Survival Guide: Boiling Point

Image of boiling river
Art by Istvan Banyai

Boiling Point

Picture of Andrés Ruzo

Andrés Ruzo

National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee
Expertise: Geothermal scientist
Location: Peru

Photograph by Sofía Ruzo
As a geothermal scientist, I knew that boiling rivers exist—but they’re always near volcanoes. You need a lot of heat to make that much water boil. We were working in the volcanic gap, a 950-mile stretch that covers most of Peru, where there hasn’t been active volcanism for the past two million years.

Yet we’d found the Shanay-timpishka, a name derived from “boiled with the heat of the sun.” My measurements averaged 185°-196 °F. The locals think it’s so hot because of the Yacumama, or “water mother”—a spirit who gives birth to waters—represented by a serpent-head-shaped rock at the origin of the heated water.

I had to cut my way through the brush at the side of the river to take temperature readings. All the while, right next to me was this very hot, fast-flowing body of water the width of a two-lane street. The shaman at the nearest village had told me, “Use your feet like eyes.” You can’t see heat, but you can feel it when you step near it. I wore sandals.

I was at a part of the river measuring 210°F, standing on a rock the size of a sheet of paper, when the rain turned on. It was like a curtain rising: The temperature differential between the rain and the river caused a whiteout. I couldn’t see, but I whistled to let my partner know I was OK.

At 130°F flesh cooks. My eyes would have cooked in less than a minute, and I couldn’t have seen how to get out. I’d seen rats and an opossum fall in, their eyes turning milky white. I kept whistling.

After 15 minutes the rain stopped and the steam cleared. A hard rain in most situations would have been inconsequential. Here, for a matter of minutes, it thinned the line between researching and being boiled alive.

—Andrés Ruzo, National Geographic Young Explorer grantee

Related: Adventures of Taking the Earth's Temperature

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