January 19, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 3

Andes climb aims to determine true height of grand peaks

Haines resident Chandler Kemp and a hiking buddy from Sitka are waiting to see if research they conducted a year ago resolves a decades-long debate over the height of two peaks in South America.

In January 2011, Kemp, 21, and Sitkan Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, 22, climbed Ojos de Salado, a 22,608-foot mountain in the Andes that straddles the border between Argentina and Chile. They lugged up 20 pounds of global positioning equipment to answer a question that’s chafed the two nations since the 1970s: which of the mountain’s two peaks – one located in Chile, the other in Argentina – is taller.

Their 10-day expedition included a possible first-ascent of a neighboring volcano, El Muertito, and the discovery of a blood-red lake near its 19,557-foot summit. They traversed a barren, lifeless landscape, where they relied on penitintes, stalagmites of ice growing up through the dirt, for drinking water.

“It was all dirt and volcanic rock. I was really glad to have somebody to talk to,” Kemp said in a recent interview.

Kreiss-Tomkins, who has climbed several peaks in South America, had twice previously tried summiting Ojos. On his first, solo attempt in 2008, the desolate, foreboding landscape turned him back at 19,000 feet. Plans for a second try in 2009 went awry when Argentine authorities closed hiking after a German hiker died.

Last year he turned to Kemp, a collegiate track and cross-country runner at Cornell University, whose local distinctions include holding the record in the annual Mount Ripinsky Run. The two had become friends after competing against each other as high school runners.

Their previous adventures included retracing the route of the Kiksadi Survival March, a 45-mile wilderness trek from the northern tip of Baranof Island to Sitka in 2006. “When I’m in Haines, for fun we’ll go up to the Takshanuks and scramble around. We stay active,” said Kreiss-Tomkins, who attends Yale University.

But unlike Kreiss-Tomkins, Kemp’s experience at high altitudes was limited to a single, guided hike up 19,500-foot Mount Kilimanjaro during a local Scouting trip. “This was a lot harder… I was pretty nervous but it worked out well,” Kemp said. “We took the time we needed for acclimating to the altitude. That helped us a lot.”

Kreiss-Tomkins had learned of the altitude dispute from the Argentine climbing community. He contacted UNAVCO, a Boulder, Colo.-based non-profit that facilitates geoscience research and education, about his goal of measuring the two peaks, using modern equipment. With the loan of three GPS units for triangulation, and some advice from an Argentine climbing official, the pair set out during Christmas break from college. Leaving from the town of Mendoza and starting at 13,000 feet, they took an unorthodox route, including scaling El Mertito, an extinct volcano.

“We didn’t take either historic route. We wanted to get into terrain nobody had been in before,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “We had no guarantee of water for long stretches, but it worked well for the situation we were looking at.”

Except for one snowfield at the summit, the mountain was dirt and rock. The only sign of life above about 10,000 feet was the appearance of a solitary crow. “It was amazingly barren,” Kemp said.

On their third day out, they arrived at the spot their map said was Muertito’s summit, but it was obvious from the terrain, that they weren’t on top. Late in the day, as they hiked to its highest point, they spotted a red gleam below, at first not recognizing it as a body of water.

It was opaque, blood red, and about 35 feet long, Kemp said. “It was really startling.” They puzzled over it and took photos, but because it was late and the terrain there was steep, they didn’t climb down to it. “In retrospect, it might have been worthwhile to go down and get a water sample,” he said.

Kreiss-Tomkins theorized the color was due to mineralization or bacteria, but it’s still a mystery. “There’s not a great record of what’s been climbed down there, but nobody’s ever heard of this red lake,” Kemp said.

After another day of hiking, they took a rest day, before making a base camp at 18,000 feet for their 4,500-foot, one-day climb to the top. Both had adjusted well to the altitude, but Kreiss-Tomkins, who hadn’t drunk enough water on the rest day, became dehydrated and exhausted.

Breaking for two hours to drink water and rest, the pair made the Argentine peak, then Kemp hiked alone about 100 meters along a steep ridge to the Chilean summit. “It was Class 5 terrain and really exposed. Not many people use it, and if you were not a mountain goat, you might want to use ropes, but Chandler’s a mountain goat, so it wasn’t a problem,” said Kreiss-Tomkins.

Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp each flipped a switch on a transmitter atop their respective peaks, sending signals to a third GPS station they’d activated at their 18,000-foot base station. They waited an hour, then headed back down, not knowing even if their equipment had worked.

Three months later, UNAVCO geophysicist Frederick Blume, who designed the team’s project, ran the numbers. He determined the Argentine peak is about a foot taller than the Chilean one. His findings will soon be out for peer review.

Kreiss-Tomkins said their work determined the mountain’s “precise position in the world to an incredible degree of precision,” just a two-centimeter margin of error. And he believes he and Kemp may have made the first ascent up El Muertito. “We didn’t know that at the time. It wasn’t confirmed until we got back. It’s just so remote, no one had ever climbed it.”

Kreiss-Tomkins is now talking about one more trip, this time to bring back a water sample from the red lake. Kemp, a physics major who graduates in May, said he’d like to climb some of Alaska’s taller peaks. He’ll be back in Haines this summer, and is planning another go at the Mount Ripinsky Run.