After 28 months of no fieldwork this trip to Chile couldn't come fast enough. As a volcanologist, for me anyway, there is just something about getting out to a volcano which keeps the excitement for the subject alive. Coupled with a period of study leave the past few months have refreshed and revitalised my drive to continue some of the work I find exciting but also to try a few new things.
This was my first trip to Chile and the target volcano Lastarria one of the volcanoes in the Northern area of Chile. From a scientific perspective this trip represents the next level for the work we have been doing in Sheffield on ultraviolet cameras. Tom Wilkes has been working on a permanent system that can simply be left in the field to collect data for periods of months, instead of the shorter field campaigns that I have written about lots before. The group at Universidad Católica del Norte (Antofagasta) have been ardent users of our ultraviolet cameras and are enthusiastic to take this next step with us.
The work then we felt was of some importance, however, I am not sure I was fully prepared for how tough the work would be incorporating the altitude and the cold. I have worked at altitude before at Ubinas and Sabancaya in Peru. But on each occasion they were shorter trips and didn't involve overnight stays at significant altitude whilst camping. This journey in Chile started at Antofagasta, sea level, and within a couple hours we reached a place called Agua Verde, which seemed to consist of a petrol station with ice cream and some dilapidated restaurants. A short u-turn and we took a road called the B-885. From the start alongside the gravel road were mining ruins which littered the first few tens of kilometres. We only passed two cars coming in the opposite direction, a road little used it would seem. The landscape was like nothing I had experienced before almost completely lacking in vegetation bar yellowy tufts of grass, with the broad flat plains punctuated by prominent peaks.
The journey along the B-885 took us into the night and after three hours on this road we arrived at our camp. But I wouldn't truly appreciate the landscape we crossed until the return journey. The camp, pictured, was the reclaimed site of previous mining operations. A small corrugated extended shed split into cooking area and a dining area with mattresses for sleeping. That first night of sleep was tough at around 3600 metres and incredibly cold, I don't have an exact number, but needless to say it was cold enough to freeze the water in the plastic bottle at the end of my bed. We spent a total of three nights at the camp and each night felt like an eternity of fidgeting and trying to get comfortable. Sleep must have come at points as I recall dreaming. It is a weird feeling to be physically exhausted and yet not being able to do the one thing that would help. Luckily I found the work during the day to be a distraction from the cold and wind which whipped round the flanks of the volcano.
In total we went up to Lastarria three times, spending more time on the first two days. Day one was all about measuring the gas release and installing the permanent system at about 4600 metres, next to an old lava flow from the summit area. On day two we went up to 5200 metres and to one of the most prominent fumarole fields I have seen, passing frozen sulphur flows on the way up. Photos just couldn't do the vibrant yellows and oranges surrounding each individual fumarole justice. The other amazing thing about Lastarria is that it's possible to drive right up to the fumarole field along a mazey road, the extent to which mining companies were willing to explore and attempt extraction of resources amongst the furthest and more remote areas is astounding. Day three was a quick pop up to the permanent ultraviolet camera to check operation and then to begin the journey back to Antofagasta.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience in the remotest location I have ever been, the cold and camping adding to the experience, somehow enhancing the time spent in the landscape, despite the difficulties sleeping and how tough it felt physically. When it was time to leave it did come as a bit of a relief and my time spent acclimatising to the altitude allowed me to enjoy the landscape as we bounced along past older volcanoes, crossed salt flats and even encountered vicuna running across the road escaping from a wandering fox. As oxygen flooded back on the downward leg sleep took me and then eventually back to Antofagasta. I am certain this won't be the last visit to one of the amazing volcanoes of Chile and I thoroughly look forward to my next adventure.