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Expedition: Into the Altiplano
Dispatch 5
Laguna de Vilama, Argentina

From our camp here—at 14,200 feet (4,328 meters), our highest yet—we can see the tan and white and chocolate Andean peaks across the border in Bolivia, ranging up from Chile. It is windy and brutally cold, and the four of us squeeze into a small cave to stay warm. But the wind here is sneaky. It rolls around the corners and through any small crack. Which means that bedtime comes early—8:30 p.m.—since it promises tent walls and 0°F (-18°C) down sleeping bags. Everyone anticipates the shelter and relief. Everyone, that is, but Pete, who for some inexplicable reason chooses this night to sleep sans tent, curled up behind a 20-foot-tall (6-meter) slab of fallen stone that serves as a windbreak.

We are in the far northwest corner of Argentina. Our first impressions of the Argentine Altiplano are that it is broader and has slightly more vegetation and far fewer lakes than the Chilean side.

The morning is still extremely cold, but by 10:00 a.m., as we are rigging the kayaks with pulling rods and putting on our harnesses, the sun begins to warm the cracked salt and sulfur flats beneath our feet. Our plan—which consists of pulling kayaks along a dry lake, then heading up and over a small rise, and finally crossing the hard salt flats that lead to the biggest lake in the region—goes quickly awry. First Wendy's kayak is overturned by some particularly impressive humps of ichu—the yellow straw grass that covers the hills of the Altiplano—and she is sent flying into a patch of cactuses. Then, without warning, the frame under my kayak collapses. We haven't taken but 30 steps. ...

The day continues to warm as we pull our 100-pound (45-kilogram) loads across the mostly flat plain, drawn by the shimmering water on the far side of the dry lakebed. The wind is at our backs and we are surrounded on all sides by beautiful 17,000-foot and 18,000-foot (5,182-meter and 5,486-meter) peaks that mark the tri-border of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. All seems perfect, until we reach the edge of the 6-mile long (9.6 kilometer) lake and discover it to be, at best, six inches (15 centimeters) deep. ...

Next: Listen to Dispatch 6 >>

Funding for this expedition was provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council. For more information on the Council, its projects, and grants, e-mail ecouncil@ngs.org.


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  The Team
  Photo Gallery
  Dispatch 1
  Dispatch 2 (Audio - 1:20)
  Dispatch 3 (Audio - 1:31)
  Dispatch 4
  Dispatch 5
  Dispatch 6 (Audio - 1:45)
  Dispatch 7 (Audio - 1:40)
  Dispatch 8

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December 2003/January 2004

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