Captain’s Log – Entry #1: Every Good Exploration Starts with a Mule Train

by Nathalie Cabrol

PLL Base Camp under construction on a small rise above the southern shore of Laguna Negra. Visible are the kitchen (the rectangular structure), two of the camp’s four domes, and a pair of personal tents. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

We have been at Laguna Negra for almost a week already, and this is really the first time I can sit down and take a moment to reflect on the past few days. We are back to the Andes. It has been a long, sometime painfully long process to get to this point. I look around me and I see ragged mountains of granite, glacial valleys and periglacial fills, high glaciers now perched, hanging to the edge of their lives as they are hanging to topography in their niches, receding each year a little more. These are the Andes, but so very different from those I know more than a 1600 km north, those of Licancabur and Aguas Calientes, the High Andes. They are telling the same story, only a different chapter.

At the end of the last glacial age, ice retreated and melted in the High Andes, leaving a landscape that colored the Altiplano in blue lakes and green vegetation. Aridity is now settling in. Those lakes have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing, and the vegetation is limited to low-lying bushes and  occasional flowers. The vibrant colors of the Altiplano are now signaling the presence of extremophiles that have adapted to highly saline, evaporating pools and ponds, to a UV index ranging from 24 to 29, and daily temperature variations that can be compared to that of equatorial Mars in summer.

At Laguna Negra, we are reading the previous chapter of this story. This landscape is like a time machine. Here, we are stepping 15,000 years in the past. In front of our eyes, ice is melting, glaciers are receding, leaving as they retreat pools and ponds, debris-covered glaciers, and rock glaciers, soon to be only rock and dust. The process is not foreign but its speed is alarming, and its consequences yet to be understood. Not so long ago, the waters of Laguna Negra were carrying an abundance of glacial sediment.

The Echaurren glacier that once entered the lake has retreated high up in its cirque. It is barely a ghost image of its former self. The regional map from 1930 shows the extent of its retreat. There is little left of it. Echaurren is the center of sustained attention since the water resources of 6 million Chileans depend on it. For us, we are trying to understand the impact of its disappearance on life and biodiversity for our planet here and now. We are also here to draw analogy with similar times in the past of Mars and what such periods may have meant for life, if any had developed, for its adaptation and survival. Meanwhile, we are also developing technology that hopefully one day will help the exploration of other foreign lakes, very far away from and very foreign to anything we know.

I wonder what the reflection of Saturn looks like on Titan’s lakes. Maybe we will soon know… This is how astrobiology and exploration bring together the history and evolution of the Earth, Mars, and Titan, the knowledge acquired from one helping to understand the past and future of the others with the same haunting question in mind: is Earth the only life-bearing planet going through those changes?

The exploration of Titan might, like the Wild West, have humble but hearty beginnings and there is no great exploration without a mule train. The delays of two days in our camp setting has brought some unexpected consequences, magnified by the local topography – hence the desperate measures. We need to cross a frontal moraine populated by blocks as large as houses in places to reach a flat where we want to pitch our tents. There is also about 1.5 tons of equipment for a team, which including the scientists, the engineers, and the logistical support reaches 24 persons. Well, there is no way around it. We have to do it the old way. The transfer of equipment will take 3 days.

We might be going back to the primitive but our approach is not completely stupid. Our equipment contains 3 boats. These are inflated and soon they provide some relief to our backs. We load them with the most fragile instruments and we find a landing that allows us to unload the containers about 150 meters from our campsite. That’s not perfect but certainly a lot better than crossing all these boulders. During these 3 days, there is no known means of transportation that we did not use, except maybe levitation, but I am sure willing to consider that option at this point.

After hauling a propane tank and other supplies into base camp, a mule munches grass while waiting to be unloaded. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

What I know for sure is that the team spirit is here. Everywhere I look, tents are going up, equipment is coming in; the biolab is installed – a bit messy to start with but it is taking shape. And then, I look up and this is when I see them come. I just laugh but I do not know if it is because of the contrast between the goal of our mission and the vision of these mules showing up on the horizon with our equipment, or if I am only very tired and very thankful. In the train of mules that will arrive during these days, there is one I could not resist photographing. I called her the “turbo mule.” Our cook also needs to have his equipment and, while the mule is carrying some of our scientific equipment on each side, she also has a gas tank attached to her back. She does not care and just eat grass while the “arriero” unloads her.

After three days, our four main domes, a dozen tents, a kitchen, and a medical clinic are up and running. The view is stunning. Our camp is on the shore of Laguna Negra, directly facing the empty U-shaped valley left by Echaurren. In future logs, I will describe in greater detail this landscape and what it is revealing to us. For now, I am just enjoying it, for one first afternoon of tranquility, hearing my colleagues happily working in our camp lab, already discussing data, analyzing samples. The traffic on our radio between base camp, the team on shore, and the filming crew is as professional as that of a rocket launch.

The pontoon that will eventually form the floating base of the Planetary Lake Lander robot splashes down into the waters of Laguna Negra. Left to right: Trey Smith, Chris Haberle, Liam Pedersen, Cristian Tambley, Gavin Saville, Geoff Saville. Credit: XenoQuest Media

And speaking of launch…After 4 days, a dozen mules trains, 1.5 tons of equipment carried by 4x4s, back, hands, boats, and mules, Planetary Lake Lander is ready to be launched in less than 5 minutes now. In the chaos of the first days, the team never lost its focus and has been outstanding. Liam just called me by radio to confirm that launch is T-5 minutes. The pontoon will be standing tonight on the lake in front of the camp. I will now stop to go see it come from our improvised Launch Point to the southwest of the lake. A very important phase is being successfully completed today.

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