As most other Yalies were celebrating on New Year’s Day, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins ’12 was about to begin scaling the second tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
Kreiss-Tomkins flew to Chile in December and climbed the Ojos del Salado — a mountain with two peaks, one on either side of the Chilean-Argentine border — to determine which of its two summits was tallest, a debate that has been a point of contention in the climbing communities of the two countries for years. With the help of GPS technology, he was able to determine that the eastern peak, which he said members of the climbing community associate with Argentina, was the taller — by 31 centimeters. In the process, he scaled El Muertito, the highest unclimbed mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s always kind of fun to find the answer to interesting questions, whether they’re small or as big as a mountain,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
But Frederick Blume, a campaign project manager at research consortium “UNAVCO” who analyzed Kreiss-Tomkins’ data, said he is not so sure the results actually determined which peak is highest. While the GPS systems used for the research operated at a high degree of precision, Blume said he felt the magnitude of the height difference was so small that an act as insignificant as placing one of the GPS machines on a pile of rocks could have altered the results.
Still, Kreiss-Tomkins said he and Chandler Kemp, a high school friend and junior at Cornell, were careful to place the GPS equipment on ground that he said was clearly a part of the mountain itself. Even so, he said he was surprised with the results.
“Both Chandler and I thought when standing on the summits that the Chilean summit was just a tidbit taller,” he said.
Eric Simonson, a director of the climbing group International Mountain Guides, said Chile and Argentina have had a historic rivalry when it comes to the heights of their respective Andean mountains. In the past, Ojos del Salado was estimated to be taller than the Argentine mountain Aconcagua which lies nearby, but further studies found the latter to be taller, Simonson said. So climbing groups in both countries scrambled instead to prove that their peak on the Ojos del Salado mountain is taller, he said.
Kreiss-Tomkins’ work suggests a possible answer, but the height of the mountain’s two peaks was not the only potential discovery Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp made this winter.
When they began their climb, Kreiss-Tomkins said they chose to ascend the El Muertito mountain first in order for their bodies to acclimate to higher altitudes before attempting to climb Ojos del Salado. And, when they reached its summit, they discovered a crimson lake in the crater, he said.
“We kept looking down at it, thinking, ‘that looks really weird,’” he said. “It took a while for us to realize we were looking at a lake.”
A geologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History told Kreiss-Tomkins that the lake’s color could be caused by mineral processes in the mountain or by the presence of extremophiles, which are bacteria that live in extreme conditions.
Kreiss-Tomkins said he was unable to get a sample of the liquid in the lake to confirm the geologist’s suspicions, because he did not have a container in which to carry it. He said he will return to gather a sample if he is able to get funding.
Kreiss-Tomkins had been planning his trip to Ojos del Salado since December 2009, and said the expedition was not without difficulties. He originally intended to scale the mountain last July, but was unable to do so because the winter in South America had made the trip dangerous.
The Andes mountain range, in which Ojos del Salado is located, is the world’s longest continental mountain range, and spans seven countries.