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Climber Scientist Peru Expedition Report #2 · June 27, 2012

A team of AAC Volunteers is in Peru right now on the Climber Scientist Peru Expedition, following up on their 2011 scientific work. Below you’ll find a report from the field. Stay tuned to the AAC News for more reports from Peru!

By AAC Member, CSP-Peru Co-Director, AAC Conservation Committee Chair Ellen Lapham:

Thank you again for supporting and encouraging our groundbreaking field work in Peru’s high Cordillera Blanca. Our team of 16 appreciates your interest in our science program.  Of course we have 14 peaks over 5000 meters on our climb list – with the goal of gathering high elevation data.

We hope you enjoy reading further!

—Ellen Lapham

CSP Peru Report2

Kate, a recent Western Washington University graduate (Geography and GIS) is becoming a very strong climber up high. She wrote on Tocllaraju in a snowstorm with avalanches booming around her: “Shelter. Clothing. Food. Water. These are the order of events for setting up camp for backcountry mountaineering. Rest-step, a hiking technique that conserves energy, conserves calories. When working above 5000 meters where oxygen is low, saving energy is key. DBH is the circumference of a tree at 1.3 meters, or breast height. An ice ax works just as well as a shovel when collecting ice and snow samples on top of peaks. As a field assistant (and social media guru!) for this year’s Climber Science Program in the Cordillera Blanca, my work office is beautiful, but the skills I am learning to do science in the mountains and to survive in an alpine environment, are monumental.” – Tocllaraju moraine camp, 5100m, 23 June 2012.

Our recent journey and climbing has been dominated by weather and climate: The offshore Peru current is 2.5 degrees warmer than normal – is an El Nino forming?  For the Cordillera Blanca, this helped fuel thunderstorms from the upslope flow. We had days with rain, graupel, thunder and lightning. We also had an oscillation between weather coming up from the Amazon (east side of the CB) and weather coming in from the Pacific.  Note, this time of year the weather here is typically dry and sunny.

The climbing conditions have been affected across the Cordillera Clanca by last year’s very heavy snow – many mountains and routes are still tenuous. 2012’s snowfall was 9 meters – in 2011 it was a more normal 2 meters!

To our delight we discovered a cave above 4300 meters that held what we believed were old human artifacts. We are following up with the appropriate anthropological authorities.

No expedition is complete without an epic or two. Cows seem to be our bête noir. Benny’s favorite shirt was sucked up by a grazing cow – she got one sleeve into her first stomach before he noticed the body of the shirt dangling from her mouth. With great exertion and cussing he pulled the shirt out from the cow covered with grass and mucous. After a through rinsing in the nearby stream, Benny now has a shirt with one sleeve at least 6” longer than the other. A wall trophy perhaps?

Below is our summary of our 6 productive days in the Ishinca Valley, a place accessed by a most beautiful 4-5 hour 2200’ elevation gain hike through farmlands, pastures, and as we trekked upward, paralleled a raging steam in a narrow defile. We passed through lush wet green groves of polylepis trees, locally called Quenual – this would be in great contrast to our destination camp at 14,000 feet where we were surrounded by steep grey rock slopes, hints of high snowy peaks, and hard ground where the effects of overgrazing created a moonscape.

CLIMBS: Three peaks surrounding the Ishinca watershed.

Urus Este: 5495 meters/18,024 feet. We gathered snow samples and took a CO2 sample fro the summit.

Ishinca: 5530 meters/18,138 feet.  The team completed a traverse north to south with snow samples collected to assay for black carbon, metals, and dust.

Tocllaraju: 6034 meters/19,792 feet. Our attempt was thwarted by bad weather and avalanche hazard. Two team members reached the high moraine camp at 5100 meters and were able to collect CO2 samples.


Our Ishinca Valley work up high was dominated by CO2 sampling. As we journey tomorrow into the Llaca valley we will shift to water quality.  We have been asked by all local stakeholders including the Huascaran National Park and UNASAM (the university in Huaraz) to survey the upper watershed. Most water quality work in this region has been done on the rivers and streams at elevations below 11,000 feet so our work will add a dimension of useful data.


CO2 samples: CO2 production may be affected by glacial albedo although little is currently known about this process. We collected samples simultaneously from the city of Huaraz (10,000 feet) and Ishinca base camp and at the Tocllaraju glacier camp at 5120 meters. Benny also took spectral measurements concurrent with the CO2 observations.

Snow samples: Carl got 19 large ziplock bags of snow from measured intervals on the peaks, including summits, from 5000 to 5700 meters, elevations comparable to those we sampled on our 2011 expedition. We melted and filtered these at base camp and they will be analyzed using five different methods to determine chemical composition as well as heating capacity. (Note:  accumulations of black carbon can accelerate glacial mass loss.)

Spectra:  Benny and Pat got their field protocol for spectra substantially streamlined during this trip. They obtained reference visible light reference spectra (light intensity at different colors) of snow, rock (granite), trees, shrubs, and grass.  These will be used as reference for informing John’s remote (satellite) sensing data. Benny and Pat got snow albedo measurements on the Tocllaraju glacier camp to relate this to black carbon content.  A key question to answer is the relative contribution of Pacific vs. Amazon sources for particles.  The sun spectra vary as a function of particles and gases in the atmosphere – thus getting that data can help us understand local conditions.

Ground Control Points:  John delineated Polylepis forest patches above 4100 meters and got ground control points for the whole of the Ishinca Valley.  He did not see any evidence of fire, one of the key research tracks for our program.

Vegetation plots: Rebecca, assisted by Kate and Carl, established a total of 12 monitoring plots above 4100 meters. These plots will help us understand how species richness and diversity in this unique ecosystem have changed over time as endangered Polylepis forests retreat due to overgrazing as well as help us track shifts in the distribution of vegetation over time with increasing temperatures.


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