Peru 2013 - the American Climber Science Program environmental studies expedition

10:27 p.m. on August 7, 2013 (EDT)
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I have just returned from a month in Peru as a part of the third year of the American Climber Science Program (ASCP). The first year, 2011, is described in this trip report  and this video  .

I did not participate in the 2012 expedition for a number of reasons, but returned this year for most of the month of June (2013). The basic procedure for the ACSP is to bring a group of scientist climbers into each of several valleys (“quebrada” in the local Quechuan language), each specializing and trained in analyzing one or more aspects of the Andean environment at altitudes ranging from the valley floors at 10,000 feet elevation (3000 meters) to the highest peaks in the Cordillera Blanca within Huascaran National Park. The teams, totaling up to 20 to 30 scientists (including graduate and undergraduate students), gather samples of soil, plant life,  water, air, snow, and glacial ice for analysis, as well as recording the types and varieties of plant life and domestic animal grazing (Peru allows grazing by cattle, sheep, and other domestic animals within the National Park boundaries). Exact positions of samples and photographs are recorded using GPS receivers (one of my areas of expertise being geotagging of samples and ground truth observations for use with satellite imagery).

Snow samples are melted and forced through quartz filters of 0.7 micron pore size to extract black carbon and other particles that have been deposited from various sources that may include mining, industrial sources, and nearby urban development. The prevailing winds in the area blow from the Amazon Basin to the east. The carbon particles are analyzed for isotopic distribution, which enables pinpointing of the sources.

The photo below shows the June 2013 team for the first month in Ishinca Valley. Participants included scientists and staff from the Huascaran National Park, the University in Huaraz (the main town at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca region in the Andes), and several American universities. The expedition directors were Ellen Lapham (administrative director, second from left, front row) and John All (science director, third from left, back row). Everyone there, including Joaquin (handled local logistics, third from left front row) and his assistants, are experienced climbers. Some of the younger ones in the photo are undergrad or grad students, working under guidance of professors at their home universities.


I was able to arrange a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Lima, where most people had multiple stops plus changes of plane. After landing in Lima, I took a local taxi from the airport through the unbelievable traffic (and accompanying air pollution) through Lima to the Oltursa bus station. The main navigational method of the taxis seems to rely heavily on use of the horn and challenging other vehicles to see who will back off first. I am sure my heart rate and blood pressure shot up to new record levels.

I took the bus to Huaraz along the coast highway, then up through the mountains to Huaraz. As seen in the photo, the coast of Peru consists of huge sand dunes that are semi-consolidated, with the highway cut into the face of the dunes.


 One of my first tasks in Huaraz was a visit to the central market. You can buy virtually anything in the market from a variety of vendors. Here are some of the women from local farms who have brought a variety of vegetables to sell in front of one of the many boticas.

 Inside the market you find all sorts of foods and other goods. Here is a view of one of the poultry vendors, with other foods stacked nearby.


 Back on the main street, a children’s parade was passing by. Here are a group of  “Einsteinitos”.


 We moved to our basecamp in Ishinca Valley the next day. To get there, we loaded our climbing and camping gear into large duffels and crates, along with the scientific gear needed to gather and analyze samples of the water, air, soil, photographs of sampling locations (with the locations being geotagged with GPS receivers, some of which recorded the 3-dimensional locations directly onto the image files), along with equipment to sample and analyze snow and glacial ice. Most of this gear was transported to Base Camp on burros, with some being carried in our packs.

On the 12 km hike to the Base Camp, we measured various parameters for the streams, as well as recording the number and distribution of domestic animals grazing in the meadows and hillsides. The photo below is one of the frequent stops we made to gather samples and record observations.


 This photo (below) is of the juncture of one of the main streams (left) in Ishinca Valley and a side stream (lower right corner of the photo). Note the yellow coloration of the water in the main stream and the rocks, as well as the lack of plant life in the main stream. Then compare with the side stream with its dense vegetation. The pH of the main stream measured 3.4 (quite acidic), while the side stream measured 7 (pretty much neutral). Note that our cooking and drinking water did NOT come from the main streams – boiling and filtering does not remove the contaminants nor buffer the high acidity. The livestock grazing the valleys will not drink from the main streams.

There is a fairly large refugio in Ishinca Valley. After setting up camp, we met there to a bit of scheduling and planning.


 Here is a view of our camp, looking up Ishinca Valley at some of the peaks we would climb during the week. The cut through the moraine was made by the Peruvians to pre-empt potential breakthrough of the lake that had formed behind it. Over the years, there have been a number of failures of these natural dams as the glacial ice melted. The one in 2010 wiped out a whole village at the mouth of its valley.


Since the cattle, burros, horses, and sheep wandered pretty freely up the walls of the valleys, we also climbed up the valley walls to record the plant life and the effect of grazing on it. We noted that the grazing tends to favor certain plant species over others. This is gradually shifting the type and distribution of the plants as a function of elevation on the valley walls. This view is looking down from the valley wall onto our campsite and the Ishinca Refugio (4390 m/14,500 ft)


We collected snow and ice from the glaciers at specific altitudes from the toes of the glaciers to the summits of the peaks. During the expedition, this included sampling up to the highest peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, Over the 3 seasons, this has included Huascaran Nord and Sur (6664 m/21,991 ft and 6768 m/22,334 ft  respectively) and the beautiful and famous Alpamayo (5947 m/19,625 ft).

 The snow samples were melted and filtered through 0.7 micron quartz filters to collect black carbon particles and particles of other compositions, using syringes to force the water through the extremely tiny pore-size of the filters. The black carbon settling on the glaciers absorbs sunlight very readily, heating and accelerating the melting of the glaciers. The particles come from industrial and mining activities (Peru and other South American countries have some of the world’s largest open pit mines, mostly precious metals, as well as extensive industrial activity).


