300 m.a.s.l Climbing at almost 7000 meters is not ‘a walk in the park’ itself, not mentioning dragging
there ‘tons’ of diving equipment so preparations need to be thorough. We needed to transport over 420 kg of equipment of different kind – warm close, climbing gear, supplies and, of course, diving equipment. Core preparations took over 4 months – diving training, gathering all needed equipment, planning logistics and diving itself and, what was equally important, getting into physical shape. We did not know what conditions we can expect – weather in Andes could be quite unstable, also altitude brings an element of uncertainty – high altitude means lower temperatures but, at the same time, sun operates much stronger. We did not know if lake was frozen, covered with snow or if it was ice free, will it be a fresh water or salt water. We also have taken into consideration that there will be no water – but mostly sulfuric acid. So we needed to be prepared for almost every possibility and hope for the best.
As we arrived at Santiago de Chile, after more than 12 hours of flight, we were welcomed by sun and summer temperatures over 25 degrees Celsius. But we did not have time to enjoy this nice weather – we had to gather rest of the diving gear waiting for us and rush out towards our destination laying 600 km north from Santiago. After spending a night at Copiapo we started to gain altitude step by step – 3200m – Laguna St.Rosa; 4200 m – Laguna Verde; 4800 m Camp Atacama; 5800 m – Camp Tejos; at each of this sites we spend around 3 days for acclimatization making 6 hour trekking every day to prepare our bodies for lower pressure and lower air density. Our bone marrow had to learn to produce more red blood cells to compensate smaller amount of oxygen available in the air.
At the same time we had outstanding opportunity to admire vast lands,hills, lakes and desert like planes surrounded by beautiful , multicolored mountains – some red, some green, some covered with snow and some without a white spot – pure, naked rocks. And in this surroundings, every day, twice a day we have conducted our medical xamination – one part for our cardiologist and one part for psychology evaluation. Our daily routine would consist of: breakfast, tour of examination, daily trekking (approx. 6h), some rest, dinner , another tour of examination and finally sleep.
When we have reached Laguna Verde on altitude of 4350 m.a.s.l. we could take a rest for one day – a day off in natural spa! Salt water lake is surrounded by hot, thermal prings, which on the rocky coast of the lake, form pools of hot water (36-40 deg. C). A great deal of time we spent lying in hot water and enjoyed beautiful, sunny weather.
As we had quite a big lake in our reach we could not keep ourselves from diving in it!
That was a great possibility to check equipment and review safety procedures. But Laguna Verde is salt water lake, with salt concentration of 11%!! It is 3 times more than oceans on average. For this reason we had to take a little bit more weights than usual – about 26 kg!! That is 20 kg more than in fresh water!
Diving in Laguna Verde was not the easiest dive I have made. Visibility was poor – below 1m, conditions were unstable – we have found that concentration of salt is different in different parts of the lake – maybe because of light currents or because of hot springs popping form the cracks in rocky bottom of the lake – making buoyancy control a tricky one. And we had to be very careful about our buoyancy – as we have calculated during planning, diving in Laguna Verde to a depth of 10 meters is equivalent to a dive to a depth of 18 meters on sea level and, what is more important, our ascend speed had to be twice slower than normal. Otherwise we could end up with decompression sickness, which, in such remote location, could pose serious threat to health and life.
After another 2 days in Laguna Verde we were ready to go higher to next camp – Camp
When we reached our highest camp, Camp Tejos at 5800 m. We have started preparation to achieve our goals. Beside of acclimatization we had to conduct reconnaissance to find path to reach our lake. We had some information from Hungarian professor of geography who have reached that lake a year ago. After 4 hours of walk in rocky and sandy terrain we were able to check two possible ways to cross the ridge to reach Argentinian side of Ojos del Salado; unfortunately both ways lead through very difficult, rough terrain full of sharp rocks, ice penitents and loose gravel slipping from under feet. The best pass to other side was above 6400 m. Up to this point it would take 3 hours and probably another 3 hours to the lake where we had to set a camp and go back. All that would take at least 8 hours. Unfortunately this was too long, we would not be able to go back during day. And walking in the dark after long and exhausting trip was too risky. Also setting a camp next to the lake and spending night there was out of question – no one of us (including our guide and porters) was ready to spend night in a tent at 6300 m. a. s. l. We have come to a very hard decision – we could not make it to our primary objective. Fortunately we have found tree lakes on one of our excursions, we had to check if they were divable.
As it turned out, two of the newly lakes were very shallow – approximately 25-30 cm deep. But the third one was much bigger. So we have our equipment packed and head for diving. New lake was not far from refugio Tejos – less than 2 hours of walk. Preparations for the dive, setting up dive gear, dressing in dry suits – took another 2 hours. That left no much time for diving itself and going back.
When Patrick, as first of us, in full equipment, went into the lake breaking ice covering surface, we were very excited. He reached point were water was deep enough to submerge, gave us a sign that all is ok and then he disappeared under calm, stirred only by his bubbles, surface. He swim under big tile of crystal clear ice and surfaced on
the other side. Water was cold but very clear, there was no mud or sand that could mitigate visibility, only stone bottom and some rocks lying beneath the surface. When Patrick surfaced again and gave us Ok sign, we followed him into the lake.
After half an hour of exploring the lake, taking samples of bottom and water we were going to end the dive. I’ve started to disassemble dive gear when Maciek, still in water, surfaced and shouted: “There is a fish!!” We were little bit confused – we knew Maciek’s sense of humor and we did not expect to find any signs of life at this altitude – but Maciek insisted : “Guys, I’m not kidding!” Then Patrick saw it too! There was an animal that looked like a fish or some form of amphibian, 2-3 cm long and red in color! Patrick grab his photo equipment and started to follow discovered creature all over the lake – soon he found that there was at least two of them! Unfortunately time was running out and we had to go back to our camp, but we were very excited of our discovery. On the next day we have recovered rest of the equipment that we have left on the lake and took a rest – we were preparing to go to the summit of the highest volcano on earth!
The altitude difference between Tejos and summit of Ojos is 1100m, so you have to start early. Trip to summit starts at 4 o’clock am, when its dark and cold; you wear all your warm clothes – down jacket, two layers of polar trousers and wind proof trousers, plastic boots and two or three pairs of gloves – to keep warm and to prevent frostbites which can be severe at this altitudes as blood becomes thicker and cannot circulate in the smallest blood vessels. Our team was joined by 3 other climbers who wanted to take on Ojos. After 3 hours of constant climb sun finally rises giving some warmth after very cold dawn and giving some more energy for walking further on the unstable ground. After another 3 hours group reached a glacier which had to be crossed using crampons. From that point there was not far from the summit, only 100 meters vertical distance but making that 100 meter over the ridge on altitude of 6800 m. It took another hour! Finally, after almost 7 hours you can reach the top! You can see from there all surrounding mountains and all of them are beneath you! The view from there is just breathtaking. But remember, that’s not over yet, that you have to come down. The whole trip to the top and back takes 12 to 13 hours and, believe me, you will be exhausted.
Our time on the Ojos del Salado have run out and we had to come down. We didn’t reach the highest lake on earth but we did:
And we not gave up! Now we are preparing for second round with Ojos – we are planning to go there next year to finally reach the highest body of liquid on earth!
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
Emergency first response instructor
DAN oxygen provider