Monday, August 6, 2012

AAC NYS Member James Holmes Cordillera Blanca Trip Report

I thought scientific exploration died when the last holes on the map were filled in. It lived only in stories (Charles Marlow and the uncharted heart of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and history (Apsley Cherry Gerard and his Worst Journey in the World to Antarctica and the South Pole). I’m not a scientist, but I believe strongly in its importance, and exploration is its most thrilling form. When I heard of the American Alpine Club’s Climber Science Program (ACSP), I couldn’t wait to learn more. The ACSP leads an annual expedition to the Cordillera Blanca mountains of Peru, where a mix of climbers, scientists, and climber-scientists venture all over the range climbing and collecting data in aid of alpine research. This was living, breathing scientific exploration and a project that I really wanted to be a part of. So from June 16-25, I travelled from New York to Peru to climb for science.

June 16, 2012 – New York, NY to Lima, Peru

And we’re off!

The Author Leaving New York. Photo by Dana Lucas.
June 17, 2012 – Huaraz, Peru

Elevation: 10,013 ft. Start acclimatizing. Huaraz is striking – the dry rolling peaks of the Cordillera Negra on the one side, and the soaring snow-capped summits of the Cordillera Blanca on the other. The Blanca are undergoing change, and the ACSP is studying this change. One change I’ve heard of is potential for water contamination from grazing and mining… and its effects on people’s stomachs. I hope I don’t run into this one.

View of the Cordillera Blanca from Huaraz. Photo by James M. Holmes.
June 18, 2012 – Huaraz, Peru

More acclimatizing. I meet the expedition team, just in from the Pisco Valley. Eager to see the neighborhood, we venture around. Huaraz, a town of ~150,000 people, displays a unique combination of old Andean culture, modern Peruvian culture, and climbing culture. I quickly learn that my Spanish is very bad… but a smile and a laugh seem to go a long way.

Mingling in Huaraz. Photo by James M. Holmes.
June 19, 2012 – Ishinca Valley

The hike into the Ishinca Valley passes quite diverse ecosystems – from terraced farmland to semi-arid grasses to polylepis forests – all fed by streams from the mountains above. I have my first taste of science in the field as I help expedition co-leader, Dr. John All, take ground control point observations for his studies of changes in the landscape over time. Really, he is doing me a favor – forcing me to move slowly and acclimatize.

Ishinca Valley – Kate von Krusenstiern, Dr. John All. Photo by James M. Holmes.
June 20, 2012 – Ishinca Valley

We scout the upcoming climbing routes on Urus Este and Ishinca, while Dr. Bernhard (Benny) Bach and others help Dr. Rebecca Cole with her vegetation studies. We take more ground control point observations. From Urus Este you can see the remains of a massive glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) beneath which our basecamp lies. I’m glad nature already got that out of her system.

Remains of a GLOF below Tocllaraju – View from Urus Este. Photo by James M. Holmes.
June 21, 2012 – Urus Este

Despite scouting the route yesterday, we overshot the start and were rewarded with some scrambling. Cold air, clear night – beautiful weather. The group took snow samples at selected elevations and the summit for Dr. Carl Schmitt’s black carbon research. Every afternoon, including this one, we got clouds and precipitation – an unusual phenomenon for what I understand is the region’s dry season.

Urus Este Summit (17,782 ft) – Kate von Krusenstiern, the Author, Dr. Carl Schmitt. Photo by Dr. John All.

June 22, 2012 – Glacier on Tocllaraju

Nursing a minor knee injury from Urus Este, I volunteer to climb with Dr. Carl Schmitt to a glacier at 16,400 ft on Tocllaraju, while the rest of the team climbs Ishinca (18,143 ft) for more snow samples. On our glacier, Carl takes air samples, and expedition co-leader, Ellen Lapham, takes control samples simultaneously at base camp. The science behind our work on the glacier is way over my head, but it has something to do with a hypothesis that CO2 can form by some yet-to-be-discovered process over large snowfields... Don’t ask me; read the paper when it comes out.

Dr. Carl Schmitt Sampling the Air on Tocllaraju. Photo by James M. Holmes.

June 23, 2012 – Ishinca Valley

A fellow climber is quite ill and not recovering at the still relatively high altitude of base camp (14,400 ft). I volunteer to descend a day early and accompany him back to Huaraz. It’s a nice day for a hike.

Leaving the Ishinca Valley. Photo by James M. Holmes.

June 24, 2012 – Huaraz, Peru

Today is my last day before heading back to Lima and on to New York. Feeling better at the lower altitude, we check out the local bouldering spot, Huanchac. Our new friends in the combi were excited to ride with the crash pad.

Collin Steiner Working Out a Move. Photo by James M. Holmes.

Looking Back – New York, NY

The Ishinca Valley was a major undertaking for me. For the ACSP, it was just one of eight weeks, just two of more than a dozen peaks. And it’s just the beginning. The expedition just wrapped up with climbs of Alpamayo and Quitaraju, and now the scientists will return to the U.S. for the real science – the laboratory analysis, the writing, the peer review, the publishing. And then the next expedition in 2013! I will eagerly follow their progress, and you can too: visit the American Climber Science Program page on Facebook, or visit the page on the American Alpine Club’s website. And maybe we’ll see you in Peru in 2013!

Wish You Were Here! Photo by Collin Steiner.
James M. Holmes
New York, NY