Spotlight: Yale student makes a mission of measuring mountains

Yale junior Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins hopes that a mountain-climbing expedition he took over the winter break will put to rest a longstanding question about the world's tallest volcano.

Ojos del Salado, which is located in the Andes on the border of Argentina and Chile, is the second highest mountain in the Western hemisphere. Citizens of the two nations, as well as mountaineers themselves, have long debated which of the volcano's two summits — one located in Argentina and the other in Chile — is the tallest. Over the years, traditional surveys of the summits have resulted in conflicting measurements.

 "It's a unique situation to have such a notable peak, and to not know, conclusively, which of its summits is taller," says Kreiss-Tomkins. "I can't think of a single analog in the world to this situation."

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With support from the Chase Coggins Memorial Fund, Kreiss-Tomkins spent a couple of weeks over the winter break in the Andes, where he and a companion measured the two summits using state-of-the-art GPS equipment. While still awaiting the final data for his expedition, the Yale student took the time to talk with the Yale Daily Bulletin about his mountain-measuring mission. Here is what we learned.

Alaskan explorer: A native of the island city of Sitka in Alaska, Kreiss-Tomkins has always loved climbing mountains in his home state. During a gap year after high school spent exploring in South America, the Yale junior climbed in a region of the Andes near Ojos del Salado and learned about the debate over its summits.

"Last spring, I had the idea that it would be fun to take bulletproof methodology there to determine which peak is taller," says Kreiss-Tomkins, who also enlisted the support of geophysicist Frederick Blume of UNAVCO, a non-profit national consortium that facilitates geoscience research and education. Blume, who previously was involved in a project to measure Mt. Everest, provided logistical help, and Trimble, a company that manufactures positioning equipment, agreed to lend the Yale student highly precise GPS units to collect the necessary data.

A second shot: Kreiss-Tomkins originally planned to ascend Ojos del Salado in the summer, but was turned away by the Argentinean federal police because climbing had been temporarily banned on the volcano following a climber's death.

When he returned to Yale in the fall semester, he decided that he could not give up on his quest.

"Having gotten the grant, and not wanting to let anyone down, I was resolved to give it another shot," he says. "If I got stopped a second time, I wanted to get stopped by the mountains, not by some bureaucratic obstacle."

Thin air: For his expedition in December, Kreiss-Tomkins partnered with longtime friend and fellow Alaskan Chandler Kemp, an undergraduate at Cornell University who is also an experienced climber.

As Ojos del Salado is in a very remote part of the Andes, Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp were driven into the area, and then had a long trek to the mountain. They spent about a week acclimatizing, climbing to higher altitudes each day.

"The philosophy about acclimatization is to climb high and sleep low," says Kreiss-Tomkins. "This part of the Andes is incredibly high. It's the tallest region in the world outside of the Himalayas, as far as continuous mountains go. We took a conservative approach to acclimatizing, because the physiological effects of altitude on the body are pretty powerful."

While summiting Ojos del Salado is not, by climbing standards, considered highly technical, Kreiss-Tomkins says it does require great endurance. The climb was made more difficult because he and Kemp had to lug — in addition to food, water and other equipment — the three Trimble GPS surveying units, each weighing about 3 pounds, along with a charger, a 10-pound device resembling a car battery.

Parting at the peak: Their strategy was to leave one GPS running at the highest mountain camp on the way up Ojos del Salado, then to collect data with a second GPS on the Argentinean summit of the volcano. One of them would then traverse a precipitous col and climb the Chilean peak. To get the most precise readings from the summits, each climber would have to spend about an hour on each peak; 15 minutes was the minimum needed to get conclusive results.

"The precision achieved through this GPS triangulation method is pretty astonishing — a margin of error that should be well under 10 centimeters," says Kreiss-Tomkins. "I was told that these GPS units cost around $10,000 each, and so I felt as though I needed to protect them with my life."

