Climbing the volcano and gazing among the stars

San Pedro de Atacama Travel Blog

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licancabur in the background
We had originally planned to go star gazing last night but it was cancelled due to the clouds. Surprising really as san pedro only gets about 30 cloudy days a year. Last night just happened to be one of them. So we had an early night but it was difficult to sleep as we were filled with anticipation for the day ahead.
The guide picked us up at 7 in the morning and the plan was to drive to El Toco a dormant volcano. Thankfully we would start at about 5000m and only have to climb about 600m. We were glad as after all the treking and kayaking we were ready to start taking things a little easier.
The drive brought us up to the altiplano and we passed grazing llamas and vicunas. On the way up the volcano we also passed part of the ALMA observatory. This is an radio telescope comprising of something like 12 elements that will finally be finished in 2012.
the climb
It will allow astronomers to pick up some of the most distant signals in the universe.
We got out at 5000m and it was really cold. Something like 0 degrees but with the wind blowing it dropped precipitously to -10 to -15. We had kinda prepared for cold weather but this was really cold. Our other climbing mates were a couple from britain (Rolly and Sandeepa).
We headed up the mountain and even though it was just 600m it was hard going on the lungs. We kept feeling really breathless even though we were only taking slow steps. In fact we were moving so slowly that we didn´t even warm up from the exertion. Soon Sandeepa was starting to get dizzy and headaches and we were all freezing. It was quite funny as we tried to talk to each other but our faces felt frozen and we could hardly control our snot.
view from the top. lago blanco in the distance

To her credit Sandeepa refused to turn back so after about an hour and a half we reached the top. The views were stupendous. We could see Licancabur the volcano that we had orginally thought of climbing and lago blanca just behind it. We could also see the chain of volcanoes that formed this part of the Andes. It was bitterly cold on account of the wind so we took our pictures and fled down the mountain. There is a saying climb up the mountain like an old man, climb down like a young man. It suddenly made so much sense.
The top of the mountain at such altitudes is not a place for humans. Getting up is difficult and slow going and the feeling of accomplishment is supreme when you overcome such difficulty but then you realise your mortality and you´d be surprised at how fast you can come down a mountain.
The experience also brought to mind the tragedy on Mt Everest when a number of climbers died because they were trapped on the mountains and died of exposure. When you´re in such a situation where you are just trying to keep yourself going against the breathlessness, fatigue and bitter cold, it is so hard to think about anyone else but yourself. Yet in so many tragedies you hear of sherpas and some climbers going back up to try and help their colleagues. It really takes superhuman effort to do that.
The drive back was uneventful and we spent the afternoon resting and eating gelati in the heat of the atacama afternoon.
That evening we looked up into the sky and noticed some cloud cover but thankfully by 1100 all the clouds had passed and the star gazing trip was on.

There are a few factors that greatly improve the observation of celestial objects.
1. low humidity
2. minimal light contamination ( this includes the full moon)
3. higher altitudes
The best place in the world to observe the stars is a plateau in antartica but that is not feasible for most people. So the next best place is the Atacama desert.
This is why in the southern hemisphere there is a profusion of observatories on the altiplanico and why the new ALMA radio satellite array is being built here.
We left for our star gazing trip at 1130 pm and met Alan a really enthusiastic french man. He has lived here is san pedro for many years and has been conducting this star gazing trips. He also has some of the largest amateur telescopes in the southern hemisphere.
freezing on the summit

This is really star gazing 101 made really interesting. We started off with some explanations of how astronomy started and then proceeded to take photos of the moon. It was amazing to see the moon at such detail.
Then we went on to look at nebulas, star clusters, etc. He and his wife made it all so very interesting.
Lastly he went through some key constillations how to identify them and how to make sense of the stars in the sky.
I must say it really piqued my interest. It concluded with a nice hot chocolate.
We got back at 2am and hit the sack immediately.
Tomorrow we planned to visit the sala de tara which would be a full day trip.
Jeredk says:
Looks amazing, I'm trying to decide what to do in the Atacama now.
Posted on: Nov 26, 2009
sojourner74 says:
hey thanks.
was freezing up on top
Posted on: Dec 17, 2008
mikevirgo0824 says:
Great shots, YK!!!
Posted on: Dec 17, 2008
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licancabur in the background
licancabur in the background
the climb
the climb
view from the top. lago blanco in …
view from the top. lago blanco in…
freezing on the summit
freezing on the summit
the winds blow so hard that ice fr…
the winds blow so hard that ice f…