Adventures — 24 June 2013 at 4:19 pm

Expedition Altiplano 2012

Naomi Dodds / Year 3 Graduate Medical Student / Swansea

Picturesque, isolated mountain giants attract thousands of people every year, but why do some mountaineers fall victim to hypoxia whilst others conquer the world? On July 27th 2012, following eighteen months of planning, preparation and anticipation, a team of thirty-two medical students, physiologists, mountaineers, doctors and a token dentist departed the UK on a venture to help answer some of the unanswered questions. In particular, Expedition Altiplano 2012 set out to explore whether normal biological variation in dynamic cerebral auto-regulation observed in the ‘healthy-brain’ at sea-level can predict subsequent susceptibility to AMS during rapid ascent to high-altitude. In this article, the expedition leader Naomi Dodds talks us through their trip and gives some tips for organising your own research expedition.


Twenty-five hours, three flights, and fourteen lost bags later the team arrived in Arica, a small dusty city on the North coast of Chile. Our two days there were spent organising the last minute details of our endeavour such as food, permits, and being reunited with our inevitable missing luggage. Buying enough food to sustain thirty-two people for around two weeks was no mean feat and culminated in the team wheeling nearly two million Chilean pesos worth of salami, crackers and nuts through Arica in nine shopping trolleys! Arica also provided the perfect opportunity for sea-level data collection, performing a cocktail of physiological tests, checking cardiovascular, neurovascular and cognitive function to explore pre-disposing factors for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).


The next stage of our adventure took us to Putre (3550m), a small town based in the desolate Altiplano plateau. Our coach journey weaved across the stunning Atacama Desert, commonly known as the driest place on Earth and famously depicted by BBC’s Top Gear. Putre had a wealth of attractions nearby for some gentle acclimatisation and our first three days were spent walking around the hills and relaxing in the natural Jurasi thermal pools. Here, our Dentist was also assigned to her first mission; the removal of cacti pines from one team member’s oral cavity! The third morning in Putre we were up at 4am to drive to the base of Taapaca (5860m). The steep scree-covered hills quickly spread the group and it was clear that some of the team were succumbing to the altitude. It was, however, a good chance to enjoy some of the breathtaking scenery and to practice using our ice axe and crampons in the thick volcanic sand. Each day AMS questionnaire scores and oxygen saturations were recorded, providing not only excellent research data but also a valuable diagnostic tool for our team Doctors.  During the evenings the team dined lavishly at one of the local restaurants, sampling our first Alpaca steaks and authentic Chilean wine.


It was soon time to move higher onto the plateau, to the remote village of Parinacota (4424m). The quiet village survives on revenue brought from tourists and the construction workers improving the dusty Arica-La Paz road, with our arrival more than doubling the population of this small community! Despite its isolation, Parinacota boasted a stable power supply, which was vital for our research activities. For four days the eager subjects filtered through the various research stations exploring the physiological effects of hypoxia, spending any free time sitting at the cafe stall, playing the crudely named card game synonymous with travellers across the globe, exploring the picturesque local landscape scattered with Alpaca or watching the limited Chilean coverage of the London 2012 Olympics (sadly Chile’s only medal hopeful, gymnast Tomás González, finished in fourth place!). With all the data collection complete, the team set off for Guane Guane (5114m), a dry scree summit which rises over 300m higher than Mont Blanc. Thankfully our latitude was such that the temperature was fairly warm, even on the rocky summit. Throughout our time in Parinacota the scenery was dominated by the potentially active stratovolcanos towering above us, Pomerape (6282m) and its bigger brother Parinacota (6348m) from which the village gets its name. For the climbers amongst us it was easy to spend hours staring at the various routes to the summits, though our sights were set on another mountain, Sajama (6542m), just over the Bolivian border.


For the final phase of our expedition we travelled to Sajama village (4220m). As we approached the Chile-Bolivian border, conversation switched to contraband, causing some nervous questioning by one individual who threw his kilo of cheese out of the window thinking it was going to land him in a Bolivian prison! Thankfully it only took a few bars of chocolate to persuade the border guards to let all of our food across and we soon arrived in the vacant village of Sajama. The following morning the group separated, with the climbing team embarking on a three-day summit bid of Sajama, and the remaining team planning their own adventures across the plateau to the magical natural coloured geyser pools and enchanting hot springs.

The chosen route to the summit of Sajama was the NW ridge, a classic ascent with exposed high-altitude climbing at Scottish grade II. The first day consisted of a gentle trek from Sajama village to the Aychuta valley base camp (4800m), where we cooked some carbohydrate-heavy food and got an early night after tracing our steep route up to the summit in the diminishing sunlight. On the second day we progressed to high camp (5800m), which is where we first encountered the dreaded penitentes; vicious blade-like ice formations unique to the Andean mountains which can rise up to a metre high. At midnight on the summit day in temperatures of around minus fifteen and high winds we departed for the summit. For some, hypothermia and hypoxia took hold, whilst other members of the team conquered Bolivia’s highest peak just as the sun rose over the dramatic Bolivian desert.

Once the team was reunited thoughts turned to celebrations in Arica with fine dining, copious pisco sours and aspirations focused towards our next research adventure.

Top tips for planning your own research expedition

  1. It’s never too early to start planning an expedition.
  2. Be ambitious and set yourself a unique objective.
  3. Share out the workload amongst a dedicated leadership team.
  4. Select an expedition team capable of working together to achieve your aims.
  5. Seek sponsorship early. We were thankful for generous grants from the Mount Everest Foundation and the Dorset Expeditionary Society.
  6. The joy of adventure is that it is unpredictable. Expect the unexpected; factor a 10% contingency fund into your budget, additional days into your itinerary and always have a plan B.
  7. Nothing is impossible. Expedition Altiplano 2012 initially started as a distant aspiration but with a huge amount of enthusiasm, determination and energy it developed into a successful and memorable adventure.