On summit day, Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp set out around 3:30 a.m. and were making good time until the Yale student became dehydrated.

"While we had been really conscious about hydration, somehow I neglected to drink enough that morning, and so my body basically shut down on the climb," Kreiss-Tomkins recalls. "I was pretty fatigued. I slowly made it to the summit, and Chandler had to step up big time and be the one to traverse the col to the Chilean summit."

Kreiss-Tomkins waited anxiously while Kemp made his way through the col. The two had no way to communicate while out of sight of each other. After about 15 minutes, the Yale student was able to see his friend making his way up the Chilean summit.

"The summits are horizontally very close together, so I could see him quite well once he was up top," says Kreiss-Tomkins.

As the weather was ideal for their climbs, the two students were able to spend 57 minutes on their respective summits in neighboring countries.

The numbers: The data collected by Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp will be analyzed at the UNAVCO laboratory. The final conclusion, says the Yale student, will be of interest to mountaineers all over the world as well as to the two nations who share Ojos del Salado.

"Argentina has Acongagua, the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere, so if the Chilean summit turns out to be the taller one, it will give Chile something to be happy about," he explains.

A red mystery: The route that the students took to the summits of Ojos del Salado is less traveled than other ascents. Along the way — partly out of curiosity and partly to acclimatize — they decided to trek up El Muertito, a volcanic peak that, Kreiss-Tomkins believes, has never been climbed before.

"I've been told that El Muertito was one of the highest previously unclimbed mountains in the Western hemisphere," he says, noting that he is trying to confirm if it is the highest unclimbed mountain in this hemisphere.

At the top of the approximately 20,000-foot mountain, Kreiss-Tomkins and Kemp discovered a bright red volcanic lake in the middle of the crater.

"The lake is so small it doesn't show up on satellite images," says the Yale student. "It's blood-red, almost as though it is filled with beet juice. It was amazing to stumble across it."

While the students were unable to descend to the lake to collect water samples, they have been in contact with volcano experts at the Smithsonian Institution, who agree that the lake merits further study.

"The lake is in a dead zone, where there is no lichen, no birds and no insects, so the thought is that if the red color is indicative of a biotic process, it might be an analog for life on other planets. There are lots of volcanic lakes in the Andes, but none are this bright-red color, so it would definitely be interesting to find out why," says Kreiss-Tomkins.

'Pragmatic' curiosity: A political science major, Kreiss-Tomkins says that he is intrigued by the natural sciences. In conjunction with a conservation organization in Alaska, he has been measuring some of the state's glaciers as part of an effort to quantify climate change, and is analyzing the data he collects.

"I'm someone who takes a pragmatic approach to things," he remarks. "If there is something I'm trying to get a handle on, I just go out and learn about it. I love the outdoors deeply, and ever since elementary school — when I would pore over U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps in lieu of a bedtime book — I've been curious about the natural world. These projects are my attempt to engage that curiosity. That they have taken place in some of the most beautiful parts of the world is, I suppose, a happy consequence of being interested in some of the most beautiful parts of the world."

Marathons, music and more mountains: Kreiss-Tomkins is a cellist and bassist in the Yale Symphony Orchestra and is a member of Yale Outdoors. An avid runner who participates in an informal night running group at Yale, he has competed in the Boston Marathon and in a number of ultramarathons (races covering more than 26 miles). In 2010, he came in second place in the 62-mile Coyote Two Moon Ultramarathon through the southern Californian mountains.

Much of Kreiss-Tomkins' conversation leads back to mountains.

"I'm hoping to climb Denali the summer after I graduate," says the Yale student.

Meanwhile, he is anxiously awaiting the final data to determine Ojos de Salado's highest summit, and says he expects to find himself back in the Andes.

"I'm thinking it might be worth a trip to get some water samples from the lake on El Muertito," he says. "In some ways, it seems that our Andes adventure raises more questions than it answers. I can't help but to be intrigued."

— By Susan Gonzalez