It was, of course, necessary to climb up onto the glaciers and to the summits of various peaks to obtain snow samples. This photo is of me at the foot of the final headwall to get to the summit of Ishinca (5530 m/18,249 ft). The route to the summit goes up the track on the right, then traverses across above the glacier to the summit around the left side of the image.


I  took this photo with my tiny P&S, looking down at my crampons on the climb up the face.


 One of my rope team took this photo looking up at me.


 This image was taken near the summit plateau.


 You have to display the expedition flag on the summit, of course


 The summit of Ishinca (5530 m / 18,250 ft) is a fairly narrow ridge. This photo was taken looking across at Ranrapalca, a somewhat higher peak nearby.


Add in a celebratory song, accompanied on “piolet guitar”.


 A bit more scenery on the summit.


 After admiring the views, we descended from Ishinca by dropping over the cornice.



And then across another glacier into one of the many valleys.


 The views in the high Andes are always spectacular, with many challenging peaks to climb.


 After 10 days in the Ishinca Valley, we moved to our Quilcayhuanca Valley base camp.  Here is a Google Earth view of the part of the Cordillera Blanca we were in during June 2013. The two dots to the lower left are in the town of Huaraz, location of the hostal we were based at. The track dots show the hike up Quilcayhuanca Valley to our base camp from which we ascended Maparaju, Andevite, and several other high points (the track and ther points were recorded on my GPS receiver – sample locations and other information were geotagged for matching precise positioning to satellite photos like this one). The arrow is located in a high valley in Cuchilla Valley. From here, one group crossed the pass into Cojup Valley to gather more samples, then exited by descending Cojup to a roadhead. One of the groups ascending Maparaju descended on the Amazonia side for a pick-up on the eastern side of the Huascaran National Park.


 On our arrival at the Quilcayhuanca Valley entrance gate for the park, our burros and their loads crossed paths with one of the flocks of sheep that graze in the park. In most of the South American countries, grazing of domestic animals is permitted in their National Parks. Peru allows cattle, sheep, horses, burros and other domestic animals to graze in the parks, based on several hundred years of traditional rights.


This image is looking down on our Quilcayhuanca Valley campsite from about 500 meters up the valley wall. In this area, there are fairly large groves of polylepus trees. These trees are native to South America and form some of the highest altitude groves. In recent years, there is evidence that these trees are gradually moving higher in altitude, probably in response to the changing climate. The trees themselves remind me very much of the madrone which is abundant in the coastal ranges of California, with its reddish peeling bark. I am told, however, that the two plants are not related.


This photo shows the Quilcayhuanca base camp before the various groups scattered to their traverses. Because of the large amount of scientific gear to be carried out, along with samples of soil, air, and water, I accompanied the arrieros and the 25 burros  (a few of which are seen in the photo below) carrying that gear plus the computers, returning down Quilcayhuanca Valley.   


 Even as skilled as our arrieros (muleteers) are at dealing with the burros, it still took time to get them all rounded up and loaded. The size of the loads the burros carried and speed with which they ran down the trails was amazing. We would have gotten much less done without their assistance.


 This next photo shows some of the duffels and boxes containing the scientific gear, samples and computers. In general, the limit for each duffel was 40-50 pounds, each burro carrying 2 duffels.


 My available time for 2013 being up, I attended the first 3 days of the Foro Internacional Glaciares, an international conference held in Huaraz, where numerous papers on the environmental changes and human-caused effects in the Andes were presented. Although I had to return to the US to tend to other matters, another 20 Climber-Scientists arrived over the next 3 weeks and remained until the end of August 2013 to continue more studies. Another round of studies is planned for June-Aug 2014 (the winter season in Peru, since the Cordillera Blanca lies at 9 degrees south of the Equator).

Most of the senior expedition members hold positions at universities, along with a number of graduate students. Expedition members pay their own way, with the assistance in most cases of research grants that come from various government and other non-profit agencies. However, there are expenses that exceed the amount covered by research grants. If you would like to help support the efforts of the American Climber Science Program, contributions can be made via the American Alpine Club. The AAC does not provide grants itself to the ACSP, but acts as the fiduciary to direct supporting contributions to cover needed expenses. Further information may be found at this website.

9:28 a.m. on August 20, 2013 (EDT)
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An excellent report, Bill, and a fascinating project. 

It's sad to see how far into the pristine mountains our pollution has spread, and how much effect it has had. I understand that the loss of the icefields is much more advanced in South America than here. Expeditions such as the one you were on are foretelling our own  future.

"Over the years, there have been a number of failures of these natural dams as the glacial ice melted." The same thing has happened in the Himalayas.

30 years ago, I'd stand on a mountain top in the Rockies in August, and see snow-capped peaks all around me. Now they're all bare, and most of the glaciers have disappeared. 

6:50 p.m. on August 21, 2013 (EDT)
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Fantastic report Bill! Thanks for sharing this.

6:14 p.m. on August 25, 2013 (EDT)
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Great pictures!  18000+ feet summit.. WOW!

12:03 p.m. on August 27, 2013 (EDT)
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That is what I call a trip report. The only thing that does not come across loud and clear is the people en los Andes. I like the Quechua but really liked the Aymara Indians in Bolivia.

The obvious environmental problem in the mountains is clean potable water. I have thought many times about getting involved in water quality projects in SA and well develpments in particular.

Americans seem to avoid S Amer and are fearful of traveling there. In many ways it is the perfect outdoor traveling continent. Great geography, wonderful people, spectacular archaeology, and lots of mountains just waiting to be explored. Did I mention that it is cheap? Speak a little Spanish and make friends everyday. My brother just returned from a 5 month trip.


June 18, 2018
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